I know not how it may be with others, but in Britain it is still rather enjoyable to donate a pint of blood. I have been doing this, on and off, since the days when everything in Britain, from TV to life in general, was still in black-and-white. We were an odd combination of declining imperial power, industrialized hell-hole, and socialist welfare state, which made a surprising number of people content all at the same time. I recall, back in the early 1970s, a lot of self-disciplined formality, emphasized by starched aprons and even-more-starched nurses’ caps, iron beds inherited from the wartime army, tightly made up with white sheets and gray blankets, and thick cups of tea in the recovery room afterwards. It would never have done to have winced as the needle went in. Stoical blood donation had become such a national institution that the irreplaceable comedian, Tony Hancock, master of melancholy, filmed a TV sketch about it which is still funny. Best of all was the moment when (having thought that the initial small sample was the donation) he realizes for the first time just how much of his vital fluid they want. “But that’s a whole armful!” he cries out in horror.
Nowadays it is all pastel overalls, matey multiculturalism, smiles, and relaxation. At one recent session the room was hung with miniature vampire bats and decorated with Dracula cartoons. The only constant is the free issue of custard cream cookies, which we call biscuits, along with the tea, which is now less brown than it was, and is served in paper cups rather than china. Custard creams are a curious British pleasure, which I never indulge at any other time, so I associate them rather oddly with blood. How much longer will I be able to get them? In general, the British biscuit habit has gone the way of the old British teatime, wiped from our lives by the conscription of young mothers into the paid workforce and the resulting emptying of British homes between breakfast and dinner. The vast biscuit factories, which once used to sprawl for what seemed like miles along the railway line at Reading, on the main Western route out of London, have vanished, along with the Empire whose custard cream needs they once supplied in large ornate tins built to survive long colonial sea voyages. And not just custard creams but digestives, arrowroot, rich tea, bourbon creams, a whole world of obsolete pleasure. Limited supplies are still made somewhere or other, but they are fading from our lives.
I suspect I must by now have had about three gallons of gore drained from my left arm, and been repaid with about three whole packets of custard creams. And if I had been more organized it would have been a great deal more of both. I regret the missed appointments, and am strangely peeved that the old paper records of my early giving have disappeared, as have so many other archives of the pre-computer era.
Back when I began, it was considered much more serious than now, and I recall being handed a two weeks’ supply of iron pills as I left, with strict instructions to take them daily for several weeks, but only after a large fried breakfast. This accidentally transformed my life at college, as the only way of having such a breakfast was to get up early, so I did. I have never been able to break the habit since, though the iron pills were long ago withdrawn, and like so many abandoned medical certainties, sent off down the memory hole. I still remember the day when I asked for some and was met with looks of puzzlement and horror. “Iron pills?” said the nurse, as if I had asked for some heroin. “What a terrible idea! Whatever can you be thinking of?” I also seem to remember that pints of Guinness were once recommended, but I could not afford those in my college days and nobody would dare suggest such a thing now.
What was I doing, as a youthful Bolshevik, engaging in such soppy altruism, when my homicidal, atheist Trotskyism was shamelessly aimed at shedding blood, and indeed creating great oceans of it as my enemies died? It was, after all, only for British hospitals, not for any cause. (There is a legendary story, now uncheckable, that in the high sixties, the Marxist student elite at Oxford University donated their life’s blood to the Viet Cong, but it was all poured down the drain when it reached East Berlin for processing. The German doctors found it was so spiced with marijuana that it was unusable.) I think I was trying to prove that a selfless concern for others was not a Christian monopoly, which of course it isn’t, though the question of its true origin must remain contentious. An eloquent left-wing sociologist, Richard Titmuss, had made the case for harnessing human generosity in his book The Gift Relationship, which used blood banks as an example of human solidarity in action. I would now say that it was, like so many other charitable actions in formerly Christian countries, vestigially Christian. But there was no doubt that the quality of donated blood was far higher than that of the blood sold to clinics in less happy countries. The UK’s only major blood scandal involved imported products, deriving from paid donors.
I have often wondered why anyone would want to give blood if he or she suspected that it might pass on an infection, but it presumably happens. Or why, when I turn up at the blood bank these days, am I required to answer a series of questions so extraordinarily intrusive and intimate, and implying a life so adventurous and unconventional, that forty years ago they would have been considered wholly indecent? I am asked to declare that I have not injected myself or been injected with illegal drugs, whether I have ever been given money or drugs for sex, whether I have had anal or oral sex with a man, or without a condom. Then there is a long list of other possible combinations of these things, involving other people with whom I may have had, er, sexual contact. It is hard not to giggle as one answers these queries. Sometimes I am tempted to make up some such activities, to see what happens (like the man who answered “Principal purpose of visit” when asked on a US immigration form whether he was concerned in plots to overthrow the government of the United States). Actually, I suspect that such a confession would not bar me completely from future donations, as this would now be “discriminatory.” I think I would be given non-judgmental counseling and an advice pack, telling me how I could adapt my exciting lifestyle to suit the Blood Transfusion Service. Yet if I confess to having visited several perfectly healthy countries (including the USA at certain times of year), I can be banned from donation for many months, because of the remote risk of, say, West Nile Virus. And admitting to having taken a couple of Tylenol capsules in the past 48 hours can lead to a lot of frowning and tooth-sucking, and calling in of superiors to give official approval. But so far, so good. These days they even send you a text message to let you know exactly where and when your blood has been used, which provides a pleasing glow. And I am quite unembarrassed about boasting of this, as I believe it might make other people decide to start giving. I just hope they don’t ever run out of custard creams.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.