Doctor in the House by Richard Gordon
published 1952 chapter 10
The annual [children’s] teaparty afforded a sure indication that Christmas was coming… as it was impossible to entertain every child in the district, invitations should be sent only to those who had attended the hospital in the years of November and December. As all the children within several miles knew of the party… the increase in juvenile morbidity after October 31st was always alarming…
The non-edible attractions included paper chains, crackers, funny hats, a tree ten feet high, and Father Christmas. It was the duty of the children’s house-physician to play this part. The gown, whiskers, sack and toys were provided by the Governors; all the doctor had to do was allow himself to be lowered in a fire-escape apparatus from the roof into the tight mob of children screaming below. This obligation he discharged with the feelings of a nervous martyr being dropped into the bear-pit. It was inevitable that he should breathe heavily on his little patients with a strong smell of mixed liquours…
The energy of the children diminished only if they had to retire to a corner to be sick; but the hospitality of St Swithin’s was unlimited, and it usually happened that several of the little guests were later asked to stay the night.
observations: The party is described in great detail, even though Richard Gordon says it would really take an Ernest Hemingway to do it justice – a writer with ‘a gift of extracting a forceful attractiveness from descriptions of active animals feeding in large numbers’:
At 3 the front of the hospital looked like an Odeon on Saturday morning. At four sharp the doors were opened… and the mob was funnelled into the building – scratching, fighting, shouting…
The whole interlude of Christmas in a big London teaching hospital in (presumably) the 1930s/40s is a delight – there is also the doctors’ entertainment for the patients, and the alcohol-fuelled nurse/doctor dance. The two chapters are full of details and customs lost to time, but with a shared humanity that shines out through the ages, and would surely be recognizable in the very different hospitals of today.
And a whole generation of British people must have had its view of hospitals (and the humorous possibilities therein - farce, medical disaster and sexual innuendo) formed by this series of books, along with the Carry On films that came a little later.
Links up with: A previous blog entry looked at the narrator learning how to deliver babies, and explained a bit more how this book worked. Inspector Grant is stuck in hospital, but probably not attending parties like this one. Actual Ernest Hemingway here. More Christmas entries this week and next.
The picture is of a Christmas party in 1940, and comes from Wikimedia Commons. Father Christmas’s mask seems like a really bad, scarey idea.