Professional confessionals: why are memoirs about work topping the charts?

In recent weeks, former medic Adam Kay has topped both hardback and paperback charts, having followed his memoir of life as a junior doctor, This Is Going to Hurt, with a seasonal offering, Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas, in which he revisits the trials of working in a hospital during the festive period (delivering a baby as Johnny Mathis played, drunk drivers and a boy who’d shoved a bit of his mum’s novelty flashing earring up his nose). Kay, who has adapted his work into a stage show in such demand that he’s still adding dates to this year’s tour, is also busy turning it into an eight-part series for BBC Two.

Only a few slots down the paperback listings comes The Secret Barrister, an insider’s look at the failings of the criminal justice system, which started life as an award-winning blog, became a chart-topping book and has now spawned a sequel, Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies, which will appear in the spring.

In terms of how we relate to the experts in our lives, how we understand their relationships to the institutions in which they work, and the glimpses we get of what they think of us, the increasing body of “professional confessionals” is significant. Often, the picture is not only alarming, but unflattering. In Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas, for example, alongside the revelation that the ear, nose and throat department is known by other specialisms as “early nights and tennis”“ and dermatology as dermaholiday, Kay takes aim at the “middle-class pastime of Christmas Eve granny-dumping – bringing one’s elderly or infirm relatives into hospital with some vague, fabricated medical complaint, so the dumpers can dedicate the next few days to solid partying, unfettered by caring for their parents”.

The Secret Barrister’s Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies, will appear in the spring.
The Secret Barrister’s Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies, will appear in the spring. Photograph: Alamy

The dominant mode, though, is that of the whistleblower exposing underfunding, overwork, bureaucracy, organisational chaos and the myriad ways in which a field’s core values – making people well, protecting them from injustice – are undermined by exigent reality. And the current of anger that runs beneath many books in this emergent genre makes comrades of its readers: not so much a railing against experts as the experts telling us that they’re being prevented from doing the jobs for which they trained so hard. Joanna Cannon’s Breaking and Mending exemplifies this kind of writing. Cannon didn’t go into medicine until she was in her 30s, having left school with one O-level; the professor who admitted her to medical school admitted that she was his annual wild card. After specialising in psychiatry, she eventually left the profession and wrote two best selling novels, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Three Things About Elsie. Breaking and Mending is part account of the patients and processes that marked her medical career and part meditation on the emotional demands that life as a doctor makes.

“All the way through medical school,” she writes, “the one thing that keeps you going, despite the exams and the travelling, the lack of money and the complete absence of free time, is the idea of what kind of doctor you are going to be. You don’t fantasise about prizes and awards and accolades, you imagine the small and the ordinary instead. Having time for your patients, being able to explain a treatment to someone in a way they can understand, helping someone’s journey to be a little more bearable. It’s only when you arrive on the wards, when you are spat out into an NHS that bends and breaks under the strain of the endless demands placed upon it, it’s only then that you realise you will never be able to be the doctor you want to become. The system simply won’t allow it.”

The medi-memoir is a broad genre, in which varying degrees of personal material are present: other additions include How to Treat People by Molly Case and The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson, both nurses; All That Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist; Nathan Filer’s This Book Will Change Your Mind About Mental Health; David Nott’s War Doctor; and palliative care specialist Kathryn Mannix’s With the End in Mind. It is as though people who buy non-fiction feel not merely a duty but a necessity to inform themselves.

And where might we need informing more than in the murky area of the law, especially since we’re called on to interpret the intricacies of constitutional and parliamentary law almost every day? Like the Secret Footballer before him, the Secret Barrister casts light on a world that we perceive as sloshing with money and – thanks to TV representations from Rumpole to Silks – a fair amount of glamour. It is certainly not like that in real life, and the SB thinks we should know that; that we must regard the law as “a shared asset”, before which we all stand equally. Sadly, s/he thinks, “There is, in criminal justice possibly more than any other sphere of public life, a devastating lack of public education, exacerbated by inaccurate, ill-informed media reports and political pronouncements that betray an ignorance of the legal system that stretches to the very top of government.”It’s a view backed up, in a broader context, by a former justice of the supreme court, Jonathan Sumption, whose book Trials of the State: Law and the Decline of Politics demonstrates an interest in the moral implications of the intersection between the judiciary and democratic accountability that has made him a regular feature on current affairs programmes.

Peter Crouch’s I, Robot promises to lift the lid on what it takes to make it big in the beautiful game.
Peter Crouch’s I, Robot promises to lift the lid on what it takes to make it big in the beautiful game. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

A theme emerges in the popularity of these books: although the age of deference may have drawn to a close – as much from within ranks as without – readers are still gripped by the idea of what goes on in the elite professions. They are necessarily written by those who have had access to higher education; there is a degree of privilege and a lack of class and racial diversity to these books. They are marketed to a relatively literate audience, without the mass-market paraphernalia that is applied to, for example, the memoirs of former Para, Marine and Special Boat Serviceman Ant Middleton, whose autobiography First Man In: Leading from the Front was propelled to the top of the charts partly because of his role as instructor on the Channel 4 series SAS: Who Dares Wins; his new book, Fear Bubble, has sold more than 50,000 copies. But perhaps the sleeper hit of this Christmas will be a different kind of inside story altogether. With his book How to Be a Footballer already a success, Peter Crouch has gone big with a sequel I, Robot (for the uninitiated, a reference to his on-pitch celebration), which promises to lift the lid on what it takes to make it big in the beautiful game. Given his comic touch, blowing the whistle on Crouch’s sporting career might simply have ushered in his second act. And perhaps that’s the lesson of all these books – now that the age of the job-for-life has passed, it always pays to have something else up your sleeve.

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