Friday, January 26, 2007

Equal Opportunities

Illness and injury, death and disaster, I honestly thought I’d seen it all and that life had little left with which to surprise me and then I gazed one evening through a window of the Clapham College from the upper deck of an omnibus and saw Stan Tablets standing in a classroom amidst a throng of grey-haired matrons, grinning inanely and clutching in the manner of an ape wielding a fountain pen a delicately fluted pink brugmansia and being schooled in the art of flower arranging. And now this.

Sometimes words fail me.

Indeed, I was laid up for several weeks with a severe bout of acute inarticulacy and even now I hardly know where to begin. However, I take very seriously my duties as an observer and chronicler of the contemporary ambulance scene and with what vocabulary I am able to muster I shall endeavour to recount this latest momentous episode that it might serve as a warning to subsequent generations, though I am not unaware that when it comes to absorbing wisdom from the lessons of history, the track record of mankind is not one to which any self-respecting species would be likely to aspire.

Looking back I suppose it all came to a head a month or so ago during the darkest depths of that bleak period of national despondency sometimes referred to as the festive season, when excess and depravity shroud the sane with despair and only the prospect of human extinction offers hope of salvation.

Station Officer Nobby Harris was in the grip of a seemingly permanent apoplectic seizure, had been unable to move or speak for several days and was expected to explode at any moment. Divisional Superintendent Ron Stretcher, quivering and incandescent, was unavailable for comment and not to be approached under any circumstances without the support of the tactical firearms unit. Chairman of the board Lord Hardwood was reportedly huffing and puffing, spitting and spluttering as he stalked the executive corridor up at headquarters threatening to renounce his peerage and retire from public life to pursue a career in cable television, while Knight Commander of Blankets David Bradfield, far beyond rational thought, sat at his desk staring into infinity down the barrel of a loaded revolver, benzodiazepines in one hand, a bottle of Glenmorangie in the other.

Nor were the staunch and steadfast men of the Clapham Ambulance their usual cheery selves. There was no playground atmosphere in the messroom that day and none of the childish leg-pulling accompanied by fits of raucous laughter, nor the relentless and jocular barrage of hurtful personal abuse which has always been such an integral part of ambulance life. No underpants fluttered from the flagpole and no soiled dressing described a lazy arc through the air prior to landing with hilarious consequences upon the nose of a post-prandial snorer, and had a gaggle of hapless tourists wandered innocently through the gates just then and peered curiously through the window, perhaps quite correctly believing themselves to have stumbled upon a building of great historical significance, they might understandably have concluded that they were witnessing an impromptu assembly of men with an axe to grind. But that would have been to understate the dimensions of our grievance. We were ablaze with indignation, impassioned and incensed; furious, inflamed and fuming with rage and resentment.

There were no two ways about it. The men of the Clapham Ambulance were very cross indeed.

The stench of mutiny and rebellion hung heavily upon the air and the imminence of foul language loomed larger by the minute. The tension was palpable, the belligerence malignant, and as voices rose in volume and pitch the mood changed to one of unprecedented ugliness and the subject of conversation turned ominously from impotent protest to direct action; to responsibility and accountability; to half-inch hemp and the gallows tree.

And as our Moscow-trained shop steward Bob Slogan whipped us skilfully into a frenzy of class hatred, we were ready and eager to take to the streets and march as one across the river and upon the faceless grey edifice which houses the Ministry of Public Health, there to mete out our own brand of revolutionary justice to those responsible for this outrageous assault upon our hallowed way of life.

Make no mistake. Our blood was up and the gloves were off.

But the shift was almost over and no ambulanceman likes to be late knocking off, so we just sort of dispersed into the night and went home.

Subscribers to Hansard and keen students of current affairs will by now have deduced that the cause of this bitter unrest, which has shaken our beloved service to the very core of its ancient foundations, was the announcement in Parliament earlier in the week by the Right Honourable Oliver Axminster, QC, MP, Secretary of State for Personal Hygiene, that “henceforth budgetary disbursements to all Public Health Service Trusts . . . including ambulance services (author’s italics) . . . will be dependent upon the achievement of certain performance targets with regard to the recruitment and retention of female staff in roles traditionally undertaken by men”.

It took some days to register, being somewhat difficult at first to grasp, and we struggled through many a long night to make sense of it, wondering if maybe it had been some kind of terrible collective misunderstanding or mass hallucination, but we came in time to appreciate that the minister’s words left no margin for ambiguity and that, unthinkable though it may hitherto have been, the meaning was quite clear, namely that we would soon have women working alongside us on the ambulances.

But this was impossible to comprehend.

Some of us tried to imagine the unimaginable, to conceive of the inconceivable. But of course we couldn’t. It was hopeless. How could we? The human mind quite simply is not equipped for the task.

From the exalted majesty of Lord Hardwood down to poor lowly Hud Edgerton not one of us harboured the slightest illusion that this policy was anything but a sure-fire dead cert guaranteed recipe for total disaster and would surely spell the beginning of the end not only for the Clapham Ambulance but also for the entire structure and fabric of western civilization.

What’ll be next? we scoffed rhetorically with the mirthless laughter of the incredulous. Lady policemen?

But as the sound of that hollow laughter echoed and died upon the air, a curious stillness descended upon the messroom of the Clapham ambulance station as each man found himself suddenly lost in his own personal void of loneliness having to confront the terror screaming silently within him. I watched feeling numb and strangely detached as they stared blankly at nothing, their lips twitching involuntarily in silent prayer, their eyes fearful and uncomprehending like those of a captured soldier held by a cruel and vengeful foreign enemy, who has witnessed sights too ghastly to contemplate and whose consciousness in anticipation of his own terrible fate has simply closed down in a last desperate act of self preservation. There are times when a man can neither fight nor flee, when he must learn to surrender to the inevitable and give himself up to the implacable might which comprises both the immovable object and the irresistible force that is the Ministry of Public Health.

And so it was that we surfaced gradually from this private hell, one by one, each in his own way and in his own time, into the pale dawn of a new era, and as so often in times of trouble and travail it was the gentle wisdom of Albert Harness that eased our passage through the transition and helped us come to terms with this new and alien reality. Neither pleasure nor torment, he began, agony nor ecstacy, ever satisfies its own anticipation, for the ship of Life tends to steer a middle course between the sandy coast and the stormy depths — and here he launched into a lengthy and frankly rather dull monologue employing a plethora of convoluted and contrived nautical analogies to illustrate the simple point that things are rarely as good or as bad as you expect them to be.

True, they can’t lift for toffee. But then again they can probably make a passable cup of tea. Obviously they won't be allowed to drive the ambulances, but then who would read the map? It makes no sense. No, but they could give the messroom a good spring clean now and then. And wash the blankets. And, well, there are probably lots of other things besides if one could just get one's mind right and clear one's head enough to think straight.

Maybe it won’t be so bad after all. Maybe they won't forever be off work having babies. Or maybe they will. Yes. Maybe it's for the best. Why not? Maybe things are looking up. Who knows? Be positive, that's the thing. Do you know, I've a feeling this could be Tim's year.