John Welch

It is now over a year since my analysis came to an end. I had decided almost at the very beginning that I wanted to write about it and one thing I am still trying to work out is the way this affected the analysis itself. The analyst was dubious about the ‘journal’ I referred to from time to time: was I putting things in there rather than bringing them to him? Once or twice early on, like a schoolboy anxious to show he has done his homework, I even tried to read bits of it in the session. A further complication is that the analysis does not simply come to an end but goes on working its way through one’s system, and when one tries to pull the thing together one feels it slipping off in all directions, making the temptation to reduce it to an all too neat narrative considerable. But at least I had a convenient starting point, which was what happened to me nearly forty years ago, after I came back from a year in Pakistan.

I am sitting in a room in Faletti’s Hotel, in Lahore. It’s July 1961 and I am just 19. The fan is whirring above me and the BOAC man, who seems to live in the hotel, is indignant. It’s because of what I’ve done to my ticket. I had planned to fly back stopping over. At Beirut, Istanbul? I can’t remember now. This was an interesting thing to do, and as a public schoolboy about to go to university, interesting things were what I was supposed to be doing. But knowing I really wasn’t well enough, I had decided to fly straight back. I had come out to Lahore on a British Council scheme, to teach in a boys’ boarding school in the gap year between school and university.

I had entered into this arrangement like a sleepwalker. I would sit in my stone-floored, high-ceilinged room, a glare of sunlight outside, and imagine the enormous Punjab plain extending all around me. I would experience a sort of horizontal vertigo, as if I hadn’t the faintest idea how I had come to be there. Now when I get out the street map of Lahore, which I bought at the time, it is as if I am seeking to reinhabit the place, properly this time, as if I wanted to forgive this young man of nearly forty years ago his inability to be properly there when he was there. The map is an exotic document, drawn up before Independence by the look of it. Female Jail ... Cantonment ... Military Poultry Farm ... Criminal Tribes Settlement. Near the top is the Old City with its seven gates, a roughly pentagonal shape of almost solid brick-red, the buildings being packed so close together. Somewhere in there was where I wanted to be. I would cycle up Mall Road, a thoroughfare into the modern part of the city, and turn into Anarkli, the main bazaar. From there I would disappear into the narrow alleyways of the old town, drinking in the smells of spices and urine, briefly taken up and lost in it. Later perhaps I would go to the British Council Library to read the airmail editions of the Sunday papers. I used to borrow books on psychology and psychoanalysis – I was a great haunter of libraries. Back in my room I would doggedly read and annotate them in neat, scrupulous handwriting. But I made no conscious connection between these activities and my state of mind.

When I got back to England I was in a state of high excitement. One night a couple of months after my return, seated at my desk upstairs overlooking the street in our North London suburb with the sodium lamps playing on the curtains, I stayed up late, writing.

When I woke the following morning I had plunged from mania into terror. Looking back now at that time I see myself sitting at my desk not daring to write anything, staring into the sky where it is still light. The full moon has just floated into it, a huge faint bit of dead rock on the paleness. A breakdown – I choose the word ‘breakdown’ because it represents a tear in the membrane, an irreparable break in the narrative, creating its own before and after. Afterwards, when I was better, I looked back on it as a gift, a chance to see.

I told my mother how I felt: it must have been the first time I had told either of my parents how I really felt about anything for a long time. I don’t remember how I got through each day, at least not in detail. I recall my father taking me swimming – the huge space of the indoor pool, the glaucous green light, my body coffined in the chlorinated water and, when I got out, my sense of complete dissociation. I moved in an agony of fear and this was with me night and day. I was obsessed with nuclear catastrophe and with thoughts of death. I’m reminded, now, of a Barthes caption to a photograph of two elaborately costumed people: ‘They are going to die and they do not know it.’ I could see, and no one else could.

I was sent to a local GP who talked about ‘nervous exhaustion’ and gave me some pills. Then came the ‘cure de sommeil’ – I use the French expression because the only time I ever heard of this again was years later in France, where it appeared to be a standard treatment. ‘The cure of sleep’: I was put into a private nursing home, given sodium amytal and sent to sleep for two or three days. I would be woken at intervals, go to the lavatory; someone would raise a glass to my lips for another dose of the bitter-tasting blue pills, and I would be off again, sinking back into the most delicious oblivion. For a while I felt calmer, but as the time to go to university came nearer, my anxiety returned. Meanwhile, my parents had found someone they thought might help, a Freudian analyst – and, like my father, an Anglican clergyman.

