Last November I put on a new suit and went to view some luxury flats in the North London suburbs. Princess Park Manor on Friern Barnet Road – ‘a supremely elegant residence set in thirty acres of parkland’ – is a new development of 256 apartments carved out of what was once Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, Friern Hospital as it later became known. Despite vigorous campaigning by patient groups and mental-health professionals, Friern was closed in 1993. Most of its grounds were sold off for a retail park and townhouse development; the building itself and the land immediately surrounding it, both under conservation orders, went to a property company that specialises in ‘historic’ conversions. Within a few years the new owners had refurbished the building’s spectacular Italianate façade, added a gym and swimming-pool, and begun to advertise one to three-bedroom apartments targeted at City workers (New Southgate railway station, just beside the Manor, is on the line to Moorgate). By the time I visited, more than two-thirds of the flats had been sold, and business was brisk.

In 1988 and again in 1989 I was a patient in Friern, spending almost nine months in total in a locked, acute-care ward. Since my last discharge I had been back to the hospital twice: once to view a small exhibition on its history; the second time – an illicit return this, sneaking past a broken security lock – to prowl its empty, broken hallways and pigeonshit-strewn wards. That second visit, which left me elated, practically dancing my way out across the hospital’s still beautiful lawns, was meant to be the last; but Friern pulls back hard. I’m sure I’m not the only former inmate who has turned up at Princess Park Manor’s sales office, kitted out for normalcy, heart tip-tapping; although at least I had an alibi, a book-in-prospect about the rise and demise of the British asylum system. I would have gone anyway, but the writerly purpose satisfied me that there was nothing pathological in my tergiversations.

In its heyday, Colney Hatch was one of the largest lunatic asylums in Europe. Opened with much fanfare in the Great Exhibition year of 1851, it was, in conception at least, a showcase for psychiatric reform. Its lovely grounds and elaborate frontage – a riot of campaniles, cupolas, rustic stone quoins and ornamental trimmings – signalled that this was a prestigious institution designed to soothe and heal the ‘truant mind’, while its treatment regimes favoured moral discipline over coercion. Visitors in London for the Great Exhibition were encouraged to witness first-hand its thousand-plus patients labouring peaceably in its communal farms, gardens and craft workshops. A decade later, such visitors could attend a ‘lunatic ball’ (15 were held in 1868 alone, along with magic lantern exhibitions, concerts, lectures and plays) or the ever popular summer fête. In the 1870s a patients’ band performed regularly, sometimes joined on stage by outside entertainers such as the Royal Poland Street Temperance Hand Bell Ringers. So idyllic did all this seem that it left more than one observer convinced that Colney Hatch was a model environment for the sane as well as the insane. The main fear was that patients would never want to leave.

Yet by the end of the 19th century, Colney Hatch was widely condemned for its gloom, comfortlessness and prison-like atmosphere. The remorseless increase in patient numbers to some 2500 meant dangerously overcrowded wards and overworked staff, while the building itself was leaky and horribly expensive to maintain. Large numbers of long-stay patients kept the population high until the 1930s, when new therapies – shock treatments, leucotomies – were introduced which, whatever their long-term drawbacks, permitted quick discharges. At the end of World War Two, the farm and gardens were closed and most of the land sold off to build the North Circular Road. By the 1960s, with the development of effective anti-psychotic drugs, the writing was on the wall. In an age increasingly hostile to ‘nanny’ institutions, Britain’s old asylums, including Friern, were slated for eventual closure.

Many people will have seen inside Friern without knowing it. The asylum’s vast crumbling wards were so nightmarishly atmospheric that film companies queued up to use them (Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital, for example, was shot at Friern in 1981). Few interiors so faithfully mirrored the gothic inner landscapes of madness. Friern’s most famous feature, a corridor extending over a third of a mile, the longest in Europe, could make even the bravest spirit quail. Stretching out endlessly, its white vaulted roof and walls striped by thin bars of light from leaded windows, it seemed the very emblem of despair, a tunnel to nowhere.

