Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.
Literary fame is capricious: for it would not follow from the fact (if it were indeed a fact) that no bad book is remembered that no good book is forgotten. If there were literary justice in the world, the name of Peter Greave (1910 – ) would stand considerably higher than it does, but he is almost entirely forgotten.
He published two novels and a memoir of his life, The Seventh Gate. The latter, published in 1976, bears the following words on the back cover:
The Seventh Gate was written over a period of two years, after he had been totally blinded and immobilised by his illness, dictated month by long month to a series of helpers.
That illness was leprosy.
Few books capture the joys and miseries of human life more strongly than this memoir. Greave was born in India to a father with a large and expansive personality, an infinite capacity to delude himself and others about business schemes that varied from the merely fantastic to the outright fraudulent, and an unfortunate propensity for sexual exhibitionism. He would disappear for long periods, deserting his family and then re-appear unexpectedly. His mother, who died when Peter Greave was sixteen, was utterly devoted to her husband even though he proved himself unworthy of her over and over. Greave conveys this tragic relationship with a reticence that makes the tragedy of it all the more vivid.
So irresponsible was Greave senior that his son spent time in orphanages and in various down-at-heel and cruel boarding schools in the India of the Raj. His escape from one of them reads like an adventure story, combining exotic romance with many thrills. His education was spotty, interrupted and short; his subsequent life in India, going from one absurd job to another, was rackety, unstable and precarious, and yet he was happy.
He first noticed his leprosy (without knowing what it was) in 1938. When he looked one day in the mirror “about an inch and a half above my right eyebrow a small reddish lump was visible.” 28 years old at the time, he disregarded it: “My body, my physical well-being, was the one thing that had never failed me yet, and I possessed the illogical conviction that it never would do so.” By coincidence, I was 28 when, on precisely the same grounds, I disregarded an illness that could have killed me.
A year later, a third doctor whom he consulted finally diagnosed leprosy; and “some time in 1942,” when he was living in a rented room in Calcutta, “I lost the sight of my right eye, and almost immediately the other eye became severely infected.” He continues:
I suffered weeks of excruciating pain, wincing uncontrollably whenever the pupil was exposed to light. Eventually even the flicker of a match as I attempted to light a cigarette produced a second of pure agony, forcing me to duck my head swiftly as though avoiding a blow.
Greave left India a few days before independence, on the (false) promise of a cure in England. He wrote his book, which is full of humour and of the joys as well as of the pains of existence, a quarter of a century later, and is testimony to the indomitability of the human spirit. It deserves to be much more widely known.