In the latest issue:

The World Goes Bust

Adam Tooze

A nice girl like Simone

Joanna Biggs

The Arrestables

Jeremy Harding

Short Cuts: Built from Light

Daniel Soar


Edmund Gordon

The Ghent Altarpiece

Julian Bell

You can’t prove I meant X

Clare Bucknell

At the Royal Academy: Léon Spilliaert

John-Paul Stonard

Conrad Jumps Ship

Fredric Jameson

How to set up an ICU

Lana Spawls

Poem: ‘Mayfly’

Fiona Benson

Follow the Science

James Butler

Diary: #coronasomnia

Wang Xiuying

Ode to a Private ConvenienceJohn Bayley
Vol. 4 No. 10 · 3 June 1982

Ode to a Private Convenience

John Bayley

284 words

In hospital it’s earlier than you think.
All day the daylight lighting lights the day
That five times brings by trolley a hot drink,
Bovril, Nescafé, Ovaltine, or tea.
The nurses’ busy heels don’t tap but squish;
The nurses wheedle, pummel, scream, and lay
A sort of sealed-up dish
Five times or so a day the beds beside:
Uncouth but shapely, made from rhino hide

(Or so it looks). Too curious for one use
Then down the sluice?
These throwaway male vessels packed in flocks
With hypos, Distals, overflowing stocks,
Gaily and daily squandered in the ward,
Rejoin no polished hoard

And that seems hard
For stoups so right in ritual effect
With meek masonic mouths that genuflect.
The nurses’ chatter
To jolly on the blokes
Seems not to want to know about the matter.
Unintimate and effortlessly elsewhere
Their voices soar and coax
Old arias from the antiseptic air
These day stars act and talk
As if to devotees discharged, swift-bladdered, who can walk.

All’s changed at nine p.m.
The other lot take over: pots renewed again.
No parts need acting now. Intent as sleep
The tall vague shadows glide and bend and peep,
Touch and bestow and solace as by right.
Queens of the night.
Sometimes with folded arms one seems to listen,
Head bent in cap and breast-pinned watch agleam,
Sibylline to some murmuring meaning stream
Begin and pause and then again begin,
Inaudible by day, the sound of pissing,
Calming distracted silence in the gloom
Across the unstirless room
In notes that mark the watchful offices,
As on a summer night surprised by showers
A ceremonious mutter in small hours
Running on quiet roofs, abluted places.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences