27 July 2018


The NHS: been and gone in a lifetime?

Programme cover

Back in the early 1980s, when we lived in Luton, I was doing research on Bedfordshire folk songs and I came across something called 'A Christmas Merrymaking in the Oldenew Times' written in 1888 by a Mr H.O.Williams for the Parish Church Yuletide Festivities. It was described as a ‘masque’ and was a cross between a pantomime and a mummers play. Some of the jokes were a bit obscure—to do with the politics of the times—but others translated very well into the Thatcherite Britain of the 1980s. I presented it as a shadow puppet play several times and, a few years later, did a radio version for Chiltern Radio with local folk luminaries like Barry Goodman, Graham Meek and Ray Aspden playing some of the roles. There were 5 or 6 songs included in the script. I don’t know what the original music was like but I found that they fitted well known folk tunes beautifully.
Most of the songs don’t work outside the play but this one will stand alone and I’ve been singing it quite regularly in recent years. It is Williams’ words set to the trad tune of A Sailor’s Life (as made famous by Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention    Listen here
For my version of A Doctor's Life   Click here

Oh, a gruesome life is the doctor’s life
As he calls on his patients ill,
He chops at the great and he chips at the small,
And he puts it all down on the bill!

Oh! Ho! For the lancet, the potion, the leach,
Rare tools in a master hand,
And so long as they use them to cure our ills
Sing cheers for the Doctor band!

With his gold headed cane and his tall top hat
And his coat tails all a-dangling around
He doles out the medicine that keeps folks ill
And he carves at the limbs that are sound.

Oh! What does he dream of, the doctor glum,
As he dozes at night in his bed?
He dreams of the fevers, the fits and the plagues
That are bringing him his daily bread.

The greedy doctor has a vested interest in keeping his patients ill and getting paid!

“You may not be able to read a doctor's handwriting and prescription, but you'll notice his bills are neatly typewritten.”  (Earl Wilson, U.S. journalist)

Other quotes:
“Though the doctors treated him, let his blood, and gave him medications to drink, he nevertheless recovered.”  (Tolstoy, War & Peace)

“Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, in human beings of whom they know nothing.” (Voltaire)

Historically doctors were not highly thought of. They were called quacks, sawbones and such like and were usually no more qualified than the barbers who they succeeded. If you called in a doctor you were either very rich or very desperate. You were more likely to healed by the wise woman or the local witch whose remedies were based on centuries of trial and error.
Now though, things have changed. The National Health Service is one of our best-loved institutions, as shown by its portrayal in the Olympic Games opening ceremony in 2012 but it seems under threat at the moment.

English newspapers and all the other media have been full of material about the National Health Service recently. (When it isn’t Brexit!) There are also hundreds of campaigns to save local health facilities—hospitals, care homes, other services… and it has all coincided with the 70th anniversary of the start of the NHS on 5th July 1948.
For those of you who might be reading this outside the UK (or those who are too young to remember much about it and just take it for granted) the NHS was one of the most momentous things implemented by the post war Labour Government. Before that, as in most other countries, if you needed medical treatment you would have had to pay the doctor or the hospital in the same way that you paid the plumber or the car mechanic. If you couldn’t afford it you couldn’t have it.
From that date on though, everyone was entitled to free medical care paid for out of taxes.
It was a great idea and it was, for a while, the envy of the world… and it would have remained so if later governments had given it the resources it needed. Most people I know would willingly pay a few pence more on Income Tax in return for a good NHS.

Right from the start dentists and opticians were not fully included which was a mistake and hospital doctors, particularly the most highly qualified specialists, were allowed to continue private practice at the same time as working for the NHS—big mistakes! In fact the whole idea was vigorously opposed by many in the medical profession right from the start!
When money got tight the Blair government paid for hospitals by PFI which gave the NHS debts which will go on for ever and to make ends meet more and more aspects of the service are being sold off or farmed out; bought up by (largely) American firms and the whole NHS idea is creaking at the joints—like most 70 year olds!

Pete and his dad, June 1947

It has never occurred to me to pay for a doctor. I have always assumed that I will get what I need and, luckily, I haven’t needed anything very complicated so I have. That is apart from in my first few months:

I was born 17 months before the NHS began operating and my birth cost my parents a fortune!  Many years ago, when I started doing family history research, I asked my parents to write their life stories. When it got to 1947 Dad wrote:
‘Our first son Peter Richard was born in Ashford HospitalWe have receipts showing we paid for 12 days in hospital at £5.5.0 per week =  £8.19.0, and to Dr Bentley of North Street: £4.4.0 for professional attendance.’
So Dad remembered my birth as a shopping list of prices! A total of £13.3.0 which does not sound a huge amount but the average weekly wage at the time was only about £5.
I don’t know how they scraped together nearly 3 weeks wages to pay for that amount of time in hospital or why it was thought necessary. I wonder whether Dad’s parents contributed because Mum and Dad were living with them at the time.

