Exminster Mental Hospital Notice
The Hospital have for disposal
various Goods as per Price List below.
Samples of which can be seen
at the Canteen or Female One Ward.
Some of the items are second-hand
but having rendered good service
and been subject to careful assessment
they are commended for general perusal.
Others of course are unused.
Howsoever they may have arrived
the Committee has no hesitation
in confirming their general utility
for Staff and for Patients alike.
Early inspection is urged
Management being aware that
every item will prove to be
no less than excellent value.
Individuals with particular needs
not addressed by the present arrangements
are requested to postpone any purchase
since further disposals will follow,
Management ever mindful
of the undoubted continuing need
to maintain a proper supply.
I’m not sure how old this notice is, but I can vouch for its provenance (but that’s another story).
To be sure, it bears the stigma of age, with the several stains, the perforations and wrinkling – as well as the quaint lay-out, spacing, mixture of upper and lower case and variety of fonts. And the bold capitalised NOTICE complete with heavy square full stop, suggests a ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ poster from the Wild West.
Of course it’s not that old, but it is from another time when they – we – did things differently. Just the fully capitalised headline, starting with its definite article – THE DEVON MENTAL HOSPITAL, EXMINSTER– conjures up one of those grim institutions which were inevitably huge, as they served a whole county.
Then there follows that emphatic NOTICE – declarative, insistent, imperative. So I’m already feeling intimidated, even before I’ve ventured into what this is all about.
Indeed, what is this all about?
What are these Goods, with a capital G?
That they – or at least samples – are exhibited in a Show Case (sic) suggests the items are not very large, and as they’re exhibited in the Canteen suggests they’re not particularly unsightly or frightening, or at least unlikely to put people off their food.
Thinking about this, I realise that as patients in these county asylums were incarcerated for years, even for life, just about everything required for living might be up for disposal. Towels and sheets, crockery and cutlery, gloves and hats… bars of soap, baskets, braces, blankets, brushes… balaclavas and bibles…
So why are they ‘for disposal’?
Are they out-dated (are better, newer replacements now available?), or just no longer required (various possibilities spring to mind)?
Were too many ordered (and if so, what was the reason?), or might some of them be damaged or spoilt?
And who are the intended purchasers?
Presumably those who eat in the Hospital Canteen – but are they staff, patients or visitors? And who might be in a position, be allowed or feel able to wander into Female 1 Ward (a name which somehow strikes a chill) to inspect the Show Case there?
And where is the Price List that was supposed to be ‘below’?
As I pose these questions, I find myself feeling increasingly disconcerted, if not worried. The shadow of an anonymous psychiatric hospital bureaucracy offering unknown goods for sale lurks behind and over this apparently simple notice. And the plural ‘have’ when applied to the Hospital is definitely disquieting.
So I thought I’d explore this by trying to develop it further: to use what felt like the appropriate language, to enter into what seemed to be a frightening1984 world. The resulting Orwellian poem is therefore concerned with vocabulary – its flavour, who might use these words, what meaning they carry, their clarity or obscurity and their accumulated effect.
More and more words can be used, whole descriptions be presented, and the reader remain in a state of uncertainty and ignorance, with all the emotion that flows from such a state.
My poem may be no more than a simple addition to, a continuation of, a hospital notice. But one of the poet’s prerogatives is to take on, to speak in, others’ voices. Whose voice this is I don’t know, which is perhaps part of the point. I’ve tried to sustain ambiguity and unclearness, against a background of assumed benignity and clarity, but I found the poem taking over, as they sometimes do, ending with a sinister suggestion under the guise of what purports to be no more than a practical admission.
I also hope I’ve succeeded in demonstrating the strange, unpredictable authority of the printed word. In this case just two sentences (which should have been one, fragmented sentences being more imperious), intending to do no more than inform, generated an unexpected and powerful emotional response.
Recognising and communicating that has to be part of the point of what poetry is all about as well.
Plus the injunction at the start of all this, whether or not the voice is raised – that simple ‘Notice.’