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.
It might be that no one knew who the father was.
Perhaps, as the boy grew up, he had the look of one
of the other inmates, of an orderly, nurse or doctor.
Nor is it recorded how he was conceived.
An inter-ward romance? A cynical seduction?
A series of rapes?
What is certain is that there was a pregnancy, a birth
and a baby boy. Also, that the man who grew up
from the baby used to visit his mother in the
It is pleasant to imagine the mother always having
contact with her child, foster parents bringing him to
spend time with her, an exchange of birthday cards
and Christmas presents.
Perhaps, if it happened like this, some women on the
ward became aunties, enjoying watching him grow up,
buying him little things with their pocket money,
having something positive in their lives.
These imagined acts of kindness would have allowed
the boy and his mother to know each other.
We all know many pregnancies in mothers of limited
intellect have much less happy outcomes.
The publishers of the One-to-One book
had powerful connections and so, when
we held a small event to launch it, the
Minister of Health came along to make a
In the preparatory conversation
backstage, it became apparent that he was
not aware of the difference between
people with mental illness and those with
mental handicap or that the UK had
separate institution for them.
He thanked us for our explanation.
People with intellectual disability are easy victims of
institutional cruelty. This persists in the UK even though
the big long-stay hospitals have been closed.
Western society ranks its members holding men above
women, white people above black and fit people above
those with a disability.
Amongst disabled people those who do not have
intellectual disability are held above those who do.
Institutional cruelty to people who are grouped
together as children or adults in some sort of home,
hostel or hospital has three legs like a dairymaid’s stool.
The first is their powerlessness.
People with intellectual disability are not equipped to
campaign for their rights in the way that many women,
black people and physically disabled people can.
The second is public apathy.
The average woman and man in the street is not aware or
concerned about people with intellectual disability,
especially when they are kept out of sight. Their interest
might be raised when a scandal is exposed but it is always
The third is the lack of status, training, inspection and
proper remuneration for the people employed as carers.
There is a repeating pattern in institutional cruelty.
Each sequence begins when a new regime of cruelty
is exposed. In response, a government minister tells the
press and media how shocked she or he is and sets up an
investigation. In due course, a report is written with strong
recommendations and a promise that such cruelty can
never happen again.
Then a new regime of cruelty is exposed. And so on.
If you happened to miss the current scandal I am reading
about as I write this, do not worry. Another will come
along very soon.
Walking past the outside of wards
or houses or homes in long-stay
hospitals always reminds me
of being in a zoo.
There is almost always an
outside compound with a high fence
so inmates can wander outside
or inside as they wish.
Or they can be locked in
or locked out depending on
the needs of the staff.
Just like lions and bears in a zoo.
In one institution at bath time
men were put naked into the
compound to be hosed down
with jets of cold water.
My comparison with a zoo
breaks down now because
no keepers would treat their
animals so cruelly.
The men and women from two wards were joined
together for this new event. It was amazing! It was some
sort of circus group coming from the East End.
The other staff said we should leave them to it and use it
as time off but I went out to help them unload their van
and then stayed involved for the whole day. I was the
new young orderly and up for anything.
The people in the troupe turned the ward and the
outside compound into a sort of adventure playground
with ropes and ladders and boxes, even an inflatable
tunnel with a wind machine and lights. You could crawl
right into it!
Then a dragon appeared from nowhere. I never worked
out whether we were chasing the dragon or it was
chasing us but it was great fun. There were drums,
trumpets, dressing-up clothes and everything!
Mary did her usual thing, sitting in the corner telling
everyone to eff off but I saw her later sitting in the tunnel
looking as though she owned it. Jack, who I’d always
assumed couldn’t walk, was stomping around out of his
wheelchair banging a drum with Albert’s walking stick.
Of course, a few patients tried to keep away from it all
and nobody forced them, but the circus group had
brought the ward to life.
They came every week for a couple of months so I got to
know some of them pretty well. I did a weekend circus
workshop at their place in Bethnal Green and even went
on a couple of demos with them.
They got me thinking about people’s rights and the
injustices suffered by mentally handicapped people.
I suppose that’s what got me into politics.
16. Gate Man
No grass grows here
by the gate, under the tree.
This is where the boy stood
as his parents drove away.
This is where the boy stood
as the nurse helped him wave.
This is where the young man
is waiting, pacing,
by the gate, under the tree.
No grass grows here.
