There was all this talk about Covid, claiming that chaps who were over seventy and not underweight were vulnerable. I would nod sagely, never thinking that this could apply to me. Like a lot of men, when it comes to physique or romance I have a secret appeal court, to override the harsh judgments of birth dates and the shaving mirror. It assured me that I would not catch Covid.
Yet around the turn of the year, I kept on getting intimations and twinges. Full-blown Covid symptoms? No. Taste? Fine. Smell? Fine. Occasional cough but hardly so you would notice. But I was not happy. Was this plague, or hypochondria? The latter did not seem impossible. I was tested – a brush at the back of the throat variety – and passed, without feeling reassured. Then, slowly but inexorably, the roof began to fall in.
I was with friends – a wholly legitimate, scrupulously bubbled business meeting – when the crisis approached. 'I feel terrible' I announced. 'You look worse' came a compassionate reply.
'I'll stagger off home to bed,' I declared.
'You're certainly going to bed'. I think I picked up the switch of language.
'Don't worry: a taxi's booked. You're off to Tommy's.'
'Yes, hospital. That's where you're going.'
I was immensely lucky. Had I been on my own, I would have crawled into bed. As will shortly become apparent, I would neither have known how much I needed help, nor how to summon it. I would have lain there. Would I have crawled through to the other side? Far better that St Thomas' took control of my destiny.
Even before I arrived in hospital my energy level was disintegrating. Would I like a wheelchair to take me to bed? That sounded awfully wet, and exactly what I needed.
At the bedside, I just about had enough strength to stumble in and more or less pass out. The next sixty hours or so were an extraordinary period. I remember hallucinating, on the subject of a conference on health due to take place in Tokyo at the beginning of the last century. But how were we to fit everything around the Russo-Japanese War? Tell we what that means. That is all I remember.
While it was going on, doctors were testing, medicating: poking and prodding my inert frame, working out a strategy. Some friends managed to speak to me. I have no memory of that either. They do.
Hours passed, and there was a change. I woke, and within a few minutes, had worked out who I was and where I was. I also realised that I was as feeble as a day-old kitten. But as I presumably had Covid, that might be what one should expect. I quickly learned that it was.
So how ill had I been? The answer is unclear. I was not on oxygen for very long after waking, and had not come close to a ventilator. It was almost like a chapter in a nineteenth century novel, in which the fever reaches a climax. But these days, modern medicine holds back the virus and launches a counter-attack. If there had been another down-turn, matters would have become serious. How serious? Would we have been talking about a terminal game of chess, as in the Seventh Seal? No-one quite knows, but bless you Tommy's, that did not happen.
Everyone in hospital wants to speak to a doctor. I was determined to exercise self-restraint and not be a nuisance. These doctors not only had Covid wards to run. They had been trying to save my life. The least I could do was not get in the way. So I possessed my soul with patience.
When they did have time to talk, it was rewarding, though I always forgot some of the questions I had written down. They were also in touch with my dear friend Eyzie who had, entirely predictably, become the lay supremo of the Anderson Covid campaign. Eyzie's Great Uncle founded the SAS. She knows how to give orders. One doctor asked if it was all right to go on telling her everything. 'Of course. Simpler that way, and though you won't need her help, it would be there. I am determined to be the most cooperative patient in the entire history of this hospital, but if there were the least recalcitrance, she would crush it.'
The human condition being what it is, this was rapidly followed by a mutiny. Eyzie phoned.
'We need a serious talk.'
'Look, Eyz, I know that I've been gaga, but the government hasn't made that much of a balls-up. Seriousness and the Guardian are still in different universes.'
'No, you clot, a guardian for you. You have been gravely ill.'
Vigorous exchanges followed, in which I deployed Bernard Ingham's immortal phrase, 'bunkum and balderdash.' I kept Eyzie at bay by making two solemn promises.
First, I would not snuff it, or at least not it any short order. Second, I would retain control over my mental faculties, again in the same time-scale. I am determined to keep those promises. But it was a bracing conversation, which showed how ill I had been in those first bizarre hours.
I was the one person involved with the case who did not know how afflicted I was – otherwise I too might have been anxious. As it was, from the moment I recovered consciousness, I did not have a second's doubt that I would recover. All I had to do was lie there. Time and St Thomas' would do the rest. Gradually, brain and sinew would reassert control over the rest of the carcass. That would be needed. I was still deplorably weak. Not wishing to wrestle with a piss-pot, I forced myself out of bed to use the lavatory. That was a round journey of sixty yards. At the beginning, it left me drained.
While I was complacent, friends had a different view of events. When I had been serene and comatose, receiving the formidable ministrations of a great hospital, they had been worrying. They had never joined in my insouciance about age/weight vulnerability, and my telephone discourses had not been reassuring.
