Photo by Philippe Leone
Artillery Row

What’s it like to have a home? Part I

In the 1980s, Britain closed most of its mental hospitals, and some of the patients became my friends

When it came to education, my primary school was a joke, but at least it was pretty. To my seven-year-old self, it looked like it had been dropped from the heavens. The gothic one-storey building featured a gabled entrance porch with a slanted blue slate roof boasting trefoil arches and even a decorative bell-cote. Nestled between rows of identikit plate-glass shopfronts, it stood out on the high street of the drab town I grew up in like a misplaced jewel. 

The school’s classrooms were high-ceilinged and airy, though filled with a lingering stench of dust and damp. Enormous chalk-smeared blackboards loomed over single rows of rickety Victorian school desks, between which I would regularly crawl on my bare hands and knees, trying to escape.

“And just where do you think you’re going, young man?”

Caught, I would gaze up at my terrifying teacher, her face like an Easter Island statue. Rhythmically spanking a hardwood metre rule against her pale, open palm, Miss Colgate used to shake her head at me, a glint of anticipation dancing in her sapphire blue eyes. To save my welted knuckles further abuse, I’d make like I’d dropped my pencil, or pretend to have been peering up a classmate’s kilt.

It was safer than telling the truth, which was that Miss Colgate’s droning lessons left me bored stiff. As soon as she turned her back, I’d sneak out of her torture chamber and dash like the wind towards the school’s sad excuse for a library. There, I’d hide undiscovered for hours amongst the vibrant-patterned beanbags, devouring vital tomes like Willy the Wimp and A Different Kind of Sister.

Every few weeks, my parents were summoned to the school to discuss my delinquent behaviour. My father would never bother to show, so it was always my mother and me, huddled with the headmaster in his dark little office.

“Mrs. Hilton, I’m afraid there’s something terribly wrong with your son. He’s a menace and we simply cannot control him.”

I sat against an adjacent wall, my legs swinging from a chair as I stared into my lap. 

“Have you tried beating him?” my mother would ask in a flat voice. “Because you have our full permission, you know. Give him a good hiding; that’ll teach him. I’m working six jobs right now, so I don’t have time for this drivel. Do whatever you have to do, with our blessing.”

In desperation, I took to developing an exaggerated line in fake illnesses to avoid school altogether. On Monday mornings I would clutch my Superman duvet like a lifebelt, my voice a groan as I claimed to be suffering hallucinations. “Poisoned…” I’d wheeze. Or, “Brain tumour… Leave me… to die alone.” 

My mother was often too pressed for time to bother arguing with me. Checking my pulse, she’d examine her wristwatch with contempt. “There’ll be no slobbing in bed today, Superman. Dying or not, you’ll have to come with me.”

Little did she realise that this was my whole plan. “Well, OK,” I’d sigh, swallowing a grin as I pressed the back of my hand against my forehead, which I’d earlier doused in fake sweat. “I mean, if you think it’s best?” 

Mondays were the days my mother worked with a group of elderly people who she — and everyone else I knew — called “mental patients”. These were lifelong residents of Harperbury Hospital, one of three big lunatic asylums in our local area. “The fourth one being our house, right?” I took to joking. I was seven years old, so my mother would chortle on cue. Then, after laughing, she’d get a faraway look in her eyes, and go quiet.

This was the time when the Thatcher government was trying to close the asylums and introduce some of the residents back into the community. Even in my household, the air was thick with alien words like privatisation, marketisation and deinstitutionalisation. I, of course, hadn’t the foggiest idea what any of it meant, nor why anyone in their right mind would willingly tune-in to headlines about spending cuts and policy shifts when they could just stick their head in the oven and turn on the gas. It was the dreariness of it all that got to me. If the news was a colour, I remember thinking, it would be brown, stored in communal food containers by the Blantons, a worthy couple my mother knew who ate nothing but homemade flapjacks, campaigned for the SDP, and never ever shut up about their right to publicly breastfeed. Sat at the family breakfast table, I’d stare bleary-eyed into bowls of soggy bran flakes as the narcotic drones of the Today programme informed my parents of Audit Commissions, of slashed budgets and competition, of contracts and means-testing. Of the scary-sounding “crisis in care”, about which I’d no desire to know anything further, thank you very much.   

For the patients, this place was Disneyland

Harperbury Hospital had padded walls and the beds were said to be packed so tightly together that nurses climbed over patients to attend to others in distress. As far as I was concerned, this was the coolest thing in the world, but my mother seemed more interested in the horrors that lay beyond the asylum’s perimeter fence. “The problem,” she explained, “is that most of the poor buggers have never been outside of the wards.” Now, as a part of the government’s controversial “Care in the Community” scheme, Hertfordshire County Council had hired her to teach a small group of patients how to cook, how to eat together, and how to share things without a fistfight. “I help them to do things like develop table manners” is how she put it. “For example, how to pass the salt.”

“They don’t know how to pass the salt?” I asked, dumbfounded. 

“They know how to pass the salt,” my mother said. “But they don’t know how to ask someone to pass the salt. They have no social skills, you see, and that’s where I come in. I teach them not to do things like shove their plates into the middle of the table when they’ve finished eating and march from the room. I help them to understand how that sort of behaviour is very rude and completely unacceptable.”

“But Sophie does it,” I said, referring to my younger sister.

“Not in front of me she doesn’t,” my mother said through her teeth.

The cookery classes for these geriatrics from the loony bin took place in an abandoned secondary modern school. Its long, empty corridors, peeling walls and acres of surrounding wasteland creeped me out, reminding me, ironically, of a mental hospital. For the patients, though, this place was Disneyland. They’d arrive from the asylum in a minibus. Standing on my tiptoes, I’d watch them through the first-floor window as they wandered off excitedly in assorted directions, only to be chased around the deserted playgrounds by three handlers in white coats.

Eventually, the patients would be herded upstairs into the kitchen area. “They’re all yours now,” I remember their exhausted handlers saying. “We’ll be back to collect them in a few hours.” 

“Try not to be late this time, hm?” my mother would say in her sternest voice. Then, with a sudden smile, “Good morning, class!” 

“’Ello, mum!” a voice would bawl. It belonged to a dumpy woman of seventy-five years, who’d shuffle across the floor as fast as she could in her slippers to give my mother a long, clingy hug. Resting her head tenderly against my mother’s bosom, she’d stare glassy eyed at the wall, opening and closing her mouth like a love-starved codfish. 

The woman’s name was Rose, and I soon came to think of her as a friend. Perched on the large oak teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom, I’d moan to her about my boring lessons at school while she’d rave about her cleaning duties at the asylum. “I ’elp to clean the chapel, I does,” she’d say, as if she hadn’t told me the exact same thing five minutes earlier, “and I sings, too. I clean, I does, and I sings with it, too.”

Both of these tasks were beyond the abilities of most of my own classmates, so I had no trouble holding Rose in high esteem. 

“Careful, Rose,” my mother would warn sarcastically, “don’t get too close to him, he’s not very well.”

My mother ran the whole scheme on a budget of one pound per head per day

Rose would stare at me, chewing her tongue with her dentures. Then she’d pat my hand affectionately before slouching off, and Albert would toddle over. Albert was short and looked exactly like Norman Wisdom. He wore a flat cap and was always cold, no matter the weather. He was especially proud of his leather gloves, which he’d pull off with great fanfare, then rub his hands together, warming them with his breath. “It’s a chilly one today,” he’d say, caught in the bright sun rays beaming through the big glass windows. “Oh, boy, it’s a chilly one, alright.”

“Albert,” I’d say, “it’s the height of summer.”

“It’s a chilly one, alright,” he’d stutter, rubbing his hands together again. “Oh, boy, it’s a chilly one, alright.”

I was baffled, until my mother explained it to me one day after class. “Albert’s not chilly,” she said, speeding to her next job in the family Saab. “It’s just his way of making conversation. He’s being polite, that’s all. Mentioning the weather is his routine. It makes him feel safe, do you understand?”

