Thursday, 19 December 2013

Drayton: the ghost of a great poet

Sunrise 054

IN the middle of a heath, an incongruous clump of pampas grass. Look closer and you might be able to see that the land is suspiciously flat between the pampas and the copse. It’s the site, the exact footprint, of the old David Rice Psychiatric Hospital. It was built in the late 30s of the last century and demolished in the mid-noughties of this one. Who would have thought that an ornamental plant would outlive the buildings it was designed to grace?

Now owned by The Lind Trust, this 33 acre site was going to be home to a massive new church. Plans fell through after an acrimonious row with many neighbours. Its future is still uncertain but in the meantime the Trust is more than happy for us walkers to explore its gentle contours. Locals can probably see it returning to nature almost month by month.

It’s been much in my mind this week after discovering a little bit more about the David Rice’s most famous patient. According to the experts, Francis Webb (1925-1973) was one of the best poets Australia has ever produced. But he suffered from terrible mental health problems, so much so that he spent many months here, accidentally getting to know the Wensum valley in the process.

Thanks to the good old Millennium Library I’ve now borrowed a 1969 collection of his poems (It’s an inter-library loan all the way from Bucks, smelling beautifully of second-hand book shops and complete with loan dates stretching back decades. Excellent.)

I thought it would be his poems on named Norfolk places which would get me, instead this vision of a lonely night inside the David Rice knocks you sideways with its raw, melancholic power:

“The side-room has sweated years and patience, rolls its one eye

Skyward, nightward; hours beyond sleep I lie;

And the fists of some ardent Plimsoll have laboured this wall

Clear of its plaster beside my chosen head.

Someone murmurs a little, dithers in bed,

Against that frail call

Are imminent the siege-works of a huge nightfall.”

There’s much more, but you get the idea and I better be careful of copyright. His great champion in this country is Cameron Self of Literary Norfolk fame. Cameron knows his stuff. Read his summary to get a proper idea of what a big name Webb is in Australia, but also how Norfolk should claim him as one of our own.

I found it slightly eerie walking across this site even before Bucks came up trumps. The demo guys have done such a thorough job that there is very little evidence left of the hospital. But nevertheless the odd drain cover – and pampas grass - means that you somehow feel the absence of a building.

Throw in the “siege-works of a huge nightfall” and it’s safe to say you probably won’t find me up here after dark.