It was with great excitement and considerable trepidation that I accepted the invitation to interview Doctor Adolphous Bongo on the occasion of the imminent release of his latest book, 'DeathPractice'. Doctor Bongo is well known for writing many well-received medical textbooks, as well as a number of self-help guides and a couple of DIY manuals. It is only relatively recently that he has ventured into fiction. Nevertheless, his series of thrillers featuring the popular Nick Farrow character - the 'Ninja Doctor' - has proved incredibly successful.
Not surprisingly, Doctor Bongo is much in demand these days, and I was grateful for the opportunity to visit him at his home. And what an impressive home it is. In 1995 Doctor Bongo bought himself a sprawling gothic manor house in Cambridge, but finding that he didn't like the neighbours, he had it moved, stone by stone, to its current location on the outskirts of Canterbury. As I drive up to the heavy, wrought iron front gates, the sun is just beginning to sink. Gloom casts strange, twisted shadows across the road and the foliage on either side seems to loom threateningly. Looking up, I see twin gargoyles on the gateposts leering down at me and I subconsciously sink lower in my seat. The gatekeeper approaches and taps on my window. I wind it down to introduce myself and despite the fact that I am expected he scrutinises both me and the car through narrow, suspicious eyes before I am allowed to proceed. I am told not to stray from the driveway and once I am through the gates the reason becomes apparent. On either side are signs warning me that the grounds are mined, and the accompanying skull and crossbones symbol is a chilling reminder of some of the rumours I have heard about this place.
Not that such rumours are ever aired in public. Oh no, Doctor Bongo's neighbours have nothing but praise for the man and are keen to emphasise what an upstanding pillar of the community he is. It would perhaps be unfair to suggest that such keenness stems from a fear of reprisals, but the common wisdom is that it is best not to get on the wrong side of Doctor Bongo. There are stories - never substantiated, but persistent nonetheless - of people falling foul of the good doctor and never being seen again. Children are often told that Doctor Bongo will come and get them if they are naughty. Such warnings are fanciful and absurd but as the house comes in sight, with it macabre carved reliefs and the twin spires stabbing violently up into the bruised purple sky, it becomes easier to imagine strange and unnatural acts taking place in some dark, soundproofed chamber within.
I find a parking space adjacent to the large stone fountain that stands opposite the grand entrance steps. The fountain's centrepiece is a huge statue of a man wearing a long coat, with a stethoscope draped around his neck and his chin tilted skyward in an attitude of nobility. Some hero of Doctor Bongo's perhaps? An inspirational figure from history, or even a personal mentor? No - as the light falls across the finely chiselled features, I see that it is Doctor Bongo himself.
But there is no time to admire the statue. A butler is already waiting to escort me to Doctor Bongo, who waits for me in his study. I find him seated in a large leather armchair, colouring in a copy of The Lancet with a felt tip pen. He puts it down as I enter, smiles professionally and motions me to a seat.
"That will be all, Ferningly," Doctor Bongo tells his butler. "I shan't be needing the 'special things' tonight, you may go."
The butler turns and leaves, and as the door clicks shut behind him I finally find myself alone with the great Doctor Adolphous Bongo. Immediately I suspect that he has been drinking. I can read it in the ruddiness of his cheeks, the slight slur in his speech and the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the table beside him, with the straw sticking out the top.
"You're probably wanting to know all about my new book?" are his first words to me.
I nod briefly, nervously. "Yes, yes," I say quickly. "But I wonder if we might start by discussing your early career. I think perhaps our readers would be quite interested to know how an ordinary GP managed to achieve such success and acclaim."
"Ordinary!" Doctor Bongo spits the word back at me. The interview has got off on the wrong foot and my heart sinks. "Let me tell you, son, I was never ordinary. Ordinary, ha! My arse. Listen, from the moment I was born I was destined for greatness. I know, because they did tests."
"Tests?" I ask.
