50 pieces of poetry and short prose by Peter Limbrick
This is collection of short pieces about people of all ages who have learning disabilities and about the conditions they experience in any country. The collection spans the period from the1970s, co-inciding with the gradual closure of some of the big 'mental handicap hospitals' in the UK.
The poetry and prose pieces, written in a variety of voices, are offered as a monument to adults and children who have lived and died or are living now in inhuman situations. The first piece, ‘Letter’, is from an imaginary hospital manager to a national newspaper. It sets the context for this In Mind collection.
Some poems mention One-to-One and the One-to-One book. This was a 1970’s project in the USA and then UK to raise awareness of adults and children condemned to institutions.
Some of Peter's other poems are published in recent issues of Scintilla, the journal of literary criticism, prose and new poetry in the metaphysical tradition.
Please contact Peter if you would like to use one or more of these pieces in some way.
This is my first ever letter to national newspaper. I want to raise a
topic that I have not seen aired in any paper or on television.
I manage a children’s therapy department in a London hospital and
I meet a lot of families whose baby or young child has some
degree of brain damage. The children often have cerebral palsy
and might also have learning difficulties, sight loss and hearing loss.
We help children develop and at the same time try to support
parents to become confident in bringing up their children.
Not many years ago, children like this might have been put into
institutions. This still happens in many countries but in the UK we
believe children are better staying with their families. This move
from institutional care has coincided with progress in medical
technology so that more brain-damaged children survive.
It is my view that in closing institutions we have won only half
the battle because we have put many families under severe stress.
Some parents struggle to care for their child - becoming
exhausted, sleep-deprived and socially isolated. Keeping a job and
going on holiday can become impossible. Parental relationships
often reach breaking point. All of this impacts on the mental
health of parents, siblings and sometimes grandparents.
No one wants to see children back in institutions. But I feel the
social reform is not complete until we can give effective support
to families̶̶̶, support that recognises the rights of the child and
family to the best possible quality of life. The UK has closed most
of the institutions but not yet made effective family support
generally available. There is a lot of work still to do.
My guide on this first visit was a lady of the village
outside the institution, an established volunteer, she
As we walked around some inmates came for a hug
or to hold hands.
The story is that mentally handicapped people are
always affectionate, but it is not true.
Children, women and men incarcerated in these
places are starved of love and warm human contact,
that is all.
Those who are able will approach a new face and get
what they can in a short time.
Their smile though might not be what it seems.
Smiling is a useful defence vulnerable people can use
to neutralise a threat, to win over someone who
could mean danger.
‘Boys and girls are kept separate’, my guide explained
as we passed some of the wards. ‘It saves a lot of
problems. But they can mix at the Christmas Dance’.
She apologised because she should have said men and
women, not boys and girls.
On our way to the recreation centre, she spotted a
tent and wanted to show me the camping activity.
There was just one small tent.
She pulled back the flap so we could both see inside.
The three men might have been referred to as boys
but their erections were manful.
They were having a great time.
She closed the flap quickly. We walked on,
neither of us mentioning what we had just seen.
She knew she was failing as an art therapist.
Should she return the twelve-month grant to the arts association?
Trundling an old pram full of paper and paints from ward to ward
around Bleakhouse Hall seemed pointless.
Neither the inmates nor the staff showed much interest and she had
nowhere to display work.
Then a sympathetic nurse told her about an unused shed across the
field. They both went to have a look.
It was a perfect space, much more than a shed. There was a large room,
kitchen and toilets! It had been used for staff training at one time. She
was given permission to use it.
The shed soon became a thriving Arts Kitchen with an ever-growing
giant mural, papier maché heads modelled on balloons, hand and
footprints in plaster, a zoo of cardboard animals and a gallery of self-
A volunteer cook had eager inmates helping to make free cakes and
biscuits. A few of those who could walk brought some of the more
disabled people whom she had met on the wards. Interested staff
dropped in between shifts.
Some months later she began worrying about how she could justify this
project as valid art therapy in her end-of-year report. She was
determined to continue the work and hoped for a second grant.
She decided after much thought not to theorise about colour and
emotions, about the psychological benefits of hands in clay and dough,
about art therapy as treatment for mental disorder.
None of that fitted the Arts Kitchen.
She decided instead to use photographs she had taken of inmates helping
clean and organise the shed, of women and men totally engrossed in
studio activity, of groups around the café tables out on the grass with
card, plasticene and picture books.
She would report people’s comments and talk of the magic that was
conjured up from a mix of new ideas, enthusiastic helpers, benign
administrators and people willing to create, cook, work, play, eat and
Perhaps that is art therapy for Bleakhouse Hall.
What term shall we use
for people we have put away,
If we imagine them in hospital
with doctors and nurses
we can call them patients.
If we prefer to think of them
in homes or hostels,
they could be residents.
Locked away against their will,
prisoners would be apt except
they are not guilty of crimes.
