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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
 
BMJ. 2007 May 26; 334(7603): 1117.
PMCID: PMC1877900
Between the Lines

Stalwart of the county

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

I knew a Shropshire lad once and I liked him enormously. I met him not in those blue remembered hills, but in a far off tropical country in which I was working, and to which he also came for work. He had diabetes and he arrived for a check-up. He was a large man, both muscular and fat.

“I suppose,” I said, “that you are careful with your diet.”

“Not at all,” he replied.

I soon discovered that he loved rich food, good drink, and company (mine soon to be included).

“There's not much point in my telling you that your habits are not good for you, is there?” I said.

Indeed there wasn't: he had opted for a short but merry life, and I was glad to get the subject out of the way. What a relief it was to meet someone who had the courage to reject medical advice without pretending otherwise!

It was strange, though, to talk to him about Shropshire—a county I knew quite well because I had once done a locum in a small town there—in that verdant tropic where the temperature rarely varied by more than a degree or two, and where the daylight lasted exactly 12 hours all year round. I mentioned that, when I was in Shropshire, half my time was occupied by patients who lived in a single road. “Ah, yes,” he said, and then named the road (I still remember its name, though I won't reveal it now), notorious at the time throughout the county for domestic violence and other such ways of staving off boredom.

Alas, he did die young, just as predicted, a few years later. Of course I was very sorry, and yet his death confirmed me in my admiration for him: he met his end unafraid and unself-pityingly. He had made his choice and therefore he made no complaint. He was a man who did not measure life with the straight ruler of time.

I cannot read A E Housman's A Shropshire Lad now without thinking of him. A large number of the poems concern, or mention, the early deaths of Shropshire lads (and lasses), although what was considered early with regard to death in those days—1896—was a good deal earlier than in ours. Sometimes, in my more reactionary moments, I wonder whether a familiarity with death makes for a deeper character.

Does not this verse fit my Shropshire lad? “Oh you had forethought, you could reason, / And saw your road and where it led, / And early wise and brave in season, / Put the pistol to your head.” Or again: “Come you home a hero, / Or come not home at all, / The lads you leave will mind you, / Till Ludlow tower shall fall.”

Of course, my Shropshire lad was not a soldier of the Queen, but he was a soldier against the deadening army of health and safety, and in my eyes at least a hero. He truly might have said: “'Tis late to hearken, late to smile, / But better late than never. / I shall have lived a little while / Before I die for ever.”

So to him I say: “Turn to rest, no dreams, no waking; / And here, man, here's the wreath I've made: / 'Tis not a gift that's worth the taking, / But wear it and it will not fade.”

My Shropshire lad was not a soldier of the Queen, but he was a soldier against the deadening army of health and safety


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