‘Convalescence’ is making a comeback. And not before time

From the rhythms of our working lives and the places where we live, to the way we occupy our leisure hours and even shop for groceries, there is no aspect of our lives that has not been affected by the global pandemic. 

Some of these changes have been baleful: the damage to the arts, to the hospitality industry and education will not easily be repaired. But among the losses, some gains might be recorded. Among them is the idea of convalescence which, pre-pandemic, was widely regarded at best as a quaint leitmotif of 19th-century fiction; at worst as a symptom of a feckless “sick note culture”. 

Between the 18th-century rise of spa towns across Europe and the NHS reforms of the mid-20th century (and beyond), the value of convalescence as a general benefit in policy terms has waxed and waned. But it is no accident that the rise of the novel coincides with the popularity of spa towns. 

From Jane Austen to Thomas Mann, the heightened emotions of places where  people congregate to dodge mortality have always provided excellent subject-matter for love stories, triumphant or tragic. The first novel  set at the VivaMayr clinic’s post-Covid recovery programme (£2,700 per week, excluding accommodation) cannot be far off.

Back in the prosaic present, GP Gavin Francis has published a reflection on Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence (Profile, £4.99). A return from illness to health, he argues, is a process that requires patience. There are limits to what doctors can do. 

It is a claim that defies our expectations of medical science; we have acquired a habit of imagining our bodies as efficient machines, and are affronted when the machine issues urgent instructions to slow down. I have myself filed a column from an NHS hospital bed while attached to an IV drip. 

That is one of the sillier example of presenteeism against which Francis argues. The Victorians and Edwardians lacked the benefits of wide-spectrum antibiotics and antidepressants, but (mostly thanks to the radical insights of Florence Nightingale), they understood the inestimable value of rest, fresh air, cleanliness and a nice view.

Once, the restorative blend of sunshine, a pleasant vista  and fastidious housewifery was available to all recovering patients. Francis’s book makes an persuasive case for its return. In the coming years, the question will be, what have we learned from our recent experience that has changed our feelings about what constitutes a good life?

Can Jamie Oliver save the cookbook? 

Could the shade of Elizabeth David, doyenne of the post-war British cooking revolution, be conjured to comment on The Great Cookbook Challenge (which begins next week on Channel 4, hosted by Jamie Oliver), I’m guessing its reaction would be pretty fierce, yet I find myself hoping the show will be a success.

The demise of the cookbook has been widely reported. But Oliver retains an affection for print cookbooks, which I share. Most (including very big names) are pointless. The ones to which I return for good, clear, simple advice are Elizabeth David, Simon Hopkinson, Fay Maschler and Oliver himself, a fine, serious cook who would have been the UK’s Alexis Soyer, if someone in government had had the vision to support him.

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