Tuesday, 13 June 2017
Knock and Wait by Gwen Grant
[The young narrator has just arrived at the Open Air School – a sanatorium – where she is to stay for a year]
Sister Sweet went flying across this hall, up the stairs and down a long corridor. One minute she was there, the next she was gone and I was standing in this corridor wondering what to do next. I felt very tired and poorly and my legs were going wobble, wobble, and everything was starting to go dark in front of my eyes…
I felt tireder and tireder and in the end, I must have been walking about an inch an hour but I got to this room where this Sister Sweet had gone and looked round the corner. There were six beds in it. Three down each side. Everything in the room was white. White walls, white beds, white chairs. Match my face a treat all that white, I shouldn’t wonder, because our Mam says I go white as a sheet when I’m tired and I was so tired I could hardly stand.
commentary: Not more sanatoriums/sanatoria? Yes more.
Earlier this year I blogged on Linda Grant’s Dark Circle and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, and those posts brought me tip-offs from commenters on other works with that theme. There was Betty MacDonald’s The Plague and I. The film Twice Round the Daffodils – a longlost treat of a film, and ggary (in the comments here) is the only other person I know who has seen it, which somehow doesn’t surprise me.
Then long-time blogfriend Daniel Milford Cottam (who always has brilliant suggestions) came up with this one, a children’s book, and described it so enticingly (again, in the comments) that I had to track down a copy.
I realized I had read another book by this author: the predecessor to this one, Private – Keep Out! It’s about the same young girl, growing up in a Nottinghamshire town in a miner’s family. To be honest, I don’t think I’d realized till reading this one that the events were taking place in the 1940s, and not around the publication dates in the 1970s. (And I have only just realized the coincidence of Linda Grant/ Gwen Grant, which I’m pretty sure is only coincidence.)
As a child the author had to go away from her family because of illness and live in an Open Air School (see her website here), and Knock and Wait is based on that: in this case it is anaemia rather than TB that is the problem, but the experience sounds much the same.
She is carried off from her warm close family living in a terraced house, surrounded by her parents, a busybody community of old ladies, and her rowdy siblings - and she is taken to another world, cold and sterile and white. She doesn’t want to go, knows she is there for a year, and hates the idea. When she gets there – well, the book is fully of funny anecdotes. But there is never any feeling that it was a lovely place, or warm or kind.
After four months (four months) her family is allowed to visit her. They are delayed by train problems, and the description of her staring out the window and waiting and waiting, as everyone else’s parents arrive, had me in floods. When she gets a letter saying her dog has died, she is devastated. She asks for a dog picture which she knows will comfort her, but the Matron refuses: ‘Not a good thing to brood.’ (Fortunately the slightly kinder nurses cheat and get her picture for her.) When she has chilblains, she is tied to her bed, hands and feet, to stop her from scratching.
So this is very much like The Plague and I: understand the recommendation, understand that others found it hilarious (and really, the tiger in this one is quite extraordinary… as is the story of the censored letters) but I was too bothered by the san experience to put it wholly in the hilarious comfort read category – too much in the bittersweet category. One thing you could say is that it is more cheerful than Janet Hitchman’s King of the Barbareens – in that poor child’s life, the sanatorium wasn’t much worse than anywhere else she was sent. At least Gwen Grant had a family.
So then I managed to get hold of Twice Round the Daffodils, and watched it for the first time in probably 30 years. It’s a 1962 British black and white film and it is a gentler, less risqué version of a Carry On film. It is set in a TB ward; the patients are all red-blooded men, and they all fancy the nurses. It is very much of its time, but still has a charm and mellowness of its own.
The film shows its origins in a play written some years earlier, it was more convincing for 1956 than 1962. Some of the humour is very obvious, and some of it would not be acceptable now, but overall I very much enjoyed it. However, I have read so many books on the topic recently that I was full of criticism of the way the patients acted – ‘oh’ I kept thinking ‘they shouldn’t be doing that, it will be bad for their condition’. ‘Oh no, they’d be in big trouble for that in a properly-run san.’ I was nodding appreciatively at the unmentioned handcrafts sometimes glimpsed. (Betty MacDonald hated doing them – making hideous and useless objects - but felt sorry for the men who usually refused to do any such crafts at all, on the grounds that they were un-masculine: she felt it might have helped them.)
I am becoming institutionalized.
The nurse picture is from an anti-TB campaign, and came from the Library of Congress.