Invisible Cities: Latitude

In homage to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”. 

Approaching the city of Latitude, the traveller begins to doubt their navigation, recalling the crossing of precipitous mountain ranges that induced such anxiety, or the miasmic introspection of swamps waded through with only their distorted reflection before them, plagued by biting insects. They threaded their way through howling concrete canyons, despairing of ever finding a way out, as overhead ominous shadows swooped and hidden eyes followed their every move. Now it seems they have come full circle; they begin to see familiar features on the road ahead, and realise that it is the path to their home village.

Like an event in life that was imperfectly understood at the time and given meaning by another years later which sets it in context, perhaps seeing a familiar place as if for the first time through another’s eyes, or revisiting a city where the memory of a lover haunts every corner, rendering each anonymous street or half-remembered cafe suddenly and sharply poignant, the city assembles itself into the form that each traveller expects. Their destination has been waiting for them since they departed from it.

Other travellers are heading the same way, coming from all corners of the earth. Some carry their possessions on their backs and travel alone, others in long caravans, setting up nomadic encampents on the outskirts. There are different tribes, identifiable by their costumes – swathes of colourful silks and scarves from the Orient, the rugged workwear of the great plains, the stout boots and fleece of the mountaineer, the long-haired followers of sects and groups dressed all in black. They speak in a multitude of dialects – the quickly gulped glottals of the capital, the adenoidal dipthongs of distant outflung colonies, the deliberately slow rural burr of the locals, stolid, unflappable and reassuring.

Round their legs laughing children run barefoot, the smaller ones towed in little carts, gazing around uncomprehendingly at the colourful melee. A small girl of about five who has been sleeping in a cart sits up, rubs her eyes and looks around. She has touselled blond hair and wears a crown of flowers. Catching the traveller’s eye she holds it levelly, slowly smiles, then lies back down and goes to sleep again with her thumb in her mouth. Troubadours, minstrels, poets and storytellers – all are drawn towards the city, and some sing as they walk. Wandering through a sun-dappled wood as birdsong drifts through the canopy overhead, suddenly one comes to the city gates, sentinels of the watch in their bright tabards, checking documents and laissez-passer. Cursory searches are undergone for contraband, and the assorted travellers ushered within the city walls.

Two long bridges span a lake, thronging with people. In the shallows of water apple-green at the edges assorted nymphs bathe themselves, and further out gondoliers pole their craft, ferrying passengers to the far shore. Around the large, dusty expanse of a maidan the spires of great tents are visible, with pennants flying from their summits. The skirl of music, the smoke of cooking fires, the cries of vendors and the coiling waft of incense all merge. Travellers inspect each other curiously, veterans of numerous trips acknowledging each other with a wide open, searching look and a slight tilt of the head in greeting. People from other, unfriendlier cities, where eyes slip away from each other and faces slam shut like the shutters of houses, begin to thaw and return each other’s gaze. In four days the green bower of branches will grow over the entrance and the city will disappear once more, to reconstitute itself somewhere else, but for now we are all its citizens.

A group of teenage girls run past on coltish long legs, in a frenzy of excitement. A troupe of Iberian dancers are gathering on a stage projecting out into the lake. They are all young men in high-heeled boots and they stamp and wheel with exotic cries, arching their backs as they strut, glittering darkly. One is bare-chested and wears a hood like a hangman, and he enacts a scene of combat with another who dives and rolls as lithe as a cat beneath his outstretched arms. The girls are mesmerised by the muscular sensuality and the songs of passion and death. The men clear the stage to wild applause and a group of women glide in from the wings, draped in cascading costumes of scarlet and black. They sway back and forth with liquid gestures tracing patterns through the air with their hands. Then they are joined again by the men and the oldest dance of all is enacted as they circle each other in advance and retreat, their energies combining.

Deep in the woods stands a tower bedecked with lights, a spiral slide around the outside. Travellers rest in hammocks slung from the trees, serenaded by the muted chimes of a gamelan orchestra nearby. In a field a flock of sheep graze, all of them dyed bright pink; the animals do not seem disturbed by this in the least, and it is done by the farmers purely for reasons of aesthetic pleasure: some seasons they are purple, sometimes green, and now pink. A poet holds an audience rapt, weaving his tale around them as they sit cross-legged in a clearing before him. Then a young woman takes his place and begins to recite a story in the choppy sibilants of the flatlands – a story by turns angry and tender and pitying and tragic, about war and loss and the spaces between people. In the telling of it the spaces between the audience diminish until there is an atmosphere of communal solidarity as they hang onto her words.

After dark lights spring up along the lake shore, shimmering in the currents of the warm night air. Searchlights extend thin white fingers aloft to wheel about the clouds. A deep bass note draws a crowd to a tent, the sound shaking the ground, felt through the soles of the feet and out through the top of the head. It becomes faster, rhythmically pulsing, and notes begin to cascade like stars falling out of the sky. Then the mechanical chiming of dozens of clocks, round and round. Machines, robots, repetitive and soothing, a glittering futuristic planisphere. The insistent pulse of the bass. Lyrics begin, faint and echoing, in which the individual words cannot quite be defined, as if they don’t matter – everyone interprets them differently, according to their own meanings and desires.

