Trinidad’s Doctor’s Office
Trinidad’s Doctors Office: The Amusing Diary of a Scottish Physician in Trinidad in the 1920s, Vincent Tothill (Paria Classics)
Books should always be judged of their time with due attention to their particular milieu and the prevailing views of the era when they were written. If some of the views that are expressed by Mr Tothill in his book, describing his experiences as a doctor in the Colonial Service in Trinidad, were published in a book written in the twenty first century, there would surely an outcry from the numerous equalities and anti-discrimination lobbying groups. No doubt they would be on the Today programme quoting sections of the text to demonstrate the heartlessness, bigotry and prejudices of White Europeans to those from the Tropics.
They would not have to look very far for choice extracts, for example “The Indians are an amazingly thrifty people, but who knows whether their lives are worth the botheration of living?” Or when a lady enters the surgery splattered with blood and the Doctor asks what happened to her and is told by her husband “Doctor, she humbug me too much. She won’t cook me breakfast, so I give her one lash with my bootoo.” The lady, whilst still bleeding, confirms this with a scream from the couch that “he brutalize me for true”. The Doctor’s response is “Well, I dare say you deserve it”. One might even choose to quote the incident when a lady brings in her brood of children by, quite obviously, different fathers to which the Doctors notes to himself: “An interesting mix grill; one cafe au lait, one high brown with a touch of Chinese, and one black child. It would be interesting to have a sweepstake on the possible colour of any addition to the family”
For those wishing to denigrate the book by quoting extracts such as the ones above, they would not need to look farther than the introductory chapter. If one is offended by such sentiments as above and would misleadingly judge a humorous book written about the 1920s and first published in 1939 by the standards of almost a century later, then you might not enjoy this book.
If that is the case, it would be a shame because when taken as a whole, the book is a painfully funny and poignant account of a young doctor’s time spent treating the people of Trinidad. Far from being racist or prejudiced against them, Tothill has a genuine liking and sympathy for their plight and shares none of the haughty disdain shown by other white colonials living amongst the inhabitants of Trinidad. As a doctor his vantage point is better than many of others and this combined with a shrewd yet sensitive eye allows him to vividly capture in a valuable anthropological and historical document the conditions, lifestyles and attitudes of the period.
This is punctuated throughout though by wry observations, witty repartee and gift for a well-crafted anecdote. For example, when presented with a particularly loquacious woman he notes on her report: SCIPIO, Polypheme, 47 DIARRHOEA (verbal) stating the prescription for her ailment as “Mistura A.D.T”. When a slightly perplexed pharmacist telephones to ask which medicine the abbreviation refers to, Tothill replies “A.D.T Any Damn Thing. It is a well-known London hospital mixture”.
As Owen Rutter, who wrote the foreword to the 1939 edition of “Doctor’s Office”, describes him in his book “A Traveller in the West Indies” (1933, Hutchinson & Co.):
“In an island like Trinidad his frankness must be acutely disconcerting, but he seemed to me one of those rare people who can be downright without being offensive. It is easy enough to be rude and to tell people exactly what you think of them; but Tottie barks out what is in his thoughts in so engaging a way that nobody seems to mind.”
Tothill began his medical adventure in the tropics working on an oil field, tending to the different afflictions of the workers there before he joined another doctor, Mackenzie, in a partnership called “The New Clinic”. Regrettably, the money for their clinic ran out after a year and whilst Mackenzie was able to raise enough funds to go off to Venezuela, Tothill was left with $40 to his name and thousands of pounds worth of debts. He called a meeting of the creditors and explained that he was in no position to pay the debts but sincerely would if he could and hoped at some point to be able to do so.
Prospects were bleak with Tothill concluding his only hope would be to “beg or borrow the passage money to Venezuala” and get a job there. Yet, it is a testament to the decent, good nature of the Doctor that when the local inhabitants of San Fernando heard he was leaving they collectively offered him $300 a month and rent-free offices for six months if he would stay and continue his practice. He accepted and after eighteen months he had repaid all the creditors of the defunct New Clinic and had a thriving medical practice of his own.
His wide-ranging reminiscences cover everything from the different types of food enjoyed by the locals such as crab-backs and the penchant in Creole cooking of tinned butter (“smells rancid”) even though iced packets of New Zealand butter are readily available to the often complicated local hierarchies between the different races in Trinidad society and how they relate and mix with one another, or quite often, their failure to do so. Almost no aspect of life in Trinidad, and occasionally other parts of the West Indies is omitted, and this is what makes the book a valuable record of the time and place from a Westerner’s perspective.
He concludes his panoramic view:
“I would like to put the population of Trinidad into a cocktail jug and swizzle them all up together with an extra large swizzle stick. The resulting cocktail would have plenty of froth in it but all rum cocktails should have a head on them and the cocktail itself would be a nice High Brown with a touch of Bitter in it.”
“Is not bitters the essence of a good cocktail?”
After reading “Tottie’s” happy reminiscences of his life and times in Trinidad, I would drink to that.