I went up to the hospital for a blood test and took these snaps of the approach road. They’ve been painted here for more than a year, and reflect a massive manifestation of affection for our National Health Service since the pandemic hit us. At various points it has drastically overloaded its workers at all levels, physically and mentally too, when they’ve found themselves helpless when vulnerable patients have died under their care.
You’d see stickers in the windows of homes everywhere, many done by children—see examples at the bottom of this page. For myself I’ve been grateful to the NHS ever since my hospitalization in 1949, seven months after its launch. Thus I was amongst its earliest beneficiaries. My leg had got infected to the bone after falling on broken glass. Amputation seemed the only option. Prayers were said for me every Sunday at church. Only penicillin could come to the rescue, that life-saving antibiotic first discovered by Fleming in 1925. It wasn’t until 1945 that a mass-production process made it generally available. It found its first use in the successful treatment of post-war injuries.
A few years ago, the NHS started a lengthy project of computerizing medical records so they could passed on from one surgery to another. Till then they’d been held in manila pockets, which would get increasingly tattered with each change of address. About 1991, my doctor at the time noticed that mine went back all the way to 1949 . It had nearly fallen apart after being transferred 17 times to a new surgery. I’m grateful he gave it to me, not to a museum—or trash basket.
The NHS has grown from a seed planted in 1942, the year I was born. It was half-way through WW2, when Britons at were suffering directly: bombs, shortages of essential supplies, their loved ones fighting overseas, and many other disruptions to ordinary life. One of the worst was children separated from their parents for unknown destinations. In areas at risk of bombing, they were evacuated by train, with luggage labels tied to their coats.
There was a coalition government at the time, under Winston Churchill. Officially, politics was set aside till it was all over. But what could our citizens hope for, after all their sacrifices? The Labour Party initiated a plan for social security, which was published in 1942 as the Beveridge Report. It was so immediately popular, raised such high expectations, that opposing politicians, already anticipating a fight for supremacy, felt impelled to prevaricate, in weasel words. In essence they were saying “Yes, yes, of course! … But …”
I knew nothing of this until recently acquiring a now-rare book, 64 years after coming across its author in A Book of Wit and Humour, aged 15. I’d been a bookworm since I first learned to read, and particularly loved this one, especially the authors and illustrators listed on its cover. There were 35 contributors to the anthology. Recently I picked it up again and discovered samples of the satirical verses of Sagittarius, which I’d skipped at the time as the least interesting. A small bookshop in Gloucestershire was offering an almost-mint copy of her Quiver’s Choice (1945), at a very reasonable price. Who was she? A cutting fell from between its pages, telling us:
The book opens with this piece, written in 1942.
It inspired me to write this post, in homage to our dear NHS, and the way its history interweaves closely with my own life.
Kids all over the country did these in class and their parents stuck them up in their windows. You hardly see them now that the Covid restrictions are slowly being lifted. I think of other countries, especially Karleen’s birthplace, Jamaica. We are grieving for a shocking loss there. This is not the place to say more, only to join in gratitude for such a caring health service in this country, free to all comers.