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 

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