Adam Campbell meets celebrated writer and GP Gavin Francis

N Gavin Francis’ latest book, Shapeshifters, you’ll come across a woman with a horn in the middle of her forehead, go on meandering, sometimes classical, journeys around subjects like sleep, prosthetics and werewolves, take a (vicarious) LSD trip and discover that in days gone by shepherds used their teeth to geld lambs. Speaking of which, did you know the Vatican didn’t ban castration of boys for its choirs until the late 19th century?

You’ll also discover an awful lot about the wondrous and vertiginous

goings-on in the body as, unbidden and undirected, its systems and processes go about their daily business of keeping us fit and alive. And you’ll meet a vast and various cast of characters, based on Gavin’s experiences as a doctor, as he reflects on the fascinating and enduring nature of the medical encounter between physician and patient. The book, says Gavin, who successfully combines an award-winning

career as a writer with his work as a GP, is a hymn to change, be that the ongoing change wrought by Father Time, changes in our mental state, changes we make deliberately or crises we hope to overcome. More specifically, it’s about the interaction between that change and medical professionals like himself. “Why do we go to the doctor?” he says. “Because we want the doctor to facilitate, to invoke some new change. The book is a series of 24 examinations of these kinds of changes. Sometimes where there’s some horrible change going on that you’re trying to hold back, like dementia or cancer. Sometimes a change that’s inevitable, like menopause or puberty, that you’re trying to guide in some way.” As part of this examination, he enlists to his cause the work of painters, poets, writers and philosophers, a plethora of facts and figures, and myriad interactions with patients over his medical career to date. There are snatches of history and lessons in biology too. His is a learned, digressive style that weaves its way pleasingly around meditations on conception and birth, anorexia, bodybuilding, memory, laughter and death. All life is here.


So what lies behind this approach? “I’m trying to show that medicine is an area of the humanities as valid as any of the more traditional humanities,” explains the 43-year-old. “What are the humanities, or what are the broad arts? They are different ways of understanding the human experience through paintings, through music, through literature and I’m trying to show that medicine can be used in a similar way to deepen our understanding of human experience, the human predicament.” It’s a marriage of the artistic and the medical that reflects precisely

Gavin’s twin approach to his career. One that sees him working three days as a week as a GP on the Southside of Edinburgh and the rest of the time as a writer – working on his books as well as articles for the likes of the London Review of Books, the Guardian and the New York Review of Books. He finds that the two professions complement each other very well.

“Practising medicine can be emotionally taxing and very intellectually challenging. It can also be very pressured in order to try and do the best by every patient. I find doing it full time, day after day, I become really very exhausted. Whereas when I do day about – medicine and then a day writing and thinking – I find the act of writing really pleasurable

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and restorative. Especially when you’re writing about medicine, you use that time and that space to really reflect on your own practice. “So, for me, they’re really very complementary and I move through

the week thinking that each one kind of self-corrects the other. The tendencies in me that enjoy and respond to one are self-corrected by the other, so the balance works out perfectly.” It’s a work-work balance that is paying dividends in other ways too. This book, his fourth, has already been translated into 10 languages, while his previous book, Adventures in Human Being, a kind of literary journey around the human body, can be read in no fewer than 17. The latter also earned him the Saltire Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2015

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