The Good Samaritans

J P W Mallalieu at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1956 argues foreigners have every right to use the NHS: after all, they built it.

Early this year, a friend of mine had his appendix removed in Moscow and was presented with a bill for £100. He protested that a Russian taken ill in Britain could have the operation free. He was not believed and had to pay. But when, some weeks later, he was about to come home, his £100 was returned to him—in blocked roubles. The Russians had been making inquiries, had caught up with at least one of the facts of British life and had decided that for one individual Briton, at least, there should after all be reciprocity.

When the National Health Service was launched the proposal that it should be as freely available to foreigners as it was to Britons was strongly and understandably criticised. But Nye Bevan persisted. He reminded the House of Commons that for centuries the Catholic Church had freely given treatment in its monasteries to all who asked for it, no matter from what country they came and he insisted that Britain should set an example to the rest of the world by reasserting the principle that in healing there should be no bounds. The fact that only one country, Sweden, which has plans to give free treatment to Britons taken ill there, has followed our example and that a country like Russia, so far from following the example, did not seem even to have heard of it, has tended to revive the criticisms made eight years ago. The critics find it hard that when, as a nation, we are barely keeping our heads above financial water, foreigners should get cheap teeth and spectacles at our expense or have their babies or operations in hospital beds which are badly needed for British patients. It was with this criticism in mind that I have just visited one of the more famous hospitals in the National Health Service.

Stoke Mandeville was built early in the war by the Ministry of Pensions to handle air raid and service casualties. It is now under the Royal Buckinghamshire and Associated Hospitals Management Committee. It is a general hospital catering like others for the normal ills of mankind and is able to provide a better than average service, partly because its buildings are relatively modern. But its service is not confined to the people of Buckinghamshire. I found that the general surgery wards, while I was there, were full of patients from Northampton. In a month's time they may well be full of patients from Oxford and, later on, from Reading. For the hospitals in those towns are so overloaded that there is a long waiting list for all but emergency cases. So Stoke Mandeville breaks down the boundaries, at least, of county and helps to take the load off its neighbours.

Further, the research which it is carrying on into, for example, rheumatism, under Dr A G S Hill, and the experience it has acquired in such things as plastic surgery, under Professor Pomfret Kilner, are attracting patients to its specialised services from all over the country. It is, I suppose, possible that some people in the neighbourhood of Aylesbury, who occasionally have to wait for treatment rather longer than they might otherwise have to do, resent the intrusion of such "foreigners" from other parts of the country—though I did not hear such resentment expressed. But I have heard resentment about a far more spectacular breach of boundaries which has followed the development of the Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries Department.

Years ago many people who suffered spinal injuries were abandoned. They were left to rot in bed, developing horrible bed sores, without hope for themselves and knowing that they were a burden to others, until they died. Stoke Mandeville, more perhaps than any other hospital in the world, has begun to change this. Paralysed men and women come there unable to do anything for themselves. By special machines and by special exercises they are taught to make other muscles do the work previously done by muscles which the paralysis has wasted. I saw a racing cyclist, whose legs no longer had feeling in them, managing to keep his leg muscles from atrophy by means of a specially designed bed cycle which he worked with his hands. I saw men in wheel chairs developing new strengths by practising archery, or playing table tennis, basket ball and even polo. Above all, these patients, who would once have been considered, and would have considered themselves, as rejects from society, are being taught that they can have a new and fully useful life. They are taught new jobs so that a steeplechase jockey, for example, who broke his back, eventually left the hospital having qualified as a chartered accountant; and he is now practising as such.

Despite the seriousness of the complaints with which it has to deal there is an atmosphere of gaiety in the Department; and in that atmosphere men and women who felt that they would never walk again are wheedled, cajoled and bullied by staff and fellow patients into taking their first, effortful steps. Inevitably, the successes here achieved are attracting patients not only from all over this country but also from all over the world. While I was there, I talked with a Frenchman, a Portuguese, a Turkish lady and a little Cypriot boy. In the hospital as a whole there were 16 foreign patients—a small number out of the total of 390—yet a number which may well seem exasperatingly large to some helpless Briton waiting for his turn. When I saw the treatment being given there to paraplegics and thought of my own god-child who is on the waiting list for a bed, I myself began to wonder whether in this, at any rate, charity could not begin at home and still be both Christian and Socialist.

And yet . . . it was impossible not to be moved by the sight of that black-eyed paralysed Cypriot boy, slowly regaining the power of movement in the same hospital where a British soldier was recovering from the wounds he had received in Cyprus; or by the sight of the boy's mother working in the wards, so that she could be near her son and help to repay the hospital for its care. It was impossible not to realise that but for the work of 122 foreigners, who now help as nurses, porters, cooks and maintenance staff at Stoke Mandeville, the general work of the hospital could not be carried on. Above all, it was impossible not to realise that, but for the work of a foreigner, the paraplegics in the hospital and, indeed, throughout the world would not have the hope which they feel today.

For the hospital's Spinal Injuries Department was founded and is still supervised by a 55-year-old German Jew who escaped from Hitler; and among his assistants are another German, Dr Michailis, and a Czech, Dr Melzak. Their skill, persistence and imagination have helped to create something of immeasurable value for a hitherto abandoned section of British people. I cannot believe that British people will want to deny to foreigners a share in something which foreigners have helped to create. But I hope we shall continue to go beyond quid pro quo's and accept into our care, as Stoke Mandeville has accepted into its care, with equal warmth both the British soldier shot by Cypriots, and the Cypriot boy paralysed by a cruel misfortune almost before his life had begun.

The entrance to the Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Photo: Getty.

J P W Mallalieu (1908-1980) was a Labour MP and New Statesman Westminster columnist.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump