Care and Control

Sounding it Out – Jo Stanley

Rear Window Publications
1995 ISBN 0 9521040 3 2
© Jo Stanley

Sounding out: to inquire, especially in reserved or cautious manner into sentiments of persons about etc.;

Sounding: means of causing opinions to be more widely known;

Sound: what is or may be heard;

Sound: not diseased, rotten.

What does Hackney Hospital sound like, to those who spend their time there? What sounds do they make in response to what happens within its forbidding towers and determinedly bright dayrooms, its kicked-in wards and made-over offices? And what intense fear and pain and joy and frustration will remain unuttered—bulldozer over like the underground labyrinths—once the building finally goes?

My job was to inquire of users and staff: their stories, their songs, their noises: all that they would agree to expose. The point was to gather knowledge for future inquiries: these fragments of my interviewees’ pasts will be stored for Hackney and the National Sound Archive.

I expected to be up against the selective silences that people in institutions and in distress use as survival devices; the memory loss caused by ECT and the standard shyness of working-class people who believe they have nothing to offer. Although some were reticent, others were frank, even poetic. Many words were let out because there is nothing to lose now that the great containing device—the idea of the hospital—is going. I hope that these would be interviews with the metaphorical bass and treble enhancers turned up: screams and sobs—after all, some younger service users joked that this is a House of Horrors from which werewolf yowls echoed. But the site is more quiet, more everydayish than that. And the sounds that people said they would remember—or even replicated—were ordinary noises. The ferocious rattle of food trolley on G Block’s gravel path. The companionable strolling and singing by the pond under the cypress trees: Grace crooned “The future’s not ours to see, Que sera!” Goldfish plopping up as they do at home in the Caribbean, said Elvira. The piercing screech of the double-acting central heating pump, Barry did an imitation. Joe remembered the snores and calls in Gardner’s Ward at night; “Nurse! Nurse!”


How did people first know the hospital, one, five, twenty years ago? None had been in it as a Workhouse although Joe’s Councillor father told him stories of the tragedy he’d seen there. Gertie visited her grandmother here during the World War II blackout and had her son’s nose treated here. Sophie nipped out of the Nurse’s Home to cuddle her beloved porter behind the mortuary. The Victorian cluster’s existence excites a peaceful local gratitude—for all the nuthouse reputation: it provided health, a sense of purpose, friends and spouses.

“How are you different now, on leaving?” I asked. Older. Better. Higher up the ladder. Married. Two stone heavier.

And now is the place itself different? Fundamentally, people thought, with anger and regret, it’s changed from a bustling general 800-bed hospital with ambulances screeching in all the time from Homerton High Street (said Ron) to a Cinderella (said Trevor); a derelict limb, the backstreet barrier to it is manned by professional security guards. Doors are locked; even the canteen excludes those who don’t know the code, said Ruth. Gone are the starched nurses, said Tilly; the reassuring reek of carbolic, Daisy recalled; and the tremor before Matron’s round, the giggles afterwards. Gone, Barry thought, is the once unstinting generosity of caring. But older habituées of Kingsland Day Hospital such as Daisy and Tilly prefer it now, they’re invariably heartened that nurses wear comfortable slacks: “like us”; some doctors are called by first names. And when staff occasionally wander round overshadowed yards looking vulnerable, the attention is warming, to their surprise: shall I help you back to your ward, dear?

The names that will be remembered—Kafi, Charity, Rhiannon, reflect how the waves of staff have come in from far away. Irish, then Malaysian, and Caribbean nurses came in the 1960s. Ruth will never forget the Christmas dinner of Cajun chicken cooked up at the back of Emergency; Barry pays tribute to the Asian stokers who kept the boilers going despite appalling long shifts.

The Workhouse infirmary is going, going, gone. Doctors say, good “it is a monument to a dreadful era of mental health and the treatment of the impoverished old; to a time of un-generosity; to throwing a bricks-and-mortar solution to flesh and blood social problems.” A number of local services say, “aah, it’s a loss, they looked after us well there even if they were a bit strict at times.”

What smells will turn people’s memories to Hackney Hospital, once it is razed? “The cooked fish wafting from the kitchen as you get off the bus,” said Joe. The inevitable urine on the old people’s long stay wards, Barry thought. The musty gas fire smells of the now-office rooms that were once housemen’s study-bedrooms, said Trevor.

And what will people take away? The sense that it was a good place, with people doing all they could to help.

The favourite place? “My bit,” say people, “I like my bit.”

And I? I’ll remember things that weren’t caught on tape, that resound but have no smell: the tenderness that is in a vibration from a nurse or an art therapist; all the generous struggling to make the hospital work by all the non-nursing staff; hospital users’ soundless, dignified confronting of their frailty; the transcending of ill/well, official/unofficial polarities in Ron’s café oasis; a quiet beauty that characterises people dealing respectfully together with all the chips being down, the aces all absent. Permeation by such attitudes make this barricaded hospital in some ways a light and open place.