Thursday 4 April 2019

A Question of Taste

David Gower

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I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday. One of us remembers it though it is still hazy for my friend of many years. To begin at the beginning – where does one begin? It depends upon from whose perspective the tale is being told.

Decision made. The tale begins with an argument between friends about what constitutes taste. It had begun after wandering along the street of Lavenham – a Suffolk village which is described in the tourist guides as a ‘gem’ and as a result it sees a stream of camera clicking coach parties coming for cream teas in olde Englande. In particular there is a house in the main street whose woodworm drilled porch is supported by the contemporary figures of an Elizabethan couple. He in ruff and doublet and she in a dress complete with accessories suited to a woman of her middle class position.

Lavenham had been the straw which broke the metaphorical camel’s back. It had come after a National Trust stately home visit to a house set in a mere 3000 acres of landscaped grounds, lakes and follies. It does not matter where the house was it encapsulated the question of taste.

One of us argued that building a house now and having the porch supported by figures in modern dress would be seen as tacky and perhaps even – that wonderful current label of a class division –chavvy. Perhaps a footballer or oligarch might get away with such a statement and be seen as ‘eccentric’ whereas the ordinary (and less well heeled) person could be pointed out as ‘weird’ and even ‘dangerous’. The other saw the whole debate as irrelevant but took the opposing point of view –freedom of expression – to play Devil’s Advocate. What are friends for if not to argue with each other for the fun of it?

As another pint was supped the National Trust house was next in the firing line. Architecturally beautiful but paid for from the profits of slavery and built by local labourers who would go home to hovels and the ills of 17th century peasantry. Granted they might have starved sooner without the work building the house but why let logic spoil an argument?

It was a debate which they felt reflected Daily Mail and Guardian reader attitudes in a microcosm.
The next time the pair met was under very different circumstances. One beside a hospital bed and the other in it after a road accident. The patient had been the victim of a hit and run driver who had left behind a crumpled bicycle and a broken skull with life threatening bleeding. Cameras picked up the car details and the driver was apprehended shortly afterwards.

The serious head injury ward was a place of beeps from machines, a mix of quiet efficiency from health professionals undermined by an inability to join information. As a close friend of 40 years despite their name being given to consultants and solicitors no one ever asked the bedside visitor for any information as to what the patient was like before the accident.

The patient had woken from an induced two week coma days before. That had been traumatic in itself as he had regained consciousness to the sound of a strange voice. It asked ‘Do you know where you are?’ repeatedly with a heavy accent. When the patient opened his eyes in a dim room and a strange bed they could see the owner of the voice. A woman in a hospital uniform but through the window behind her were Brutalist concrete buildings. Our experiences shape our responses when afraid. He was afraid. A strange bed, a dark room, a stranger asking his if he knew where he was. It was clear, somehow he had been kidnapped by foreigners from his ship. He must fight and escape. His struggle was overcome by other figures and he slipped into darkness and bad dreams.

This was what he told his bedside visitor and in the cold light of calmness the hospital was a modern building, the nurse was from the European Union and the staff had held a violent patient down to sedate him.

Injuries to the head are not like those in detective films. More often than not the period immediately before and after the impact is a void. So it was in this case and the patient knew nothing of the minutes before the crash. His recovery from the physical injuries would take months if not years and memory might never be clear.

The process of assessment of injury, rehabilitation, criminal trial and insurance compensation takes years. Unable to return to work one is introduced to the disability benefits system. It is not designed for those with poor written skills – especially those without clear memory.

Compensation in such cases is related not only to injury but to age and employment status to calculate loss of earnings.

This story goes full circle. Oscar Wilde summed it up neatly, everything has a price. So given that the patient lost both sense of smell and taste how can we settle a question of taste for a cruise ship chef?

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