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.

 

Advertisements

What Hurts

Each day I sit down to do battle with monsters. Sometimes I win, but not always. If I am successful the end result is a page of text that is at least ‘not too bad’. If I lose, I fall into a pit of despair. Finding my way out of it again can take some time, feeling my way down dark corridors. Sometimes there are sporadic flashes of illumination, a feeble, distant glow, which allows me to feel my way. These are usually the writings of others, which allow me to see where I am, at least. Sometimes the corridor is flooded with light, and I cringe at it, dazzled. These are the visits of friends, the intrusion of others’ lives into my own. They depart, and my night vision is knocked out for a while, so I stand with eyes closed until I remember the direction that their presence temporarily illuminated, and begin to slowly feel my way down the corridor once more, trying to find a way out.

I live with depression. It’s been there forever. Sometimes it sets the agenda, sometimes I do. I refuse to give in to it, but the constant battles can sap the strength over time. It strikes unexpectedly, in the most inconvenient places: a holiday on a tropical beach with friends, where I muttered a half dozen phrases each day at most, was particularly bad – their obvious enjoyment of the surroundings only threw my own private despair into sharper relief. And yet I needed them there, drew heavily on their presence, their love. I have had an amazing life, and have done extraordinary things. Sometimes I just can’t see it, that’s all.

One of the things that is the most devastating about this is the sheer pettiness of it – the discovery of some of our most unloveable attributes: envy, jealousy, nastiness, pride, anger. One likes to think one is better than this, somehow more evolved, but no: it’s there alright, a skulking schadenfreude, the devil in all of us. Pull it up from the roots, dig deep into yourself and weed it out, or it’ll poison the rest of you. Why do I think the things that I do? What mental associations have I cultivated unconsciously that have led to this toxic thicket? It’s necessary to hack your way through it at times in order to clear the ground and plant afresh.

Physically, too, one becomes affected. In my case I develop an ache, an actual physical ache, in my heart. Right there in the ventricles. I’ve been checked out by the docs, wired up to machines, prodded and examined and listened to. But it’s sporadic – it comes and goes, the sick thump measuring out the beats of my lifespan, and on it goes, relentlessly. “Nothing wrong with it,” they say. “Strong as an ox.” But it feels broken. Trouble is, I can’t remember how it happened. Or who did it. Me, probably.

I take a certain grim pleasure in the externalisation of this. I look at the spatter of rain on the window, the geraniums in the windowboxes shivering in the wind, and I actually smile inwardly; the weather matches my mood. I love the rain, whether its a grey sky weeping smuts of drizzle or the hot tropical downpour of the monsoon and the scent of the slaked earth. Sunshine and heat throws it all into sharper relief, alienating you still further from your environment, like that beach holiday, where I sat and sweated miserably in the shade of a beach umbrella. An intemperate climate is in my nature; my mental weather.

Worst of all though is the inability to write, or to write well about it. You’d think that suffering might be a useful attribute for a writer, or that writing might actually be therapeutic. But no – what actually happens is that your emotional vision becomes foreshortened; you can’t see further than your own misery, and each sentence sets off into the unknown, hand on the wall, before plummeting off a cliff-edge after the full stop. You long for distant horizons to give a sense of perspective, but your gaze is fixed firmly on your feet before you, and try as you might to lift it, it remorselessly returns there. The self-indulgence and self-pity of it hurts as much as anything. No book, no film nor music can distract you from yourself. Sleep is elusive, a blissful refuge torn away by the mind’s dull ache, and the depression seeps into every part of consciousness; I have woken up at four in the morning to find tears silently running down my face without knowing why.

I was 18, and working in the kitchen of a Pizza Hut in a small town in Germany. The depression struck. My life was already over. I was 21, on mountain rescue missions amongst jagged African peaks, winching people off cliffs and out of crevasses. I was 25, sitting on a bench in the rain in a small town in England, clutching a can of strong cider, together with two other homeless guys. I was 30, on a train through Vietnam with a deadline to meet for a magazine article. 37, more deadlines to meet – assigments on a master’s degree. 40, my birthday, at a police checkpoint one night in Afghanistan, with a lump of hash in the car and a bigger lump in my throat when they walked off with my passport. 42, on a beach in India – the tropical beach I mentioned earlier – surrounded by friends and the people I love and who love me in return, unconditionally. 42, in a central London flat, looking out at the rain as I write this. I never thought I’d make it this far. If I had given in to the depression, I wouldn’t have. But my life’s not over yet. So I’ll keep on feeling my way down that corridor, because I know there’s light at the end of it. I’ve been there before.

