Doctor, doctor, I’m allergic to modern jazz

To the new doctor down the road. Until now I have resisted registering there on the grounds that . . . well, no grounds at all, really, just a superstition that if I start putting down roots they will be torn up; the presumption of permanence will make fate decide to let me know who's the boss around here.

But there is a pain in my chest as bad as a pulled muscle - internal, and judging by the calendar, I'm about due for my six-monthly lung infection and this feels like a doozy. So I cancel what was going to be a delightful free lunch with my cousin Ashleigh and stagger along to the surgery, which happens to be next door to the Duke. (I look about myself furtively when I go in and out of the doctor's. The last time I went, to pick up a prescription for a friend, the Guvnor caught me exiting and told everyone I had the clap.)

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. I can't be seen there and then, I have to register, then be seen by a nurse before I get to see a doctor. So they tell me I can go either to St Mary's or to the Soho Walk-in Centre. Having bitter experience of waiting for hours in a hospital - even when suffering without analgesic from a broken clavicle and scapula - I opt for the latter, but I am feeling so sorry for myself, I take a taxi.

I don't think you can get the full measure of an area until you've sat in one of its NHS waiting rooms, and the Soho centre is an eye-opener: the human flotsam you find there is of a slightly more interesting order than normal. One patient not only carries a copy of Vogue, but looks as though she could have stepped from its pages; there is an old man with a silk handkerchief poking out of a jacket pocket who looks as though he is fluent
in Polari; a couple have something of the gypsy look about them, which for some reason I find very appropriate for the area.

I get told that I will be seen in an hour but I am called in 30 minutes, and there is something about the prescribing nurse that encourages a little bit of banter.

“Are you allergic to anything?" she asks, and I reply: "Dogs, and most modern jazz."

“Why did you say that?" she asks, thoughtfully, as if she has a theory she'd like to test, and I say that I have a weakness for the facetious answer.

She nods, and then says that she, too, is baffled and repelled by much modern jazz. She hands me a scrip for antibiotics and then wishes me a happy birthday for tomorrow, which means she's been looking at my notes with some attention. This almost cures me on the spot.

The nurse at the local surgery is Chinese, with the sharp air of a disdainful Cantonese waitress, but with a no-nonsense, humorous twinkle. "I take brood pressure now," she says, she really does, and my brood pressure turns out to be broody good considering everything. I tell her the truth about my alcohol and cigarette intake, and she rolls her eyes and gives me a very brief lecture that conveys its core message without being preachy or counterproductive.

Midsummer gladness

At which point let me take a sharp turn in another direction and talk about my youngest son's teacher, Mr Henley. I give his real name for I am about to praise him, even though I have a dim sense of foreboding that doing so might get him into trouble with the authorities, or at the very least teased in the staffroom. This man has managed to get his Year 5 class - that is, nine- and ten-year-olds - to put on a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's shortened to 45 minutes or so, and some of my favourite lines have had to go, but this genius has managed to get my youngest so into Shakespeare that he insists we watch the David Tennant Hamlet that was recorded over Christmas. It takes us three goes, and I think the casting of Tennant helped, for the boy lives and breathes Doctor Who, but he was glued to it and you can imagine the delight I get when a nine-year-old boy says, on the walk back from school, "Dad, can we watch more Hamlet when we get back?"

Which brings me to my point. The boy is at a state school. The nurses and doctors who see me are employed by the NHS. And yet all around us right now the air is heavy with calls for the state to be trimmed back, as if it was somehow threatening our national prosperity.

OK, so a columnist for the New Statesman singing the praises of the public sector isn't exactly news - but I just think that this kind of thing can't be said often enough.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain