Having spent a few hours wandering around Spitalfields a few weeks ago, and with about an hour to spare before I needed to be somewhere else, I decided to set off in search of The London Hospital Museum.
It will always be The London to me, I can't be doing with any of this Royal stuff, but seconded to the hospital from Great Ormond Street for a year to do our general training we had been taken around the museum back in the 1970s, and I was keen to find it again. It was the squeamish person's worst nightmare, shelves of unmentionable, unbelievabale things floating in formaldehyde, but fortunately we all had cast-iron stomachs. We gazed in awe and wonder (and I'll own up also with some young, unseemly and womanly mirth) as we realised there was nothing, and I mean nothing of the human anatomy which couldn't be pickled and put in a jar.
I was convinced I knew the way to the hospital and so wasn't phased by the fact that the maps in my Moleskine London book assume that I won't want to stray beyond Aldgate East. Mr Butt had already given me instructions from Brick Lane but I had only half-listened because I felt sure I knew, but as I reached the top could I remember whether I should go left or right and then where??
No I couldn't.
So I trekked on in one direction and was waylaid by The Whitechapel Gallery which all seemed hopeful.
After a wander around there I emerged and had completely lost my bearings.
... and everyone I asked pointed in different directions.
And can you believe it was a roasting hot early March day and I was getting hotter and hotter.
In the end I slid into Aldgate East and did one stop on the tube to Whitechapel because for sure, once I walked out of the station there would be the hospital bang opposite me, I'd remember where East Mount Street was and I'd be sorted. In fact I had London completely upsidedown in my mind and thought I was approaching from the east not the west.
Why won't Bookhound be suprised to read that.
No access to the front of the building, or the main steps where the 'tramps' (as they were then called) would throw themselves down as we showed them out of casualty after stitching up their head wounds. This was in order to try and really do some damage and score a bed for the night, even though we had done our best to get them a Sally Army hostel bed before they left ...so sad when I look back on it. Mostly men and with ex-Cambridge professors amongst them... whatever happened to Mr Sunshine, Henry, I often wonder. Sufficiently inebriated and thus requiring no local anaesthetic, the suturing was always given to us students as practise, which made a change from the polystyrene head that we had already smocked and quilted. We did a careful job for which they always seemed unfeignedly thankful, promising us the earth in kind if rather incoherent blessings, and I always felt much more capable and comforted knowing that they really couldn't feel a thing.... and I got quite good at stitching in the process.
I see my Pink Book training record shows that I also dealt with a sub-ungual haematoma, which means I heated a straightened paper clip and stuck it into someone's finger nail to release the blood underneath ...and I also partook of gastric lavage, which would have either been someone who has overdosed or jumped in the Thames or both....and would have involved carrots and cabbage...they always did.
I'm not sure I can envisage myself doing any of that now, how odd that I did it all so willingly in this building at the age of twenty-one.
I am grateful to the security guard who opened the gate to let in a lorry and let me in too as I begged to be allowed to pay homage to Edith Cavell in light of my volte-face recounted here, and take a picture of this on the front wall...
But where on earth had the hospital gone...what about all those old wards..Charrington, Paulin, Royal (where I met Bookhound) Turner...
Nor could I see any sign of East Mount Street or Cavell Nurses Home, but as I followed the 'Royal London Hospital has moved' arrows and rounded the corner, nor was I expecting this...
The hospital completely rebuilt and no one had told me.
It is a very arresting site, quite astonishing in fact and almost beautiful in that way that Victoria Findlay's book Colour, Travels Through a Paintbox is making me so much more aware of colours chapter by chapter. Unfortunately this sight came during 'Black and Brown' week but I have stored it up in my mind's eye for the 'Blue' chapter. I must have looked a complete dork with my jaw on the floor staring at it for ages whilst thinking 'There's a quilt in that'.
But plus ca change, it was still a hospital and this I knew because there were patients walking outside in their pyjamas and gowns cussing and swearing about their bowels and having a smoke. I passed a very rubicund old gentleman, who looked and behaved very familiarly and of the 'No Fixed Abode' genre I remember of old; he was patiently steering himself around in circles in a wheelchair, singing at the top of his voice, one arm clutching a bottle of unknown origin or contents, one good leg paddling the ground and doing the work, one plastered leg not helping.
Now hopelessly lost and in danger of going round in circles myself, I just sort of wandered, so it was luck more than any good sense of direction that saw me on the doorstep of the museum tucked away here.
But it was really worth the visit if only for one thing alone, the 1968 recruitment of nurses film, more of which soon and I think I was quietly relieved to discover that the pickles are now stored in the Medical School.
And afterwards, as I walked back around, uncertain whether I would even be able to find Whitechapel station again, I thought about Edith Cavell's plaque and hoped it would be re-homed somewhere prominent on the new build, and as I passed that towering blue edifice there was my friend, still singing and still going around in circles.