No, this is not about a marathon pub crawl; it’s about giving blood. Today, when I arrived at the donor centre, I was informed that this would be my 37th donation. Wow! Thirty-seven pints!* That’s … nearly 37 armfuls, according to Tony Hancock; or four and a half bodyfuls!**
Ah, but those 37 pints were given over a period of 41 years … not such an amazing achievement then. After that length of time, I ought to be over the 50 mark by now … but it wasn’t really the number that impressed me, it was the sudden awareness of a link going right back across my life – across two-thirds of it, in fact, back to that first nervous encounter at the age of 21. And this sudden realisation was accentuated by the fact that, after all those years, I was back where I started: at the West End Donor Centre at London’s Oxford Circus, where I gave my first few donations all those years ago – after many years of bleeding at mobile blood clinics housed in church halls, hotel lounges, and even a racecourse.
We – or, at any rate, I – are rarely presented with these “long perspectives”, as Philip Larkin called them in his poem Reference Back. Ask me when I started giving blood, and I will tell you without hesitation that it was 1972; but there are good reasons for that, which I will explain. Ask me what was going on in the world – or even in the UK – in 1972, and I will not be able to tell you. In fact, ask me to describe, and locate, more or less any major historical event from the last 40 years, and I will struggle. Even personal memories are not easy to place on a historical timeline; for example, when trying to recall when my daughters went to university I tend to find myself adding 18 or 19 years to their dates of birth. It’s not that I don’t remember the sequence of events, but I have trouble matching that sequence with what was going on outside.
When I was first persuaded to set foot in the donor centre all those years ago, it was due to peer pressure. I have always been a little squeamish about medical matters, and very squeamish about some of them; but for much of the period 1971-73 I found myself working in hospitals – probably because there were always vacancies for porters or domestics, and at least they were worthwhile jobs, even if some other aspects of the work were not too wonderful. And it was in the middle of that period that I got my lucky break – a chance to work as a medical physics technician for 6 months while the normal holder of that post recovered from a back injury. So I found myself having to do such things as take blood (yes, unqualified technicians were allowed to do that!) and so it seemd a bit silly not to become a blood donor, especially as several of my colleagues were.
Ultimately I decided that hospital work was not for me; but I carried on with the blood-giving, on and off, for all those years, when not prevented from doing so by being too busy with work, or family matters, or the period when the National Blood Service decided not to speak to me, for reasons that were never made clear. But the donations kept going – drip, drip, drip; 37 pints – just under one per year.
Parallels with my last blog post are only partly accidental. A kind correspondent reminded me that T.S.Eliot measured his life in coffeespoons, and that, with the publication of her biography, Elizabeth Spreadbury’s short life would now be measured in Google hits. My life – or at least, the more interesting part of it – could be measured in pints of blood. So, at two pints, the beginnning of my long railway career; at four, marriage; at five pints, my first daughter, and at eight (the first bodyful) my second. Then separation at 14 pints, and the establishment of a new relationship at 18. In between these events, Elizabeth’s eight pints were splattered all over the Route de Meyrin by an idiot in a fast car.
At 25 pints, redundancy, and a new career; my Open University degree at 27, and my PhD at 32. Now at 37 pints, I have plenty of things to be excited about, many strings to the bow. And with one of these, the turning of the circle has brought me back, not just to the West End Donor Centre, but also to medical physics, at least in a very minor way, in that my “day job”, or rather, my “half day job”, to be more accurate, currently involves assessing some software used for modelling particle beams, which it is hoped will be useful in designing the new Proton Therapy unit that is to be built at UCL Hospital.
* Yes, I know it’s not quite a pint, but ever since Hancock this particular measure has entered into popular culture. Pedants could refer to it as the “Hancock blood pint”.
** And WordPress has just informed me that this is my 37th post! Freaky.