“I think so,” I said, staring out of the window at the countryside, which was one big blur.

My mother had been interviewed for her job at County Hall by a panel of public servants she referred to as “a gang of plonkers”. By her own account, when she’d asked them what sort of training she’d receive, there was a long, awkward pause in the meeting room. Then the panel fell about with laughter.

Sometimes, before their classes, the geriatric students would be taken for a short walk around the local park. They’d return in a state of great excitement, using their experiences to make polite conversation with me about the ducks they’d seen at the pond and the flowers they’d smelled in the gardens. If I gave them little sandwich bags filled with breadcrumbs to bung at the ducks, they’d express so much joy and gratitude I felt like I’d handed them velvet pouches full of loose diamonds.

As the months passed, the class received further lessons on how to walk on the pavement, and how to safely cross the road using a pelican crossing, a concept they found particularly hard to master. Back in the kitchen, they were taught about numbers and counting and money, as their shepherd’s pies and apple crumbles baked in the ovens. My mother ran the whole scheme on a budget of one pound per head per day, out of which every pupil had to cook and eat a two-course meal. Even at seven years old I knew that I was witnessing a miracle. 

The students varied enormously in ability. A pair of elderly, wild-haired women turned out to be a danger to themselves and everybody around them. They would lunge for knives and fling open the cupboards, smashing casserole dishes and glass mixing bowls over the floor. My mother described the women as “complete nutcases, utterly doolally” and eventually they had to be expelled from the scheme for good.

A handful of the patients suffered from a total lack of spatial understanding, failing to grasp the concept of something being in front of them, behind them, or to the side of them. I once watched a septuagenarian turn in never-ending circles as my mother shouted, “No, Reg! There! Use your eyes! Don’t you see? Reg, it’s right there, directly in front of you! For heaven’s sake!” before having to intervene when, suffering from dizziness, Reg staggered ten feet sideways into a defective fridge-freezer.  

Others would display a curious mismatch of skills. Albert, for example: He was incapable of remembering from one week to the next that an oven was hot. “Now, Albert,” my mother would say before every class, wagging a finger in his face, “do we remember what an oven is?” Everyone would stop what they were doing and watch as Albert thought really hard, frowning and tugging at his lips.

“’Ot, Albert!” Rose would eventually say, smacking her forehead. “An oven is ’ot!” She’d turn to me, giggling. “Silly Albert never remembers!”

But Albert was the only student who could tell the time, an ability of which he was enormously proud. He’d wear a wristwatch and during the classes he’d stare at it intently, then peer up at the clock on the wall, then stare back at his watch again. This would go on for twenty minutes, after which he’d patter over and tap me on the shoulder. “It’s time to put the greens on now,” he’d say. Then he’d march back across the room and remind my mother, who always praised him. “Well done, Albert. You’re quite right.” For the remainder of the class, Albert would glow with pride, circling the room to tell everybody what he did.

Several were even more capable, and I started to wonder why some of my friends were in an asylum at all. One day on the way home, I asked my mother about it. “Well,” she said, tapping her wedding band against the steering wheel, “in the past, they used to lock away any poor bugger who was, you know, a bit… not with it.”

“Bonkers, you mean?” 

“No,” she said, “not always. Two of my women got pregnant in their teens and were locked away for it by their families. One of the gentlemen I teach was put in the hospital when he was seven months old. He’s not mentally disabled in any way, he just never got adopted. And he can’t read or write, because no one has ever taught him.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well…” Tap-tap-tap. “It’s complicated.”

“Complicated? How?”

My mother let out a long sigh. “Because not everyone in the world is as fortunate as you, buster — got it?”

I scoffed, certain I’d never heard anything so preposterous.

“Stick around, why don’t you?” my mother said, a note of something I couldn’t quite identify in her voice. “You’ll see.” 

This is Part I of a two-part essay. Read Part II here.

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