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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2008 January 12; 336(7635): 101.
PMCID: PMC2190247
Between the Lines

Notes and queries

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

When, many years ago, I began to frequent second-hand bookshops, I would reject as damaged or soiled those books with marginal notes written by previous owners. Nowadays, however, I often find the annotations more interesting than the books themselves; and recently in a second-hand bookshop I found irresistible a slim volume entitled Marginal Notes by Lord Macaulay, “selected and arranged” by his nephew, Sir George Otto Trevelyan, and published in 1907. I couldn’t resist it.

“Macaulay’s library,” writes Trevelyan, “contained many books, of no great intrinsic value in themselves, which are readable, from the first page to the last, for the sake of his manuscript notes inscribed in immense profusion down their margins.” As an instance, he cites an annotation in one of the six volumes of Miss Anna Seward’s letters, in which she draws a parallel between Erasmus and Erasmus Darwin. Wrote Macaulay in the margin: “One might as well make a parallel between Caesar and Sir Caesar Hawkins.”

In the same bookshop I found a copy of the late Sir Raymond Hoffenberg’s Rock Carling Lectures of 1986 on clinical freedom. It had once belonged to a professor of medicine of great eminence who inscribed his name in it. How did it come to be in the bookshop? Honestly or dishonestly? As a hoarder of books, I assume that everyone is like me and never parts from a book except by amputation without anaesthesia.

The book contained but one marginal note. Quite often marginal notes are made only in the first few pages of a book, as if readers lose interest once they have made their feelings known; but Hoffenberg’s book is so short that one may assume that the single note is indicative of the reader’s passion, even though it occurs near the beginning.

It is written on page 5, opposite the words, “The formation of the Royal College of Physicians in London in 1518 provided the first instance of licensing of doctors by a purely professional body. This introduced the idea of self-regulation by the profession, and heralded a shift of emphasis from the intellectual or academic skills inherent in the attainment of a university degree to the demonstration of practical skills.” On the inner margin, the annotator has written in a cultivated hand in pencil: “Patient or doctor? Thatcher would say Trade Union!”

There are two puzzles about this note: was it written by the eminent professor who inscribed his name on the front of the book, or by a third party, and was it written in agreement or disagreement with Mrs Thatcher’s view? I am not sufficiently skilled a graphologist to answer the first question with any certainty; as to the second, it is inherently unanswerable, short of tracing the professor in question (if it was he who wrote it) and asking him. Speaking for myself, however, I derive a considerable pleasure from uselessly pondering the imponderable. How terrible it would be if all questions could be answered.

It is surely rather odd that Mrs Thatcher’s view of the professions as conspiracies against the laity should have coincided so exactly with George Bernard Shaw’s. Of course, their solutions to the problem were rather different: powerful management on the one hand and nationalisation on the other. Somehow, we’ve managed to end up with the worst (or is it, as some would have us believe, the best?) of both worlds.

It is surely rather odd that Mrs Thatcher’s view of the professions as conspiracies against the laity should have coincided so exactly with George Bernard Shaw’s

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