16 December 2006
What would a dialogue between Lord Nelson and a social worker have sounded like? Ann Young, wizened disability art chick and groupie, brings the historical character into the present and makes some terrible jokes in passing.
Most people know Lord Nelson was one of Britain's most famous naval heroes. However, what history has failed to record is that Horatio Nelson was, for much of his naval career, a disabled person. Even today, as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, very little has been written by the media and mainstream academics revering Nelson as one of the most famous disabled people in British history. Contrary to popular belief, Nelson didn't say, “I see no ships”. Instead he said, during the Battle of Copenhagen, … I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes” and, raising his telescope to his blind eye, “I really do not see the signal”.
It always amazes me how contemporary society seems to feign cultural blindness when it comes to recognising impairment and disability. Is this because disability, today, is considered an undesirable trait in people we revere as talented or heroic? After all, have not disabled people, in-valids, been the bane of civilized western society since the industrial revolution when able bodiedness became directly linked with capitalism? Disabled people have been systematically medicalised, sterilised and segregated, out of the mainstream society so successfully that we have all forgotten that impairment is part of normal life and was, in the past, accepted as such?
Perhaps it is for this reason that our society finds it difficult to recognise and celebrate the fact that, for much of his life, Nelson was a disabled person. As was, Frida Kahlo, Franklin Roosevelt and our very own Winston Churchill, whose statue depicting his depression and mental health issues, caused such an outcry from his family and the public, that the charity, Mind, had to remove it.
However by not acknowledging Nelson and others as a disabled people, we rob them of their own reality and we dishonour their life and the lives of all disabled people. This sketch attempts to add another small crack in the armour of denial that surrounds our cultural heritage, not only as disabled people, but as real heroes and active contributors to life.
In which Lord Nelson gets more than he bargained for
Nelson's Coat of Arms. You can read an Elaborate description at the National Maritime Museum
Nelson is at home, relaxing before his next campaign at Trafalgar. He has his Admiral's hat and jacket on with tracksuit bottoms and slippers. He is smoking a pipe and looking at photographs of a dubious nature! He is wearing his eye patch. The door bell rings. Noticeably disturbed, Lord Nelson gets up, muttering to himself. He has a strong Norfolk accent:
NELSON: dialogue">Damn, I wish Lady Hamilton could remember her bloody key!
Nelson pads to the door and looks through the peephole with his patched eye.
NELSON: Is that you, my woman?
MS K SMIT: Er, no it's Ms Smit here, I'm from Social Services
Ms K Smit is a very young attractive woman. She is smartly dressed in a black suit, white blouse and court shoes. She is carrying a brief case and a clip board. A pair of designer glasses are precariously balanced on her nose. She has a pen in her suit pocket.
NELSON: What? Who or what on earth are Social Services?
MS K SMIT: (Raising her voice) Social Services. The Royal Navy has asked that we assess your fitness for work.
Ms K Smit nervously plays with her hair, pulling it out of place.
MS K SMIT Looks at her notes on her clip board. It doesn't mention hard of hearing on his notes, I better add it.
Ms Smit writes hard of hearing on the clip board, speaking the words as she writes them.
NELSON: I'm not deaf, woman. Bugger off!
Nelson walks away from the door muttering again.
NELSON: Bloody Navy, after all I've done for 'em. I can just see 'em talking behind my back saying: He's past it now, a liability, a safety risk, let's pension him off! Well, this is one Cripple who will not be made invalid!
MS K SMIT: (Shouting through the key hole) Lord Nelson, if you don't let me in, I'll have to report you to the Navy who will fire both of us! Please let me in!
Nelson now pretends he is Deaf. He puts his fingers in his ears, like a child and sings.
NELSON: I can't hear you!
MS K SMIT (Stamping her foot, she sings back) I'm not leaving.
NELSON: You're a hard woman, just tell them I'm away and you can't get hold of me.
MS K SMIT: Tell you what, I'll make it worth your while.
NELSON: (Laughing) What could you possibly do for me?
MS K SMIT: Rumour has it you like threesomes.
Ms K Smit grimaces and under her breath
MS K SMIT: I can't believe I just said that!
Nelson's eyes light up and he smiles.
NELSON: That's a total lie, who told you that?
