William Boyd (2002) Any Human Heart.

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Sometimes we get caught up in hype and say things like Any Human Heart is ‘unforgettable’. But I’d forgotten I’d already read this book. There was something vaguely familiar about The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart (LMS) 1906-1991 when the reader is told he dies of a heart attack and on his tombstone has chiselled Escritor, Writer, Ecrivain.

It’s the bit in between those two dates that interest us and LMS has a Zelig like ability to span continents and mix with all the great writers and artists of the day, for example, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group in London. He kisses Evelyn Waugh at an Oxford soiree. The latter grabs his groin, but LMS might have been like Waugh, a former public school boy but now decidedly is practicing heterosexual sex with his best friend’s girlfriend. He meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce and Hemingway in Paris and, later, the exiled American during the Spanish Civil War.

Picasso gives LMS a sketch, which he later sells to make good the final days of his former lover that was there on the page with him. He hobnobs with royalty and shows how spiteful, treacherous and miserly the Duke of Westminster and Mrs Simpson really were (as expected).

LMS was an art dealer in New York when the avant-garde painters were selling canvases for crazy money and poets such as Frank O’Hara were emerging, with bitterness and wit and not enough money.

LMS married for the third and last time in New York. The entry for June 1957 has him meeting with his psychiatrist Byrne and he asked:

what persuasion he was – Freudian, Jungian, Reichian, whatever. None of the above, he said. I’m basically a good old-fashioned S&M man. S&M? Sex and Money. He explained: in his experience, if you were not clinically ill – like a schizophrenic or a manic depressive – then 99 per cent of his patients’ neuroses were generated by either sex or money, or both.

LMS proves the case in point, fleeing New York for his London flat after having sex with, ‘Monday,’  a sixteen or seventeen-year-old minor who passed herself off as being his dead son’s grieving girlfriend and aged 19 or 20, one of which proved to be true enough for a statutory rape charge.

LMS saw man walking on the moon, he poetically stepped outside to look rather than watching it on television and got involved as reporter in the Biafran War.

And surreally he found himself involved and carrying sticks of dynamite in a suitcase filled with old clothes for the Baader-Meinhoff gang. These are the bits of the book I remembered, finally.

The wisdom of the fictional man is on the page, a remembrance of reader to reader or writer to writer. After fleeing Britain after Thatcher is elected (foreseeing the offering up of the poor to the rich) he flees to the French countryside to squeeze in one more doomed love and offers a guide to style and life while trying to write a work of fiction, Octet. The entry between 1986-1988:

Reading Nabokov’s Ada, an intermittently brilliant but baffling book – an idee fixe on the rampage, leaving readers stunned and exhausted behind. I have to say as an admirer of style – a loaded word, but actually best thought of as a synonym for individuality – VN’s mannered artfulness, his refusal to let a sleeping word lie, becomes more and more like a nervous tic, than a natural, individual voice, however fruity and sonorous. The studied opulence, the ornament for the sake of ornament, grows wearing, and one longs for a simple, elegant discursive sentence. This is the key difference: in good prose precision must always triumph over decoration.

LMS’s journal in Any Human Heart achieves that individuality, that style and the voice is one you believe in.  As an avid reader (with a poor memory) William Boyd is indeed a great artist. Let’s not forget that there is nothing baffling about this book but its brilliance.

 

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Evelyn Waugh (1988 [1930]) Vile Bodies.

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I bought this book for one pence on Amazon. I think it’s overpriced, but I don’t want my money back. The dedication in the book is to Bryan Moyne and Diana Mosley. I don’t know who Bryan is, but Diana, friend of Hitler, married Sir Oswald Mosley, Vile Bodies, indeed. I wanted to have a look at this book because Selina Todd mentions it, in her history, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class. Characters in Vile Body, think here of spitting images, Diana Mosley and her fascist friends treat the General Strike of 1926 as a lark in which the can dress up and act differently. Of course they could. A government decree held that strikers and working people, in general, could be and should be manhandled in any way those Middle and Upper Class strike-breakers saw fit. They would not be prosecuted, but commended in beating the brutes and showing them who was boss. Shades of the miner’s strike 1984- 85. Winston Churchill’s plan to use soldiers to shoot strikers would, however, regarded as a tad excessive by Margaret Thatcher’s loose standards.

I’ve got off-track here. In the preface to Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh writing in 1964, says:

This was a totally unplanned novel. I had the facility at the age of 25, to sit down at my table, set a few characters on the move, write 5000 words a day, and note with surprise what happened…Vile Bodies caught the public’s fancy.

In other words Vile Bodies was a best seller. Think of every cliché written about vanity publishing and multiply it by ten. I’m biased. Normally, I wouldn’t read a book with upper- class protagonists and we don’t need satire when we have the moron’s moron as President. Vile Bodies. I was robbed your honour. I could give this book to a charity shop, but probably better pulped, less than a penny’s worth but more than the book’s worth.

