INTERVIEW: Trust him, he’s a junior doctor

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

A quote from the Mayor of London graces the back cover of Max Pemberton’s book.

“Painfully funny,” it reads.

Presumably Trust Me: I’m A Junior Doctor was reviewed by Boris long before anyone thought he would hold sway over a city of more than seven million people.

Max is a bit like Boris in some ways.

Of course Max is slim not bulky, with dyed blond hair rather than the natural look our Mayor sports.

But he is amiable, very easy to talk to, a great anecdotalist, a man of strong opinions and a tiny bit scatty.

Boris liked the book and I find I have to agree with him. It is a diary account of the first year experiences of junior doctors Max and his friends.

At first it appears to be a happy-go-lucky and slightly flimsy tale of the mishaps and triumphs of being the lowest medic in the pecking order, a sort of James Herriot for the 21st century.

But Carry On Up The NHS it certainly is not.

As the chapters (and their first year) fly past, the reader is at turns touched, angry, depressed and exhilarated as Max and Co. come face to face with racism, greed, poverty and death, sometimes caused by their own inexperience.

In person Max (not his real name) is an engaging, attractive and eloquent 28-year-old, gay without being G-A-Y, and impressively free of the arrogance and general up-themselves attitude most doctors seem to acquire along with their degree.

That is probably to do with his upbringing.

Max comes from a working class family and grew up in west London.

He has a respect for the NHS one would expect from a boy raised in a left wing household, and is not shy on exposing the elitist nature of medicine.

“A lot of medical students are from a very rich background, Mummy and Daddy bought them flats, particularly at UCL (University College, London), where I went. It is quite well-known for those kind of students.”

Max had to work his way through medical school, supporting himself through journalism.

“Fairly convinced” from a young age that he wanted to be a doctor, money was always going to be an issue, with six years training to be paid for.

“My parents just didn’t have the money, so we struck an agreement, I would finance the first three years, and hope that my parents’ financial situation would improve to finance the last three years.

“It was going all right for the first year but in my second year it became quite difficult.

“I was literally on my last £100 and I saw an ad in the back of The Guardian for a medical journalist, and I thought no, I would not get it since I had no experience, but lo and behold, they called.

“They were talking about my portfolio, but I haven’t got a portfolio! They put my letter on top of this other person’s portfolio, had not even looked at the name, and had not realised that it was not even me who wrote the stuff.

“I was honest. I asked for a chance to write something, which I did, and about two days later they called me and said that I got the job.

“When they called, I was spending my last £100 – after all, it was all going to go wrong.

“It was like a proper job with a proper salary.

“I started work at 3:30am to write news, and then finished at 8:30am, and then ran to school for lectures.

“I did it for a couple of months.

“Actually, it was quite hideous, but then they made me edit it, and I could do it from home late at night and just had to tell everyone what to do the next day.”

From this punishing beginning Max built a reputation for himself as a reliable journalist.

He mentions that TV doctor Hilary Jones was a great help to him, passing work his way, and that he was finally able to help his mum out financially.

“I was out at medical school, and out at work,” he explains when I asked if medicine is a homophobic profession.

“Everyone I work with is gay. My boss is gay; nearly all my bosses have been gay. I think it is different, as I trained in London and work in London.

“The only time I came across homophobia was with a Muslim surgeon.

“He refused to look at me. I worked with him for three months.”

Max’s big break came after he had graduated. A cheeky letter to the editor of The Daily Telegraph pitching an idea for a column about the trials and tribulations of a junior doctor happened to be read not by a flunky but by the editor himself.

He like the sample columns and Max was hired.

The readers loved the columns and the character of Max Pemberton was born.

Trust Me, I’m A Junior Doctor is an expanded version of those weekly posts from the front line, a semi-fictionalised version of Max’s first year as a junior doctor in a London hospital.

In this world Max is not gay, or at least he never has sex with anyone.

“Max is not me.

“That is not my experience of being a doctor.

“I have to try to make it fiction.

