Mike White‘s diary entry reads: 10th February. There is free bedside TV from 8.00 till noon, offering ticker-taped news, mad cartoons and dysfunctional families screaming in front of a studio audience – outside those hours you must buy it in bundles. When I was last in hospital, the TV monitor carried a message of welcome to the ‘new look NHS’ from the (then) Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. Today I can only find a bullish apology from Pickles for not dredging Somerset. And there, I suppose, is the segue – I am here to get my immune system sandbagged with antibiotics.
My unexpected hospital admission is down to Catherine telling me bluntly that the stubborn mule is a knackered one, my breathing is shot, and I should speak to the out-of-hours oracle. So I call and I am asked to come into the Northern Centre for Cancer Care and talk to a doctor on ward. I discover that if you are a frequent flyer with the NHS, there are some conditions that get you an upgrade – because on arriving at the hospital on an empty Sunday lunchtime, I am nonplussed to find I am already allocated to ‘Cubicle 12’ where my autistic son is immediately in his element, uncovering all the fine detail in a minimalist room that may soon become my treatment space. When mention is made of ‘blood count’ I recall a tune of that name by Ellington’s arranger Billy Strayhorn, written when he learned of his cancer. It is the saddest, coolest tune in the world, its mournful beauty shot through with the jazz bravado that comes of whistlin’ past the graveyard. My nerves keep playing it in my head and later, when the family has gone, I’m calling up poetry on the iPad, craving emotions I cannot get from the bedside TV. I am not like this at home, or indeed anywhere else, but a hospital has such suggestible metaphysics that, when left to my own devices and the vagaries of my body, it seems I want communion with those wellsprings of emotion that come from culture.
I have seen commerce and culture as curiously entwined ‘c’ words in this hospital. The cancer unit has its own version of a Tie Rack outlet, offering artist-designed funky head-scarves and turbans, some muted in their colours, some gloriously in-yer-face. At my last chemo session, however, there was a woman with an only recent diagnosis of terminal cancer trying to explain to a MacMillan volunteer her frustration on being told that an item she had set her heart on was the last one and “only for display and, anyway, very dusty”, but the artist could be contacted to make one, and it would take six weeks. It’s so poignant because the shop staff wanted to be helpful and offer quality – but what is the point of exhibiting a ‘look-at-what-you-could-have-won’ when its prospective buyer’s life is on the meter and she needs an instant restoration of some dignity but finds it’s like ordering a sofa? The first rule of arts in health across all of its supply chains is you don’t let people down – it has to be relationship-based working at its best.
The cancer unit has a wonderful participatory arts and crafts service, Room For You, which has been running since the millennium but struggling year on year. They make art works with the patients, including printed headscarves. They would probably do more collective art works for display in the unit if the hospital did not cite obstacles of health and safety and MRSA, and did not have a private landlord averse to art being installed indoors anyway, as if it came under a ‘no pets allowed’ rule. So there are art works discreetly placed in the courtyard shrubbery, but the arterial corridors are unadorned and look like metaphors for infinity.
My point is this; what has been previously enacted as ‘arts in hospitals’ in the golden age of capital redevelopment in the public sector should in these stringent times be re-configured as ‘arts for emotional spaces’, and be sensitively pursued in the patients’ interest. These can be creative spaces that support our transitions to wellness or resilience or… adaptation. That way we can shape and express a different aesthetic within healthcare and not just leave our emotional needs, or indeed our yearning for distraction, to the pay-for-view offerings of a bedside TV.
This is my postcard from the NHS hotel, and I do not wish you were here. The usual jibes about hospital food apply; it was chicken chasseur for tea today, but there was no chasseur in mine. So I am de-mob happy that I am getting out tomorrow. I confess I relented on the pay TV to watch a comedy film, The World’s End – my cultural needs are putting me in an upbeat if eschatological frame of mind.