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Sweet Soul Music - Arthur Conley





After a short time on Henry Ward I then began to be given other "more difficult" wards. Slightly away from the main building was an annex consisting of four re-fabricated, drop-in bungalows collectively called "the villas". I was generally given Farm Villa to look after. While it was a pleasanter, modern environment to work in, the residents required much more care and attention, often getting up to wander around at night, and having to have their nightclothes and bedding changed when they soiled themselves. So, while in the main building, you could often catch a bit a sleep in the small hours, or get some studying done, this was seldom the case in the Villas. "Kipping" was an art developed to a high degree by many of the night nursing staff. As a result, even today I can generally, if I really want to, switch off and go to sleep just about anywhere where there's a seat in a matter of seconds. At Earlswood, when I would pop to the next door ward to have a chat with Dave, the night shift worker there, I'd always hear a short clatter as I walked through the door. Dave would be sitting bolt upright at his desk with his eyes open seemingly wide awake. One time I snuck in "real quiet" only to see him fast asleep, snoring gently, with his eyes open, propped up straight with a plastic ruler wedged between him and the desk. He'd been working nights for far too long but he'd got it down to a fine art.


At Henry there was a resident called Chris who was what people casually call a "vegetable". He'd suffered brain damage in a car accident and spent the whole time in bed. He was on a drip feed. The only parts of his body that he moved were his eyes, which roamed randomly around the room, never focusing on any movement or person, never seeming to be responding to any external stimulus. When we removed his bedclothes - we changed his pyjamas and sheets daily to avoid skin rash - although his head and face seemed handsome, calm and healthy, his body was completely emaciated. He looked like a puppet from one of those political tv satires, all recognisable face with a tiny torso. His family visited him every weekend and some evenings. His mother sat by his bed for hours and hours, often convinced she'd noticed some improvement, some attempt by him to communicate through an eye movement or a random blink, but the doctors assured us that she was mistaken. She never gave up hoping while I was working there. I sat with him quite a lot myself, and chatted away, fondly imagining that I would be the hero who made the breakthrough and spotted something, but there was nothing. He had his own tv on throughout most of the day and switched off at night. In the daytime he'd be propped up to watch it, and then at night be moved to lie on his back where he would just stare at the ceiling, never closing his eyes in sleep.


Grateful for the care he was receiving, Chris's family donated a large aquarium to Farm Villa with about a hundred beautifully coloured, exotic fish. It was placed on stands in the middle of the day room with the "sea floor" on a level with the face of anyone sitting in a chair so that the residents could sit while away the hours looking at the fish, which they often did. Soon it was noticed that the fish numbers seemed to be declining. This came to a head when a particularly impressive blue angelfish disappeared. There was much discussion and it was concluded that some of the fish in the tank must be eating the others. This, we were told, was not an unusual fate for a fish which somehow got sick or injured.


Charlie was one of those who spent a lot of time sitting and watching the fish. He had an eating disorder and was on a special, strict diet. He was not permitted to eat between meals and we were pleased that the tank offered him a distraction from his constant hunger. Once I noticed through the hatchway to the kitchen that he was standing at the open door of the fridge eating ice cream, and I went round to the door to catch him red-handed. As I walked in, I saw him stuff the ice cream down his trouser front and slam the fridge door shut. In order to teach him a lesson I chatted for a few minutes while he tried to respond with the small talk visibly shivering, his teeth chattering as he spoke. He finally interrupted me, begging me to give him permission to go and change his clothes.


Not long after, a nurse saw him, thinking he was unobserved, roll up his sleeve, jump up on his chair by the fish tank, put his arm in up to the elbow and skilfully grab a fish. He then, with his other hand, pulled out a slice of white bread from his pocket, folded it in two, slapped the wriggling fish into it and took a big bite. An expensive sushi sandwich, especially when you consider that tropical fish come at up to £75 a bite.


As well as naming the dances, some songs named the various soul artists of the sixties. It's interesting that this seems to have been confined to soul music - I'm not aware of any examples of this in rock, the blues or even reggae. The prime instance is this belter from Arthur Conley. Conley was the protégé of Otis Redding, who produced and co-wrote "Sweet Soul Music" with him, not so-modestly namechecking himself, along with Lou Rawls, Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett. He slyly lists himself just before "the king of them all", James Brown, clearly implying that he, Otis, is the heir apparent. Otis died in the infamous plane crash in December 1967, eleven months after this was recorded. However, his presumption proved correct as nowadays he, not James Brown, is generally regarded as the greatest, and most important, male soul singer ever.


It's ironic that Sam Cooke isn't mentioned in that the tune and the invitation "Do you like good music?" is nicked from Cooke's dance list song "Yeah Man", but what makes it so dynamic is the trumpet intro, another steal, this time from Leonard Bernstein's soundtrack to "The Magnificent Seven". I'm not saying that Otis invented sampling, but he was there early. And of course, what he was saying was that all of these guys, including him, were magnificent. And, as time has shown, how right he was.


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