Chapter 20: Salisbury General Again

“As an atheist, I think there are lots of things religions get up to which are of value to non-believers - and one of those things is trying to be a bit better than we normally manage to be.”
Alain de Botton

Next morning and I’m still in a lot of pain and clearly not fit to go back to work. At 7am I ring the special 24-hour emergency number given to me by my new oncology centre. I explain my symptoms to the nurse over the phone and after consulting her colleague, I’m advised to go to the A&E department at my local hospital immediately. Tori drives me to the deserted A&E waiting room at Salisbury General. If you’re ever going to accidently remove your fingers in the shed with an unwieldy power tool or have a bone cracking drunken brawl with an acquaintance from the pub, I would thoroughly recommend doing so at eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning. It really is the quietest time. I give the receptionist my name, address and date of birth and she appears to know all about me, presumably due to some sort of joined up patient records database rather than my personal notoriety.

Tori and I take a seat in the empty room and I start to ponder what I should be doing today. I have a major integration and verification strategy presentation to some key clients tomorrow and I’ve prepared a detailed presentation (replete with not too cheesy animated slide transitions) that I’m meant to be walking through with my programme manager later today. Fortunately, I’d left the latest version of the presentation in a logical folder on the SharePoint site. I give him a ring to tell him that I’m at A&E and likely to be late in, if at all, and where he can find the presentation. He’s uncommonly fine with it all and says not to worry about at as he’ll take the clients through the presentation tomorrow if I’m not up to it. Shit, if my completely resolute and highly delivery focused programme manager is being this accommodating, I really must be ill.

After a short wait I’m called into the triage room and Tori accompanies me in. The usual ritual of blood pressure and temperature checking is dutifully observed. A cannula is effortlessly inserted and a blood sample is taken. Curiously I’m then also hooked up to a drip. The doctor explains that I probably have a weakened immune system due to the chemotherapy and there is a possibility that I have contracted sepsis. This would not be good news but the drip will help if this is indeed the case. I’m given a selection of pain killers and asked to score my pain out of ten. I feel a little uncomfortable with this system, as I can’t see a comparable control mechanism with my fellow patients and I’m not aware of any universal recognised units of pain in either the metric or imperial systems. Any quantitative value I give to my pain is a highly subjective conjecture open to manipulation from other motivations rather than a regulated and controlled measurement. I ponder inventing some sort of universally agreed scale, like the Beaufort Scale with a suitable number, relevant profanity utterance and a pain equivalence example E.g. 5; “Shitting Hell”; equivalent to whacking thumb with hammer. Although thinking about it some more, what I’d actually prefer is some sort of probe or device that would measure targeted neurons across the synapse and produce some sort of reading based on the numbers of charged ions passing across the appropriate axon membranes to determine an unequivocal value on a scientifically agreed pain scale. I have no idea if that would make sense, probably not, but I’d find it far more reassuring than just saying a number between one and ten. The hospital however appears to have no such device, and it still hurts like hell so I simply opt for an eight. I assumed my choice should be restricted to Whole Numbers rather than Real numbers within the defined set and eight sounds suitably painful but also gives me somewhere else to go in the event that they discover a cunning new way to inflict even more pain on me. If I had said ten and the pain gets worse, I’ll have to say eleven next time and that will then involve then having to completely recalibrate my self-conceived pain scale and make me sound as stupid as an X-Factor contestant who wants to give it a hundred and ten percent. The nurse records my pain score on the chart. Presumably they’ll compare it with future scores to see if they can ascertain some sort of trend. I’m perversely tempted to calculate a predefined sequence of pain scores that, when plotted, would give an interesting graph to perplex them, like say a nice cosine wave, but I’m in far too much pain to bother with that at the moment.

I’m kept on the trolley in the triage room for a few hours with my blood pressure, temperature and arbitrary pain scores closely monitored and recorded. I realise that I’m definitely not going to make that strategy presentation walkthrough so there’s no point in worrying about it. The doctor eventually returns with the results of my blood tests and the good news that I haven’t got sepsis. The precautionary drip, which I have now wasted is removed. Now they have confirmed that my current condition is not critical they decide to farm me out to a free ward to ply me with more pain killers and monitor my pain levels.

I’m escorted up to the ward on foot and shown to my new bed. Tori takes the chair next to my new bed and I take my place on the bed. I observe that one of the patients in the corner of the ward also has a visitor and I notice that when the visitor has finished talking to the patient, rather than leave she moves on to the patient in the next bed. I strain my ears to tune into their conversation. They’re clearly talking about God. She’s a Christian. Tori quickly gives me the “Be polite and don’t bloody argue with her look”. As if I would.

