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Views & Reviews Between the Lines

A sore point

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 07 July 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c3624
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

    “It is strange,” wrote Sir William Osler in his brief essay on the French 18th century physician Jean Astruc, “how the memory of a man may float to posterity on what he would have himself regarded as the most trifling of his works.” So it was, and is, with Sir Henry Howarth Bashford (1880-1961).

    Sir Henry was physician to George VI and for many years chief medical officer to the Post Office, in which capacity he demonstrated that 16 year old recruits to that great department of state were 1.5 inches taller, and weighed sixteen pounds more, in 1939 than recruits in 1914. He was also the first editor of the British Journal of Industrial Medicine. His obituarist in the BMJ stated that, nevertheless, “his official work permitted him leisure for literary activity.” He was probably the second most famous writer ever to have worked for the Post Office—after Anthony Trollope.

    During his lifetime he never acknowledged as his the only book by which he is now remembered. His obituary makes no mention of it, instead calling his forgotten The Corner of Harley Street his masterpiece. He published 10 books with his name on the title page, including a thriller, a children’s book, and the kind of retired man’s musings for which there is not any longer much of a vogue: Fisherman’s Progress and Wiltshire Harvest.

    But the unacknowledged book by which he achieved a faint literary immortality (nevertheless greater than that which 99.9% of authors achieve) is Augustus Carp, Esq, By Himself, Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man. This satirical novel was first published anonymously in 1924, and though reprinted several times afterwards, it was not until 1965 that its authorship became known.

    Augustus Carp is, like his namesake father, a monstrously self satisfied suburban prig and religious hypocrite. No circumstance with regard to himself is too trivial to be the occasion of religious reflection. The book contains what is probably the longest passage on nappy rash in English literature: “No sooner had I begun, in some measure, to assimilate the food provided for me than I became the victim of an unfortunate skin complaint known, as I am informed, as erythema. This was happily local, but it gave rise to a very profound irritation, and one that proved, as my father has often assured me, to be of a peculiarly obstinate character. Naturally diffident, owing to the site of the affectation, to mention it even to the family doctor, my parents exhausted their every resource without procuring the least alleviation. Though for night after night they made it a matter of prayer, my sufferings were pitiful, I have been told, to the last extreme; and almost hourly, from supper-time to breakfast, the darkness was rent with my cries.”

    Augustus Carp senior reacted to the circumstances in the only way possible: “Unable at last, owing to his acute sensibilities, to witness my agony any longer, my father was obliged, with the deepest reluctance, to confine himself to a separate bedroom.”

    How did Sir Henry come to write this book, and why, once written, did he not acknowledge it? It is conjectured that he wrote it to exorcise his own religious upbringing (his grandfather had been chaplain to Queen Victoria), but that he was too good natured a man to give offence to his relatives by affixing his name to it. He was, by all accounts, a really good man.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c3624