Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 26 May 2016

A knife? I didn’t know what a knife was. I’d never heard of such a thing

Long life | 26 May 2016
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When your mind suddenly goes wonky, you may be the one person who doesn’t realise that there is something wrong with it. That’s what happened a month ago when I was on a country holiday in Tuscany with my wife. It was lovely weather, and lunch had been laid out of doors. I had cooked a sea bass and was feeling rather pleased with myself. We were both happy, and things could hardly have been better. But everything began to go wrong when my wife decided to ask if I could pass her a knife. A knife? I didn’t know what a knife was. I had never heard of such a thing. I was damned if I was going to respond to this strange request, however much she persisted with it. Yet persist she did, even to the extreme of writing ‘knife’ on a piece of paper to emphasise her point.

Well, finally the penny dropped. It was clear that anybody who hadn’t heard of a knife couldn’t be normal, and that medical assistance was required; and before I knew what was happening to me I was being driven to the hospital at Siena half an hour away. This, it turned out, was a modern, multi-storeyed complex located on the top of a high hill with spectacular views over the medieval city and its surrounding countryside.

I was quite convinced at the time that I was normal, but the hospital didn’t agree. After rushing me through A&E, testing this and that, and putting my head into a scanner, it pronounced that blood had been leaking from my brain and that I would be held in hospital for an indefinite period. I felt that they were taking it all a bit seriously, but I did finally recognise that my brain was not working quite as I had imagined. When I wanted to be brought my spectacles, the word that came out of my mouth was ‘potatoes’; and when I asked for my toothbrush, I called for my ‘typewriter’ (which was especially odd, since I haven’t touched a typewriter since I started using a computer nearly 30 years ago).

I also discovered that I didn’t understand anything I tried to read. I gathered the meaning of particular individual words, but couldn’t link them together to make any sense. When I began to read a little better, I found that I could best understand the stories of P.G.Wodehouse, perhaps because they were nonsense in the first place. When you have a brain haemorrhage, you live in a world of nonsense like Alice in Wonderland. Even the newspapers appear rubbish. Who, for example, could believe that Obama owed his enthusiasm for the EU to his Kenyan ancestry, or that Hitler wanted a European federation as a way to stop European wars?

I had already been edged into the Remain camp by the suspicion that most of the Brexit campaigners are unhinged, but determination to be part of the EU grew with my stay in an Italian hospital. There may be no logical reason for this, but it made me feel much at home. Maybe Britain has been in the EU for so long that nobody in Italy is now surprised when a Briton turns up for expensive treatment without paying anything. Nobody grumbles that you are a benefits scrounger; everyone welcomes you as a fellow European exercising his normal rights.

Everyone’s experience is bound to be different, but mine was exemplary. The Siena hospital is unusual because it is an enormous teaching institution lavishly staffed with Italians; there seems to be no dependence there on immigrant workers. I was tended continuously by unrushed nurses, but also with kindness and warmth. Even the food was good. The neurological wing, which never contained more than two or three patients to a room, had many sad cases, but all were treated with the greatest compassion. Whenever a patient was discharged, he was usually kissed goodbye by a nurse with genuine sorrow. Why are we so convinced that the NHS is so much better than any other health service system?

Anyway, thanks to the care of the Siena hospital, l seem to be slowly getting better and so have attempted to write this column for The Spectator. I may be pottier than I realise, however, so please be indulgent. But one aspect of my condition is that, while you forget most things, you don’t forget any music. All tunes remained secure in the memory, so I will at least spend the rest of my life humming.