People begin to move, swaying back and forth, bobbing up and down, nodding in time. Ethereal words echo around us, the rhythm makes heartbeats quicken. Lights spin about overhead in delicate traceries of filigreed green. On the stage the small figure of a wizard jerks up and down like a marionette, hunched over his computers – each button he presses produces a different effect in the crowd. Suddenly a chorus soars and we are lifted, the tents and the woods and the fields growing smaller beneath us and receding, lifting again until the city is flying, and everyone moving back and forth, back and forth, getting higher and higher like light through the veins, and you thought to yourself I never thought I’d get this high again, I didn’t know I could but I can, and that bass is relentless, remorseless and driving us on as it lifts us all, because there are no spaces between people here, we are all parts of one organism in a mass communal intelligence, all jumping up and down in time to drumming from the end of the world, tick tick tick the clocks are chiming and stars are falling and then they are gone and we are flying into the darkness together.

The Latitude Festival takes place at Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk, UK every July.

The Happiest Days of Your Life

In September 1980, at the age of eight, I began attending boarding school after a long summer holiday. That summer was a hot one, and I was readjusting to a different culture; after the socialist austerities of Bulgaria, life in England was bright and fast and confusing. Children’s television – in colour, too – was something I had not experienced before, other than occasional Eastern European cartoons on a borrowed set that always seemed to be steeped in melancholy looming through a sepia fog. Shops in England groaned with produce, I remember – the bewildering array of sweets at the counter of a newsagents was enough to produce a rising sense of panic in me; however would I choose which ones to buy? Toys were extraordinary; I had had a toy missile launcher in Bulgaria that was made in Yugoslavia – a caterpillar-tracked vehicle made of some sharp-edged metal that took chunks out of your shins which had two sprung rockets on the back which rather feebly fired themselves a few feet across the carpet. Here, in England, one birthday my uncle gave me a submarine. A submarine! I was delighted. But imagine how wild my excitement when he explained that it actually worked: a battery powered the engine and it was waterproof. I spent days crouched over the bathtub watching it power its way up and down. I had never seen anything like it.

The school my parents had chosen was considered a fairly liberal and enlightened sort of place, as these places go. It was situated in acres of pastoral woodland in the lee of the South Downs, which were so cold in winter it made you wonder what the North Downs must have been like. Even so, it was part of a system unchanged in England for hundreds of years, designed to take the offspring of a certain class and turn them into little leaders, off to rule the world in an empire that no longer existed. Colonial officers, district commissioners, army officers, diplomats… all the venerable institutions of Britain’s imperial past were staffed by the products of this system. Outside the gates it was 1980; inside it might as well have been 1908. In the chapel where assembly was held each morning, regimental battle flags were draped from the rafters. A plaque on the wall commemorated “old boys” who had lost their lives in both world wars. And each morning a child was chosen – girls as well as boys, as the school was co-educational (an interesting euphemism, as if male and female ought by default to be educated separately) – to walk to the front of the chapel, stand at the tall lectern shaped like an eagle with outstretched wings, and read from the bible upon it: “Here beginneth the first lesson…”

Many of the other children had parents either in the military or the diplomatic service, due to a subsidy on fees for government employees. Civil service salaries were low in comparison to the private sector, and the school fees high. This ensured a continual production line, staffing Britain’s government institutions with the same elitist people that had always run them. But the school also reinforced a cultural narrative in other, subtler ways. The school was divided up into “houses” which were named after the famous public schools: Eton, Harrow, Stowe, Wellington and the like. The dormitories were named after British imperial heroes and explorers: Drake, Raleigh, Cook. The whole premise of boarding schools was to sever the tie with family and replace it with new loyalties: to one’s house, to the school itself in matches against other schools, to Queen and Country. There was an underlying patriotism to everything – but an archaic one, expressed in the hymns sung in chapel such as “Jerusalem”, with its extraordinary, jingoistic lyrics:

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In England’s green and pleasant land…

Nevertheless, despite the pupils being overwhelmingly English – and judging by the names of some of the boys: Piers, Gervaise, Humphrey, old Norman stock at that – diversity was creeping in to England’s venerable institutions. Many of the pupils were from well-heeled foreign families in search of the best education for their child. The sight of Chinese, or Kuwaiti, or Nigerian children singing along to hymns in a chapel that was a monument to Britain’s imperial past strikes me now as bitterly ironic. But as good children they did what they were told to: running cross-country over the freezing hills; tackling each other on muddy rugby pitches on grey afternoons; sitting uncomprehendingly at desks in dingy, crepuscular classrooms trying to decline Latin verbs, and scraping away at their “prep”, as homework was known, with a fountain pen and royal blue ink.  (Black was not permitted; nor were biros, which were held to be atrociously modern and somehow bad for the character as well as the handwriting.)

