‘But what do you know, who has not been mad?’
So, rather wonderfully, the proofs of my new book, Saving Lucia, are out and about. Bluemoose will be putting its new subscription service into action soon too; do watch out for that because, if you have liked the sound of Saving Lucia so far, as a subscriber, you’d get to read it two months early; in February, rather than April.
There is something I thought I would share with you today, though. As I have said elsewhere, the idea for Saving Lucia came from a chance sighting of this photograph.
Who was this? Elderly and (perhaps?) frail-looking; facing away from the camera; arms in a beautiful pose and look how she is covered with birds! It caught my eye. This lady was a Lady. She was The Honourable Violet Albina Gibson, an Irish aristocrat, and she loved the birds of the air. I found out that there were pouches sewn into her clothes and that these were to be filled with birdseed. Actually, I interviewed one of the nurses (now in her nineties) who cared for her – again because of a chance sighting of an article on psychiatric nursing – and gradually a book took shape. In 1926 Violet Gibson went to Rome and shot Mussolini. She missed, grazing across his nose – but she came closer than anyone else. Imprisoned, then deported, she was certified mad in Harley Street and sent to St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton where she remained for the rest of her life.
I will not say more of her story now, because we, as a team, will reveal and discuss things over the coming months – and of course I hope you will read the book.
But here is the thing I mentioned I wanted to share with you.
The book is about sanity. About madness. Our shifting definitions of what this is.
The book is about the imagination.
About its power and ability to sustain and transform a world. Yes, in the books we read which have sprung like fresh miracle from others’ imaginations, but also in that landscape inside our heads. The stories we tell ourselves and our reveries and daydreams and also the detailed imaginative freewheeling that may occur when circumstances press in on us and circumscribe our physical and psychological freedom. The latter is something I learned in very early childhood and have written about elsewhere: because I did not feel safe in the world I inhabited, I invented a lot of imaginary friends with whom I would have dialogue. This was not madness, but survival and company – and in essence it lasted into adolescence because the impact of early and sustained experience had catastrophic effects on my sense of identity, coping skills, resilience, responses to stress and on my mental health broadly. So, I have coped with OCD, depression, generalised anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks and dissociative episodes for large parts of my life. These seemed to grow from complex trauma. I feel like I would not have survived these things – and sometimes it has been a close thing; those of you have received crisis care from our mental health teams will know what I mean – without all the worlds inside my head. Stories, reams of poetry, landscapes I would invent and populate.
So you see, Saving Lucia sprang from a chance sighting of a photo. Then I realised that Lucia Joyce, daughter of the novelist James Joyce, was a co-patient of Violet Gibson. And that was someone whose well-explored – and circumscribed, thanks (I am sorry if this is too harsh) to the efforts of the keeper of the Joyce estate – life and truths I longed to ponder. And there were other women, too. And poets, dictators, theosophists, priests, neurologists – and many more I wished to think about.
But there was something else that it sprang from, and this was my feeling about the power of the imagination to provide for us when we are laid low; when we are, in one way or another, confined. That is partly the reason why I have Violet, who has extraordinary adventures in the book, say, ‘For those who are confined have the best imaginations.’ I didn’t mean it lightly.
Ah well, I hope we can talk a lot more about this book in the coming months. In the meantime, here is the beginning of an essay I have coming out also in April. It’s a book about art and mental health and my focus here, as you see, is on the imagination and very specifically about reading, without which I doubt I would have survived. Trauma: Art as Response to Mental Health, from Dodo Ink edited by Thom Cuell and Sam Mills. I hope you will read that, too.
‘Do not read, as children do, for the sake of entertainment, or, like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.
And read, read, read in order to build and rebuild. Listen, too, to stories; to new words and worlds. This is how it was for me, reading to set the darkness echoing and to know that I was not alone. You may think (as Flaubert) that young children do not feel this way about books, but even as a young child, I read both for entertainment and safety, because I could find spaces with characters, or just linger with the feelings that words gave me when I ate them or jumbled them about in my mouth. I would talk to the characters in books and ask their advice; tell them how I felt. Or read passages again and again for security; they were as a private talisman to me. I think, looking back, that I savoured scansion or the weight of a line for its mnemonic qualities and the comfort that afforded.
In bed, as a kid, I would hear shouting or groaning; diffuse sounds. Arguments. Later, my father whimpering and screaming, because he went mad before he died, though no-one spoke about it. I would hear stertorous breathing and feel frightened, but there was no-one to tell. And I think that the sounds outside my room got mixed up with the sounds in my head. When I was very young, I also began a series of rebarbative and ruminating thoughts, the roots of obsessive compulsive patterns I suppose, in which I imagined that if I thought something bad, then it would happen to something. That if I thought something unkind or even allowed the words egress into my mind, then those words will billow out and do things. This was, I knew even then, because my mother had instilled in me an idea that I was bringing of bad things. Looking back, I don’t know why she did this; I don’t know why she wasn’t prevented. Even now, if I am not careful, I slip into this position if someone is particularly caustic to me because I may struggle to believe, despite the pressing of my rational mind, that it could be them, and not me. I turn to reading. Every time.’