A lot of waiting goes on at a hospital and consequently a lot of thinking, where the imagination takes over. My first son was born in St Thomas’ Hospital in 1999. He was put into the neo-natal unit for the first week of his life and my wife was given a room facing the Houses of Parliament as we waited for his recovery (he was fine). Anyhow, at night I would look across at Parliament’s golden facade and wonder what the MPs were up to at that particular time; yes, sessions would still be going on, and possibly committee meetings, but I also imagined there to be lots of drinking and other intra-party ‘extra-curricular activities’, all in the name of oiling the cogs of democracy. I was almost tempted to go down to A&E to see if I could spot an errant MP.
I am reminded of this by Roz Goddard’s delightful poem Hammersmith Hospital 1968. The hospital is situated in an area of scrub land in West London. What’s interesting about it, is it sits right next to one of the most well-known (notorious?) prisons in the UK, Wormwood Scrubs. And like myself, our poet is waiting, and whilst waiting is looking out the window at the prisoners during recreation time. ‘I can see men in the exercise/yard larking about.’ But she has a very active imagination, ‘I imagine/them issuing threats and swearing and a fight/breaking out.’
The movement of her imagination is fed by the static scene of her mother, ‘a ghost in a pink nightie, sipping chicken/soup‘, and her father ‘sitting in the padded vinyl chair/mute as a rock.’ I can imagine her life at home being as silent as sipping chicken soup, and I really like the irony of her escape coming from the excitement of watching prisoners, ‘exotic in their/dungarees, pushing each other around‘ then translating it to what she has seen on telly, ‘where warders will intervene/arm wrestle them over the cobbles‘. And then admitting, ‘I have never been this close to badness in my life/and I like it.’ But I also get from the poem the fact that the place where most waiting happens is prison, and in there it’s your imagination that is often the best thing that keeps you going.
Roz Goddard co-ordinates the West Midlands Readers’ Network, an organisation that works extensively with libraries and readers’ groups, produces reading events and commissions new work from regional writers. She is also a poet and short-fiction writer. She has published four collections of poems, the most recent The Sopranos Sonnets and other poems (Nine Arches Press) featured on R3’s The Verb and her work is on permanent display in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. She was highly commended in the Bridport Poetry Prize 2014.
Hammersmith Hospital, 1968
It’s nineteen sixty eight and the delicate curve
on the great wall of Wormwood Scrubs
is a surprise. I can see men in the exercise
yard larking about, they are exotic in their
dungarees, pushing each other around
and shouting from the bowl of it and I imagine
them issuing threats and swearing and a fight
breaking out. What happens next – I’ve seen it on telly –
warders wearing navy will intervene,
arm wrestle them over the cobbles, push them
through a dark door into cells with no light.
I have never been this close to badness in my life
and I like it. Even though I am with my mother
in the day-room of Hammersmith hospital
and she is a ghost in a pink nightie, sipping chicken
soup, being looked after by doctors who are
serious as composers and the best in the country,
and my father is sitting in the padded vinyl chair
mute as a rock.