London, revisited – such an amazing city – huge, multicultural, the centre of the ‘swinging sixties’ when I grew up – a place I am excited to be back visiting, a place where my parents married and where most of my extended family lived when my immediate family moved to Australia. Now I have one child living here and the other lives about an hour away, so I feel as if London revisited is like putting on an old glove and to me it is always magnificent – looking forward to the Christmas lights in Oxford St, being back in the Mall (at the age of nine I watched the Queen ride-by side saddle in the Trooping of the Colour) – I was on my father’s shoulders – that was truly magnificent – absolutely no one does ceremony like the British!
It has changed though, I landed at Heathrow, one of the busiest airports in the world yesterday after a stop at one of the other busiest, Dubai.
Both were efficient and clean and full to bursting with the world’s peoples – I am reminded how empty Australia is by comparison! The Heathrow express to Paddington takes just 15 minutes and costs 24 pounds – fabulous and warm with on board wi-fi. It is Monday morning rush hour when I arrive at Paddington and I am excited all over again by the sight and sounds of a huge British railway station – my dad was a complete train buff and it always makes me think of him and the journeys we took as children to Cornwall on holiday or to the boat train down to Southampton to get on an ocean liner to take us back to our home in South Africa or on to that magic sea voyage to go to live in Australia when I was 11.
I am staying at present close to Little Venice – a peaceful canal containing barges with names like ‘Pickles’ moored all the way along, some in bright colours and all dressed in pot plants and the signs of human habitation. I am re-oriented to the ‘tube’ – the underground system of trains that can take you anywhere, I see again the proud red double decker buses and visit the local, rather comforting row of local shops.
Today I was out for a latte after waking and had to don my overcoat for the first time in about 4 years – sunny but only 1 degree Celsius! Nice and warm in the café. With jet lag threatening I managed a visit to see the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery – huge paintings of extraordinary realism and astounding light play on the faces and hands of the subjects. I then got my old android phone organised with a British SIM card so that Telstra won’t make a huge profit out of this overseas trip!! Very helpful bloke from Hobart – the place is crawling with Aussies…
All this reminiscing has brought back so much of my life in London – I worked here for about 3 years just after my internship in Canberra in the mid seventies and as well as hospital jobs I did some general practice locums and that really taught me about London and Londoners……if you are interested, read on – I started to write about my travels a few years ago and have never finished, but here is some of what I did get down about my first experiences as a qualified doctor. This tale starts with my interview with a GP about to go on holiday, having been greeted by a steely ‘dragon-like’ receptionist, Mrs Thomas, who introduced me to my protective employer;
‘This is the doctor, come about the locum’.
‘Right, well I’m going away next week and I won’t be back for ten days. I’ll need you to come in every morning to take the surgery and do any visits. There shouldn’t be many. I’ve got them all pretty well trained, you know. Mrs Thomas comes in to open up and does a bit of filing. They told you about the rates at the agency?’ I nodded affirmatively.
‘Right, then. I say, you look pretty young. When did you graduate?
‘Done any General Practice before?’’No’.
‘Oh well, you’ll be fine, just send ‘em to the hospital if you don’t know what else to do.’
The very next week, with these auspicious words ringing in my ear, I entered through the great black door. Greeted Mrs Thomas. Sat in the brown chair and felt like an imposter. I waited. Nothing happened. I looked into the waiting room. Nothing happened there either. Boy, did he have them ‘trained’. No one dared get sick!
I explored. I opened a cupboard; only a litter of old files. Opened the drawers, discovered an abundance of drug samples, pens, pencils, prescription pads, a packet of cigars (nearly all doctors smoked in those days) and an old packet of Lifesavers. I put one in my mouth. I had expected to be terrified and here I was, bored.
Mrs Thomas appeared;
“Mr Lynford’s here. I told him to wait”.
I wondered if the dragon lady had anything to do with the lack of patients, you’d need guts to get round her. Trying to look as professional as possible, and looking more like a short, blonde girl, I asked Mr Lynford to come in.
“What can I do for you, Mr Lynford?”
“Wellum doc, it’s dis pain. It’s so bad man.” The large, greying West Indian went on to describe the pain in great detail while holding his left side. I did not understand more than about one word in ten. My mental processes were in a tail spin. An examination might just help me to gain a little more understanding of the presenting complaint. I asked him to lie on the bed and proceeded to carefully and systematically examine his abdomen and left side. Thoughts of kidney stones were followed by the thought that I should examine his genitals as part of the thorough examination of the urogenital system. As I moved to make good my thought, Mr Lynford leaped off the bed and as he moved quickly to the door said quite clearly;
“The pain is in my head, man.”
Time for a break. The conversation overheard on the tube that morning came back to me.
“England’s not the same place anymore, not by a long shot. Why, when i was a girl, the King was the Emperor of India and the sun never set on the British Empire. Now we’ve got all these other types, all speaking their own lingo, why you can’t tell ‘alf of what they’re talking about. They should all learn to speak proper English”
Maybe she had a point about the difficulty of communication. I thought I had better learn a few brands of English.
The weather had not improved when I emerged onto the street some hours later but the work didn’t seem too onerous. Maybe I could survive.
Sitting in the big brown chair in the morning was fine. There weren’t many patients and those that came in were pleasant and undemanding. Mrs Thomas thawed a little, we talked about her early life in Wales. It sounded hard compared to my childhood, she was the fourth child and eldest girl in a coal miner’s family. It was hard grind for them and poorly paid considering the conditions. I knew that many of the Welsh coal miners in those days developed pneumoconiosis, a disease that blackened the lungs with the foul, fine coal dust and eventually damaged them so badly, the afflicted virtually suffocated. Life didn’t sound much better for the women, fighting a constant battle with the coal dust in the house and another with the interminable need to make too little money go just a bit further. Surprisingly Mrs Thomas didn’t sound bitter.
“You just got on with it” she shrugged, but I was aware still of that ‘dragon’ quality, a barrier against the unfairness of the world, perhaps?
The bus was overcrowded and ripe, discharging the home going crowd a trickle at a time. I was mesmerised by the pure and perfect English of a small Indian boy discussing his day, his adoring mother a jangle of gold bangles and pink sari. My thoughts turned again to childhood and the way fate is thrust upon us. We have no say in our birth and the uniqueness of our earliest experiences.’