Columns

The genius of Alfred Hitchcock

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

30 May 2020

9:00 AM

Nobody earns the right to respect just by having lived into old age, whenever that begins — it has happened by chance and by virtue of having dodged a few bullets. But everyone has the right to be treated with good manners and kindness by those with any power over them — even prisoners and toddlers having pyrotechnical tantrums. Mostly, politeness and consideration are forthcoming. It is always a shock if a bank clerk, dentist or traffic cop are brusque, perhaps because it is so rare.

Still, I can stand rudeness more easily than I can tolerate being patronised, something older people encounter regularly. When Colonel Sir Tom Moore raised millions for NHS charities, everyone cheered and no one was rude about him, but my goodness was he patronised! Because he is a little bent, uses a walking frame and has reached his centenary, he was both described and addressed as if he were a little child — the dear old soul, bless him. If you are 70 in a hospital you too will become a dear old soul, bless you, and addressed in a louder voice.

It was once the norm for patients to be called by their first name and those who were known by another one had to lump it. My father was christened Ronald Herbert, but known as Roy from birth. When a nurse called him Ronald, he did not reply, thinking they were talking to someone else. ‘Uncooperative’ went down on his notes. Then it was decided that patients should be asked what they wanted to be called. A small thing, but quite important.

A much bigger thing, and very important, are tone of voice and attitude, and my family has experienced instances of both the right and the very wrong this week. I will blur the edges of the story but a fortnight ago, someone fell, with full weight on one knee. Great pain, swelling and difficulty walking followed but home remedies were of limited help, no GP was available and anyway, they don’t do injuries now. A&E was reported half empty but Someone didn’t want to bother them even so — until they suffered another accident to the same knee. This time the pain was unbearable. The NHS helpline was kind but firm — go to A&E.


Please note that the half-emptiness is over — it was a four-hour wait among the post-fight drunks with bleeding heads. The hospital has been in the eye of the Covid storm but is no longer; there had been no new cases for ten days, and word had got round. The triage nurse glanced at the knee and assessed ‘minor injury’ before brusquely questioning attendance at all. Now however great your pain, you can take this. You do not take: ‘Do you understand that by coming here you are risking your life?’ Excuse me? I’d have blown my top, but that’s me. The nurse was told that Someone had been treated for breast cancer for four weeks in this hospital, at the height of the pandemic, with impressive safety measures in place, and that this visit was not made casually, but on 111 advice.

The doctor who eventually met the knee had read about the radiotherapy and his first words were ‘Very well done for completing that’. He also said he had just had an hour’s sleep so was ready for anything, and he certainly needed to see the knee — it could be a smashed bone.

The difference, even to pain, between attentive concern and kindness and guilt-inducing unpleasantness is considerable. What is said matters, but how it is said matters more. The knee will take months to heal, but the patient has no more hurt feelings thanks to one doctor’s sensitivity in turning an unhappy situation around.

Apparently lockdown has made everyone want to move to the country. I can understand that, having lived in it for more than 40 years. But for every article extolling the joys, another warns of unwelcoming natives, lack of facilities, long dark winters, live vermin and dead badgers, nasty smells and perpetually noisy farm machinery. Well yes, all of that, and though I could never live anywhere except the country now I do understand those who look at fields, trees and wildlife and shudder. Does this matter? The upsides and downsides of country or city life are what they are and if you’re lucky enough to have the choice, make it. If it doesn’t work for you, unmake. One tip though — don’t try to turn the country into a half-baked metropolis or the city into a fake rural idyll, because you can’t — though at the height of lockdown, cities gave rural silence, breadmaking and birdsong a good run for their money.

Many have called Alfred Hitchcock an artistic genius, though he thought he just made cinematic potboilers. Whatever. Did any director give us so many richly entertaining, exciting, brilliantly shot, perfectly cast films? I’ve had a great Hitchcock week on my iPad in some sleepless small hours and I still haven’t watched everything. Even if, inevitably, some are better than others, there is not one single dud amongst them.

Does anyone remember Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion sequence of novels, published from the early 1960s on? I half-did, found them in a distant bookshelf and plunged in. Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell they are not, though set among the upper and bohemian classes in London, English country houses and various European playgrounds of the time. They are still very readable, though desperately in need of an editor’s black pencil, and have helped me pass an idle lockdown week well enough, but they have left no trace and I doubt if I will read them again, unlike the Waugh, Powell, and indeed Proust sequences. Ultimately, I think this has to do with none of the characters having either human depth or soul. Even in lockdown, one needs at least a touch of both.

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