Shortly after leaving Goldsmiths’ College back in the late ‘60s and whilst awaiting creative and commercial success with what our agency touted as ‘South-East London’s First Flower-Power Band’, I took a job in the laundry at Claybury Psychiatric Hospital. Phil the drummer (he was a porter at Claybury) and I would rise at 4.00 AM and cross London in his tiny Thames van to check in at the huge custodial gates with the sun rising two hours later. While Phil patrolled the long Victorian corridors and vast high-windowed wards, my co-workers and I, wearing wellington boots and butcher’s oilskin aprons, filled the great cylindrical belt-driven drums with reeking sheets and soiled garments.

Phil and I followed this surreal routine until a couple of months into the process gigs with the band had increased enough to sustain us from day to day. And the Withnail-and-I squalor of our subsequent rock-and-roll existence notwithstanding, I didn’t regret for a moment leaving behind that cavernous, steam-filled space, clamorous with the sound of revolving cylinders and the call-and-response shouting of the laundry workers and the singing and wailing of the roaming patients.

My memories of that brief time are vivid still. They fed the writing of the poem below, which, once started became something of a therapeutic exercise, displacing and rendering into focus a set of linked experiences more typical of Dickensian times than the bright, brash 1960s. The now long-demolished Claybury Hospital was no institution of enlightened treatment and permanent cure. It was, quite simply, a lunatic asylum peopled by lost souls washed up by the tides of primitive ignorance and prejudice across the first half of the 20th century. And we who maintained the services that provided the most basic day-to-day conveniences for those sad, wronged casualties survived the quotidian grand guignol horrors of the place either through elective blindness and deafness or wilful callousness and outright cruelty…



I work in the asylum laundry,
dawn ‘til two, forking bedsheets,
wet and grey like tripes,
into the drums to cook.

Booted and wrapped, shiny
white in oilskin aprons, angel
butchers, we move through steam,
feeding the ironing room.

We, the furtive and the cruel,
duck behind nicknames, aiming
to pass unnoticed or unchecked
within this strange nation:

Fish, the foreman, with the
glaucous eyes; me, the Friar,
for my pelmet fringe;
and crew-cut Stig of the lipless

v-shaped smile, like a deft
two-stroke razor slice. Ours
is a realm of clouds, high windows
sweating kitchen dew and doorways

like dream portals, indistinct
amongst white streaming tiles.
And passing between these shape-
shifting apertures, the strange

quotidian traffic. We float
inside their world like unshelled
crabs, sidling our tasks between
heap and drum, heads down

and purposeful, breathing only
our own air. And they move
between us in their own
fashion: the dancers, shapeless,

ageless in their smocks,
spinning and turning to
secret tunes in undiscovered
keys; the counting man

who circuits the vast estate,
enumerating fetishes – certain
lintels, keystones, door handles,
a smoked glass windowpane,

a beech tree root, tapping
each one with crooked
forefinger and then
moving on to align

some other crucial fuse
while the sun is high.
(I watch him secretly,
like a bird at work);

and last, within the dust
of the parade, precarious
as a shard of glass,
jagged Mary. Fizzing on

the threshold, she tests
the air. Her top lip
puckers, lifts over
a black bucket of

horse teeth. She snickers
and pushes at her brush-
fire hair, a corolla
of torn flames, the colour

of rust. Pale, pale
blue eyes switching and
slipping, making of the world
a place of fumes

and snapped filaments, only
an inkblot atlas to guide her
through black land
and fathomless sea.

And it’s here and now,
within the splay and straddle
of her limbs inside the doorway,
between one clumsy

heartbeat and the next,
that there might be
deliverance – a rough facsimile
of love as nurse or porter

turns her round, the pressure,
gentle, solicitous, the voice
a fuzzy burr, back along
white corridors, white corridors.