Bacon and the Masters

I wanted to write this while it was still fresh, although raw might be a better word. The insanity is fading, but still makes its presence felt from time to time with a malevolent twitch of the psyche, a sudden thought causing a brief spasm of pain, a wasp caught in a web. I thought I was past this. April is the cruellest month [1]. Hieronymo’s mad againe [2].

Down the spiral staircase to meet the Master in the red room. An ominous subterranean rumble in the air which we’re conditioned not to notice. A modern building in glass and grey plastic as soulless as an airport, with art instead of shopping, and ways of escape marked Emergency Exit. I do not take them, though I’d rather be outside. Some people love it here, have happy memories of it. My memories are kicking me up and down the room. That sanity be kept I sit at open windows in my shirt, and let the traffic pass [3].

Paintings with faces smashed apart by shrapnel. On a crimson wall hangs a greyly leering, twisted figure, with a faint smirk, a wonky nose like the smear of a thumb, and arch but unseeing eyes. We stand, my friend and I, temporarily adopting the quasi-reverential manner with which many approach “art”. I shoot a sidelong glance at him. He squints at the painting, head on one side, frowning slightly. He wants to understand. I wait. Thou shalt love thy crooked neighbour with all thy crooked heart [4].

“He was Irish?” he asks.
“Anglo-Irish, you could say.” (Like me, I don’t add. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still [5].)

We peer at the figure some more. It’s a self-portrait of Francis Bacon, the caption helpfully points out, labelled merely, “A Man”. If This is a Man. My hands are shaking. They were shaking before I came in. Mind running down dark corridors. If we go outside now we will see the minarets, just visible through the pines of Herat, and feel the heat of the sun in that crystalline light, and that dusty, spicy smell. We have been through so much. This place feels claustrophobic, oppressive. Wherever now I look, black ruins of my life rise into view [6].

A painting of two male figures and one female. The male figure at left has that cold cobalt underwash again, marbled like meat on a slab. It extends one leg outwards which is inserted into the male figure at centre, subsumed between two flesh-coloured curves. It’s so obvious I want to laugh. I have of late, wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth [7]. My friend is scrutinising the caption.

“He was gay?”
“Yes.”
“And the woman’s head is separate, inside a red box.”
“True.”

(We are both amateur psychologists – self-taught and self-practicing.)   

William Blake’s life mask. Thin lips like a disapproving grandma. What did he write? I can’t remember. Angels and things. The art of letting go. Then there’s another Bacon painting, loosely based on the mask, so banal I can’t even remember it. But I remember the oddly shaped sculpture nearby, again inspired by the mask – I can trace every rough-hewn edge with my mind’s fingers. Self-effacement. It said, ‘Lie down in the word-hoard, burrow the coil and gleam of your furrowed brain’ [8].

Photos of Bacon in leather jacket and sneakers, sitting surrounded by easels and tubes of paint which spew their colours out – he is pop-eyed, pouchy and lank-haired. A drinker, I can tell. I’m not going there. A table of letters, pleading for funds. Is this what he’d have wanted? It’s banal memorabilia, wallet litter. He has to get out of England. I know the feeling. This one is postmarked Tangiers. Soft-footed catamites in djellabahs with liquescent eyes. Eyes I dare not meet in dreams [9]. A line of Egyptian sculptures, their regularity and rigidity of form in stark contrast to the fluid shape-shifting of the paintings. I know nothing about any of this. Those are the pearls that were his eyes [10]. Not warm brown eyes next to a cold green sea, smiling in the sunshine.

Screaming heads. This one has a bag over it, by the look of it – a thin, transparent bag. Auto-asphyxia. The translucent membrane that separates us from the world; a self-imposed caul. A line of scarlet stripes cascade down the canvas like welts. Life is pain as well as joy, Bacon knew. Lines, ropes, harnesses, pulleys. Or perhaps it is a chair. Have you ever noticed how, when you can’t hear them, people laughing can look like they are screaming? Bacon did.

Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope (1952) is juxtaposed, rather heavy-handedly, with a still from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925) – the wounded nurse, whose broken spectacles render her eyes opaque, blood streaming from one of them. The reference is clear – the same angle, shape of head, mouth agape in silent scream. Bacon acknowledged the image as a catalyst for his work, and indeed, many of the paintings here are so clearly inspired by other imagery that it seems almost labouring the point to explain it by placing them next to each other. But it does prompt the question of how closely one image can resemble another and yet retain its originality, in the grey area somewhere between homage and parody. Does the Screaming Pope possess the same power to shock as Eisenstein’s frame, once the image is fixed in the mind of the public consciousness? For me, lacking the framework of belief that catholicism demands, it does not – it is merely derivative, robbed of the original image’s shocking power.

Michelangelo’s statues, with slab-like muscles and shrunken genitalia – the perfect, depilated, modern man. These inspired Bacon, the caption informs us, especially Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy (1530), referenced in Bacon’s Two Figures in a Room (1959). I am a fly if these are not stones [11]. I spend more time looking at the darkness in the corner of the room, processing the imagery that flies into my mind dressed in words – my craft or sullen art [12]. Lumpy Flemish burghers with features like root vegetables. Velazquez’s portrait of Philip IV (1623) has a Hapsburg jaw and a slightly startled expression, as if caught unaware by the photographer’s flash. Study for a Portrait of PL no. 2 (1957) shows a watchful, bluish figure, crouched on the ropes like a boxer between rounds in the ring. A quote from Bacon accompanies the caption: “It’s not so much the painting that excites me, as that the painting unlocks all kinds of sensation within me, which returns me to life more violently.” Personally I’m feeling as if I’ve been returned to life a little too violently – if there was something to reduce the intensity of feeling freshly peeled, I’d take it. This painting is not it – it’s just an irrelevance. On earth indifference is the least we have to fear from man or beast [13].

Standing before Titian’s Crucifixion (1560) I feel numb somehow – admiring the beauty of it while simultaneously rebelling against the religious symbolism. The caption describes Titian capturing a man who remains sublime even in his greatest suffering. There’s a word for that in certain circles: subspace. Not the pious martyr’s eyes turned heavenward, but the dreamy state of mind induced by the transcendence of suffering, taking external pain and internalising it until you pass beyond it. But what of Bacon’s Crucifixion (1933) on the wall opposite? A hollow figure in ghostly chalk white that resembles nothing so much as a spatchcocked bat. It makes a change to actually have an emotional reaction inspired by one of these paintings, though in this case it’s just mild annoyance on my part, as if a fraud had somehow been committed in plain sight. What does this mean? Why does it matter? It looks adolescent again, caught up in the melodrama of its own emotion, feeding off the naivety of the onlooker. The Titian’s presence towers over the room. The Bacon feels snide, sidling into view to take its place on the wall by virtue of art’s inclusivity, trying its hardest to be controversial in a way that seems merely contrived.

Untitled (Marching Figures) (1952) – matchstick men march into a goalpost surmounted by a giant sloth. Or a polar bear. Or is it a molar tooth? It could be any anatomical detail you want. The stick men may be Nazis, according to the caption. Or perhaps office workers – or a football crowd, given the goalpost. On the wall nearby, though, hangs an image that is immediately arresting – its garish colours standing out amongst the other, more muted paintings. Matisse’s Nymph and Satyr (1909) is ripe with menace, and its darkness carries through the sunlit scene. The Satyr’s face is an expressionless mask, features smoothed as if with a stocking over the head, the faintest upturn of the lips suggesting a half-leer, half-grimace. Bright pink bodies on the bright green grass. His huge hands darken to red, as if stained with blood, at the end of arms outstretched and grasping for the nymph lying before him as he approaches. His body too is outlined in red, harsh strokes that scream of agitation, frenzy. The brushstrokes of the background are coarse and angry, a swirling mass of green and blue. The nymph lies bowed before him on the sick, limnal lawn, her posture one of extreme submission. The caption describes “overt, almost menacing, sensuality”. This is not sensual – it’s luridly grotesque sexuality on display, priapism run riot, the menace shrieking from the canvas.

The wind crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed [14]. This is not really a review of an art exhibition – it is about a tour around a dark place of the mind and the slow emergence again into the sunlight, feeling for handholds, blinking in the brightness; the taking of pain and the subsequent rising beyond it. Bacon was inspired by many things, which made up his mental landscape of the world – in his case the painting and art of others; in mine, words and poetry. Its strands run through the warp and the weft of me so tightly bound that it would be impossible to separate them; words are what I reach for as support when the world about me is falling apart, transcribed here as they occured. The juxtaposition of original inspiration and resultant artwork is of academic curiosity only, a dismantling of motive, since between the two falls the indecipherable mass we call personality, or style. Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, falls the shadow. Between the conception and the creation, between the emotion and the response, falls the shadow [15].

Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it [16]


  1. T.S. Eliot – The Wasteland

  2. Thomas Kyd – The Spanish Tragedy

  3. Dylan Thomas – That Sanity Be Kept

  4. W.H. Auden – As I Walked Out One Evening

  5. W.H. Auden – In Memory of W.B. Yeats

  6. C.P. Cavafy – The City

  7. William Shakespeare – What a piece of work is a man; Hamlet

  8. Seamus Heaney – North

  9. T.S. Eliot – The Hollow Men

  10. T. S. Eliot – The Wasteland

  11. Ted Hughes – Mountains

  12. Dylan Thomas – In My Craft or Sullen Art

  13. W.H. Auden – The More Loving One

  14. T.S. Eliot – The Wasteland

  15. T.S Eliot – The Hollow Men

  16. Seamus Heaney – Digging

 

Francis Bacon and the Masters runs from 18th April – 26th July 2015 at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, UK.

Siklis Trek 3

IMG_7965The presence of hot water at the Namaste Guesthouse in Siklis was clearly an opportunity for the local girls to clean up a bit. There was a continual stream of activity through the bathroom throughout the afternoon, one of the daughters of the house posing for a duckfaced selfie on her phone against the tiled wall. Afterwards she sat on the ground as her mother carefully picked through her hair, searching for lice. The two smaller girls, aged perhaps four and seven, played dressing up games, putting on various items of adult clothing, checking themselves carefully in the mirror and then going on a make-believe shopping expedition round the tables on the terrace, the four-year-old toting a little embroidered handbag and slopping along in a massive pair of adult-sized flip flops.

Sal had slept throughout the afternoon despite thunderous cheers from the cricket match on the TV, and I had to go and wake her for dinner. She emerged bleary-eyed to be confronted with a steaming tray of dal bhat for the second time that day, accompanied by a glass of the local millet wine. It was wine in the loosest possible sense of the word – a tumblerful of transparent oily liquid which resembled turpentine in appearance, and smelled like it. I had narrowly avoided being offered one myself, having to politely decline numerous times, happily without having to resort to my fallback position of “It’s against my religion”, which can lead on to rather convoluted explanations as to why I don’t drink. Sal sipped at the stuff bravely, considering she’d just woken up, pulled a face and carefully pushed it away. No mojitos here. The owner stood by our table as we ate, or more accurately leaned over it with his elbows on it and his head between us. “How do you like the food?” he asked expectantly. We praised it to the skies, and as a reward, or perhaps a further challenge – Advanced Level Dal Bhat – Mana brought a small dish of pickled radishes. I wept a little in appreciation as I crunched through one – it was reminiscent of the toxically acidic mustard-yellow pickle that the British know as Piccalilli, but comprised entirely of giant moola radishes.

The cloud dissipated in the night and the next day was sparkling and clear. I looked up at the snow-covered mountains behind the village which were glowing orange in the morning sun. On the other side of the valley Tangting was still in shadow, but as I watched the sun crept down the mountainside, and as it did so the hill became loud with birdsong, increasing in volume as the rays spread downhill through the forest. We had a long day ahead, described as a seven or eight hour walk, up to Tara Hilltop for a view of the mountains, assuming it was clear, and then along the ridge and down to the village of Ghalekharka. As we packed up, Mana found a long bamboo stick for Sal, in the absence of trekking poles, which later proved to be a lifesaver. We received the ubiquitous dab on the forehead from one of the young girls who had been washing her hair the day before – a red tika this time, instead of rice pudding – and a marigold to place behind our ear. Off we set, slowly slowly, heading through the village, in a small traffic jam caused by three buffaloes.

The sun was hot as we walked, but there was a cool breeze coming down from the snowfields. We entered a rhododendron forest, the national flower of Nepal, which appears in stylized form on the country’s flag – the only national flag, incidentally, which is not rectangular in shape, consisting instead of two triangles in a pennant one above the other. These weren’t the small shrubs that we associate with the plant in more northerly climes, but large trees with extensive root systems which we clambered over. Although we had only been going for an hour or so, I had no power in my legs at all, and just plodded along in a state of no-thinking, sometimes dully looking round myself at the scenery. In places it resembled an English woodland, in others it was more like the jesse scrub of the southern African bush. Through the foliage there was an occasional lightening refracted from the backdrop of snow on the mountains which were themselves invisible, hidden by the screen of trees, and yet somehow they made their presence felt.