I’m perfectly happy for people to believe in whatever fanciful notions they like, unicorns, fairies, homeopathy, astrology, juju, even God. It’s all the same to me. I only have a problem when their beliefs interfere with my life or when I’m unwillingly cajoled into adopting them myself. It’s therefore not religion per se that bugs me, it’s religious evangelism. Now that good old fashioned violent conquest and forced conversions are no longer fashionable in polite society, evangelism is the sneaky mechanism of choice for most faiths to expand their dominion. Organised door knocking squads of God botherers and crazed street evangelists are easily ignored and highly ineffective anyway. More sophisticated religions use far more powerful and astute techniques. For example, in the UK various religions seek to control vast swathes of the UK’s education system in order to scandalously segregate children based on the espoused beliefs of their parents. Thus restricting children’s primary religious knowledge to one arbitrary faith system and fuelling sectarianism and unjust discrimination against alternative faiths and the minority groups customarily ostracised by their ancient scriptures. Not to mention the more fundamental faith schools that strive to teach creationism, bias the curriculum based on gender or prevent girls from receiving potentially life saving cervical cancer vaccinations.  However perhaps the most sophisticated way that one particular faith group seeks to control an entire population (the majority of which no longer subscribe to that faith), is by infiltrating government. In our apparent British democracy, twenty-six unelected bishops still sit in the highest echelons of government under the historical misapprehension that their ability to unquestionably believe in ancient middle-eastern fairy tales affords them a higher moral compass than the rest of us. I find it highly objectionable than my humanist morality could be considered lesser than theirs. Morality clearly rises out of humanity and ultimately evolved from mammalian altruism and predates religion by millennia. The snapshot of our ever-evolving morality supposedly cast in stone tablets around three and a half thousand years ago and cited in the texts of the three main Abrahamic faiths was taken before we had developed more modern and humane thoughts on many topics. By the time of Moses, civilisation had at least worked out that theft, murder and lies do not contribute well to a successful society, but more recent moral values around things like rape, child abuse, slavery, misogyny and equality were not items of great concern to the authors of the ten commandments. Indeed, the first four of the ten commandments seem far more concerned with pointless creeds such as having no other gods, making graven images, blasphemy and holy days. Concepts that seem more designed to protect the ideology itself rather than its adherents.

As the kindly Christian volunteer approaches my bedside though it has however been made abundantly clear to me that seeking her opinion on the abolition of faith schools or the reform of the House of Lords is not appropriate. As it happens however, we have a most agreeable short chat about the quaintness of Wiltshire villages and some local areas of interest around Salisbury Plain.  Most of my fellow patients have not had the luxury of a companion to sit with them and I can certainly see a lot of value in volunteer pastoral visitors, especially if they have good knowledge of local geography and landmarks to talk about. Or better still, a pastoral visitor with in-depth grasp of the great concept albums of the seventies and late sixties. I’d very much have liked to have a chat with one of those. Indeed, we should have many more volunteer pastoral visitors, of many faiths, and of course no faith and with an appreciation of a variety of topics and indeed musical genres. My benign pastoral visitor finally offers to say a prayer for me, which I politely decline, she doesn’t force the issue and moves on to the next bed. “That wasn’t so bad”, I said to Tori. I can certainly see the value in pastoral visits by people who genuinely care about the well being of others and I’m in no position to criticise the Christians who do it. Indeed, I would like to see more non-Christians stepping up to the role and following her great example.


  1. Humanists UK now provide pastoral support in hospitals and prisons.

    More info here:

    This comes under the Humanists Care banner:

    And the volunteer network is known as the Non-Religious Pastoral Support Network, found here:

  2. The problem is that most hospital chaplains (of any faith) are not volunteers but are paid for *by the NHS*. I argued with the deadwood that was my (now recently replaced) MP about this in my constituency who told me that it would be too difficult to pay people from multiple sources of funding. Which is blatantly untrue as anyone working in a research institution would know. If they were paid to be there by their own organisations, or were volunteers like the humanists, then I'd have less problem with their existence. If yours was then that is great and I'm glad that she helped. If she was being paid for out of my pocket then, sorry, I'd rather the money go on a nurse.

  3. You're a bloody good writer. The amusing little stories woven into the bigger one, made me gobble up the previous chapters in one session. There is undeniable darkness to a cancer diagnosis and your eloquent description made the anxiety that comes with it aprehensible. Yet, it's the addition of those with little descriptions that make your blog such a fantastic read (even though, being from another generation and not British, probably half the references are lost on me).
    Great work. Really, great work. Looking forward to the next chapter (that does sound a bit off, given the context...)!

  4. The entire paragraph about the "pain scale" had me laughing out loud repeatedly! SO CLEVER!