Tuesday, 28 May 2013

A guest post from our writer in residence

I was bowled over the first time I came to the Royal Hospital Chelsea. It was the summer of 2010 and I was looking to interview someone of 'superior' age for a feature I was writing. An appointment was made and a delightful Chelsea Pensioner helped me out. Interview over, I got the grand tour. It took less than five minutes to knock my preconceptions about old age out of the park.

The Royal Hospital Chelsea has an exceptional energy. I'm in my forties. I've worked in some of the most innovative marketing and creative agencies in the world. I know what energy feels like. But this was something different - and unexpected. I knew I had to find a way to come back here. I wanted to find out more about this establishment. What makes it so? How is it that a place where people come, to all intents and purposes, to live out their final years be so alive?

Fast forward 2 years, an exchange of emails, several meetings and the invitation to 'spend some time here and let's see what happens', I find myself living in-house for a week with the rather grand title 'Writer-in-Residence'. I won't lie. I was apprehensive. For one thing, I'm not known for my neatness. 'Have you considered running a brush through your hair recently?' is one of my mother's favourite lines. Most of these men - and women - are used to living a more ordered life. Clearly my punctuality will be an issue too. I'm 30 minutes late on my first day. Captain of Invalids Mark Baker is good humoured about it. Phew, I may survive until at least the end of the day.

He'd lined up three Chelsea Pensioners for me to have 'coffee' with. I use inverted commas because 'coffee' turns out to be a glass of wine. The look of horror on their faces when I suggest it's quite early (11:30) on a Monday morning for a tipple. No? Ok, I'll have one then. This helped because the subject of my book came up quickly. I was dreading this question. My first book is a historical exploration of virginity loss experiences. I hated the idea of embarrassing them about a subject which, to my mind, probably wasn't discussed that often within the traditional confines of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. How wrong could I be? They laughed their heads off when I broke the news and quickly suggested a follow up. "Why don't you write a book about 'The Last Time'?" they roared. It's not the worst idea I've ever heard.

Drinks were followed by lunch in The Great Hall and all of my Hogwarts fantasies came true. The Chelsea Pensioners may not thank me for that reference because actually, the Great Hall, asides from being one of the most atmospheric places to eat that you'll ever encounter, is also a place of reverence. Plaques that detail every great battle of the last 300 years of British history line the walls. This is heritage at its finest and most thought provoking.

In the afternoon, 33 EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) joins the Chelsea Pensioners. These (comparatively) young lads are in London between tours. They'll leave shortly for Afghanistan but first they spend the day here at the Royal Hospital Chelsea talking to their older counterparts. These relationships are clearly valued by both parties. From my own (female) perspective, it's slightly shattering to meet a young man who has chosen to work with the EOD. This is a man who will move ahead of his colleagues in search of mines and other explosive devices. Yes, technology is very different to that which the Chelsea Pensioners would have used in their day and I'd like to think that the body count is lower, but still. I don't imagine this as a job that most mothers would choose for their sons. One of my more senior friends dismisses my worries. 'It's exciting!' he shouts. And for the first of many times, I realise that, for many young people (and historically most of those young people have been men), joining the army is about excitement. It's about adventure and yes, it's also about risk and the unknown, whether that's in the form of enemies, new geographical terrain or the unpredictability and unfortunately, the invisibility of explosive devices.

For all their male-ness, in a highly unscientific and possibly divisive personal study, I also conclude that many more of the Chelsea Pensioners are cat people than they are dog people. If Chelsea Pensioners were allowed to keep pets, it would look like a zoo in here, and mostly of the feline variety. These guys really like cats. Chelsea Pensioner Charlie Parker and I decide between us that one could write an excellent self help book based on the assumption that if you understand cats, you probably understand women (that's him) and that if you 'get' dogs, you've probably got the male race cracked (that's me). Judging by the amount of pictures and paintings that the pensioners have of their feline friends, I can only conclude that these guys must know a fair bit about the ladies.

Speaking of which, this is not a male dominated environment by any stretch of the imagination. The Royal Hospital Chelsea is home to six female Chelsea Pensioners, the first two of whom (the charismatic pairing of Winifred Phillips and Dorothy Hughes) arrived in 2009. As time ticks by, this figure looks set to change further and more women will come. The Royal Hospital is not a fixed entity. It changes and modulates in much the same way as the outside world does. It is currently home to men and women who remember, and helped to win, the Second World War as well as those who served in Korea, the Falklands and Cyprus. In time, other conflicts and new characters will make their mark here too.

Several days in and something weird happens. I find myself folding my pyjamas. It's not like anyone is going to see them but it is an unconscious nod towards my surroundings. The Royal Hospital Chelsea has what they call a quasi-military environment. One thing that really hadn't occurred to me until my arrival is that almost all of the Chelsea Pensioners have led long civilian lives post their army careers ('I was a Transparent Walls Cleansing Operator' one told me. They are constantly pulling my leg in this place. This particular man had been a window cleaner), but tales are rife of how easy it is to slot back into their old lives. 'The second I walked through the gate', said one, 'I knew I was home'. Lots of new arrivals are bereaved. A minority can't settle and leave, but for the most part, the familiarity of their former lives offers comfort at a bewildering time.

One of the highlights of my week is spending time with the Chelsea Pensioners in their rooms. 'The spaces are tiny' wrote a friend on Facebook when I first mooted this project online. 'Six foot by six foot' they rounded off dramatically. This has to be put into context. When these spaces were designed over 300 years ago by Sir Christopher Wren, many ex-servicemen had nowhere to live. They would have been glad of a bedroom with a door that they could shut and call their own. What people don't tell you, and what cannot be communicated unless you come here and see for yourself is that whilst its true, some of the old long halls do have small rooms (they are nine foot by nine now), the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the physical grandeur  of these old spaces is absolutely unique. Each room has a little window onto the corridor with a curtain that can be pulled across it depending on one's mood. Across the way, tables and chairs line the paneled hallway beneath windows and Chelsea Pensioners sit, chat, read and pass the time of day with an endless stream of fellow characters, friends and humour. I could think of so many more terrible ways of living. The trappings of modern life are dotted here and there. You’ll spot the odd ipad and plenty of flat screen tv’s secreted into the corners of rooms but really, conversation is the currency here and, whilst many of the pensioners welcome the impending modernization of their living spaces, all of which will include en suite bathrooms, the long halls are a piece of history that I for one am thrilled to have experienced.

Towards the end of the week, another peculiar sensation takes over. I realise that I’m reading a broadsheet newspaper as if I’m overseas.  It feels like the stories talk of a land that I left behind. I’m actually only 5 miles from my home but it feels like a life-time away. I keep having conversations with people about principalities. Cities within cities. I’m not sure what point of difference defines a principality but I decide it includes having one’s own post office. The Royal Hospital Chelsea has such a thing, housed within its shop and therefore there is very little reason to leave. The Chelsea Pensioners, I am glad to report, have other ideas. ‘I spent my entire first year here exploring London on double decker buses’ one told me. I know where to come for travel advice.

But I do have to leave eventually, after five days of talking, exploring and immersing myself into a place that one of its residents, Wayne Campbell, calls ‘just the best care home in the world’. Neat and to the point. I, on the other hand, am not able to be quite so sparse. Which is why I will be coming back periodically to explain more about this world. Who are the people here? What are their stories? What can they teach the next generation about life in days gone by and what inspired these people to pick such a unique job? Watch this space and myself and the Chelsea Pensioners will tell you some stories.

This blog was written by Kate Monro

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Friday, 17 May 2013

Pottery Classes in the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary

The latest pastime on the activities schedule in the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary is a pottery class, taking place every Tuesday. Each week the teacher, Emily Hall works with the pensioners from the Infirmary to transform the activity room into an Aladdin's cave of clay creations. From fruit bowls and vases, to sculptures and mini figurines, the Chelsea Pensioners are able to craft whatever they wish out of the huge slabs of clay that Emily provides.

The results will either be used as presents to family and friends, or will decorate their berths, and plans are being discussed to put on an exhibition of the work once a portfolio has been built up. The 7 regular attendees (a number that is increasing week by week) are currently learning basic techniques such as 'coiling' (rolling the clay into a long sausage and building it up to create a bowl shape) and 'slab building' (using pieces of flat clay).

Emily Hall has an upbeat, smiley demeanour and a passion for pottery that is contagious. In particular, listening to her speak about her work with older people (she also runs a similar class at Nightingale, a nursing and residential care home in Clapham) reveals the true benefit of clay. She recounts how the class can mean so many different things to each person. Some want to get really stuck in, others just want to sit and chat and others like to do the painting but if the atmosphere is right, with drinks and music it is always a success.

There are also obvious physical therapeutic elements to crafting clay - it is good exercise for the muscles in the hands to keep them moving, but there is also an emotional element to it - the sense of achievement and satisfaction when your work comes out of the kiln is strong.

Emily studied 3D sculpting at Brighton and whilst focusing on pottery she learnt the processes and techniques. However when working with the residents of Nightingale and the Royal Hospital Chelsea, these become only loosely significant. For her, it is more about your way of thinking, being inquisitive and noticing the little things about someone, analysing their behaviour and trying out different things with them. It is a conversation starter, a way of socialising and reminiscing about things they have done. What a fantastic way to spend your Tuesday afternoon!

These Chelsea Pensioners might soon be changing their trade to become the Chelsea Potters - watch this space!

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Friday, 3 May 2013

Spring Cleaning at the Royal Hospital Chelsea

We're doing a bit of spring cleaning at the Royal Hospital Chelsea and discovered some fascinating pictures from our past that highlight how we have stayed true to our original purpose 'To provide succour and relief to veterans broken by age and war' over the past 321 years. Most of our buildings and many of our traditions have remained intact during this time. 

The Long Wards haven't changed much over the years, but the berths (the Chelsea Pensioner's rooms) were enlarged from 6x6ft to 9x9ft in the 1900's. More seating and desks have also been added for their convenience. 
A major refurbishment programme is now underway to give every Chelsea Pensioner an en suite bedroom with a private study area, whilst still preserving the communal areas that are so important to fostering the community spirit that the Royal Hospital Chelsea is renowned for.

Our tradition of Founder's Day continues to be celebrated annually at the Royal Hospital Chelsea and is a great source of pride for the Chelsea Pensioners and staff. Founder's Day is held as close as possible to King Charles II's birthday (29th May) and the anniversary of the date of his restoration as King every year. Founder's Day is also known as Oak Apple Day as it commemorates the escape of King Charles after the Battle of Worcester (1651) when he hid in an oak tree to avoid capture by the Parliamentary forces.

Prince Harry reviewing the Chelsea Pensioners in 2011
The Chelsea Pensioners are usually reviewed by a member of the Royal Family every year.

 The original Infirmary was bombed during the Second World War. The new Margaret Thatcher Infirmary (designed by Quinlan Terry) was completed in 2009. It is registered as a care home and can accommodate up to 100 Chelsea Pensioners with en suite facilities. 

You can contribute to the work that we do here at the Royal Hospital Chelsea by making a donation to the Chelsea Pensioners' Appeal here.

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