Landmarks of a Distant Past

Landmarks of history: I don't mean the bayonet which I found in the roof space many years ago when we moved in. From the distant past, it was an ancient weapon with a 20-inch blade, almost as long as a sword. I wondered how many lives were taken with it, how many times was it wiped clean of blood before the gleaming steel was slid back into its scabbard? I don't have the scabbard, only the weapon, dull with the rust of many idle years. I also have a modern bayonet in its scabbard, my son-in-law brought it back from the Falklands as a present, short, functional, easy to carry. Modern military thinking dictates that you need no more than an 8-inch blade to kill your enemy. These are Landmarks of history. The primitive part of the brain urges me to keep these weapons just in case an intruder appears in my home. Nor do I mean those hateful landmarks that get pushed to one side but never allow me to forget. What I do mean is the gilded landmark that found Lizzie at Praa Sands in 1976, and other worthy but less gilded landmarks of humankind that give the observer a deeper understanding of society - pleasure on the rebound as it were, "for pleasure resides not in joy alone but in everything fitted to instruct" - okay, a bit of Exupéry - but it makes the point. The ethics I started out with, though noble in theory, were not applicable in practice. Far from the pages of textbook instruction, a theory is good only if it is practicable, and the simple bricklaying task behind all social work is to help people manage their lives without it. The thought of Dick and Jesse going into a sheltered home rekindled one of the most spectacular scenarios of my student life. Sadly death intervened and Dick was spared a sheltered home and instead accompanied his daughter Irene back to Australia. It was the tern Dick used, an army term, 'beyond visible range' where Jesse presently lay. Buoyed by an expectation of reunion, sooner or later he knows he will find her.

As a mature student on the Emergency Training Course I was placed for three weeks at a Sheltered Home for the Elderly and Infirm. It was not privately owned. My task was to be helpful to the staff, write up my impressions of the daily life of residents and care staff. I went poorly prepared, with my handwritten notes taken from the gabbled lectures imposed on us by the college staff, themselves threatened by carping officialdom that insisted on covering every step of the appointed curriculum even if taken at full gallop. The 1948 National Assistance Act provides the local authority with power under Part 3 of the Act to provide residential accommodation and related provisions for people who by reason of age or any other circumstances are in need of care and attention... and the payments a resident is liable to make for accommodation thus provided... and so forth. Totally unenthralled by the significance of all these statutary measures, the student body, unable to keep pace, became rigidly silent then began to mutter. I drew a line here. I was just not going to write down the history of the 1948 Act which replaced the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834... such a total encumbrance and almost impossible to read back all the scribble! Besides which the metal chairs in the lecture hall had on the right side small trays that flipped over for writing notes on. And I am left-handed, so sod it! A few of us bolder ones got up to leave.

Our lectures were supported by group tutorials on the three criteria of sociological theory and 'primary' groups starting with the family, and 'Controlled Panics' - this being an acronym of the seven important values of social work, but none of these was clearly understood and limp lecture notes bore little value to the student and his required paper on Part 3 accommodation which soon degenerated into common journalism.

I was cordially welcomed to the home up in the west midlands then set to one side as an encumbrance with some minor value as a gopher - go for this, go for that - sort of stuff. I was very good with bed pans, turning mattresses and pillow slips, as good if not better at lifting old bones than the young amazons who filled the roles of care staff, yet horrified by the offhand treatment accorded to the residents. OK, there were many residents and only few staff, and OK, residents could be difficult and sometimes violent and some of them had endearing little tricks of fouling clean bedsheets with food, nose pickings and make up; OK again, these were sometimes hit-back situations that dwelt too far back in time to show how the antagonism started. Anyway, how do you evaluate these sad little quarrels? Mrs A felt badly treated by Assistant B who wrenched her arms when putting her on the toilet and now found it very difficult to raise herself to a sitting position for her bed tray. And Mrs C who accused Miss D of standing on her foot so the chiropodist couldn't do anything which brought the assistant superintendent on the scene "Now then Mrs C, would Miss D deliberately stand on your foot?" And the old gent with the piping voice who repeatedly asked for a bed pan and squeaked in desperation "I'll larn the buggers," and made a poo in the bed. He also had nightmares and screamed when he saw death approaching as a black cloud. His bed light was kept burning all night to alleviate panic, and that caused problems with the other old gent who shared his room. Whatever, if I saw it or heard it I made a note - which is what I was supposed to do, even the cook clearing the gully grate with a long stick causing hygienic alarm only enhanced this observer's feeling of dismay at local authority provision under Part 3.

