Someone gave me this book, perhaps knowing I’m never happier than when unhappy and wallowing in the worst of humanity, and it makes a pleasant change from Nazi death camps. Erving Goffman defined a total institution as a place that is isolated and enclosed as Carstairs Hospital obviously is, but a wider reading also acknowledges the secrecy that such places engender. My first attempt at novel writing, Huts, written around eight years ago takes place in a similar total institution. Staff are not allowed to talk about their work to outside agencies. More than that maxim, a total institution goals, such as the cure and rehabilitation of the violent and insane, become subverted to protecting its employees: the total institution exists because it exists, and it must always exist, whatever the cost. In this case the cost to taxpayers works in around £14 billion per year, or £285 000 per patient in NHS fees, or the equivalent of Wayne Rooney’s weekly wage, but the figures never seem to add up. Then again most public limited companies also follow this practice. It’s almost a state secret trying to find out, for example, how much Manchester United pay in tax (the answer is negative). It is no surprise that David Leslie’s attempt to get someone inside the institution of Carstairs to offer an official response to his book was met with a firm ‘no comment’, especially with a title that includes ‘Hospital of Horrors’, worthy of most News of the World type headlines and its journalists who gleefully admitted their mandate was to destroy people’s lives. But the residents of Carstairs really did destroy people’s lives
By far the best writing in the book, the equivalent of Jack Abbot’s In the Belly of the Beast, who in a familiar pattern, went onto kill after being released, come from the mea culpa letters of Robert Mone. The irony that when Robert Mone and Thomas McCulloch escaped from Carstairs in 1976, killing a fellow patient, a nurse and a policeman with weapons made inside the institution, and terrorising a family before being captured is not that they were insane, but that they had not planned beyond getting over the fence and they were later tried and sentenced in a criminal court and sent to prison. Their escape bid was successful as they did not return to Carstairs. Leslie asks the simple question what is Carstairs for? He cites numerous cases of patients moved to other institutions and from there into the community, who then go on to rape and kill. Thomas McCulloch now married and living outside Carstairs fits into that category.
But there are different kinds of murders. None worse than the cliché. David Leslie leaves no stone unturned with his identikit descriptions. I’ll string a few pearls together. ‘He was a nasty, cowardly, killer, made fools of staff and showed security to a joke at the establishment, which had been specifically created to be the most secure in the land.’ Leslie is referring to Noel Ruddie, who killed ‘popular dad of three James McConville…blasted at point blank range. It was only by sheer good luck…’
The case of Noel Ruddie particularly interests me because of a character Archie Denny I wrote about over eight years ago in my first attempt at a novel.
A Flymo appears on the slope, hovering like an orange spaceship, cutting blade set spacer by spacer high, but not as high as Archie Denny, white as a ghost, in dark winter wear, who dwarves the machine, making it look like a children’s toy. He’s extremely quick over the ground, moving his strong wrists in a sinuous and easy manner, with his head cocked, as if he is listening to the beat of the two-stroke engine and the promise of tender spring in the smell of freshly-cut grass. Archie seems to have a feel for the weight of a mechanical part and an eye for how things work. The Flymo glides, spraying green, bumping up on the tarmac path.
I jerk a hand up in greeting, much like I’d do to stop a double-decker bus. Side-shed swept across his forehead with enough greyish hair to hide behind his cloudy grey eyes, he can’t fail to see me, but doesn’t really make eye contact. I’m used to one or the other with most patients, but not both. The machine slides away from my feet. He is always in a hurry, always has fags because he works outside and has wee jobs fixing things. Archie is maybe a bit younger than Wullie the Pole, but not by much. It’s as if Archie’s shy or sly, he turns the machine and rattles the Flymo away from me without looking in my direction.
Archie Denny was employed as a gardener in fictional Glenboig hospital, as Noel Ruddie was in a Lennox Castle hospital before he killed again, but I thought my portrait of Archie Denny might have been overstated, the equivalent of a pink flamingo standing in a bucket of water, but I now know that’s not the case. I’m grateful to David Leslie for that insight, but there are some horrors in his book I can’t overlook.
In the movement between fact and fiction is a waste land and in lives lived backwards: ‘There [sic] claims of innocence fell on deaf ears’ (p237). ‘Elaine was flattered by his attention, flaunting her body before him’ (234). ‘Marriage is a relationship in which trust is all important’ (233). ‘Had the devils been banned from his head?’ (233). ‘She was left heart broken and distraught’ (229). ‘By a strange quirk of fate, at almost the same moment’ (219). ‘The same doctors who fought to save her, now battled to preserve the life of a killer’ (216). ‘He would fight his greatest battle to regain his sanity surrounded by strangers’ (216). ‘Aged, sleeping, Sarah, never knew what hit her’ (216). ‘Blessed unconsciousness took her from the nightmare of pain, terror and bewilderment’ (216). ‘There were no clouds on the horizon’ (214)’.
I’ll take two consecutive sentences and rewrite it to show how bewildered I became ‘by no clouds on the horizon’, patients living in the lap of luxury, and no killer cliché left unturned. ‘Night after night, he lay awake, unable to sleep as he desperately tried to work out a solution to his troubles. When one came it had a sting in the tail.’
Night after night, he lay awake, uUnable to sleep as he desperately tried to work out a solution to his troubles. When one came it had a sting in the tail.’
Leslie has problems other than grammar and semantics such as ‘Aged, sleeping, Sarah,’ a jumble of mismatched words and chapter titles that start out with one topic and end on a different island. He refers to a Clydebank hotel and later a Clydebank motel, the Clydebank Hotel, the Erskine hotel, which is a bit confusing as Clydebank has three hotels and none of them are, or were called, the Clydebank Hotel. Someone goes to Lourdes for the ‘air’ and not the waters which are said to hold miraculous healing properties. My favourite was a Carstair’s patient, Wilkinson, who raped and killed a little girl, but ‘good was possible even in those capable of great evil’ (71). Wilkinson’s greater good was to offer his kidney for a transplant to a stranger. But Wilkinson suffered from ‘epilepsy associated with a personality disorder’. If a person has epilepsy it does not follow they have a personality disorder, although some might have, in the same way that some individuals who suffer from epilepsy might like cheese cake. Having epilepsy, a medical condition associated with the electrical activity on neurons in the brain, has little of nothing to do with the behavioural patterns of a perceived reaction to social stimuli, nor do either have much or anything to do with the kidneys (see cheesecake example). Like Leslie I’m over embellishing the egg. Carstairs Hospital for Horrors. The horrors of the prose stand out, although Robert Mone is a stand-alone hit and I’d certainly like to read more of his work.