WHEN Florence Nightingale arrived at Scutari, she witnessed the military’s early version of ‘triage’: wounded men were divided into two categories, those whom they considered worth trying to save, and those they concluded were beyond hope. The latter were dumped and left to rot in various buildings. One of Nightingale’s early journal entries records the conditions: ‘There were no vessels for water or utensils of any kind. No soap, towels, or clothes, no hospital clothes. The men lying in their uniforms, stiff with gore and covered with filth to a degree of a kind no one could write about. Their persons covered with vermin which crawled about the floors and walls of the dreadful den of dirt, pestilence and death to which they were consigned.’
The military failed to comprehend what a group of women thought they were doing turning up in a war zone, but were content to turn a blind eye to Florence’s decision to nurse a group of men whom they had abandoned anyway. Not only is this a historical marker for the beginning of the nursing profession, but perhaps more importantly it illustrates the miracle of nursing. For what happened was that not all these men died. The introduction of care and kindness (alongside some ruthless attention to hygiene, naturally), restored their spirits. This is equally shown in the work of Mary Seacole, another eccentric woman, who arrived in the Crimea from the Caribbean. She and her group built a hut (a poor replica of her successful hotel in Jamaica) out of driftwood, packing cases, iron sheets, salvaged glass doors and window frames, creating a haven and giving succour to men destroyed by battle. Those who survived never forgot her, nor the ‘Lady with the Lamp’.
So, when I say it’s a spiritual thing, I mean that behind the deeds are the invisible forces of care, compassion, inspiration and optimism that are a most essential part of the healing process. Some might say that without it, we never heal properly. One other anecdote about Florence Nightingale: in her Notes on Nursing (mandatory reading with questions afterwards, in my view, for anyone in medical care), she stresses the spiritual importance of flowers as part of the healing process. These are banned from hospital wards these days.
Edward Fox, in a TV documentary about Churchill not too long ago, recalled that as a small boy he used to listen with his parents to the great man’s radio broadcasts, and although too young to really understand them, went to bed kind of ‘knowing that everything was going to be all right’. Just from that voice. Or was it the spirit behind that voice? Good gracious, it’s as well he didn’t hear Churchill’s innermost thoughts. After re-recording his ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech for the American public, he apparently muttered to the producer that he had no idea what we were going to fight them with, as we only had beer bottles. Even here, however, is defiance rather than despair, wrapped up in graveyard humour. And this was reflected in the general populace, battered by bombing and rationing, yet finding the time to sing, boil a brew and have a laugh.
Where is that spirit today? Without it, we cannot heal. I see sick people all around me. It’s become the norm to expect dinners, lunches, get-togethers and other social events to be cancelled at the last minute. Plenty has already been mooted on the cause of our general malaise, be it Covid, the vaccine, mass formation psychosis, the flu, and a myriad other afflictions (that cold again, third time this month), let alone more serious adverse events. In all of this, where are those championing optimism, raising the spirit?
We’re often reminded that the first duty of government is the welfare of its own people. I would go further and say how important it is that a good government champions the protected freedom of its own people. And there’s the rub, because we’re under the cosh of exactly the opposite. It explains why the spirit has departed. Edward Heath kicked that ball into play when he committed high treason, handing over our sovereignty to the Treaty of Rome, against written legal advice and admonition.
Successive governments have kicked Heath’s ball further, eroding our independence and making us a vassal to foreign powers. And a different spirit now invades our souls. One of malice, malevolence, surveillance, control and above all, death – whether from disease or the crushing of our spirit (how else can you really explain the prevention of the dying from being visited and comforted in their last moments by their loved ones?) We have no champions. We don’t go to bed knowing everything is going to be all right. In short, nobody cares for us. We find ourselves dumped at Scutari once more. All we can hope is for that little fanoos lamp to appear again and weave its way amongst us like a little firefly in the blackest night.