My grandparents would come and take me out for the day sometimes, down to Brighton, and we’d go to the pier, and then The Ship hotel on the seafront, for tea and sandwiches in the lounge, under the tick of the grandfather clock and the smell of furniture polish, in a room full of other old people pretending it was some time between the wars. But outside it was 1981. Duran Duran and The Cure were in the charts – we were allowed to watch Top of the Pops once a week in our “house” – and we gawped at the modern world, jeering at men wearing make up. Boy George was a particular threat, as I recall, with his ambiguous gender-bending appearance. I remember one weekend a boy coming back with his hair a mess of gluey spikes – he had discovered hair gel – and the matron marching him to the sinks and making him wash it all out. I remember the entrance hall where we were returned after a weekend out, and Miss Beeston – a squat, muscular woman not much taller than the children she was in charge of – barking at the returning pupils: “Line up and turn out your pockets!” She was searching for contraband sweets. A boy was found to have stored a Wham bar in his socks, and was duly sent to the headmaster. The sheer insanity of this only dawned on me years later, when I went to visit a friend in prison. We were patted down by the guards, who all had a matey, disarming banter which nevertheless brooked no argument, and I had one of those dizzying moments of deja vu. But they were all day-schoolers, clearly – mere amateurs – because they never found the £10 note I had in my underwear, and which I deftly palmed to my friend in the visiting room. I learned something at boarding school after all.

Within the confines of our prison, though, we ran relatively wild when we could. I recall riding down the back staircase, three flights of spiral stairs down, sitting in a laundry basket together with a friend… until he spilled out and broke his wrist. And, being boys, we dared each other to do things – seeing how close you could hold your hand to a lit match, for example, or carving letters into your skin with the blade of a pencil sharpener. One friend discovered that not only could you huff aerosol deodorant through a folded towel to get a massive buzz that gave you ringing in the ears, made you warm and tingly all over and wrapped you in a dizzying high for a minute or two, but also that by holding the nozzle an inch from the bare skin of your arm, that it produced the most fascinating freezer burn. I recall one swimming lesson stripping off in the changing room and the PT teacher spotting giant weeping blisters all over my arms. His expression was one of horror – perhaps he thought I had caught the plague.

“What happened to you?” he demanded.
He was a bit dim. And I was quite cunning. “I just woke up this morning and my arms were covered with them.” Well, it got me off swimming.

Unfortunately it also got me an appointment with the school nurse, who had been in the army. She took one look and said: “Who did that?”

“I did.”

I never heard any more about it. But let’s face it, this is all the textbook definition of self-harm. Getting high and cutting yourself. It’s what prisoners do.

With acres of woodland surrounding the school we spent most of our free time outside, climbing trees of a terrifying height, building dens in the woods and generally getting as far from the institution as possible. My “gang” had a den built of corrugated iron and bits of linoleum we had scavenged from the farm next door (technically out of bounds), up in the woods to the left of the main drive. A rival gang had their base in the woods on the other side of the playing fields, and we would periodically launch skirmishes against one another, playing war. Sometimes these assaults became quite brutal – I remember one boy getting a broken nose from having been hit in the face with a stone. And after one pitched battle which somehow spilled out of the woods and onto the playing fields, we were halted by the appearance of a “master”, as teachers were known. It was the Latin master – a draconian figure clad in duffle coat, wellies and pipe as if he were on the prow of a battleship circa 1943, who had been walking his dog. And I may be misremembering the exact words, but in a cut-glass accent he barked out: “What the devil do you think you are playing at?”

“We were just playing, sir.”

He turned to point at the cars coming up the driveway – families returning children to school on a Sunday evening, who had just seen 30 or so boys knocking lumps off each other in a mass brawl.

“And what sort of impression do you think this gives of the school, eh?”

“Don’t know sir.”

“Well, if it’s exercise you want, you shall have it. You’re all on fatigues. Report here at 0700 tomorrow in your PT kit.”

At seven o’clock the next morning we all slunk down to the rugby fields in our kit, shivering in the cold. He was waiting for us, in his duffle coat again.

“Now that you’re all here… run to the front gate and back. When you get back here, do it again. Keep doing it until I tell you to stop.”

We set off jogging towards the front gate, which lay perhaps 200 metres away. I can’t recall who reached it first – it certainly wasn’t me, though I was a good distance runner. I settled in to pace myself, knowing this might go on for some time. It did. Back and forth we went, on and on, until heads were drooping and knees sagging. On our return to the pitch where he stood, as one we developed a sinking feeling. A tall, gangling figure was jogging down towards the field. He wore a cricket sweater, shorts and rugby boots. It was the headmaster. He looked us up and down with disgust. “Right – compulsory PT. Get on your faces and start doing press ups.”

