The conviviality of hospitals (and where exactly did Orwell’s 1984 come from?)

I’ve been spending every day in Hairmyres Hospital with my mother, the very same East Kilbride hospital where George Orwell once stayed. Since Friday I’ve been here. She’ll be in the rest of the week. She’s here with severe and acute pneumonia, complicated by her old familiar heart issues. Orwell was here too, recovering from TB, there’s a plaque to prove it.

George Orwell

But it can’t have been the same place, because how could 1984 happen here? I never thought I’d write a post on the conviviality of hospitals. I have hated them, after all my anguished time there with my dad and then my mum. Hated them despite immense admiration for the competence and compassion of the nurses and other staff and even some of the doctors. But I’ve had to change my mind just a little in a way that has highlighted the everyday brilliance of people in helping each other get along. It’s so easy to forget in our world.

After many room moves due to an NHS in crisis combined with snowy, icy weather, she has ended up here in this particular ward. She is sharing a room with three other women. It is big and square, airy with big windows in this older building that is the closest thing here to something almost pleasantly residential.  When we got here, the others were: B in the bed next to her, J across and E along the diagonal. They have been so lovely these women.

E the oldest, so desperate to go home. Tiny, frail, beautiful. I thought at first the loveliest thing I had seen in ages was her face when the nurse opened the curtains and E whispered sunshine. But no. I saw her face when her husband walked in. The transformation had everyone tearing up, and me? Cried…couldn’t stop, it was embarrassing.  I missed M, and besides honestly, it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. 64 years married. Isn’t he handsome she said, and smiled again. It lit up the room.

B has been there the longest now, she and J set the tone when we got there. Friendly, everyone checks in on each other, makes sure they have what they need. Tells stories, tells jokes, calls across the room to say hello. The nurses and aides join in. J walking over to tell me how lovely my mum was, how happy she was to meet us. Everyone cried when she left. In her place T, who doesn’t speak too much English and is quite deaf (as is my mother and as was E, so we are in ‘the shouty ward’) and very hard to understand. The friendliness continues, though it’s harder when you have no idea what she needs — both she and my mum do a lot of nodding and smiling. Family come and go, we know each other, joke back and forth. The woman who was in the bed before mum, now well and back at work, dropped by to bring cakes and prawn sandwiches.

E left today, that amazing smile never left her face this morning. More tears for the rest of us, most of the staff came to see her go. From her I learned the phrase ‘need a penny’ for having to go to the bathroom, ‘spending a penny’ for going, we heard it lots. It’s such an intimate space, everyone knows everything. It could be my worst nightmare, should be. If you have to be in hospital, though, with everything most private suddenly public and bored and in pain as you always are…well, this is the way it should be. A nurse walked in after E left holding up a blanket, saying that’s the size tissue they would need for the day B leaves.

They are quite wonderful. I will miss them.

A is there now (there aren’t enough beds in the hospital for everyone who needs one). We don’t know her story yet. I might be back tomorrow, might not make it because the snow has been coming down. The drive back this evening was terrifying though my brother is experienced at driving in snow. Sadly none of the other drivers are. But it was good to get home to my tiny brand new nephew and L and the smell of stew.

This morning just before 8, the world looked like this:

Tomorrow, a full-on wonderland I think.

As for George Orwell, I found this lovely article about his stay at Hairmyres, when it was a very different kind of place and set alongside a working farm:

Orwell was admitted to Hairmyres under his real name, Eric Blair, on Christmas Eve 1946. He suffered from tuberculosis in one lung. At the time of his admission he was busy writing his novel “1984”. The staff, insisting that complete physical and mental rest was essential for effective treatment, confiscated his typewriter. With rest his health improved to some extent but attempts to rest his badly affected lung by simple surgical procedures were not very successful. He suffered severe side effects from his treatment, and although the disease was responding, it had to be stopped after fifty days. The remaining supplies of streptomycin were administered, with success, to two other patients. Orwell’s typewriter was returned to him in May 1948 and he spent the remainder of his stay in Hairmyres writing, walking in the grounds and playing croquet.

I am unsure, therefore, how accurate the plaque is. Sadly, you can no longer play croquet here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the building we’re in now wasn’t part of the complex. Most of it has disappeared, what you see now is a very expensive building built through a Private Finance Initiative. I hate those. What I do love though, is that the first incarnation of this place was as a reformatory for inebriates. They still try and make sure you don’t steal the most excellent hospital gowns.

