:: York NHS Hospital


Friday, October 29th, 2021

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.