We duly did so. I was good at press ups – I knew I could do more than 20 – which was more than the boy next to me, who sagged in the middle like a sack of potatoes. The headmaster barked at him and he stiffened up. Sure enough, at 20, he said stop. Then, sit ups. Lots and lots of sit ups. He judged it – and I can tell this now, having later been an instructor myself – to just before breaking point. Some boys were trying and failing to crack out one last sit up. Then, suddenly, “On your feet!” Small arm circles – arms outstretched and tracing small circles in the air. After 20 seconds you start to feel it. After a minute you think your arms will drop off. Then, burpees. Then lying on our backs with our feet held a few inches off the ground. More press ups. More small arm circles. Then we did squats, hopping up and down the field like frogs until our thighs were burning. A couple of boys couldn’t get down and bend their legs any more and were stooping and hoping he wouldn’t notice. They got sent off to run to the gate and back a couple of times. Eventually, long after we had all passed into a state of mind consisting of nothing but pain, he called a halt. We lay around groaning on the pitch. Some boys were snivelling. We were a very subdued bunch heading back up to the school that morning.

The headmaster died a few years ago. I read his obituary in the paper. In it the article revealed that he was one of the founders of Britain’s Special Boat Service – the Navy special forces. I had to laugh. Why would you treat a group of 9-year-old boys like marine commandos? Why? But he was doing what he thought was best, and what, no doubt, was also done to him. He was not a bad man, and I have no ill-will towards him. This is not some bizarre form of Stockholm Syndrome – I reserve my ire for other, broader targets, and I have plenty of it. Indeed he was quite astute when it came to reporting to my parents on my progress at the school. I was very bright, cunning, dysfunctional, a loner, didn’t fit in and never would. I would, in his view, fight the system every step of the way until I broke it or it broke me. It seems there was a general resolution to leave me alone, since the system clearly wasn’t going to change.

I suppose these things toughen you up. But at what cost? Many children I know who went to boarding school are extremely resilient individuals outwardly – they survive third-world jails, take command in disasters, and generally thrive in adversity – but equally have great difficulty in their personal relationships, in actually allowing anyone close. In his book The Making of Them (2000), Nick Duffell dubs boarding school pupils “artificial orphans”, dissociating themselves emotionally in order to survive the trauma of separation from their parents at a young age. He claims “an extreme hardening of normal human softness, a severe cutting off from emotions and sensitivity” takes place as a result, and this is certainly borne out by my own experience. I know countless men and women who, with great personal courage, set out to undo the damage that they internalized at boarding school, learning sensitivity again, learning how to allow themselves to feel, and to love. David Thomas, in a review of the film of The Making of Them, describes it thus:

Herein lies the great flaw in the public school system. In many ways prep schools are idyllic places. They are usually in the country. You can play football and cricket and make huts in the woods. But what you cannot do is love. You can’t love your parents because it hurts too much. And you most certainly can’t love your fellow-pupils because there is an overriding taboo against any hint of homosexuality. So, after a while, you just get out of the habit of loving… and getting back into the habit can be a very difficult task.

Each night, at the start of term, there came the sound of muffled sobbing from the dormitories, as children cried for home. In shame they would bury their heads under the pillows to try to avoid disturbing the others and being the subject of mockery. I have seen children so distraught on the first night back at school that staff had to be fetched to remove them from the dorm and calm them down as they were upsetting the others. And, given that children can be a ruthless bunch, mercilessly quick to turn on another who shows weakness, there was a shameful conspiracy of silence, where we all lay in the dark listening to someone else crying, becoming complicit in their misery while simultaneously despising it for fear that it might bring out our own. This bizarre form of cognitive dissonance was necessary to survive in the environment, where you had to separate yourself from your feelings by outright denying them – even to yourself. As Frazer Harrison outlines in his autobiography Trivial Disputes (1989), his parents had sent him away for his own good, wanting what was best for him. How could he then repay that by telling them how miserable he was? It would only cause them misery themselves: “I was frightened of losing their love by telling them how much I needed it.”

I remember it happening myself. One night, inconsolable with the weight of grief that homesickness brought about, the duty master, who was new, and kind, came and sat me on the staircase and tried to cheer me up by telling me all the things there were to look forward to that term: “Look here, what’s your favourite subject? English? Jolly good. Well why don’t you write an essay or a poem perhaps, about home? Have you got a dog? Well a hamster then. You like football, don’t you? Well there are all kinds of matches this term. We’re playing St Ranulphs in two weeks.” Images of home came to mind, the thought of Mum and Dad dutifully looking after a hamster for god knows how many months of the year until my return, topped off with a vision of myself being struck in the face by a soggy football as St Ranulphs cheered like a victorious army. I wailed afresh. But worse still was his clumsy attempt at solidarity. I somehow felt even guiltier for letting him down by refusing to be cheered at the prospect.

