Gardens in the City

A meditation on hospitals, allotments and the National Health Service.

While I’m writing this I’m listening to the ‘NHS Symphony’. A new choral work commissioned by BBC Radio 3 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of our health service. It contains a collage of sounds from two Birmingham NHS hospitals, routine sounds and major life event sounds. From the cradle to the grave. From birth to death with the NHS. Humanity’s greatest creation.

All day until coming home and listening to this I’ve been at Sarah’s allotment. Together with Sarah this time though so often on my own these past weeks of her sea kayaking journeys to the Western Isles and Anglesey.

Quiet evenings walking over to Sarah’s garden in the city. To water it, weed it, care for it, notice what is happening there.

It has to be nurtured, a nurse has just said about someone’s heart. You have to preserve the heart.

I have loved the noticing and the nurturing. The seeds sprouting, the leaves poking up, unfurling. Some days all together of not much happening. Then others with changes happening every day on the run.

I’ve loved the rhythm. The walking to water. The quiet evenings amongst the midsummer allotment gardens. Us gardeners drifting past each other in the fading light. Private moments of not speaking. Each of us doing something personal. For our hearts, for our places.

The words in the symphony keep returning to time. And death is not hidden. Passing on and the risks of infection and surgery are in the conversations. Those conversations where you know the room has gone real.

I don’t remember the names of most of the plants in the garden. But I know exactly where they are and where they are up to each day. Surprised by the colours of new flowers some days. The white climbing rose that grows some pink ones. The sudden red one in the trellis of pink and purple sweet peas.

Not all of the raspberry plants survived. Not all of the seeds germinated. But the garden grew under my care, in my meditations, over May, through to now July.

A proper if late spring giving way to a proper surprise summer. Parched grass. Daily watering of the seeds and shrubs.

Arms folded, relax. Everyone ready? Ready, set, lift and down. The sounds of the rhythms of the hospitals.

Getting busy isn’t it?

Life in the garden fragile like the hospitals. Being noticed and nurtured.

Make a fist for me? Stick your tongue out?

I’ll come back to you in a bit, right?

The water is collected from the roof of the shed, along the gutters, into the butts. And is running low, running out from sunny weeks without rain. Brown water now from the tap at the bottom of the main water butt.

Water is life.

A baby cries,

Tiring, very tiring, a boy at last, last night at twenty past seven.

It’ll be nice to go home and sit on the sofa.

See you later.

The Symphony returning and returning to the rhythms of the hospitals. The lives and deaths of every day.

Dignity, the beginning and the end would be the  same.

The Symphony ends.

I walk away. The allotment gate closed behind me. All watered now. All done. Until tomorrow.

Just beautiful.

The NHS Symphony is here to listen to, for now.

The patterns and flows of life in the NHS captured in immersive stereo, with specially commissioned music sung by NHS staff and The Bach Choir. In the maternity unit at Birmingham’s Heartlands Hospital, the heart rate of an unborn child gives cause for concern. Across town at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, patients with critical heart conditions are closely monitored hour by hour. Downstairs in A&E, staff begin their shift not knowing what awaits them.

Between the Ears marks the 70th anniversary of the NHS with a unique composition depicting two Birmingham hospitals as they care for patients from cradle to grave. In four movements, the rhythms of the health service are accompanied by a special choral work written by award winning composer Alex Woolf, an alumnus of the BBC’s Proms Inspire Scheme.

The NHS Symphony is recorded in binaural stereo which simulates how the human ear hears sounds. For a fully immersive experience, the programme is best listened to on headphones. The Bach Choir are joined by members of the Barts Choir, the Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir and the Royal Free Music Society Choir

Conductor: Mark Austin

Solo soprano: Julia Blinko

Composer/pianist: Alex Woolf

Producer: Laurence Grissell.

Thank you all. Thank you BBC Radio 3 and Petroc Trelawny for drawing my attention to the music.

Thank you everyone working in the NHS. Humanity’s greatest creation.

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