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.
21. Tobacco Tin
Interrupting our conversation the orderly
came into the Matron’s office to hand over
the remaining possessions of an inmate
who had died that morning.
‘Is this all?’ asked the Matron casually
sliding the scratched tobacco tin into her
There is an unspoken rule that you can
only own what you can carry with you.
Anything left on the ward will disappear.
Did this deceased person leave a bag of
stuff in which the tin was the only item
worth keeping for any interested relative?
Tobacco tins hold matches, cigarette
papers and tobacco keeping the next
smoke always handy. It is common for men
and women to scratch patterns on to the
lids making their tin a valued personal item,
like a family photo in a wallet.
The workshop manager is explaining to the visitor
that the idea of this new unit is to give inmates a feel
for having a job, being at work, coming in five days a
week, being punctual and being paid on Fridays.
He says, when asked how people are selected,
that they are the women and men from the high-
grade wards who look as though they might be
suitable, might have the aptitude, might have the
necessary level of understanding.
He shows the visitor the inmates on the first bench
who are sorting various electrical components into
The visitor asks if this work comes in from local firms
and realises he has touched a nerve.
‘I wish!’ replies the manager. ‘I have tried most of the
local firms and none of them will send work to us.
Some have been to have a look and decided that we
are too slow for them. As it stands, I think they will
never use us.
‘In that case’ asks the visitor ‘How do you pay them
The manager looks downcast saying he can’t pay a
wage. The hospital budget allows only enough money
for a couple of packets of fags for each inmate.
‘And I have to fight for that’, he adds.
The visitor enquires what happens to these
components when they have been sorted into their
‘I mix them up again ready for the next morning.
What else can I do?’
As Senior Nurse, I welcome this opportunity to report to the
Hospital Management Team on the recent One-to-One event on
Turvey Ward and to thank you for the money you allocated to it.
I hope you will agree it has been a worthwhile investment.
As you know, our hospital held its first full One-to-One day
earlier this year with over 200 volunteers coming to partner
residents. The positive public response and the benefit to our
residents inspired our voluntary help organiser and Turvey Ward’s
charge nurse to work with One-to-One’s national organisers in
planning an experimental event focused on just one ward.
Turvey Ward was chosen as it has few visits from relatives and no
volunteer involvement. This is because of the high level of disability
and dependency the residents suffer. Each has physical disabilities as
well as mental handicap and many are doubly incontinent. Staff only
have time for basic physical care. When parents do come, they find it
impossible to manage their daughter or son out in the hospital
grounds because the old wheelchairs are not up to the job. Staff feel
their ward is neglected and their hard work is unrecognised. It has
been a ward with very low morale.
The ward event was a great success bringing back some of the
volunteers from the One-to-One Day and, importantly, some
relatives. The day was a mix of painting workshop, street theatre,
music and inflatable play structures. The One-to-One office organised
a volunteer to write about his experience for the book about One-to-
One. The Management Team will get copies when it is available.
In summary, One-to-One events are bringing benefits to
Bromham Hospital with increased volunteer involvement generally
and with raised morale on one of our most challenging wards. Our
local community has benefitted too by learning about the hospital and
getting involved. I am sure the level of suspicion and fear is reducing.
There is potential for further development so this interim report is a
forewarning of further requests for funds. Thank you again for
supporting these initiatives.
While working with mental handicap
hospitals to help them stage One-to-One
Days, I wrote to the chief of the
Confederation of Health Service Employees
to explain why these institutions
were not fit places for men,
women and children to spend their lives.
I gave a good account of the many horrors
I had seen and sought his support
for the people and organisations
campaigning to have them closed down.
His very polite reply was that
mental handicap hospitals should
definitely stay open because of the jobs
they provided for his members.
How naïve I was!
One day these institutions will surely be put
under the metaphorical microscopes of eminent
psychologists and social scientists in the world’s
They will study maternal deprivation in relation
to babies born with brain damage and advise how
to promote bonds of attachment when there are
too few staff and too many infants. Rocking, head-
banging and eye-poking will be explored and
explained and we will learn why a life without
choices in food, clothes, friends and activities
makes people more like automatons than
humans. The time taken for newly-admitted
children to stop pining for their parents will be
measured with recommendations about whether
to allow visits during the pining period. If brave
enough, they will explore sexual frustration
̶ inevitable when women and men are segregated
on separate wards and describe how it should
best be dealt with.
Or it could be that the clever scientists
will have to report that their metaphorical
microscopes have become metaphorical mirrors
reflecting only society’s brutality.
26. Quick Getaway
Ernest was an old man.