One care-worker scurrying around stormed, "Some of these old dears are sent out of hospital because some stupid house-doctor has decided they need social care rather than hospital care! Kids with stethoscopes! Makes you sick! We've got Mr F coming out tomorrow, incontinent both ways and we've got to have his bed made up."

The dominant female figure was Carol the superintendent. It never entered my simple mind that staff have to live here. But of course they do, you just can't leave a home for elderly infirm people to their own devices all night. They have wild parties! Get into all sorts of mischief! - It's a sort of staff joke. But the serious side calls for a rota system and the inclusion of staff on night duty, two of whom are notoriously rough with residents who have night problems. There is a general dread among residents when these two are on night duty. Mrs C weeps when she knows these two are coming on. The only male figures are Larry the handyman and Yours Truly who have no say in what goes on here. But what about the residents? Who speaks for them? There are people from the Welfare Department who call fairly regularly but spend most of their time in Carol's office, but my three short weeks doesn't allow enough time to organize a protest group. Does my remit allow organizing their protest? What strength would it have? I'll write it up anyway, because I'm beginning to feel angry. My student supervisor said very little about residents. Nothing was mentioned about their face to face relationships with staff. Maybe this situation has been laid on to test student initiative! Talking to residents is difficult. Usually they sit in single rank lining the common room walls and, apart from newspapers and a clicking of knitting needles, usually in silence. What on earth do they think about? "Best time to talk to them is when they're being serviced," says Carol, "then you get something back." What a term to use "serviced" like servicing a car, dealing with the parts!

Mr G is a lively old chap. When his bell rings it's to remind him to go to the loo. Forgetful but not dementing he leaves the home on Tuesdays to visit the mini-market just round the corner. He hangs his bag of shopping on his walking frame, sits on the bench outside and waits for a care-worker or Yours Truly to pick him up at 4 pm. He brings in Mars bars for his friend Freddie who is not allowed Mars Bars. "Poor old Freddie. Like the rest of us he'll pop off before long and he can get the Angel Gabriel to get his bloody Mars Bars!"

Yes, the funny side. But mostly it is sadness. For these old people there are no available options to uplift human existence to the level of a normal day's plodding activity. They bear it silently, herded together, their lives are directionless, just waiting for the inevitable. And when death occurs the bed-space is swiftly stripped and remade, flowers are jugged and placed on the bedside cabinet all ready for the next occupant, obviously female. No time to keen the loss of stick-like Mr. H and his stories about Germany and the British Army of Occupation. While I change the pillow slips, the bed is thumped and banged about with two clean sheets and a wash-worn blanket. The bed spread was crocheted by Mrs L the deaf one. "Really really nice was old Mrs P, she popped off about a year ago," But no trace is left of Mr. H who has been and gone and no longer spoken about. As a kid I remember a visit to Jack Gregory's yard wondering where Ginger had gone, his stall was empty, straw raked up and dumped. Poor old Ginger, feted as the greatest little pony at musical chairs. Well, he had to go, didn't he. Jack smiled his farmer's smile, distantly caring, a caring which departed with Ginger's departure for slaughter. At least our old people in Part 3 Accommodation are allowed to die in their own time.

There is a social side, music and movement, line-dancing, poetry reading. But it creeps pathetically across the common room; lines read by people who can hardly see without their reading glasses, cadences lost in the worn grooves of age; walking sticks on the dance floor to aid movement limited by limbs that once knew the thrust of youth. There is enough cackling laughter to create joy, if only at Mr K and his walking frame doing the Twist. And the staff walking about showing everybody what a good time they're having. Student on Placement is also smiling thinking about what he's going to write... Well, later maybe some form of rationalization, for on paper the enterprising Student on Placement can rationalize almost any social problem until it finally disappears. But now the tap of walking sticks abates as braver souls are being herded for two sets of musical chairs and there are prizes. This livestock-keeping similarity is bothering me. Residents are pushed and pulled into place to wait while Mrs B has her leg brace fixed and a call goes out for anybody who needs the toilet?

