The relationship has been a dream, something out of the 19th century. The three brothers have been working on our house in the country for months, nearly years, lovingly restoring and renewing what is a brick, flint and oak construction some 300 years old. The eldest brother is 68, a master builder, his middle brother is a master carpenter and the youngest is a master electrician and plumber. They subcontract nothing and apply themselves to whatever challenge presents itself. Most recently it has been the installation of solar panels. They offer no estimates. Ours is a relationship of monthly trust. The work evolves as the weeks progress and the proof of it all is in the exceptional result. The brothers have no passports. They have been to London once, and hated it. Beyond an eccentric trip one of them took in a Tiger Moth, they have never flown. They don’t drink and they have never smoked. Collectively they are a rare and remarkable connection with the skills and crafts of English history.
Last week the middle brother was rushed to hospital with a heart condition. Suddenly I found myself with the opportunity to test the true state of Britain’s National Health Service. Here was the prospect of a visit to a random ward, in a random hospital, in a random town. The town was Reading, the hospital, the Royal Berkshire, and the ward, Sidmouth. From outside it was plain that an old building had enjoyed a certain amount of renewal. Inside lay apple-pie order and unbelievable cleanliness, with brilliant blue floors that curved seamlessly at the edges into the walls.
Three sets of double doors led to Sidmouth ward. You could not open the first until you had extracted the disinfectant from the dispenser on the wall and thoroughly scrubbed your hands. The ward itself, sporting a vast array of gadgets and machinery, was again extraordinarily clean. My friend the carpenter looked strange in his starched, hospital-issued nightshirt. But he was on the mend and in the two hours I was there was provided with tea, tablets and tenderness. The nursing staff I met came from Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Ireland. As one who has had to report on NHS issues over the past decade or so, I was genuinely overwhelmed by the efficiency, grace and hygiene of the place – 10 out of 10.
I found myself wondering how the government had managed to make such a mess of the results of the recent “deep clean” in NHS hospitals as part of the war on hospital bugs. “Government misses target on deep clean,” screamed the headlines. Actually, by the appointed date a staggering 94 per cent of hospitals had been subjected to the big scrub, leaving just 6 per cent to finish. In so complex a health system I call that a remarkable achievement. Somehow we all managed to chalk it up as another classic missed target.
I wouldn’t mention the success of the Royal Berkshire Hospital, nor take too much note of my one-off random test, had it not been for the fact that three days later I fulfilled a longstanding date at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. Dr Allan Goldman, who runs the intensive care unit, had asked me to be involved in a conference he had entitled Risky Business. Nothing prepares you for the intensive care unit in a children’s hospital. Tiny babies in amazing electronic cribs connected to panels of blipping graphs and pulsating lights. At each of the 20 or more “bays”, there are at least two medical staff, one taking notes, the other seemingly twiddling knobs. Watching parents, professionalised by weeks of traumatic involvement, are also on hand. Some of the babies have had heart transplants. Two older children are on heart machines awaiting donor organs. The devices, the size of a buggy, sit in the corner with a pipe trailing to the children who sit happily painting at a round table. You feel you are at the very edge of human and technological innovation. Indeed, Dr Goldman tells me that very soon they may be able to extract stem cells from the very incision through which the heart machine lends its life support. He suggests that the cells may soon be injected back into the child’s heart enabling it to grow its own repairs, obviating the need for a transplant.
At the Risky Business conference three days later, every one of the 350 chairs in the room is occupied by dauntingly brilliant men and women from the health service. There is a tangible air of energy and dynamism. Dr Goldman has assembled a truly eclectic group of risk-takers. There’s Ross Brawn, team principal of Honda Formula One, General Sir Mike Jackson, former head of the British Army, former Nasa astronaut Jim Bagian and Victor Herbert of the New York Fire Department. It turns out that the astronaut has been the most shocking risk-taker of us all, facing a one in 25 chance of never coming back from space. But the life and death risks each of us take in our day jobs turns out to be highly instructive for health workers who are faced every day with intimate life or death decisions.
“Do you hear birdsong in Baghdad?” That was the unusual question in my inbox last week from a film editor working on a movie of the brilliant book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, about the Green Zone, the heavily-guarded diplomatic/ government area in central Baghdad. I have to think really hard. Sirens, yes. Occasional mortar fire, yes. The boom of a car bomb and the eerie silence before sirens, yes. The rattle of machine gun fire and the clatter of helicopter blades, yes. But birdsong? I fear not. I am completely unable to recall it. My correspondent is disappointed. She had found some rather good birdsong in the sound library.
My week is book-ended by the Middle East. Israel’s 60th birthday one end of the week, a fundraiser for Medical Aid for Palestine the other. The Israel birthday is held in a concrete block of a hotel behind Victoria station. The place is awash with police and men in dark suits, dark glasses and very short haircuts. It’s a sombre, male-dominated affair. Not much joy, no Yiddish folk songs, no whoops of joy. Predictable speeches from the ambassador and the British foreign secretary and we are out in the midday sun again.
The Palestinian number is a sit-down affair in a Mayfair hotel. More Palestinian diaspora than British sympathisers, there is a tremendous chatter going on when I arrive late from the news to do the auction. Former US secretary of state James Baker is guest of honour. I am surprised and impressed that so senior a Republican should commit himself to such an evening. He talks of Iran’s nuclear intentions in conventional administration terms and gets heckled but his analysis of peace prospects is acute. He still gets heckled. When it comes to my turn to call for bids for incubators in Gaza and primary care in Hebron, I notice the hecklers sit on their hands. But there are others in the room who are extraordinarily generous. In all, we raise a staggering quarter of a million pounds for health needs in Gaza and the West Bank. All in all an unusually medical week.
Jon Snow is the lead presenter on ‘Channel 4 News’