"Darling," they say, "you look wonderful!" What they mean is, they thought I'd look gaunt after my cancer

Last Sunday was a perfect way to start the week: a 70th birthday the dansant at the Waldorf in London's Aldwych for an actor friend, complete with champagne and cucumber sandwiches and famous faces, at which I make a momentous discovery. To wit, there is nothing as effective as a touch of cancer for improving your looks. Delicious people hug me and cry: "Darling, you look wonderful!" - which, since I am now a well-ripened 71, I at first consider to be extremely good-natured lying and then realise is an expression of confounded expectation. They are convinced I should look gaunt, not to say haggard, with deep rings under the eyes, jowls flapping in the wind and an all-round air of impermanence.

Surely there is a message here for the fish-netted Joanna Trollopes and face-lifted Julie Christies? Deliberate attempts to make oneself look young have precisely the opposite effect, in my experience. Face-lift scars do give the game away. But admit to a brush with a life-threatening disorder and suddenly the looks you have take on a glow of glory.

Getting around when you're disabled (my knees and I have not been on speaking terms for years) can be hellish; excessive flights of stairs, interminable walkways, lack of any provision for occasionally sitting down, all add up to misery. That is why the good souls in the House of Commons passed that splendid act of parliament making it illegal for owners of public buildings to fail to make provision for disabled visitors to their premises. Perhaps said good souls have not noticed that when disabled persons are invited to speak at meetings in the Jubilee Room, two steep flights up from Westminster Hall, they have to stand and wait for upwards of 20 minutes for someone to come from the far side of the Palace of Westminster with the key that operates the stairlift. And sometimes as long again to get out - Quis custodiet, etc.

Overwhelmed, on Thursday, by an acute attack of irritability brought on by unexpected exposure to a contemporary fashion I swear no one would miss if it were outlawed.

I arrived for a strategy meeting of a children's charity held at NSPCC head office (and what did that glorious new building cost? It looks exceedingly expensive to me, but then I'm just a humble charity fundraiser) to find the room festooned with flip charts, outsize markers in assorted colours, and a hovering facilitator. I had expected to spend the afternoon like a professional, discussing ideas and plans with fellow professionals. What I got was a touchy-feely, let-me-tell-you-all-about-myself from the facilitator, and then talking-to-each-other-about-our-likes-and-dislikes-strengths-and-weaknesses. At which point I flipped, made various pungent remarks about the appalling waste of time this sort of stuff is and swep' out like the highly irate Miss Piggy that I had by then become.

How much time is wasted across the NHS, the social services and academia on this sort of omphaloscopy? (Facilitators like fancy words, so I give 'em this one. It means studying one's navel.) Long hours with facilitators busily flipping their charts might help university first-years to get to know each other, though most of the more intelligent ones will have excellent methods of their own for sorting out each other's strengths and weaknesses. For my part, I'd like to see facilitators wrapped up in a bundle with spin-doctors (with whom, come to think of it, they share much, such as pointlessness) and disposed of as far away as possible. Perhaps the Harvard Business School, where I am told they originated, would take them back?

The Observer has information about a forthcoming exhibition to which I am looking forward hugely, and for which I already have not only an invitation, but the catalogue and video. It is called "Korperwelten" in its country of origin. Here, it will be "Bodyworld", if it gets a licence to be seen. The Department of Health insists that one is required under the 1984 Anatomy Act, since the show consists of human bodies magnificently preserved and presented in a way that reminded me immediately of Hamlet's cry: "What a piece of work is a man! - the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!" Inevitably, the exhibition has caused complaints from some, notably religious types (I'll bet those Christian fundamentalists up in Gateshead who, the newspapers say, insist that creationism, rather than the account of evolution most of us accept as truth, be taught in British schools will be among 'em); but it has also attracted complaints from some people who were involved in the Alder Hey case, where organs from dead babies were retained by hospital pathologists. I sympathise with those bereaved people, but I can't see that the plans for "Bodyworld" have anything to do with them.

For people interested in human anatomy, this is a glorious exhibition. I particularly like the whole body man, wearing just his muscles and with his skin draped nonchalantly from one hand, and the breathtaking montage of a man on a rearing horse, holding his own brain in one hand and the horse's in the other. If this exhibition were of Egyptian mummies or Stone Age human remains, no one would object in the slightest. The objectors are moved, I suspect, by the almost universal fear of death - for these exhibits are much more like us than any mummy ever could be. And the best cure for that fear is to go to the exhibition and revel in the glorious piece of work that is a man.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Far from the Promised Land

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.