I always rub my boots on the back of my trouser legs before I walk into these places. In poker terms, it’s what’s known as ‘a tell’. I also suppose it’s a ridiculous thing to do. People don’t really judge you by the shine of your toecaps but my toecaps have no shine and I always feel absolutely ashamed by them. I feel an overwhelming wish to explain and confess my life to these people when I arrive on their doorstep, as though I can somehow justify myself by my writing, my books, my cartoons, or my education. Yet none of that matters. No matter how many degrees you have, books published, or blog posts read, they only judge you by one criteria and, in my case, it’s a criteria accurately summarised by the shabby state of my boots.
In the last few years, my boots have trod the carpets in too many hospital receptions. For reasons too complicated to go into, I’ve spent half a decade accompanying my sister to her various appointments. I could give you a long medical history but books the length of ‘War and Peace’ are no longer in vogue unless they’re about spanking, dwarves, or both. The flash non-fiction version of the story is that my sister has some problem which the NHS are still struggling to identify. We occasionally see consultants privately but that route is a truly horrifying financial strain. So we bounce through the system.
This week, she’s felt so ill that she became desperate and desperation usually means expense. She decided to have her blood tested done privately. Nine months ago, a consultant requested that certain tests be done and we had them done on the NHS. They’re tricky tests, which require all manner of arcane magic that you normally only see done in vampire movies starring Wesley Snipes. So we had blood samples taken at the local GP’s surgery and the local GP’s surgery proceeded to lose the blood samples. We only discovered this after waiting six months for the results. Naturally, we had the tests repeated but, three months later, we’ve still not got the results and nobody has a record of what happened to the samples. Which is why we decided to have them done again but this time privately, meaning the results should be available within a week.
Yet all of that is mere backstory to explain why I was up at seven o’clock this morning and sitting in traffic-locked taxi cab in the heart of Warrington by eight. What I wanted to write about was the experience of ‘going private’ from the perspective of the guy sitting next to his sick sister who nobody is willing to help. I thought it would be fun to do that because the contrast is so enormous as to be faintly comical, whilst it also says so much about our country and our culture.
Yet this isn’t going to be about medical procedures. I rarely go in ‘the room’. This is just my perspective on the experience of somebody sitting waiting outside and drawing cartoons whilst trying not to feel too out of place whilst surrounded by people from a different plane of existence. And, believe me, their extra-planar credentials are never in question.
Take, for example, this morning and the woman sitting across from me. She was clearly ‘in the money’ and her buttocks obviously knew their way around a Caribbean Lilo. Even her shins were wrinkled from the sun. I’ve never seen wrinkled shins before. I never knew shins could wrinkle. And I mean wrinkle more than anything in this world could wrinkle with the exception, perhaps, of Keith Richard’s scrotum. I was thinking of drawing her shins, Robert Crumb style, or at least including them in a future cartoon. They really need immortalising. That woman’s shins are the sort of thing that, once witnessed, inform an artist’s vision for the rest of his life.
She was with her husband who was of that upper-managerial type that dominates the landscape south of Warrington: red faced, elderly, and in his best weekend golf gear despite it only being a Friday. I’ve worked for the type. They dress for golf on a Friday but still turn up at the office to remind their employees that, whilst it is still only Friday, the boss is free to play golf.
As I noted all this, a replica of the gent walked in: same clothes, stance, attitude. This one looked like my favourite art critic, Brian Sewell, a scarf wrapped around his neck in a fashion that you rarely see men adopting since Oscar Wilde made it passé at the same time as he invented sodomy around the start of the last century. It’s all typical stuff for Tory heartlands and by that I guess I mean the wrinkles, the scarves, and the sodomy. I later spent the thirty five minute ride home talking to the taxi driver about politics. We’d struck lucky and found the only taxi driver in the country who is as big an Andrew Neil fan and This Week as myself and he was happy to talk about the general election. He pointed out all the Tory signs (not even posters but proper on-a-stick-stuck-in-the-herbaceous-border signs) and explained how Warrington South is a marginal being fiercely contested by the sitting MP David Mowat. The Tories are clearly pouring their hedge fund cash into the area. The signs were like triffids peering out of every expensively trimmed garden hedge otherwise shielding the expensive houses from the road.
I suppose it’s wrong to say that all these people all the same but there’s much that’s shared between the residents. They are no doubt good people but representatives of that Britain that is succeeding. They’re the people doing well out of the economy and their money is sensibly being put to good use looking after themselves inside the private healthcare system. I don’t dislike them. In many respects, they’re people like myself: cultured, quiet, believers in politeness and some notion of right and wrong. The gulf between us is perhaps more about outcomes, opportunities and, of course, service.
For example, when I go to our local GP’s surgery I usually deal with some nose-breathing servant of Sauron, who can barely restrain her utter distain for me as though I’m a wood elf from a Murkwood slum. In contrast, go privately and you get to meet The Most Beautiful Woman In The World and, if that sounds like an exaggeration, let me assure you that it’s not. It happens too often for it not to be a universal truth about private healthcare. Private hospitals have a direct line to God. This morning, the Most Beautiful Woman In The World had hipster glasses and a Monroe air. She should have been in movies. Scarlett Johansson has the face of a blistered dingo compared to her.
