Between 1953 and 1969 Calvin Wells wrote numerous columns for the Eastern Daily Press under the nom de plume ‘Calliphon’. Wells was a well-known physician of high social standing in East Anglia and it is possible he found greater freedom of expression writing through a pseudonym. Although many readers wrote letters of enquiry, Calliphon never revealed his true identity or the origin of the name. One correspondent who came closest to guessing was local artist and yachtsman G. Coleman Green who wrote
“After some consideration I concluded I should approach the Muse in a masculine form, perhaps a man from Knossos or Greece itself.”
Given his fascination with the art and literature of antiquity it would seem fitting that Wells was inspired by a figure from Ancient Greece. The Historical Dictionary of Greek Philosophy gives the biographies of two prominent individuals named ‘Calliphon’. The first was a philosopher from 2 BC who is most closely associated with the Peripatetic school. There is little information about this Calliphon though Cicero condemned him several times for ‘making the chief good of man to consist in a union of virtue and bodily pleasure’. Despite being renowned for having a cheeky sense of humour, it is unlikely this particular Calliphon was admired by Wells. It seems more appropriate that it was Calliphon of Croton, a Pythagorean physician and ‘man of great civic importance’, whom Wells sought to emulate. However it is also possible that as a linguist Wells appreciated the combination of the Greek word ‘Kali’ or ‘Calli’, meaning ‘good’, and ‘Phon’, meaning ‘voice’ or ‘sound’. In essence Wells perhaps conceived ‘Calliphon’ to be a good or trusted voice for the people of Norfolk.
Initially Calliphon wrote lighthearted anecdotes and musings on family life in sections called ‘The Country Scene’ and ‘Norfolk Miscellanies’. These articles have a literary quality, and tell tales of Calliphon exploring abandoned castles with his children and training a wild hare to be a family pet. In one such article titled ‘Daddy, Is It True?’ Calliphon discusses the ethical and philosophical aspects of deceiving children about Santa Claus.
In every article Calliphon sought to impart some form of practical wisdom or advice, and he became popular with readers. Eastern Daily Press editor Stanley Bagwell encouraged Wells (only he knew Calliphon’s true identity) to tackle more serious subject matter and also to incorporate his medical expertise. At a time when the NHS was in its infancy and medical information relatively scarce, Calliphon provided informed analysis of important public health issues. In one such article ‘Doctors and the Vaccine’, Calliphon considers the debates surrounding the first mass polio vaccination programme in 1955. In judging the mood among the nation’s parents Calliphon writes ‘The Ministry of Health urges us to go; natural caution inclines many of us to hold back’. Without dictating to readers Calliphon argues that ‘despite all my cavilling, doctors do a sight more good than harm’ and after much ‘heart-searching’ concludes vaccination to be necessary.
On other matters relating to public health Calliphon’s opinion was not always appreciated. In an article titled ‘Smoking and Cancer’ he discusses the link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer, which ‘only a generation ago was a rare disease’. Like most people at the time, even many in the medical profession, Calliphon was undecided about the connection. He wrote ‘whether the puzzle will be solved in our own lifetime or in centuries no-one can tell’. In the meantime Calliphon advises that ‘we must deny ourselves the solace of the cordial weed or puff it at our peril’. The article in question was left unpublished as it was deemed by Bagwell to be ‘too sombre for sombre times’.
This is not to say that the Eastern Daily Press shied away from printing Calliphon’s coverage of more alarming global events, such as the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. In an article titled ‘Brainwashing’, Calliphon delved into the various brainwashing techniques adopted by the Soviet regime to suppress dissenting political opposition. In the writer’s belief, a close examination of Communist brainwashing methods is ‘the best way of resisting its subtle attack’. Whilst Calliphon concedes that such advice may not be applicable to the average Norwich citizen, he warns that ‘the 20th century has shown that it cannot be trusted to leave the most idyllic places undefiled’.
