On Failure

A dictionary definition

  • non-occurrance
  • non-performance
  • running short, breaking down
  • cessation or impairment of vital function
  • unsuccessful person, thing or attempt
  • bankruptcy

This time of year as the kids find out their exam results, the question of failure comes up. It is a relative term. Anyone with a ‘B’ rather than an ‘A’ might see it as a failure, so expectations are important. The big questions, if someone perceives failure, is how they feel about it and how they react to it.

There are important considerations. How long after the event are we? Much as in the story of personal loss, we will be in a different place whether reaction to failure is there and then, or within months or within years. In what domain of our life has the so-called failure occurred: work, family or leisure; in each there may be widely different expectations. Who is the person who thinks he has failed? What are their expectations about themselves and the world around them? What are the expectations of key people in their lives? Is failure perceived beyond the self?

Two articles appeared in the press recently. The Telegraph, 21st August by Daisy Buchanan and the Times, 18th August by Matthew Parrish. Quite telling from Daisy “It’s what we don’t tell children about failure. And how, all too often, we try to protect them from the consequences of it.” This reminds me of the so-called Snowflake phenomenon where kids grow up feeling unique with high self-esteem, only to struggle in relationships where their point of view is challenged. Both authors agree that failure is an opportunity for personal growth and learning and maybe dodgy exam results are not crucial when compared with other life experiences, but could be part of the training for periods where things don’t go so well.

With regard to expectations, Daisy mentions the problem of high expectations of parents which could lead to brittleness in kids.

Matthew is very pragmatic, having experienced plenty of ups and downs. “In the end we almost all fail, routinely and repeatedly, quietly or conspicuously; and failure, properly handled, is one of the best teachers life can send us: a teacher and a friend.” He goes on to suggest trying other things – “Failure weeds out what doesn’t work to give space and air and light to what does … life is short. Be ready to junk what isn’t working.” A recent piece on the recommendation that we all go teetotal. “Life is a risk. None of us gets out alive.”

Matthew refers to two teachers to guide us to our best destinies. First failure or simply becoming aware of our strengths and weaknesses and acting on the insights. Second the opinions of others. Listening to complements especially. It resonates with personal story-telling when we need to understand whether our stories can be corroborated as being coherent and consistent with our close contact’s personal stories.

Failure is such a gloomy word. It implies closure, and internal dialogue might contain words like rubbish and useless. If these words persist and become part of our story then sadly we may seek material which builds on them. Hopefully time can help and whilst the memory remains it’s never going to be at the level of post-traumatic disorder. In the meantime many people will have discovered what they can live with, within themselves and their wider world.

My own experiences of ups and downs are many and varied. Academically, I was top of the A-stream class once. Eddie Shoesmith then arrived from Barnsley and we all came second after that. We weren’t in the R-stream, designed to maximise the chances of Oxbridge application success, so we started from the second tier anyway. Eddie should have been in the Rapid stremm. He went on to a double first at Cambridge and moved into publishing and then a person of significance at Buckingham University, in opinion polls and statistics. So I was acclimatised quite early to an academic standard ‘decent but not outstanding’. I could live with that. Sadly I’m not sure dad could, though I did dip quite a lot in the third and fourth years at school. It was a very unhappy time for me at school and at home.

Prior to that, at primary school, I seemed to muddle through. At Birkby JS, I was well away reading at five years, remarked upon by the teachers when I moved to Dalton. I’m not sure what happened then. A series of mishaps I suspect, like losing the cricket ball throwing competition. My art never got displayed on the classroom wall and my writing was never read out and anyway I was last pupil in the class allowed to write in ink. I was publicly criticised for not getting simple sums right, “David Walker, why have you to get the first eight sums wrong before you get one right?” and “you should never start a sentence with ‘and’.” Keep your head down and hope nobody notices how red you are. There is also a bit of selective memory, because I also learned to swim, prompted by school swimming lessons and finished off by joining a local swimming club. I realised I was really good at soccer when school entered the local leagues. Perhaps even more important, I began to read children’s adventure novels. Miss Town, she of the embarrassing sums, read to us last lesson on a Friday afternoon. She started with Treasure Island and I was hooked. This then was also the time of the eleven plus. I don’t remember what all the fuss was about, though I know I went to Rawthorpe Secondary Modern on three Saturday mornings to take exams. This was ironic, because if you didn’t pass you were condemned to what was perceived as a second class education in institutions like Rawthorpe. There was a lot of fuss in the family when I passed – what had I done, something good?

