We experienced the best and the worst of the NHS during our recent stay in hospital. When they dealt with my wife, the midwives were wonderful. Hard-working, patient, encouraging and thoroughly competent. They were public-sector professionals at their very best.
The problem was how long it took to get anything done. If it wasn't absolutely urgent, there was a lot of waiting around. The three hours between my wife being admitted and them beginning to induce her for the first time was frustrating, but nothing compared to the 12-hour wait between the first and second induction (when it should have been six) or the 12 hours between them saying they would put her on a drip to kick-start labour and it happening.
And then there was the long wait to get sent home. My wife was given the all-clear by the doctor by 4pm on Tuesday. All that was needed was a bag of drugs from the pharmacy and a signature on a release form from a midwife. It took until 8.30pm before we could leave.
The pharmacist took his time, but the main hold-up was because the woman in the bed opposite needed to be processed first so she could be sent to prison. Oh yes. You don't get that sort of company in the Portland.
I don't know whether the soap opera that went on the other side of the curtain was amusing or desperately saddening. The woman (little more than a girl to look at) had given birth on Thursday and needed to attend court on Tuesday. While she was away being sentenced, her ratbag mother and sister alternated care for the baby with frequent cigarette breaks.
I never found out what she had done, but when she returned in the afternoon with two social workers in tow, we heard that she had been sentenced to four months in a secure mother-and-baby unit. Her new-born would start its life behind bars. Sadly, I suspect it won't be the last time it is there.
Her partner wept after an argument because he couldn't spend time with his child, but it was clear that he did not really understand his responsibility towards the family. Meanwhile, the sister expressed relief that her own partner's anger-management problems had gone and that her children "didn't know him when he was ill".
It seemed immoral that a woman could be made to attend court so soon after giving birth and she complained that she had been made to sit for so long in the court-room. Yet it wasn't her personal discomfort that distressed her but the fact that she had been "dying for a fag".
This was a snapshot of London's underclass that we rarely encounter outside of television, a cyclical deprivation that one fears can never be cured no matter how much money is thrown at it. The social workers were helpful - one offering advice on bus routes to the prison and suggesting how much the parents could save if they stopped smoking - but the suspicion was that it was a wasted effort.
Some could wonder if the American woman who was over here recently sterilising drug addicts for money should expand her remit, although regular contraception that is not self-administered would be better and more humane. Kindness and guidance is better than punishment, but how much kind advice sinks in?
The actors in this soap opera rarely develop beyond the childish state in emotional intelligence, so it is no wonder that most struggle to raise their own children.
As they left hospital after all the checks, the mother smiled. "Free at last," she said.
"Well, up to a point," replied her sister. For the underclass, they will never really be free.