17. Put Away
Can you imagine being committed to one of these
If you come as a baby, you will not know how different it is
from a normal sort of childhood. You will grow up without
mothering or fathering, without emotional attachment to
The people who look after you will come and go in shifts
and will have a variety of cultures, languages and accents.
They will each have their own ideas about what to do with
you when you are naughty, about how much time to give
you to eat your meals, about managing your crying at
Your growing brain, hungry for stimulation, will turn to
finger-sucking, hand-biting, eye-poking, head-banging and
whatever else you might resort to in the absence of
parental love, caresses, songs and games. You will have no
chance of developing self-esteem or feeling that you are a
wanted and valued child.
If you are admitted as an adult you might have had loving
parents, might have been known by a wider family, by
people on the street, in a club or centre.
You might have had a place in the world with familiar
people and routines, respect for what you wanted to eat or
drink, choice in clothes, favourite TV programmes, songs to
sing along with, and birds, fish, cats or dogs for pets.
Perhaps your parents could no longer cope as you grew
heavier, became more obstreperous, developed some
unwelcome sexual habits. Or perhaps they died.
One day you are at home with everything that is familiar
and the next day in an institution where everything is
unknown and frightening. No familiar faces, no one knowing
who you are, what you like to eat and drink, what you like
to do. No more bedroom of your own.
No one to come when you cry for mum or dad.
The term mental handicap
is discouraged now. It is left over from a
few decades ago, still used in some
English-speaking countries. In its place,
we use words about challenge, disability,
Mental handicap was itself a new term
once replacing such words as defective,
subnormal, idiot - terms which were not
originally intended to be offensive.
Each term is changed when it has
become loaded down with the ever-
present discrimination and prejudice.
With each change comes a fresh
perspective on the people we are trying
to describe, a perspective more positive,
more respectful, more valuing. But it is
In twenty or thirty years’ time people
will be using a new set of terms that we
cannot imagine yet, new terms that are
destined eventually to sink under the
weight of pervasive public negativity,
lasting until they are also rendered
unacceptable, out of fashion, obsolete.
19. Girls and Boys
Valuing womanhood and manhood,
we reserve man and woman as terms
for those who, in our view, qualify.
Others, being subnormal or defective,
must remain as girls and boys,
but treated as no children should be.
So it is acceptable for a young
orderly to talk about an elderly lady
as one of her best girls
and for a gentle middle-aged man
to be chastised by a first-year
student as a very naughty boy.
Managers would like us to believe
the terms girl and boy reflect
a caring parental attitude.
We should not be fooled.
They are used only to separate staff
from inmate, us from them.
A sea of cots, a noise of unhappy babies echoing in a bare
room. Shuki did not expect volunteering to be so hard when
she offered to help at the mental handicap hospital. She turned
up on Saturday morning and was sent to the baby ward where
the nurse, cleaning two babies’ bottoms at the same time,
asked her to go and meet some of the babies until she had
time to talk to her, ‘But please don’t try picking them up’.
The first baby she approached was propped in the corner of
his cot biting his hand. Shuki’s instinct was to try holding the
hand to stop the biting but he jerked it back. When she tried
again, he screamed with irritation, turned his back on her and
continued biting his hand. The second baby was rocking
rhythmically back and to, smelling as though needing changing,
oblivious of Shuki speaking to her. Shuki tried a couple of
nursery rhymes she could remember then looked in nearby
cots for a teddy or a ball to distract her with but found none.
A boy, standing at his cot rails, grabbed her jacket and held
tight, not looking at her, making strange noises. With no
nappy she saw him wetting himself. Shuki pulled away, a little
frightened by now. A small baby was lying sucking her thumb.
Was she asleep? She would have liked to pick her up, give her
a cuddle. She was at a loss, close to tears. Her baby skills were
not working here.
Shuki moved from cot to cot, child to child. Why were these
babies here? What did mental handicap mean? Would these
babies be cured? She was out of her depth with nothing to
offer and by now did not have the confidence to ask the nurse
for help. Struggling to keep self-control, she crossed to the
medical room to thank the nurse then made a dash to the
door through the maze of cots. She ran along the drive to the
hospital gates and sat at the bus stop in tears. She would not
come back here, ever.
She wouldn’t answer questions at home. She hid in her room.
Shuki cried again on Sunday evening when her mother insisted
they talk. They decided it was best seen as an episode Shuki
should put behind her, an experience she had not been
prepared for. When it was time to apply to universities, Shuki
looked for courses in paediatric nursing, infant education, child
development and child psychology. The questions she had
brought from the baby ward were not forgotten. They were