Just a minute


January has had two fixed dates in my diary for a few years now. One is our regional trainees' meeting and the other is Burns Night. As the latter is a mystery to most non-Scottish readers, I'd better explain briefly. Robert Burns, an 18th century Scots songwriter and poet, was the Elvis Presley of his day – a country boy with talent and sex-appeal who became famous, died at 39 (Presley died at 42) and is now an icon. Today Burns Suppers (think Elvis Convention with haggis) are held on or near his birthday on 25th January. Without them, the northern winter would be a miserable prospect.

Which is probably the reason why the Yorkshire trainees also meet in January. To keep their spirits up they have clinical lectures, a pep-talk about the latest national initiatives for enhancing the postgraduate experience, and prizes for the best trainee presentation and poster. In the evening, I believe, the trainees socialise, which counts as peer-group support. Unlike Burns Night there's no haggis or whisky, though I can't help feeling that a glass or two of Glen McCalman would help those national initiatives go down.

A deanery is born

The Yorkshire Region has a population almost as big as Denmark's and a single postgraduate deanery, which didn't exist when I arrived in Leeds in 1990. Indeed the word ‘deanery’ first appeared in the BMJ as late as 1998. (The Lancet had it a century earlier, but only in relation to the Church of England.) Although postgraduate deans had come earlier they hadn't been invented when I qualified in 1971. When the posts appeared in the mid-1970s they were seen as a relaxing way for consultants to spend a few years before retirement. All that changed in the 1990s. I remember how shocked we were on an interview panel for a new dean when one candidate told us she wanted to shake things up. To our credit (and hers) she got the job.

Until then, training had relied on the apprentice system, which we retirees now look back on fondly. We're kidding ourselves, I'm afraid. I also remember being an interview candidate myself in the 1980s and, when asked for my views on postgraduate education, using the word ‘shambles’. Some panel members woke up and glared at me and things quickly went downhill, which is why the moment is fixed in my memory. I was right, though. At that time, the Royal Colleges limited themselves to running their membership examinations, university departments organised a few courses, and drug companies did the rest. Yes, today's trainees do far too much box-ticking but believe me, self-directed learning palls after the first decade.

Here comes the judge

The disadvantage of having prizes at the regional meeting is that the organisers need judges. I try to avoid this responsibility because I have the wrong personality for the role. I like to see some good in everyone and I hate to see anyone being disappointed. But I realise I'm in the minority. Today on television nobody can sing, dance, bake a cake or visit the Australian jungle unless they are part of an agonising contest which will leave them in tears. How can viewers bear to watch?

When judging, I become too introspective. What makes a good poster? How do you balance design, science and clinical relevance? Do you deduct marks when the Blu-Tack fails? Published guidance is scanty and can best be summarised as, ‘Keep it simple, stupid’. This is easier said than done, and it used to need years of experience, though these days most trainees seem to have got the knack. Perhaps the College now has a KISS module.

Guest chairman

So, Prof, I hear you ask: if you don't like judging and are too old to give a clinical lecture, why is this date still in your diary? Well, I really enjoy meeting the rising generation, but the actual reason is that the organisers need someone to impersonate Nicholas Parsons. One of the sessions is based on ‘Just a Minute’, the radio show in which panellists have to talk for 60 seconds without hesitation … etc., etc. At the meeting the subjects are non-medical and it's great fun. The competitors (trainees versus consultants) require wit and skill and take it very seriously. For a chairman they need someone who has been listening to Mr Parsons since his show began in 1967, and who has absorbed something of his personality. I'm happy to oblige, and if it means skipping a Burns Supper, so much the better.