A visit to an NHS hospital is disorienting: you're not in the familiar commercial world, and yet it's not a normal public space either. It's dirtier, less manicured, less owned, than even the average school, local government office or library.It's all big signs, bossy instructions, plastic on floor and chairs and a layer of grime that has, no doubt, been swept for dust this morning.
Attempts to improve the look of a hospital, like the Turner prints of Greenwich on the wall outside the eye clinic, create not so much a pleasant environment, as the message that a well-meaning committee has been at work. The pictures are so obviously a gesture. They just say "we're trying" - like the gardener watering the hanging baskets in the tiny patch of garden between criss-crossing hospital corridors.
And the tired-looking people who work here really are trying. Yes, you can come back and take your mum for a cup of tea during her three hour wait, even though that's not really the system. And we'll even make one for you too when we're giving her another cup of tea after the operation - milk, sugar?
It's a bit like I imagine it would be in a Mother Teresa clinic in India: you'd be struck with how people could be oblivious to their working conditions.
With the NHS, it's not so much 'you don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps' as 'you don't have to be a decent, good-hearted person to work here, but you won't last long if you're not.'
As I whiled away the hours, I came across an article in the Guardian predicting that by 2050, Britain will be spending more than a fifth of its national output on services for the elderly. How can the funding and organisation of the NHS get ahead of the demographic curve? Especially if immigration is restricted, or just less attractive to those who have wanted to come to Britain? And if medical science and practice continue to advance?
Five satisfied customers have left the eye clinic by half past four, some saying they can already see better. My mum and I go out into the sunshine and drive home. Far better for the NHS to have achieved the miracle of good people working in poor surroundings than to be stuck with the opposite.