The first two years at Huddersfield New College went well. I must have been decent to be top of the A class, there was plenty behind – were there six classes per year? Then the lean years. I played in all the school teams however – soccer, rugby and cricket. Eventually I chose rugby and stopped playing cricket. Big for my years I was selected in the age group above, denying a place to nicotine stained third or fourth yearers and getting a mouthful of abuse, particularly as I started to play poorly in cricket. Thom, Hirst, Taylor and others gave me a hard time. I wasn’t up to fighting back – a bit of a softy really. Jimmy Dakers was responsible for that and I never forgave him. Cricket was my most accomplished sport – in the back garden and on the beach, in games and house matches – but never for the school. I was obviously morose and failing at cricket, because dad wrote to the headmaster, Mr Bielby. He sent for me but I can’t remember what was said. A group of us even chose to play soccer during the summer terms. We changed back to cricket in the sixth form and in our final year I took charge of the Second XI, guesting in the First XI for the masters v. boys match. I swam for Huddersfield at Hull baths. In the relay, breaststroke, and went backwards. Still I was the best schoolboy in the town, but not part of the elite swimmers who trained after school. I was certainly the best in school for my age. Lloyd Beaumont, a long-standing pal, remarked how I was the star of the inter-house gala. A record time for the individual race and winning final leg in the relays.

Otherwise in the third and fourth years, academically, I sunk lower and lower. My sporting prowess was not really acknowledged though mum took a photo of me in my swimming tracksuit. Dad never came to see me play. Not many dads did in fairness. He certainly bowled  lots of overs in the back garden and on the beach – never said no. I fell out with everybody – I can’t remember anyone putting their arm round me and asking what was the matter. I simply felt I was not good enough. And yet clearly I was and later proved it, though it is only now (aged 71) that I feel it. These feelings however were deep seated – apart from sports and even there sometimes, I could not get to a level I thought I ‘should’ – the dreadful failure word.

Yet where had these high standards come from. Not to bang on about stuff that is well documented elswhere, along with many bright working class people, mum and dad were not able to reach their potential. Both left school at 14, dad in a woodturner and mum a shorthand typist. The war threw all that up in the air. Dad became a bookkeeper and mum a shop assistant. With depressive tendencies anyway, he became physically ill. He struggled, mum kept the show on the road with help from Auntie Gladys and Uncle George. I can’t remember being a particularly naughty boy, but hell I got into an awful lot of trouble. There is a vague recollection of loving dad but disliking the way he made me do things – I did not get a say. I think I must have tried to get round it somehow, but I know I was sometimes pissed off living in the back kitchen in Willow Lane. Dad helped me out when I had difficulties at school and once with the police. So respect for that, but a lot of the time it was him on my case, both mum and dad when the end-of-term reports came in. Dad also a habit of rubbishing those who had things, like cars and big houses. Yes, I can see where he was coming from, but I took on some of these views when in retrospect we were relatively well off, top end of the workers at least, in attitude if not quite financially. Sure I had well-to-do friends, but there were plenty of schoolboys from creaky homes.

Just a short note about the influence my older brother had around this time. He called me a moron and a cretin quite frequently but backed me up when I was bullied by those third and fourth yearers. My recollections are in two broad catagories. First, he was like an extra parent and didn’t have many a kind word. Second, I wanted to look like him, write like him, do the things he like doing and think the same things he was thinking. Apart from stargazing and listening to The Planet Suite by Holst. I even went to the same university. Subsequently, he has become a role model for the person I don’t want to be. We recently compared notes about dad and his treatment of me, which according to various relatives, was on the cruel side. Older brother said dad only wanted us to be better than him – was that money, things, or something more sophisticated like life chances? Whatever it was, I get it, but not how he did it?

