At University College Hospital

Inigo Thomas

Not so long ago, I had a bicycle accident in the quarter of Camden Town that forms the background for many of Frank Auerbach's paintings. The front wheel lost its grip as I rode over a manhole cover, made more slippery that morning by overnight rain. It was bad luck, but my good luck it wasn't worse — my bike slipped away to the left, I fell to the right, my hip and chest took most of the impact, I wasn't wearing a helmet, it happened on a side street used by few cars, two people picked me up.

I rode home, changed, took my jacket to the dry cleaner to have the sleeve stitched, then went to the opticians to have my spectacles seen to, and on to a cycle shop on Store Street in Bloomsbury to have the bike repaired. It was while I was waiting at a nearby cafe for the handle bars to be straightened and the derailleur on the back wheel recalibrated that I realised my right leg had seized up and I couldn't walk. Two men hauled me along the pavement to Gower Street and put me into a cab that took me to University College Hospital. A porter with a wheelchair shunted me in to A&E.

The electronic sign said there was a two-hour wait to see a doctor, but a lot happened to me very quickly. I was with a nurse within ten minutes (who gave me some strong painkillers), a doctor in twenty, and ten minutes after that I was in the formidably named MEGA ward, where a Bavarian nurse said she would be looking after me for the rest of the day. The rest of the day? A doctor prodded my right leg, asked me to try to lift it. I couldn't. He said I would have some X-rays and a CT scan. Had I hit my head, he asked. I recalled hoping in the instant after I lost control that I wouldn't hit my head on the tarmac, and knowing there was nothing I could do to stop it. But my head didn't hit the road; my leg, hip, ribs and shoulder absorbed my fall.

The X-rays and CT scan were to establish whether my hip was cracked or not. I was handed a hospital robe, and as I waited I fell into one of those self-induced trances that anyone who likes to stare out of train windows will know. A friend brought me my copy of the fourth volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, that study of time and timelessness, and how you never move on or let go of anything. But being absorbed in nothing was my way of getting through the waiting; concentrating on Karl Ove, however commensurate he was with my situation, just wasn’t possible.

I've cycled in London since I was a boy and never known an accident like this one. I’ve slipped on ice. I’ve been pushed off my bike by someone who thought it might be entertaining to push a cyclist down into oncoming traffic — I didn’t fall badly that time. I once stopped cycling in London after I lost my nerve, but took it up again four years ago and found it exhilarating and liberating. I’ve heard it said that cycling in London is like skiing or surfing, but a French uncle who surfs off Biarritz says that cycling and surfing have very little in common; you expect to fall off your board all the time in the sea, and if you think of cycling in these terms you’re a maniac.

People who oppose mandatory insurance for cyclists say it would put people off cycling in London. It might be a good thing if it did. If a cyclist on a racing bike is travelling at 25 mph in a 20 zone, then why shouldn’t they be fined and have points added to a licence? No one has a monopoly on folly on the streets of London; pedestrians are as foolish as car drivers. Some cyclists are as misanthropic and vicious as the semi-murderous person behind the wheel of a van whose way with intimidation is to threaten to kill you.

After the X-rays I was moved from MEGA to Major and its Critical Decision Unit, where I was wheeled into a large room on my own. The dominant colour mood was a soporific off-mauve. Huysman’s Des Esseintes, the hero of A rebours, who is having a revival with his appearance in Houllebecq’s Soumission, is the aesthete-as-patient, a casualty of his senses, with no gap between what he sees and what he feels. You don’t have to be much an aesthete to recognise in Bay B in the Major ward of A&E that the idea is for you to be both reassured and subdued.

Outside, in the corridor, there was a chest of drawers on wheels, each drawer with a name — BASIC AIRWAY, ADVANCED AIRWAY, CIRCULATION, FLUIDS & MISC. DRUGS, MISCELLANEOUS ITEMS. I was impressed with the correct contraction of ‘miscellaneous’, but I was impressed with everything I saw and everything that happened. A new doctor came into Bay B, closed the glass door and explained that the CT scan revealed no fracture and I could go. I thanked her very much. It was almost eight in the evening, and in that instant ordinary time reasserted itself. Supper. I struggled to dress. I couldn’t really walk. I was given a pair of crutches. A porter with a wheelchair arrived and took me to the entrance of A&E. A minicab took me home.

​Today there is a junior doctors strike; all three doctors I saw that day at UCH were ​junior doctors, and it's impossible not to feel a reflexive solidarity with those who have helped you after a fall.

For a couple of days I couldn’t walk. I crawled upstairs and shuffled across the kitchen floor doing a version of the twist – amazing how handy a dance move can fit unusual circumstances. A day later, I was using a stick: the day after that I could walk about. Who knew you could manage Shakespeare's seven stages of man in four days. I collected my repaired jacket and spectacles, and got my bike from Store Street. With its vivid blacks, purples, reds and yellows, the bruise on my thigh resembled the palate of some of Frank Auerbach's paintings.


  • 12 January 2016 at 5:19pm
    Paul Taylor says:
    No one on the streets of London has a monopoly on folly but someone who is misanthropic and murderous in a 1500kg steel box is a very different risk to those around them than someone equally vicious but balanced on 10kg of aluminium. Of the 2122 pedestrians killed in the UK by vehicles between 2010 and 2014, 19 were hit by cyclists. But maybe that's to miss the point because those numbers, and those relating to cyclists' injuries, pale into insignificance when you realise that in the same period something like 180,000 people between 40 and 79 died prematurely as a result of their physical inactivity. The occasional Auerbach thigh may be worth it for a healthy heart.