in Posters, protests, and prescriptions


These acknowledgements were written in July 2021, by Jennifer Crane, as a global pandemic continued to radically reshape the cultures of the NHS. It is difficult to comment in the midst of a crisis, but COVID-19 may exacerbate, reveal, perhaps reform community relationships with and trust in welfare services; the ways in which NHS staff feel valued by publics and governments; and the representations of healthcare in popular life. The chapters in this book started life before the terms ‘COVID-19’, ‘self-isolation’, and ‘furlough’ had entered daily parlance, in 2018. Then, our reference points were debates about the meaning of the NHS revealed by Brexit buses or the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. Contributors rewriting and editing their chapters in 2021, and reading proofs, doubtless grappled with new resonances and questions, thinking about how they would rewrite their analysis today. This is something I may ask contributors to reflect on for a popular piece when the book is published, though at the moment it feels too much to bring COVID-19 so directly into my academic analysis when it also shapes my daily worries and conversations, reading of the news, teaching of students, ability to collaborate with colleagues or visit family, and care provided to my child.

Indeed, the book’s contributors rewrote, edited, and finalised their chapters against a backdrop of isolation, quarantine, and illness. Jane Hand and I, who co-edited this book, are immensely grateful to those contributors for writing these chapters with these new challenges, on top of existing struggles of academic life, particularly for precarious staff, due to fixed-term contracts, workloads, and departmental closures. The contributors to this book all provided such thoughtful accounts of NHS culture over time, and engaged so generously with proposed revisions and changes, and with various delays inherent to collaborative work, and we are delighted to finally bring their pieces out. I am also immensely grateful to Jane Hand, who has been a fantastic co-editor, and who always has the most perceptive insights and ideas, as well as being a brilliant organiser and great company – thank you Jane.

More broadly, the whole premise of this book was constructed by Professors Roberta Bivins and Mathew Thomson, who conceptualised the ‘Cultural History of the NHS’ project at the University of Warwick. Jane and I were postdoctoral fellows on this project, which was a wonderful opportunity to work with such generous and interesting colleagues: Roberta, Mathew, Jack Saunders, Natalie Jones, George Gosling, and Gareth Millward. We are grateful to the Wellcome Trust for funding this (grant number 104837/Z/14/Z) and allowing the project five years to explore Mathew and Roberta’s idea in a collaborative, engaged, and experimental fashion. Roberta and Mathew have also been incredible mentors to myself, Jane, and many others at Warwick and beyond. Their generosity in hiring us, mentoring us, and in particular encouraging us to lead on this collection is so much appreciated and a model of good academic culture and leadership. The broader environment (‘culture’) of the Centre for the History of Medicine at Warwick was also a lovely place to work, and we thank in particular Sheilagh Holmes for her critical administrative support with the ‘Cultural History of the NHS’ project.

We are so grateful also to all of the archivists, interviewees, and public engagement participants who provided the rich and varied materials which this book is based on, as you will see throughout. It has been a privilege for Jane and myself as editors to read about such a range of research methods and materials, and we hope that the book begins to reflect the incredible richness of cultural history today. We are aware that the new cultural histories of the NHS have blossomed in very recent years, and have tried to cite the fantastic new scholars in this area throughout and in the select bibliography in particular. We are thankful also to the anonymous reviewers of this book. On the first round in particular they provided really challenging insights and critique that, while always hard to read at the time, greatly improved the final work and were generously written. Further critical thoughts were provided at the ‘Cultural History of the NHS’ conference at the University of Warwick in September 2018, and we thank all participants at that event. The editorial and production staff at Manchester University Press and the series editors have also been so supportive and generous throughout – thank you.

At the point of writing, then, I feel concerned for the future of the NHS. I also feel deeply anxious, as I have for some years, about the vision of universal and equal healthcare the NHS was based on. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and deepened social inequalities in the most brutal ways. Painfully seeming to clash with this, nonetheless, new cultural tropes emerge near daily around the NHS: ‘the Thursday clap’ most famously perhaps, suggesting public ‘tributes’ and ‘gratitude’ as NHS staff struggle to cope. Phrases such as ‘the Thursday clap’ may perhaps appear meaningless, forgotten, should this book still be read in future decades, or will perhaps have been absorbed into British everyday and cultural life.

This book, then, stands as a marker capturing how one group of historians and social scientists saw the cultural histories of the NHS since 1948, when writing between 2018 and 2021. It is my hope that this account is valuable. It shows us how and when public feeling about the NHS has risen and fallen over time, and thus which cultural and emotional trends have been sustained and which have not. It shows us how cultures of feeling around the NHS can be used to support the service, or to mask change, critique, and discontent, and the relationships between the cultural and the political. It shows us also which areas of healthcare and of the population are missed within universal welfare systems, regardless of public opinion or specific cultural ‘moments’. The book shows us overall what the NHS meant to many British people, in popular life and culture, before COVID-19, and perhaps will provide a useful a marker for later assessing how this pandemic has – or has not – changed society.

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Posters, protests, and prescriptions

Cultural histories of the National Health Service in Britain

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