Before my first admission, in May 1988, I had never been inside a mental hospital. So my distress, waking that first morning to find myself incarcerated in this preposterously sinister setting, was considerable. Friends who came to visit me – having first walked the length of the corridor with its peeling paint, threatening graffiti and abjectly shuffling spectres, then clambered up the dark spiral staircase to a locked door where they had to wait, often for many minutes, until a nurse arrived to let them into the huge, dingy ward – occasionally burst into tears on arrival. Some didn’t even make it to the ward. One, however, a fellow historian, peering delightedly at a scene largely unchanged since the 1850s, exclaimed what a tremendous privilege it was for me, a scholar of 19th-century Britain, to reside in one of the last great Victorian institutions. Amused and annoyed, I nonetheless took courage from his words and clasped them as a talisman – he has died since – when I returned.

Princess Park Manor’s sales office occupies what was once the most dismal of recreation clubs. Now, fumigated and scrubbed, it welcomes potential purchasers with bright display boards and video adverts. Breezy young saleswomen, all dressed in black, dole out coffee and brochures. One of them approached me, and I braced myself to return her smile. Showing me over a model of the site, the girl spoke easily about its history. I had wondered about this, since the sales literature I’d received in the post makes no mention of the hospital. Its blurb, however, is rather wonderful. Princess Park Manor, it enthuses, is ‘an oasis of tranquillity from the bustle and frustrations of life’, with ‘robust, thick, well-insulated’ walls that ‘inspire feelings of security and cosiness’. Carefully chosen bits of heritage-speak – ‘distinguished history’, ‘an aura of grandeur’, ‘a majestic profile worthy of its original classic design’ – combined with dramatically lit photographs hint at regal associations. The pitch is well crafted for punters pining for a stately-home lifestyle, but once prospective buyers are actually on site there’s no point in trying to conceal the truth, which anyway is announced on the 1849 plaque, now in the gym’s reception area, commemorating Prince Albert’s laying of the asylum’s foundation stone.

The final phases of the conversion were still incomplete when I visited and the site was buzzy with activity. Having been shown the model and floor plans, I was invited to tour a few show flats on my own, and headed off across the park to the main building. Ignoring all the signs to the show flats, I made a beeline for my ward. Everything outside is so immaculate – the scoured golden stone, the coiffured shrubbery – that it was hard to be sure of the right door. But finding myself at the bottom of a staircase littered with building materials, I began to climb. Glancing at the view as I passed a window, I knew I was there. Music drifted up from the apartment below. Reaching the landing, I stood still for a few minutes.

The ward in which I lived was notorious for its violence. It was, astonishingly, sexually mixed, with a nursing station between the men’s and women’s dormitories. Night nurses, meant to be on the alert, mostly slept. Men prowled the women’s dormitory. I was told of women being raped; I saw several being assaulted. But violence knew no gender boundaries. Women attacked other women. Young men regularly stabbed each other, and while I was there a group of lads put ice in an elderly man’s bed every night until he died of pneumonia. (Asked what he intended to do about this, the duty psychiatrist turned and fled from the ward.) Nurses routinely assaulted patients. Seeing me watch him punch a catatonic woman, a nurse winked at me. A young anorexic with whom I was friendly was sodomised by a nurse. All such attacks, if reported, were taken very seriously by the hospital, but most went unreported. When I told the nurses that I’d been struck by another patient (a vast woman who terrified them), they proposed to move me to a different ward, which frightened me even more than my assailant did. So I wooed her with fags and chocolate, and we became chummy.

My longest admission was six and a half months. I became a fixture on the ward: I knew everyone. I was popular with the ward intellectuals, who wanted to write books with me or play fierce, incoherent games of Trivial Pursuit. I hung around the pottery studio and picked apples from the overgrown orchards. I joined the public library on Friern Barnet Road and then, in a sudden wave of chutzpah, wrote asking to use the hospital’s library, a haven of musty medical histories and Persian carpets. The librarian, nonplussed, replied that if she admitted me, she’d have to admit all the patients. Asked to reconsider, she set this anxiety aside and welcomed me warmly. We would sit companionably, she cataloguing and I perusing psychotherapy journals, through long summer afternoons.

As in all psychiatric hospitals, most of the ward’s population was working-class, a disproportionate number Afro-Caribbean. There were a few other professionals, but I felt no particular fellowship with them. Conventional affinities – of class, race, even gender – count for little in the bin. The mad create their own social worlds. I, too, lived mostly inside myself; but on better days sought out the ward alcoholics who, dried out, often proved friendly and fun. One, a bouncy Irishman, established a breakfast club. About six of us gave him money every Saturday to buy the makings of a fry-up. Every Sunday we feasted while the excluded looked sourly on. Another drunk, a woman, emerged as a beauty when sober. We had long talks about life and love. Later, I saw her in a doorway in Islington and spoke to her, but she – bloated, filthy, almost comatose – didn’t recognise me.

