Susan Hill: The brilliance of the NHS cancer service

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

Exactly 50 years ago I drove, for the first visit of many, across country to Aldeburgh in Suffolk, following the Pied Piper, Benjamin Britten. I had been obsessed by his music, and indeed by him, since first hearing the ‘Sea Interludes’ from his opera Peter Grimes in a music appreciation lesson. His sound worlds, his persona, the place he both lived in and recreated in his work, spoke to me in a way nothing else ever has. As I drove in, past the church to see the sea, the Moot Hall, the fishing boats, the shop where he had bought china mugs to string in a line and tap with spoons for the sound of raindrops in Noye’s Fludde, I felt the real, everyday world and his imaginative one interlock. That first visit is etched in my memory. I stayed in the White Lion Hotel for three nights, a luxury I could ill afford. But it was worth any money just for the name written above mine in the register — E.M. Forster.

I have just come back from Aldeburgh again. It is different now, but scratch the surface, walk along Crag Path hearing the ‘Sea Intervals’ as the waves crash and drag back over the shingle, the brittle reeds on the marshes rattle faintly in the wind, the great towers of the churches in which much of Ben’s music was, and still is, performed, rising up from the landscape around — and it is all still there, and always will be, until the sea takes it, as it took the great town of Dunwich centuries ago.

Great storms roared through my childhood, higher up the north coast in Scarborough. The shore road sometimes closes in such weather but once my great-uncle walked me round it, thinking I would enjoy having a huge wave break over the railings, and me. I can still feel the terror as it did just that, spray and foam enveloping my small body. Uncle Sam grabbed me just before I was dragged into the heart of it. Storm Ciara is battering us as I write and a small bit of me wants to rush down to the sea’s edge. The urge is easily resisted.

The previous afternoon though, walking on the shingle beside a calm still sea, under blue sky, in clear, windless air, there was no hint of it. Dogs bounded about, strangers greeted one another, as is the way here, a flock of terns skimmed the water, a seal raised its sleek head, one fisherman was spinning his line. Cormorants dived. Snow buntings flocked. Oyster catchers pootled about at the tide’s edge, among starfish, razor shells, a dead dab, glassy-eyed.

A huge translucent moon, paper pale, rose as the sun set. The extreme weather being yellow-warned about on the radio as I drove home might have been a meteorologist’s fantasy. But by the sea the weather can turn round and bite you in a nanosecond, like an apparently placid dog. It did.

I have recently been involved with cancer, at close but not personal range, and so with the various areas of the NHS which deal with it. There are plenty of things wrong in our hospitals and I need not list what we all know, but if Boris Johnson does not solve these problems once and for all, this is probably the only failure for which he will never be forgiven. The cancer service I have witnessed, though, cannot be faulted, and not only for the exemplary physical care. Every single doctor, nurse, PA and auxiliary worker has been unfailingly sympathetic, kind, reassuring, informative, patient and friendly. My mother, like many of her generation, would not speak the word ‘cancer’ aloud, and though treatments and survival rates have changed beyond recognition since she died of it, the diagnosis still strikes terror to the heart. Being cared for so well and sympathetically turns that fear around, so please, the breast cancer teams at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, accept heartfelt thanks.

I have never been to New York City, and after reading accounts by Taki of this parish about how awful it is now, ruined beyond recognition, I probably never will. But The Woman in Black has recently installed herself in the McKittrick Hotel theatre there, greeted with enthusiasm by critics and public. The first production, in Scarborough 33 years ago, took place in a fittingly claustrophobic theatre bar, and Robin Herford, director then and ever since, has recreated it in the sixth-floor bar of this unique venue. The actors perform right in the middle of the audience, who can get Dutch courage from the drinks they’ve just bought. NYC is embracing us. I think I will send Taki a couple of tickets.

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Susan Hill’s latest novel is The Benefit of Hindsight.

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