Monday 26 July 2021

The Good at his job Shepherd

I'm not knocking fiction; it's an effective way of laying bare life as she is lived to better understand how humanity ticks - even if all the characters are talking rabbits. But I don't read much of it, preferring "true" stories. My latest download from borrowbox is Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd. Shepherd is the last of the old style forensic pathologists: trained in an era of pipes and tweed-jackets and very dark humour over the mortuary slab. He's retired a couple of times but his experience and expertise are still valued by the small community of those who tidy up the dead. Not so much morticians with a deft needle, formalin and a touch of blusher; more those who come before, tidying up the loose end-of-life ends. Shepherd's position is that we-the-people owe it to the dead to discover and publish the cause of death, even if that task is messy, time-consuming and [therefore] expensive.

One of Shepherd's gripes is that when every aspect of life was privatized and cost-centred under Thatcher and Blair, there was often insufficient money to pay for a decent path report and so death certs were signed off without the cause of death being adequately investigated. Subsequent enquiries, for example, revealed that police and prosecutors didn't give-a-damn about how Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993 because the kid was black. You'll get a better post-mortem if you get offed at the beginning of the financial year! In the old days, forensic pathologists could do experiments and develop particular expertise through experience because they got their salaries on the regular. Today forensic pathologists are all independent contractors, so any spare time between cases is spent hustling for more business rather than stabbing pig livers and documenting the damage.

Shepherd started forensic work in the late 80s when a tumult of tragedies delighted the tabloids: Hillsborough, Zeebrugge, Marchioness, King's Cross, Lockerbie, Piper Alpha, Clapham Junction, Hungerford, East Midlands Airport. Not only was he Point Pathologist for several of these events, he was instrumental in setting up the infrastructure for better handling of such things in the future. Cost-centers really don't like investing in future Maybes, but infrastructural failure means a shameful response when, say, pandemic happens.

Unnatural Causes is, rather stiffly, confessional. Shepherd acknowledges that he could have done better with the optics of his messy profession because blunted affect [and a really sharp PM-40 see R] is necessary to do post-mortem efficiently. One ghoulish detail was caused outrage was the decision to remove the hands from some of the long-submerged bodies of the Marchioness so that the finger-prints could be properly identified with large specialist equipment that couldn't be transported to the mortuary. And the poor man could have done better flipping between his day job and his suburban family life. Helping the kids with their home-work and making together time with his wife 40 minutes after showering the smell of decay out of his hair at work. He couldn't square that circle and his first marriage wrapped up in divorce after the kids had left home.

Keeping the image and smell of death and dismemberment at arm's length for 4 decades and 23,000 autopsies eventually came to unbend his mind with PTSD, depression and panic attacks. If we cared about mental health of front-line workers, we'd budget for therapeutic help: £100 a week for a discrete ear isn't much money and it leverages better product at work. The adversarial nature of the law as it is practiced in their islands is damaging to justice and fairness. Senior council will not be nice about distinguishing between the professional competence and personal integrity of pathologists, police constables, or doctors. It's little wonder that these people hit the bottle [or, god forbid, the family] after a mauling by some toff in a wig at court.

Another insight is that a lot of tea is consumed in mortuaries. It is a necessary professional and social lubricant among those whose work requires them to be present but whose interests often conflict. The pathologist's call can mean more, or less, work for the police. Unnatural Causes may not be your cup of tea but I found it interesting and not gratuitously gruesome.

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