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2 January 2019

At my bedside, the nurse asked: would I recommend Charing Cross Hospital to my friends?

At first I couldn’t believe my ears, but then said “of course”.

By Nicholas Lezard

I know many people who have done DNA tests, and I would like to think that my results would be more interesting than most, but there is no getting around the fact that while I may not be all that English, I was raised among them, and certain traits have rubbed off on me. One of them is a certain reluctance to make a fuss, which is why it took me so long to call the ambulance.

It had been a hectic few days. First there was the trip down to London, which involves seven hours of cabs and trains and a great deal of money. I had to get there in time for the tenth anniversary bash for this magazine’s editor. If I missed it, when was I going to next get the opportunity to make a fool of myself in front of him? As it is, I managed it nicely, and also made a fool of myself in front of Ed Smith, late of this parish and now chief England cricket selector (at which he is doing a damn fine job).

That was the easy part. Trips to London involve a lot of negotiation and pleading about where I am going to be staying, if one is to avoid staying for too many consecutive nights with my mother.

As it turned out, I did stay a couple of nights, and it was just as well, for she tripped over the cleaning lady’s Hoover flex and I was able to help staunch the flow of blood from the cut she sustained over her eye. It is going to be one of those Christmases, I feared, as she bewailed her fate, the cleaning lady’s stupidity, her own inattentiveness, and the fear that her looks were going to be marred forever.

I was due the next day to go to a party with the Estranged Wife and then to stay the night at my daughter’s boyfriend’s new flat in Islington (he is that rare thing, a man in his mid-twenties who can afford his own accommodation). But I started feeling iller and iller, and by the time we were meant to leave I was confined first to the sofa, and then to the mattress on the living room floor which my daughter had been using.

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I had no idea what I was ill with – I felt like I’d been poisoned – but as the night progressed I found my lungs closing up, which is the kind of condition that prioritises itself over other considerations.

By about three in the morning it was becoming almost impossible to breathe and I began to wonder whether I ought to call 111, in order to ask them if I should call 999. After a while I did, and after a long question-and-answer routine during which they determined I was not having a heart attack, which I could have told them myself, they ordered an ambulance for me.

The last time I’d been in an ambulance was with my father, on the way back from one of his dialysis sessions at the Royal Free. Can that be right? It’s how I remember it, and I also remember his gentle courtesy to the paramedics. The time before that had been probably ten to 15 years before – this time I was the passenger, undergoing the last severe asthma attack I’d suffered. On that occasion they actually carried me down the stairs.

This time I had to wait an hour and eventually walk down the street towards it, carrying in my pocket the Christmas edition of the TLS and a copy of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, a novel which, like Brideshead Revisited, works best if you consider it as a piece of black anti-Catholic propaganda. But at the time I was thinking more of Larkin. “The fastened doors recede. Poor soul,/They whisper at their own distress,” etc.

And so I was nebulised and, once at the hospital, intubated and X-rayed and generally looked after; the cannula I could do little about, but the blood sample, from a vein deep in my left wrist, seemed to have something optional about it. It was recommended, but it would hurt.

While I was screwing up my courage, a nurse with a clipboard asked me if I would recommend Charing Cross Hospital to friends and relatives.

At first I couldn’t believe my ears, but then said “of course”; for my care had been exemplary, although I did not realise one had an option once the ambulance doors had closed.

A few days later a letter arrived, containing the diagnosis of my X-ray. Well, they are almost certain it’s not cancer. It is probably, though, something as intractable, and, ultimately, bad for one. I looked it up on the internet. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that.

Still, God bless the NHS, and thanks to them, my saga continues. But which one? I started reading one of the Norse sagas, and this line struck me: “Ufeig was a wise man, and full of good counsel; he was great-hearted in all wise, but unhandy at money-getting.” 

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This article appears in the 02 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions