Hilary Mantel channels Theodore Dalrymple

In the current London Review of Books Hilary Mantel writes in the Diary section about her husband’s recent sudden illness and a week or so spent in the toils of the hospital system.

Theodore Dalrymple, in case you are lucky enough not to know, is the pseudonym of Anthony Daniels, a writer and former psychiatrist and prison doctor, who rails against the modern world. Writing in The Spectator, he frequently enlists or maybe conscripts his own patients as generally wretched examples of a miserable underclass. It seems likely that some at least of these patients were compelled to see him. I am surprised that he so makes free with his patients’ confidences in this way. Maybe, consistent with his writerly use of the pseudonym, he mixes the details up and so is free with the truth instead.

An early treatment at length of an encounter with the National Health Service as some episode from Dante’s Inferno was in Malcolm Bradbury’s novel, Eating People is Wrong. That was written or set in the 1950s, and its tone was relatively mild: as I remember it concentrated on the professorial protagonist’s brush with mortality combined with being cast amongst the common folk. Mantel’s complaint is more about the heartlessness of the system. My own feeling is that this is at some level inevitable – it’s a bit like the situation at an airport where every traveller’s mishap is traumatic for the passenger but the airline or airport representative has seen it all many times before and, besides, there are other people who must be attended to or dealt with.

I can’t resist dragging forth from the decent obscurity of a password-protected site a rather splendid piece of purple prose from the end of Mantel’s piece. We know Mantel’s husband has survived. She wonders about the awfulness of it all, why it might be so and how she has emerged from it “more cynical, more intolerant and more selfish.” This is the writerly panning shot:

This is Wimbledon’s final week. All over the hospital, on flickering TV sets high on wall-brackets, white figures dash to and fro, seemingly in a blizzard. News of Venus Williams’s victory penetrates even the high dependency unit, and is received with apathy. Rain suspends play. My beloved is sicking up green gunk. An old man stuck over with tubes shouts: ‘I’m not right!’

His children stand at the foot of his bed and bellow back at him: ‘Dad, you won’t be right! You’ve had an op!’

‘I’m not right!’

‘In a bit you’ll be right!’

‘I won’t! I’ve had an op!’

The delights of the ordinary ward are still ahead of us. There, everybody yells, working up the noise level; every trolley wheel squeaks, and locker doors, every time they are closed, slam crack crack like twin pistol shots. A tap drips, plink plink plink, cutting through the clatter; I trace it to a dirty washbasin in an alcove behind a bed. Downstairs, in the waiting room, the maternity churn-rate keeps up through the weekend. Nancy, to the accompaniment of warbling muzak, is still experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions. [*] I have established a place for myself, as one does in a library, a nook from which I survey the passing scene and emerge to direct visitors and patients who are hopelessly lost. Once again it is Sunday, 6 p.m. The miniaturised hospital is now lodged in my body, under my heart. I look up and see, rolling from the lifts and across the foyer, the Daily Mail reader’s nightmare. She looks 16, her face peaky, her bare legs twiggy and blue; the light glints on her piercings. She has had her baby, and her loose gown flaps against her body as she propels her Zimmer frame towards the sliding doors. Standing under the canopy, she looks out into the swimming grey-greens of the English summer. With one hand she rubs her Caesarean scar, and with the other slots a cigarette into her mouth. She leans, a figure from myth, the sheeting rain her backdrop: expressionless, she stares into it, a battered Britannia, her smoke blown away by the wind.

[* a reference to a previously described information video constantly running on the TV monitor]

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