Now, standing outside what was once the ward entrance – the door to a two-bedroom flat, my site plan informed me – I detected nothing within. No movement, no sound but the pop music below. Have we really been exorcised then? Not even the echoes of our voices trapped in the walls? Surely the stench of our cigarettes, the endless endless cigarettes, must be there still.

At last I made my way to a couple of show flats. For a while, I couldn’t understand the galleries going nowhere, cubby-hole bedrooms with arched ceilings, windows spanning two floors, lots of odd corners. Many of the rooms were womb-like, long narrow entrances abruptly opening into windowless spaces. Everything was decorated in mass-market chic: dark green leather sofas; marble busts on glass shelves; poster-shop prints elaborately framed. Gradually, like reassembling a puzzle, I began to make out a bit of corridor here, an original ceiling there. I started to see how it was done – and abruptly lost interest.

During the intervals between my admissions to Friern, and for more than a year after my last discharge, I bounced between out-patient mental institutions: day hospitals, day centres, hostels. I became embedded in the world of the chronically mentally ill: not the genteel therapeutic environment of the well-heeled neurotic, but the scruffy urban community of the plebeian lunatic, dominated by drugs, social security giros, and a host of hardworking, underpaid care-givers. Clinging to this world as to a life-raft at the end of the 1980s, I felt it giving way as ‘community care’ modernisers moved in, destroying living communities in the name of a fictitious one, smashing fragile ties of belonging, and leaving the ill and forlorn – now elevated into ‘clients’ – to enjoy their new-found independence as best they could. Some of my acquaintances, decanted into well-furbished, well-staffed residential homes, flourished. Many did not, and I watched them sink as I, mobilising all my middle-class resources, scrabbled for the shore. I sometimes see them now, taking shelter in the Waitrose corridor on the Holloway Road, or begging on Upper Street, and turn away, fearing recognition.

In 1996 a group of film-makers went to Princess Park Manor to interview the first batch of apartment owners. They brought with them a few former patients, including one I knew slightly – a bright, pugnacious Mind activist. The film that resulted is riveting. The patients are thoughtful, humorous, fluent. One, a former theatre-worker, describes the hospital as ‘hell on earth’. Finding himself in the gutted main hall, he abruptly opens his mouth and sings his heart out. ‘I can go now,’ he tells the camera. ‘I’m not frightened any more.’ Another, an elderly man, looks wistfully at the carcase of his ward, my ‘second home’, and reminisces about his time on the Friern football team. Meanwhile, a feng shui consultant is busy tapping for energy sources in the walls. ‘Phew!’ she cries, knocking hard, ‘Something sure was going on here!’ The film-makers ask the new residents if they are afraid of ghosts. None will admit to this, but all emphasise their sympathy for the mentally ill. ‘My friends say I should have been in an institution like this long ago,’ one man chortles. Quizzed about their reasons for choosing the Manor, some are remarkably self-revealing, one retired man describing the ‘mad’ world beyond its gates as too stressful for him, while a divorcee admits that she hopes such a self-contained development – with its leisure facilities, café and private bus service to the shops – will bring her new friends and romances. She had been feeling pretty suicidal before she moved in, she confides. How ironic, my Mind acquaintance comments to the camera, that people are now willing to pay large sums of money to live in a place that advertises itself as somewhere that you ‘never need to leave’. With its 24-hour security and omnipresent surveillance cameras, Princess Park Manor aims to keep out what Friern was meant to keep in: but not all the devils that beset individuals are so easily contained.

Returning to the hospital’s main entrance, I had a look at the swimming-pool and gym, which are gorgeous. A sweet-faced boy took me through the advantages of membership. He was earnest and peppy and watching him I tired of my masquerade. I thanked him and left. I returned to the salesroom, down the paths and across the lawns I remembered so well. Here I was given price lists, a final pitch. I was in a hurry now, rather anxious, and moved rapidly towards the exit. I’ll think about it, I told the salesgirl; yes yes – backing out the door now – I will, I really will. I returned to my car and drove quickly away.

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