Book review: ‘Spike Island’ by Philip Hoare

The memory of a military hospital.
Spike Island

This book had been on my list of potential reads for several years. I’m glad I finally took the plunge: it’s fabulous.

Although Spike Island is primarily a history of the huge Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, situated on the book’s eponymous ‘island’ near Southampton—it’s actually a peninsula—the early chapters, in particular, contain elements of family memoir, as well as a brief history of Netley Abbey.

The hospital itself was built at the behest of Queen Victoria, who had been upset at the suffering of injured British soldiers during the Crimean War. Philip Hoare entertainingly describes the controversy surrounding the design of the hospital during the mad rush to meet the queen’s demands. Florence Nightingale was outspoken in her criticism of the hospital’s design, but was largely ignored. In many ways, the massive complex was outmoded even before it opened.

Hoare takes us through the history of the hospital, describing Victoria’s numerous visits, the treatments given, and the stories of some of the patients. The hospital expanded, and continued to treat soldiers, including enemy prisoners, during the First and Second World Wars. During the latter, it was run by the American military, who employed more modern treatments, especially for those suffering with psychiatric conditions. The hospital declined after the war, and was demolished in the mid-1960s.

Hoare’s text is interspersed with many black and white photographs, reminiscent of the works of the late W.G. Sebald, who was a fan of the book and provided the cover blurb. The text is wonderfully Sebaldian in places, but the book as a whole, being the detailed history of a military complex over many decades, reminded me far more of Jan Rüger’s equally excellent Heligoland.

A fantastic read.

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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