Soon we came to a junction marked with a signpost, indicating Tara Hilltop. “1.5 hours,” the sign said. The path snaked upwards through bushland, rising then falling, rising again. Eventually we found ourselves walking along a narrow ridge, occasional glimpses of clear sky ahead. The hilltop itself seemed to dance away out of range at every turn – we’d catch a glimpse of it before the trees thickened again, obscuring our view, and we’d trudge along some more. We could see cloud building off to our left, rising up from the valley, and we were racing it to the hilltop, hoping to get there before the view was completely obscured. Eventually the path began to rise steeply – more steps – and I powered up them, steaming like a kettle, feeling a hot twinge in my right shoulder from a pulled muscle, but determined just to get there and stop.

We emerged onto a flat, grassy expanse, but off to the right there was nothing but cold, grey cloud. No mountains in sight. I didn’t care any more, and staggering over to the edge of the field, threw off my bag and sat down. I fumbled in the side pocket for my water, and as I was doing so, Mana said: “Look.”  I glanced up and saw the ghostly outline of Machhapuchhare’s triangular peak emerge from clouds of swirling mist. Then Annapurna I, next to it, came into view. As we watched, the cloud just vanished before our eyes, revealing the entire range – massively high, and right there in front of us. We fumbled for cameras, all tiredness forgotten, walking around the field in search of the best viewpoints. I tried taking a panorama on the iPhone, following the horizontal line with the arrow, but as I was still out of breath from the last push to the hilltop the arrow rose and fell with each exhalation. The next minute the view was swallowed up again by billowing mist. A minute or two later it parted again and the sun shone on the peaks once more. As we watched there came a dull boom, like an explosion, which echoed around the mountains, and a small white puff rose into the air from one of the rock faces. “Avalanche,” Mana said, and we sat in silence feeling rather subdued by the scale and the power of the natural forces in these mountains.

There’s nothing actually to do in the mountains. You walk, you stop and rest, eat something, walk some more. There’s no demand on your attention other than keeping your balance, watching for the next foothold, and trying not to fall over. Your mind is free to wander. I found myself thinking about how, in the history of my own country – the United Kingdom – our landscape had changed from being predominantly woodland, through to a small patchwork of fields and settlements, and then industrialisation. All the different eras that had come and gone had played themselves out against this changing backdrop. This led to a vision of horsemen in armour galloping through the woodland I was currently slogging though, and then, tiring of the vision, I yelled “cut!” in my mind like a film director. I thought about what a luxury it was to be clean, dry and wearing fresh clothes, not perpetually sticky and malodorous. And yet there was a kind of purity in the mountain life too. The simplicity of the diet, nothing to drink but water, meant that the few treats that we had brought with us like a chocolate bar or an orange seemed to explode with flavour, as we appreciated it all the more.

We were descending the hillside now, a set of steps that just went on and on. My left knee, often a source of trouble – it has been known to seize up on the journey between lounge and kitchen, leaving me hopping – began to give out; it wouldn’t lock, just flex whenever I put pressure on it, forcing me to then take another step with my right. It was made worse by the heavy backpack, so at one of the stops I finally gave in and asked if I could swap bags with Mana. “No problem,” he grinned, shrugging into the straps and spurning the waist belt completely. It made a huge difference. But Sal was struggling too. We’d been walking six hours by now, and the old legs weren’t working too well. She used her bamboo stick at every step, almost as if she were punting, placing it downhill and then stepping tentatively forwards. Mana kept stopping to look backwards to see how she was doing, and I kept nearly running into him in consequence with my unlocking knee. The constant stop-start meant that I got a stitch for the first time on the trip, and soon I went on ahead, keeping up a constant pace of small steps; there was only one path to follow, after all.

