Friday, October 17, 2008

Understanding the NHS and Discovering Persephone Books

Friday, October 17, 2008

Boo Hoo, Boo Hoo...that's me weeping. I am still here in London as I had to cancel my weekend travel plans to Berlin. And for very good reason too. My maniacal walking all over London has finally done me in. The excruciating pain I woke with two days ago reached unbearable levels yesterday. After teaching my two classes, I consulted with my colleagues and was told to head straight for the A&E (Accidents & Emergency) Department at the University of London Hospital at Euston.

Dusk was already falling gently on the city when I reached there feeling unusually nervous about having to find my way through the medical system of a foreign country. I expected to have to wait for at least an hour--after all, an ache in the foot doesn't compare quite as urgently with a heart attack or someone with a burn accident. Registration done, I was asked to sit for a bit. Waiting time, the receptionist informed me, was running at an hour. Not too bad, I thought, as I settled down to read the evening's edition of The London Paper--full of the news about the Madonna-Ritchi divorce.

I was only quite getting into the dirt when someone with a strange accent barked my name. I had barely sat down for ten minutes! The doctor who saw me was rakish--a Dr. Manolo Gavalas. From his name, I would guess he was Greek. He gave me a welcoming smile and asked to see my foot. He took one look at it, encased in my ankle brace, and said, "I'm sorry, but you've come to the wrong place. There's not much I can do for you here. There are no bones broken. No fractures. You need to see your G.P. Who's your G.P?"

"I don't have one", I said, miserably.

"Well, you need to register and get a G.P. He'll then decide what to do--whether to send you for a X-Ray or to see a physiotherapist. I think you have Plantar Fasciitis. It's a painful condition and will be troublesome for a few days. But I can't do anything for you".

That was it. At the reception, I received a print out giving me instructions on how to register with the NHS--that's Britain's notorious National Health Service for you. If you are legally present in the UK, you are entitled to NHS facilities which, basically, means you can see a doctor and get a prescription. However, you do have to pay for your medicines (7 pounds is the average cost for one set of medications) unless you are a child or a pensioner (British for senior citizen) in which case medication is also free.

Well, I hobbled back home, seriously concerned about my leg, and went straight to my laptop. I googled 'Plantar Fasciitis' and learned everything about it. It is clearly all the walking I have done that has caused my condition. The arches under my foot, which are very weak to begin with, have stretched and become inflamed and need a great deal of TLC to coax them back to health.

I then rang my neighbor's doorbell and asked Tim if he could suggest a GP in our area since I'd rather go to a doctor they could recommend than to a stranger. Within a half hour, I had the telephone number and location of the Holborn Medical Center on Lamb's Conduit Street just behind High Holborn and I resolved to get there and find a G.P. first thing today.

Well, I then went on to the NHS website, registered (they needed a lot of personal information) and awaited the Registration confirmation. NHS GPs (that is General Practitioners, what in the States we call Internists) are the first port of call. They diagnose conditions and refer patients to specialists who suggest treatment and dispense medication.

When I awoke this morning, the pain was still present, not severe, but there, a nagging ache in the sole of my foot that caused me to hobble about my flat. I didn't waste too much time contacting the Holborn Medical Center. A lovely chap called Steven told me to come in with my "documentation"--by which he meant my passport (he needs to determine that I am legally in the UK, so I guess he would need to examine my work permit), my rental agreement (which makes me a bonafide resident of Holborn--I took my Camden Council tax papers) and one utility bill (I took my Virgin Media bill for last month). Then, I set out on a particularly lovely autumn day to find the "surgery" as they call the doctor's office.

A short ten minute away, there it was. Steven met me, had me fill out the paper work, and told me to stay tuned for a call from the doctor that would come within the hour--thank God for my new cell phone. I decided to find a coffee in a cafe nearby as I did not want to walk too much on my strained foot. My research on the Internet had informed me that they only real treatment was footrest and a few exercises to strengthen the Achilles tendon and the plantar. Then, just across the street, I spied a shop called Persephone Books and, of course, I cannot pass a bookshop without browsing through its shelves. So in I went.

And thus, I discovered one of the cutest bookshops in the world. Inside were shelves with books covered in a uniform grey. The end papers were wonderfully funky prints. Where on earth had I stumbled? The lovely salesgirl then came forward and asked if I needed help. "What an interesting book shop!" I exclaimed.

