I was booked into a kind of rehabilitation programme. The programme was to last for a few weeks between late July and the beginning of September 2019. I knew that I needed to go although, for one reason or another, I react with high levels of anxiety whenever I have to engage with people. So I was going to have to overcome my typical ‘avoidance’ responses.
The programme was a design to furnish us with a completely healthy life-style. (We needed this to survive.) The location was in the town of Aldershot. Aldershot was once famous for being ‘The home of the British Army’; it announced this on the routes into town. It has a football team that trudges along amongst the lower divisions of the English football league. Rather unimaginatively the nickname of the team is the ‘Shots’ – although this rather harmonises with the military history of the town. Nowadays Aldershot is a strange place – with an assorted population – and a mix of old make-do-and-mend dwellings along with the new alienated post-modern developments of housing and supermarkets. Maybe it’s ‘on the up’.
Britain is a pragmatic country and, as testimony to this, the programme is situated in the Aldershot cricket club. But we were not going to hurl cricket balls around. Our life-style management – our recovery programme – was to benefit from the lovely surroundings of a cricket pitch – and parkland – and the views beyond, views of a benign and reassuring countryside. When I drove to the club for my very first session I was surprised to turn away from dreary drab suburbia into a green-laden painterly landscape. (Dreary featureless suburbia has worked positively for the arts in the UK. Artists, writers and musicians have had to use their imaginations, have made creative work and then escaped …)
Once my car was parked, I walked into the pavilion of the cricket club and the programme began. I noticed the photographs of cricket teams on the walls and a display of the smart striped caps that cricketers wear. And then there were wooden memorial boards inscribed with the names of the captains of the cricket team since the year dot. All this, though, was background. I was given a name badge and we were off.
It’s a roll-on roll-off programme. Everyone was at different stages. Some were on their last day and one or two, like me, were at the very beginning. We have an extensive exercise routine to follow and then we have lectures on how best to manage our lives.
As the sessions unfolded I came to know and to be intrigued by the people on the programme. There isn’t much time for chat but we do have a chance to discuss this and that before the class begins as well as at the conclusion of the class. In fact, the class would lend itself to a fascinating documentary. Most people are getting on a bit. I park my car near to a chap called Paul who does his stretching exercises before the course begins. He is an ex-RAF professional – skilled in navigation – and then a consultant with IBM. He loves to play football and tells me about the mind-set of his fellow footballers. He is very clever, modest, astute and he voted to leave the EU ‘just for the hell of it.’ He didn’t really mean for the UK to leave – but there it is. There is Michael – a former army officer who was persuaded to leave the army after 10 years of service and who has never been happy since being so persuaded. He voted to leave the EU ‘because we will always make a success of things.’ He used to live in the nearby town of Farnham and still attends the parish church, the choir of which was ‘once a joy’ but is now ‘in decline.’ Michael is very responsive, his eyes twinkle, he is rather ‘old school’ and he laughs at the ways of world. Then there is Peter who habitually goes on cruises and who has a wife who is disabled and for whom he is the carer. He is a Tottenham Hotspur fan and he admires their Argentinian coach Señor Pochettino. Peter has a wide girth and a ruddy face; he wears brightly coloured t shirts – and, weirdly, when all the rest of us are facing the teacher and following the exercises that are being demonstrated he places himself next to the teacher and faces us. He likes jazz; he likes great rock and roll – and once saw the Rolling Stones perform in the Star and Garter pub in Windsor before they were famous. And then there is Joe – an Irishman – a charming softly-spoken man who is astute enough to treasure a certain modesty and who tells me that he has lived so long in the UK that he has forgotten what it is to be Irish. Les – a big bluff man given to wearing army fatigues or vaguely camouflaged clothing exudes a kind of antipathy to the whole process. He’s gruff and I suppose that once upon a time we would have called him the ‘salt of the earth.’ He participates – but reluctantly. Most of us try to do the exercises and bemoan our physical inadequacies. We have, for example, to bend the soles of our feet up towards our behinds and it’s a real struggle but we give it a go. Les, though, does not relish the challenge. From time to time he is given a bit of a telling-off from the staff. In response Les wears an expression somewhere between a scowl and resentment.
As far as I can tell nearly everyone of the 20 or so rehabilitees (is that a word?) in the class voted to leave the EU. (Underneath it all there is a lament for a lost Britain and an enduring scepticism about ‘otherness.’ ) The only ones who did not vote to leave the EU were the 6 nursing staff – all of whom are under 40 (or thereabouts). The nursing staff have a style and conduct themselves in a version of modern human-service culture: they are affectionate but really quite tough-minded.
Overall, there is a good or very good atmosphere in the room – with fairly large doses of repartee and banter. Some of it is very witty and clever. Most of the ag-ing people rely on established social coping habits. A few still attempt to ‘be somebody’; they project a stalwart image; they bemoan the fact that they are not really supposed to drink wine or that gins-and-tonic have to be drunk surreptitiously. The big men are used to being taken into account but, at some level, they know that their power is ebbing away.
We are closely monitored by the staff – our blood pressure and heart rate are regularly taken – and we are quizzed about our living habits, mental state, and whether or not we are behaving in accord with the strict standards of the recovery regime. ‘Oh that’s good! Your heart rate is 101 – that’s in the right zone – and now you can push it up a bit.’ ‘Keep marching on the spot.’ ‘This is how you do an upward row.’ (As I say, it would make a wonderful study for a televisual documentary.)
