Michael Bywater column

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The Independent Culture
IT'LL BE gone soon. Gone as a hospital, that is. Probably luxury flats packed with Americans sent over here by their banks: tanned, toned, driven, 27-year-old scum, shallow as blades.

In the old days we could have despised them, if only for allowing themselves to be governed by a potato-faced boobie, a bad joke with a hard-on who thinks that it's a good idea to invade a country thousands of miles away: Bill Clinton, easing his tensions into the sink again. But we can't do that now that we in our turn allow ourselves to be governed by a man who takes on the role of the sink. Until we have as our functional head of state something better than a slogan-machine who deserves to be dragged face-down through Clerkenwell with a Crunchie up his arse, we are in no position to complain. And soon there they'll be, poncing around what was once the Middlesex Hospital. There'll be a swimming pool and "health club" in the basement, and Todd and Mai-Ling in Apartment 127, and 24-hour security ("I'm sorry, sir, but they say they're not expecting you").

I was back there the other week, on bedside watch again. This time it was cheerful, the patient restored like a Phoenix to health and vigour. If I ever fall ill, that's where I want to be, tucked up snug and woozy in the Woolavington Wing, Maria as my named nurse, not to forget Claudette and Tabby with the cornrows and the pretty, pretty one from Trinidad looking after me, and Mr Silverstone's immaculate handiwork healing nicely in my giblets, every day getting better and nearer the point when I could run out into the street, shedding my clothes and shouting "Take me! I'm yours, whoever you may be!"

Alas, it's unlikely, and not just because I am a man and Mr Silverstone is a gynaecologist. Those things can be fixed; what can't be fixed is that the old Middlesex is closing down and Todd and Mai-Ling will be moving in, with their Conran sofa and his Early American armoire and her strange, bitter, unconvincing cries in the night.

It's good sense for the University College London NHS Trust - everything under one roof in a bright new building, and think of all those places to put their idiotic new logo, without which no medicine may be practiced in New Britain - but curiously painful for me. The Middlesex Hospital, now out-of-date, overstretched, redundant, was just a decade old when Daddy went up as a medical student. There he was: 18 years old, flannel bags, tweed jacket, slide rule, microscope, just like in Doctor in the House. Dissection, beer, ward rounds and Hammersmith Palais on Friday nights; even at nearly 80 he can still cut a rug, light on his feet, skills which back then got him into all sorts of trouble which we won't go into now.

And then, at 18, I went there too, for my interview with the Dean. Same corridor, same door, delighted to have me and at the point at which I changed my mind there's still a small ache, like a hollow tooth; no matter what you do, there's still a part of you which wants to be Just Like Daddy; the part, in my case, which wants to be kind and decent and look after people and know what I'm for.

I walked down the same corridor 11 years later, when my then wife was being mended by Mr Steele; and then a year or so after that, when Mr Steele's work came good and our daughter came into the world, both of us stunned with fascination and bewilderment. And then again, the other week, popping out into the courtyard for a cigarette (just like Daddy; cigarettes didn't kill you, back then) or wandering around the corridors, seeing how the nameplates on the doors had deteriorated from the original engraved brass to matey junk run up on laser printers; watching the old chronics up for their 100th X-ray; wondering when the Porters' Lodge became the Emergency Response Unit; thinking of how, for most of this century, those doors had seen the sick stream in and be divided, most returned again, grateful, into Mortimer Street, the rest diverted with sympathy and evasion into the covered trolley, the mortuary and the grave.

If a building can absorb the emotions of the people who pass through it, the Middlesex Hospital must be humming like an organ. It's odd to think that, in years to come, I may glance up at the windows and know that they no longer shelter people I love, there to be taught or mended or brought into the world, but, instead, Todd and Mai-Ling, dreaming of Ferraris and raising money for bombs.

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