Visitors arrive between 4 and 6 pm. Cheerfulness is borne like a flag. "Here we are, Dad. We've brought you something." Dad's polite response bears a smile, but there is little to talk about except Reg who is doing an away job in Nigeria on a building project, he drives a ditch witch you know. Yes, it's a digger that cuts out trenches 18 inches wide for putting service pipes in, and he doesn't have to worry about telephone cables and water and gas pipes... 'cos there aren't any in Nigeria. And the kids; Daffers is doing ballet, Reggie is into gymnastics. They are judging it nicely. If they arrive around 5.15 they are obliged to leave when the bell rings at 6. It may look like callousness or disregard of the family needs of old people, but, as Dad's daughter hurriedly told me as the family made their escape, it is the need to catch the 130 back to Bradford and that goes at 6.35 to relieve Mum who is minding the house and then we've got to see her back home and she's 85 and a neighbour has done her shopping and there's some frozen stuff that needs putting in the fridge and her home help comes tomorrow so we've got to tidy up the place. It must be a difficult situation for younger family members who have to cope with work and the clock and many other responsibilities, and when there is a legal matter like surrendering property to pay for his keep then a lifetime's strenuous striving brick by brick ends in nothing. Okay, the kids will get a bit, but nothing like the fund of goodwill endowed when Dad's freedom was intact.

Distantly you can hear the care assistants in the staffroom, the lively chatter that follows the daily toileting and change of bed clothes, and the chiropodist who calls right now - would you believe! after they've helped Mr So and So put on his socks and slippers - which means that socks and slippers have to be done again.

And they've only just sat down! Why didn't she phone for Christ's sake! It's the same with doctors. We have to put the resident in a clean nightgown and change the bed linen especially with Mrs B because she sometimes messes before we can get her to the toilet, and the doctor just rolls up like tomorrow will do. Her home has got to be sold because she's too wealthy for state support. But that's the rules. She could have gone into a private home but I reckon they're too bloody mean. He was in here talking to Carol - no, the son, you twerp, not the old man! Carol says they had a good relationship - no, the old man, dear. Died nine months ago and she still weeps about him. She'd run off if it wasn't for her parts and her feet. Tell you what, Gladys - love can kill! I wouldn't marry again, would you, Glad?"

Carers are talking to each other over the bent grey head about new colours - a pinky blue "Wouldn't know if I was coming or going" a cue for laughter, while the grey head between them gasps as she is lowered into a chair. And the next - a cheerful jibe at Mr K because he can take the rough stuff and jibes right back before sinking into his own private world. He still misses her and calls out at night for the lovely wife who laughed a lot. Another old gent has spilled his drink, the wet patch on his trousers looks like he's pee'd tea, but he'll have to wait while they get round to him. After a while he shouts in case he has been forgotten. It's that livestock thing again. I can't do him alone, he needs lifting and they are all doing something down at the other end. Caring will come when they've got the time. But caring does not allow livestock into the staffroom and the intruder is escorted out to find her lost knitting needle - no, that's anger speaking about livestock into the staffroom... can't put that in. Then a bell rings, "Shit!" says a care-worker rising to her feet.

But I'm a student, dammit! And I need a good placement report for my final assessment. And I have my own report to write and they won't thank me for stirring things up and my prospective employer will think twice about taking on AWMann esq. How can I put anger into a report? About poor old Mr H buried at the local authority's expense, and - nothing particular on the next page except Gladys and Peg in the wash room: "There's old Ken singing his sweetheart song again Glad. - Lovely though, innit!"

My father sang it while mum played the piano, home entertainment was part of family culture until 1932 when we got our first wireless set. It was a Cossor - I do remember that because I used to take the battery - or accumulator - down to the newspaper shop to get it re-charged.

I'll be your sweetheart, if you will be mine
All my life I'll be your valentine.
Bluebells I'll gather, take them and be true
When I'm a man my plan will be to marry you.

How do I get this lot knocked up into a decent report? Then I've got to get it to the typing pool and in local government a student is neither officer nor servant just impedimenta. I could take it back to college for typing, then somehow get it back to my student supervisor.

For a mad moment let us assume I've reported it as writ, as if the pencil had a life of its own. Student on Placement pictures Student Supervisor's raised eyebrows, "But it's the best we can do under Part 3, Alan. We don't have the funds. The problem is we don't have training courses for carers." But this is it, you see, if you have a problem chuck some money at it and the problem disappears! ... "Is this the final version of your report, Alan?"

