Arses

When I wiped the arses of old men

Sometimes in the thin light

From a squinting door

So not to waken the sleepers

Quiet between crisp white sheets

And a green honeycomb blanket

Topped with the regulation cream coverlet

I would think of the pleasant things

That waited for me when the shift ended

Like a long drink in the hospital social club

And a slow fuck with a student nurse back in my room

And I would try to be patient

With the confused old man

Who probably thought I was trying to rob him

Or rape him or take what remained of his mind

Full of mixed up memories of love and loss

And pigeons and pussy cats

Cabbages and cornflowers tall as cathedrals

Weekends picking coal at Blackhall Rocks

 Used condoms among the dunes

Fights in boxing booths during the recession

Over married women bus drivers

And thoughts of disrespect from strangers

 But when it came down to it

I was wiping shit off an old man's arse

And the only one who knew

What was happening was me

I could have left it for the night shift to find

Dry and caked and stuck to his papery skin

And gone for that drink and that fuck

Without the resistant odour of piss and shit

Clinging to my hands like phosphorus

As a reminder that I was a wiper of old men's arses

But men and women not yet old

Had wiped my arse and held my hand

Taught me how to walk and

Shown me how to be a man

How to laugh and cry and drink and fuck

And wipe the arses of old men like a man

So I wiped and washed and tucked the old man in

Pulled the bedclothes round to keep him warm

Said his name and wished him pleasant dreams

Of love and loss and pigeons and pussy cats

Cabbages and cornflowers tall as cathedrals

And when in the early hours his life drifted out

He was warm and as clean as the day his mother bore him

This song harks back to when I was a student psychiatric nurse during the late 1970s.

     I became a student nurse, at least mainly, because I wanted to find out more about the treatment of mentally ill people and the ideas behind that treatment. I went into it with an open mind, but I gradually became convinced that the medical model of mental illness didn’t sufficiently take into account the actual experience of the person labelled ‘mentally ill.’  It seemed that being described in that way disqualified anything you had to say. It was too easy to see everything about the patient as just ‘mad.’

     It was already obvious that the days of the big institutions - the old county asylums (the ‘big houses’ and ‘loony bins’) - were numbered, which culminated in Margaret Thatcher’s disastrous policy called ‘Care in the Community.’ In reality, this policy amounted to long-term patients being turned out into a world where they belonged to no community and where little care was available. Some of those people were lucky, but many more died in sad circumstances and too soon.

    Quite a few of the patients I met had spent most of their adult lives in hospital, but others fetched up there due to dementia or the late appearance of something attracting the ‘mental illness’ label. In all cases, though, they had complexly textured stories to tell about their own lives, stories I found poignant, disturbing or - very frequently - inspiring. I learned a lot from those people.

    The lyric for Arses was written as a poem, without any thought of music being added, but David Reid immediately had an idea that grew into an almost symphonic treatment of the words. Although the words don’t actually refer to a single person or event - it’s more a matter of weaving together different strands of remembered experience - everything in the song is ‘true’ and I hope we’ve created something that is honest and revealing.

Ron