Can You Hear Me?

Jake Jones

Quercus, £16.99

Review by Alasastair Mabbott

Conditioned by TV shows to think of the paramedic’s life as one knife’s-edge, life-or-death situation after another, most people wilfully turn a blind eye to its mundane realities.

The occasions when Jake Jones had to resuscitate dying accident victims at the roadside, or apply life-saving procedures to the casualty of a shooting, are vastly outnumbered by the times when he had to wash and change invalids who have collapsed in their own bathrooms. Or dealt with folk like Annabel, who cynically plays the system for drugs. Or negotiate with serial ambulance-callers like Sharon and Frank, who look upon a siren and flashing lights as a quick fix for their problems, rather than the prolonged and extensive work with social services they actually need.

Indeed, in this look back over his 10 years with the ambulance service, the pseudonymous Jones finds that the calls he responds to are increasingly “neither critical nor clinical”, but mental health cases who have fallen through the cracks of an overstressed and underfunded system.

Jones had no relevant experience or qualifications for becoming a paramedic, being an office worker who made “an audacious life-change”. What’s more, he knew he wasn’t just unqualified but unsuited, his biggest “epic fail” coming when he nearly fainted at the birth of his son. Interspersed with memorable moments from a decade of paramedic work in an unnamed city are episodes from his training, Jones dogged by self-doubt while the realisation of his new responsibilities crept up on him “like a particularly stealthy charity mugger”. Early on, one of his tutors saw in him a tendency for caution that could become problematic later on. But this has largely been superseded by the “guilty elation” he feels when his training takes over and he calmly and systematically gets on with his job of saving patients.

He’s not just a good paramedic, however. There’s a descriptive flair to his writing, too, as he breathes uncomfortable life into foul, neglected flats and wet Sunday-night cityscapes, and embarks on a frightening subterranean rescue mission into an industrial labyrinth.

“If this were a novel,” he writes, “there’d be some kind of resolution.” But there never is. The moment each patient is handed over to hospital staff, Jones' responsibility for them is at an end. He never finds out what happens to them, and neither do we, giving his book a sense of impressionism and fragmentation, with no time to develop a connection with patients. He describes at one point how he averts his gaze from the faces of accident victims to avoid seeing them as people.

Can You Hear Me does nothing to dent the heroic image of the paramedic, but Jones’ troubling ambivalence brings a complexity to it, forcing him to ask whether the pragmatic, detached attitude needed to do such work is a poisoned chalice, doing them harm as they do others good.