And in trying to relate your unhappiness to outsiders – grown ups who themselves may have been through it, you were inevitably told of the virtues of self-reliance that you were learning, of how it was the best preparation for life in “the real world” (a sick joke), or the sickest joke of all, that these should be “the happiest days of your life”. As Royston Lambert says in The Making of Them:

Boarding schools cannot officially provide their children with an emotional life… Hence some boys grow up with an inability to communicate real emotion, a fear of it in many forms, an acute sense of embarrassment at the sight of it in others, and a preparedness to accept relationships with others only within certain limits. Some have an inability to make deep affective relationships, and are keenly aware of this. It can cause them considerable distress, as does their ignorance of how to handle deep emotional situations.

My parents did what they thought was best. And it was a rational decision, compared to a series of different schools in different countries every three years. My father had been at boarding school too – his own father was a master at one, and his mother a matron – so it was a perfectly natural progression for someone of my background. What I didn’t know at the time, and which they confided years later, was that it wasn’t just myself getting tearful at the prospect of going back to school. They always held it together until they had dropped me off then welled up on the return journey. Whether they were in England, in which case we drove with me snuffling and choking down my misery in the back seat while listening to the top 40 on Radio 1 (what they must have endured), or abroad – in which case we drove to the airport, and they handed me into the care of a stewardess – a series of nice Home Counties girls called things like Felicity or Fiona, who did their best to console me, in an aspiring supermodel kind of way. The one I liked best was actually Scottish, probably about 20 years old, and she spotted me eating a Cadbury’s Cream Egg. “What’s the most you’ve ever eaten?” she asked. “Two,” I mumbled. She looked at me balefully and said “I ate three once.” I will always remember her.

And such dysfunction is engendered on a broader scale. In a society, Britain 2015, which has had to reappraise its place in the world – with limited success – the only outlet for the type of elitism that these institutions foster are those institutions that mimick them: the large corporations where people are seen as disposable resources and are ruthlessly dismissed to improve profitability; the hierarchical structures of government departments; the military. All the people I’ve met who’ve either smoothly moved into such organisations as if they were groomed for them (they were), or who have fought and struggled against it every step, and who are often dubbed as failures by their peer group for having the courage and strength of character to go their own way, are products of this system’s values. Looking at the people who make up the latest government in this country (and the one before that, and the one before that), a huge proportion of them went to boarding school (and then a smooth trajectory into a select few universities) – the elitist and obsolete institutions that were designed for another era, but which have now recalibrated their priorities to reflect modern times: neo-liberal economics where the poor are blamed for being poor, and penalised in consequence, or where our creakingly overstretched military continues to embark upon a series of post-colonial wars as a form of gunboat diplomacy “for our own security”. Imperial values.

But there was another side to boarding school where the brittle veneer of outwardly coping with deep-seated emotional issues began to crack. The subconscious. The clearest manifestation of this was with the large number of children who began wetting the bed. I was one of them. What should have been a habit cured in early childhood began to manifest itself again at the age of eight. In the dormitories – the largest of which had 36 boys in bunk beds – every morning two or three would be guiltily stripping the sheets from their bed. There was a shame-faced parade of small boys each day who made their way to the laundry baskets under the eye of the matron. It was an epidemic.

In his essay on his own experiences at boarding school, Such, Such Were the Joys (1947), George Orwell describes exactly such a scenario. Orwell was at prep school before the First World War, and although there have been many changes in such schools since that time, the individual reactions of the child are identical. He recalls praying at night: “Please God, do not let me wet my bed”. And yet, on waking in the morning he would inevitably find that his prayers had gone unanswered, and his heart would sink as he lay in sheets that were sodden.

After the second or third time this happened, he was warned he would be beaten if it occured again. And this warning happened in a curiously roundabout way, in a conversation between “Flip”, the headmaster’s wife, and a strange lady who was attired in riding clothes, to whom Orwell was introduced:

“Here is a little boy,” said Flip, indicating me to the strange lady, “who wets his bed every night. Do you know what I am going to do if you wet the bed again?,” she added, turning to me. “I am going to get the sixth form to beat you.”

The strange lady put on an air of being inexpressibly shocked, and exclaimed “I-should-think-so!” And here there occured one of those wild, almost lunatic misunderstandings which are part of the daily experience of childhood. The sixth form were a group of older boys who were selected as having ‘character’ and were empowered to beat smaller boys. I had not yet learned of their existence, and I misheard the phrase “the sixth form” as “Mrs Form”. I took it as referring to the strange lady – I thought, that is, her name was Mrs Form.

I merely assumed that “Mrs Form” was a stern disciplinarian who somehow enjoyed beating people (somehow her appearance seemed to bear this out) and I had an immediate terrifying vision of her arriving for the occasion in full riding kit and armed with a hunting whip. To this day I can feel myself almost swooning with shame as I stood before the two women. I could not speak. I felt that I should die if “Mrs Form” were to beat me. But my dominant feeling was not fear or even resentment: it was simply shame because one more person, and that a strange woman, had been told of my disgusting offence. (Orwell, 1947)

Orwell was too good a writer not to be unaware of the subtext to all this. But it would be trite to read too much obvious psychology into it. I am awed by his relentless honesty – that he can so clearly recollect and relate such an incident, with all the consequent shameful emotions he felt, told in a tone of clear moral outrage. He almost swooned, he could not speak, he felt that he would die. And as a child brought up in that system, he swallowed his emotions, hardened his shell, and stored the memory away.