Everything about Dr Joyce combined to convey reassurance. There was the address – he lived in Sussex Gardens in Kensington; the waiting room with its easy chairs, where the only reading matter provided was the Lady; and his consulting room, which was also his study, with its glass-fronted book cases, wall-to-wall Freud. The doctor himself was reassuring, silver-haired, puffing at his pipe, tamping the tobacco down with a metal spatula and peering over the end of his nose as he did so. It was our first session and I told him I didn’t want to come.

‘I’ve been reading a lot of Eysenck.’

‘That’s a rather cocktail party sort of remark,’ he said.

On the marble mantelpiece just to the left of where I sat – I didn’t lie on the couch – stood a pomander, a dried orange stuck with cloves; it exhaled a faded, dusty scent. Next to it there was a black metal object, about eight inches across, that resembled a sea creature – some sort of octopus. These two objects intrigued me in a rather bleak way, as if they represented the state of suspension I was entering. My parents, I imagine, were waiting in the pub on the corner, anxious and making desultory conversation. They had handed me over to the analyst and he handed me back to them, and afterwards we had a meal in the pub together, carefully saying nothing much to each other.

I am sure they could not begin to accept what had happened. My mother decided at one point that I must have a thyroid problem. Over the next few months there were to be other varieties of diagnosis and ‘cure’ – ‘this is someone who has done wonders for so-and-so’ – which involved sitting in another waiting room, toying with a magazine, and then a consultation. At the thyroid specialist’s, they came in with me. Determined not to let go, they sat behind me throughout the appointment. What on earth was I supposed to say? The man was brusque and puzzled. Why am I here? I was even sent to an ENT expert, who poked bits of wire down my ear and peered down my throat.

Cambridge smelled of disinfectant. Sunlight banged about on staircases. It was as if there were a threshold I could not or would not cross. My panic translated itself into an absolute conviction that I would not be able to do the work – I had been away from school for 18 months. Every evening I made reverse charge calls to my parents telling them I could not cope. I went to a GP. In an extremity of panic, I took to throwing myself on the floor in front of him and hammering the carpet with my fists. I was put into a nursing home for one night and had a fit, brought on by largactil – a common enough side effect of what was then a very widely used drug. I found my neck being forced back in a series of spasms. The spasms spread to the top half of my body. The Spanish orderly scuttled round in panic while I fell off the bed onto the floor. The sister came in. ‘What are you doing on the floor?’ She appeared indignant. The next day the GP came and arranged for me to go home to London.

It was decided I should go into hospital and I remember the interview I had with the psychiatrist that first morning. It was bright and sunny, the wind rattling the window in the small consulting room off the ward. Dr Harris waved his arms on the other side of the desk, saying that there was nothing to worry about – rest, some pills, and everything would be fine. The hospital was in Surrey, on a hill. It had been founded as a private institution for the well-off, and became part of the National Health Service after the war. The man who endowed it in the 19th century had made a fortune out of patent medicines – liver pills and pills for ‘female ailments’. It was Victorian Gothic, with a swirl of drive, and grounds, and rhododendrons. The corridors were covered in shiny linoleum, and here and there were pieces of mock-Jacobean furniture, redundant oak chests and unused settles. The wards were all named after medical reformers and pioneers – Sherrington, Lister, Tuke. This naming must have referred to the end of the ‘bad old days’ of the 18th century, with their blend of anarchic freedom and brutal restraint, and now, once again, a new wave of ‘reform’ was in the air, based on new families of drugs.

So it was that one was taken to places, and left. I stood by a window and looked out over a landscape of lawns and mature trees. It was autumn now and men were sweeping up leaves. At one end of the ward was the dormitory. In the middle section were tables where our meals were served and leading off this were a number of small rooms, two or three of them for private patients. There was the consulting room, and the charge nurse’s office. Three times a day the pills were laid out on a tray with round holes cut in it. The tray was placed on a table outside the office. A small glass containing your dose was lodged in one of the holes with your name beside it. I took six pills three times a day, and three more at night, a total of 21 pills every 24 hours. No one in the hospital ever told me what they contained or what they were supposed to do. Such information as I had about them I got from Dr Joyce when I saw him in London. Apart from my brief preliminary interview with Dr Harris, my treatment was never discussed with me at any time. These things happened and I accepted them.

