Today is my last day of (paid) work, and of course a day that will be infamous for many more people for other more important reasons. Europe and my professional life have been intertwined for near on 40 years. In the mid 1980s I went to start my dermatological career in Vienna. I had been a student at Newcastle and done junior jobs there, as well as some research on skin physiology with Sam Shuster as an undergraduate student. Sam rightly thought I should now move somewhere else — see how others did things before returning — and he suggested Paris, or Vienna under Klaus Wolff. Vienna was, and perhaps still is, the centre of the dermatological universe, and has been since the mid 19th century. Now, even if I haven’t got very far into this post — it is a day for nostalgia — so allow me an aside: The German literature Problem.
The German Literature
As I have hinted at above, in many ways there have only been two schools of dermatology: the French school, and the German school. The latter has been dominant. Throughout the second half of the 19th century dermatology was a ‘German speaking’ subject. To follow it you would be wise to know German, and better still to have visited the big centres in Germany, Switzerland or Austria. And like most of the modern research university, German medicine and science was the blueprint for the US and then belatedly — and with typos— for England (Scotland, reasonably, had taken a slightly different path).
All of the above I knew, but when I returned to Newcastle after my first sojourn away (a later one was to Strasbourg), I naturally picked up on all these allusions to the German literature, but they were accompanied by sniggering by those who had been around longer than me. Indeed there seemed to be a ‘German Literature Problem’. Unbeknown to me, Sam had written “das problem ” up in ‘World Medicine’, but World Medicine had been killed off by those from Mordor, so here is a synopsis.
The German literature seemed so vast that whenever somebody described a patient with what they were convinced must be a ‘new syndrome’, some bright spark would say that it had already been described, and that it was to be found in the German literature. Now the synoptic Handbuch der Hautkrankheiten on our shelves in the library in Newcastle ran to over 10 weighty volumes. And that was just the start. But of course only German speaking dermatologists (and we had one) could meaningfully engage in this conversation. Dermatology is enough of a a nightmare even in your own mother tongue. Up to the middle of the 20th century however, there were indeed separate literatures in German, French and English (in the 1960’s the newly formed ESDR had to sort out what language was going to be used for its presentations).
Sam’s sense of play now took over (with apologies to Shaw: nothing succeeds like excess). It appeared that all of dermatology had already been previously described, but more worryingly for the researchers, the same might be true of skin science. In his article in World Medicine he set out to describe his meta-science investigation into this strange phenomenon. Sam has an unrivalled ability to take simple abstract objects — a few straight lines, a circle, a square — and meld them into an argument in the form of an Escher print. A print that you know is both real, unreal and illegal. Imagine a dastardly difficult 5 x 5 Rubik’s cube (such as the one my colleagues recently bought me for my retirement). You move and move and move the individual facets, then check each whole face in turn. All aligned, problem solved. But then you look in the mirror: whilst the faces are all perfect in your own hands, that is not what is apparent in the mirror. This is my metaphor for Sam’s explanation. Make it anymore explicit, and the German literature problem rears its head. It’s real — of a sort. Anyway, this was all in the future (which didn’t exist at that time), so lets get back to Vienna.
Night train to Wien
Having left general medical jobs behind in Newcastle, armed with my BBC language tapes and guides, I spent a month travelling through Germany from north to south. I stayed with a handful of German medical students who I had taught in Newcastle when I was a medical registrar (a small number of such students used to spend a year with us in Newcastle). Our roles were now reversed: they were now my teachers. At the end of the month I caught the night train in Ulm, arriving in Vienna early one morning.
Vienna was majestic — stiff collared, yes — but you felt in the heart of Europe. A bit of Paris, some of Berlin and the feel of what lay further east: “Wien ist die erste Balkanstadt”. For me, it was unmistakably and wonderfully foreign.
It was of course great for music, too. No, I couldn’t afford the New Year’s Day Concerts, but there were cheap seats at the Staatsoper, more modest prices at the Volksoper, and more to my taste, some European jazz and rock music. I saw Ultravox sing — yes, what else— “Vienna” in Vienna. I saw some people from the ECM label (eg Eberhard Weber), a style of European jazz music that has stayed with me since my mid teens. And then there was the man (for me) behind ‘The Thrill is Gone’.
I saw BB King on a double bill with Miles Davies at the Stadthalle. Two very different styles of musician. I was more into Miles Davies then, but he was not then at his best (as medics in Vienna found out). I was, however, very familiar with the ‘Kings’ (BB, Freddie, Albert etc) after being introduced to them via their English interpreters. Clapton’s blue’s tone on ‘All Your Love’ with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers still makes the hairs on my neck stand up (fraternal thanks to ‘Big Al’ for the introduction).
The YouTube video at the top of the page is wonderful (Montreux 1993), but there is a later one below, taken from Crossroads in 2010 which moves me even more. He is older, playing with a bunch of craftsmen, but all still pupils before the master.
But — I am getting there — germane to my melancholia on this day is a video featuring BB King and John Mayer. Now there is a trope that there are two groups of people who like John Mayer: girlfriends; and guitarists who understand just how bloody good he is. As EC pointed out, the problem with John Mayer is that he realises just how good he is. True.
But the banter at the beginning of the video speaks some eternal truths about craft, expertise, and the onward march of all culture — including science. Mayer plays a few BB King licks, teasing King that he is ‘stealing’ them. He continues, it was as though he was ‘stealing silverware from somebody’s house right in front of them’. King replies: ”You keep that up and I’m going to get up and go”. Both know it doesn’t work that way. Whatever the provenance of the phrase ‘great artists steal, not copy’, except in the most trivial way you cannot steal or copy culture: people discover it in themselves by stealing what masters show them might be there in their pupils. Teachers just help people find what they suspect or hope is there. The baton gets handed on. The thrill goes on. And on.