"Yes, we are one of a kind, aren't we?" she said. "Persephone was started by Nicola Beauman in the most interesting way."

She went on to inform me that the company's founder, Nicola Beauman, had just watched a movie called Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean (yes, he of Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India and Beckett) and was enchanted by the heroine of the film which is set in the 1930s who enjoyed her weekly excursion to town to do some shopping, have a coffee in the cafe, see a movie, then go to the local library to change her book. In her shopping bag, was a book by Edna O'Brien. The cover of this book fascinated Nicola Beauman who decided that she too would read the book. This got her involved in the world of female writers between the two great Wars and she found that so many of the books were out of print.

So, there it was--a business opportunity staring her in the face. One that would allow her to reprint these classic books written mostly between 1900 and 1940 only by women. She chose fabrics that were contemporary to the period of the book and used those as end papers. Each book has a plain grey cover though, in some cases, 'Classics' have been reissued with a picture on the cover--usually a contemporary painting by a female artist.

Thus, Persephone Books was born, an outfit that has two London storefronts--one at Kensington Church Street, the other at Lamb's Conduit Street. Their market is very specific. Almost all their customers are women. Because they have, to date, no more than 60 odd titles, the books are ready wrapped in fuchsia or grey wrapping paper, tied with a ribbon and finished off with a book mark in the same print as the end paper to be found in the book. Now how clever is that? And how charming? As I flipped through the pages, I became aware of the trills of a Chopin Etude playing softly in the background and I envied the salesgirl her little spot of heaven.

I was so taken by the store and the collection that I asked for prices and was informed that every single books costs a flat 10 pounds, though you can buy three for 27. They do ship all over the world (in fact, the Lamb's Conduit Street shop handles mail orders) and they run events all year round. Not surprisingly, the events take the form of "cream teas" and lectures (one of them on November 13 is to be given by Prof. Elaine Showalter, my colleague at NYU's English Department).

As if that were not enough for the Edwardian in me, guess, what? They also run a book club! YYYEEESS!!! Groups of women get together over Madeira, bread and cheese and discuss one of their titles. The cost to attend this is 10 pounds and because I will be missing their November meeting (I will, fingers crossed, be with Llew in Greece at that time, when the group will be discussing
The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett"), I hope to attend their early December meeting where the book to be discussed is A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair. I cannot believe that I have actually stumbled upon a Book Club in London and one that I can enjoy. Naturally, I did get enrolled and will pay my 10 pounds when I get to the meeting in December at their Notting Hill Shop.

To read more about Persephone Books, please visit their website:

So, here I was, feeling unhappy that I was forced to call off my trip to Berlin as I was so afraid about my foot and as a compensation , I found a darling book shop in London and will soon be a member of a Book Club! How fortunate can one reader be? Well, just as I was browsing through the shop, my cell phone rang--withing 20 minutes of my arrival there. The doctor could see me in ten minutes. What a good thing I hadn't strayed too far away.

In ten minutes, I was sitting with a GP named Steven Yaxley who didn't seem older than 18! He went through the formalities with me and came up with an identical diagnosis--plantar fasciitis. He also gave me a print out of the exact same thing I had read on the Net yesterday and suggested foot rest, foot exercises, a local ibuprofen gel and the use of sneakers with good supportive arches. He actually showed me the exercises and told me to stay off my feet for at least one to two weeks. I was so crestfallen. Imagine wasting two weeks in the autumn staying cooped up indoors, unable to do any of the exploring I had intended. But then, I realized that perhaps it is best I do this because I do want to be, as my Dad would say, "fighting fit" by the time Llew arrives here at the end of the month and we leave on our travels in Greece.

Dr. Yaxley told me that I could see a physiotherapist if I wished but I would probably not get an appointment for at least a month. It seems that the UK is short of physiotherapists and there are too many patients to see them. In any case, he assured me, my condition does not require any urgent treatment. If I am good and stay off my feet and do the exercises while watching TV or working at my desk, I should be much better in a couple of weeks, he assured me.

So I returned to my flat and have started making plans to spend the next few days cozily at home with lots of good stuff to eat and drink, a lot of reading and good TV (with my feet raised for comfort) and a lot of writing accomplished on my laptop.

Really not too bad a deal, if you come to think of it. And if I stay optimistic, I will get rid of the foot pain and be all set to start exploring again!

I only hope I am not going to pile on the pounds in two weeks!!!

So, there you have it. The NHS. It works.

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