Guilty Truant

Seamus O’Mahony

In Two Minds: a Biography of Jonathan Miller, by Kate Bassett, Oberon Books, 488 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1849434515

Although he practised medicine for less than three years more than fifty years ago, the first of many job titles ascribed to Jonathan Miller is usually “doctor”, followed by theatre and opera director, television presenter and documentary maker, author and populariser of science, sculptor, photographer, public intellectual, humanist, and so on (“and so on” being a favourite phrase of Miller himself).

He is the only son of a high-achieving household; his father, Emmanuel, was an eminent child psychiatrist and his mother, Betty (born in Cork), a novelist. Betty was also a great-niece of the philosopher and Nobel laureate Henri Bergson, and was distantly related to Marcel Proust. Emmanuel’s parents were illiterate refugees from Lithuania. Kate Bassett, in her recent biography of Miller, In Two Minds, describes a home long on intellectual ambition, but short on intimacy. “Those memories I have of childhood”, Miller remarked, “are mostly wretched and miserable.” Ironically for a child psychiatrist, Miller père found it difficult to relate to his clever and somewhat hyperactive son, while his mother remained equally distant. “I was never kissed by either of my parents as a child, never embraced,” he told Anthony Clare when he appeared on In the Psychiatrist’s Chair. The child Jonathan stammered and was attention-seeking: he compensated for his stammer by speaking in foreign accents and also developed an astonishing talent for mimicry, his repertoire including steam trains and chickens. Stevie Smith, a friend of Betty’s, rather disloyally wrote a story based on the Millers called “Beside the Seaside: a Holiday with Children”. Hughie, the character based on the boy Jonathan, is precocious and brattish, full of unfocused energy, constantly demanding attention. The young Miller was brought for assessment to several child psychiatrists, including the great DW Winnicott. As a teenager he had many sessions with the psychiatrist Leopold Stein; while Miller is to this day sceptical of psychoanalysis (“the latter-day derivative of the séance”), he enjoyed these sessions with Stein, as they “simply conversed about philosophy and Hughlings Jackson’s early neurological theories”.

Religion was a battleground with Emmanuel, who, after the war, became increasingly religious, observing the Sabbath and all the major Jewish festivals. Jonathan, who later cracked the famous joke “I’m not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish”, rebelled, and refused to have his bar mitzvah. Responding to accusations that he is a “self-hating Jew”, Miller retorted: “I am only a Jew for anti-Semites and an anti-Semite for Jews.” Later, when Miller achieved showbiz fame, Emmanuel was unimpressed. “He would intimate to Jonathan,” says Oliver Sacks (a schoolfriend of Jonathan’s), “that theatre and other things were levity, and that intellectual virtue lay in concentrating and producing a shelf of heavy, learned books. I think the accusing and censorious aspect of the father has been interjected by Jonathan and has haunted him for much of his life, introducing a note of guilt or ambivalence so that his own brilliant and various achievements are, maybe, undervalued by him because of this paternal admonition.” Emmanuel never came to terms with his son’s career as a director, and would regularly ask when Jonathan would “determine properly on a profession”. His last words were: “I’m a flop! I’m a flop!” Betty developed early-onset dementia and died at the age of only fifty-five; Jonathan stopped visiting her some time before her death.

At St Paul’s, the teenage Miller was an enthusiastic naturalist, inspired by the charismatic biology teacher Sid Pask, whom he credits as the strongest influence in his life. He shared this passion with a group of classmates which included Oliver Sacks. Miller and his (mainly Jewish) mates went on zoology field trips with Pask, but were also interested in literature, founding their own Literary Society, and magazine, The Prickly Pear. Miller appeared in the school review, and was a big hit with his talent for mimicry and physical humour. He was invited to appear on the BBC radio show Under-Twenty Parade. He made several appearances on the show with his friend Michael Bacharach, and their zany, satirical routines were widely praised. He was a star of the St Paul’s debating society, the Chesterton. Given his devotion to biology and his father’s profession, it was inevitable that he should study medicine, and he duly followed his father to the same Cambridge College, St John’s.

