Background Noises, Morag Smith
Red Squirrel Press, 2022 £7.00
A beautiful haunting
As I read this pamphlet the words ‘haunt’, ‘haunted’, ‘haunting’ kept coming to mind (haunting me you could say!) — both in the original meaning of ‘to reside, inhabit, use, employ’, as well as in its more recent ghostly meaning.
Background Noises (a vaguely ghostly title?) concerns Dykebar Hospital, a mental health facility in Renfrewshire. Its main building, built in 1909 and Grade B listed, was a mental asylum then a military hospital before becoming an NHS hospital in 1948. The site, now semi-derelict, is under threat because of proposed housing developments. The place, metaphorically haunted by the ghosts of inmates, is inhabited now by trees, wildflowers, birds, and local teenagers.
Morag Smith interweaves images of ruined buildings with the names of plants and birds colonising the site. She animates the ghosts of patients (sometimes in dialect) and draws on archive documents to be the voice of officialdom. The result is an atmospheric evocation. The opening poem, ‘Paper 3 (Proposed Housing Developments)’ begins:
An indicative masterplan has been prepared
for this teenage Devil’s Playground
where gargoyles smile from burrs on trees
and lockdown lovers kiss in the patients’ garden,
slow-grown, gone in a blink.
Garlic. Daisy. Hawksbeard. Bluebell
She shows us the poignant beauty of dereliction and reminds us that the historical and ecological value of such places is easily overlooked.
I’d like to quote from one more poem: ‘(demolished some time ago)’. With its bracketed title and right-justified text, it perfectly captures the entrapment and repression experienced by the inmates, many of whom, strangely, were joiners by trade:
The pamphlet is beautifully produced. Its cover, in ghost-like pastel shades, shows a sketch of the old building foregrounded with wildflowers. It’s a unique, superbly written debut.