One of my favourite books is John Berger’s A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. In my mind, it is perhaps the 2nd best of John Berger books and yet most of my (art or healthcare) friends have never read it.
To me it is a masterpiece of witness: a moving meditation on humanity, society and the value of healing. The subject of the book, Dr John Sassall, emerges as an individual deeply committed to inner reflection as well as to his vocation as a physician.
I’m not even a month into being a councillor, my first time, but there’s lots to learn. People keep asking me what it’s like and if I like it?
I’ve been thinking about what it’s like; it’s both strange and really familiar. It seems to be all the roles I’ve ever had before, but mashed together. A bit like being a (social engaged) artist – meets being a radiotherapist/healthcare professional. (things I already am). It’s all about listening, really truly hearing and seeing people and their lives, and being unjudgemental about it all. And then some of that is coming up with solutions/actions and overseeing ways of delivery to making things better.
It still feels weird being called Cllr Smith. I don’t think i’ve ever had anything with such prestige before. Having spoken to/visited in-person around 15 people so far, more including those affected by flooding, I realize that it feels like kind of an old school role. Most people invite you into their homes, give you endless cups of tea, apologise profusely about their house when it’s fine and clean. You see where they live and how they live. You don’t just find out what’s bothering them, but a life story always emerges. Clues in their environment helps to tell their story too. Most people don’t want to contact you but you’re the person they come to because they’ve either exhausted all options or have no idea where else to go.
It *feels* like what i remember my very early years living here in my community. in the late 90’s, early ’00s. In a crisis, people all come out together. They keep everyone effected updated, and when you visit – they all come outside into their gardens. Chatting over garden flower beds and washing lines.
When explaining it to friends I say, “have you read John Berger’s ‘Fortunate man’? because it’s a bit like that!” They say no of course, ha!
A Fortunate Man is an homage not just to the doctor but to a way of practising medicine that is disappearing. Dr Sassall has made a Faustian pact: he is rewarded with endless opportunities for experiencing the possibilities inherent in human lives, but at the cost of being subject to immense and, at times, unbearable pressures.
Now, I’m not writing this about the inherent, unbearable pressures side of that book, but about the community care part. That primary care physician running around the community might be dying out due to the ever changing demands of healthcare & complex disease profiles now and processes. But the councillor role feels like it’s still the same when it comes to the people.
The book opens with a series of “case studies”, though that term is a bit too clinical and doesn’t reflect the emotional subtlety of Berger’s word. They are glimpses of the situations Dr. Sassall responds to every day.
The thing it reminds me most of the councillor role is how these “case studies” also show how powerful an influence the landscape exerts on the community and its stories. Berger writes in the opening pages: “Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.” Within that landscape the community looks to Dr. Sassall as a “clerk of records”; the figure to whom they tell their stories: “He keeps the records so that, from time to time, they can consult them themselves.”
Berger and Mohr follow Dr. Sassal through these parallel landscapes – the physical landscape of rural England and the metaphorical one of his patients’ lives.
Now, I’m no doctor. And the only thing I’ve contributed/completed so far is helping to move slippy, thick slurry off paths at 11 o’clock at night and got someone a new green bin replaced… for free! I know, exciting stuff. But, this landscape here – the stories of peoples lives, the complexities, how it all comes together. It’s so powerful, and poignant. It’s basically old school primary care for the civic, rather than the body. Though, if you get it right – it also eventually helps the body too.
Towards the end of the book, Berger tries to make an assessment of Sassall’s contribution to society, but finds that he cannot. A society that doesn’t know how to value the lives of its people can’t adequately account for the value of easing their suffering. That’s where we are at now. That’s what we have to try and ease and figure out how to make things better, in spite of forever cut budgets and declining living standards + life-expectancy and increase of poverty and all the complex-knock-on-effect stuff that comes with it.
It’s about getting to know people/residents well; caring for them in their own homes and communities; managing uncertainty; gauging when and what to push for.
I get classed as a politician now. But I’m not quite sure a councillor *is* a politician? By being classed as that, I am now synonymous with a lot of negative stuff: corruption, greed, laziness, not a real person. This does hurt my feels a bit. In our defence I’d argue that a good local councillor & team can be a restorative, engaging and deeply affirming for both residents and councillor. I don’t think people really know what your councillor does and sees, and hopefully this kind of reflective writing widens the scope a bit. I think the UK councillor role is an unique, and valuable one.
It’s a forever dance with the relation between the visible and the invisible between both my residents stories, and our roles as councillors. The (councillor) eye becomes the depositary and source of clarity; it has the power to bring a truth to light.
Just like in my life where I am indeed, many things at once: artist, lecturer, healthcare professional, researcher, patient. A councillor is also many things at once: counselling of listening, resident, social observation, photography, biography, philosophy, policy. It is, ofc, always a work in progress.
What’s it like being a councillor then? Just like the doctor in Fortunate Man, I am now a clerk of records for the people that I live among. And I am grateful for it.