Collecting the tales that made Sick Kids hospital

Sick Kids writer in residence Linda Cracknel
Sick Kids writer in residence Linda Cracknel
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THEY are vaults of poignant biographies brimming with tales of heroic survival and tragic loss.

From the poets of The Great War to the bloggers of today, hospitals have provided fertile ground for writers attempting to describe their plight or those around them, often in a context of mortality and human endurance.

Like characters in a novel, the very buildings themselves can be personified to develop features which differ for every worker or residing patient.

When that hospital is held deep in the affections of a city, the prospect of losing these unique qualities can be a bitter pill to swallow for the whole population.

Transplanting these vital organs to entirely new surroundings is no small feat, but truly essential for an institution such as the Sick Kids hospital, which has touched the lives of so many residents in the Capital.

Bright personalities of the past – of porters, patients and physicians – as well as the human history of the building are set to be preserved in a creative archive that may serve to influence the character of its new home.

To collect these stories, and safeguard the essence of much-loved buildings, the Sick Kids Friends Foundation has appointed its very own literary tsar, fiction-writer Linda Cracknell, who will roam the wards as Writer In Residence for the next two years.

It is hoped that if the proposed move to Little France comes to fruition in 2017 – it has been dogged by delays and controversy – then elements of the hospital’s 120-year life at Sciennes will move with it.

The Writer In Residence project is just one of a series of arts programmes trialled by the Sick Kids in recent years but the pioneering concept is thought to be a first for a Scottish hospital.

As well as protecting legacy, Ms Cracknell aims to introduce creative writing and poetry to patients and staff that will serve to distract and entertain, while also providing a bridge between old and new hospital sites.

Completed work will be stored and later presented at Little France.

The over-arching theme is creativity – it is not an documentary exercise – and writers will be free to explore whatever fictitious avenues they choose while capturing the essence of life at the Sick Kids hospital.

Linda, a renowned novelist with experience of a similar project in Dumfries and Galloway, spent her first day on the job yesterday and told how the vibrant hospital environment made it a hotbed for storytelling.

“This is my first day but what’s clear to me already is that the place is such a cross-section of people,” she said. “It’s teeming with stories so what I’m interested in is to elicit some of that into writing to build up a mosaic of different stories. Some might be imaginative, some might be true stories which could act as a legacy for the hospital.

“Having some kind of sense of the richness of those stories and the people who used to be here – past, present and future imaginings.”

Capturing the flavour of a hospital building which will have stood for 120 years by the time services cross the city means that even the inconsequential detail of a bygone era can bring meaning to its journey.

“There was some talk among the porters,” said Linda, “and there were a lot of people coming up with memories about the past, interesting reflections about how things have changed over the years.

“Someone mentioned that there used to be a chip machine at the hospital, where you could buy a poke of chips at the press of a button, which doesn’t exist any more.

“I think a typical day will involve having sessions with play specialists who would set me up with opportunities with small groups of children or even one-to-one so I envisage that I would be spending quite a concentrated time with children on wards but potentially also doing more spontaneous bits and pieces with staff. I want to see how the building works and I’m thinking about porters and cleaners, people who know the building really well, and their understanding of it and their affection for the building.

“It’s clear there is a real affection for the place and that we build up over a period of time that we would like to tap into.”

The award-winning writer, who was born in Holland and raised in Surrey, said she had already been inspired by the countless windows dotted around the hospital, which she believes could feature heavily in her writing.

“My first impression and what struck me about the hospital was all the windows and using the windows as a metaphor,” she said. “They are quite interesting portals to other places, if you are inside looking out you might be quite interested by what’s outside. If you are outside you might wonder at a face you see in the window and what that implies. I find myself getting curious about the windows.”

It is expected Linda will enjoy access-all-areas privileges to carry out her role, she will even take her writing programme to A&E, though children with more serious illnesses, and thus admitted for longer periods, are likely see more of her.

“I’ll be working in lots of different ways but will have to be quite flexible, which is the nature of the place and will be working on the wards, sometimes with groups of children, sometimes with family groups and sometimes with staff.

“I’m interested in all aspects of the hospital, the hidden places as well as the obvious places. I would like to think the kind of things we would do would show that writing can also be fun and they will enjoy doing it and actually children will enjoy playing with words and seeing the effect they can have with words.”

Fictional or imagined characters dreamed up by the children on the wards can “somehow carry the character” of the hospital, says Linda.

“I think the historical aspect will be interesting for people but it’s not principally aiming to be a reminiscence project or time capsule, it’s got potential to be an imaginative thing as well.”

“Distraction [of the patients] is certainly part of it and just being distracted from feeling not that well. I’ve seen it in other contexts where people get a sense of wellbeing from the whole process of engaging with a creative act. So I have no doubt it can have that function and I think certainly providing something meaningful but enjoyable to do is a very valid thing to do in hospital.”

Maureen Harrison, chief executive of the Sick Kids Friends Foundation, which is funding the project, said the trailblazing scheme put the hospital at the forefront of therapeutic and artistic workshops.

“Great Ormond Street has an artistic programme but I think ours is probably by far the most developed artistic programme of a children’s hospital in the UK,” she said.

“During the two years I hope the involvement of Linda as our writer in residence will help a huge number of sick children to feel better. I hope it will give them the opportunity to express their feeling and perhaps to develop a new talent while in hospital, I hope it will help to make creativity part of what people experience when they come here.

“I would like to thank everyone who has helped us to raise the funds necessary for this programme and would urge people to continue to contribute.”

Prior to the writing variant, the Sick Kids has hosted workshop sessions in stone art, sculpture, photographic murals and plans to launch a technology arts session in the future.

At the end of two years, Linda expects to have a tranche of writing that helps to foster a robust creative link between both hospital sites. But with the process still in early stages, it is not yet known how that work will be presented and interwoven into the new premises at Little France.

“I would like there to be some kind of body of work which is available at least within the hospital and to future community of hospital on this site or new site,” she said. “It would be more than a reminder of the place, I would hope it would be a sort of sense of the identity of this hospital as experienced now or in the past which projects into the future.

“Part of the brief is to suggest ways the text might be incorporated into the fabric of the new building, which is part of the idea that there could be words or text or memories or fictitious imaginings being taken forward on a journey to the new site but we don’t know what form that will take yet.”

She added: “This hospital is a place of healing and compassion and hope. All the people within it are to some extent dealing with those things. There is a joint sense of purpose which is making people better.

“I feel very privileged and its a place where very important things are happening, significant period of people’s lives.

WRITE STUFF

Hospitals, schools, prisons, libraries, museums, universities – it seems that nearly every organisation either has, or wants, a writer in residence.

From Alan Warner, right, at Edinburgh University to Tony Parsons at Heathrow Airport, the one or two-year term posts are established to allow professional, published writers work with organisations and communities on projects to improve literacy skills and encourage creativity.

The position can also involve mentoring budding new writers and helping to produce an invaluable account of a culture or history – or anthologies of new creative writing from those taking part in the residency.

And the much sought after position also provides the writer with an opportunity to develop their own work as well as draw inspiration from their setting.

At the moment, Edinburgh boasts a number of writers in residence, including Robert Shearman – the writer who brought the Daleks back to Dr Who – at Edinburgh Napier University.

Novelist Lari Don, left, has been the writer in residence at The Edinbugh Bookshop in Bruntsfield, while Ken McLeod had a similar post with the Edinburgh Genomics Forum and poet Tim Turnbull was based at Saughton prison.