Attending the funeral of Margaret Thatcher in April, the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was much impressed by the bit in the sermon by the Bishop of London about how Mrs Thatcher had replied personally to so many letters. He went back to his department, and asked it to give him each day one letter from a member of the public which recounted particularly shocking problems in the Health Service. He now uses these letters to dive into the problems that patients experience. It is a good idea, but how alarming that it is a novel one. The Department of Health receives more letters than any other part of government except 10 Downing Street. Is it really the case that up till now, officials have never troubled the Secretary of State with the woes of the public? For more than 60 years, we have been bullied into thinking that the NHS works for us. At last, because so many — especially the old — have cruelly experienced the opposite, we want to make our feelings known. Mr Hunt’s one letter a day is a tiny drop in the ocean of misery which must eventually sweep the current system away.
If the Liverpool Care Pathway had been called, say, the Oxford Care Pathway, would it have inspired more confidence?
In October 1975, I went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. My first set of rooms was G3 New Court. These are the ones described by Tennyson in In Memoriam, because they were occupied by Arthur Hallam, whose death the poet laments. ‘Up that long walk of limes I past/ To see the rooms in which he dwelt/ I lingered: all within was noise/ Of songs, and clapping hands, and boys/ That crashed the glass and beat the floor;/ Where once we held debate, a band/ Of youthful friends, on mind and art,/ Of labour, and the changing mart,/ And all the framework of the land.’ Tennyson’s words applied to me, because I shared the set with Oliver Letwin, now a government minister. We did indeed hold such debate, until we had tired the sun with talking. So I was fascinated, interviewing the Archbishop of Canterbury last week, to hear that in the same court, at the same time, he found God. On the evening of 12 October, Justin Welby told me, he was sitting in the rooms of a friend, Nicky Hills, after supper. They prayed together (Welby had become religious after coming up the previous year), and then Welby had the classic Protestant conversion experience, when he suddenly felt called to be a disciple of Christ. If we had been told at the time that this was happening, I fear we would have scoffed. Thirty years later, though, the nation is starting to see the benefits. I try to recall what I was doing that very night, in that very court. I think that Oliver and I had just returned from bicycling to Ely. We were hungry, and wanted to eat baked beans. Oliver, then as now, had culinary pretensions. He decided to cook the beans in a wine sauce, using Gevry-Chambertin 1969, then available from Trinity buttery for £1.75. They were disgusting.
Sad news that the village primary school which I attended as a boy is closing down. Mountfield and Whatlington (C of E) Primary went into special measures, failed to revive, and now has fewer than 50 pupils, whereas in my time there were about 110 of us. Its closure helps me realise what a different world it was in the mid-1960s. So far as I remember, no father except my own worked in London (55 miles away), and very few pupils were middle-class. Only one or two children each year passed the 11-plus. The main employer was the local gypsum mine, in which my best friend’s father, who was a foreman, was killed. There were no inside lavatories, no packed lunches except for diabetics, no ethnic minorities, no ‘special needs’ and no children of divorced or unmarried parents. Most pupils had long-standing Sussex names — Crouch, Spray, Avann, Lavender. All the boys wanted to be engine drivers, and all the girls nurses. There was a cane, which was banged on the table for minatory effect, but never used: pupils were beaten with a gym shoe. All religion was Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible. I loved learning words like ‘raiment’, damsel’ and ‘awful’ (in its original sense). On our farm in the summer holidays, I would have in my head the words: ‘Lift up your eyes and look on the fields. For they are already white to harvest.’ None of us encountered any difficulty with this sort of religious education — or rather, we encountered only the difficulty which everyone encounters with all religious questions, in any language. Yet now that culture has been destroyed, and is perished as though it had never been.
The school speech day had an almost 19th-century feel to it. In would come Commander Egerton, the squire, a figure so august that we dared have no opinion of him. He was followed by Mr Spriggs, the vicar, whose vicarage stood like a tied cottage right beside Commander Egerton’s house. He was already 65 but would remain in post until the 1990s. Then came Mr Coomber, a tenant farmer of Commander Egerton’s, who presented the Coomber Cup. This carried prestige because it was not for academic merit but for character. ‘Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee,’ Mr Coomber would declaim improvingly, and we could hear the bees humming through the open windows.
Bevis Hillier writes to correct an error in my biography of Margaret Thatcher. The Sun headline after the sinking of the Belgrano was ‘Gotcha’, not ‘Gotcha!’. Perhaps this makes it slightly less triumphalist. Doctor Who will soon be 50 years old. Someone should explain why it is not called Doctor Who?.
The great heat, and the increased concern about skin cancer, has brought about the revival of the parasol. In my childhood, this object was to be found only in Victorian prints and children’s books like Little Black Sambo. It is an elegant addition to modern London street life.
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