By 1980 you didn’t get beaten for wetting the bed – not at my school, at least. Instead there was a very modern solution – one which fills me nonetheless with similar outrage, and which gives this memoir a veneer of journalistic respectability. Imipramine.

Imipramine, also known as Tofranil, is a tricyclic antidepressant. It is used in the treatment of major depression, particularly depression combined with anxiety. One of its side effects happens to be an interruption of the delta wave pattern of sleep – or Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep – which is the most common period when enuresis, or bed-wetting occurs. Imipramine has a very strong reuptake inhibition of serotonin, which – in bipolar patients – can cause a high rate of manic and hypomanic reactions. From the case notes:

A small number of children, teenagers, and young adults (up to 24 years of age) who took antidepressants (‘mood elevators’) such as Imipramine during clinical studies became suicidal (thinking about harming or killing oneself or planning or trying to do so).

Current NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) guidelines state: Do not use tricyclics such as Imipramine as the first-line treatment for bedwetting in children and young people.

Side effects of Imipramine: mood or behavior changes, anxiety, panic attacks, trouble sleeping, or if you feel impulsive, irritable, agitated, hostile, aggressive, restless, hyperactive (mentally or physically), more depressed, or have thoughts about suicide or hurting yourself.

Some people who take Imipramine hydrochloride and have depression may find that it intensifies depression and suicidal feelings in the early stages of treatment. These people have an increased risk of self-harm or suicide in the early stages of taking Imipramine hydrochloride. As Imipramine hydrochloride starts to work these risks decrease.

If you are taking Imipramine hydrochloride, or you care for someone who is taking Imipramine hydrochloride, you need to look out for changes in thoughts or behaviour that could be linked to self-harm or suicide.

Each night a queue of children in slippers and dressing gowns with their name tags sewn in by dutiful parents formed outside the “San” – or Sanitarium – to see the school nurse. Each had their own prescription on the chart: the asthmatics got a puff or two on an inhaler; the scrawny or undersized had a shot of Minadex “with Vitamins”. And the bedwetters were handed a small plastic cup inside which nestled one or two oval maroon pills. Imipramine. I don’t know the exact dose I was on, but as a serial offender I remember my dose being increased to three pills. Between the ages of eight and perhaps eleven or twelve, I took a large dose of powerful antidepressants every night, which according to its own guidelines, interrupts a key stage of sleep. We all did. Just as a rough extrapolation here, if there were say, three bedwetters in every dorm of around 30 boys, that’s ten percent. (My maths, despite this ludicrously expensive education, has always been awful.) So ten percent of the school – these young and unformed, still-developing childish minds, on antidepressant drugs that can cause anxiety, panic attacks, self harm, hyperactivity, depression and suicidal thoughts, for years and years? I thought it was normal to feel suicidal. Nobody ever told me it wasn’t.

There is nothing more I can add to this. There have been a spate of what are termed “mis-mems” in the publishing industry – misery memoirs. This is not one of them: indeed it’s a little galling, given that my background is one of extraordinary privilege, that I have to overcome a certain self-censorship in order to document it without appearing unaware of the fact of that privilege. I did not grow up on the streets of Bombay, or survive on a Lagos rubbish dump. We are all dealt different hands, and it is how we play them that counts.

Nevertheless, I cannot, and will not, hide the fact that I had a history of drug and alcohol abuse as a young adult. I have struggled with depression my whole life, and have, in the past, had tremendous difficulties in forming relationships due to an inability to emotionally engage. I couldn’t even hug someone without flinching away after a few seconds. I don’t seek to prove cause and effect – whether this was exacerbated by adoption, or boarding school, or autism I cannot say. I merely mention the facts as they were, and are. But what I do know is, I have overcome drug and alcohol addiction. I have faced up to a strong dislike of crowds and noise that have triggered sensory overload in me since childhood, in order to travel the world and see places and have experiences that I shall never forget. I am not afraid of emotion, and these days I have deep and affecting relationships. There are people that I love, and who love me in return. There’s a woman who I can hug forever and never feel stifled in her embrace, nor get the urge to escape from it – just connecting together in peace.

What do you do with such freedom, once you have gained it? It can be hard to know. I met a man one night in a doss-house in Bangkok who was lying on a mattress on the porch. He was thin, in his 50s, with matted hair and missing a few teeth. Hearing me speak to the receptionist he raised his head and called out, “What school?” His accent was unmistakeably English public school.

I told him. He laughed mirthlessly and gave the name of his own. “And here we are,” he said, waving his hand languidly at the surroundings. “Got anything to smoke?” I expect he’s still there.


