Five Fictional Characters Saved by the NHS

21st Oct 2013

In response to the brutal combo of cuts to NHS wages and the decision to cut mental health funding for the first time in ten years, we feel a literary antidote is in order. We're celebrating the NHS by looking at five of our favourite characters who were saved by it...

For the residents of Britain, the NHS has been a godsend (when I say godsend, I mean a publicly-funded, fully comprehensive health-care service, comme ci comme ca).

Brits can be expected to live, on average, for between seventy-nine and eighty-two years, though that’s assuming scientists don’t produce the eternal youth elixir we’ve been promised in books and films since forever. However, we expect L’Oreal to beat them to it in the next twenty years – first step, ‘Revitalift Technology’, next step, IMMORTALITY.

Can’t get a Doctors appointment? Log on to the NHS website and enter your symptoms, misdiagnosing yourself with meningitis before making a panicked call to NHS 24.

A kind member of staff will book you an appointment at your nearest hospital, if it turns out your disease is not in fact fixable by liquids, over-the-counter painkillers and rest (most things are, word).

However, in recent weeks, budget cuts and pay freezes have emerged as the next step on the ever-innovative Tory agenda. The 1% annual incremental pay rise on the horizon for NHS staff in England has been halted while proposals for a £20 billion cut in the budget is pushed forward, leading to over 21,000 redundancies.

David Cameron believes that GP surgeries should be open on evenings and at weekends, a £4m initiative which requires at least another 10,000 GPs to be trained in order for surgeries to cope. That’s a shit-tonne of medical students to throw to the wolves.

Well, here at For Books’ Sake, we love the NHS. We have it to thank not only for our excellent-ish health (knock on wood) but also, in true FBS style, for its role in the lives of some of our favourite literary characters.

My Mad Fat Teenage Diary is a real-life diary kept by author Rae Earl in 1989 (also covered in our feature on council housing, have a look). Rae is seventeen, overweight and suffers from obsessive compulsive tendencies as well as overwhelming anxiety.

One in ten children between the ages of five and sixteen suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder, so we’re super glad that women like Earl (who now lives in a cottage in Tasmania with a writing shed, yes, a writing shed) exist to prove that life does not end there.

Instead of defaulting to clichéd self-deprecation and mental health stereotypes, Rae is charmingly relatable as she describes her teen self ‘snogging’ burgers and listening to Texas and Bananarama to cure an aching heart. We have all been there, and if you say you haven’t, you are lying. LYING.

It’s pretty scary that the Tories have chosen now to impose cuts on mental health funding - for the first time in ten years. The last time this happened, Return of the King was playing at your local cinema, FIRST TIME ROUND.In a similar vein, Poppy Shakespeare, written in 2007 by Clare Allen, offers a great female perspective on psychiatric units and the people who inhabit them.

Poppy is a young mother, wholly convinced that she is sane, but unable to leave the unit without convincing the authorities she is ‘sick’ in order to receive state benefits for legal aid. She befriends ‘N’, a long-term resident of the unit, who helps her manipulate the system.

Allen herself spent a decade in and out of mental health units, and, with more than fifty million prescriptions issued by doctors for anti-depressants in 2012 (that’s in England alone), it’s pretty scary that the Tories have chosen now to impose cuts on mental health funding – for the first time in ten years. The last time this happened, Return of the King was playing at your local cinema, FIRST TIME ROUND.

And who can forget Pig Heart Boy by Malorie Blackman? Thirteen-year-old Cameron Kelsey suffers from heart disease, awaiting a transplant.

With time running out, Cameron receives the heart of a pig, an operation which changes his perspectives on everything.
In London alone, half a million people are on hospital waiting lists.

Cuts in nursing posts in hospitals and wider communities have impacted on the NHS’s capacity to cope with rising demand.

But it’s not just the death rates we have to worry about – what about all the new little lives? Enter Call the Midwife, a collection of stories based on the memories of the author, Jennifer Worth.

Jennifer was a midwife in East End London in the 1950’s, following the establishment of the NHS in 1948. She worked alongside a number of nuns, members of an order serving the slums of London since the 1870’s (holy smokes that’s a long time, no pun intended).

Jennifer’s vivid descriptions of the poverty and squalor into which she helped deliver new life are really eye-opening. Though hospital food sucks and nobody likes puking in cardboard bowls, we have it pretty good, with post-natal support services and a clean, safe environment in which to spawn.

Special Delivery by Ann Leary offers another take on the British-born baby. As a visiting American – Ann is the wife of comedian and film star Denis Leary, who came to Britain to forge a career – she was startled to find herself in a London hospital after her waters broke on Oxford Street.

Ann’s account of her three-month-stay in London is smart and observantly hilarious as she faces the out-break of mad cow disease (remember that fiasco?) and poll tax riots, all whilst under the post-natal umbrella of our beloved NHS.

Image courtesy of the author

What do you think? Are there any other books about the NHS that you’d add to our list?