That is something I sometimes find as shocking as I find it profound. Reflect deeply on Fate and you see that there’s so little that separates each of us except for a few twisted threads of DNA and a whole lot of circumstance. How often do you see Hollywood stars interviewed and asked ‘what would you be doing if you’d not become a movie star?’ ‘Oh,’ they’ll smile, ‘I’d be frying chicken in a mall and giving everybody listeria’. Audiences laugh yet behind the laughter is the realisation of a greater truth. It’s the tragedy of that person who should be a movie star but is trapped working in reception somewhere. It can whither a man’s soul if he contemplates it too long. It was like our taxi driver who was articulate, knowledgeable, and passionate about politics. He was perfectly suited to a life representing the people of Warrington but, instead, he is scraping a living driving around his home town whilst a chartered accountant born in Ruby serves as his local MP.
I suppose, at some point, the whole thing became an act of self-reflection and I began to feel so utterly sob-wrecking depressed as I sat there, staring at my shabby boots and contemplating the parts of this that I hadn’t worked out until later. Life is about the fairy tales we’re told and the fairy tales we believe, such as the one about ‘hard work bringing just rewards’. I’ve always worked obsessively hard but I now see it as vile malicious bullshit whispered in our hamster ears so we’ll keep running in the wheel. It all comes down to a toss of a coin, the turn of a county border, the direction that water once ran off an upland field and decided the course of a river through the heart of a county. Life might be there to direct as we will but it can only be steered so much. Sometimes there are greater forces limiting your options. Sometimes there are simply no options.
So, I as sat there, I listened to the hum of Sky News in the background, periodically broken by the beguiling accent of the TMBWITW in the hipster glasses which I tried hard to ignore because it would mean looking that way and burning my soul on something no mortal eyes should really see. And for a brief moment, I did wonder what life’s like in that world or even if that world is real and not imagined.
Is it real if you pay people to be kind, considerate, and display such good manners that they ask if you’d like a cup of coffee whilst you wait? When asked by hipster movie star, I said ‘no’ because I really appreciated the gesture but I wouldn’t put somebody to such trouble. Besides, I might have blurted out something crazy like the entirety of Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’. Yet had fate been different, I might have been the type of person to click my fingers, wink and say ‘Sure thing, gorgeous, because the world is my playground and I can afford the fees!’
But people like us can’t afford the fees and therein lies the difference.
I didn’t say ‘yes’. I just remembered the details. I noticed the way the chairs seemed to have lost their plumpness and had been laid low by overuse by big behinds. They weren’t as comfortable nor luxurious as those in Chester’s Nuffield and nothing seemed as relaxing. The place was darker with too much noise and too many patients crowded next to the reception, so that those of us waiting could hear too much about other people’s ailments. Thankfully, there was free wi-fi available without the need to go ask movie stars for passwords, so I searched the surprisingly responsive web for source images of ugly politicians and I doodled a picture. Then I watched a doctor arrive in his sports car and, in that moment, the whole experience was perfectly summed up.
Doctors in private healthcare don’t look like NHS doctors. Doctors in the NHS look like the nerd you knew at school who went into medicine, started to earn a fortune, and likes to remind the world that they were bullied in school but now they hold the power.
Doctors in private healthcare look like the guys who used to deal out the beatings in school. I watched one arrive and he utterly fitted his fitted suits with their ridiculously Apollonian proportions. He also had a ‘fuck yeah, life is good’ swagger which matched his features, wide and flat like something peeled from a movie poster. He looked like cricketer Graham Hick, a less scarred version of Harrison Ford. Again, you could argue about fate dealing him a bad hand but it’s hard to feel quite as despondent when that person is a high wizard of healthcare driving a pornstar sports car and with a complete Mastery of the Elements vibe. I didn’t feel so bad that he won’t be the next Indiana Jones. I didn’t even look to see if the receptionist swooned as he walked past. That would have been too much to bear. Because private healthcare might be there to improve your health, but, deep down, none of this makes you feel good. You might have a good soul but you know what you look like naked and it’s not a pretty. Your body goes out where his goes in and in where his goes out. You’re at opposite ends of the colour chart. If you were colours by Dulux, you’d be ‘Bjork alabaster’. He’d be ‘Tom Jones circa 1974′. It’s all so utterly demoralising.
It would be easy here to be bitter and surmise that he’d be bad at his job but you could tell the opposite. Watching his manner as he greeted his first patient, I saw the biggest difference of the day. The last NHS consultant my sister saw spoke to her for about five minutes, scribbled something on a sheet, and dismissed her with a cursory word. Six months wait for five minutes of indifference and I was left to deal with all the tears and the hurt. These guys come out and greet you with a warm handshake. They smile and ask you how you’re doing.
Try to imagine that. Doctors who ask you how you’re doing…
It’s a sad measure of our country’s decline when you don’t expect such things. Sadder still when these things only happen when you pay for them.