Despite all his dazzling achievements, Miller, as he nears eighty, is a man who accounts himself a failure. Bassett mentions episodes of depression, and suggests “Cantabrigian intellectual Puritanism” is at the root of his melancholy. “Once you have encountered Bloomsbury and Apostolic ideas,” he says, “you will almost inevitably arrive on your deathbed in the knowledge that you have blown it.” As an undergraduate at Cambridge, he was tutored by the physiology Nobel laureates ED Adrian, Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley. He took extra courses in zoology and philosophy of science. He read Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein. He was riveted by his tutorials with Norwood Russell Hanson, the philosopher of science. From Hanson, he absorbed the idea that there is no pure objective truth, only our own interpretation. He contributed to the Cambridge literary magazine The Gadfly, a rival to Granta. But the event which really formed Miller was his initiation into the Cambridge Conversazione Society, otherwise known as the Apostles. Although several dons were members, the undergraduate membership was limited to twelve. The society met weekly, and serious ideas were debated, rather like Plato’s Symposium, in an informal but rigorous manner. When Miller joined, the meetings were held in EM Forster’s rooms. The Apostles prized learning, wit and, above all, friendship. Previous Apostles included Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Rupert Brooke and Lytton Strachey. Senior academics who were regular attenders during Miller’s undergraduate years included Dadie Rylands, Noel Annan and Eric Hobsbawm. Fellow student-Apostles included Neal Ascherson and Richard Layard.

The Apostles, serious but unpompous, mixed science and art, don and student, and were probably the single most important intellectual influence on Miller: “They were civilized, articulate and ironic, very entertaining and illuminating. And after each paper was read, you were always expected to say something, to enlarge on its theme. I’d had discussions with other friends, other medical students, about what we called “important issues”, but I’d never had anything quite like that. I don’t think many people have. There was never anything quite so ironically civilized as the Apostles.” Miller’s contribution was, according to Eric Hobsbawm , one of “unclassified multiple brilliance”. Another contemporary, Denis Mack Smith, recalls: “he was cleverer than anybody and also funnier”. Neal Acherson remembers that Miller “was really distressed by how we were so ignorant about physiology. He said we had to go to a lecture. It was almost an order and he organized that we could be admitted.” Bassett remarks that the other Apostles “presumed that he would become a neurologist and win a Nobel Prize for solving the great mystery of consciousness.” This may be the key to Miller’s later disappointment and regret. Everything after the pure intellectual intoxication of the Apostles, from the quotidian drudgery of junior doctor life to the fleeting theatre and opera triumphs, must have seemed frivolous and unworthy. Sir Christopher Foster, a fellow undergraduate Apostle in the mid-fifties, observes: “Jonathan may be flagellating himself … The feeling that we’d be looking down our noses at him is totally unjustified. It seems to me he has been an intensely intellectual producer-director ... absolutely in the apostolic tradition ... [even if] he once admitted that his motive was partly financial, which I thought was odd, a very unapostolic reason to give.”

Whatever influence the Apostles had, Miller achieved fame and success in show business while still an undergraduate. Recruited by the future novelist Frederic Raphael, he starred in a Footlights review, Out of the Blue. Miller appeared in drag as Elizabeth I, and performed a pastiche of Bertrand Russell. The review was a huge success, and transferred to the West End. Harold Hobson, the legendary Sunday Times critic, wrote: “… if the whole world is destroyed, but Mr Miller preserved, it will be possible ... to start the entire adventure over again”. Miller acquired an agent, and appeared in several TV and radio shows. He was, in the eyes of fellow undergraduates, a “superstar”. He affected to regard his revue work as “juvenile prancing”, and wished to have it understood that his real passion was for medicine, but showbiz was to win out, rather easily. As well as the review, he acted in the Marlowe Society’s production of Volpone; fellow cast members included John Bird, Daniel Massey, AS Byatt and (improbably) Sylvia Plath. (did all of Miller’s Cambridge contemporaries from the 1950s go on to become famous?) Miller joined a new Footlights review, Between the Lines, in 1955. This was as big a hit as Out of the Blue. Bernard Levin wrote in The Guardian: “If the Home Secretary cannot be persuaded to schedule him as a National Monument, then I am prepared to perjure Mr Miller off the [medical] register.” Princess Margaret announced that she “simply must meet him”. Inevitably, Miller was recruited to Beyond the Fringe, the review which made stars of Miller, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore.

