So yesterday, instead of bunging on my old DMs, I did some Mutual Aid shopping in a pair of block-heeled boots I had bought in readiness for all the Spring walking about that I have not done. While me and my beloved worked out some time ago that I already had enough heeled and flat shoes and boots to wear with skirts, trousers and dresses in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter to work, casual and formal events for the rest of my life I did not in my opinion possess sufficient Suede. The pains in my calves were, I can assure you, worth it in order to feel a little bit normal while ‘all this’ goes on and on. Which naturally brings me to the subject of the NHS.
Despite having already made some notes on it, I had decided that enough people were already likening our current attitude to the NHS to some sort of religion that I would write something else. But then my beloved began riffing on Essential and Inessential before commuting upstairs this morning, and I realized I had something different to say.
I was not brought up religious but I became well used to genuflection when I grew up. I already Stoop and Sort the new unholy trinity, 'Metal, Plastic and Cardboard Box' and count my sins into the Black Bin Bag, every Thursday night as it happens. So when ‘all this’ happened I was as keen as anyone to worship the NHS, which has always been as fiercely loved as a bad mother in the UK anyway. Since my rubbish is out on the street at the front I go onto my balcony at the back, and, saucepan and spoon in hands, I clang away at 8 pm once a week in my bare feet. I have not yet brought myself to the point of repeating the mantra out loud, “We are not Essential, we are not Essential”, but give me another week or two of ‘all this’ and we’ll see.
It’s not just that I went into self-isolation before it was fashionable, my dry cough and slight fever hitting on March the 11th. I also made a conscious decision to be as Inessential a worker as possible three years ago. Parents who are trying to also be teachers during lockdown will be able to imagine timsing what they’re doing by 35, dividing it into half a portacabin and adding cancelled trains, marking, paperwork and 21 half-termly targets. And because I worked in the state sector, if I was ill, I would drag myself in so as not to drop another little pebble of chaos into the thoroughly institutionalised crisis-management pond. When I got the scary symptoms I remember thinking I had never before taken time off work for something so minor. The guilt burned almost as much as my bronchial tubes.
This is why that other state, and therefore under-funded and under-staffed, monolith, the NHS, is coping so far, they’re used to it. Instead of managing thousands of little chaos pebbles, they are focusing on one great murderous Corona boulder. The difference between teaching and nursing is of course a matter of life and death. If I had an off-day, 35 little Freddies and Fredas got a boring phonics lesson but they were still alive. I bloody well hope that the NHS is running on Love as Bojo tells us, because it certainly isn’t functioning due to more material considerations such as enough nurses and money.
Still, back to me; after 30 odd years working with children, I felt I had done my duty by the system that had educated me to Honours degree level for free at the point of delivery. And I wanted a job where lunchtime wasn’t a chance to catch-up on the 7 Special Educational Needs kids in my portacabin, if I was ill, I could stay home and maybe I could spend the evenings helping my own kids with their homework.
And blimey weren’t there a lot of Inessential jobs to choose from, would I work for a Local Authority managing the manager of lollypop ladies, or sit back and monitor and record funding in a charity? I ended up in the sort of private sector; administering, part-time, among other things the implementation of GDPR for a not-for-profit umbrella frond type organization in Construction. I had enough money to keep up my extensive shoe buying and holiday going ‘needs’ and of course the greatest luxury of all; free time. Time to be with my family, time to drink on a weeknight, time to read and time to write novels.
This put me ahead of another game as well, by the time lock-down came my books were already sorted alphabetically and I baked bread from scratch - both one offs I can assure you.
Old habits do die hard though, so once I had worked out how to make myself redundant in Construction (I still think it would be cost-effective if we could all be promised 5 years salary in a lump sum, if we can work out how not to make our jobs unnecessary, to sort out the UK’s productivity problem once and for all), I went back to what I love, but much much easier. I am currently teaching my part-time Private class of 10 via some very sophisticated online platforms from my living room. Cushty or what?
It was this experience that made me wonder, when the Government implemented a much more comprehensive definition of Inessential than I could imagine, and most of us went into lock-down, why so many, usually rather lovely people, turned so viciously, literally tyre slashingly, nasty on those of us who still go on working. Is there a possibly unconscious anger at discovering that one’s own work, often a significant factor in what defines us, is almost pointless.
I would like to point out that the work we do may be fairly pointless but the money we earn from it is not. Us Inessentials buy stuff we need from Essentials as well as shoes, tickets, holidays, haircuts and flowers from other Inessentials. When ‘all this’ is over, and we haven’t given every penny we can spare via Captain Tom to the NHS, we will go back to spending money on whatever is left of our economy. I hope when BoJo gets properly better that having already acknowledged that there is such thing as society, he takes a moment to point out that it is also quite a Capitalist one.
