Our National Health Stories: Creating a portrait of the NHS as it exists today through the eyes of the staff that make it

I’m Laura Lindow, Writer in Residence for Newcastle Hospitals Charity in partnership with New Writing North. The aim of the residency is to support staff in their creative writing, offering writing workshops and creative engagement across 8 months to further confidence and skills.

Our National Health Stories was a 75th year anniversary project culminating in November 2023. The project offered a brilliant start to the writing residency and allowed our first chance to invite The Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust staff to contribute by writing or telling us their stories about their NHS. I thought a blog might be a good way to share our journey.

Our National Health Stories: Creating a portrait of the NHS as it exists today through the eyes of the staff that make it.

Centrally led by Kwame Kwei-Armah of the Young Vic with an impressive team of professional creatives, this innovative, ambitious arts initiative involved no fewer than 19 participating trusts across England, all inviting contributions from their staff teams towards a central event. The objective? To stage a live creative collage using the arts. To shout about the NHS through a combined voice and to shine a light on the creativity and talent of those who make up the organisation so often hidden behind hospital walls.

Arts Programme Manager for Newcastle Hospitals Charity, Katie Hickman and the team at New Writing North agreed it was essential that the North East be represented.

We sent our call out across the Newcastle sites, met and spoke with as many Trust staff as we could, sat in the staff cafes, flagging down busy staff members, striking up conversation over baked potatoes, hoping that word of the offer might spread and spark interest. ‘Do you have a story? A memory? An observation?’

And people did.

Poems, testimonies and stories relayed experiences of being patient or carer as well as medical professional and the perspective that can bring, of (in)visibility and (under)representation, the motivation to join the NHS, the motivation to stay, the pride, the pain, the responsibility. We felt each piece so very keenly and sent all on for potential national inclusion.

Details of the event itself remained a bit of a magical mystery phenomenon. With such a large and unprecedented collaboration, the central organisers had to wait for the Trusts’ submissions so they could curate and shape the practicalities appropriately. What did we know? That some of our contributing writers were to be filmed delivering their work which would be live streamed from Newcastle prior to the live event, and secondly that we would take one selected piece, which turned out to be Michael’s (Michael S. Allen, Parky v The Nash) to be part of a curated celebratory performance in Manchester. More than this? Trust in the theatre gods and in the clear passion and skill at the heart of the project.

Hello! We are Newcastle. Let’s Go!

The RVI MediCinema was our film studio for a day as writers (or elected representatives) came to record for the live stream. I was struck time and again by the courage and generosity of the hospital staff, writers and readers in sharing their work.

I think we understand words differently when they’re spoken, released from the privacy of a page, or as playwright Enda Walsh puts it ‘let fly into the air’. We humans can read one another in all sorts of ways that are extra. The filming day was a reminder of that as we met the hearts and minds behind the words.

Everyone in the room, (including the filming team), was visibly moved by each piece, each so personal and so vivid, so heartfelt and crafted, each bringing its own insight and punch. I wondered how many contributions had been prepared but remained unsent, intentions undone by people telling themselves they weren’t right, were too personal, or unpolished, or just not enough. I felt (feel) so much admiration for those who’d put themselves forward, and truly hope that the ongoing writing residency can reach anyone who wanted to but held back. I’ll do my very best.

Filming complete. Onwards. To Manchester. The National event.

The Rainy City

Through Sally Wainwright-land on our TransPennine we slid, from East to West. Coffees and chats and getting to know one another. Our Newcastle Team comprised Katie Hickman, 3 adventurous Trust staff members (Balsam, Lee-Ann and Michael) and me.

On reaching our bustling destination we forged our path to the hotel and then off to the venue for rehearsal. Manchester shops are big. The whole city feels big. And confident. Red brick. Trams. Building and expansion. And did I say big?

I could wander down a narrative cul-de-sac about the piece of Manchester grit (famously tenacious) that flew into my eye, my subsequent stoicism helped not a little by being bolstered by the most qualified travel mates possible, and the outcome of tears of laughter washing it away, but let’s take a tip from Katie’s Google-savvy navigation and get to the point.

Around a corner, down a street…the venue. Aviva Studios Factory International. Felt very Factory. Looked very International. Chrome and sleek and cavernous. Great loos. We were warmly greeted.

‘Are you Newcastle?’ ‘Yayyyyyy!’ we replied in spontaneous unison (where does this come from?!). ‘Welcome. You’re on at 2’.

We were shown into the dark auditorium. Hushed voices, cameras and bright stage lights. Stage Managers darting about with radio antennae and mic stands. Actors and musicians onstage walking through their lines and the central impressive silhouette (he is very tall) of Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, weaving the event together through the shadows like a conductor. Or magician. One hand in the air, the other on his emails (very busy) but exuding enthusiasm.

‘Who’s next? Newcastle?’

‘Yayy,’ we offered nervously through our surreptitious Pret. ‘You’re on.’

Michael’s piece is a neat sketch-format playlet of Michael Parkinson (played by Michael Shaeffer) interviewing none other than the 75-year-old NHS (which was to be voiced by audience members). Team Newcastle Hospitals were to show LAUGH and APPLAUSE placards at appropriate points. It’s such a gorgeous piece, and I had to concentrate not to drift into enjoyment as it played.

‘Just keep your eyes on me,’ our Parky said, ‘I’ll keep you right.’ Just as I imagined the real deal had been, reassuringly professional to the last.

Though the run through was brief and the room busy, organised chaos in fact, it felt so warm. Good humoured. Energised and exciting. And full of… I don’t know… heart.

Stand up. Hold a thing. Lift a thing. Then exit. Smile. Try not to trip. Got it.

‘Thanks Newcastle.’ ‘Yayy.’ we said.

It was hard to get a sense of the other work in the short rehearsal. Only to wonder at the scale of the operation… so to speak. How on earth would it play? Beautifully as it turned out.

The evening itself was packed and the atmosphere in the room hard to describe. The pieces were funny, moving, energetic, delicate, inspiring and insightful. And so many voices. One by one the trusts were introduced and whether live or on film the contributors and their passions and wisdoms just shone. The professional cast sang, performed, supported, and made space. Metal trolleys danced across the stage at one point, never lighter on their wheels in a piece about the sheets and uniforms, the colours and characters, and the care behind the care as photographs of linen services staff played out on a large screen. It was the overriding feeling of the evening and for me the project as a whole.

The invisible made visible in this vibrant and complex picture painted large.

And with the knowledge that in NHS hospitals and sites across the country the very work that prompted this dedication was continuing. Carried out by hands, busy and vital. On this evening, together, it was almost made manifest. If you closed your eyes you could imagine that you could hear its continuous chatter and hum. Its tenacity. Its exhaustion. Its laughs. Its tears.

And as with every portrait worth their paint, the knowledge that this one evening we had caught a glimpse of an angle, but that so many more were implied. And as with a portrait, it was all in the brushstrokes of the painters. Our National Health Service. 75 years. We see you. Now let us not look away.


We’ll hear more of the stories Laura Lindow has been writing alongside Newcastle Hospitals staff at Writing with Care, a special sharing event at Northern Stage on 25 April. Everyone welcome, tickets are free, but please book a place in advance. Full details here.