My Communist Cat

My earliest memories are from around the age of four. It seems to vary with people – some claim to clearly recall events which happened when they were two years old, or even earlier; I had one friend who told a story of sitting up in his cot one day, aged around 18 months, and seeing the china figurines on the mantlepiece come into focus for the first time. But these may be reconstructed memories, created perhaps by the retelling of them, or of others present confirming them. Four seems to be a fairly standard sort of age.

I was four in 1977. At the time we were living in Bulgaria, which was a Communist state – a satellite of the Soviet Union in all but name. And in the fragmented way of childhood memories, my recollections are of isolated and disconnected iconography, much of which we now associate with Communism. I remember, for example, red flags, or a five-pointed star atop a spire, or the ubiquitous hammer and sickle. The Soviet-style ushanka hats with earflaps tied over the crown worn by the police in winter. Lada cars rattling over grey cobblestone streets. Mass parades carrying portraits, girls with red ribbons in their plaits, the blockish capitals of Cyrillic script. Gaz trucks, taking the windscreen wipers off your car to prevent theft, babushka grandmothers sweeping the streets with besom brooms made of twigs. Queues for trolley buses, queues for food, queues at the main Tsum department store when there was a delivery of children’s shoes (in hideous shapes and colours and only one size). The uniformity of everything in a state-controlled economy – only a few styles of clothing available, so that one year everyone was wearing the same kind of trousers – which enhanced the utilitarian drabness of everything. And such was the desire for variety, for the range of western products, that people quite openly propositioned you: I remember one American boy on the school bus being asked by the driver if he wanted to sell his blue jeans.

We were talking the other day about childhood ailments – a group of us round a dinner table somewhere in London – and someone mentioned having their appendix removed. I mentioned that I had had mine out too, aged about 6. It was at the main children’s hospital in Sofia, the capital, and was, in retrospect, an interesting cultural experience. The main thing I remember was that the first night I was on the ward, there was a child in the bed opposite me who flailed and shrieked and struggled. He was a heavy-set Bulgarian lad with a crew cut, and he had been tied to the bed. I was glad of this; if he got loose, it looked like he could do some serious damage. He was bound firmly at wrists and ankles to the corners of the metal-framed bed in a spreadeagled position, and his body jerked back and forth violently as he struggled against his bonds. The boy in the next bed to me, who had freckles and red hair, caught my eye nervously and said something in Bulgarian which I didn’t catch the words of, but clearly understood the meaning: “I’m glad he’s tied down!” I nodded sympathetically.

It was the anaesthetic that was the problem. The Bulgarians were using an old Soviet one which dated back to the Second World War, and which had powerful side effects when the patient came round, causing them to convulse wildly in delirium. I wasn’t due to go under the knife myself until the next day, and could hardly walk, so bad were my stomach pains. And that evening I sat hunched in my bed in a ward full of children, with a dozen or so of them tied to the beds, bucking and crying out, straining at the cords that held them fast. It was quite terrifying. And one day, remembering nothing, I woozily opened my eyes, aware of a tingling sensation in my hand, aching all over and with a sharp pain in my abdomen, and found I couldn’t move it. I was tied to the bed too.

Hospitals aside, it was possible to be happy as a child in a Communist country, in the way of children everywhere, although there was an unconscious ideological agenda at play behind the innocence. I recall watching a group of local children in a drawing competition, who produced the same pictures that children do everywhere – all the pictures of stick-figure Mums and Dads or animals or rockets. But there was an additional, ideological refinement: above the images were scrawled the shaky letters Мир – Mir – meaning “peace”. Everyone wanted peace. The Soviet Union, locked in an intractable arms race with America, wanted nothing but peace. Apparently.

Easier, too, in some respects, not to have the consumerist bombardment of advertisements for everything. I remember my first exposure to television in the UK, and how it left me with a burning need to possess a Lego space station, and a toy go-kart, and a space invaders game shaped like a rocket ship, and some sweets that fizzed on the tongue; I had no filtering system to fend off this endless array of Capitalist merchandise laid before me. In Bulgaria we made rockets out of fireworks, smoked foul-smelling Fenix cigarettes, carried flick-knives and exploded terrifying bangers which, for many British children, are all unavailable treats until they undergo that rite of passage that comes with crossing to the continent – the school trip to France. (As a side note on the pervasive effects of ideology, it’s worth noting that Bulgartabak, the state tobacco monopoly, claimed that American-style tobaccos caused cancer, but that good Communist Bulgarian tobacco contained natural anti-carcinogens.)

The Bulgarian boys next door were a wild bunch – tracksuited and robust. They often had shaved heads because of lice, and there were always different kids coming and going, so it’s hard to remember exactly who was who; I remember the square shape of Ilya’s head through the bald fuzz that crowned it, or his older brother whose features are a blur but who had oddly prominent ears. I remember Petko, and Zlatko, and their small sister, whose name I have forgotten, and who was always getting nosebleeds. We were friends, and played in the courtyard, which from my earliest memories seemed to have walls that went up to the sky, and which progressively decreased in height as I myself grew taller. There was a dead tree in the corner of the courtyard, and this was the scene of one of my most formative memories, illustrating as it did some profound difference between us, though whether cultural or personal I couldn’t say.

