The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

September 26, 2023 – L. P. Hartley The Go-Between

My medical tests are all over. Byfield has passed his MOT with a few cautionary notes about needing to check my tyres soon and signs of wear and tear in the brake linings. I enjoy meeting our medical colleagues: like tigers meeting leopards I suppose, or, less flatteringly, lions meeting hyenas. It is not really surprising that doctors and lawyers are alike in many ways. After all, we are both usually engaged in assessing risks that our clients (or patients) cannot properly appreciate and in passing on bad news with varying degrees of bedside manner which vary from nil to a long and tortured exchange where the unfortunate information is never finally conveyed at all. Troublingly, however, we tend also to use similar mannerisms as each other, such as slightly avoiding the eyes of the person who is about to discover something to their disadvantage or being unnecessarily brisk and cheery for no particular reason at all.

When I was a little troubled a decade or so ago by the effects of a sedentary lifestyle with too much rich food, the surgeon charged with some corrective plumbing said he particularly dreaded visits to my bedside. I looked pained. ‘No,’ he said, ‘you are always very funny and charming William, even in the face of adversity. It’s just that I suspect that you can read my mind.’ That was true, I could. And he could read mine. That morning back then, he was using the techniques I employ to soothe a client when a jury is taking forever to reach a verdict.

This time, though, I was pondering something else. It came into my head when I was visited by Paddy Corkhill as I lay in a bed that, surrounded by a variety of equipment which bleeped pointlessly for some reason, was designed to make sure that the phrase ‘try and get some sleep’ would be particularly irritating. I was rather surprised that Paddy had come at all. He hates hospitals. As he says: ‘They put me in mind of things better forgotten.’ I have to confess that I had used my medical insurance. I have great anxieties about this. It comes from my parents. My father, who came from quite a poor family, believed passionately in the NHS which he saw as the greatest single social advancement in Britain during the last century. My mother, however, just as passionately loathed it. She believed that money was the only control you had over doctors. I compromise and use the insurance for non-life-threatening conditions involving painful examinations. Hetty Briar-Pitt, whose only love is the horse, snorts at our hypocrisy. ‘What NHS do my lovely ponies have?’ she burst out once at a Chambers meeting that had lost its way.

I soon discovered why Paddy had come. Someone had told him that this hospital had a brilliant wine list so he coiffed a bottle of vintage Saint Emilion while I popped the odd grape under the suspicious eyes of the nurse. I enquired about Chambers like some fretting old grandmother. ‘I never go in,’ he said. ‘No-one ever does in crime nowadays. The paper lot do but even they’re flagging.’ Paddy is always a little hard on our civil colleagues. ‘The whole Temple needs to reinvent itself pretty fast,’ he went on. ‘The entire area is dying out around us.’ I ate another grape.

‘These quacks have got it right,’ he said, perhaps a little too loudly. ‘The private ones, who also do their NHS bits, rent a consulting room as and when needed at a different hospital each day.’ I remembered that I had been offered a different hospital for each day of the week to see my consultant. ‘They group together in different outfits with a couple of PAs,’ he went on. ‘What’s the point of paying rent for a room you don’t use? The courts could make pots of money letting us do the same thing with a bit of development. Bring in the insurance brigade! Be cheaper for the state in the long run. No clerks! No chambers’ rent!’ After he left, I typed most of this entry into my little laptop as I suddenly saw the possibilities and as I was wheeled to the theatre, Paddy’s words swirled around in my head. Just as the sedation cartridge hit my arm, I had a thought. Might Andrew, my senior clerk, read all this? I always suspected he had my password given his uncanny foreknowledge of events. Oh gawd… but, too late, I was out for the count.