His wife had died about a decade ago leaving
him to look after their daughter. Janet came
from a very late pregnancy and had learning
difficulties. She had always lived at home,
largely at the insistence of her mother.
Neither parent thought of Janet having a
disability. She was just ‘our Janet’, not to be
grouped with any other disabled people.
Her older brother lived nearby. He was a
caring and attentive sibling. Ernest was
independent and solitary. A few neighbours
and acquaintances had done their best to
stay in touch with him and Janet after his
wife died but he wanted none of it. He let
them know their caring attentions were no
longer welcome. He struggled on with Janet,
not so much as an act of love, more stoically
carrying a burden that had fallen to him.
It was an austere and cheerless household;
Ernest bearing his cross, Janet enduring
imposed social isolation. A day came when
Ernest decided he could not carry on. He
rang social services during the morning and
must have put a very strong case because a
woman came round just after lunch.
Assessing the situation - an old man with a
thirty-something daughter - and having only
Ernest’s point of view to go on, she rang her
office to ask for a vehicle that could
transport Janet in her wheelchair.
When Ernest’s son called in later, as he did
most days after work, he had to ask,
27. Giving Up Baby
Over the years, many parents in many countries must have
accepted the invitation to leave their baby in hospital with
the advice, ‘Go home and try for another one’.
This is a very negative and medically paternalistic view of
parenthood. If it has some superficial concern for the
mother and father, it ignores the welfare of the baby and
assumes no one has to be concerned what happens to ‘it’.
Perhaps the concern is neither for the parents nor for the
child, but only a desire to keep society neat and tidy, free
from those who do not fit.
I have listened to many parents talk about life with their
child at home but not yet met a mother or father who
opted to give up their baby given this quick cruel choice.
Or, if I have, I did not know. So I have questions.
After giving up their baby, I wonder how soon the desire
for another pregnancy can begin. Do parents fear lightning
will strike twice in the same place? And then, if there is
another baby on the way, what are the parents’ fearful
Is the forsaken child talked about with family and friends?
Or do parents concoct a story about the baby being ill and
dying in hospital, telling everyone it is too painful to talk
about? Children who die have a place in the family with
photographs, ceremonies on birthdays, a gravestone.
Can parents of babies left in hospital allow themselves such
What do parents feel when they see a child of a similar
birth date in the street or on TV? If more children do come
along and grow up, are there unspoken anxieties about
their expected offspring, about it running in the family?
I imagine the trauma and bereavement of leaving a new
daughter or son in hospital weighing heavily on a parent
whether they keep it secret or not.
They deserve all compassion.
Cognitive dissonance, simultaneously holding two
beliefs that do not fit together, can flavour
a parent’s love for their brain-damaged baby.
There is the child’s beauty; the perfect fingers
and toes, the trusting eyes, the angelic aura as
they sleep, the warmth when snuggled in a lap.
Then the worrying brain scans, the negative
hearing and vision tests, the slowed development,
the doctors’ pronouncements.
Some parents will respond to the dissonance
by entering a time capsule with the baby, admitting
others if they speak only of the child’s beauty.
In time, emerging from the capsule, there is a longer
journey of adaptation, seeing the child’s beauty,
strengths and needs all at the same time
‘Your son is the most disabled baby I have ever
worked with.’ A chilling pronouncement for
any parent to hear from a paediatrician but
they had asked for it.
They were confused.
They remembered the early medical advice
that Taro had brain damage that would result
in very significant physical, sensory and learning
disabilities. But for twelve months now his
therapists and the teacher of deafblind infants
had been full of praise for how well Taro was
doing, how pleased they were with him.
Taro was much loved and his parents gave him
all care and attention. But they had seen almost
no progress in his development since he came
home from hospital.
They had known the paediatrician since Taro’s
difficult birth and its aftermath of crisis and
emergency. They trusted her and decided to
confront her with their confusion. She
perceived their question, ‘Just how disabled is
our baby?’ was sincere and heartfelt and, in her
wisdom, knew it was deserving of a direct,
honest and respectful answer.
Of course they were upset.
But now they knew the situation. Now they
could plan their family life accordingly, sort out
their priorities, work towards the likely future.
They would tell Taro’s professionals that their
work was valued but they did not need the
exaggerated praise, the unjustified optimism.
They would prefer honesty sensitively given.
Where are the children?
Some you meet by chance,
necessity taking them to
surgery or hospital.
A few, you won’t see at all
because they are kept at home,
hidden away, secret children,
Others, you will only find
if you visit that place where
children are put away,
out of sight, out of mind.
In some parts of some
countries, you must visit
mountainside or forest
to search for the bones.