Ice

Ice. I’ve lived in cold places, but never this cold I suppose. Frozen sand, iced ponds, incredible shards and circles and forms, as beautiful on incredible beaches as within the pocked asphalt alongside an industrial estate. I know these have nothing on what can be seen all along the East Coast today, the frozen wonder of Niagra Falls, but then I suppose you should never compare wonders.

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Inverness

Inverness

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, Glasgow

Marvelously mechanical, haunting carvings incorporated into scrap wheels and cogs and machines that are beautiful in their stillness. We were able to take pictures of that, but not when they come alive…

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

From the website.

Eduard Bersudsky (b. 1939, St.Petersburg, Russia – then Leningrad, USSR) is a self-taught visionary artist. He started carving in his late 20-s, while making a modest living as a metal worker, electrician, skipper on the barge, night guard and a boiler man, and got his education in museums, libraries, exhibitions, and evening classes for drawing and sculpture.

In 1974-80 Bersudsky took part in some exhibitions of “non-conformist art” – a movement of artists who wanted to avoid the control of the official Soviet ideology.

In 1974 he found a job in the park department to carve giant figures out of fallen trees for children playgrounds. At the same time in his only room in a communal flat he began producing the kinemats – kinetic sculptures driven by electrical motors and controlled by sophisticated electro mechanical devices, incorporating pieces of old furniture, metal scrap and grotesque carved figures. Until 1989 his kinemats could be seen only by few friends and acquaintances.

In the centre of their new Glasgow home, a space roughly the same size as this room in St Petersberg and the kinemats that once filled it

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

We didn’t time it right to see the evening show when these were set in motion.

In 1988 his met Tatyana Jakovskaya (b.1947), a theatre critic and director. Together they founded Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre (opened in St.Petersburg in 1990). A mechanical movement of kinemats has been supported with music, light and shadow play. The third member of team – Sergey Jakovsky (born 1980) – joined Sharmanka at the age of 13 and gradually became responsible for light/sound design as well as technical management.

It is the combination of all of these things that make these so entirely magical.

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

The shadows alone, so beautiful.

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

The bittersweetness of each sculpture, like the Rag’n’Bone Man above, most dedicated to friends who made art, who stood with integrity. The Master and Margarita. Below the Titanic, and the dissemination of forbidden books.

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

And the tongue and cheekiness. Like the Aurora, Battleship of the Revolution:

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Words fail in description, so go there. I love that it is in the very same building as the Britannia Panopticon, another wonder of Glasgow that I thought I had blogged but did not…how? An old music hall full of wonder, Stan Laurel started here. These are from 2014:

Britannia Panopticon

Britannia Panopticon

I hope that just a little of the love and ingenuity and brilliance of this carry on through our own year and its many endeavors that feel so daunting now.

Oil Rigs, Thief’s Stone, Dalmore distillery

Country walks without a car in the highlands of Scotland are harder to manage than anywhere we’ve been I think. This one ended beautifully, but was mostly along quite a busy road.

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Roskeen Church, heebiejeebies, note least because rabbits had burrowed under and into many of the graves. But the hands, my god.

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

The Thief’s Stone, ancient, unable to see any carvings at all peering over the fence and the ‘Pictish Trail’ brochure gives no easy directions.

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

A bird of prey mobbed

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

And down to Dalmore distillery. Closed.

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

And the incredible beauty of the firth, snow-covered mountains, pools of mirrored water and ice full of birds. The remnants of an old WWI naval base.

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Always the oil rigs when you turn back around…

Invergordon to Alnes

The New Year

Inverness. It is cold and beautiful, full of sun and mists followed/preceeded by rain. I have seen ice, have walked on frozen sands. We are staying in a most beautiful fisherman’s cottage on the river Ness, fixed up by wealth, a claw-foot tub in one gabled window, central heating and a le creuset casserole dish of the kind I aspire to own just left here in which to cook my favourite chicken with garlic, lemon, white wine. We curled up after dinner on the couch, watched the Godfather and an old Sherlock Holmes played by Basil Rathbone. Caught Hootenany with Mavis Staples and George McCrae and Soul II Soul and Ruby Turner. At the new year, fireworks exploded over the river just for us I think. Happiness complete last night.

