by Bill Kirton
This is another of those answers to ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ Many years ago, an anaesthetist friend said that if I ever wanted to do some research on surgical procedures and operations generally, he could arrange for me to visit an operating theatre and see how it all worked. My first thought was that I’d probably faint, be a nuisance and get in the way, but it was a great chance to do some real observing, so I said ‘yes please’. Just a few days later, I got the call and found myself in the theatre wearing all the stuff you see on hospital TV shows and being so fascinated by all that was going on that it never occurred to me to faint. In fact, the operation scene in my book Shadow Selves is a direct description of the experience and of the astonishing business of being prepared to dig around in someone’s thorax amongst all the lungs, heart and other stuff that’s packed and folded away there.
But back then, I wasn’t planning a book involving surgical things or anaesthetics, so the notes sat in the computer. For ages, though, I’d been toying with the idea of setting one of my books in a university context. I used to be a university lecturer and I’ve done writing fellowships at three others, so I knew something about the settings and what goes on there. The problem, however, came from something I’ve mentioned before – a lot of my thoughts of academia involved actual colleagues and students and fiction doesn’t work (for me, at least), if your head’s full of real people. If you find yourself thinking ‘Oh, this character’s like so-and-so’, the character can’t develop in his or her own right. The real person gets in the way.
So I had to work hard to take myself and my ex-colleagues out of my thinking and start from relationships rather than let the characters decide the relationships beforehand. In the end, they grabbed their independence and, since I didn’t know them and they weren’t based on any memories or specific realities, they had room to surprise me.
The reality which I didn’t change, and it’s one which has worsened rather than improved, is the significant transformation that took place in many institutes of higher education, beginning in the 80s, with Thatcher’s insistence on ‘leaner, fitter’ establishments. I know I’m generalising but, before then, education combined the close study of your chosen subjects and topics with the freedom to investigate beyond them, to develop a broader cultural awareness. It provoked and encouraged you to be intellectually curious about everything. Post Thatcher, it became a student-processing, goals-orientated, vocational experience with too many boxes to tick to spend time on thinking, reflection, broader investigations.
I’ve said it before, but academic life was marvellous – it involved sitting around with young, intelligent, interested people talking about books, and getting paid for it. And yet, beneath the urbane, learned surfaces of professors and lecturers, the most bizarre thinking sometimes went on and apparent intellectual giants behaved like schoolkids. My title, Shadow Selves, relates to this phenomenon. It’s from Carl Jung, who wrote ‘Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is’. So here, the lecturers, surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses – and, yes, the police too – all have these shadows, but it’s not necessarily the blacker ones that cause all the damage.