Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
If I have one criticism of the NHS hospital it's that you can't get Radio 3 on the bedside radio. This means that you've got the choice of the chirpy daytime banalities of BBC Radio 2, the overcooked news analysis of Radio 4, or the woefully underfunded Radio Local. There is also Hospital Radio, which can be pleasantly eclectic and unpredictable. For instance, I heard a long echoey prog-rock guitar solo early one morning. It was great. Exactly what I required in that semi-delirium caused by illness and lack of sleep. You'd never get that sort of thing on the tightly-laced BBC. There's also television, which nowadays comes at the end of an extendable arm above your hospital bed. It costs a mighty £10 a day, or £20 for three days. The price is good thing, I reckon, because it probably forces people back to the radio or reading books. After all, the last thing you'll need when you're ill is more brain-rot from Android Command.
After barely going near the NHS for nearly four decades, I've been doing rather a lot of business with them lately. The way that certain politicians and media wonks witter on, you'd think that we'd been busted down to two field dressing-stations, and an ambulance service consisting of two horse-drawn litters and broken sedan chair. It's nothing like that, actually.
For instance, because of a detached retina I've been attending the impressively-thorough eye clinic in Colchester's Essex County Hospital. They in turn have referred me to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London. I've seen my GP a bit, lately too. All in all I feel rather looked after, like a valued customer, in fact. In addition, a daughter of this house was in and out of hospital during last winter, because of various complications. Then, as I recounted only last week, I was recently roared into the Colchester General at great speed, because of a sudden seizure. I'm here to tell you that from where I've been sitting (or lying down) it all still seems to be working even in the much fretted-over A & E departments. Sure, it's never going to be a hayride, being parked on a trolley for ages whilst they try to deduce what's wrong with you. But what do you expect when you're injured or ill? This is A & E, not Centreparcs. Don't worry, they always get around to you before you shuffle off the coil.
Even that old folk demon of yore, the British doctor's receptionist, remains for the most part a myth. There's a story about an old army General, who having experienced the tender mercies of such a receptionist, remarked, If I'd had half a dozen like her , we could have brought the war to an end a year earlier. All the receptionists with whom I've had to deal, however, have been very helpful and highly adept at juggling appointments.
Of other NHS legends, a few years ago, when a glut of hospital-acquired infections occurred, the cry went up: Bring back the Matron! Well, somebody must have been listening. because during my hospital stay, I actually met a matron. Vivacious, younger and cheerier than I'd been conditioned to expect, she was called Jane. Naturally, the subject of Hattie Jacques' immortal portrayal of a matron cropped up in our conversation. Jane informed me that she'd used a picture of Jacques during her successful interview presentation.
It must be said, that British hospital food remains pretty near where it's always been somewhere in the mid 1950s. Even the great Jamie Oliver appears to have met his own culinary Stalingrad here. Yet, the food arrives, it arrives regularly and is backed up by the godsend of constant cups of tea. In this matter, the UK is not unique. I was recently told by a Belgian national, that Belgian hospital food is of a very similar standard.
What seems to generate the most anxiety about the NHS, is regular agonising about it in the more handwoven broadsheets and the mid-market dailies. This is buttressed by the frequent early morning encounter sessions I'm sorry, that should have read 'news discussions' which occur on national talk radio.
Interestingly, I discovered that many of my fellow patients were, like me, working class. I didn't hear any genteel middle-class accents on my ward, although I sometimes overheard the patients proclaiming how good the NHS was and how grateful they were that it still existed. Could it be that many professional types, along with a significant proportion of the middle-classes don't actually know what NHS hospitals are like? Might this be, I wondered, because although they may not like to broadcast the fact, they quietly went private some years ago, galvanised by media-paranoia?
The one thing that most people with recent experience of it will agree upon, is that whenever there's a real emergency, the NHS does its job. Given the size, diversity and unpredictability of its task, along with the speed with which it has to operate, I do not exaggerate when I describe the whole shebang as some kind of miracle. That lately it is constantly being called to account, because it isn't perfect is one thing. That it exists and functions as it does, is a human achievement far more impressive than anything which the space race or the arms industry between them, have so far produced.