The only way I could get into their good books was do better at school work – so I did. And credit to them – life had given them, and many others of that generation, a raw deal. Having got to a boys grammar school, they were damned if I was going to waste it. I didn’t quite see it that way – I simply wanted them off my back. I seem to recall thinking a lot about girls at the time.

I scraped into the Sixth form, again with help from dad, following some time in ‘remove’. Despite trying a lot harder in the fifth form, I only got six mediocre ‘O’ levels. Too far to catch up. I failed or didn’t get the required grades in key subjects (English, Maths and French) and I’m now wondering how Mr Bielby let me through. There was obviously a lot more to him than met the eye. Whilst my best ‘O’ was English Literature, sciences were my strength. Hadwin in Chemistry – posh accent, moustache, he looked like a retired army officer. Carr in Biology – a true mentor. Archenhold in Physics – strange guy but got me through my strongest subject which I actually liked. Made House Captain (Ainsty) two years running, much to the chagrin of Mick Crossley. Deputy Head Boy in final year when I took ‘As’ for a second time.

Something there about leadership and organisational skills. Forgot about the Queens Scout. We had three years in the sixth, something to do with the Oxbridge people. Again grades not good enough first time round, apart from a B in physics, still catching up. Dropped physics, got Cardno in chemistry, another mentor. Strange looking guy, fierce temper, wrote a book on buses, but was great at teaching chemistry. A*A*. Handshakes all round. Got selected for the local RU first XV whilst still at school. Got to be one of the best times. Mum and Dad were pleased. I’m not sure where older brother fits in. The childbride was in there somewhere, but a bit mixed as she went off to Leeds to do nursing. All in all pretty good.

One regret. I was selected for an RU Yorkshire trial and refused to go. Mum tried to change my mind. Something about those boys from posh schools getting preferential treatment. Tosh but I didn’t go. Dad didn’t get involved and the rugby master, ‘Tubby’ Hawes, wouldn’t have known anything about it. I could have gone and asked for his advice but I didn’t.


So what do these early years say about failure? I was a success. Better than average, eventually in my studies (it’s fair to say I needed more time than some of my pals) and certainly in sports. When things didn’t go well, it was a question of time, a kick up the arse from dad, “Oh Reg” from mum, and massive support from two or three schoolmasters. True mentors who believed in me – not the sarcastic dicks that commanded no respect from the boys.

What does it say about me? It feels a little lonely. The strong conditional love from dad especially is sometimes still about – striving too hard, high expectations and strong beliefs which were always going to put me at risk in the non-sheltered environments of the future. What would have happened if I’d said ‘No’. Authority figures are still a problem, not if they are correct and fair, but dad and some of the masters were neither. Going my own way and not asking for advice – I’m not sure where this comes from, but it’s a big flaw. On the other hand, some natural talent, which I milked as much as I could academically, but let the sports go apart from rugby. Junior teams were only just coming in – New College was a good start however. Cricket simply disappeared off the agenda. Too much humiliation for not being as good as I should. Jimmy Dakers was not a warm supportive guy for me, though I could have pushed him away. So a success, approval from mum and dad, and off to the next chapter – Liverpool.

What does this say about story telling? There is a hero. He starts undeveloped and yes frustrated. But the frustrations are given to him, and it feels like a burden. They are dad’s frustrations primarily which, during the relatively powerless child and adolescent periods, gradually I adopt. Like all of us, uncritically, I took on the information from the media and literature which reinforced the thoughts and feelings I had taken on. Along with many of my generation I was Labour, taking from the rich and giving to the poor. School didn’t shape this. Rightly probably it concentrated on getting the ‘levels’.