MS K SMIT: Lady Hamilton let it slip at the hairdressers the other week.
NELSON: (Under his breath) Damn that woman!
MS K SMIT: C'mon Lord Nelson, let me in, I'm destitute and need this job! I'll be so grateful…
NELSON: How grateful?
MS K SMIT: Very grateful.
NELSON: Don't play with me, woman, I'm no fool.
MS K SMIT: Whatever you want, we have some lovely new aids and adaptations back at HQ, I can recommend….
NELSON: (Sneers) What do I want with aids and adaptations? God, woman, have you no imagination? I am a man, as well, you know. Give me something I can dream about on my long voyage, at sea.
MS K SMIT: (In desperation) A kiss?
NELSON: At last, a connection! Ok, I'll let you in on two conditions…
MS K SMIT: And they are?
NELSON: That you ensure that I keep my job and that I get that kiss from you.
MS K SMIT: You're on! Now will you let me in, it's cold out here.
Nelson slips the dubious photographs in to his inside jacket pocket - making him look like his famous pose).
NELSON: (Smiling) The door's open.
In which Lord Nelson gets to fill out an assessment for DLA
Lord Nelson is seated at a kitchen table, Ms Smit is seated opposite. She has her clip board and pen in her hands and is writing on it in an official manner. On the table is a cup of tea for her and a bottle of rum which Nelson swigs from at regular intervals.
MS K SMIT: Now, Mr Lord Nelson, how do you access the lavatory at work?
NELSON: (Slightly slurred) Call me Horatio
(After a long pause) My God, woman, what kind of question is that?
MS K SMIT: The standard question. Look, I don't write them, I just fill out the form. I feel just as embarrassed as you do.
NELSON: Sailors don't feel embarrassed, Ms Smit. When you live on a ship with 200 other men, there is no room for such things… it's just, I've never been asked that by a woman, before. I find it rather… unsettling.
MS K SMIT: Would you like me to make something up?
NELSON: (Defensively) I piss off the side of the ship just like everyone else. Would you like a demonstration?
Nelson stands and starts taking his trousers down with his left hand.
MS K SMIT: No! That's ok, I think I've got the idea. However that does prove to me that you can get dressed and undressed.
Starts writing and speaking at the same time. Accessible toilet available, no personal assistance required for dressing.
MS K SMIT: What about eating?
NELSON: (Smiling, mischievously) Well, I know of a lovely little restaurant down the road that I take Mrs Hamilton and her husband…
MS K SMIT: (Rolling her eyes) I can see that this is not going to be easy. Please behave yourself. I meant, at work.
NELSON: I don't know what you mean, woman, I am a captain of a ship! I eat the best food and wine.
He takes another swig of rum.
With a big sigh she writes and speaks. No eating dysfunction.
NELSON: I have had this handy little gadget made, a knife and fork in one piece so I can eat one handed. It's made of pure gold and is very um… handy - pardon the pun.
MS K SMIT: (She takes the gadget and examines it) Mmmm I'm impressed. I can see that a man like you has learnt to overcome the physical barriers that you face, well done.
Nelson gives a heavy sigh and puffs out his chest.
NELSON: (With anger and passion) What a load of crap, woman! I am a brilliant captain with many years experience. When I speak, people listen, when I command, people obey. I am successful because of my professional ability, my strength and my physical differences because they have made me what I am and have kept me alive. There is no room on a war ship for compromise. There are hundreds of sailors working with amputated limbs and loss of sight. Like everyone else, we learn to adapt or die because those are our only choices.
Nelson takes a long swig of rum.
MS K SMIT (Quietly) I'm sorry, I didn't mean…
NELSON: If I were a bad captain, Ms Smit, my ship would have sunk long ago. The fact that I am still here, I know, really pisses off my superiors because they can't face the idea that an invalid can achieve more in ten years than they could ever achieve in a life time. Yet here we are!
MS K SMIT (Quietly, looking at her notes in embarrassment) Yes, I can see that, I'm beginning to understand the politics, I've never really thought of my job in that way, before. I really thought I was helping people.
(Pause) I guess you see me as an enemy.
NELSON: (Smiling) Yes, and you are very aware, no doubt, of what I do to my enemies!
So are we finished, here, I need a crap. Tomorrow, I sail for battle and, I can tell you, it 'taint easy on board a battle ship, if you know what I mean.
