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> > > Shape Animate Podcast: Julie McNamara on the hospital years
photo of actor dressed in a suit and tie, holding a baby pig

Photo of Julie McNamara as Pig by Michele Martinoli

Julie McNamara – Podcast Transcript
The Hospital Years

Julie McNamara: My dad wanted me to be a doctor. And God knows why because he never visited a doctor in his life.

And you can see why. Because the man was completely psychotic most of the time. So you wouldn’t want to would you. He ended his life on a boat on the Mersey which became one of the journeys of the last production. Which I will talk to you about a bit further in a bit.

But in those early years, I decided there’s no way I could be a doctor. There’s no way I could be a drama therapist or whatever it was. I mean, I remember coming out of hospital in Nottingham and signing up for a drama therapy course thinking, “Well this is part of the prescription. This is what I’m supposed to do then in order to find a way back into society and earn a living. Or create a life.”

So I did two years’ training. I learned all about psychiatry and psychology. And I thought, “Well that bunch of Nazi’s will never do that with my head again.”

And I started working with kids in the prison system. Using some of the things I’d learned. And then I was sent to a place called Harperbury Hospital for the Mentally Sub-Normal.

Isn’t that a lovely title. That was the real name. I promise you. I promise you that was the real name. In fact, I’m writing about as we speak. Well, not right now, as we speak, but you know what I mean.

In this time, in my life, I’m writing about it.

But I spent two years living and working at Harperbury Hospital for the Mentally Sub-Normal. And I met some incredible people. And Harperbury’s based in Hertfordshire. Actually it’s just outside St Albans. And at that time – we’re talking mid-80s to late-80s. You know, Thatcher years. She was hell bent on normalisation and community care. Which actually all sounds like a fabulous idea. Doesn’t it? You know, we need to get on with each other. We’ve all got to find ways of sharing society together. Let’s all be normal together. Yeah, what does that mean?

If you’ve lived all your life banged up in care. In a long-stay institution where you’re referred to as ‘the mentally sub-normal’. How does that look? When you get outside your huge Victorian walls and you don’t know what a road looks like and people are starting to run you over in these strange things with wheels on. And you don’t understand money and all the rest of it.

I mean, it was so ridiculous, the whole thing.

But, while I was there, I met an incredible group of people who’d been banged up for years actually. Most of them were women who’d had children out of wedlock. And on their notes it said, “Morally deficient, degenerate, promiscuous.” And I was on…

Male: When had they been banged up?

Julie McNamara: God knows how long. I mean…

Male: What sort of date was this all happening?

Julie McNamara: There was one woman- Well, no hang on, this is the mid-80s we’re talking about. Some of those people had been in there over 30 years. And there was one woman called Mairie who’d been in there since she was nine years old. She’d stolen a bicycle and her father had brought her to the gates of this huge institution, presented her and said, “She’s brought shame on the family. She’s a Wrong’en.” And she was lost in the institution.

There was another woman there called Cely who’d had a child from one of the male nurses in that institution and that child was also brought up within these walls. Do you know what I mean?

So, I started looking at their notes. I was supposed to be working on what they called the Social Education Centre. It was horribly medical model. But actually it was all about social misfits. People who didn’t believe, I mean, sorry, who didn’t belong, according to the social structures, in society.

And so it was all London’s off-cuts, remnants. Natural wastage. Dumped in big bins in Hertfordshire. There were six big bins. There was Harperbury, Leavesden, Cell Barns, Shellerbury, Nebsbury. And then St Albans itself which had its own unit. Six fuck-off-big Victorian units of which Harperbury was only one that I was working on. Two thousand bed units to contain people, like you and me. We’d all be there, I promise you. Unless there’s any truly normal person, totally straighted managed to get in tonight.

Welcome. Very welcome.

And it inflamed me. I just thought, “I can’t believe A what I’m living with and colluding with but all these people like and I who had these incredible stories had been banged up for years.” And nobody had bothered looking at their notes.

I mean, you’re probably sitting here thinking, “Oh, well, it wouldn’t happen now. It’s 2010.”


Male: They want to kill us now.


Julie McNamara: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.

And I started becoming politicised overnight. And I started to consider at my own mental-health issues, which were just a slip of pen away from the people I was working with. And I started thinking, “Actually, it’s not about my mental-health issues or my unique condition – whatever that might be. Or anybody else’s.”

It’s actually about the way society cuts people out. Leaves people out. Hives people off into hospital – bins. Half-way houses. That’s a nice cuddly term for -

Oh, yeah, that’s another thing. Half-way houses. After my two-years stint – and I was running a knitting circle most of the time. This is the thing I’m writing about.

No, I don’t knit. I can’t knit. I’ve never been able to knit. I can’t even cast on. I don’t know what it is.

But, I went to this – there’s always a diamond in the dust, isn’t there? I went to this brilliant nurse called Sister Mary Francis from Hook. And I said, “Look I can’t believe that some of these women, who’ve been in here years, are still banged up. Why haven’t they got an opportunity to live together in a small housing group or, you know, maybe some of them dykes. Maybe they want to live together and go and have a life out there somewhere. Why aren’t some of these people just living a life in the community?”

