It Started in a Cupboard: Adventures in Learning and Happiness

Kenneth Calman

Luath, £20

As Shakespeare’s Brutus said, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.” Few embody this better than Professor Sir Kenneth Calman, the former chief medical officer of Scotland, whose engagingly unspun account of his “hopscotch” career shows a remarkable ability to leap from one trapeze to the next. In so doing, he has operated at a level of responsibility and influence so vertiginous it would give most of us a nose bleed.

This, however, is no boastful memoir. Throughout, Calman portrays his own part with commendable modesty, his tone conversational and matter of fact, his method more to record than embellish events. Although he is better known to some as the comedian Susan Calman’s father, the role this doctor has played has been enormous. His earliest ambition was to be an architect and it would be no exaggeration to say that, while he soon abandoned that idea, he has become one of the architects of modern Scotland.

The cupboard of the title was like the wardrobe in Narnia, taking Calman into a dazzling new world. It lay at the top of the stairs in his family’s council house in Knightswood, Glasgow. The elder of two sons, born in 1941, Calman was nine when his engineer father Arthur died. To make ends meet, his mother Grace took in lodgers, which left no corner where he could study. Adapting this tiny cupboard, lit by a candle, he was soon on his way to a meteoric future although, as he points out, he was never top of his class.

An indication of what was to come, however, might have been discerned in his dedication to the Boys’ Brigade, and his flawless attendance at church: “Its motto of ‘Sure and Steadfast’ could just as easily have been mine too.” After taking a medical degree at Glasgow, Calman became interested in palliative care, which was being pioneered at the Royal Marsden, where he worked for a year. In 1974, he became the first professor of medical oncology in Scotland, but it was no glamorous appointment. At a youthful 32, he had to persuade resentful sceptics of the value of this new discipline.

Under his charge was a tiny 10-bed ward at Gartnavel General where, for a decade, he was at the forefront of cancer treatment. After a few years, he recalls, “hope was no longer in impossibly short supply”. Among his proudest achievements was the informal patient forum he established, called Tak Tent. This has since morphed into Cancer Care Scotland, offering invaluable help to those dealing with their diagnosis.

For many, that position would have satisfied them until retirement but Calman is insatiably curious and driven. Accepting the position of Chief Medical Officer of Scotland – “The Nation’s Doctor” – he found himself in the shark infested zone between medicine, politics and the public. His earliest predecessor, the eminent Victorian Dr Henry Littlejohn, was thought to have been the model for Sherlock Holmes, but there is nothing theatrical or self-aggrandising about Calman. Rather than badger or bully, he seems to charm and cajole his way to success.

When later he became CMO of England, the workload at Westminster was such that on a Sunday night he would lay out all the clothes he would need to wear that week, allowing him to get as early a start each day as possible. At one point he did not eat an evening meal in his London flat for three straight months.

It Started in a Cupboard follows every twist of Calman’s CV, through the vice-chancellorship of Durham University to his current roles as Chancellor of Glasgow University and Chair of the National Library of Scotland. Between these appointments there have been many others, among them presiding over the controversial Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution in 2008-9, which led to the 2012 Scotland Act, but irked the SNP government by making no accommodation for the possibility of an independent Scotland.

It Started in a Cupboard is not a literary work. There is little artifice in its composition, no passages of fine descriptive writing or lingering scenes to dress the facts. It is, however, a fascinating book. On one level it is inspirational to see what one man has achieved, Calman’s career charting not only his own progress, but that of the nation’s physical, economic and political health. On another, it is rich in emotion and humour, touching on his profound religious faith, and the importance of finding a way to happiness. Of the many quotes with which he fills his pages, Hans Christian Andersen’s advice might best sum up his outlook: “To be of use to the world is the only way to be happy”.