But no one’s there
and Stig is sprung-wound
and ticking close beside me.
I can smell his musk

through boiled linen and suds.
Dipping armpit deep into the drum,
he tugs out cotton knickers,
red as a haemorrhage,

and dangling the deep, sad
weight of them like a toreador,
he edges forward. His thin rudiment
of mouth beaks into a pouting kiss

as he sashays onto the walkway
where she stands. In that sweat-
heat, she is, in the moment,
rabbit to his serpent.

Fish draws hard on a cigarette
and turns away, but I am
complicit, witness from the start,
hiding amongst the rank

garment foliage like a naturalist,
sensing that what must now
transpire will strip us
to the quick. Clocks stop

inside that doldrum pause.
And she begins to keen,
a sound thin and high,
like wire hard drawn

through the membrane of
the air. And Stig two-steps
sideways, flicking the bloomers,
chanting on a breath:

“Crazy Mary, crazy bitch,
come on and love me, crazy
bitch, come on”, and laughing
high and wild like a child

on a rope over water,
innocent and dangerous
in the free air, he dances,
now scampering forward

and back, forward and back
under a blood-red flag.
The air shimmers and stiffens
and Mary shatters it

like a pane of glass.
There is a quality
of sound – a mud-born
eructation from the throat

of a marsh bird, or
some searing midnight
heartbreak called from ridge
or hillside – that curls

around the edge of time
to bear witness to what
we have never known,
should never have to know.

And Mary shrieks from that
elemental place, her mouth
split earth and her voice
magma, sudden and naked

in the wrong world. Stig
stops dead, poised like
a mural dancer because
raw noise has clogged

the air into something
like fog or darkness
and our ears sing with it
and we can’t see for tears.

Stationary, rooted, like
a screaming tree, she flails,
ululating from within the
perfect storm, an ecstasy

of rage, crystal-pure and
targetless, uncorrupted by
concern or issue, inchoate
and of itself, primordial.

From its spotless light,
its impeccable heat, stars
and their matter draw
their source. This is

the ultimate release,
a hideous, intoxicating
freedom. Like some twisted
Breughel sower, she scatters

the molecules of reason
into this coruscating wind
and for its duration
both of us are blasted white,

Stig and I, reamed as clear
and vacant as blown eggs.
And now inside the cone
of silence that crowns

the thunderclap, we stand,
Stig and I, each in
his moment, the one
a still life in white and red,

caught at the edge
of the breath before
panic animates; the other
a dumbstruck initiate,

hearing in the soaring
engine of the scream
a wild music, seeing within
the beating Shiva arms

a terrible beauty, the purity
of free-falling water, the
rootless, boundless liberty of
the infant and the lunatic.

Is this how we sunder
gravity, leave the earth
and fly? Is this shame
I feel or yearning?

They come for her and,
with dreadful skill, they
truss her as she stands
and bundle her away.

The sounds diminish, dwarfed
and dopplered through the
labyrinth beyond and,
in the laundry, drums

grind and roll and steam
embraces. But I am marked
now, an initiate. I know
of their mission this much:

that it is not to care
and cure but to contain
and then conceal. I wear
the secret like a scar.

BINNERS read by Dick Jones

About Dick Jones

I'm a post-retirement Drama teacher, currently working part-time. I have a grown-up son and daughter, three grandchildren and three young children from my second marriage. I write - principally poetry but prose too, both fitfully published. My poetry collection Ancient Lights is published by Phoenicia Publishing ( and my translation of Blaise Cendrars' 'Trans-Siberian Prosody and Little Jeanne from France' (illustrated by my friend, the artist, writer and long-time blogger Natalie d'Arbeloff) is published by Old Stile Press ( I play bass guitar & bouzouki in the song-based acoustic/electric trio Moorby Jones, playing entirely original material. spotify:artist:07MDD5MK9MnRGSEZwbsas9 I have a dormant blog with posts going back to 2004 at Dick Jones' Patteran Pages - - and I'm a radio ham. My callsign is G0EUV
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