I said, “I want to run a women’s group. Particularly with these women whose notes have never been looked at. Who’ve had a child very early on. Those I think I can help. And I’m only here for two years.”

And she said, “You’ll never get away with it.”

And I said, “What do you mean?”

She said, “Running a women’s group in Harperbury Hospital for the Mentally Sub-Normal. And you want to run a women’s group! I don’t think so.”

So I said, “Well, how can I do it?”

And she said, “Well now. You could run a knitting circle.”

”For you have to be doing something for the shop for the hospital. Something they can sell that goes through the OT unit and then you’ll be grand.”

So I said, “What? Well, I can’t knit.”

She said, “Then I’ll find somebody who can.”

And she was fantastic. She went to somebody ward 7 who came down. Ward 7 was the lock-in. The notes there. Honest to God. People looked like they’d destroyed entire nations with a single knitting needle.

You can imagine the notes.

And so this woman came down from ward 7 and we would just supply her with knitting patterns. I have to say, a bit like myself, she had OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. So she would knit constantly and she knitted the longest scarf I’ve ever seen in the world.

The rest of us, we didn’t bother knitting. We just looked like we were when people came through. But that group was going for eight months and we had this fantastic group of people. Literally telling their stories. And what we were doing was preparing each other for the case conferences.

It was the days before Mental Health Review Tribunals. People didn’t get a chance to speak up for themselves and say, “Actually, I don’t want to be living in here.” Do you know?

So I started to become politicised. And then I decided I was getting depressed with the whole system. So I left Harperbury Hospital and I applied for a job – and you’re gonna think this is barking. It is barking. I applied for a job as a social worker.

Because I thought, “I can do that. I’ve seen enough of them in my life. I know what they do. Ish.”

And I didn’t have a social-work qualification but I knew that they were looking for people just like you and me who’d be kind and cuddly residential social workers. And it was a half-way house for people with ‘mental-health issues’.

So I thought, “Oh, well surely they’d shine upon me being mad and if I’m open about that, I’m sure they’d love me and welcome me with open arms.”

That was my first, very naïve slap in the face. Because I got the letter saying, “This is a successful application. Thank you very much. We welcome you to the staff team. We can’t wait for you start work with us.”

Fourth of January 1987 – isn’t it funny how some dates stick. Not that I’m bitter and twisted or obsessive.

On the 4th of January I was due to start. It was straight after Christmas. We’d all been out for the staff meal. I’d been invited in for a meal. Isn’t that nice? I’d been allowed in very briefly. Didn’t last long.

On the 4th of January, somebody came round with a hand-delivered letter and it went under the door. I saw it sliding under while I was doing my hair. I had long hair at the time. I was trying to hang on to a mullet. It was the ‘80s.

And this letter comes under and I opened it and it said, “We regret to inform you you were unsuccessful in your application.”

I thought, “No I wasn’t.” Because I’d got an earlier letter that says I was. And I went out for dinner and I’m sure to God it wasn’t all the voices in my head sat round there eating turkey.

So I went to work. Armed with the original letter. Pretending I’d never seen the one that went under the door.

And, of course, there were some very embarrassed people on the staff team who said, “Oh, I’m sorry, we can’t let you in.”

And I said, “What do you mean, you can’t let me in?”

”You’ve failed your medical.”

I said, “What medical would that be?”

They said, “Oh well, perhaps you better speak to your GP.”

I said, “I haven’t got one.”

Now I’d only just moved from Harperbury Hospital to this wonderful little bijou half-way house in St Albans. And I didn’t have a GP. I’d signed up with somebody.

The long and the short of it was, I failed my medical that I’d never been invited to attend.

So I decided, right. I took it up with the doctor. I said, “Please tell me why I was failed on this particular medical.”

He said, “Well have you seen your records?”

And I said, “No, I’ve never seen them.”

He said, “To be honest,” he said, “you’ve got the records of a 90-year-old woman here.” He said, “We couldn’t have let you loose in a half-way house with people with mental-health issues.”

I said, “Why?” I said, “What did you put on that occupational health form to my very successful application as a residential social worker.” I’ll never do it again, I swear.

He had written down, “This woman is fundamentally unfit for work and emotionally unstable.” And then wrote, “Ten years mental-health issues. Long-term condition.” Written off.

Well, that was it. I went straight to the Communist Party. I know, I don’t know why.

But I went to the Communist Party.

Male: Only show in town eh?

Julie McNamara: Yeah, exactly. And I went to, oh, local press and what have you and so what happened was, there was a campaign. People were inspired by this campaign. And it was long before, you know the SANE campaign recently around mental-health issues. “Mad, sad or bad?”

Well can I just say they nicked that headline off me in St Albans in 1987. Because they have a picture of me outside this bloody half-way house and it said, “Is this woman mad, sad or bad?”

So the campaign lasted six months and I got my job back. And I tried to go for back pay but they were slapping me back for that.

But it politicised me overnight. Because once again, it was one of those moments where I thought, “It’s not about who you are. It’s about some back drop where they’ve decided who’s fit socially and who isn’t fit.”

So everything I wrote from that moment on, everything I created had to be for me. From my perspective. A bridge between those of us who are allowed into society and those of us who are shunted out for whatever reason.