Recognising they are, in fact,
in institutions, we can refer to
them just as inmates.
We could think of them as
people. But then we would have
to consider their human rights.
The ward was empty, breakfast over,
inmates shipped to their activities
or out mooching around the grounds.
Then a naked man leaping over beds
and chairs! Orderlies giving chase as he
skirted round me into the next room.
What was a visitor to make of this?
Was the man refusing to have clothes on?
Was he kept in for some reason?
Was he naked by his choice or theirs?
Was he trying to escape what he knew
from experience was coming next?
Cruelty is rife. Two orderlies and
a naked young man on an empty ward
is a recipe for trouble.
An outsider, I was helping in a weekly project
in the school room of an institution for adults
and children. Education authorities did not
have to provide school places for children
deemed ineducable, so this school room was
the brave initiative of a few caring and
committed staff members trying to do their
best against the odds.
The project was a joint effort between those
staff and a community group contracted to
bring new activities with music and drama.
Talking to one of the members of staff,
I asked if next time I came, we could go out for
dinner. She agreed.
This was at a time when campaigns to close
long-stay hospitals were getting more popular
attention and gaining strength, with press and
media more willing to feature stories of ill-
treatment and cruelty.
It became common for reporters to infiltrate
looking for stories, taking photographs and
even filming inmates.
So it might be thought I had a dual motive for
my invitation. Her manager certainly did
because next time I came she told me she had
She was instructed to decline the invitation.
‘Basket case’ can be someone who has lost all four limbs.
This did not apply to Tom because he definitely had two
arms and two legs.
It was just that they did not work. I could see they were
stiff, twisted, bent at elbows and knees and unmoveable.
So he lived in a basket on wheels.
It looked like something from the Edwardian era. Perhaps it
also functioned for his bed at night.
It would have been too much of a personal question, but I
did wonder how staff managed to bathe and dress him.
I hope they were slow, patient and kind.
Tom was already elderly when we met.
He was the only man on the ward who could speak and
hold a conversation. Whatever early brain damage he had
suffered had certainly not affected his intelligence.
I remember, on this only occasion when I met him, we
chatted about his past days in the institution, about some of
the people on the ward and about the staff. It was obvious
he was delighted to have someone to talk to.
I was in awe of his good nature and lack of rancour.
Have you seen films in which a music or art teacher visits
an institution and is immediately drawn to a child whom
they discover has a hidden talent? The two make a special
bond and learn how to communicate.
Then a struggle to get the child released with doctors
refusing to see the child’s ability. There is usually a happy
ending with the child being driven out in our hero’s car
through the institution gates.
I wonder if Tom ever saw films like this. Surely, people like
Tom and those ‘discovered’ children should not be in these
institutions. But then who should?
Yes, I appreciate what you are saying about the
need to give them more varied activities.
But you have to be careful.
If you give them too much stimulation, they will
expect it every day.
I have been watching how you talk to them.
You can only go so far, you know, in trying to put
yourself in their shoes.
They are different from us. I doubt empathy is a
valid approach. It is not realistic.
Simple as that.
You ought to try empathising with your colleagues,
if you are so keen on empathy.
A few have complained about you.
They say while you are trying to commune with
the boys on the ward, they have to work harder to
get everything done before the shift ends.
They say you are not pulling your weight.
You have been with us for six months and,
to be honest, I am starting to wonder if this is the
right sort of work for you.
Perhaps you are wondering the same thing.
If you want to stay with us, you will have to decide
whose side you are on.
She was a very proper Matron
in a very proper uniform
in a very bleak Scottish hospital
insisting I, as an honoured
visitor from south of the border,
take lunch with her in her
private apartment above
the administration block.
The table was nicely laid
in front of a welcome fire.
An inmate, neatly dressed,
carefully trained, came in
with soup for the first course,
roast chicken for the second
and apple pie for the third.
As we drank our coffee and
nibbled our chocolate mints,
I had to wonder what all the
other people in the institution
were having for their lunch.
Given the choice on this visit, I had opted to stay with
the children rather than have coffee in the staffroom.
‘Children’ here included inmates in their early twenties
waiting for a place in an adult institution.
Staffrooms in places like this are often smoke-filled
rooms with a TV set showing repeat day-time
programmes with men and women slumped in chairs.
Just like inmates on adult wards! To be avoided.
For the staff break, all the children were brought into
the assembly hall.
If there were orderlies in charge they were keeping a
It was mayhem.
A hall full of children left to their own devices in free
activity; biting hands, rocking, banging heads against the
wall, aimless running, shouting, screaming, crying, pulling
at locked doors, tearing at clothes, discarding
I sensed panic and desperation in the room as though
the seeming absence of staff to watch over this large
group had heightened anxiety, brought all institutional
behaviours to the fore.
A small girl, probably older than her apparent four or
five years, fell over, banged her knee, cried and looked
around for someone to run to.
She made her way to sit on the low windowsill
and hug the curtain.