Gina Davidson meets the man who scooped Scotland’s most prestigious literary prize.
THERE is a tacit belief that if you are a GP then you should live in a grand, old, stone-built, detached house, interior design by John Lewis, exterior design by the local gardener. It’s part of the deal of studying for years, being on call to save lives, being middle class.
Or perhaps it’s what those of us growing up with Dr Finlay’s Casebook on television and reading the novels of Agatha Christie novels are inclined to buy into.
Certainly Dr Gavin Francis’ home is not like that. It’s a semi-detached 1980s white pebble-dashed anonymous house at the end of a South Queensferry cul-de-sac, filled with the usual stuff and nonsense of any family home with small children. And there’s not even a fancy car parked outside – he prefers to cycle his way to the Dalkeith Road surgery where he works part-time.
But then taking preconceived notions and smashing them into smithereens is something he does. Notions such as proper, serious, grown-up writers work peculiar hours as the muse strikes, typing in a fug of fag smoke and amid the detritus of stained coffee cups. They certainly don’t sit down to write just one day a week in their old garden hut or the reading rooms of the National Library, with one eye on the clock for the nursery run. And if they do, then there’s no chance they could write anything which could be classed as award-winning.
Well there goes another notion, lying like discarded pages of a rejected manuscript in the gutter. Given that his wife, Esa, is part Italian, there’s certainly been a lot of good, black coffee in Gavin’s life, but it has fuelled him all the way to Scotland’s most prestigious literary prize.
His book, Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins – described by reviewers as “full of wonder”, “mesmerising” and “an intense, lyrical portrait” – has just been named Scottish Book of the Year and won him the nation’s largest prize pot of £30,000.
A glitzy evening at the Lennoxlove Book Festival last weekend was when Gavin, resplendent in kilt, discovered he’d beaten the three other finalists to the top prize with his non-fiction work. Two days later and it’s still sinking in.
“It’s overwhelming,” he says. “I wouldn’t have thought they would even consider someone who only writes a day-and-a-half a week to be given the same prize as James Kelman or Janice Galloway. That my name is now in a list with theirs is really something. And I’m delighted that the balance I’m trying to get between medicine and writing has been recognised.”
He adds: “There are lots of ideas about what constitutes literature. For me it’s about making connections between different ideas, trying to get a different perspective on the world and to get that across to the reader on the page. One of my favourite writers is JD Salinger and he once said the most you can expect is that a good writer leaves something beautiful on the page, which sounds simple but is far from easy. I aim for that and to take experiences and write about them in a way that the reader can connect to them.”
The experiences which have won Gavin his prize are those of his 15-month-long stint as the resident doctor with the British Antarctic Survey, in a place described as one of the last great wildernesses on Earth, where in winter the sun doesn’t show it’s face for three, long, dark, months and time is told by the movement of the stars, temperatures fall to minus 60 degrees Celsius and the wind speeds are up to 150mph.
He gave up working in Edinburgh’s Sick Kids hospital for the chance to head to the South Pole.
“It was just something I’d always wanted to do,” he says. “There was a sense of adventure about it. It was like a mythical place and it feels like a parallel universe when you’re there. To be honest, given that there were just 14 of us, all young, fit people, I didn’t have too much to do as the doctor though I’d been given training for every eventuality. In fact I dealt with dentistry most often as in that kind of cold your fillings just dessicate.”
To fill his time he spent days watching the colonies of Emperor penguins, and when he had two weeks’ holiday he went out on the ice to camp among them.
“Everyone loves penguins don’t they? I remember always going to see them at Edinburgh Zoo when I was young, but in the Antarctic there’s no other life there so they’re all you’ve got.”
The penguins were also an outlet to take his mind off the isolation and the claustrophobia sometimes felt by the crew. “I spent a fortnight’s holiday sitting on the sea ice with them, watching the males and females get together, the females lay eggs then go off while the males carry them around until they hatch and the females come back with food.
“It was an amazing experience. In the winter there’s no sun at all so you tell the time by the movement of the constellations and you’re surrounded by auroras and meteor showers. But when the sun returns it’s the best thing.”
Gavin also taught himself Italian while he sat on the sea ice as Esa was already his girlfriend – they’d met at Edinburgh University while he studied medicine and she Arabic. The pair married when he eventually returned, which is why their children are glued to an Italian version of Disney’s Peter Pan while we talk.
Not that they’ve been oblivious to their father’s triumph. His son even made him a trophy with his Duplo bricks. “You don’t get a trophy so he thought he needed to make me one,” Gavin grins. “They know I’ve written a book about penguins and it won a competition but that’s about it. That’s enough.”
Celebrity then is unlikely to go to his head – although he admits the woman in the post office, whom he’d never spoken to before about anything other than stamps and package weights, has already congratulated him on his win.
So what next for the award-winning writer and doctor? “At the moment I’m writing a series of essays for the London Review of Books and I’ve got ideas about writing a book about the Himalayas as Esa and I spent six months there when we went on a 18-month world tour by motorbike.” That little adventure happened just after they married.
“I have lots of ideas. It’s just finding the time. My first book was True North about my travels in the Arctic circle, the second about my time in Antartica and so I’ve probably got to do the Himalayas next. Challenges like those are harder to do now though, but being a good GP, dad and writer are big challenges. People have asked me how I can be a GP after going to the Antarctic . . . isn’t it boring? But being a GP is a fabulous job. There’s a lot of responsibility and it’s a great privilege, people are relying on you and you hope you can make a difference to their lives.
“Winning that amount of money is a huge responsibilty too. It will definitely help me to support my family and my writing. I could drop it into the mortgage and never see it again but it’s got the potential to make a lot of people happy depending on how it’s used. I’ll have to think carefully about it.”
You get the impression he thinks carefully about everything, which is what you want in a good GP.
“I’m so privileged to be able to do both jobs. In Scotland there’s a great tradition of valuing education – I grew up in a house full of books and my parents had great respect for education – and a belief in the comprehensive system and how that can lead you to excel in different areas like being a doctor and a writer.
“They’re very different but both are about dealing with people’s lives. I just want to keep on being able to do that.”