25 SEPTEMBER 1993, Page 17

If symptoms persist. . .

SOMETIMES I wish that I was not sup- posed to love humanity: the strain is sim- ply too great. It would be less, of course, if humanity reciprocated in some mea- sure, or met me halfway, but it doesn't. On the contrary, the more one strives to love humanity, the more advantage it takes of one.

I arrived on the ward at the beginning of last week to discover the first ten beds occupied by people who had taken over- doses. I don't deny that they were unhappy: I complain only that they didn't keep their unhappiness decently to themselves. Why involve doctors? Is there no fortitude left?

Four of the patients were alcoholics, and two were hallucinating. One saw snakes with teeth coming towards him while the other thought that the nurses were leopards. He attempted to jump through the window to escape them, but the glass was unbreakable, installed after a prisoner with appendicitis had evaded the two prison warders deputed to guard him by jumping through the window while they watched the Test match on the ward television.

I asked one of the overdosers why he had done it.

'I don't like the heat, doctor,' he replied. 'It got to me, like, so I took the tablets.' A thousand pounds' worth of medical treatment ensued: it made me proud to be a taxpayer.

After finishing in the ward, I went to the prison. I was talking to one of my medical colleagues there, lamenting the decline, if not the actual fall, of civilisa- tion since our respective childhoods, when an officer burst in and confirmed our worst suspicions.

'Smith's just been slashed up, sir,' he said.

Was it a razor-blade and toothbrush job?' asked my colleague wearily.

'No, sir,' said the officer. 'A knife job. On the neck, sir.'

The weapon was unusual and of some interest. Slashing up is generally per- formed in prison with a blade carefully extracted from a Home Office-issue dis- posable razor and attached to a Home Office-issue toothbrush handle. From where did the assailant obtain his knife? Unfortunately, the victim (a survivor of many attacks, to judge from the scars present on his shaved scalp) was not pre- pared to talk. I was in the prison to prepare a report on a man remanded in custody for a seri- ous offence. His solicitor had wondered whether there was a medical explanation for his client's Inisconduct. The examina- tion was to have been performed at the expense of Legal Aid, but just as I was about to begin my examination, I received a breathless telephone call from the solicitor.

'Don't examine him, doctor,' he said. 'I've discovered that he has means, and therefore he's not entitled to Legal Aid after all. He'll have to pay for every- thing.'

I told the remanded prisoner, who up till now had been pleasant and amenable, that he was not entitled to Legal Aid because he was deemed to have sufficient means to pay for a lawyer himself. I asked him whether he wished nevertheless to retain his lawyer's ser- vices.

'No, I fucking don't,' he said. Not if I have to fucking pay for it. Fucking para- site he is.'

'And do you want to pay for this exam- ination?' I asked.

He looked at me with all the consider- able malevolence at his command.

'You can fuck off 'n'all,' he replied.

Theodore Dalrymple