"Blood tests," Doctor Bongo tells me. "When I was born they took a sample and found that my blood was absolutely chock full of greatness. In fact, it was so great that they put the sample in a display case and mounted it in the outpatients' waiting room. It's still there today. Go and see it if you don't believe me. Or are you calling me a liar?"
"A liar?" I blurt. "No, no, of course not. It's just that I didn't know they could test your blood for greatness."
Doctor Bongo narrows his eyes and his lip curls ever so slightly into a snarl. "Okay fat boy, so who's the doctor? Is it you, huh? Are you the doctor here?"
"No, no, I -"
"No, you're not, are you," Doctor Bongo says. "I'm the doctor. I'm the one with the certificates. I'm the one with the fancy nameplate, and the engraved pen, and the subscription to the British Medical Journal. So when I say that they can test your blood for greatness, I know what I'm talking about, understand? They look for a special chromosome. Know what a chromosome is?"
"Yes, it's -"
"Course you fucking don't, you're not a doctor," Doctor Bongo insists. "But I know, because I'm great. I was a child genius. By the time I was six I had operated on my brother twelve times. By the age of nine I had invented a revolutionary new type of support stocking, and when I was fourteen I brought my grandma back from the dead. Don't know why I bothered, though. All she ever did was complain."
"That seems a little ungrateful," I sympathise.
Doctor Bongo nods. "Well, it was probably my fault for leaving it until after the autopsy," he admits. "She was of the opinion that life in a series of small Tupperware boxes was no life at all, and she never really got any of her old vigour back. She spent her remaining days trying to stab herself to death again with a retractable biro, but she never managed it. Her hand-to-eye co-ordination was completely shot, you see. Understandable really, because her eyes were in a jar in the fridge."
"That's tragic," I say, feeling rather uncomfortable.
"It is indeed," Doctor Bongo sighs, then he suddenly becomes very animated and starts to glance about the room. "In fact," he says, "I think I've still got her kidneys here, somewhere? Want to have a look?"
"No, no, no," I say rapidly. "That's fine. No offence, but I'll pass." I change the subject quickly, asking him about his early beginnings as a general practitioner. It must have seemed like the natural choice for someone so gifted to enter a profession in which he could utilise his talents for the benefits of his fellow man. He reacts to the idea abruptly.
"Bollocks!" he erupts. "Medicine is a profession in which I can use my talents in the pursuit of hard currency. Cash, that's what it's about - cash and power. I don't know where you get this bizarre idea that the medical profession is about helping people. Are you a socialist?"
"Erm," I say, thrown by the question. "I don't...Well, I suppose I am really, but -"
"Thought so," Doctor Bongo says, nodding. The sneer has come back. "You smell like a red. Well, let me give you a brief introduction to the real world. Money talks. For instance, do you know how much cash I can earn from drug company kickbacks?"
"Erm, I -"
"No, no you don't," says Doctor Bongo. "Because we doctors are very discrete about that sort of thing. Usually. Actually, I may have said too much there - forget all about it. The point is, there is some serious wonga knocking about, and as a doctor I am perfectly placed to get my meticulously sterilised digits on it. I'm a trusted professional see, and I have a lot of influence. Wanna demonstration?"
I nod and Doctor Bongo pulls his chair closer and stares into my eyes. He mutters to himself, nods and then sits back. "Thought so," he says. "You see those brown flecks in your eyes - symptom of a rare tropical disease. You could be dead within a fortnight."
This news knocks me cold. I search Doctor Bongo's face for some sign that this is just a cruel joke, but he is impassive. "Dead?" I mumble. "Is there anything you can do?"
Doctor Bongo shrugs. "Ooh no, no, no, no," he says, shaking his head.
"But is there no cure?" I persist.
"Ooh no, no, no, no," Doctor Bongo repeats. "Well, yes - there is something, actually. But it is terribly expensive. Do you have your cheque book on you?"
I have. I write Doctor Bongo a cheque and he folds it neatly and slips into his top pocket. He then hands me a phial of yellow liquid, which I drink immediately.
