Letter from London: Free at the Point of Sight

Statue of Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS, Cardiff, Wales. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Four pleasant, young, Urdu-speaking gentlemen, one with a slate-blue blanket across his shoulder, joined me at the bus stop. All of us could just as easily have used the earlier bus stop close to the residential property which one Dutch journalist once described to me as a former nest of North Korean spies. After wishing each other good evening, we waited for our bus.

I was headed for hospital. I had been complaining about a floater in my eye, sudden blurring, and was by my docile standards concerned. I had been told after phoning 111 — a kind of mild 911 — to make my way immediately to Accident and Emergency. ‘Can I eat first?’ I had asked. ‘Yes,’ the NHS representative had replied. Having just made some spaghetti puttanesca, I was looking forward to the sharp taste of the black olives and capers with chilli and anchovy. Besides, fish was good for floaters, I had managed to read, though I can’t have been feeling that bad.

It must be hard for Americans to fathom picking up a phone and getting help just as easily as I did, and all for free. Because the American system is insurance-based, paying or not paying becomes the deciding factor on whether or not care is dispensed. As Americans well know, the US does not possess a national health care system. Despite continued indications that this is exactly the road down which we are headed, which is to say by using precisely the same American insurance model, 78% of Brits still feel positive about their present national health care system. (For Americans, 49% feel positive about theirs.) Most Brits, though, as I discovered when making a film about the NHS, tend to sleepwalk thorough the privilege.

It was Saturday night and the bright red double-decker bus continued along a stretch of road where, long after its use as a Bronze Age burial ground, masked highwaymen regularly robbed. We passed some brutish high-rise flats to our left, plus newer, smaller housing, to our right. A local pub was boarded up. It was out of business. One or two satisfyingly defiant passengers climbed aboard dressed to party. Glitter was back, I noticed, plus bright green sequins. I was wondering if Marc Bolan was making a comeback, after so much revivalist Abba and Bowie, to mix with their Harry Styles. Anyway, it was good to see expectant faces and a right to party — despite what in 2023 have been cold shoulders all round.

It was a warm evening and the bus driver in his protected cubicle wearing a short-sleeved shirt began to tap on the wheel. A lot of people were glued to their mobile phones. Headphones long ago had gone out the window, airpods were prohibitively expensive, so everyone normally just listens out loud, visibly challenging some of the older passengers. The bus turned left. At long last, the lights of the local hospital, a soft harbour of sorts built just over 20 years ago, came into view. I stepped off the bus and waved goodbye to my new Urdu-speaking friends as they continued on their journey. A nurse coming off work was talking on her phone while awaiting a different bus. She was going to a party too.

I couldn’t use the normal hospital entrance — I needed Accident and Emergency — so passed the car park instead, as the so-called floater in my left eye clashed dramatically with the electric street illuminations, sending quivers of light across my line of vision. As I turned the corner, a German-manufactured ambulance sped past, siren not switched on yet. I stepped out of the way just in time. Still, I wouldn’t have had far to go. Meanwhile, to my right, another German-manufactured vehicle — a stationary police van — housed a female police officer working away on a laptop, the light from the screen illuminating her face as she concentrated heavily. I wondered if there were any floaters in her eyes. Two male police officers meanwhile appeared from A & E, carrying coffee and talking in loud voices, their radios bursting into occasional life.

I entered the hospital greeted by a young man pointing me towards a small kiosk where I was soon giving details to a woman who had this uncanny ability to type while looking straight at me. I was told my name would in time be called and was asked to join my fellow huddled masses on a long welded line of blue plastic chairs. Some people had fevers. One man was covered in already dried and caked wounds. There was an inordinate amount of mothers and daughters. At some point, I watched as one young man with a scar across his cheek asked reception if he could pop out for a few moments to get some fresh air. ‘No longer than five minutes,’ he was told. ‘Otherwise you’ll miss your slot.’

When I was eventually called I sat down next to a nurse who took my temperature and asked a series of questions about my eye. I had earlier described it to the artist as like a semi-transparent version of one of her latest pieces, but knew this too niche for the NHS. (‘I am imprinted,’ the artist said when I told her about the similarity.) Instead, I told the nurse how long I had had it, and how I just wanted to ward off blindness. I was then told to follow a long blue line of painted worn footprints to another waiting area with yet more patients, each going about his or her business while trying not to lose faith in either the system created to fix them, or their own ability to cope with whatever fate was about to throw at them. Vulnerable people often impress with their strengths, I was trying to tell myself.

Five young Sikh men now sat opposite. One of them had what appeared a broken hand. The others were simply there for him, with impressive camaraderie. A young and very thin daughter lay across a mother’s lap. The mother dropped her mobile phone on the ground and her gratitude when I picked it up was unsettlingly over the top. I really felt for them both. Just then, in strolled the young man with the scar across his face who had earlier asked to pop out for some fresh air. He came back with more than just rumour of fresh air. There was a heady scent of skunk cannabis clinging to his clothes.

My name was finally called. I squinted to where the voice came from. It was a doctor who expressed amusement that I should be asking how he is. ‘Do you not get asked that?’ I said. ‘Well, no,’ he smiled. As we walked the long corridor, I was noticing the shiny floors. He took me to read from an eye-chart on the wall. Good, he said. Well done. I surprised even myself. In a darkened room, he peered into my eye, using an ophthalmoscope, carefully examining what I was reliably informed was the fundus and other structures. There was a reassuring absence of burst blood vessels, he said. Nor was it likely I had a detached retina, he added. On both counts, good news. Or so I hoped. Finally, he said he would refer me to the local eye hospital who might direct me to an NHS-paid examination by a private optician, as part of what he admitted was a kind of well-concealed road to eventual privatisation. One million Brits have already voluntarily ditched the NHS to go private.

Oscar Wilde when told of a huge fee for a surgical operation once said, ‘Ah, well, then, I suppose that I shall have to die beyond my means.’ With no fee involved for my Saturday night visit, an episode incidentally for me teeming with encouraging humanity, I left the hospital thinking that I shall just have to see beyond my means for now, at the same time as ogle my very own semi-transparent version of the artist’s work. I smiled and caught the bus home without incident.

Peter Bach lives in London.