Five Questions About the NHS, and What We Learn from ‘First Memories’

Since we launched our People’s History of the NHS website, we have been collecting your first memories of the National Health Service. We have written about some of your stories here,  and here. Those of you who have joined us as members can read even more first memories in the Members’ Area. In fact, your memories have been so rich and revealing that when we started working with the BBC and 7Wonder to create a ‘People’s History of the NHS’ series for television, we encouraged them to collect first memories too. It was pretty hard to choose, but we have picked out just THREE of these amazing memories to share with you on our BBC tab, here.  Watching them, we realised that we want even more: we want and need yours! These memories, each one a snapshot of a moment that has stayed with someone, sometimes for decades, help us piece together a a better picture of how the NHS was actually experienced — the good, the bad, and the profoundly unexpected. So once again, we invite you to tell us your first memory of the NHS.

Just to get us started, it seems only fair that I should tell you mine: I came to Britain from the US in my twenties as a work permit holder. A month or two after I arrived, I got a letter from my doctor at home; she told me that I needed to have a particular health check right away. I knew there was a GP in my area, but  I hadn’t registered; indeed, I hadn’t troubled the NHS in any way, mostly because I couldn’t QUITE believe that I, an American, could just walk in and get free healthcare. So I waited until I had saved up roughly the cost of the test I needed (or at least what I knew it would cost in the USA — about £200). Then I went to see the GP, chequebook in hand, but a bit nervous that perhaps I had not saved enough. Before I sat down for the examination, I asked how much it would be — and she just laughed. Of course, it was free.

Lots of Americans living and working in Britain will have a first memory very much like mine; I have laughingly swapped these stories with American friends and co-workers many times before. But every time I do, I think of Nye Bevan (well, I am a historian of the NHS, after all!). In 1952, when the NHS was still in its infancy, and just after he resigned from the Government which had introduced fees to the fledgling Service, he published a book of essays called In Place of Fear. And that is where the NHS stands for me — and maybe for you too: it is a bulwark against fear and uncertainty. I grew up in a country where medical bills cast a long shadow, one that left families in darkness even before the costs had been incurred. That’s why I delayed getting the test my doctor told me I needed urgently. I was afraid of the cost. The NHS can’t save anyone from the fear of ill-health (though Bevan hoped it might), but it does mean none of us must worry about how we will pay for care we need. I remember that doctor and her infectious laughter with every payslip and every ballot paper.  The NHS isn’t free — but it frees us from fears that affect every American I know.

People’s History of the NHS – The Documentary!

For the last five months, the People’s History of the NHS team have been working with the production company 7Wonder to create a new three-part series for BBC Four, The People’s History of the NHS.  It has been an amazing experience to step behind the TV production curtain into the new world of reading script structures and to think about how our research can be presented visually and on screen.  We have also enjoyed working with the producers to weave historical complexity and nuance through the scripts, while also ensuring that they remain clear, provocative, and exciting.

As part of this collaboration, 7Wonder have also asked all of their interviewees a series of questions that, in different ways, explore the subject that is at the heart of our ‘People’s History’– the deep meaning and cultural significance of the NHS in everyday British life:

  • What does the NHS mean to you?
  • What is your first memory of the NHS?
  • What would you do for the NHS?
  • What will the NHS look like 70 years from now?
  • Do you love the NHS or do you love free health care?

The production company have kindly edited us a series of clips answering these questions and we’ll be releasing them — and lots of links to new and existing materials on our website — in the run-up to the launch of the TV series on BBC Four in July.

Our first two videos are from interviews with Lorraine Leeson and Peter Dunn, both artists.  Looking through these videos some fascinating themes and parallels already emerge.  The first clear theme is the belief that the NHS represents universality – of access, of treatment, but also in terms of representing widely held egalitarian values or, for Lorraine Leeson, rights held not by virtue of being British but by virtue of being human.  These values and rights evoke feelings of passion and pride in our interviewees, expressed explicitly and implicitly.  These themes also come out clearly in the results of our survey for activists, and in the campaign banners produced by Leeds Hospital Alert – the latter of which may be compared to the brilliant art which Leeson and Dunn made in defence of Bethnal Green Hospital in the 1970s.

Notably, these videos also show a sense in which many people are very familiar with the history of the NHS – the turning point of 1948 is often referenced in such interviews and at our public events.  This shows that knowledge of history can operate as a form of ownership over the concept of the NHS, and also as a measure of how information about this institution’s history is ingrained in our daily lives and medical spaces.  Personal histories are entwined with political and social ones in these accounts.  Lorraine Leeson recalls her first memory of the NHS as collecting orange juice from a clinic, while Peter Dunn discusses having grown up with the NHS, being born in the post-war generation but also because his mother and sister were nurses.  This raises fascinating questions about how different generations may feel about the NHS, which we have been discussing with our undergraduate students.

We are glad that our interview questions are already evoking different responses and also the expression of emotion and feelings, and will be continuing to release a small number of videos and to discuss their findings week by week alongside new calls asking YOU to give us your answers to the five questions above.

We’d be delighted to hear your comments in the mean time on the questions raised, or to answer any questions about the documentary and collaborative process!