Layers of History

Will  Self‘s latest novel, the Booker short listed Umbrella, is set in Friern Hospital. I know this not because I’ve read the book, but because it is in any blurb about the work, and because I heard him talking about it on the Today programme on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago.  I specifically noted the fact because it’s where I live, and because I was a little bit offended by the rather patronising way he spoke about the current residents.

His novel is set in the 1920s and focusses on long term residents, sent to the hospital after suffering encephalitis and falling into a coma.  I will get around to reading the book at some point, but it was the interview I heard (for which, very cheesily, they’d managed to find the only remaining clanging door around which to jangle a few keys),  that prompted me to think about this building and its various incarnations.

I am very interested in the evocation of a sense of place in both what I read and what I write.  Being able to imagine where the action is taking place, what the characters are seeing and experiencing is a vital part of the enjoyment of fiction for me.  And any occupied place will have layers and layers of human life etched upon it, from before a building was constructed, through its various incarnations and long into the future when we are no longer here to witness it

Any congregation of people will be the source of a multiplicity of stories.  I have long been fascinated by the history of the building in  as I have seen, over the period of my residence, how it has changed and evolved and become something entirely different to what it was when I first came here.

There is a plaque in the building which records the opening of the Middlesex Asylum for the Insane in 1849 by Prince Albert, and when it was first opened it was one of the new asylums built in green areas on the outskirts of London.  A large Italianate design with a fancy central dome over the chapel, it contained the longest corridor in Europe and was in a huge parcel of land with its own railway station. One area of the parkland was rolled flat and true for the cricket pitch, and a verandahed pavilion was built to one side.  The perimeter wall was built of brick and was, like that of a prison, too high to see over.  Horrors took place inside.

Renamed Colney Hatch, it became the byword for where aggravated mothers would threaten to send misbehaving children to frighten them into obedience.  And, when in the 1980s the patient population was dispersed into the community, locally there was near unanimity that the building should be demolished to banish the specter of all the terrible things that had happened inside.  Instead it was only partially taken down, and has been converted to flats.

I was one of the early residents, and when I moved in, everywhere was a sea of mud, and apart from the small wing at the western end, the rest of the site was derelict.  At weekends I would make tours of inspection to peer into the parts of the building where grass sprouted from the drains and startled pigeons would fly out through the broken windows when I approached.  It was an extremely creepy place, and sometimes I would have to run outside into the fresh air, so certain had I been that someone had walked up behind me; someone who, when I spun around to see them, wasn’t there.

Gradually, as the refurbishment progressed, (and there was better site health and safely protection after a child fell down an unprotected hole) the traces of the past disappeared, and new life laid itself over the building.  Babies have been born here and the cycle of life has made another rotation.

There is a whole new population here now, as eclectic a collection as there ever was, I’m sure, but all here voluntarily (apart perhaps from the boy band members immured here routinely, to serve out their indentures to their promoters).

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  1. Very interesting post. As you know, I also live fairly near Friern Hospital and it has held a fascination for me for ages. There was a powerful set of photos published in a Sunday magazine years ago, showing empty corridors with abandoned equipment,etc. Very creepy! So in theory I should be desperate to read this book, but although I find Will Self very watchable on TV, unfortunately I find his writing impenetrable. Do tell me how you get on with it!

    • Thanks Isabel. I have to admit the book isn’t very high on my TBR list yet, but I’ll certainly report back when I’ve finished! Rowena

  2. emissima

     /  September 21, 2012

    What did Will Self say about the current residents? I was waiting for you to put him right 🙂

    • He said something along the lines of…. I don’t expect any of the current residents know anything about the history of the place……


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