E.P. Thompson

Thales, according to gossipy Plato, was walking abstractedly, watching the stars, when he fell into a well. I did that a few weeks ago, being preoccupied with the most elevated thoughts when I suddenly found myself lying at the bottom of the well of the NHS. This made me think about several things which no doubt have long been blindingly obvious to fellow citizens who keep their eyes closer to the ground.

In late January I developed a condition called colitis. This is an inflammation of the colon, which shows up as diarrhoea and wind. It can be treated, but since the symptoms could indicate other (and maybe more serious) diseases, the doctors like to get a clear diagnosis before they start. It would be flattering to suppose that it was stress-induced, and the consequences of my selfless labours for peace: all those times I’ve trundled back from Paddington to Worcester station, arriving after midnight having eaten nothing all day but a BR sandwich and an END cup of tea. Unfortunately the boot might have been on a more swollen hoof. For in mid-January I had just flown out as a guest of the Indian Government to an exalted international conference in New Delhi in memory of Indira Gandhi. A little group of us flew out together, Air India, first class: Michael Foot, Jean Floud, William Radice, with Sir Richard Attenborough in pursuit. It was my pleasure to travel with my old friend and newly-minted Dame, Iris Murdoch. I’ve never travelled first before, and well! Cocktails, champagne, caviar, lobster ... Young Dame Iris, by the way, took all as her customary due – no gastronomic problems for her. However fast asleep she seemed to be, she had a preternatural seventh sense to catch the wine waiter passing by.

That was just the start. Imagine the fare in New Delhi for a global conference of amazingly good and wise persons discussing ‘Towards New Beginnings’ at the highest universal level. Generous hospitality, with ministerial banquets night after night. Lunch with the Prime Minister. Exotic foods on every side. And then Air India, first class, back home! Maybe my condition was self-inflicted.

Or it could have been that conference. Colitis can be set off by an allergy. Just think of all those exotic and not always compatible intellectual spices thrown together: Bella Akhmadulina and Chinua Achebe, Régis Debray and Mulk Raj Anand, President Bok of Harvard and Mr Yuri Zhukov, Chairman of the Soviet Peace Committee, Simone Veil and Germaine Greer. Interesting and able people all ... well, some. But thrown together without preparation and in pompous session we did worse than a good graduate seminar. Very large rhetoric about universal human ends tends to leave wind in the bowels.

Why did I go? Partly because I admire India’s non-alignment, and because of my father’s friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru. (According to family tradition, Indira, when at Oxford before the war, was married in a private civil ceremony in a sari borrowed from my mother.) And partly to give the British Council one in the eye.

The Council has always struck my name off invitation lists and refused any help to me, sometimes with gratuitous rudeness. In 1985 my wife and I were invited to teach for a few weeks at the University of Nanjing, whose history faculty specialises in British studies. The Council not only refused any help with our fares (which we had to pay in full ourselves) but saw fit to pass on a message from their adviser, the Cultural Attaché in Beijing, to tell the Thompsons that their visit was unnecessary as enough British historians were already visiting China. When we got to Nanjing we found that this same adviser was writing to the history faculty, urging it to invite a scholar much junior to us in our own field, whose visit (it seems) was necessary.

However, through some extraordinary slip (perhaps mistaken identity), the Council had for the first time invited me, last autumn, to lecture in India. I accepted with pleasure, since I was working on my father’s Tagore papers and needed to consult Bengali scholars and Indian libraries. A few weeks later my invitation was rudely cancelled, in a letter from a clerk saying they had run out of money. A number of distinguished Indian historians were kind enough to make public their protest to the Council. It was a pleasure to fly into New Delhi, just at that moment, without benefit of the British Council’s permission. My offer to help organise a jumble sale for the Council has not yet been taken up.

I contributed my own bit of wind to the conference, which brings me back to my interesting post-Delhi condition, which I didn’t get around to taking to my GP until the end of the first week in February, soon after my 63rd birthday.

The GP had to make tests. A week for that. And when these proved negative, a week for other tests. My not unusual condition (as yet undiagnosed) was confused by the false trail of its onset on return from India, which suggested possible amoeba or tropical disease. After two weeks I was referred to the Worcester Royal Infirmary for an appointment with a consultant surgeon who had patched me up for other things before.

I sat down to wait. And lay down. Work was difficult for more than an hour or two a day. Most foods gave me nausea and I was digesting none. I started vomiting and my GP gave me anti-nausea pills. In just over two weeks (11 March) my appointment came through. I was examined, and referred for a barium meal and X-ray as well as more tests. A further nine days for that, and on 20 March I presented myself for the results.

The consultant told me, kindly, that I had acute ulcerating colitis and should come into hospital at once. It seems that I was quite ill (a ‘very severe’ case). I had lost three stone and was dehydrated. It had taken six weeks to gain admission to hospital and I felt as if I was going down like the westering sun.

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