Bring back those straight-laced matrons

When I was last in a maternity hospital, it was a miracle any of us survived the ordeal

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Duty more than devotion prompted my last hospital visit to see a crabby old relative laid low with a mysterious condition that apparently allows her to digest only chocolate biscuits and gin. Laden with quantities of both I arrived at her beside to be greeted with the usual litany of complaints about the doctor, the nurses, the other patients and her pills. What about the cleaners, I said, having just read the latest alarming report about the MRSA hospital superbug which killed 5,000 NHS patients last year and will see off a lot more this year if standards of hygiene don't improve pretty sharply.

Duty more than devotion prompted my last hospital visit to see a crabby old relative laid low with a mysterious condition that apparently allows her to digest only chocolate biscuits and gin. Laden with quantities of both I arrived at her beside to be greeted with the usual litany of complaints about the doctor, the nurses, the other patients and her pills. What about the cleaners, I said, having just read the latest alarming report about the MRSA hospital superbug which killed 5,000 NHS patients last year and will see off a lot more this year if standards of hygiene don't improve pretty sharply.

My relative, to whom I had better refer as Great Aunt X, replied that the Filipino cleaners were the only good thing going for the hospital because, for a small remuneration, they decanted her gin into mineral water bottles every morning and kept her topped up with tins of her favourite milk chocolate teatime assortment. Since the hospital she is in happens to be my local hospital, I did a quick spot check under the bed for mouse droppings, ran my fingertips over the windowsill for dust and squinted behind the bathroom door for discarded fag ends. Hospital lavatories are a favourite place for smokers. Clean as a whistle, no droppings, no dust, no dead butts. The basin could possibly have done with a quick wipe down; there were a few matted grey hairs in the plughole, but compared to one of the maternity hospitals I had the misfortune to be stuck in for two weeks back in 1980 something, the place was as pure, spotless and unsullied as Tony Blair's conscience.

In the circumstances it's a miracle that any of us mothers and babies survived the ordeal. The floor of the ward was so sticky that the woman in the bed beside me complained that if she didn't put her feet straight into her slippers when she got out of bed, it sucked the corn plaster off her big toe like a powerful magnet.

There were supposed to be two bathrooms for the eight of us in the ward. In practice there was only one because the door of the left-hand bathroom had come off its hinges and remained propped against the wall for the fortnight I was there. If you weren't squeamish about using a lavatory without a door, a further surprise awaited you inside. On the shelf beside the spare loo paper there was a plastic jug containing what might have been lemonade or malt whiskey but was eventually diagnosed by someone with a nose for these things to be a urine sample.

The trouble with cleanliness (apart from being next to godliness) is that one person's idea of ship-shape and Bristol fashion is another person's slum. I had lunch with friends in their beautiful Northamptonshire cottage the other day and was astonished when my hostess apologised for the mess. What mess? The place looked as though it had just had an industrial spring clean. I personally go in for the cosy cluttered look which friends with higher standards prefer to call a tip. One in particular who learnt housewifery from her Austrian mother-in-law is appalled at the amount of stuff I keep permanently on my kitchen worktops and table. She puts everything away in drawers and cupboards, and I mean everything including the kitchen sink which, when not in use, is concealed under a cunningly designed pullout shelf.

When she first moved to Salzburg, Mutti, as she called her mother-in-law who lived on the top floor of the marital home, made my poor nervous newly married friend do housework with her every day until teatime. Mutti may have called it housework; I'd call it hard labour for hygiene obsessives. Take a simple thing like making the bed. To me it means straightening the bottom sheet, pulling up the duvet and shoving everything on it under the pillow. Mutti took the bed apart. She hung duvet and pillow out of the window to air and, before turning the mattress, spent 15 minutes dusting the bedsprings with the special bedspring dusting attachment of her vacuum cleaner.

The only effective antidote to MRSA was taken out of service by the NHS years ago. I refer to that now extinct species, hospital matron, who ran her wards as efficiently as Mutti ran her Haus. Matron and Mutti were chips off the same old block, no-nonsense martinets who could spot a dust particleat 100 paces and disciplined their cleaning staff in much the same way as Napoleon commanded his troops. Not everyone liked hospital matrons but then I didn't much like my Auntie Vera who, whenever we visited her house as children, followed us around with a dustpan and brush even in the garden. Bring back matrons; you know it makes sense.

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