The old walls in and around Royal Brisbane Hospital are still there if you look for them. Or, at least, parts are.
The Royal Brisbane has always had a presence and a history that drew me to it. For a start I was born there, even if the details of that experience are now a bit sketchy. Some of my earliest memories are holding my grandparents’ hands as a three year old, as they visited their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins as, one after another, sickness and death removed them from the family roll.
Some of those memories are still vivid. Dozens of metal framed beds in long wards, wizened, shriviled faces and hands, all that was visible above starched, white sheets. For some reason there seemed always to be the bluish flame of a gas ring or two here and there around the beds, and a tray of silvery instruments and gauze. Maybe the flames were used to sterilise the instruments. The purpose of the instruments, if I ever knew it, eludes me. How much technical information can a three year old take in, I ask?
I wonder how people of my grandparents’ age dealt with having deep and meaningful conversations with their loved ones within eavesdropping distance of maybe thirty or so other patients and their visitors. Maybe such things were not thought of then. Maybe privacy is a recent concern, and was not available or even thought of in those times. As a small child I was oblivious to such things; interested only in sights and sounds of nurses in starched uniforms, stretcher orderlies (as they were called then), and all the buzzing murmuring of a 1950s hospital ward in action.
Visiting times were strictly enforced. As finishing time approached a bell would ring and people would start to move away down the corridor. What a quaint time that was. I can not begin to imagine schedules like that being enforced today. The ward nurses would be inundated by demands for special consideration and exception from people used to having exceptions made for them. That was not the case in the 1950s. Then the Matron would march through the ward, shooing stragglers, issuing instructions and brooking no dissent.
As I stand and look at what remains of those old stone walls I feel a little sad. They are the only remnant of a time and an age now gone. Elements of my early childhood are in these bricks, as are the spirits of my ancestors. May God bless and protect each of them.
I don’t know why memories like that have stayed with me. Chalk it down to a lifetime of associating memories with places. Maybe also, the rock used in the hospital walls has some association. It is called Tuff, a pyroclastic volcanic sedimentary rock, formed from the ash debris of volcanic explosions. Brisbane has it everywhere. The cliffs below, at Kangaroo Point, near the city, are entirely made of it and are where the rock was first quarried to build the new settlement of Brisbane in the early nineteenth century.
Buildings, pathways, garden walls were tuff, even kerbing and channeling was constructed from it. Some kerbs in the central city area are still the original tuff blicks, hewn and placed by convicts. It is a very soft rock, easily shaped, so I guess those convicts would have been grateful for small mercies.
Tuff has drifted out of favour as a building material. Too soft I guess. Granite and sandstone are materials de rigeur these days. More functional, longer lasting, smarter, brighter; but missing, I think, something approaching a soul. At the very least they don’t have the heart and the spirit tuff had.
It may not be the most durable building material in the armoury of contemporary architects but it endures quite well in the memories and the souls of people like me. We associate it with old Brisbane, with earlier times, with all sorts of things now gone, but which once were. I hope that was understood by those who rebuilt and refashioned Royal Brisbane Hospital Mk II, with all its clean lines and intimidating edifices. I hope that was why they left parts of the old tuff walls standing.
Or maybe it was just an oversight.