That had puzzled me over the years—particularly the ‘why’  - and I had not been able to come to a conclusion until I happened to see part of a programme in the BBC series Midwives. I don’t like the series at all—it strikes me as very smug and coy and I don’t like the religiosity of it all, (a horrible mixture of sex, religion and hypocrisy!) but the bit I saw was when a woman who was about to give birth was trying to ensure that no-one else was in the house because she would have been embarrassed about the noise and the mess involved if there had been. It struck me that knowing my parents, and particularly my grandparents, that would have been the reason Mum went away to a neutral place. (A few months after my birth she and I went stay with her parents rather than stay with the Castles and I bet that was for similar reasons…)

So, when I was born there was no National Health Service to look after me. I wonder if there will still be one when I need it at the end of my life? 

For more see my new web site https://petecastle.co.uk 

2 July 2018


Is it time for storytellers and folk singers to man the barricades, to stand up and be counted, to provide a real opposition to what it happening in this mad world of ours, rather than to continue to be ‘nice’ in public and just complain by posting harmless messages on Facebook and similar?

"Folk Music is Fun."
"Storytelling is for Toddlers."

They are the two stereotypes which haunt the two related art forms with which I have been involved for most of my life. But they are mistaken stereotypes. Some folk music is fun, and some storytelling could be for toddlers but both are only small aspects of the whole.
The media, particularly local newspapers, seem incapable of writing the word ‘folk’ without appending ‘fun’ even when the rest of the content points to it being most inappropriate


Text. "Tonight at the Somewhere Arts Centre Pete Castle will present a set of Victorian Murder Ballads…"   Fun?
Hansel and Gretel can upset some people!

We have now had a revival of oral storytelling well under way for about 30 years and it has been discussed in papers, magazines and on Arts programmes on TV and radio but still, if a storyteller is booked for an event, it is assumed that it will be for the childrens’ area; and in schools they are naturally pointed towards the younger age groups rather than the older ones. That might partly be because the staff think the older pupils have more important things to do with their time than just listen to stories, (Attainment Targets to reach, lists to learn, boxes to tick!) but it’s more that, without thinking, the ‘powers that be’ associate storytelling with the simple bed-time story before mummy tucks you up ready for sleep… A story cannot possibly be powerful or harmful, can it? Some people think it can and complain if you do one they consider 'inapproprate'.

The Folk Revival has been underway for even longer—several generations, but still the majority of people are ignorant about it. Blame the press!

But you can’t just blame the press—it is also what the public expect. They have been brainwashed to expect ‘folk’ music to be mediocre and singalong and, probably, Irish!  Even when it isn’t it takes a long time to register that this is something more.
Two Heads and Tales (film still)

I recently did a performance with my friend and fellow storyteller Nicky Rafferty. We called it Two Heads and Tales. It was a one-off event and we decided not to plan it but to just let one story (or song) lead to another. We knew that we both had large enough repertoires and enough experience to be able to do it like that. We weren’t going to go blank and not know what to do next. In fact the opposite was true—shall I do this one or that one…? The only planning we did do was to run past the other a few titles: these are a few things I’d like to fit in if appropriate. It gave us a starting point but we didn’t fit them all in by any means.
Based on that selection we decided not to shy away from difficult stories and in the end we included Mr Fox, Appley and Orangey and the songs Fanny Blair and the Two Sisters, but there were also lighter twists on heavy ideas

’My mother chopped my off, My father picked my bones… ‘ sings the murdered child in Appley and Orangey. I followed that with Jack Goes Hunting (Fish, Fowl or Fur) in which a man also gets his head cut off; but it’s a story with a moral—don’t pick your nose! 
A couple of stories are on You Tube at The Three Sillies and Money, Money, Money 

It was great fun to work together. We both usually work solo and to have someone else to bounce off was an added stimulus. The audience enjoyed it too although a few days later someone commented that it was all ‘a bit grim’. The ’difficult’ aspect was obviously not what she was expecting. She wanted the ‘folk fun’.
It is very easy to be put off by comments like that and to steer clear of controversial material. I was talking to someone else about ‘self-censorship’ and we will probably have a piece on that subject in Facts & Fiction  storytelling magazine soon. Link to Facts and Fiction But why are we storytellers and folk singers so scared of upsetting the audience?

The theatre puts on difficult plays—they don’t censor King Lear or Titus Andronicus; some stand-ups go out of their way to say outrageous things and to crack bad-taste jokes; satirists explore the current news and put a focus on the misdeeds of our leaders… why can’t, or don’t, storytellers and folk singers do the same?
‘Oh, we don’t want politics in folk clubs’ has been a frequent comment.

In his essay in the new book ‘An Introduction to Storytelling’ from The History Press, Prof Mike Wilson suggests that the time has come for storytellers, as ‘professional liars’, to shine the spotlight on the liars and fake-news pedlars of politics, advertising and the media because we can do it in a subtle, good natured way that just might get home.
He says: “I might suggest that we should also adopt the moniker of the ‘honest liar’ to describe the storyteller who lies playfully to expose the bigger lies of the deceivers and con-artists…”

Our Money Money Money set mentioned about does just that… as long as the audience is perceptive enough to put their prejudices aside and take it on board!
So, come on all you Honest Liars, forget the folk fun and leave all those carefully honed sentences to one side for a while—and, just occasionally, get your soapbox out and expose the wrongs of the world we are living in.