Earlier this week, I was booked into my local NHS hospital as a day-patient in order to undergo a minor medical procedure. I’ve always had excellent service from the NHS and try to take the trouble to say so each time I use it, as it has had, just recently, a lot of bad press. The irreproachable care that it dispenses 95% of the time often fails to get a mention.
Mine was the first generation to benefit from the NHS from birth. Early memories include solemnly hanging on to the handle of the pushchair when my younger brother was being taken to the clinic. (That pushchair was something else: made of a kind of khaki canvas, with solid metal wheels, it folded up crabwise, so that the wheels lay flat under the canvas. It weighed a ton and had been used by several babies in the family. If they’d had pushchairs in the First World War trenches, I’m sure that they would have looked like this. Apologies for the digression!) One of the best things about the clinic was the unusual, NHS-exclusive foods that it dispensed. These included cod liver oil (which wasn’t nearly as bad as people now make out), tiny intensely-flavoured tangerine vitamin pills and, my favourite, an orange concentrate that could be diluted to make a long drink which was called orange juice. It didn’t taste of orange juice, but it was delicious and I’ve never encountered anything that remotely resembled it since. A slightly later memory is of standing in a queue in the freezing cold yard of the doctor’s surgery with all my primary-school classmates, waiting to be inoculated against polio. The injection hurt, but the nurse was at the ready with a twist of paper containing several brightly-coloured boiled sweets for each child.
When I came back from the theatre this week, the comfort of NHS comestibles immediately kicked in again. A severe young nurse, who was rather old-fashioned (plump, with dark curly hair and a fresh face, she would have made an excellent poster girl for a 1950s nurses’ recruitment drive), forbade me to get out of bed until I had consumed tea and toast. She returned immediately with two doorstep slices of white bread slathered with butter, a cup of mahogany-coloured tea like that my grandmother used to make – I think you can achieve the desired effect only with industrial quantities of ‘real’ tea-leaves and plenty of whole milk – and a packet of three chocolate Bourbon biscuits. Immediately, I recalled the last occasion on which I had seen such a packet of biscuits, also at an NHS hospital. It had been more than a quarter of a century ago, towards the end of my final ante-natal class at St. James’s Hospital in Leeds. Having spent upwards of an hour with several other imminent mothers, alternately lying on the floor like so many beached whales to practise breathing exercises and grabbing each other’s ankles to simulate contractions (what a joke this was only became apparent some time later), we were blissfully interrupted by the tea lady, doing her rounds with mahogany tea and packets of Bourbon biscuits. The latter tasted all the better for being forbidden – we’d all just been lectured on eating the right foods for ‘baby’ and the crime of putting on too much weight – when this no-nonsense lady appeared and made it obligatory for us to tuck in.
I suspect that one of the reasons why the nation takes the NHS so much to its heart is that it has always managed to embrace this ambiguity between what is ‘good’ for you and what forbidden fruits it will allow in order to cheer you up. Another is that the treats themselves have not changed over the years. Doorstep toast, mahogany tea, packets of Bourbons biscuits – they all belong to the relative innocence of the 1960s, when it didn’t take too much to please.
Stuffed as I was with toast, I couldn’t manage my Bourbon biscuits as well, but I asked the nurse if I could bring them home with me and I certainly intend to enjoy them. In spite of what appear to be thoroughly unacceptable lapses in Mid Staffordshire from the very high standards I have always found in evidence in my visits to hospitals, I shall continue to praise the NHS and the homespun comforts that it offers. If someone could rustle up a bottle of that concentrated orange juice, I would give it a blog-post all to itself.