I am sitting in my dressing-gown somewhere downstairs. Once again there is a lot of sunlight and a breeze rattling the windows. Autumn weather, and always this sunlight; on glass and floors and on my skin, falling and falling like a beautiful absence. I have just had ECT, or maybe I am just about to, it is all a bit blurred. There is another man there, sitting beside me, middle-aged, heavy-featured. He used to run a news agent’s shop in North London, the sort of man you would buy your paper from every day on your way to work. Now he is trying to tell me about it. There is indeed something enormously heavy about his face. It’s as if something has sheared away, right in front of him, and here he is, waving his hand, trying, perhaps, to explain what happened, what his life was, before. It’s that abrupt moving of the hand I recall now, and then the falling forward of his heavy head, and the few quick words. ‘I don’t know, it’s no use. It’s no bloody use.’

When you go in, you lie down on the bed. The injection they give you is something based on curare, a poison South American Indians tip their arrows with, and as you disappear into a swirling darkness there is a faint roaring like a swarm of black bees, and the last thing you see is the bland yet knowing face of the middle-aged nurse, swimming above you.

The hospital had a comprehensive social life. Tea dances were a regular feature. There was a communal dining hall, but we had our meals on the ward. I used to go down to collect the food trolleys. Moving round the building one got glimpses of the life that went on, this world within a world. There were people ‘working’ – long lines of patients sitting at the tables stuffing plastic toys into cereal packets. It was similar to the ‘work’ done by prisoners at Pentonville Prison, where I taught many years later. There was a hierarchy of wards, the basic distinction being between Open Wards and Closed Wards. Lister, whose name had been – arbitrarily, one must assume – assigned to the ward with the hardest cases, acquired a sinister aura in consequence. In the evening there was the library, and the Patients’ Club. The librarian, an elderly man who must have been there for a very long time, was also one of the regular bridge four. In a poem I tried to write later, I imagined the books issued here would turn out, when you took them away, to have blank pages. I felt the original model for the hospital must have been the country house and that we were guests here, staying for a particularly long weekend.

In the Patients’ Club hot drinks were dispensed. Each evening it was crowded and animated, and some patients were always there. One was a bald man in his thirties with a round face and an eager, though slightly anxious expression, and all the time he was making darting movements. He could not get across the threshold of any action. There was a succession of quick, feinting rushes at it, his whole body moving backwards and forwards, forwards and backwards, and then in a last spasm he would succeed. His life seemed to consist of one liminal movement, an unending ballet of deferral. Another man on the ward who was always in the Patients’ Club was a musician. I envied him his supply of small talk, his self-deprecating charm, and I tried to overhear his conversations, surrounded as I was by my enormous silence. One day he disappeared from the ward and when he came back, he was pale and utterly washed out. It was not too difficult to save up those pills that were put out three times a day on a tray outside the charge nurse’s office. The place was such a mixture of madness and everyday ordinariness, an institutionalised inferno with most of the action taking place somewhere else, off-stage. Then the protagonist would be brought back, as the musician was one day, with a grubby bandage round each wrist.

I settled into hospital life. I only threw myself onto the floor once: a token refusal. An Irish nurse helped me up. ‘Now get along in there. You need some company.’ The pills must have damped everything down. I briefly attended occupational therapy, presided over by a calm woman in a dove-coloured overall, but before I had time to finish making anything, I was abruptly translated to the gardening squad. Once again I have no idea who decided these things, or on what basis. We did odd jobs about the place, so now we were no longer guests at the country house so much as estate workers. We dug and we weeded. We cleaned out the hen house and we cleared ditches. One day we buried the Superintendent’s dog. It was a big dog, in a sack, and I remember the dead weight of it like the dead weight of myself. Another day we had to clear out the cellars of the hospital. Old records were stored here, files and files of them, going back to the beginning of the century. I took one out and read it. It concerned a female patient. ‘She refuses to wear any clothes but goes around naked. She says they are building a golden cage to lock her in.’ It was a crisp winter morning as we piled the papers onto a barrow and pushed them down to the bonfire and watched them disappear into blue smoke.

