One interesting thing I’ve had over the past 2 weeks is my closest ever experience with Britain’s NHS, and in particular with its food, which I’ve been eating every day.
And there was something that struck me as very interesting about it. In a time when people are eating more and more different food, NHS food (in my hospital at least) was all plain, simple, conservative English food.
You were given a choice… but only a choice of plain, simple, conservative English food.
For breakfast you could have porridge or one of several cereals (e.g. corn flakes and milk). And you could also have a couple of slices of toast with butter and marmalade. And you could have a mug of tea or coffee (plus sugar) or hot chocolate.
Lunch was similar but included soups and simple meat stews with mashed potatoes and green beans and carrots. About the only thing that was missing was bacon, and fried egg (I asked for this but was refused), and pastry.
After a while I realised that it was what we ate back in the 1950s. There was no pizza back then. Nor pasta. Nothing vegetarian either. I wasn’t even asked if I was on a diet.
It wasn’t my mother’s home cooking: she was a rather adventurous cook. Nor was it anything like a Full English Breakfast, which is a great and glorious thing.
But it reminds me that when smoking was banned in 2007, one of my responses was to go go back to eating food I’d hardly touched in 50 years (like lamb chops). And in doing so I saw myself as re-assertng my English values. And maybe that’s how values survive: people quietly dig in and keep doing what they’ve always done. Conservatism doesn’t seek to transform values: it seeks to preserve them.
So NHS hospitals remain creatures of the 1950s, when they were first created. 1950s values are built into the NHS. So while other ideologues inveigh against sugar and butter and marmalade and meat, the NHS just keeps serving it up. It hasn’t changed in 70 years. The NHS is a conservative institution, cooking conservative food. And in in a time of mounting dietary radicalism, that’s a very good thing.
And maybe that’s one explanation for why the NHS is so beloved by us Brits: it’s a cultural constant, a bit like the Royal Family. And as long as you can get toast and butter and marmalade in an English hospital, all will be right with the world.
And I was delighted by it. On my last day in hospital, I ate every scrap of my NHS lunch, because I thought I’d never get another one like it. It wasn’t particularly tasty: 1950s English food never was. But it was good, dependable, unpretentious food. And probably it survived along with other good, dependable, unpretentious traits, which together amounted to a statement of a set of values that had been unchallenged for something like a century.
I’m not “clapping for carers”: (a very unEnglish thing to do). I’m simply recognising that the NHS is one English cultural institution that has retained some important values intact for approaching a century, making it something of a cultural bastion in a stormy time, when cultural values of every kind are under attack. And for that I’m grateful.