John Bird: Our toxic echo for tomorrow’s generation

We could hit social, environmental, economic and cultural justice – all manner of stuff – in one sweet piece of long-term, sustainable thinking

As I got out of the car, a downpour of hail hit. Outside the hospital, other cars stopped and dropped off. A chainsaw destroyed the tree left in the front of the hospital, the only one that could be seen for acres around. A large pack of smokers and vapers were broken up by the hail. And a general feeling of worried crisis seemed to grip the people passing in and out of the hospital doors.

Inside, a gaudy shop sold sweets, crisps and tabloids, and a nearby cafe dispensed tea, cakes and burgers. Volunteers told me where to go. I walked the length of the hospital and through further indications of ill health: people pushed in wheelchairs by nurses and theatre staff wearing the now-traditional bright green colours associated with the emergency of health. I walked as briskly as I could, perhaps to show how vigorous I was feeling in the face of this crisis of health.

But this was all appearance. This was the surface of things. In rooms radiating out from the long corridors, and on the floors and corridors around me, repairs to health were being attempted. This was a vast city of hope and fear and I walked into it aware of my own mortality.

You could call this system the mortality industry. And this vast hospital, a factory in service to the mortality industry. A place of repair and rescue.

After my hospital visit, my wife picked me up, with me in a medicated daze. We crossed a motorway bridge near to where we live where three people were holding on to a very tall, unhappy-looking man standing on the wrong side of the bridge barrier. They had closed the road below on to which the man may well have jumped.

Certainly, we have much, much more to do about the kind of world we wish to leave beyond our own mortality

But earlier, having navigated my way to my hospital appointment room, the whole whirligig of the corridorism disappeared. A place of peace came upon me. A thoughtfulness; an attentiveness. This was followed (after sedation) by a camera pushed down my throat, and me – coming to – to learn that my early-morning acidic tum wasn’t going to carry me off.

If you take the surface of the health world, you may well see confusion, it seemed to me.

Dazed and confused, hence needing the help of my wife (my driver), I left the milieu of the hospital reassured that this turn wasn’t the one that will cancel me out, only then to see this poor bloke thinking of taking his own life. We did not stop to rubberneck, as they say, but his face haunted me as I thought of the tragedy of self-harm. Love, separation, job loss, addiction, deprivation; what was this man’s reason to want to end it all?

Still dazed, I slept. And the next day I returned to my routine. A trip to the Durham Union Society to talk to university students about the need for a revolution in thinking so we don’t let down circa 37 per cent of our children at school. Young people who then get the worst of life’s chances and are often condemned to poverty and need.

The mortality industry doesn’t have the resources to do very much for the man on the bridge – other than get him off the bridge and, perhaps for a day or two, out of harm. But so much pressure is put on NHS mental health services that vulnerable people can only be helped sporadically.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

Of course, there are incredible stories of help. But resources are so scarce that a full service is not available for all that need it. As the King’s Fund has said, there is a widening gap between the rhetoric and reality of commitments to give mental health parity of esteem with the physical.

A few days before my appointment, I raised an issue in the Lords. What about an emergency response to the climate crisis from the UK government, as had been done by the administrations in Wales and Scotland, and also by MPs themselves in the Commons?

Couldn’t the UK government put our country on an emergency footing because of how existentially serious climate change is becoming?

I used the imagery of 80 years ago; of governmental appeasement before Hitler and the events that led to the Second World War. Would we, today, be seen as climate change appeasers by future generations? The generation who knew what needed to be done, but fiddled while Rome burned?

After the government’s response to my question, I followed it with a suggestion that if we followed the lead of the Welsh Assembly by adopting future generations legislation in Westminster, we could put ‘tomorrow’ right at the centre of our ambitions.

We could hit social, environmental, economic and cultural justice – all manner of stuff – in one sweet piece of long-term, sustainable thinking.

Certainly, we have much, much more to do about the kind of world we wish to leave beyond our own mortality. Scuffing around in the here and now, making do with the stop-gap and prioritising profit at the expense of tomorrow will, in the end, make us the true appeasers. Appeasers insofar as we enjoy ‘today’, but leave a toxic echo for the citizens of tomorrow.

I only wish, as we all wish, to help the man off the bridge and ensure he gets the support that would rescue his mortality – and make ours more worthy.