MS K SMIT: Now that's too much information. Look, I'm sorry if I was being patronising, earlier. It comes with the territory.
NELSON: Pity is such an ugly emotion, don't you think?
MS K SMIT: (Looking directly into his eyes) Yes, Horatio it is.
NELSON: And what of your recommendation?
MS K SMIT: (Smiling) It is my professional opinion that you are most definitely fit for work, sir.
NELSON (Sighing with relief) Thank you. That will really piss the bastards off. But I must request, you do one more thing for me. Something that people in your line of work seem to be quite good at, so I've heard.
MS K SMIT (Guardedly) And what would that be?
NELSON: Lose the report. Don't give it to them until I come back from this campaign. Let me do my job.
MS K SMIT: (Smiling) Ok but you know what this means, don't you?
MS K SMIT: No, kiss, Horatio until you come back and I file the report.
NELSON: Like I said, Ms Smit, you are a hard woman but I guess it will give me something to dream of.
MS K SMIT: (Recklessly) Let's drink to your return.
She swigs the last dregs of coffee from her cup and pours rum into it. With cup in hand, she chinks it with the bottle, now in Nelson's hand.
NELSON: Cheers… to a job well done.
MS K SMIT: To the future…
They both swig the rum. Ms K Smit, not being a hardened sailor, chokes a little but laughs.
NELSON: (Laughing) Arrg woman, you'd never make a sailor!
MS K SMIT: You never know, in a few centuries, women may be captains of ships…
NELSON: (Laughing) Oh, yes and we'll have a woman Prime Minister!!
MS K SMIT: (Smiling) I believe we will, indeed.
NELSON: (Patting his armless shoulder) And what of people like me, Ms Smit, what will be our future?
MS K SMIT: Well, if they are all as strong as you, they will be ruling the world, of course.
NELSON: Ah, not if the damn Navy gets their way!
Ms K Smit packs up her papers and stands up to leave. She reaches out to shake Nelson's hand which he offers - they understand each other.
In which the real content of Lord Nelson's dying words are revealed
The battle of Trafalgar. All hell is breaking lose. Cannons are going off, the ship is getting hit. Seamen are being injured and are dying all around. Hardy is trying to pull Nelson into safety.
NELSON: Hardy, leave me be, I must direct this battle.
HARDY: But you may get seriously hurt, you must protect yourself.
NELSON: For God's sake, man, if I wanted an easy life, protected from hardship, I would be at home now with Mrs Hamilton. Now leave me be and let me do my job!
Shouting. More military off the starboard side. Turn her 80 degrees North, find their weak side. Come on!
At that moment, the deck explodes and Nelson is fatally wounded. As he falls to his knees, Hardy catches him and lowers him down gently. As the battle rages, Nelson is carried below and the ship's surgeons do all they can to help him but to no avail. Hardy cradles Nelson's head and cries unreservedly.
NELSON: Don't cry, Hardy, it is time. Just one thing, kiss Smit, Hardy, kiss Smit, for me and tell…
Nelson dies in Hardy's arms.
Ms K Smit enters the darkened stage. She is a lot older. As the light comes up, we see, all around her old filing cabinets and archive boxes.
She sits at a table with a box marked N. From her brief case she pulls out some documents and a bottle of rum. Taking a swig, she turns towards the audience and begins to talk…
MS K SMIT: Nelson never came back for his kiss. I remember reading about his death in the papers. How, he died a hero, defending his country or, as he would've put it, just doing his job. I remember how my knees gave way beneath me and my heart ached for the loss of some one so strong.
I was told, to forget the report - people don't want to know that their national hero was about to be pensioned off as an invalid. The Navy covered up the fact that they were trying to get rid of him and gave themselves a good pat on the back for creating such a brilliant Admiral. The Nation conveniently forgot his battle scars and wounds, apart from his eye patch which he never wore!
But I know that Nelson was proud, proud of who he had become. His real History is here, in this report, which, on the 20th Anniversary of his death I leave to the archives for anyone to find.
Ms K Smit takes another swig of rum, kisses the report and places it in the box which she then puts back on the dusty shelf. As she leaves the stage, Nelson's disembodied voice is heard…
NELSON: … I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes.