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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1 Comments:

At 4 June 2013 at 12:41 , Blogger canalily said...

This is a marvellous snapshot of a fascinating, hidden world. I am rather envious of your experience. Looking forward to more stories.

 

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