"Feeling better?" he asks. I nod, although in truth I don't feel any different now than I did when I first arrived. Doctor Bongo smiles. "Good, well that proves my point entirely. The thing is, there was absolutely nothing wrong with you... And you've just drunk a phial of badger piss."
I cough violently. "Oh my god!" I splutter, and help myself to a glass of water from the table.
"You see, this is what being a doctor is all about," Doctor Bongo says, pointedly patting the cheque in his pocket. "I don't actually know any more about medicine than you. I spent five years at medical school and let me tell you, it was the best piss up I've ever been to. But after all that tuition, all that study, I couldn't tell a fibula from a tibia, or the aorta from Majorca. What's more, because of the latest health service procedures, I don't have to."
"Procedures?" I ask. There's still a horrible, cloying taste in my mouth. "What procedures?"
"Well, it's very simple," Doctor Bongo explains. "Let's say you came to visit me with a persistent itch on your leg. I would tell you that it was 'just one of those things' and send you away. Two weeks later, the itch has developed into a rash and so you pay me a second visit. This time I give you some antibiotics and send you on your way once more. Another two weeks go by and you visit me for a third time. The antibiotics have had no effect and your leg is now infested with a series of weeping sores. I take a brief look, conclude that it's stress-related and tell you to eat more fruit. On your final visit, you hop into the surgery carrying your leg over your shoulder and tell me that it came off when you were getting out of the car. It is at this point that I refer you to a specialist."
"I see. So this is standard procedure, is it?"
"Exactly," the Doctor confirms. "This is what the modern health service is all about. It's about streamlining, efficiency and having as little contact with the patient as is humanly possible."
I frown. "But is that necessarily a good thing?" I ask.
"Too right it is!" Doctor Bongo replies emphatically. "Some of these people are diseased, you know. I could catch all sorts of things from them. If I don't actually have to examine them, then that's fine by me. If I don't even have to look at them, then so much the better. That's why I usually use a screen."
"You make the patient go behind a screen?"
"No, I go behind a screen," Doctor Bongo explains. "I just sit there and do the crossword while they spout about their symptoms in their own miserable little way. Occasionally I say things like 'it's a bug going round' or 'it's the way you're made' and that seems to keep them happy. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the time-wasting cretins are making it all up anyway. And it's never anything mundane or commonplace. They all seem to think they've gone down with some terrible, exotic disease, and they've usually managed to convince themselves that it's fatal. I think a lot of these feeble little menks have finally realised that the only way they are ever going to have a chance of distinguishing themselves in this life is by dying young."
The conversation has taken a distinctly cynical turn. To lighten the mood, I bring up the topic of Doctor Bongo's new book.
"About bloody time," he says. "Yes, 'DeathPractice' is the fourth in the Nick Farrow series. The public seem to have really taken to the character - the Ninja Doctor who heals the sick by day and fights crime at night. I based him very much on myself."
"I see." I nod thoughtfully. "So, are you telling me that you go out and fight crime in the evenings?"
"Well, no," Doctor Bongo admits. "But then, I've got a bad back. But, like me, Farrow has a thriving practice with hundreds of adoring female patients. He's suave, debonair and cultured. Plus, he's deadly with a rectal thermometer. It's really no wonder that people have taken him to their hearts."
Hollywood has also fallen for the charms of Nick Farrow and a major motion picture is currently in production. Doctor Bongo is hopeful that the film will be a success and will spawn a whole series, perhaps even rivalling James Bond. But he is unwilling to talk about it any more. He's plugged his book and as far as he is concerned, the interview is now at an end. Besides, he has to be on the movie set early tomorrow morning in his capacity as Executive Producer.
He walks me to the front door and as I pause on the doorstep to thank him for his time, I ask Doctor Bongo one last question: how, as a relative newcomer, did he manage to wangle himself such an influential position within the Hollywood hierarchy?
Doctor Bongo smiles. "Oh well," he says with a slight shrug of the shoulders as he begins to close the door. "The thing is, I know people. Goodnight."
Copyright © Paul Farnsworth 2002