It's just over 50years since the book, A Fortunate Man, was published and during 23rd - 25th June Reading the Forest staged a series of events to mark it, and explore its relevance today. People from across the Forest of Dean and beyond came to see exhibitions, films, and talks, and to take part in discussions about the book. Although the focus was on the book itself, written by John Berger with photography by Jean Mohr, its subject, "Dr Sassall" - a pseudonym for the real St Briavels GP Dr John Eskell - was inevitably of interest to many of his former patients in the village. Some of their memories of him were captured before the event (you can hear one below, the rest here), with many more emerging over the weekend. In much of the discussion about him as a doctor, and the wider role of the GP, the immense value of continuity of care, (your doctor knowing you as a whole person over your life time), seems to have neatly trailed and backed up a report published today indicating that having the same doctor can actually prolong your life. With much new information coming to light about Eskell, and the book's author John Berger (who at one time lived in the Forest of Dean), the Reading the Forest team will be busy for some time finding out even more about this fascinating book and its origins - watch this space...!
Friday in Soudley
The weekend kicked off with a screening of the 1972 film docu-drama based closely on the book. Filmed in and around Soudley and Blakeney, with a cast made up of local people, nearly 200 came to Soudley Village hall to watch the film, introduced by its director-producer and co-writer Jeff Perks. The audience included some of the (then child) cast, and Jeff even brought with him some of the pictures they had drawn as children showing him and the crew making the film back in 1972. After struggling with less than ideal conditions (sunshine light pollution!) the second screening (after sunset) was much appreciated. There were calls for the film to be released online by the British Film Institute (who can be contacted here firstname.lastname@example.org)
Saturday in St Briavels
There was interest throughout the day at St Briavels Assembly Rooms. As well as the exhibition looking into the origins and context of the book, there was work by the School, inspired by the book, showing Foxglove Class's writing about and drawings of people in the village today. Local visitors were keen to share the names of villagers who were depicted in the 1967 book's photographs, and there was a great deal of reminiscence prompted by watching copies of Dr Eskell's cine films uncovered during research for the event. As well as the 1972 film, a 1967 BBC TV feature about the book was shown that included an interview with John Berger, and lots of local footage in and around the village, and footage of Dr Eskell himself. A lively discussion followed chaired by BBC Gloucestershire's Jo Durrant, with academic James Derounian, and photographer Dr Julia Peck both from the University of Gloucestershire, and local resident Dave Kent, and retired GP Dr Chris Nancollas.
Sunday in St Briavels
As well as many more visitors coming to see the exhibition, some former residents of the village found themselves meeting up with old acquaintances. Word had clearly spread, with interest again in the old films showing the village and its characters, including Dr Eskell hard at work leading the team clearing the castle's old moat. The weekend was rounded off with a guided walk of the village lead by Forest of Dean Local History Society's Di Standing and local resident Robin Harris. Amongst the visitors Sunday were a pair of young doctors interested in the real doctor and community behind the book - testament to the continued relevance and interest in this book 50 years on from its publication.