Of us rehabilitees (is that still a word?) there are 5 or more men to every woman. I noticed that one of the chaps (of the 20 or so in the group) was actually filming us on his iPhone; a brief and discreet piece of filming – which led me to wonder what the purpose of it was. The physical characteristics of the group are fascinating. Most probably have a waist line that is over the desired limit (which is less than 36 inches) but, oddly enough, few are obese. The men are nearly all grey-haired or balding. The woman are quiet and generally less forthcoming than the men. One dances beautifully. I told her that her movements were ‘almost dainty’. She smiled. (I think she is a singer – but whatever she is she certainly knows the right way to move – and to move gracefully. Is she called Heather?)
The nursing staff are in the ratio of 2 women to one man. The women practise what the assertiveness courses call ‘tough love.’ They are very good to me – and they urge me to wear clothes commensurate with being an artist. The clothes of the rehabilitees are fairly nondescript and mainly redolent of old England. The nursing staff use newer forms of English. Statements often begin with ‘So ….‘ They are inclined to treat us as over-sized puppies. I have the sense that we are not infantilised and we are expected to be self-disciplined. I like the staff.
In fact, each member of staff is distinguished by something that is particularly charming: Chris comes from Ayrshire and speaks in a Scottish lowlands accent. We reminisce happily about Scotland. I ask her if she’s a bit of a nationalist; ‘No,‘ she replies; ‘I don’t want to stop being part of the Union.‘ She has very successfully supported the education of her daughter who is just off to study for a degree in Arabic and French at a very good university. Sue is business-like and has a kind of peremptoriness that keeps me on my toes. She makes rapid authoritative interventions and keeps things ship-shape. When she discovered that I was a bit maladjusted she suggested I see a psychotherapist. (Generous as it was, I declined the offer.) Gary wears a different ‘uniform’ to the nurses; he’s clad in shorts and an orangey shirt; he’s one of the two physical training instructors. He asks me what I’m doing. I reply, ‘I haven’t a clue,’ to which he replies, ‘I thought as much.’ And then: ‘Robert, if you were to stand here you’d be doing what it says – but where you are is not what you should be doing.‘ It’s actually very funny; the scene is a bit like watching a gormless private making a hash of disassembling a rifle whilst his sergeant looks on pityingly. Lesley is extraordinary: somehow, she maintains a smile – a delightful smile – throughout the different aspects of the sessions. She engages with the class over a range of topics: ‘Who had a barbecue over the bank holiday?’ ‘Did anyone eat couscous?’ ‘It’s hot in here but it’s cooler than all the other places,’ and she laughs about our style and our future and she is always buoyant and optimist. She, too, has a daughter – a teenage daughter – and she reckons that she might be enjoying the calm before the storm. Lesley will always navigate the next wave of life however turbulent it may be. Eileen occasionally wears her hair in something approaching the cutest pigtails ever invented. She is as steady as a rock and her diligence extends to kicking my feet into the right position before taking my blood pressure. She urges me not to wear my faded purple-haze t-shirt; instead she requests that I wear something more original or, at least something ‘not boring.’ I am moved to please her; she is a lovely person. Steve – like Gary – is in shorts and the same orangey shirt. He’s adept at combining a steady stream of instructions as we do the exercises. He tells us to ‘warm up slowly‘ and to gauge just how much effort we should make and he is ready to tell us that we’re ‘excellent’ even if we’re barely more than mediocre. Steve is proud of his work and delivers his lectures on ‘keeping fit and healthy’ with a fluid mobility. Actually we’re a bit reluctant to be forthcoming with our answers to his questions. No one wants to be the class nerd.
As people graduate they receive a completion certificate and a kind of run-down on who they are vis-a-vis progress. Tacitly, they are expected to give a farewell speech or at least say something. Most do say something and then we all applaud. One or two remain silent. They do not trust themselves to speak in a quasi-public arena. Les – the chap in the combat gear – did decide to say something at the end of his last session: ‘I’ll give you some feedback,’ he said to the staff. They greeted this remark with indulgent pleasing sounds. Then Les said: ‘I don’t think you should be so bossy.’ The group maintained a silence. I had the sense that a norm had been broken.
The music that accompanies us is a mix of old pop and appropriate modern stuff. Tom Jones of the 1960s still tells us that ‘It’s not unusual’ whilst Ellie Goulding underlines the fact that ‘Anything can happen.’ Someone reckoned we ought to have the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ alive‘.
And yes, anything can happen. Once or twice people do not look very well – but we all just hope to stay alive. For us the prospect of death perpetually hovers – sometimes in the foreground, sometimes as just a shadowy presence; it’s a palpable phantom; we are, as it were haunted. It’s not something that we make overly explicit. But one response to our situation was voiced by Steve, a man who drives a beautiful silver Porsche and a fellow participant; he said: ‘We have to make the most of the life we have. Sooner or later it will be gone.’
I sometimes think of Amy Winehouse and the lyrics to her famous song, ‘Rehab.’ Amy wrote:
They tried to make me go to rehab –
I said, “no, no, no.”
Well, we went to rehab and enjoyed some very good company.