Buying and selling shoes in a shop is not just not really Inessential, it is also not a sin. Which brings me back to the NHS. Being British, which is predominantly an Anglican country, I don’t really get religiosity. Apart from some excellent, though quite implausible, stories, just about all I have gleaned from C of E Primary school and going to birth, marriage and death ceremonies in Churches is that, while it is acceptable for women to keep on any head-gear, men should remove their hats. This does not seem fair, and given we all have so few opportunities to legitimately don a Trilby or a Panama and Moslem and Jewish men get caps, I think men should show their respect by keeping their hats on in church too.
My atheism has never been a problem in the UK. Being overtly God Fearing has not been fashionable here for quite some time. Since Henry the Eighth, poor little Edward the Sixth, Bloody Mary and Good Queen Bess, the British have found it expedient to keep a nice clean set of net curtains on the windows to our souls. Then since our strange experiment with a Fundamental Religious State a few years later was quite the curates egg and deeply embarrassing, nowadays we are happy to make jokes about The Black-Rod and change the subject. So, while sex and politics might be acceptable topics in polite company nowadays, we have steered clear of that other matter. Maybe that’s why in recent times, even before corona, we have been so susceptible to a very good analogy to Papishness.
I am totally for public health care, which is free at the point of delivery and often treats us equally well. And I am seriously relieved I don’t live in a country like America where the value of your health and your bank balance are one and the same. The people in the NHS have kept me and mine alive and inoculated as well as working miracles that make Jesus and the loaves and fishes look like an every-day occurrence, really since its inception. But the NHS is not the home of God or the source of our everlasting, or even temporary, salvation.
I hate to bring up a that total kill-joy Martin Luther at this point but the NHS is a man-made institution. Funding Captain Tom’s pilgrimage around his garden will not buy us indulgences from an all seeing and all knowing higher power or indeed immunity from a blind and mindless disease.
We now rely more heavily than ever on an institution with an internal economy the size of a small and badly run country, owning property across the nation , to which we are all beholden, especially at times of life and death, that employs a combination of rather well off knowers of the medical book and seriously underpaid minions who service these modern priests.
The state puts down dissenters on its behalf and any way, few of us have got the guts to go outside nailing any points at all to the door of the local hospital for fear that our neighbours will ostacise us or put us in the public pillory of Social Media. Tell me that’s not Catholic.
So what to do about it then? The vast majority of us love and need a public, free at the point of delivery, health service, but the NHS is, to use the parlance of our times, ‘not fit for purpose’. The NHS needs fixing; how? How in Christ’s name should I know.
But I do know that if we don’t think sensibly about it and simply turn the NHS into some sort of spiritual substitute our society will, most corporeally, suffer.
There are enough ventilators for the time being and more protective equipment is on the way. So why all the Non-Resuscitating Agreements? They are being handed out en-masse in care homes and posted to all the elderly from some GP’s surgeries? Thousands of phone calls have been made attempting to persuade people to sign them. I heard about a man refusing to sign one and being overridden by his GP.
This threatens to be a crime of which we are all culpable. Our culture is already guilty of not valuing our old; defining ‘productive’ purely as money earning and tax paying in the here and now, blaming ‘boomers’ for having what we all deserve; a home and livable pension, ignoring and deriding sick old people with nowhere else to go as ‘bed blockers’. I have stood on my balcony banging a saucepan and whooping for an institution that, under the cloak of ‘hard decisions’ has used our already terrible attitude towards the old to systematically ensure that the lives of people aged over 70, and younger if they have particular health issues, are not as valuable as the rest of us.
History can tell us what not to do. When Henry the Eighth dissolved the Monasteries and gave all their wealth to his Aristo mates, things did not improve for the majority of people (I love all Hilary Mantel’s books by the way, but historically she was way too soft on all of them and ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ contains similar ‘uppity hubris’ themes and is a much better book in my opinion – also just one volume). The rich farmer Oliver Cromwell killing all the Levellers and 40% of the population of Ireland, banning Christmas dinner and dancing and then getting a king back anyway was quite a high price to pay for a Sort-of-Sovereign Parliament of rich farmers and seeing Ophelia acted by an actual woman.
I do know what I can do as an individual, let’s not forget that society is made of those by the way, when Thursday night comes round again I will put out my rubbish round the front for the heroes of the bins, and shoelessly bang a pan for the nurses, doctors, porters and cleaners, and even the administrators of the service that is doing its best in an awful situation. I will not however, remove my hat.