This morning we woke to sun.

Inverness

We thought we had to move quickly to keep the sun, we crossed the bridge to a world beautiful. Like paintings I stared at when I was little, could never imagine being present within.

Inverness

Our cottage whitewashed there on the left, a green door. We walked down along the water through industrial and council estates, past burdens civil and into Merkinch Nature Reserve.

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Back home to a breakfast of Lorne sausage and haggis and eggs, the sun now shining warmly on the world, unforseen by all weather predictions. Long may it continue.

Inverness

Happy New Year.

The wondrous Moray Firth, down Nairn way

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

An unexpected reminder of the transitory nature of life and flight

Moray Firth

An immensity of space

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

And into the woods

Moray Firth

and out again

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

I have never walked across frozen sand before

Moray Firth

through a watercolour world

Moray Firth

of frozen waters

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

The only thing missing, a great flock of salmon pink flamingos glowing against the dark cliffs and snowy peaks, being herded by Tilda Swinton back into her exotic aviary. It did start raining by the time we got back to Nairn to wait for our train.

Still.

Nairn

Moray Firth

Nairn

Elgin Cathedral, its Memento Mori and strange beasts

Begun in 1224 and ruined by 1560, we found Elgin Cathedral frozen into the grass, inscribed against the sky.

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Its bulk fades into fragility, its space shaped loosely by huge gaping walls, remains of windows that spin your view about the grayness of sky. Stubs of pillars that pull it down again to the grass and fill its center with memory.

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Enough remains to remind you of just how beautifully human being worked this stone.

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

The chapter house, still miraculously standing

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

A Pictish cross, with barely visible views of falconry

Elgin Cathedral Elgin Cathedral

I have not seen so many Memento Mori since St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, certainly never so many in the UK. Here they are carved into stone, reminders of death sat alongside symbols of labour in life. How much better is this than the polished marbles of conquest and pillage.

Memento Mori, Elgin Cathdral

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And there are some most beautiful stone heads, human and animal alike.

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Views of the ruins from above

Elgin Cathedral

And views over Elgin from the tower:

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Paula Meehan, Prayer for the Children of Longing

I should be on break, should be done, but instead I am working and working to finish up this report for the Welsh Government on the progress of the new homelessness prevention agenda of the Housing Act 2014 and I just finished the section on vulnerable groups… fucking vulnerable groups. The young people I spoke to sit within this category as though trapped in amber, bureaucratically stripped of the fierce tragedies of their angry, lost, scared, funny, resigned presences vibrating with life sometimes falling in tears, sometimes erupting in a torrent of abuse on the phone. They survive streets and misery and old wounds and abuse with alcohol and drug medleys, and more and more with mamba, ‘legal highs’, spice. These kids are not easy, but they are ours and we are letting them die.

I read this poem this morning, and it felt like a Christmas gift. One among many, for Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain must be one of the best poetry collections I’ve ever read. A gift for me and for them. For all those who loved them, tried to save them. A prayer to whisper beside every Christmas tree.

Prayer for the Children of Longing

A poem commissioned by the community of Dublin’s north inner city for the lighting of the Christmas tree in Buckingham Street, to remember their children who died from drug use.

Great tree from the far northern forest
Still rich with the sap of the forest
Here at the heart of winter
Here at the heart of the city

Grant us the clarity of ice
The comfort of snow
The cool memory of trees
Grant us the forest’s silence
The snow’s breathless quiet

For one moment to freeze
The scream, the siren, the knock on the door
The needle in its track
The knife in the back

In that silence let us hear
The song of the children of longing
In that silence let us catch
The breath of the children of longing

The echo of their voices through the city streets
The streets that defeated them
That brought them to their knees
The streets that couldn’t shelter them
That spellbound them in alleyways
The streets that blew their minds
That led them astray, out of reach of our saving
The streets that gave them visions and dreams
That promised them everything
That delivered nothing
The streets that broke their backs
The streets we brought them home to

Let their names be the wind through the branches
Let their names be the song of the river
Let their names be the holiest prayers

Under the starlight, under the moonlight
In the light of this tree

Here at the heart of winter
Here at the heart of the city

Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.