Jun 10, 2009

owls do cry : field recordings in the grounds of seacliff asylum, dunedin


a field trip to the grounds of the old seacliff hospital on the outskirts of dunedin produced some recordings of local birdlife, and associated reflections on Janet Frame's history on site during the most troubling period of the writer's life. Her first short story collection The Lagoon and Other Stories was published while she was a patient – advance copies arrived on 4 March 1952. Nine months later, in December of the same year she was scheduled for a leucotomy at Seacliff. As Michael King puts it in An Inward Sun – the World of Janet Frame :

“Nine Months later, when Janet was once again committed in Seacliff, the book may have saved her life – or, at the very least, her intellectual and artistic life. There medical staff informed her that she had been selected for a dreaded leucotomy operation (the same operation known in the United States as a lobotomy). This intervention severed the fibres connecting the front part of the brain to the rest of the cerebral cortex. Most patients who had the operation experienced a reduction in anxiety; some were rendered vegetative. In Janet’s case, momentum towards this outcome seemed unstoppable. John Money advised against it. But Lotte Frame was persuaded to give written consent. Within days of the scheduled surgery, on 26 December 1952, newspapers around the country carried a story headed ‘Writer Wins Prize for Prose’ – Janet had won the Hubert Church Award, New Zealand’s only literary prize for fiction or non-fiction prose, for The Lagoon. And the superintendant of Seacliff, Dr Geoffrey Blake-Palmer, took her off the operation list. ‘I’ve decided that you should stay as you are. I don’t want you changed.’”

built in the 19th Century, the Seacliff hospital buildings were structurally unsound from the beginning, and after the relocation of the hospital staff and patients to Cherry Farm psychiatric facility in the 1950s, various uses for them were mooted but never realised, and they were left to slowly decay.

birds however have found their home here in abundance. in a improptu lo-fi tribute to Messiaen, and perhaps Sebastian, and certainly the people who once wandered the grounds here, some spontanious human-bellbird imitations were also recorded...