One would have thought that this sort of adulation would have turned the most sensible of young heads, but Miller, now qualified and working as a houseman at University College Hospital (UCH) in London, fully intended to concentrate on medicine, not show business: “I wasn’t chafing at being a doctor and I certainly wasn’t thinking, ‘God, I’ll be out of this in a couple of years and back on the stage where I really belong!’ I fully intended to be a doctor, to do it as well as I possibly could, and to be very highly thought of.” He admits that he has never felt the philanthropic instinct which most doctors lay claim to, being motivated by sheer “cold-hearted curiosity”. At UCH, Miller founded the Thomas Browne Society, a forum for discussions on art, literature, politics and philosophy. He warned against the two cultures schism in the UCH magazine: “Potentially we are all sitting on a time bomb ... no effort is made to integrate the young [narrowly specialized] scientist into Society ... He becomes a passive tool in the hands of politicians ... only a stone’s throw from a Huxleyan set up, with technical zombies ... the magazine has a different function to serve. We must somehow avoid becoming the moral counterparts of those strange patients with parietal lobe lesions, who neglect one side of their body.” Anticipating his own future, Miller wrote in a subsequent edition of the magazine that the ideal of the “Renaissance Man” was outdated, and that “another breed of go-between was urgently needed, to maintain broad channels of communication between the specialities ... inciting border incidents ... making sure that the right hands know what the left hands are doing”. Miller turned out to be the ultimate such “go-between”.

Beyond the Fringe premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, and was a huge hit. Miller’s new wife, Rachel, joined him in Edinburgh, and he spent “that fatal night” walking around Castle Rock until dawn, trying to decide whether to sign up for the West End run of the show. Rachel correctly predicted that if he did so he would never return to medicine. In a letter to Oliver Sacks, Miller engaged in some wishful thinking: “At last I am beginning to see the possibilities of what I have always regarded as an ideal situation viz. Medicine as a delightful hobby, as opposed to an irksome breadwinning slavery.” It is unusual to hear such a demanding profession being described as “a delightful hobby”, as if it were needle-point or stamp-collecting. “Miller views medicine as his lost ideal and comedy as his tragic fall,” writes Bassett. He compares his career trajectory to “stepping off the edge of a diving board into this murky swimming pool where my moral fibre rotted irreversibly.” The road less travelled always seems sunnier; “I still,” says Miller, “fiercely regret the distraction. I think that was a bad thing I did.” Despite this later regret, at the time of Beyond the Fringe, Miller was becoming disillusioned with medicine: he complained of the long hours, and the “obstructive geriarchy” which “didn’t embrace its youngsters with any warmth”. Writing in 1960, Miller called senior figures in British medicine “pompous and philistine”; he cast doubt on his vocation: “I cannot remember ever having decided to become a doctor. The process by which I finally did become one was very much like the migration of the lemmings: a blind scramble for the sea ... a falling-off from this original ideal [of becoming a Victorian-style scientific savant … I was [rapidly] on the look-out for a job which offered status and security ... I am now somewhat shamed by this graceless combination of pride and caution.”

When Beyond the Fringe played in New York, Miller was “absolutely intoxicated by the United States”. He was instantly adopted by the city’s intellectual and literary elite, befriending, among others, Susan Sontag and Robert Lowell. He rubbed shoulders with Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. He wrote for the New York Review of Books, Commentary, The New Yorker and Partisan Review. He attended neurology lectures at Mount Sinai Hospital. He directed What’s Going on Here?, a new TV comedy/satire show, the forerunner to Saturday Night Live. After his return to Britain, he was deluged with offers: he quickly established himself on TV and radio, and still working as a junior doctor, he made his professional directing debut with John Osborne’s Under Plain Cover at the Royal Court. He was appointed as medical correspondent by the Spectator. He approached Huw Weldon at the BBC with a view to getting some training as a TV director, and was immediately offered the editorship of the new arts show, Monitor. There was no struggle – everything he touched turned to gold. Modestly, Miller says that he simply responded to offers to “come out and play”. (In the early 1980s, the New Statesman ran a competition for the most unlikely book title; the winner was Martin Amis: My Struggle. A similar jibe could be directed at Miller.) It would have required superhuman single-mindedness on Miller’s part to stay in medicine. The job of the junior hospital doctor (particularly in the early 1960s) was low on money, adulation and intellectual stimulation. While Miller was being lionised by showbiz and the media, the medical establishment was lukewarm. He failed to land a job as registrar in neuropathology at the prestigious National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Queen Square. A senior consultant when asked why such a brilliant candidate as Miller wasn’t appointed, replied: “No, no, totally out of the question. He turned up wearing a sports jacket.”

