Book Review: "Spoz and Friends: Tales of a London Medical Student" by Grahame C. W. Howard

Review by J Hartley


Grahame Howard’s accounts of his days in St Thomas’ Hospital now close to half a century ago (sorry Grahame) seem to hold a sort of circus mirror to current times – parts of a modern medical student’s life seem somehow amplified (“Physiology was altogether more fun… we had to push tubes into each other’s orifices and extract the juices”), some made strange (patriarchal medicine a far stronger force), and some strikingly familiar (quick fire question tutorials and trailing behind on ward rounds). Combined with the author’s genial tone and dinner-party stories of his very diverse extracurricular activities, this view a short way back into history makes Spoz and Friends an overall enjoyable and interesting read.

The book follows the sensible, old-school pattern of starting with the young, naive and nervous Grahame in his “ill fitting suit” at his medical school interview, and ending with the apparently “evolved and matured” version, now with “more than just a veneer of respectability and knowledge”. However, apart from a couple of recounted formative episodes, the narrative in between does not concentrate on the details of this transformation. Instead, Spoz tells us about how he often spent more time on a building site than in a hospital, and how he and his friends spent their nights climbing into inappropriate buildings rather than how they spent their days in the expected ones. Nearly all the episodes are well chosen to build up our dramatic picture of the artist as a young man, whose habit of dressing up as Lord Byron (perhaps in search of an elusive “romantic aura”), is treated by his older, wiser self with most of the dry wit it deserves. Howard’s comfortableness with treating his younger escapades with a light ironic detachment give rise to some of the highlights of the book, and the funny side of things like almost getting arrested when trying to see his girlfriend are brought out with delicate style. If nothing else, Grahame’s latter success despite his former level of attention to medicine offer hope as well as diversion to the current student.

So good is Howard in the above areas that the few more serious, philosophical, or wordy parts of the book feel a bit forced by comparison. An autobiography can be written for oneself as well as one’s reader, and some of the memories Howard has added to this book seem cherished rather than spectacular – the descriptions of St Thomas’ as-it-was sometimes distracting from the stories. Moreover, elements of Howard’s writing style are what people often call “a product of the time” – an abundance of “pretty nurses” feature as extras in the book, as do gratuitously cockney patients and a certain amount of school-boy voyeurism in the medical school described as having “about thirty young men and a few women” in a class. The still progressing change from the patriarchal medicine model is clear when experiences are compared – a worthwhile learning point in retrospect.

Overall then, the Tales of this London Medical Student are informative, witty, and entertaining, largely well written and concise, undemanding and light-hearted. Student’s of medicine or St Thomas’, or those who wish to see into some of the history of medical teaching and practice or the humanity of its practitioners should all enjoy following Grahame through his time as a student in and out of the hospital. Maybe they will be inspired to live life as fully as Howard recounts, though their Pathology grades, like his, may suffer.

Tales of Spoz and Friends: Tales Of A London Medical Student’ (2013) is published by Austin & Macauley, ISBN – 9781849632048. It is available on Amazon.