'Could do better.' The times that comment had appeared on my school reports! But the people I saw were so few, my three weeks encompassed just a minor group of the more stimulating residents like poor old Enid who occasionally walked into the staffroom to get a bit of attention, and Mr H whose family did not come leaving him to die alone, and Mr K with nicely framed photos of his dear wife the violinist, the main body were barely communicative, directionless with no sense of purpose, they too carried their fund of mistakes, joys, unbearable loss ending in this final fragment of local authority provision. I could have worked harder at getting their attention. It was the livestock comparison that kept getting in the way. They moo when they need attention. And when replaced are swiftly forgotten like Mr H.

Then there's my Student Supervisor's report on Student on Placement: "Challenging, dissatisfied, Critical. Shows a lack of objective maturity. Good potential but requires close supervision..." No, wait a mo! I haven't put in anything about the 'carers' yet! Think of something good. Most of them were silent about their work, they could be jocular and offhand depending on the level of work generated by the day's events, and sometimes sharpened into mild abuse when a resident was deliberately difficult. Bidden to the task by a need to do good, how do they survive the slings and arrows? Hidden behind the offhand manner there is genuine concern for this 'bunch of relics' as I have heard them called and 'sit still you silly old moo while I do your buttons.' Often at the end of their tether there remains a spirit of altruism that reaches out beyond what I might call normal patience to a vocational level. How are they recruited these carers, is it just taking on any job that's offered? Or are they driven into carework by motives private and personal - an enlightened self interest as you might say? The best consequences are found in altruism, the 'imperfect instinct' as Claudia called it. Are best consequences then found in Part 3 Accommodation, the political calculus that decides in committee what the local authority can afford to provide and at what level?

Somewhere, lurking behind this local government provision, there is a philosophical sensibility that asks "How is a healthy society possible among our discordant hand-fed communities?" Society is painfully unaware of hand-feeding, as Dr.Cohen points out in Modern Social Theory, "Generally speaking the wider public are not aware of the 'at risk' minority." But in practical terms the 'at risk' minority somehow grows to fill the space available, a trend only too familiar among social work departments. I was employed as a level three worker and expected to take on board cases of special difficulty, but the load my department was carrying made such paltry definitions derisory and you just carried on digging like everybody else. It was the term Dick used, 'beyond visible range,' social work provision has also gone beyond visible range. For a lot of hideous violence and neglect that formerly lay hidden is now exposed and the caring organizations are going way over the horizon to find it, turning into witch finders and child catchers.

However, landmarks of a past life did not intrude on our day, and a small crowd of us went to the airport to see them off. Dick insisted on buying each one of us a rose. Irene shook hands. I quite like her actually, like me she is not a huggy-kissy sort of person. Farewell Dick dear friend.

It's this taking stock thing; the awfulness thinking about Dick and Jesse in a home for the elderly, the sheer pathos of life at its ebb when, through silence and empty moments, stillness speaks.

And these two women in Parke Margarita 609, one of them reminds me of Blodwyn up the road in Wanstead. No kids or old people to care for, just the books they've brought and a quiet two weeks away from the bloody lot. I've got the picture, they are care workers in some London borough: "Okay, please don't lean on the fridge door, spare loo rolls in the bathroom cabinet that hasn't got a mirror, and if you lose your keys get to me as soon as possible before we leave Cristimar to start work. And we get power cuts so you'll have to be patient and that is why we put candles and matches in that plastic box on the work top." I console myself with the thought that Part 3 Accommodation must be a lot better than it was in the Nineteen-Sixties. So I shall be nice to them.

A drawing exists in my mind's eye "I came as soon as I could." My drawings with a bit of adventure added are based on photographs, but I didn't dare take photos in the care home, it would have felt very sharply of a visit to the zoo. I might try painting with a limited palette, haven't painted since that awful session with our sardine lady.

"Sorry," to Lizzie's concerned look, "'Landmarks of a distant past like chickens come.' I'm bloody glad I'm out of it. Those two women with the load of books are care workers. Another thing - we haven't seen our sardine lady for bloody ages!"

"Probably retired by now. Saw her just before we went home for Christmas trogging along to the lavanderia a bundle of washing on her head."

"Does she worry about her past life, do you reckon, Mouse?"

"I heard the family were lucky not to get lynched. They were Nationalists, probably got special protection."

"I think I need special protection, Mouse! I worry about my past life."

"I shall protect you, my darling." She comes to me.

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