In all, Miller worked as a doctor for less than three years. He spent the first year (the pre-registration or house-officer year) at UCH and the Central Middlesex. He then put in a frustrating year as senior house officer in the pathology department at Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge, followed by a stint as senior house officer in pathology at the Royal Marsden Hospital and London Hospital in Whitechapel. In all, he spent a single year in regular contact with live patients. Despite this brief exposure, Miller has consistently claimed that his medical experience has greatly influenced his theatre and opera directing towards a more naturalistic style. Miller put his medical training to good use for his acclaimed TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland in 1966. He gave the Mad Hatter low-level mania, involutional melancholia to the March Hare, and Korsakoff’s syndrome to the Dormouse. “He identifies,” writes Bassett, “with Chekhov as a medically trained, unsentimental observer of life, with an eye for behavioural nuances.”

Miller did, it seems, experience agonies of indecision about leaving medicine. It would appear that he never quite made a final decision to quit and for many years toyed with the idea of returning. According to Bassett, his “pangs of self-reproach” visited when he discussed cases with his wife (a GP), read journals, or even passed a hospital. He compares his guilt to that of the lapsed Catholic, and sees himself “as an infidel in the sense of being unfaithful to his father’s profession”. Shortly after his father’s death in 1970, he began a planned three-year fellowship at University College, where he worked on several projects relating to the history of medicine, including mesmerism and the development of theories of neuropsychology. The fellowship produced a few articles and many lectures, but nothing approaching what he had planned, and ended after a year. Miller felt unsupported and insufficiently encouraged, and “being stuck in a windowless study only proved to him that he was a roving intellectual by nature, not a nose-to-the grindstone academic”. Although the fellowship was not a success, it did provide Miller with the background for his phenomenally successful TV series The Body in Question in 1978.

In 1983, at the age of 49, Miller embarked on a more serious attempt to revive his scientific career. Supported by a grant of £88,000 from the Leverhulme Trust, he signed on for a three-year research fellowship at the University of Sussex’s Cognitive Sciences Department. Here he planned to study brain-damaged patients to examine issues of perception, memory and cognition. “His research,” Bassett writes with commendable understatement, “did not turn out well.” The famous director struggled with computers and the mathematics required. One of his supervisors, the experimental psychologist Professor Alan Parkin, “showed signs of exasperation at the newcomer’s casual technique of just chatting to the patients with brain damage”. The fellowship ended prematurely. Miller later admitted that his unconventional approach to clinical research was misguided, conceding that “a quantitative approach was necessary, only I found it boring”. The fellowship produced just a single publication, a case-report in the journal Cortex. Although Bassett generously describes the article as “unexpectedly fascinating and tragicomic”, it is worth explaining here the place of case-reports in the hierarchy of medical publications. These papers are the least prestigious of medical scientific articles; they are generally a straightforward description of an interesting and/or revealing case, and are not regarded as “original” research. They are generally authored by junior doctors taking their first tentative steps in medical research, as an exercise to familiarise them with the process of writing and submitting papers. Directing King Lear it is not. A rueful Miller told his biographer: “It was my last fling at trying to escape [from directing], but I just didn’t have the stamina to go through with it. Maybe I’d lost the verve. I’d lost the plot because I’d been rotted by showbiz ... Even the journey [back and forth to Brighton] just wore me out ... It was very bad and sad.”

Bassett is astute on Miller’s irrational and pervasive sense of failure: “He mistakenly calculates that dozens and dozens of drama productions aren’t equal to one scientific paper …” Appearing on the Dick Cavett Show in 1980, he bizarrely spoke of a ratio of forty to one. “It’s a defect of perception,” writes Bassett, “a blind spot. It’s a bias toward science bordering, ironically, on the irrational, lumbered with emotional baggage.” This baggage undoubtedly includes his father, who disapproved of Miller’s public career. Although Miller never set out to gain his father’s approval as a young man, in his old age he has spoken warmly of his achievements and clearly feels that he fell short of Emmanuel Miller’s lofty standards. He must have tracked, too, with growing interest and perhaps a little envy, the career of his old schoolfriend Oliver Sacks, although Sacks achieved fame as a populariser of neurology rather than as an original researcher.

