Holey private: dreams of health for loadsamoney. Photo: BBC
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Theatres of the absurd: the unadulterated horror of Harley Street

Six months of treatment for cancer? A mere £30,000 at London's most exclusive clinics.

Inside Harley Street
BBC2

Don’t be misled by the outwardly jaunty tone: in her new films about Harley Street (Mondays, 9pm), the documentary-maker Vanessa Engle has opened a vein of unadulterated horror. How desperate people are, and how deluded. I suppose we all know that human beings will cough up almost any amount of cash in pursuit of hope. But it’s surprising and rather devastating to find that they also write vast cheques in exchange for hugs, handshakes and empty blandishments. “You look great!” trills a plastic surgeon to her seventysomething-year-old patient as she arrives at her consulting room post-facelift, looking like something out of a Channel 4 drama about domestic violence. Beneath her gaze, the patient, bruised and battered, blooms like a flower. It seems not to occur to her that the doctor is merely praising her own (very expensive) handiwork.

Engle (Jews, Women, Welcome to the World of Weight Loss) has a satirical eye and is known for asking her interviewees blunt questions (“What’s your worst fear? That he might die from cancer?”). But what I like best about her technique is her swift, minimalist way with folly. So deftly does she lay it out – she is the surgeon here – that we’ve no option but to fall into line in the matter of judgement. Will a hair transplant change a young man’s life? It seems unlikely, and perhaps his mother is weeping because she already knows that it won’t. Will a husband appreciate, or even notice, his wife’s umpteenth cosmetic procedure? Well, anything for a quiet life; but no. Is it really possible to believe that, as a doctor, you were put on the earth to perform liposuction on sad young women? Definitely not, for all that you might well have a carefully prepared line about making people “feel” better.

Engle’s series is in three parts. The first film focuses on those who visit Harley Street because they are sick and the doctors who treat them. The second (airs 20 April) is about plastic surgery (I watched a preview because once I’d seen the first film I couldn’t bear not to). The third is about complementary therapies (ditto). The last two films are, I think, better than the first, and you should certainly try to catch them; I can’t remember a bit of observational TV that made me feel more disapprovingly Protestant, feminist and, above all, rationalist. But the first film had its moments, too. I do see that if you have cancer, and enough money, you might want to opt out of the NHS. Then again, if the highly qualified professional I was paying hundreds of quid an hour addressed my mother with the words “Hello, Mum!” I think my fear would temporarily shade into indignation. Equally mystifying was the young woman who wanted to be treated for breast cancer by the same clinic that had cared for her father. She wanted, she said, to share the same cancer “journey”. This dear dad, by the way, had since died.

The sums involved made your eyes pop. Six months of treatment for cancer? A mere £30,000. I tried to unpick the complicated mathematics of risk, faith and profit, but it was tricky. All the doctors involved confessed to having private insurance. Then again, the leading urologist Professor Roger Kirby admitted that the NHS had the same equipment as his clinic; the difference is that he offers a more personalised service (for instance: making the effort to learn the Norwegian word for “cured” while treating a patient from Oslo). How did they feel about working in the private sector? Not too conflicted, I would say. Only one, Professor Justin Stebbing, who runs a cancer research unit in the NHS alongside his Harley Street practice, said it sat “badly” with him.

And how did the patients feel about handing over their credit cards? Pretty good. One woman, pterodactyl-like behind glasses as big as television screens, had no idea how much her medical bills came to. “This is like asking Cameron how much a bottle of milk is,” she said, en route to her Bentley. Still, in the matter of serious illness (as opposed to the chap who rings his private GP at 2am and demands to have his blood pressure checked on returning from the casino), pity usually trumps politics, or so I find. Save your outrage for the next two films, which are Engle at her very best – and that’s really saying something.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.