 

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Patrick and Henry Cockburn (2011) Henry’s Demons. Living with Schizophrenia. A Father and Son’s Story.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Roaring Laughter.”

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Patrick and Henry Cockburn (2011) Henry’s Demons. Living with Schizophrenia. A Father and Son’s Story.

 

David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, cousin to Patrick and uncle to Henry writes a blur on the cover: ‘A truly remarkable book, and a brave one’.

That’s clichéd. Clichés are quite common in mental illness. If you shot everyone that mouthed a cliché you’d have quite a few bodies lying at your feet. My favourite is the story of the thirds. A third recover from mental illness with no lasting effect. A third with the help of medication lead a normal life. Bang. There goes another body. And a third go and live in limbo land.

I’ve heard the same story applied to alcoholics and drug addicts.

Their stories are always remarkable, if not always true. Bang. Bang.

They are always brave. Bang.

By Henry Cockburn’s own estimation 1% of the world’s population suffer from schizophrenia. He suggests a particular uniformity in this. But then revises this estimation to suggest it is uneven. Immigrants for example are seven times more likely to suffer from it. And schizophrenia clusters around city centres like drunks waiting for the last bus home.  It is no respecter or class or gender, but does fit a particular pattern and strikes after late adolescence. What makes Henry’s demons unique is his father is a journalist that writes for The Independent, his mother Jan is an academic that teaches English graduates and so they encourage Henry to forge and new identity not as a sick person, but as a writer. He too is artistic, went to public school, his brother Alex a skilled mathematician won a scholarship to King’s College Canterbury, the same school Henry attended, but with less distinction. Writing it out helps mental illness. Bang.

Henry writes about a ten percent of this book. Patrick about eighty-five percent and his wife Jan about five percent. Henry’s passages are the leaven which make the book. He describes institutional life as cigarettes and time. ‘Life passes so slowly you start thinking numbers…’ But trees, in particular, talk to him. Welcome him. A robin tells him what to do. And after reading Lord of the Rings he believes he’s turning into Gollum. There are terrors. But the sense of ecstasy and oneness with nature is so wildly exciting that being naked in sub-zero temperatures, suffering from hypothermia, frostbite, almost losing his feet, starving and almost dying seem incidental. Over seven years he absconds from hospitals that incarcerated him over thirty times. The police put pressure on hospitals to keep him properly incarcerated because, of course, they have better things to do with their time than look for vulnerable young men. Bang. They could, for example, be putting up road blocks and asking motorists ‘where are you going sir? What exactly is the purpose of your journey?’  Even at the end of the book Henry admits he was not really sure he was ill. Is ill.

Get some alcoholics talking about their former drunks and you’ll get some good stories. Heroin addicts rhapsodise about that time when everything was sweet. Nothing compares to the ecstasy of Joan of Arc, for example, hearing voices. And Patrick is good at teasing out another of his relatives Evelyn Waugh’s real-life ascent, not descent, into madness in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.   But Henry’s reading from the script of recovery.  Bang.

What the book is best at is describing how the bomb of madness blows away any idea of normal family life. A shell is left to construct a new shelter. One of the first barriers they encounter is Henry is an adult and doesn’t believe he is ill. They are a highly educated, upper middle class, couple, but as anyone familiar with the mental health system knows the omerta rule that applies to the Mafia also applies to mental health, indeed any National health institutions. The Data Protection Act 1998 is the perfect stick to beat away any enquiries. There are a few writers on ABCtales (whom I shall not name) that could tell you interesting tales how this instrument of torture is used and calibrated.

Patrick, Jan and Alex find what many other of us have found, the mental health system when you pull back the curtain is like the Wizard of Oz an old man pedalling a bike and shouting through a loudhailer. The cost is its own horror story. Patrick estimates it is cheaper sending your child to the most expensive public school in England, Eton. And let’s face it at Eton he might not get the job of Jesus when he grows up but will have a very good chance of becoming a politician, becoming prime minister and selling all those nice bits of lands used by hospitals to property developers who really need the land. Care in the Community has a nice ring to it. The reality is prison, which costs even more, as the American model shows.

Asylum, Patrick suggests, is an ugly word. His family in their bones know how necessary it is. Lesson learned. One in three people will suffer from mental illness at some time in their life. I love that kind of dramatic certainty from tabloid headlines. Don’t get sick. Don’t get ill. That’s madness. If you do you enter an underworld in which there is no key. Jan finds it a world of snakes and ladders (with not many ladders). Be warned. Stay well. Stay sane. Or at least become wealthy. More bangs for your buck.