The last two hours were really difficult. We stopped more and more frequently, the village of Ghalekharka coming into view on the opposite hillside, tantalisingly close. Sal was halting every few steps, and I wasn’t doing much better, although fortunately my knee was holding up – trying to hop down that hillside would have been tricky to say the least, and it does give you a certain incentive to carry on when you know there is no other option; had one of us been injured and unable to walk, it would have fallen to Mana to go for help and find villagers to carry us. We came to a small stupa and halted again. All I wanted to do was get there now. “Which is the guesthouse?” I asked Mana. He pointed out a building with a blue roof. “Next to that.” I set off again, down the last few flights of stone steps towards it. Then the path levelled out, and we finally hobbled up to the guesthouse nine hours after setting out that morning. It had been a tough day.

I was completely out of water, craving a cup of tea, and there seemed to be nobody in evidence at the guesthouse apart from three small girls. One began sweeping the mud-floored yard with a broom made of twigs, and another was despatched to find the owner. A third, who wore a grubby yellow ankle-length skirt, emerged from a tin shack marked ‘toilet’, went into the kitchen and emerged carrying two glasses which she rinsed under a tap that dribbled in the corner of the yard. “I hope those aren’t glasses for our tea,” I murmured, knowing full well that they were. Perhaps the boiling water would kill any germs. A barefoot, robust-looking granny came along and conversed with Mana for a while, and he leaned towards me and translated: “The old ladies are making folk dancing here tonight. If you are interested.” I was deeply uninterested – I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting through an evening of stomping and wailing, no doubt being exhorted repeatedly to join in. I could hardly stand up as it was. I asked him to pass on our apologies, saying that we were rather tired, but perhaps another time. It was rather embarrassing, at a relatively youthful 41, to be so done in after a few hours’ walk which was an everyday event for the Gurung. But I took consolation in the fact that the Gurung believe that up to the age of 40 you are young, and after that you are old – there is no middle ground of middle age. So I was officially old, and could hobble around with a clear conscience.

And part of me, too, was aware that this was something of a valedictory experience. I had felt that I couldn’t leave Nepal without doing a trek – it almost seemed like a requirement. But the novelty had long worn off, and I didn’t have the kind of evangelical enthusiasm any more for the wild places that I once had, and that others still seemed to possess. I had fallen out of love with the mountains, not from any great disaster, as with some former climbers I know, who after seeing one tragedy too many find that in the balance of payments, of excitement versus risk, that the price no longer seemed worth paying, but in a kind of weariness at it all. Perhaps it really was a case of getting older – though there are many far older than I who still enjoyed heading out on expeditions. It had somehow just lost its appeal. I had always thought of myself as unconventional, putting up with levels of discomfort, sometimes considerable, in order to avoid the mundane, the routine. But now I began to wonder whether I hadn’t been acting out a life that was lived out of contrariness in a kind of rejection of modern society, with its false needs, its creature comforts and perpetual consumption. I had taken to the mountains so many years before to get away from things, and yet those things followed me because they were in me – although the perspective that the mountains offered had made them manageable. It was the oldest cliché of all.

I realised that over the last few days I had thought so many times of things that I wanted to do – learn to play an instrument, become proficient in one of the many languages that I have a smattering of, write some more poetry, or just take up a hobby which involved creating or constructing something tangible, instead of merely producing the hieroglyph of digital pixels that make up the words on a page. I couldn’t see myself working in a corporation that only seemed to exist to make more and more money, and wondered about pursuing more traditional skills that required care and attention to detail to complete, but which left the mind free, not continually rushing from one half-baked task to the next without any time to do anything properly. I had had these thoughts, and one by one I had discarded them, thinking: oh well, I can come back to that later. Perhaps there was no later? Perhaps when I was back in the melee of the city, whether Kathmandu or London, I would forget that I had had the time to think these things, and they would just become more discarded ambitions. Where, even, would I live? London’s perpetual din seemed to keep me in a state of continual hyper-vigilance, unable to relax – the fast-walking people, the sirens, the drilling, the bangs and crashes, the yelling of drunks at night. I wondered, not for the first time, why I even lived there. My wanderlust had begun to feel increasingly like a curse – doomed to roam the earth and never to settle for long. I pictured a white cottage in a green field with a backdrop of grey sea, somewhere on the Celtic periphery. Somewhere I could write, and watch the changing sky, immerse myself in the elemental weather and feel a sense of belonging. It was a thought that had returned many times over the years. I could take out an advertisement: Exile seeks idyll – mild discomfort acceptable. Did Scotland require a visa these days? Was Ireland both too close to home and simultaneously too far? Wales? Iceland? Perhaps there was somewhere in East Anglia, which had, after all, become home. I would see when I went back.