So where does the dark side begin? Brittle and quick to take offence, not taking advice, not accepting that others might be right. Forever rehearsing the deep-seated sense of not good enough and it’s all my fault. I’m not sure. Who would share and help with this view? And how does it become a story? Not sure again. It does define the big problem – not learning from mistakes, yet having the energy to plough on and get to the next stage. It had rough moments but I would say school and schoolmates were part of the best days of my life – or they just seem so from all these years.

The next stage was leaving home, albeit for short university terms, until the clinical years which are more or less full time. Liverpool. Derby Hall which I didn’t much like. Brick hall of residence, built in a square around lawns and paths. The schoolpals and myself had had a cruise on the broads – Eddie, Backy, Joss, Nobby anybody else. I helmed once badly, breaking up a rowing boat moored on the side of the waterway. We found the owner’s mother and gave her some money – not enough. I kept to the galley. I became ill toward the end and spent a couple of days in bed. Once home, the childbride’s mother took me in and nursed me. Brilliant considering she was a posh-speaking blue rinse and I some lost left-winger. The upshot was I was late going to Liverpool and missed all the freshers activities. I did meet up with the scouts, but they referred to the rambling club as the opposition – No. I went to a couple of meetings of the humanist society – quite interesting, but the whole business of clubs was too much. I suppose I was 12 months older than the other freshers. I thought about signing up for the rugby trials, but the medics played on Wednesdays so I didnt’t follow through. We went to watch the trials and met up with a guy from Hemsworth GS who we’d played against at school. He lived next door to Derby at Rathbone, where a fellow medic, Chris was also staying. I started seeing a bit of the Rathbone guys, including a boy from St Gregs back in Huddersfield – I still see him down at Lockwood rugby – his wife died and he’s remarried. So a bit of a social life. Some drinking. I was closest to 4 guys in the end house, away from the majority of students. 3 lawyers and an architect. The lawyers were all public schoolboys with cars, but we studied and hung out. The house did a smoking concert which didn’t work for me – a drunken strip was my best effort – other houses had scripts and rehearsed. The Rathbone connection dropped away. Apart from Chris who was an ex-Rydal public schoolboy, same spot as one of the lawyers whose car was a jeep. Chris got us, including Andy, to go up to Waterloo, Southport way – Chris Jennings who played for England played there and was a Rydal man. Chris had a car but he was soon in the first XV. I played with the youth team – so-called shoolboys – and the jeepman and I would drive up on Tuesday nights for training. We played on the Isle of Man, Sandhurst (New College) and Stoneyhurst, Liverpool College where ‘Neddy’ Ashcroft was a master and some works teams, like Lancashire Police, a chemical works in Widnes, Port Sunlight. The police were a step too far, but later easier against our seconds when I got too old for the schoolboys. I also played a few games for the thirds. I was okay but not going anywhere fast. Tony Neary was in Derby at the time – Broughton Park, Lancashire and England. A lawyer. Had a few drinks with him and later played against him. He seemed to be everywhere. He was later jailed – some 20 years later – for fraud. Ian Alexander, a medic a year ahead, was there too. We used to go up on to Derby’s roof at night – there were balconies and you just hitched yourself up. Getting down was more difficult. We climbed in one guy’s window who was sat studying. Had the fright of his life. So did I – quite an overhang across the eves. Ian later came to live with us and his girlfriend, Mary. They went their separate ways, Ian to Canada, where we later heard he had shot himself. He was a teddy boy from the Potteries, complete with studded belts. An alcoholic who even then was drinking heavily everyday. Started to sleep with a shotgun next to his bed, we were told. Mary married a physician. She was posh. I once went sailing with her in Leigh or somewhere similar. There was a sixth guy in the house who never left his room. The bursa or whoever was in charge of Derby told me off for not befriending him. So I did. He was a medic who didn’t attend lectures or the DR (dissecting room). We talked and played table tennis, but it was pretty clear he’d had some sort of a breakdown. He didn’t seem mad or anything, just lacking drive and confidence. His brother was a county schoolboy rugby player.

