When we look back on our lives, will we regret the things we did or the things we didn’t do? Most agree it is the lost opportunities that disappoint us the most. One joy of growing older is the opportunity to realise some of our unfulfilled dreams.
Storytelling has been in my DNA for as long as I can remember. I discovered the power of the written word as a child but published my first novel in my sixties. So why has it taken me so long to become an author?
I was just nine years old when a serialisation of Oliver Twist on television changed my life. Oliver’s brutal treatment in the story made me so sick my parents almost stopped me from watching the final episode. I had to learn more about Dickens and this extraordinary book. Oliver Twist brought reform to the poor law and was instrumental in closing the tyrannical workhouses. Yes, the written word could change the world. I decided then I wanted to be a writer.
Perhaps I would have become a writer sooner if I hadn’t discovered the novels of A J Cronin. Now remembered as the creator of the popular television series Dr Finlay’s Casebook, Cronin was a doctor who found a second career as a best-selling author. Dickens had shamed the British government into improving the fortune of the destitute. A century later, Cronin’s novel The Citadel forced the government to create the National Health Service. Further evidence books really do change lives.
Inspired by The Citadel and work experience at a local hospital, I decided on a career in medicine. Perhaps, like A J Cronin, I would return to writing later in life.
The storyteller in me remained alive during my years at medical school but took a new direction. I discovered the cinema. How well I remember my first trip to the movies, an experience as transformational as my introduction to literature. I can still smell that dark and dingy cinema. Everything changed when the lights went down, and Lawrence of Arabia hit the screen. The power of David Lean’s magnificent film transported me from the drab picture house, to the Arabian desert. I was spellbound long after the closing titles faded out. From that day, I didn’t just want to write books, I wanted to make movies, too.
And I did. I made my first film with a Super-8 camera from a market stall and a cast of my mates. Unable to afford a moviola, I edited the film with a magnifying glass and a pair of scissors!
Maybe it’s just as well I waited until my sixties to publish my first novel. While the demands of my medical career delayed my creativity for some years, it has given me a wealth of material and experience that breathes life into my writing.
A fifteen-year stint in rural New Zealand brought me back to filmmaking and writing. I’d just completed a term of office as Deputy President of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners and had more time to spare. With the support of the entire community, I embarked on an independent film––a Kiwi take on Romeo and Juliet, with rival gangs instead of families. Amiri & Aroha won many prestigious awards on the international film festival circuit.
Determined to make Amiri & Aroha authentic, I fronted up to a notorious gangster’s house to ask if he would be an extra in the film. My heart beat even louder than the rottweiler that greeted me at the gate. I banged on the door. No reply. Muffled voices came from inside. Then a nine-year-old boy gingerly put his head around the doorframe.
‘Is your father at home?’ I asked.
‘I’ll go and ask him,’ the boy answered.
A loud voice boomed from inside. ‘Is it the cops?’
‘No,’ the boy replied. ‘It’s the doctor.’
‘The doctor? We didn’t call the doctor. Are you sure it’s not the cops?’
‘Positive. It’s the same dude that stitched my hand.’ He shot me an evil look. ‘And it bloody hurt.’
The gangster eventually emerged. With his gang patch and magnificent full-facial tattoo, he would be perfect for the film.
The gangster wasn’t so sure. ‘Me? Act? You should ask my mate, Ben. He’s a show-off. He’d love that sort of thing.’
His wife came in from the kitchen. ‘You can’t ask Ben. He’s in jail!’
The gangster glared at her. ‘We don’t use the J-word in this house! He’s temporarily unavailable!’
Although he didn’t participate in the film, the gangster told me about his daughter’s lifelong struggle to escape the gang and forge a life of her own. I had the inspiration for my debut novel, Gang Girl.
My second book, The Road to Madhapur, also draws heavily on my family medicine experience in both New Zealand and India. It’s the story of an idealistic New Zealand doctor and an Australian missionary’s daughter, whose lives collide in a remote Indian village.
My time in India was during a period of unrest after the murder of an Australian missionary. While the novel is a work of fiction, the political tension underpins the central characters, Theo and Elisha, on their journey along the road to Madhapur.
With two books published and three more in progress, am I ready to hang up the stethoscope and become a full-time writer? Not quite. Medicine is a constant source of inspiration for my writing. Like writing, general practice is about being interested in people’s stories. Without the colourful cast of characters entering my consulting room each day––who knows? My words might dry up.
It’s never too late to follow our dreams. We must take every opportunity life affords us, and remember––in years to come, it’s the missed opportunities we will regret most.
By David Whittet