“The thing is, the book would be bought by Telegraph readers, obviously because they know me very well, and that (being gay) would be an issue.

“It would be like a coming out story, and that is not what I wanted.

“The columns were never a story in that sense.

“The first two columns were about my fears about taking over a patient.”

Despite being out at medical school, being up front with the patients proved a real test of Max’s resilience.

“I was very embarrassed about telling people I am gay.

“A dying old woman was trying to get me to find a girlfriend and I dreaded coming out to her, as I presumed that she would be rather homophobic.

“But she said, ‘oh it’s fine, it’s brilliant’. She told me a story about how, when she was growing up in east London, there were two women who were lovers, and how it was sweet.

“She was talking about how times have changed, and how people are more open about it.

“It is easy to say all older people are more conservative, and homophobic, but in my experience, they are not.”

Max claims that libertarianism is reflected in the response his columns get from Telegraph readers.

“Yes they are conservative, but their political ideology is very libertarian, a lot of them believe that everyone should have their equal rights.

“I clearly entered their world, and now they want to get into my world.”

The issue of his alter-ego’s sexual orientation came to a head when Max was offered the chance of publishing his columns in book form.

“Do I make this person into me? Do I bring my personal experience into it, as well as my work experience?

“At that time I was in a long-term relationship, while I was a junior doctor, so I wasn’t moping around in toilets and stuff.

“It is not a book about being gay, and my life being gay.

“I want the book to be about me being a doctor.

“I want readers to be able to identify with the characters, and say ‘well, look, this is what it is like to be 80 and poor’ or ‘this is what it is like to be a prostitute,’ rather than to make it about me.

“Max also portrays a lot of racism.

“There is homophobia. I experienced homophobia, but not a lot of it, and so did Lewis (the gay character in the book).”

He accepts there is serious prejudice against gay people among the medical profession, “particularly in surgery.”

“When I was at medical school, I was the only out student for six years.

“Traditionally, people who go into medicine come from very traditional, very rigid backgrounds and it is very hard for them to accept that they are not in a heterosexual society and that they are in cosmopolitan areas.”

Max has been using his regular columns in The Telegraph to argue against the ban on any man who has ever had sex with another man donating blood.

“If I were writing for a gay publication, they would most probably attack me, but they see The Telegraph, and they trust it, and they see something they don’t understand, as it is incompatible with their world view.

“They say, ‘hang on, this is The Telegraph, I trust them. What do they say?’

“They genuinely want to enter my world and what I am talking about.

“I went through all the research and I told my editors that I know it is a very niche topic, and I know it will not appeal to many Telegraph readers, but I feel very passionate about it and very annoyed about it.

“I spoke to the original scientist (who carried out the research the National Blood Service cites to explain the ban on gay blood) and worked out the studies and had him send me the original paper.

“I studied public health and am I not that bad at statistics, so I went through it statistically with my colleagues to work it out.

“There were glaring errors.”

He wrote a furious article denouncing the ban, which he described as:

“A warped morality whereby the sexual practices of straight men, no matter how heinous, are ignored, while gay men – and women – are vilified.

“A man can have whatever type of sex he desires with a woman, protected or not, and with as many women as he wants, and the blood service won’t mind.”

Despite a potentially glittering career as the next Peter Tatchell, Dr Max is currently working with substance abuse patients on Soho. He eventually wants to work with dementia sufferers.

“These older people have nothing, and no family to support them, they are usually dumped into a home and no one cares. I cannot turn my back on these people.”

He adds that while he would not be averse to TV work, the idea of sitting on a mid-morning sofa talking about haemorrhoids is an unappealing prospect.

His place in the hearts of Telegraph readers seems secure for now, and despite recent rumours he had been poached by a tabloid, Max confides he is quietly enjoying using his column to widen the horizons and rouse the consciences of a million conservatives.

Trust Me, I’m a Junior Doctor by Max Pemberton is published by Hodder.

INTERVIEW: Trust him, he’s a junior doctor