There is a good old Scots word, 'havering'. It is often used, wrongly, as a synonym for wavering. Its meaning is actually one down from raving. I had been havering, and those subjected to it in no way shared my calm assumption of inevitable recovery. They often mixed their concern with humour. Jonathan Gaisman said that if Anderson beats Covid, that would be an away win. Nancy Cameron declared that if Bruce recovers, might it be that Covid really was a hoax?
Apropos pessimism, there was a follow-up to my exchanges with Eyzie. A couple of days later, at the end of a doctors' round, one chap stayed behind. A bit older, he looked worldly-wise. Perhaps he was the St Thomas' version of the Abbott of Metaphysics, a very senior Tibetan official during the Younghusband expedition. He also wanted a serious talk, a phrase that was taking on echoes of 'For Whom The Bell Tolls.'
'I'm not trying to worry you. Your progress is steady and encouraging. But as I'm sure you know, this is a funny disease. It can bite back and cause a crisis. If that happened, we'd have to resuscitate you. How far should we go?'
'What are we talking about?'
'It could involve breaking ribs, other broken bones, even a broken skull.'
Jesus wept. How much would I recover from all that?'
I got more of a smile than an answer, so I gave a provisional reply.
'I've always taken the view that quality of life is much more important than quantity. So if I were condemned to being a brain-damaged vegetable, time to switch off the lights.'
'Do you want to think about this?'
'I can conceive of no subject more suitable for a ruminative seminar deep in the long grass.'
I now had another simple task help pass time in a hospital bed: life, death, God and man. About the great question, I have always been a stoic and a eupeptic. I am attracted by Christianity – how could a Tory feel otherwise? – though I would want an opt-out from the Beatitudes. Although I accept that there is no route from reason to Christian faith, I find it impossible to reach faith without reason. My attempts to read Heidegger have been sporadic and are unlikely to be repeated. But there is something majestic in his belief that we are condemned to an infinity from which it is impossible to extract any human meaning. It would be more impressive if he had not then tried to create his own meaning, by selling his soul to Hitler.
So where are we? Without us, say the Christians, it is ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and nothing more. Only we can rescue you from the futility of Bede's sparrow's flight. They have an obvious point.
Yet there is a counter argument which came to me in bed. Though I could not actually see the Thames, it was flowing past below: liquid history. Equally, as night fell, the buildings opposite became a symphony of scarlet and black. This is Thatcher's London, its history in architecture. There followed a mini-epiphany.
After more than a thousand years, the Venerable Bede is still read. Schoolboys still think that they are coining an original witticism when they give his title an obscene twist. Perhaps he is in Heaven. Perhaps he is merely part of the great coral reef, also known as Britain. There would be worse fates.
In my recent broodings, a new reason occurred to me for envying the young. They will face mighty problems. In a world full of challenges, the calibre of western political leadership has rarely been lower. But it is also a world full of opportunity, especially for the rising generation, and Britain is so well-placed to join in. Listening to scientists, one often has the impression that this could be an era of permanent scientific revolution. It will be worth keeping the promises to Eyzie to ensure that I can at least cheer on the game from the touch-line.
'Cheering' brings me to St Thomas'. What a wonderful place. It did everything necessary to encourage positive thinking. All the staff in Anne Ward were spontaneously helpful. If any of them were fed up – and in the nature of things, some must have been at moments – they deserve a knight grand cross gold equity card with oak leaves.
Early, on several mornings, I remember hearing a delightful girl in the distance. She sounded as if she was greeting the new day with a descant. No doubt she was cheering up some old boy who was hard to convince that forthcoming events had much pleasure to offer. By the time she finished, dull would he be of soul who did not raise a smile.
The medics were not invariably successful. Hacks develop an instinct for tension. There was one frail elderly fellow. Every night, in the small hours, when the tides of life ebb, he was in danger. Finally, he did not make it back. In the mess, there would have been a spare place at breakfast the next morning. But as I once heard that wonderful wit, hero and life-enhancer, Prince Philip, declare: 'We've all got to go sometime'. St Thomas' will do everything it can to postpone that sometime.
What is their formula? Although cash may be part of it, I suspect that it has a lot to do with ethos, leadership, confidence and morale. The alumni of any other hospital who wish that I would stop banging on about Tommy's have a simple challenge. Go and do likewise. We need to work out how to spread best practice as widely as possible throughout the NHS. I am grateful that some of it came in my direction.
I also benefited from alternative medicine, but not in a form that should alarm orthodox doctors. Especially when there was no danger of being havered at, friends were constantly on the phone, joshing, teasing, asking what I needed: breathtakingly surprised when I declined offers to smuggle in grog. Laughter and the love of friends is a superb restorative.
I am out of hospital and mending, though energy levels are still low. But assuming that I am not stricken with long covid – the medics are optimistic – it was almost an inspiring experience, though not one which I would care to repeat.