Miller (despite being knighted) feels grievously undervalued in his own country, and is notoriously thin-skinned. He was an easy target over many years for Private Eye, and later, Spitting Image. He took great offence at their mockery, and his failure to be a “good sport” is rather unBritish. He has described theatre critics as ignoramuses “farting in public”, and “worse than leukaemia”. His feud with Sir Peter Hall began at the National Theatre in the 1970s and has listed to this day. Miller famously compared Hall to “a bag of rancid pig’s fat rolled around the floor of a barber’s shop”. Hall told Bassett: “I think he is so brilliant that he has great difficulty in accepting any form of authority or criticism or influence over him, always finding authority to be stupid or ridiculous. There’s a kind of hysterical contempt.” Private Eye ran a regular column called “the Life of Dr Jonathan”, a parody of Boswell’s biography of Johnson, with Miller portrayed as self-important pontificator. “It’s like the prefects room at Shrewsbury,” Miller tells Bassett, “full of rancid jockstraps and canes, where swots and Jews are put down for being ‘pseudo-intellectual’.” Several of the founders of Private Eye, including Richard Ingrams, had been to Shrewsbury, and the Eye was part-owned by Peter Cook. Eric Idle defended Miller against the ribbing from Private Eye: “They just shat on him, abused him for years and made his life miserable. It’s that English ... [crushing] of intellectuals by people who pretend they haven’t got degrees from Cambridge. And behind it all was the envy of Peter [Cook].” Spitting Image ran a series of sketches called “Jonathan Miller Talks Bollocks”, and a Miller puppet was shown performing a liver transplant while simultaneously calling the “National Opera” and running a mini-cab business. Others share Miller’s view that he is a prophet without honour in his own country. “If he’d been born French,” says the actor and satirist John Fortune, “there would be streets named after him.” Miller even moaned that his knighthood was given to him for services to theatre and opera and he would have preferred had it been given for services to medicine. He has little patience with the British proclivity to make light of one’s achievements: he has used the phrase “my brilliant mind” without irony and told Bassett that his directorial insights are “as deep as you can get”.

This failure to hide his light under a bushel has denied him the status of national treasure accorded to his quondam comedy partner Alan Bennett. Bennett has pulled off the extraordinary feat of portraying himself as a cuddly, unthreatening elderly Yorkshire bachelor, while simultaneously producing some of the most challenging theatre and television of the last thirty years. Bassett’s biography has some delicious details about Bennett, who lived in the same street in Camden as Miller for nearly forty years. Bennett was an ami de maison in the Miller household, to the extent that for years, he had a spare key for chez Miller. Bassett describes Bennett as being “like some Chekhovian adopted uncle”; he was “secular” godfather to Miller’s son, Tom. The relationship between Miller and Bennett is decidedly strange. Bennett mercilessly skewered Miller in his TV series On the Margin, creating a series of sketches called Life and Times in NW1, featuring a Milleresque character called Bernard Goldblatt. Yet a few pages later, Bassett informs us that Miller rushed to his friend’s aid when he was taken seriously ill in Sardinia. Bennett partly based a character in his play Getting On on Miller; “as a neighbour”, says Bassett, “Bennett has not merely nipped round for some sugar.” The two men have quarrelled regularly, with periods of “non speaks”. Gnomically, Bennett says: “We’ve always gone on the assumption that the less I said about him and the less he said about me the better. We know each other too well.” When Bennett was the subject of The South Bank Show in 2005, he admitted regretfully that his first experience of interviews had meant “being in the shadow of Jonathan”, witnessing his articulacy “and never being able to do it”. Miller has fretted over his failure to maintain friendships, a failure which irks him particularly as the Apostles valued friendship so highly. He blames his loveless upbringing, but also admits to laziness. (Unnamed) old friends have told Bassett that as Miller has aged he has become increasingly egocentric, self-regarding and boring. Two former friends, Frederick Raphael and Nicholas Garland, both express puzzlement and regret about their estrangement from him.

