For one thing, while his swaggering braggadocio can certainly be irritating, it does give the book an unmistakable feeling of authenticity. At the end, he quotes George Orwell saying of autobiographies that “a man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying” – and his own refusal to ingratiate himself with the reader means that we get a wholly believable, if not always edifying, portrait of what it takes to be a successful surgeon... After reading The Knife’s Edge, you mightn’t be sure whether you like Stephen Westaby – not, I suspect, that he’d care much. You might even regard him as a dinosaur. But you might also find yourself wondering with some alarm what will happen when the NHS gets its way, and dinosaurs like him are finally extinct.
Stephen Westaby, as a workaholic trainee at Cambridge, got the nickname “Jaws” because of the speed with which he could amputate a limb. If you were to imagine a northern Sir Lancelot Spratt, the irascible surgeon of Doctor in the House, on steroids, you’d be halfway to the heart surgeon Westaby... The Knife’s Edge is peppered with eye-popping anecdotes and proud pronouncements — “Self-doubt is no more desirable an attribute in an experienced heart surgeon than in a sniper in Afghanistan.” But what makes this memoir so readable is Westaby’s unexpected admissions of vulnerability, such as an ageing prostate that can’t hold out for a whole operation and the damage to his family caused by his workaholism.