So dad took and left me. No big deal. I didn’t meet anyone until the DR. Andy Thompson was on the same body so we met straightaway. Chris came slightly later when we all signed up for the medics rugby team. Our first game was away against Manchester medics. I don’t remember who won but we had a great time drinking and singing in the University bar, including our introduction to the Liverpool medics song. Gone downhill ever since. Sure there was drinking back in Huddersfield, usually on a Saturday night in the Younger’s IPA pub across from the Parish Church – White Swan. It was getting selected for the Old Boys whilst still at school that started the rot. I’d started in the colts – quite an innovative venture in the those days. First game away at Birmingham which we won. A good night at the university. I sat next to an army recruitment officer who played full back. Lived near Sheila Sykes on Mountfield Rd. He tried to pursuade me to go for an army scholarship to do my medical degree. I thought it was sound, but mum wouldn’t have it. Greg, my cricket and pilates pal, an ex-regular soldier, describes the opposite lifstyle to the one I eventually followed – the army does everything for you, even your thinking. Anyway, even though I couldn’t buy many rounds, I got started in the rugby drinking culture. The Old Boys were part of the Huddersfield Textile mafia, along with golf, hockey and soccer amateur clubs – and the Almondbury Casuals CC as I later found out. As remote from our family as Denis Compton. Greenwood, Billington, Milner, Harrop, Ross, Law, Booth, the army guy were all good. This introduction to posh-ish rugby overlapped my first two years at university – so I played for the Old Boys during the holidays, as did Ross and Mason, both Qegs Wakefield boys at London medical schools. As was John Drewery who lived in our house, off Lodge Lane, later.

I have to remember this is about failure. In the period between 1966 and 1971 what did I fail? Had there been dermatology final exam I would’ve failed it. I must have gone to two maybe three clinics. My public health exam wasn’t brilliant, but not many didn’t get through. I did well in biochemistry but not to the point of a distinction viva. Otherwise it was try to bluff your way through. No stars. The consultants, almost to a man, were pompous and arrogant. Teaching was by humiliation. The exception was Cyril Clarke who inhabited a world of his own – somewhere near Mars I think. The Royal and the Southern for surgery. The Northern and Broadgreen for medicine. Alder Hey for kids. Mill Road for obstetrics. The Women’s for gynaecology. There was orthopedics as well. Didn’t pull up any trees.

The rugby was more successful – once into the second XV we soon made it onto the first XV. All three of us from the flat together. Harlequins, Leicester, Dublin Wanderers, and the local teams – Liverpool, New Brighton, Birkenhead Park, St. Helens and so on. Roughly two seasons, one when I was working as a houseman at Broadgreen – so 19070/72. Chris was the most talented but the least interested. Andy and I enjoyed the craic a bit too much. If there was a failure it was social. Especially talking to consultants and the posh followers up at Blundesands about my professional Yorkshire working class roots. I was a pain, but got along with my fellow players well enough. High and low lights on the Dublin tour which I’m sure is documented elsewhere. So good enough to pass at the end, though anxiety at the end which took me a while to get over.

We lived in two places which must be written about elswhere. Three of us started on Princes St and then moved to Lark Lane. There were seven/eight of us eventually in a slum. The childbride came to live in Liverpool around this time – sharing with medical student women – was it Mannering Rd?

One of the newer younger consultants took an interest up at Waterloo and still does I think, but he must well into his seventies. Big flash house which he didn’t need and muggins didn’t fail to let him know. He arranged for me to take up a gp training course out in one of the overspill new towns, but I failed to turn up. He was not my best friend after that. Somewhere in the middle I decided I wanted to do general medicine – why? I’ve no idea but it will be to do with seeking fame and fortune. Was it the puzzle of diagnosis?

What does it say about failure. Don’t have too high expectations, or none. Top gun at school, an anonymous student at Liverpool. It had been rugby, drinking and studying in that order. Even my attempt at a magazine was more or less okay. Mum was pleased I passed – dad probably was.

