Abraham, Martin and John - Marvin Gaye
In the small hours of the night when I was working on Henry Ward, I was sometimes required to relieve the Night Shift worker on S Ward, well that's what we all called it - 'S' for 'Special' - I can't remember its real name. This was the ward for residents who were considered a physical risk to the others in the Royal Earlswood Hospital. The guy looking after the ward next to me would take care of both his and my ward, and I'd let the man in charge of 'S' have his half-way break. S Ward was scary. Allegedly, at least two of the inmates had been responsible for the deaths, and they were all in there because they had, at one time or another, been violent, but I was assured that they were all fine now and I could phone for help from the main office if there was a problem. As with the other patients in the hospital, they were "voluntary" which meant there were no locked doors and they could leave at any time. In reality, however, they were prevented from making their exit by the doorknobs on the only door out of the ward: one was very large, three times the normal size, and had to be turned clockwise to open, the other of normal proportions, turning anti-clockwise. Escaping the ward required a level of dexterity, co-ordination and intelligence beyond the capability of its residents.
Inside, the assembled group resembled nothing so much as a cavalcade of characters from a Hammer horror movie. One guy, tall and thin, and dressed in a long black coat, possibly his dressing gown, that seemed to be made from dyed bed linen, spent most of his time standing on tables, making dog noises, barking and whining alternately. Another, very short, less than five foot tall and sporting a red Tommy Cooper style fez, followed me about the ward like a shadow, promptly eating my cigarette butts as soon as I had stubbed them out. A third - a full grown man - cycled around on a tricycle incessantly singing "All Things Bright and Beautiful". On my first relief shift, the night nurse's parting words to me were "whatever you do, don't go into the dormitory. They'll try to get you in there but don't go." I sat at my desk for the next 15 minutes listening to the most horrendous screams emanating from the next room, but stayed put. Then abruptly they stopped. Shortly afterwards, a youth with fair hair, looking as handsome as a film star, came out and politely asked me for a cigarette. I, equally politely, said no, reminding him that residents were not permitted to smoke, and that nursing staff were not allowed to give them cigarettes. Upon which he roundly abused me with the filthiest language I'd ever heard, shouting that if I didn't give him a smoke he'd tell everyone that I'd sexually abused him and that I'd wind up in prison, going into obscene detail about what I would have supposedly done to him. He eventually tired, the tirade stopped, and he returned to the dormitory from whence the screaming started once again. Young as I was, I was extremely agitated, concerned that someone might believe what he said. When the ward nurse came back, I told him what had happened; he just smiled and said, "Don't worry, he says that to everyone he thinks are new. He's only got a twenty minute memory anyway. He's probably forgotten what he said already."
Some of the recent articles about the hospital have suggested that the staff were abusive and uncaring to the residents. Although many of them, such as the night shift workers like myself, may not have had the kind of qualifications or experience one would expect to be required as a matter a law, I never heard of any instances of mistreatment. Indeed I saw only workers who were conscientious, caring and professional. The staff were far superior to the local amateurs who came in daily to provide diversions for the patients. These do-gooders provided a vital benefits, putting on disco's, playing games, leading nature walks in the grounds and much else, but they were susceptible to the whiles of their wards who instinctively homed in on their vulnerabilities, and would often have to call on the regular staff for help out of a sticky situation.
On my last morning there, instead of cycling home as I usually did, I was waiting in the foyer for my mother to pick me up. I had a bag with the gear that I had accumulated there over the past months, and had dispensed with my white coat, the mark of the hospital staff. Having not slept for fifteen odd hours, I was sitting on a chair dozing gently, when I became aware of a well-dressed and coiffured forty year old woman squatting directly in front of me. She'd hiked up her dress to get low enough for her face to be level with mine, and in her crouch position her legs were spread so that I could see her knickers. Speaking slowly and very deliberately, with emphasis on each word, she asked, "And what's your name". "I'm Michael Stylus", I replied politely, "what's yours?" Her knees snapped together, she leapt to her feet, quickly intoned an "oh, sorry" as though she'd accidently opened a lavatory door on me, and swiftly left me alone in the room.
I've never quite decided whether the residents would have been better off outside in the big wide world rather than in institutions such as the Royal Earlswood Hospital. Certainly the staff numbers should have been greater, their training and qualifications more rigorous and the facilities and living conditions for the residents should have been better. And any chance that their mental situation might improve must have been severely hampered by constantly being surrounded by their peers. But outside, amongst so-called 'normal' people with their prejudices, and in 'normal' life, with all its tension and stress, how would they have fared? As we nowadays are very aware, there's a thin line between the 'sane' and the 'insane' and I often saw the characteristic traits and habits of myself and others in the Earlswood residents. The hospital closed in 1997 and has been converted into luxury family flats, selling at £300k plus, with "luxury use of the private gymnasium & indoor swimming pool & access to well-tended grounds." To quote Roy Orbison: "Some things don't change, some things do."
"Abraham, Martin and John" was written by Dick Holler for Dion, and was a stateside hit for him in August 1968. The song is a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, all of whom were assassinated, the last two in April and June 1968, less than six months before the song was released. All four were committed to civil rights, from Lincoln's abolition of slavery in 1862 to the campaign for civil rights in the USA of the nineteen sixties. When you realise that Trump (74) and Joe Biden (78) are both over 18 years older than Lincoln - the oldest of the four - the lines
"he freed a lot of people
but it seems the good die young"
ring tellingly true. The point being, how much more "good" could they have achieved if they had been able to carry on? The song is as much a subtle accusation as a tribute and there is irony and mistrust in the use of the word "seems" that is still present in the politics of the USA today, as the last 9 months has so graphically shown.
Marvin Gaye's version of the song was lifted from his 1968 album "That's the Way Love Is" by the British arm of Motown and released as a single in the UK only, where it reached number 9 in the charts. The thing that makes Gaye's version the definitive one, apart from his majestic, sorrowful vocal, is that, 16 years later, he was also shot dead, one day off his 45th birthday, like them, still comparatively young.
As well as the superb James Jamerson bass line which, unlike history, never repeats itself.