Born in the NHS is one of those books that’s hard to categorise. It offers a fascinating slice of social history – families in sickness and health, the changing roles of health professionals – over the last seventy years, but it’s no dry academic study. The book – a collaboration between two poets, Wendy French and Jane Kirwan – is brimming with life, real people and their dramas. It is also thoughtful, reflective and packed with things you didn’t know but might now be glad you’ve found out.
The idea for the book began with conversations between Kirwan and French about growing up in medical families. French’s father was a GP in Wales, Kirwan’s parents were both doctors, originally from Ireland but working most of their lives in Northampton. Both poets have also worked in the NHS and have extended family members still active in it and have a wealth of material to draw upon.
Alarmed at recent cuts and changes to the NHS, they felt the need to document, from their own lived experience, what they knew and valued about the Service. But it isn’t quite a documentary and neither is it a polemic, as they are keen to point out in the foreword, rather it is a ‘personal and impressionistic account.’
It’s perhaps best described as a miscellany as it includes, prose, poems, anecdotes, memoir, facts. Presented as an A-Z, once you’ve read the introductions, which outline fascinating family histories, you are free to dip in and out.
Try, for example, under T for TUBERCULOSIS, Kirwan’s piece ‘Lipstick.’ Pre-NHS, pre-widely available antibiotics this disease was an ever present threat and highly contagious. The piece shows Kirwan’s medical student mother at a dance in 1931 cutting off the top of her lipstick that has been hastily snatched and used by ‘Maura from the bank.’
In P for PARAMEDICS French gives us a brief history of the ambulance service, something that developed out of the First World War. It is as recent as the 1970s and 1980s that ambulance drivers make the shift from offering transport to offering first treatment. This is followed by a highly moving poem ‘Running Late,’ about a cycling accident, that becomes all the more poignant when we discover the cyclist is French’s niece.
This juxtaposition of fact, history, statistic against deeply felt personal story is effective throughout and makes the book compelling.
Born in the NHS offers unique, valuable insight into a national institution that has been around for such a short time. Required reading, I reckon for the under 40s who may have come to take it all for granted.
It’s also an excellent example of creative collaboration – what happens when poets talk to each other, how writing grows new writing – plus it marks the start of a new publishing venture – The Hippocrates Press.
This is a book that every home should have.