I don’t know what it says about stories.

House jobs at Broadgreen – easy passage with Moroney in surgery. Harder with medicine up on the professorial unit. On-call every other night. Made it to SHO in general medicine – with the McConnell Brothers and Bayley, Woodrow and Cyril. Hard again and failed my first go at membership writtens. Then on to the next stage. The professorial unit was good value. The bosses were kind. Woodrow was a little odd, part of the Liverpool Jewish mafia, but a great research background in rhesus blood groups. Same with Cyril Clarke who quite soon after I had left became President of the College. Bayley was my immediate boss and a good teacher and adviser who I actually listened to. Despite going through a divorce. He eventually remarried a younger medic from Broadgreen. We were on call 1in2 for 12 months, so lived there virtually. Cricket and soccer behind the residence. Mixed genders so enough said. We certainly all got on well. We used to get afternoon tea, often spam which we took greta delight, sometimes, in frizzbeeing it over the back into the Jewish cemetery. Played my First XV rugby at Waterloo during the house year. As might have been expected, I fell out with the club – I couldn’t train, trying to revise for membership, marking time at Broadgreen. They dropped me to the third team but I told them to sod off. But a good place to work and get some sort of a start to understand which way was up. We had to do casualty as house officers – we protested, I forget the argument, but we were obviously right as they began to employ appropriately qualified staff. The childbride came to work on the Intensive Care Unit, mostly for post-op cardiothoracic surgery. It was not a place where twits from general medicine were made welcome. John Cleary’s wife worked there. He was a famous drinker from medical school who later became on orthopod in Huddersfield. He had zero social skills, so why should I worry. None of the surgeons had social skills come to think of it, but that is a later story. One of the old time physicians was admitted on my day with an overdose. ITU and ventilated. A place we daren’t enter. The nurses, apart from the childbride were nearly as ferocious as the midwives at Mill Road, another place she worked. I’d no idea who the surgeons were, though at the time of the dispute, an anaesthetist and I assume a surgeon happened onto casualty as I was trying to supervise a cardiac arrest. They mucked in, intubated and so on and advised on what to do, albeit in advanced cardiothoracic language involving pressures and goodness knows what else. Still we had a go. I can count my successful resuscitations on less than one hand. If they come round they have not had an arrest. They introduced an arrest trolley at St. Lukes in Huddersfield. Must have been political following a complaint – it certainly was never going to work. Back to the senior consultant overdose. We knew him when we were students, because he visited the lady of the night downstairs. So overall quite a stir – not that I let on. He didn’t come round and I was told I had to switch off the ventilator by the sister – no ITU medics for miles. What could I do? Soon after I received a Department Store voucher from his widow. Much I later met his son who was a physician in Bradford.

So long hours and fairly hard work. Good reference from Bayley. In retrospect I cannot say we were well qualified and safe and not particularly well supervised. As SHO I couldn’t get round all the admissions on some nights, so not good. But this was a time when we couldn’t do a lot. For example, patients with heart attacks were put in a side ward opposite the charge nurse’s office and watched. (As a consultant in Northallerton, we did not have a coronary care ward either and that was a decade or so later). I remember one success – putting a drip up in casualty on someone with a gastrointestinal bleed. He survived to surgery. I’m not sure what happened after that. The commonest problem, particularly in winter was upper respiratory infection. Liverpool was the emphysema capital of the world – I think it is actually Bootle. Low oxygen regimes were drilled into us. The other common, non-clinical problem at the time, was obesity in short women because they had so many children. I could go on, but it would serve no purpose.

What do those two years say about failure. Not a lot. My only first class rugby. Clinical experience of sorts. Good craic – the flatmates from Lark Lane kept in touch. We got married – I wouldn’t invite Drewery because I’d fallen out with him and his partner – stupid. Failed my first two goes at membership. It was still a case of not rocking the boat and getting through. And being a stroppy sod.