When I have business at the hospital I always walk. Those who seek to ‘involve’ me always offer a lift, I refuse saying it’s just up the road. In fact it is a half hour walk at a leisurely pace - and it has to be that way. Those workers who organise us, talk of ‘journeys’ to a recovery, or care ‘pathways’ - I prefer something more grounded in the reality of the material world and with a real history. On that journey I inevitably think of the times in my ‘career’ as a mental patient when I have just had to be outside, have used walking as an attempt to clear my mind. I often think of the poet John Clare’s fifty mile walk home, over the best part of two days and a night, having escaped from his first confinement, and who, were he alive today, might well have had the same diagnosis as myself (Bipolar Affective Disorder) - and of course have found a large part of his pathway occupied by the A1! The real journey to the hospital has only one ‘staging post’ and that is the wooden bus shelter, which survives - just. There I pause, to make that adjustment you must make when passing from your own world to that of workers and clients interacting with each other. I roll a cigarette, look for any additions to the graffiti (a kind of testimony) and think about the problem every client has - the inability to explain oneself to others.
John Clare (1793-1864) was a small farmer who briefly found fame in the 19th century, becoming known as ‘the peasant poet’ but was then socially excluded when he began to experience mental health problems. He spent the last 20 years of his life confined in the Northampton County Asylum but was able from time to time to continue writing poems, one of which was ‘I Am’;
‘I am! Yet what I am who cares, or knows?
My friends forsake me like a memory lost.
I am the self-consumer of my woes;
They rise and vanish, an obvious host,
Shadows of life, whose very soul is lost.
And yet I am - I live - though I am toss’d
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dream,
Where there is neither sense of life, nor joys,
But the huge shipwreck of my own esteem
And all that’s dear. Even those I loved the best
Are strange - nay, they are stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man has never trod -
For scenes where woman never smiled or wept -
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Full of high thoughts, unborn. So let me lie, -
The grass below; above, the vaulted sky.’
|Detail from photo of the Northampton Asylum grounds as they are today via St. Andrews Healthcare|
In the late 1930’s a young women from Philadelphia made her way to New York in the hope of becoming a playwright. It would be thirty years before she found success, but she educated herself at various public libraries and discovered there Q’s writing on modern language and literature. Indeed one of her books is entitled Q’s legacy, alas not as widely read as her second book which simply contained her correspondence with a secondhand book dealer in London’s Charing Cross Road. Helene Hanff wrote short, direct and extremely powerful letters to Frank Doel, which would not look out of place today on any social networking site.
From 1975 until his death a couple of years ago, John Mortimer created in fiction a great comic hero. Horace Rumpole, defending barrister, who rejects status and money, in order to uphold the rights of ordinary citizens. He’s ridiculed by the people around him, but always comes out fighting using humour as a weapon. Famously he often quotes from his bedtime reading - Q’s anthology. He has a soft leather bound copy, printed on India paper with gold leaf around the edges, alas my copy has only a cardboard cover - but it’s still just the right size to slip into a pocket when out and about searching for some grass to lie on beneath that vaulted sky.
(And of course, all the above is what is meant by the vertical transmission of memes!)
Bate, J (2003) John Clare: A Biography Picador: London
Quiller-Couch, A. T ed. (1906) The Oxford Book Of English Verse 1250-1900 Clarendon Press: Oxford