I know that the tea towel says ‘Around Margate and Cliftonville’ but it’s significance to me is only about Cliftonville. This is a classic tourist tea towel with lots of pictures of important places in Margate and thereabouts; a heavily pictured tea towel. It is 100% thick cotton, great absorbancy but because it is 36 years old there is inevitably some wear. You can see a small hole on the left hand side. This tea towel marks one of the defining moments in my life. A bit dramatic for a tea towel, but fact nonetheless.
This tea towel, along with the ugliest biscuit barrel you have ever seen, was the first present that John ever bought me and it was the moment that I knew that I could spend the rest of my life with him. Unfortunately, life never goes to plan and it was only 16 years. But 16 years was good. I had only known John for about 5 months. He was a nurse on Clephan Ward at Glenfrith Hospital; I was the social worker for that ward. Glenfrith Hospital was a long-stay hospital for people with learning difficulties and Clephan Ward was for men only, many of whom were either detained under the Mental Health Act 1959 or who had transferred from Rampton Secure Hospital. It was a different world in those days; there were men detained under the Mental Health Act for stealing a packet of biscuits or getting into a fight when the pubs turned out, detained for more than 10 years when today they might just have been fined.
It wasn’t only different for people with learning difficulties; all staff were required to accompany patients on holiday; it wasn’t a choice, it wasn’t something you got paid double time for, it was just part of the job. I suppose the good thing about those days was that the powers that be felt that patients had a right to have an annual holiday, not just day trips and these holidays became a significant part of people’s lives. Patients didn’t have to pay for the staffing hours like they have to do now, they didn’t have to feel grateful that staff gave up their own time to go on holiday with them, it was part of the ‘service’. In 1980, it was John’s turn to go to Cliftonville with a large group of patients, staying in a hotel. This was the first year they had tried staying in an ordinary hotel rather than ‘taking over’ the Miner’s Welfare holiday camp in Skegness. If anyone has taken groups of disabled people on holiday, they will know this is no ‘picnic’; it is hard work and long hours, you are always on duty. It isn’t about who you are taking on holiday, it’s not about people being disabled; the fact is that if you live in a hospital 52 weeks a year, then one week’s holiday is really important. You want to get as much out of that week as possible. People have that sort of energy that goes with being on holiday, wanting to do everything there is to do, to see everything there is to see, to try new things and have new experiences. The reality is that staff want to soak their feet in a bowl of hot water and go to bed early and patients want to get up early and go to bed after the bar has closed. This is not the week to just sit around and watch TV. John was a fit man but often wondered where the people got their energy from.
Cliftonville gave people the chance to do new things: the group went on a day trip to France. For many people just going on holiday was exciting but, for everyone, going abroad was definitely a new experience. The Hypermarket at Calais sold everything anyone could possibly need, including alcohol and cigarettes. Families certainly got presents from the holiday unlike anything they had had before. I remember John telling me about going to the funfair at Margate – Dreamland – and all the rides they had. Then there was the Empire Strikes Back and Superman 2 at the cinema. A trip to Canterbury, walking on the beach and paddling in the sea. Walks round the Victorian gardens. Of course, back in 1980, there were no mobile phones or Internet, so any contact with John was at 11.30pm, when everyone had gone to bed, by landline. It cost a fortune. I would try and keep awake for the phone calls but it was very difficult. Not only did I have a blow by blow account of what happened each day, this was supplemented by postcards from John and a number of patients and then I heard it all again when they got back. It felt as though I had been on the holiday; I felt exhausted.
I remember being very excited by the fact that not only had John bought me a present (and it is difficult to find the time to do that amongst everything else) but that he had remembered my love of tea towels and then had actually bought me one. It felt like someone had really cared, really thought about a present for me (not sure about the biscuit barrel though). It was at that point that I realised that this was the man for me, someone who would care for me, love me, look after me; someone who would not ridicule my tea towels. For that reason this tea towel is very precious to me even though none of the places on the tea towel have any significance to me, nor have I been to any, nor do I feel a need to go and see them. Tea towels can be special in so many different ways.
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