Tuesday, 22 April 2008


My ‘memoir’ – I feel obliged to put the word in inverted commas – appears from Shearsman at the same as my Collected Poems. The first part of ‘Dreaming Arrival’ actually to appear in print was published in the London Review of Books, in their regular ‘Diary’ slot, back in 1999. It was an account of a breakdown I experienced when I was nineteen and serves as a point of reference for the overall narrative. Back then I spent seven or eight months in Holloway Sanatorium, a mental hospital in Virginia Water. The building has now been converted into flats. I wonder whether shades of departed patients still patrol the building. I’ve recently learned that there were certainly two other poets in there at about the same time as I was. One was Nancy Cunard no less, poet, heiress, patron of modernism and compiler, with her lover the jazz pianist Henry Crowder, of the anthology ‘Negro’. By the time she came to Holloway she was in a state of near-terminal decline. Her Selected Poems have recently appeared from Trent Editions edited with an introduction by John Lucas. In my account of my time there I recall a time when we had to help clear out the cellars – I was on the Gardening Squad, which counted as ‘occupational therapy’ – and found that what we were clearing out were patients’ notes from the early part of the twentieth century. I managed to read one of these before tossing it onto the wheelbarrow to be taken down to our bonfire. It was a female patient. "She refuses to wear any clothes but goes around naked”, I read. “She says they are building a golden cage to lock her in..." There was much more in the same vein. I daresay Nancy Cunard was in a ‘golden cage’ however hard she fought to escape.

The other poet, was who was published by Hogarth Press before the war but then disappeared from view, was Joan Adeney Esdaile. She is the subject of a new biography by her granddaughter Celia Robertson, titled ‘Who Was Sophie’. Like me, she was given doses of ECT. That, along with very large quantities of pills, was the order of the day. Were we ever standing in the queue together in the patients’ café, I wonder, waiting for our evening cocoa? I recently met Stuart Montgomery, whose Fulcrum Press was such a major force in poetry publishing in the decade from the mid-sixties, when he was reading in London – he has a new book, ‘Islands’, just out from Etruscan. He is now a leading academic expert on anti-depressants and when I mentioned what I’d been given when I was in there he seemed surprised to see that I was still around.

Setting out to write some sort of account of all this may have been an act of folly. I’ve been working on the material for ten years or so. I was in therapy or analysis – whichever you like to call it – in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. I kept a journal during this time and conceived the idea, while I was still going, of eventually writing a book and I embarked on that as soon as the analysis finished. I have found it difficult to pull the thing together, difficulties which I have touched on in the text and which raise issues of course about this kind of ‘confessional’ writing or personal testimony – the temptation is to construct a conventional narrative which embodies a process of self-discovery, culminating in an explanation of what it was that made things turn out in the way they did. In the event I’ve found it impossible to construct such a narrative without falsifying the experience. What I’ve produced is variations on a theme or set of themes.

Then there is the way writing about the experience affects the experience of the therapy itself, becomes entangled in it. I quote the American analyst who is the subject of Janet Malcolm's book 'An Impossible Profession'. He maintains that the sign of a successful analysis is that the analysand subsequently forgets all about it. This of course would make writing about it an admission of failure – and would incidentally place the analyst beyond criticism . . .

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