In the writing I was trying to do, there was always a central figure, an emanation of myself, an all-seeing eye/I, a hardened ghost moving through the narrative, carefully in control, a narrative basilisk. Over the years, this figure has infected almost every piece of prose I have tried to write. He moves through the landscape watching and seeking some bleak epiphany – ‘saving it up’. I have always felt a need to compose a continuous narrative, a voice in my head recording what I see; but this continuousness is the problem. The French expression ‘charnières’ – literally, ‘hinges’ – refers to all the little turns of phrase that link an argument, the ‘therefores’ and the ‘thuses’ and the ‘on the other hands’, just as, in French again, all the grammatical endings, the concords and agreements, hook the elements of the text together. My prose writing was full of this, as if it were a continuous surface or membrane I became trapped in.

Poems are different. They are structures you can hide in, places where you can be seen and still be secret. The ambivalence of this is well expressed in Winnicott’s formulation: ‘It is delightful to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found.’ The thing is to ‘see’ without looking. There is Eurydice, the female figure who vanishes as soon as you look round, disappearing like a shadow of yourself back into the Underworld, where she is trapped. She is something to do with writing, as if you must not look back at what you are doing. I saw writing compared once to Orpheus returning from the Underworld – it was something quoted in a French magazine. I translated it but I no longer have the reference. ‘So long as he looks straight ahead, safe in the knowledge he is leading someone, it is something real that lives and breathes and walks beside him, as he moves steadily towards the creation of some final meaning. But should he look round, all he will find in his hands is this meaning clearly stated, which is to say, lifeless.’

I tried to read in hospital, but I can only remember finishing one book. It was about palaeolithic cave-dwellers and about the advance and retreat of the Ice Ages. I was a spectator. I had hardened my heart, or what there was of it, squeezed myself up to the very edge of the frame. I remember reading The Bull from the Sea (this was a year or two before), Mary Renault’s novel based on the story of Theseus, and how moved I had been by the death of the Minotaur. After Theseus has killed the ‘monster’ at the heart of the labyrinth he lifts the bull-mask from the head of the man he has killed and puts it on. The eyes in it are made of rock crystal, and through them the world looks infinitely clear and distant, ‘as it might seem to a god’.

Sitting in a summerhouse – a patient now, not an estate worker – in the hospital’s extensive grounds, I watch a small group of the irretrievably mad being shepherded round. It’s a bright day, early in the year, and the light seems still to be at such an enormous distance where it falls abstractedly onto my hands. I look at my hands as if they are not really part of me. I look at the shattered crocuses in the grass. I try to write about the coldness, the brightness, the distance, and am not at all satisfied with the result. At home, too, at the weekends, I sit at the same desk as I sat at when I wrote the poem that appeared to bring me here, the only one I have ever deliberately destroyed. I cling to the desk as if to a life raft. Rereading the fragments I wrote then, each little heap of words fixes me in an attitude, a pose struck before a non-existent audience, and rereading them now, I feel the life is somewhere else, around or behind the words. At home I sleep as much as possible, afternoon sleeps, when I lie suspended between sleep and wakefulness, a crack opens up and a peculiar rabble of thoughts and associations marches through my head, just below the level of consciousness. I get up, a little dazed. I sit at my desk again. At teatime I go out for a walk, striding along vigorously enough under the sodium streetlights, the suburban air smelling of bronze and petrol. I am safe, I am nowhere and everywhere.

All this time I was seeing Dr Joyce. I was now a part-time patient and would see him when I came home from the hospital each weekend. He continued to provide reassurance. His bedside manner was an asset and he managed to make me feel he was always available. I have wondered how he combined his two vocations of Anglican clergyman and Freudian analyst. I had the impression that a fair number of his patients were clergymen. The pomander and the sea creature which had so struck me when I first went to see him still sat on his mantelpiece. The creature was only just starting to stir in its depths, and the dried-out orange still gave off a faint and faded smell.