One day, drawn by the sounds of excited laughter from next door, I poked my head over the wall to see what was going on. A group of the boys stood around, ranging in age from five or six to perhaps 13. I saw that a small sack had been hung from a branch of the old dead tree in the corner, and one lad swaggered towards the base of the tree, stooped to pick something up, and took up a stance a few metres away, weighing whatever it was he had retrieved in his hand. I saw it was a knife. Spitting on the ground and shuffling his feet a little, he took aim like a darts player and flung the knife at the sack. It missed, and cannonaded off the trunk to land back in the dust. There were loud jeers. Another boy was lining up to take his shot. I wanted to join in, and clambered over the wall, sidling up to the group. Zlatko spotted me, smiled, nodded at the sack and said one word: “kotka”.

Then I saw the sack move. Kotka. Cat.

I was horrified. Now I could hear it – there was a mewing noise coming from the sack. In one of those few moments of my life of which I am actually proud, I screamed at them: “Stop!” And then again, even louder, in Bulgarski just in case I wasn’t understood, “STOI!”

They looked bemused. It’s fine, they said. It’s just cats. I burst into tears, and climbed back over the wall. Running up the path into the house I yelled for my parents. Dad came out of the living room to see what all the noise was about. Snot-nosed and gulping I blurted out: “They’ve got cats in a bag and they are throwing knives at it.”

I watched his expression change and grow thunderous. “Show me,” he said, and taking my hand we set off down the path and out the gate (Dad didn’t climb over walls). He swung open the gate next door and marched into the courtyard, right into the middle of the group of boys. The ensuing conversation was all in Bulgarian, but there was no mistaking the tone. The lads looked shame-faced. “Get that bag down at once!” he must have said, because one boy went and shinned up the tree and brought it down. He placed it on the ground and backed away. The others were melting away now too, remembering pressing engagements they had elsewhere. Dad crouched down in the dust and opened the sack. Quick as a flash two cats shot out, and in a blur made for the gate, squeezing under it and tearing off down the road. But there was still one inside – cowering down and hissing with flattened ears. Reaching into the sack I picked it up. It didn’t resist. It was a small black and white kitten with a pink patch on its nose. Cradling it in my arms I followed Dad back out of the gate and up the garden path into the house.

I set the cat down on the porch and stroked it. Its fur was warm, and it didn’t seem to be injured, but periodically it would tremble for a few seconds. I heard low voices from inside, then Mum and Dad appeared on the porch to look at the cat. It burrowed into my arms. “Can I keep it?” I asked them.

“Yes, alright.”

So that was my first cat. We called her Mutzi – I don’t know why; I don’t think it means anything. She was an affectionate animal – there’s a photo somewhere of me aged about 7 sitting in the garden and cradling her in my arms as she presses her nose to mine in a cat kiss.

In the way of cats, she hung around for a while – a good couple of years – but then one day never came home. I was distraught but recovered, as children do. Perhaps she was run over, or just went feral – who knows, with cats.

But there’s an interesting little postscript to this story – one which took thirty years to emerge. I am a grown man now, nearly 40 years old, and my father long retired. We live on the East Coast of England, in a house overlooking the marshes, and one day, with Dad hammering away on the computer, I sat on the floor looking through the old photo albums in the book case. I came across that photograph, of Mutzi giving me a cat kiss in the garden, and I laughed and showed it to him. “She just disappeared, didn’t she.”

He looked up. “I think saw her, you know.”

“What? When?”

“Well I went back to Bulgaria in 1982 for a conference. And I thought it’d be interesting to see the old house on Alexander Nevsky, so one afternoon when I was free I went and knocked on the door. It’s still used by embassy staff – nice young couple living there. We had a drink, they showed me round.”

“Anyway, when it was time to leave, I walked down to the bus stop on the corner, and something made me turn round. Just by the alley there are these bins, and right next to them was this cat watching me. Black and white one. And I had the strangest feeling it knew me. So I called out to it. ‘Mutzi?’ This old babushka in a headscarf walked past and gave me a look – well, it must have looked a bit odd, me in my suit with a briefcase, crouching down in the entrance to an alleyway calling to a cat. And the whole time this cat just watched me. Never took her eyes off me, but she never came any closer.”

“Then the bus arrived, and I turned round for a moment. When I looked back I saw her slinking away – quite low-slung, like she was pregnant, but watching me the whole time.”

“I never told you at the time – it would only have upset you. She’d gone feral, and of course we couldn’t have brought her back to England anyway. But I’m sure it was her.”

I looked out through the salt-smeared glass at the marshes as a 39-year-old man, and bizarrely I found myself blinking back tears. He rose stiffly from the desk, patted me on the shoulder a couple of times, and together we walked downstairs.