Kate Bassett is a professional theatre critic, so it is not altogether surprising that at least half of this biography covers Miller’s career as a director. And to be fair, it is what Miller has spent most of his life doing. She is sharp on the directing career, although the details if this production of Lear tend to become blurred with that production of Rigoletto. She has interviewed many actors and opera performers for her book, and the picture which emerges of Miller is that of a great and charismatic teacher, full of infectious enthusiasm, brilliant jokes and mimicry, and a hinterland of knowledge that no other director possesses. Directing, according to Miller, is “nothing more than reminding people of what they’ve known all along about being alive, but have forgotten, overlooked or repressed”.

Miller’s greatest talent, however, is for talking. Like the late Christopher Hitchens, his fluency is such that he speaks in perfectly-formed paragraphs, which could be transcribed to the page without the need for correction or editing. Dick Cavett placed Miller alongside Noel Coward and Peter Ustinov in the rare breed of “instantly publishable” conversationalists. This formidable articulacy is enhanced by his beautiful and authoritative speaking voice, which has gained a unique timbre with age. For an atheist, there is something of the Old Testament prophet about him. And he is still wonderfully funny, although the jokes are increasingly offset by a sort of melancholy. This talent makes him the perfect television front-man and chat show guest. He reached his peak as a TV presenter in the late 70s with The Body in Question, a thirteen-part landmark series on medicine, which is now accorded equal status with Kenneth Clarke’s Civilization and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Miller’s central theme in the series was that scientific advances occurred by thinking associatively, what Miller called “the heuristic value of metaphorical thought in the course of medical history”. The series embodied the Reithian combination of education and entertainment and was a critical and a ratings success; the spin-off book of the series went on to sell millions. He made several more series and on-off documentaries for TV during the 1980s and 1990s, including States of Mind (1983), and Madness (1991). His last outing in front of the television cameras was in 2004 for A Brief History of Disbelief, his spirited defence of atheism. When the chat shows were at their peak in the 1970s, he was a regular guest on Parkinson, and he appeared for an unprecedented five successive nights on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980. The contemporary version of the chat show has little room for the likes of Miller, and he has raged against the dumbing down of television: “I think television is the curse of the age.”

Miller’s regret at not pursuing a medical career is puzzling. As a schoolboy, he had read Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”. Berlin took the idea from the Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote: “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Serious medical research requires the qualities of the hedgehog, not the fox. Surely Miller must have realised after two aborted research fellowships in 1970 and 1983 that his talent was different, and in an interview in 1998, he did concede: “I suppose it is true, my life does resemble a butterfly’s existence, moving around from one flower to the next. But of course, butterflies do pollinate. There is a point to their activity. I hope there is to mine.” Yet still he confesses to Bassett: “I am now frightened of death for that reason – the immediate antecedent of thinking, ‘Christ, I’ve been around for however many years and it’s been a complete and utter flop. I have totally fucked up. I haven’t done the serious physiology or the serious psychology that I might have done. All I’ve done is put on King Lear, which is about another flop!’” How telling that in old age Miller uses the same word – “flop” – as Emmanuel did at the moment of his death. He yearns for the intellectual purity of the Apostles, and believes that he has betrayed his father’s ideals. The regret is irrational, akin to a great musician wishing he had been a painter instead. The fox, however, no matter how great his achievements, will always feel outtrumped by the hedgehog, particularly in Britain, where, as one interviewee puts it “narrow specialization is celebrated”. The most unlikely anecdote in this enjoyable and gossipy book recounts how in 1948, a thirteen-year-old Miller managed to meet his idol, Danny Kaye, who was playing at the London Palladium. Miller, on the street outside the theatre, was “larking around, entertaining other fans”, when he was spotted by Kaye’s manager, and invited backstage to meet the great man. “I succeeded in getting into Kaye’s dressing room”, recalls Miller, “and I did my imitation in front of him, rather embarrassingly. He asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to be a doctor and he said: ‘You’ll never do it.’” Kaye turned out to be right, but could he have predicted the alternative career of this go-between, this builder of bridges, this inciter of border incidents? Don’t beat yourself up, Dr Miller.

Seamus O’Mahony is a physician with an interest in medicine and literature. He has written pieces on AJ Cronin, Axel Munthe and Somerset Maugham for a variety of medical journals.