104. The wolves of Wimpole Street.

The Monopoly Board Game is an increasingly valid metaphor for British society. Railway stations, water and electricity utilities can be bought cheaply so that jail is the only service left publicly owned.

Ironically, Monopoly was invented by a Lefty as an educational tool to illustrate the downside of capitalism. Ownership of property slowly but surely polarises the players into haves and have nots, leaving one person super rich and the others destitute. Sure, there is an intermediate stage where a notional middle class can own a few houses, but this is an illusory phase, like Derby County’s sojourns in the premier league. Sooner or later the market will prevail, typically after significant alcohol consumption, leaving family relationships in tatters and one giant corporate entity in control.  

The original idea for Monopoly was stolen by one of the inventor’s dinner party guests, patented and sold to a large games corporation. The inventor did get $500 though, enough nowadays to buy Liverpool Street and Kings Cross stations, given the current exchange rate. The monetary values in Monopoly are pleasingly anachronistic – £200 seems cheap for the whole of Kings Cross. I like anachronisms. Shakespeare in space suits for instance, or the bit in ‘A Knight’s Tale’ where the medieval dance morphs into Golden Years. It was fairly anachronistic when British Home Stores was sold for £1, though it should be remembered the pound was worth a lot more in 2015.

What’s surprising about Monopoly is that there is no hospital on the board nor any other health or social services related property. Players can only build houses or hotels on their streets, not Walk-In or Sure Start Centres. 

Getting out of jail costs £50, maybe even less if you can buy a card off a competitor or throw a double. In real life, the super rich don’t go to jail very often, but may still need to go to hospital. Even the richest individual occasionally crashes a Bentley or has a heart attack during a special massage. 

Which is the moment when, if they have the misfortune to be in the UK – where there is no private A and E – that person realises the paramedics won’t be there for 90 minutes, there are no beds in A and E and their money is suddenly useless to them.

If only there was a card called ‘Get into Hospital Free’, it would trade at many multiples of its face value. Even more valuable would be a ‘Get into Hospital Fast’ card, with a picture of an ambucopter flown by Prince William.

There are two ways into A and E – via reception or ambulance. The reception route collects all those who have been dealt a card called ‘Go directly to hospital, do not pass Go’ and who are well enough to stagger up to reception. 

There are pros and cons both ways. In recent years I have spent a few nights in A and E as an aspiring patient. On the most recent occasion I was walking wounded rather than stretchered, so I went in via reception and I had time – 13 hours or so – for some light blog fieldwork. Staying up all night to get lucky, as Daft Punk (feat. Pharell Williams) would put it. 

During the night the receptionist, who was wearing tight leather trousers and a leopard skin print top, spent a lot of time sticking labels onto case files and filing notes away, carefully ignoring prospective customers. Towards the end of her shift she retreated further and further back from the glass screen into her dark receptionist-cave.

A tall man, probably concussed, with his gashed head bleeding into a towel turban, waited for quite a while before getting booked in. Finally he was asked his details: for occupation he replied ‘international sex symbol’. That was met with a frown. ‘OK, sales executive then’ he tried instead. He reluctantly gave his wife’s name as next of kin. When asked whether he wanted her to be informed, he said, ‘no, that would only make things a hell of a lot worse’.

He took his seat with the rest of us, on the non – covid side of the waiting room. 

Unfortunately the vending machine was on the covid side, necessitating occasional masked guerrilla raids across the imaginary germ frontier. 

Luckily there was a portacabin called The Pod, which was a medium term waiting room, like Purgatory. No-one seemed to use The Pod, probably in case they lost their place in the queue. It was hard to be confident that the staff would come and find you once your turn came up. The pod had a TV, but it was set to a shopping channel and there was no sound and no remote. Don’t tell the Care Quality Commission (they insist on Sky Arts). It was quiet in the Pod. 

Monopoly does pay attention to the random vicissitudes that can affect people, rich or poor, using ‘Chance’ and ‘Community Chest’ cards. The cards do include a £50 doctors fee and a £100 hospital fee, but nothing financially ruinous, like crashing into Gwyneth Paltrow on skis. Chance cards include a range of life events, both positive and negative. According to monopolyland.com the Chance cards are more luck-based and Community Chest cards are more likely to reward the player with money. The worst thing that can happen is the need for property repairs.

Why the game excludes a dimension related to health care is unknown, but my speculation is that the designers were reluctant to admit that accidents and emergencies really happened to property owning people. If they did, they would be treated by insurance based private health providers. The original version of the game, after all, was set in the Atlantic City of the 1930s, a time when Night Nurse was a person rather than a drug of abuse.  In translating the UK version to the streets of London the makers should have gone a bit more Ralph McTell.   

Free Parking? Hard to believe that still exists, any more than Free Lunch. I would call that square ‘Clamping Zone’ and have a picture of a menacing man with a Pitbull. Or instead of Free Parking, on the corner diagonally opposite Go, a square called Stop, a disused BHS shop doorway with a picture of a comatose homeless person under an old duvet. 

Monopoly does not have anything the district council would call ‘high quality public spaces’, so I would suggest they include the Southbank Skate Space, with a picture of Melvyn Bragg, in the background, spraying graffiti. And what about including a square for Tufton Street, where the right wing think tanks are located? Pay a large penalty if you land there, dark money preferred. 

There are versions of Monopoly depicting many different cities around the world. Although there are monopoly situations existing in health care, both government-run and private, the board game itself remains silent on health provision ownership.

I’d like to think this proves that capitalism and medicine just don’t mix well, at least in board games. 

The longest ever Monopoly game lasted 70 straight days, which is about the time it takes to get an urgent eye appointment. It will take a while to find out whether we are getting richer or poorer, but like Derby County, I’m guessing the prognosis for the NHS is Game Over.


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