An encounter with Reynard (and the RUC)

BMJ Published 13 September 1997           Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:686

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Home visits, within reason, remain a pleasant and sociable part of rural general practice. There is a daily closeness to nature, which I think our colleagues in the cities and towns miss out on; the sense of order, of renewal and change, of rhythm, that gift which, as C S Lewis observed, allows us to celebrate both the joys of newness and of familiarity at the same time. In the teeth of winter the snowdrops, then the crocuses; by March the daffodils; April ushers in the transient fragility of the cherry and magnolia blossoms; early May is the best time, meadows lush and fresh and moist with bluebells and morning dew. After that it gets a bit hectic, June busting out all over, wild parties, weeds in wheels shooting long and low and lush. Gerard Manley Hopkins must have had occult foreknowledge of my garden.

But as usual in my life experience, there is a Dark Side to this bucolic existence, and a closeness to nature presumes its own responsibilities.

Last night as I was driving home from a house call a Hunter’s Moon was gleaming down and the mist was luminous in the headlights. A cat ran in front of the car; as to me the only good cat is a squashed cat I didn’t shirk my duty. I put the foot down and awaited the satisfying squelch of a confirmed kill, and only realised too late that it was in fact a young fox. It was under the wheels in a second. And I love foxes; I love their wildness, their feistiness, their sparkiness, the way their eyes shine in the starlight.

I stopped and got out to see something very distressing; the fox was squirming madly in the middle of the road, its eyes bloody with pain and fear and ruin, its hind legs dragging uselessly. I’d obviously given it a serious spinal injury. It was late at night and the little creature and I were alone; I knew what I had to do. I lifted it off the road, although it was trying to bite me, took the wheel jack from my boot, and crushed its skull with one swipe. It was brutal stuff, and I had to keep my eyes open all the while, as it was a moving target and I could not bear to miss and have to try again; “One shot,” just as Robert De Niro said in “The Deer Hunter.”

Like most doctors I’ve often had to administer drugs in that twilight zone of relieving symptoms while possibly or probably hastening death, but I don’t recall any of them disturbing me as much as having to kill that little fox so bloodily with my bare hands. Those actions were aseptic, surgical; the violence is invisible, unacknowledged, cloaked. I wonder how much being removed in this way from the actual act diminishes the import of what it is we are actually doing.

If euthanasia involved smashing somebody’s skull would anyone admit to 50 successful swings?

Footnote; This article provoked a furious response, not because of the reference to euthanasia, but because of the cat metaphor

  1. **********, General practitionera,
  2. ***********, Senior lecturer in psychiatrya

Editor—Liam Farrell writes graphically about his brutal killing of a fox which he had crippled by deliberately driving over it.1 He seems to feel regret but no remorse for this act. Indeed, he invites our admiration: for his willingness to discharge the responsibilities he carries by virtue of his closeness to nature (pause for purple prose) and for his understanding of the wider issues raised by his behaviour (pause for second rate philosophising about euthanasia).

We wondered if we had missed the point. Was hitting the animal really accidental? If so, why the deceit? Black humour? An obscure attempt at irony? We decided not. The article isn’t remotely funny, and Farrell is too self regarding to be ironical. If the story is true we must conclude that its author is wilfully cruel to animals and insensitive to the feelings of people who might be affected by his actions. These are unappealing characteristics, and distressing to find in a doctor.

The Views and Reviews section is meant to be provocative, but we found this article deeply offensive. It is not right that space should be given to people to parade their vices in this self indulgent and confrontational manner. Our view is that it would do the BMJ no harm to seek a replacement contributor forthwith.



2nd footnote; To be fair, the BMJ defended me stoutly, and i continued to write for them for twenty years

BMJ apologises to cats everywhere

BMJ Published 11 October 1997 Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:954

We have received over 50 letters complaining about Liam Farrell’s piece and one letter supporting his dislike of cats. This is almost as many letters as we received when we got Mozart’s birthday wrong and advocated an elaborate treatment for weaver fish stings when they can actually be treated with any warm fluid, including urine. The BMJ is not anticat (we have even debated getting an office cat), and we apologise to cats everywhere and to readers who were distressed by Liam’s piece. He is a writer who might be called a “magical realist,” and we hoped that readers would not take his writing literally. When the nursery rhyme describes cows jumping over the moon and dishes running away with spoons, neither cows nor dishes are intended to follow the advice. Similarly we implore readers not to squash cats.—Editor


3rd footnote; I also was given the chance to respond, which meant i got paid twice – sweet.

Give a dog a bad name

BMJ Published 11 October 1997    Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:957

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Writing a column for the BMJ is both a great privilege and an onerous duty. Over 100 000 doctors from all across the world constitute an unparalleled arena in which to project my prejudices and lament my uncertainties. But writing for a journal which is already at the cutting edge of medical progress is a daunting challenge. How do I make my column stand out amid all this medical excellence? How do I shout loud enough that my voice be heard?

For shouting too loud can be a perilous jade. I write by stream of consciousness; the quirk, the caprice, the knights-move thought, the harsh imagery, something to grab the reader and make them read on and assimilate the message. And sometimes this can be too successful; the medium becomes the message, and the outre quote, the perverse jest commands all the attention and becomes a literary cuckoo; the real theme of the article gets shoved out of the nest, flops to the ground below and gets eaten by the local cat (perhaps I’m drawing this analogy too far). So from a writer’s point of view the offending article was a failure; my purpose, to illustrate the brutal gravity of the act of mercy killing, became obscured and submerged in a dispute about cats.

I’m also a wee bit sorry for causing offence, which was not my intent; I recognise that some sincere and gentle-hearted people do genuinely possess excessively tender feelings towards cats. But I’m not that sorry; where’s your sense of humour? Have you never heard of poetic licence? The Theatre of the Absurd? When Jerry sticks Tom’s head in a microwave oven do you complain? The vets and lay people who harangued me may have no understanding of the role of black humour in medical survival, but I would have expected more perspicacity from my colleagues; I received so much vituperative correspondence that there was hardly enough room in my surgery to swing a tabby. When the RUC called to see me in response to a complaint, I pointed out that the metaphorical cat would now be but a smudge in the road. In those days, the cops could only travel with army cover, and the army could only travel with helicopter cover so a virtual regiment arrived at the health centre in search of a virtual cat.

So mea culpa, I confess that I’ve never actually driven deliberately over a live cat; for one thing they’re too darned nippy (unless the cat has ME) and drink has slowed down my reflexes, and for another they’re too busy out there in the wild killing 80 million native birds every year and disrupting the balance of nature. When did you last walk in the meadows and listen to the call of the corncrake?

This world is a strange, bewildering, and dangerous place. I can take an extreme liberal stance on abortion, and euthanasia, brace myself for rural Ireland’s reactionary backlash, and receive only thoughtful responses; I can write bitterly critical articles about the Provisional IRA, and when I stand back to dodge the bullets I instead receive polite reproof. But sling in a little offhand joke about driving over a cat and I find I’ve really stepped in a poodle; I trust that the Cat’s Protection League does not have a paramilitary wing.

Saman Rushdie and his Fatwa, me and my Catwa.


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