Things I would rather do

Kane Benjamin Alexander, Medical student, Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry

Published in JHH18.1 – Flourishing in Medical Education

I am retraining to be a doctor after a 10-year career in finance which included positions in Hong Kong and New York. I retain a part-time post that I balance with studying medicine and find the similarities and differences between the two areas fascinating, ranging from values and meaning to happiness. As I edge closer to being a doctor each year, I feel my purpose growing, and even just knowing that that will come in itself is enough to make me happy.

This poem was primarily intended as a satire, with a focus on character flaws and freedom. It is supposed to be frivolous and cheerful at a surface level. The two verses could quite easily be from two completely different pieces and they were written when I was in separate mindsets. I typically see myself as a consistent individual, but in terms of being able to get this out of me, I definitely picked up that my mood changes a lot more than I was previously aware – most likely this has been exacerbated by the mind-numbing boringness of lockdown.

The first verse proposes that free will is a choice. The first line is supposed to symbolise a contrived rebirth, changing flesh as a revaluation of values. This is personal to me. After nearly 10 years in a different career I chose to retrain as a doctor, but coming from finance to medicine (which is the absolute best choice I have ever made) in an ironic way is very much out of the frying pan into the fire.

The venture of stepping into the flesh of an animal where one would no longer be confined by the human condition is considered in the fourth line (inspired by A Satyr against Reason and Mankind written by the 2nd Earl of Rochester in the late 17th century), the question being: what would you do next? In such a situation, free from internal conflicts, expectations, established aspirations and rules, the imagination would be let loose.

The heavy shed coat symbolises the outer me and everything that I dislike about myself. The lead lining makes reference to Dante’s hypocrites in his Inferno – a section which always stuck with me – where they are confined to wearing ostensibly beautiful coats to all that see them on the outside but must pretend from their posture that they are not excruciatingly heavy (they are made from lead). This also speaks to me of vanity which was originally going to be the main vice I wished to focus on, but I went in another direction.

The second verse is intended to focus on life’s purest pleasures, free from social protocol and conscience, exploring the things that should matter to us most: eating, friendship and annoying the people you love (my love language)! These have been inspired by A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, a book about a Russian aristo[1]crat confined to a hotel room for his life post-revolution, whose entire world becomes delicately enjoying the most seemingly banal things in the most poetic ways.

The animal theme, which mostly leads the second verse, was in part inspired by: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (my favourite ever); I am the Walrus by The Beatles; The Pig by Roald Dahl; The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carrol and The Aristocats by Disney, most of which I reacquainted myself with while writing. The pond and frogs brought me back to my childhood where I recall performing geography experiments counting newts and frogs in the school’s pond in front of the headmaster’s office. Our school photographs were always taken in front of the main building with this pond in the background. I very rarely allow myself to feel nostalgia, for some reason it makes me uncomfortable, but I felt it was important to inject that into the writing which I found quite liberating. The hedgehogs represent friendship, particularly with odd and complicated creatures which require understanding. We had one living in our garden when I was a child, and I was always fascinated by it. Spending time abroad a few years ago allowed me for the first time to understand and value my friendships at home, and I’d like to think I don’t take these for granted anymore.

Finally, my favourite line: ‘And then I’d make my life’s work startling geese’, aside from its obvious links to love, is meant with a tinge of hypocrisy. Finding purpose is not a new concept. It is what Coelho’s Alchemist calls ‘Your Personal Legend’, and for many, love is that purpose. For me, that has been to pursue medicine. On the subject of geese, I was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Remarkable Rocket: a children’s story about a conceited rocket that believes he is exploding to create the most beautiful fireworks display as the final purpose and pinnacle of his life’s work, only to be set off in broad daylight to mildly unsettle a goose. ‘“I knew I should create a great sensation,” gasped the Rocket, and he went out.

I have very rarely been able to finish writing anything, which is entirely out of character as finishing things I start is very important to me. Taking the creative arts for health student selected component has fundamentally changed my approach to writing, by teaching me the joy of the process in creating rather than the final product. I have particularly enjoyed finding inspiration in some of my favourite pieces as this has allowed me to relive the pleasure just by incorporating them. I had never considered this! It has allowed me to appreciate what I have written, which I ordinarily wouldn’t, as I can now see the creating as an experience rather than a path to a product. I don’t think I have written a particularly good poem; I just enjoy what it means to me.