It was when writing about subjects related to Norwich and the Norfolk area that Calliphon received the greatest feedback from readers. This is most evident in his readers’ reaction to the etymological essay Norfolk Place-Names. In the article Calliphon declares that the village name of ‘Wormegay stole my heart away’ and goes on to discuss the rich variety of Norfolk place-names and their origins.
However, it is the article’s blithe assumption that ‘most people can work out that Horsford means the ford of the horses’ which caused some to write in. Mr. John F.E. Alpe of Norwich argued:
“As for Horsford being a horse ford, if a horse could not cross, it would not be a ford. Horsford together with Horsham St. Faith and Horstead received their names from the little river Hor, or more correctly the Hor Beck.”
Naturally Calliphon contested Alpe’s point and the debate played out for days on the letters Eastern Daily Press. It culminated in an interjection by the linguist Dr. O.K. Schram of Edinburgh University in support of Calliphon’s original assertion. A similar article on the origin of Norfolk pub names proved less controversial. In this area Calliphon admitted that he was not a true expert as it “would need years of bibulous devotion and an almost professional thirst”.
Another area in which Calliphon felt inclined to apply his expertise was on the whereabouts of King John’s lost treasure. In assessing a highly publicised hi-tech treasure hunt by the Wash Research Committee in 1957, Calliphon wrote: ‘I cannot but suspect that they will have missed the treasure by the not inconsiderable margin of about six miles and seven hundred and forty years’. Like many of his readers Calliphon believed that little treasure was actually lost, and that any remaining items would have been quickly scooped up by fortunate locals.
Inspired by excavations of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Thornham , Calliphon was compelled to explore even further into Norfolk’s history. Assessing the various hereditary links between Anglo-Saxons and Neanderthals, Calliphon gives a brief overview of the theory of evolution and natural selection.
“It was the discovery of Neanderthal man just a hundred years ago which gave the evolutionists the precise material they wanted in applying their theories to human development. A hundred-year-old discovery from a German cave may seem remote from our Anglo-Saxon excavation at Thornham, but in fact they are by no means unconnected.”
Not all of Calliphon’s readers agreed with his analysis of primitive man. W.E. Earl of Norwich complained that ‘to suggest man was originally descended from apes is grotesque and an insult to his Creator’. In Calliphon’s defence, F.J. Newton of Worlingham recommended that Earl ‘listen to the B.B.C. broadcast to children “How things began” on Mondays at 9.55am’.
If Calliphon ever used his column to vent any strong ideology it tended to relate to matters within his more immediate surroundings. In an article on street furniture Calliphon bemoans ‘the rash of pillars, posts, telephone kiosks police boxes, traffic signs and other impedimenta’ cluttering the streets and pavements of Norwich. Whilst lamenting that he lives in ‘an age which dedicates its wealth to lethal weapons rather than works of beauty’, Calliphon insists that Norwich’s elected representatives pay heed to preserve his fine city.
As well as city councillors, Calliphon had strong words of advice for Norfolk’s holidaymakers. In response to a rise in fatalities on the Norfolk Broads, Calliphon urges that ‘something more is needed than the pious exhortations which fall on unresponsive ears’. Being a good citizen and competent sailor he then provides a guide on water safety, covering everything from boat maintenance to diving techniques. Whist Calliphon is confident his advice can help prevent fatalities; he admits that nothing can be done ‘for the pig-headed fool who still refuses to wear a life-jacket’.
It is uncertain why Wells retired Calliphon and ended his run at the Eastern Daily Press in the late 1960s. Correspondence in the archive collection shows that Wells enjoyed writing the articles and that he built a core fan base of readers. During this period Wells started to focus full-time on palaeopathology and perhaps felt he could no longer commit the intellectual energy required by Calliphon. Fortunately Wells kept a well organised file of Calliphon’s work in his archive which reveals a previously unknown side of his enigmatic and multifaceted character.