Many of the skills required of a family doctor lie beyond the remit of mere medical science, though I am always circumspect about giving non-medical advice.

“Never criticise a brave until you have walked a mile in his moccasins,” goes the proverb, to which I might add: “Especially if it’s uphill on a hot day, the brave sweats a lot, he has a fungal foot infection and doubtful personal hygiene, and his moccasins are made out of recycled rubber tyres.”

But sometimes we have no choice. General practice is a broad church, because for some reason patients believe that our expertise extends into uncharted seas, where we must boldly go. “Here be dragons,” the old cartographers would have said, to which I might add “who are suffering from an epidemic of disappointing bowel motions;” we never know what conundrum might next walk through that surgery door.

He was carrying a book, not unusual in itself. Then I noticed The Book. Quite a lot of patients bring books with them to the surgery, and I like to think of this as a compliment, a sign of how tranquil and relaxing our waiting room can be; a bit of time to themselves, no outside distractions, no demanding children, no worries about bills and relationships, a temporary release from life’s vicissitudes. Just themselves and a comfortable chair (well, maybe not that comfortable) and that soothing faded green paint beloved of the NHS. The ambience is hushed, like a library or a cathedral, an island of contemplation in a world that seems to revolve ever faster.

Or it could be that they come expecting a long wait.

But the books are usually chick-lit novels or thrillers or Da Vinci Code lookalikes (the shroud of Turin having been found by carbon dating to be a representation of St Paul cutting Lazarus’s toenails, which had grown inconveniently long while he was dead, and the church’s murderous attempts to keep this quiet lest the world should suddenly realise that all religion is basically mythological shite).

This was different: The Divine Comedy, no less, which was set down on my desk in an unspoken challenge. I consider myself well read (as a columnist I’m always looking out for someone to plagiarise, I could teach Melania Trump a thing or two), but this was intimidating.

The consultation seemed superficially normal: a sore throat, cough, and snuffles – the banality of evil, I reflected. But the dance was on; for a time we adeptly skirted the elephant in the room, but the final confrontation was inevitable.

“You are familiar with Dante?” he said at last, patronising as only a lay person and fully paid-up member of the Dunning-Kruger club can be. But under the pretext of calculating his cardiovascular risk (and we all know how useful and practical that is), I had done some emergency googling. Wikipedia, I have found, will never let you down; even if it’s not always accurate, it’s always plausible.

“Ah,” I said, “We have reached the 10th circle of Hell.”

“I believe you are mistaken, doctor,” said the smart-ass, “There were only nine circles.”

“Wrong, buddy,” I said, “St Luke reserved the 10th circle for those who expect antibiotics for minor upper respiratory tract infections. Demonic warthogs perform wedge toenail resections with insufficient local anaesthetic.”

“You got me there, doc,” he admitted.

“Lasciate ogni speranza, voi che entrate e vogliono antibiotici,” I said


  • The final line is, of course, Dante’s “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here and want antibiotics.”



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