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In From Leonin to Led Zeppelin, the book I wrote during lockdown, there’s no mention of hernias. I had wanted to write something a bit less academic in the hope that a few more people might read it, but the academic press wanted more scholarship and the trade press wanted less so I have an impressive file of sometimes quite flattering rejection letters. I had definitely written the book I wanted to write (it’s a bit autobiographical) and I wasn’t going to change it. But if I did, a bit of hernia action might do the trick at the trade end, so here’s a potential appendix, as it were.

What do hernias have to do with singing? Not much, hopefully, but the anaesthetic might. In the days when I was a young oratorio singer (as we used to call ourselves) I sometimes had a problem with catarrh. As aspiring stars it wouldn’t occur to any of us to go to a local throat specialist – it had to be a proper Harley street morning dress honcho that you almost felt inclined to genuflect to but who might save you having to cancel your next job, usually at the cost of the fee. I had some bizarre things done to my voice in those days until I saw the light, and this one decided it was my wisdom teeth that was causing the problem. Ask your dentist if he can take them out in the chair, he said, or if not I have a mate at the Royal Free Hospital who can do it on the NHS but he’d have to book you in by the end of the week. He was a kindly man – the Royal Free is often Royal but rarely free and the chance to get it done on the health service was not to be sneezed at. I rang my dentist’s reception and explained the situation and was told to attend the emergency clinic next day. I did feel a bit of a fraud as it wasn’t exactly an emergency and when I turned up the locum, new to me, sent me away with a flea in my ear. So I ended up in the Royal Free, which was even royaler than I was expecting as after the anaesthetic I woke up in the bed next to the Queen Mum’s flower arranger. That was the first time I heard the one about Her Maj appearing at the servants’ hall having rung the bell but had no response, and saying something to the effect that she didn’t know about you fellows but this queen wants a gin-and-tonic. My father-in-law Peter Walbourn later painted the Queen Mum but I couldn’t persuade him to ask her if it was actually true. She let him take home some jewellery for detailed work in his studio.  Is it insured, Peter asked? We couldn’t possibly afford the insurance, came the reply. My mother-in-law slept with it under her pillow.

I can’t remember if the extractions cured the catarrh but the anaesthetist did accidentally sever the nerves in my tongue, which led to some pretty nifty consonant modifications in the Bach a month or so later. Thank heaven for long melismas and a language most English listeners wouldn’t understand anyway. It took months for them to start re-growing, and even now I still get the odd electric twinge decades later.

My next visit to hospital (apart from ferrying injured ninja wife and sick granddaughters every now again) was here in York about 15 years ago for a hernia repair. So was the one after that, a couple of days ago. Everyone I know who’s experienced the sharp end of the NHS has been in awe of the whole thing: it may take a while to get there but once you get through the hospital door you see humanity at its absolute best. Everyone from the surgeon to the auxiliary staff was so kind and super-efficient and full of humour, despite having to work on their days off because of Covid and staff shortages, being under-paid and having to cope with a ridiculous amount of paperwork. They were all so collegiate and caring not just of us patients but of each other. I told the anaesthetist the story of my ancient trauma and he took endless care to explain exactly what he would do to ensure it didn’t happen again. It didn’t, and I could belt out some Bach tomorrow (actually, make that a lute song!).

The other thing you can’t help noticing is that this wonderful microcosm of a perfect society is powered almost entirely by women. And they cheerfully do it day in and day out despite the over-paid and out of touch mostly male government departments they have to answer to.  So thankyou York hospital and everyone who works there – you are a beacon of sanity and hope.



4 Responses to “NHS to JSB”

  1. Roger Marsh says:

    Great to read about your experience of York NHS hospital. My experience there was the same a few years ago when I had vision trouble and eventually an operation on my eye. I’m glad to report that our local ‘polyclinique’ in France is similarly welcoming and efficient, and here we don’t have to wait to get an appointment. Dentistry, that’s another matter: phone up and be offered a date two months hence even in an emergency! I remember your valuable advice to me when I lost my voice (completely) in 2009. I remember telling you that the specialist (so special he was Mr Smith, not Dr Smith apparently) warned me he would probably have to ‘go in with a knife’ to remove the excess swelling on my vocal cords. You almost screamed at me: “Don’t let them anywhere near you with a knife! Drink water, don’t talk, be patient.” You were right. Three months later I was giving lectures again. Though I must say the old power-point/sorry I can’t talk trick made lecturing quite relaxing. I also had to ask my specialist to refer me to a vocal therapist; he wasn’t going to suggest it. By the time I saw the therapist, though, my voice was back. The therapist was very helpful, in case it happened again giving me a sheet of do’s and don’ts including advice about which foods to avoid. I was so cross: could my clueless GP and hospital specialist not have given me a sheet like that right at the start? I hope your lute songs are as magical as always, and your hernias, wisdom teeth and other ailments leave you in peace.

    My voice is going strong, by the way. Anna and I have joined a choir in Tarbes and we’re singing Mozart (Mass in c minor), performances with a Spanish baroque orchestra next Spring in Tarbes and Huesca. Fab. Still got a top G!

  2. John Potter says:

    A top G? That’s pretty impressive! Praetorius at 465 rather tested mine. Glad I spared you the knife – though in the case of my hernia I actually opted for it (rather than keyhole) as the surgeon preferred the tried and trusted method. I definitely wouldn’t have let him near the top end tough.

  3. Roger says:

    Yes top G not a problem. Breath is the problem……I just don’t have the lung capacity any more for some of those long fugal lines. Give me some exercises to try?

  4. John Potter says:

    Ah well, as a singer (mostly) of lute songs I don’t really do breathing…but if I were a singing teacher I’d be telling you that the diaphragm goes all the way round the spine under the lungs so be conscious of back and sides as well as the front. I’d also consider the stomach muscles but that’s a bit transgressive. You can also increase your capacity by holding a deep breath and letting it out slowly, repeating and holding and expelling a little longer each time.

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