I have blurred recollections of visiting Stoke Mandeville Hospital back in about 1980. In fact so blurred and alround unreliable are they that I have seriously considered slinging this wee epistle – both during and after its invention. But I’ve stuck with it, as much as anything because I think it may ask questions around the quality or veracity of my/our reactions to what we might have seen, or felt, or heard about this Savile bloke. Or anything else. And if at any stage it becomes clear I’ve totally misrepresented something then that in itself may be interesting or in some way informative, perhaps? It being something of a test for us to stay true when broiling opinions call so loudly to intervene in ‘evidence’.
So yes, I did go to Stoke Mandeville. And now, of course, like some highly-strung, high maintenance but laceratingly brilliant Scandinavian detective, I’m trawling through the memory – its shadows, its strip lights, its blandnesses – hoping or expecting some incongruity, some trauma to roar out at me. It hasn’t. This is some relief, although with the memory still relatively undisturbed, with its doors so un-kicked in, there is that delicious/nauseous air of prequel about it. What did really happen, if anything? What did I really see, feel, hear? Were any doors or spaces energetically different, suggestively blanked, violently inert? From what I can remember… no. But is it wrong to be drawn into this anyway? Am I on some particularly mawkish celeb-fixated trip here, or what? And are we all on that trip, more or less?
I went down there to visit my second cousin, who had done that classically awful dive into almost no water thing during hijinks at college. He remains one of the most outstandingly bright blokes I’ve known (but) he also remains paralysed and wheelchair-bound. We’ve not spoken for years, in fact – not from any falling out (he hastened to add) – but because, frankly, we shared little. He was both spookily bright and a little headstrong in a way I liked; known, for example, (aged 18) to trace the number of some berk who’d written parochial cobblers in the local rag and harangue him with An Argument Far Too Good.
He also had an alarmingly healthy mop of black hair; hair which despite its casual air of well-trimmedness kindof swung around the place like some quasi-liquid; on one occasion lassoing a particularly lush Lower Sixth Former, if I remember correctly. Which I often don’t. But I remember her -leading to a clear and legitimate difficulty – and a diversion. How to honestly recount a memory – a clear and specific one – which may, quite frankly be inappropriate. As may that word ‘lush’.
I vividly remember certain hormonal kickings-in accompanying any degree of proximity to this genuinely beautiful girl… and her (what’s the word?) beautiful body. To deny that or try to skip past via some more or less witty or subtle euphemism seems raw dishonest. (Goddammit I wish I had done, mind.) But no amount of growed up etch-a-sketching over late seventies hornarama erases either that dumb desire or the feeling that generally us blokes are crap.
So I went down to Stoke Mandeville. In a by now early 80’s state of Savile ‘awareness’, with no idea what to expect of the hospital itself; just some amorphously received knowledge of the place – Savile’s place. I wish I could be clearer on the details. I’m pin sharp on what I (by then) thought of the track-suited cigar-wielder, having grown through the dim familial appreciation for Jim’ll Fix It. I thought (I knew) he was a total arse… but no more. There was no sense that I was going to bump into Jimmy (and waft past him, disinterested, in my overcoat and JD badge) but maybe there was the wonder
if he may be there thing going on. We never met.
I recall being more than slightly disappointed to find that a lump of Stoke Mandeville was apparently barely-converted Nissen huts – air-raid shelters – or similar. Just a bigger version of the corrugated iron-roofed effort we had in our garden – the one my old man had done that fascinatingly bad brickwork against, to ‘shore up’ the rear wall. SM was like an RAF Camp, converted with the minimum of love and colour and expenditure to provide cover for injured folks. (The fear dawns that I may have this wrong – and I’m happy to be corrected on any of this – but this is what I hold in my head. A fusty and almost completely unlovely military camp.) I barely went in; this may have been due to some embarrassment from my cousin or just eagerness to get out; to the pub.
We went to a nearby hostelry, me a little self-consciously pawing at the wheelchair that he bundled expertly forward. As we entered an area apparently patronised only by patients and guardians or friends from Stoke Mandeville a young man walked unconvincingly to the bar. In fact unconvincingly overstates his level of his proficiency; which was clumpingly, one foot-draggingly low. He beamed as he turned back to the small gathering in the corner, all of whom were beaming or applauding back. His first steps for months. And now with that foam-topped incentive triumphantly clasped… and downed. It was a choice moment that we’d happened upon; one I will always remember – but clearly something of a commonplace in this quietly boozy bolthole for the spinally-injured.
The next bit really galls me because if it were full of lucid observations on the nature of relationships or even the geography of stuff at Stoke Mandeville then phwarrr! – this piece might be saleably incendiary. However, it really isn’t. No contact or conversation that might lead me to some revelation; nothing to exclusively pitch. I remember only being both disturbed and unsubtly fixated on the fear of and then sight of my second cousins’ atrophied legs as he swung them expertly into his bed later. No memory of landings or corridors or conversation-averse nurses. Or of his room, even. I didn’t stay.
So nothing. Except the feeling – which I dare not trust, having no doubt that many outstanding humans did some great work there – that it was an environment relatively devoid of comfort and of warmth. Somewhere – ouch – that it kindof figures bad stuff might have happened.
I know how lazy and quite possibly appallingly unfair that last speculation is. But it’s there, in my head. An atmosphere, an association, between poor buildings and assumptions about poor procedure leading to Savile stuff. Meaning that never mind having no value, this whole concoction may be positively unhelpful in its vacuity; a story about a void of observation. But I am interested in our capacity to judge; particularly when this capacity is stressed.
With Savile being such an outrage, with the man perpetrating such evil with such cynicism, it asks a lot of us – of anyone – to deal sagely with the aftermath. He’s truly a lucky man to be dead. We’d all, surely, be tempted to roast him on a spit? For me, things have become so loaded that it would be unthinkable to get in touch with my cousin (just) to ask him how it really was, being there, for some months, back then. I can’t ask him specifically about possible arrangements or the known or unknown machinations of some creep in a track suit. That would feel just too crass.