Wartime history was prescription for a novel plot
History was set to be Adrian Crisp’s vocation until, on the brink of taking up a scholarship to Oxford, he had a dramatic change of heart.
Suddenly he knew there was just one job he wanted ... and that was to be a doctor.
He went on to study medicine at Cambridge and become a pioneering specialist in crippling bone diseases.
But his love of history never left him. And now he has channelled it into writing his first novel.
It is a story that weaves together wartime drama, a tragedy based on his own devastating personal experience, and a strong streak of romance.
Colonel Belchamp’s Battlefield Tour features a soldier caught up in the defence of Calais during World War Two.
It switches from 1940s France to the 1960s when, back in East Anglia, he joins a tour organised by Colonel Belchamp of the title.
The name is a clue to Adrian’s own heritage. The Crisp family lived for centuries around Clare and the Belchamps and his grandfather was a baker in Belchamp St Paul.
“This is the first time I’ve written fiction,” he says. “My only previous book was a medical textbook on metabolic bone disease which I wrote with two other people.”
Not that he has ever been reluctant to put pen to paper, so to speak.
“I’ve written lots of letters to national newspapers – I enjoy doing that immensely.
“They’re mainly related to the health service and its problems. Medicine has gone terribly wrong which really upsets people of my generation.”
Adrian qualified as a doctor in 1974. “The 1970s and 1980s were a tremendous time.
“The hours we worked were much worse than today, but it didn’t matter because you were working in a very cohesive team where everyone supported each other.
“But that was lost mostly because of the EU Working Time Directive. Junior doctors are very badly treated.
“Many of my letters have been about successive governments wanting to micro-manage the NHS.
“The people who know how to run the health service are doctors. Politicians have done immense harm.”
Adrian lives in Weston Colville, near Newmarket, with his wife Ronia, who runs her own communications business.
They met through friends and have been married for eight years.
He grew up in the London Borough of Harrow where no-one could have guessed his future career.
“I hated science at school, and did A-levels in history, English and Latin.
“I got a scholarship to Oxford to study history, but immediately after leaving school I decided I wanted to do medicine.
“It was like a conversion. I had no medical background whatsoever. It was quite bizarre but I have never regretted it.
“History was in my blood and has always been a huge interest.
“But I had this odd feeling that it was just an interesting hobby, whereas medicine was important.
“My parents, headmaster, and the people at Oxford thought I’d lost my marbles.
“Oxford wouldn’t let me change to medicine, so I spent a year learning physics, chemistry and biology on a course at St Thomas’s Hospital in London.
“Then I got a place at Magdalene College, Cambridge.”
The old Addenbrooke’s Hospital only had 150 beds, so after three years students moved on to do the practical side of their training.
Adrian spent six years at University College Hospital, London, then five years at Guy’s.
“After that I went to Boston, Massachusetts, specialising in bone disease, which was wonderful.
“I was working with Dr Stephen Krane, who was one of my absolute heroes and a major star in that kind of medicine.
“It was mainly lab research. We were growing human bone cells, which was pioneering work.”
“I was tempted to stay on, but in the end decided to come back to the UK.”
He spent a year at Strangeways Laboratory in Cambridge doing cell and tissue culture work.
In 1985 he moved to Addenbrooke’s as a consultant in rheumatology and metabolic bone disease, which includes the crippling condition osteoporosis.
“At the time there was no metabolic bone disease department in the hospital. I was appointed to set one up.
“The clinic I started there was the only one of its kind in East Anglia, so it was groundbreaking.”
He was also doing research into osteoporosis, and Paget’s disease which makes bones grow abnormally and change shape.
But in 1990 his family suffered a shattering blow when his son Alasdair, who was 12, was killed in a road accident.
Adrian, whose daughter Alison is a GP in Darlington, says: “My life crashed in flames.
“I carried on working as a consultant, but I didn’t really do research after that.”
In tribute to his son, he has written about a similar tragedy – even using Alasdair’s name – in his book.
Two years ago he retired from the NHS, and now does one day a week seeing patients at the city’s two private hospitals.
He is also a fellow of Churchill College, where he used to be director of studies for the medical students.
Now he is chair of the college’s Churchill Archive Committee.
The archive, a treasure trove of historic military and political papers including Churchill’s, was where he found the inspiration for his book a decade ago.
“It was not intended to be fiction,” he says. “I meant to write a history book, but eventually realised I didn’t have time to do the research.
“When I said I was interested in World War Two, someone suggested I look at the papers of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay.
“The admiral, a key figure in the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk in 1940, also wanted to rescue British soldiers defending Calais.
“But Churchill forbade him to do so because he did not want the French to think we were pulling out.”
Most of the garrison were captured. Some were killed, and a few escaped – as does the hero of his book.
Adrian also had eyewitness accounts from two survivors. “Some were territorials with no real training. What happened was quite horrific,” he says.
“I found writing fiction very challenging,” he adds. “How long did it take me? I’ll admit to 10 years.”
But now semi-retired with more spare time he is thinking of revisiting the Calais story in a full, factual version.
Colonel Belchamp’s Battlefield Tour is on sale at Harris and Harris bookshop in Clare, where Adrian and Ronia are keen members of the local history society.
It can also be ordered through other bookshops.