You Were So Good, So – poems from the psych ward


I have been asked to speak at the Mind, State and Society conference next Tuesday. They would like me to provide a flavour of what it was like to go through the psych system in the late 80s and early 90s – an era of huge change in mental health policy and practice.

This was when the Victorian Asylums were closing, Care in the Community began, Prozac was born and Community Mental Health Teams were spawned.

I will intersperse the talk with some of the poems below.

These chart a little of my journey – from an angst-ridden Jewish teen with a mother who had been a kinder-transport refugee, through six haunting years of mental illness. This included a stint in one of the old asylums and then in and out of a psych unit for three years. And then a stumbling recovery…

These poems are from the following publications:
– Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus (2017, Templar Press)
– Elephants Fragile (2019, Cinnamon Press)
– ReCollections (2019, Bethlem Gallery Publications)
– The Rare Bird Recovery Protocol (published in Spring 2020, by Cinnamon Press)

She Said

That cut will take time to heal
You think too much
Double-bow your laces
Don’t waste food – finish what’s on your plate
Coffee doesn’t taste as good as it smells
Double lock the door when we go out
Lock it at night when we stay in
Pay attention
German is not a nice language
Keep your head down – don’t get involved
Not too much salt on that
Love is not like Hollywood
Try your best, but don’t get your hopes up
Open the window at night to get some fresh air
The doctor may need to take your tonsils out
Heaven is a sensible idea – for some
A quiet life is a good life
No, I’m fine
Rules are there for a reason
I can tell when it will rain
I’ve never believed in a loving God
Imagine every other driver is an idiot
Be back before its dark
Don’t speak too loudly in public places
There’s no point talking about the past
You ask too many questions
Stay away from dogs – particularly Alsatians
Knife and fork together when done

Mental Schmental

Nu? she asks with her usual charm
of my mum, then glancing sideways at me:
mental schmental
we don’t need to talk about things like that
do we? Nothing that a few pills couldn’t help
and anyway
ECT never did me any harm.

The Herrison, 1990

I was driven in by Stuart, the kindly but agitated priest
of the therapeutic community who’d done his best
but understandably had had his fill before evensong
of me saying (again) I would do myself in.

To be fair, he’d enough on his plate, running the place,
along with a farm, lambing time, god knows what else.
I couldn’t imagine how he did it. But then again
I couldn’t imagine getting out of bed. The drive was grim.

I thought of dousing myself at the Esso garage
but have never been more than an amateur dramatist
and got a Snicker instead. The place was mad of course.
I can’t remember how I got to watch The Abyss

with three student nurses over a Chinese take away
or how I managed to concentrate on England v Zaire
where Platt scored on the turn while a thin girl explained
how she’d baked a cake to explode in her mother’s face.

Each morning, I watched Jimmy, the ex-pig farmer,
head bowed, soul burrowed, round and round the field
close to the hedge while the sheep munched mildly
rotating slowly clockwise, keeping an eye out.

The asylum was in the throes of being closed.
They still grew tomatoes though, in vast greenhouses
like hangars. I could have shouted from one end to the other
and nobody hear me. In fact, I did. they didn’t.

Worse, they kept us bottled up, fizzing. As if we’d flatten
eventually with the injections, monumental boredom
and home-grown lettuce, Dorset stretching into the distance,
a sullen but kindly land, too fucking pleasant to be this cursed.

The Jab

I slid between rooms
Severing wires

Unscrewing bulbs
And scissoring magazines

Limbs became heavier
And heavier to operate

I sat cross-legged
Fending off evil

While the bedroom wall
Grew dangerously thin

The black house began
Its whispering plots

My brother was sent
With poisoned Jaffa Cakes

Midnight’s rush
Of telephone calls

wailing and wolf-like
Four men arrived

Serious and muscular
The quiet jab came

And my mother’s voice:
Please look after him

Close Obs

I’m curled into a ball
on a thin mattress on the floor
covered with a crinkly nylon sheet
smelling faintly of sick and piss.

Outside the heavy brown door
sits Len, muscly, tanned,
with the Mirror crossword.
Not much older than me,

he’s done his fair share
of hurtling down corridors
readying needles full of Depixol
to slam into the arses of lunatics

like me I suppose.
As my sobbing slows
I hear him humming tunelessly
and clicking the end of his pen:

‘Mate, your mum said
you didn’t use to be such a dickhead.
Let’s see. Try this for starters:
French for dead-end, 3-2-3?’

This Way Then That

On Thursday afternoon at four he stopped
layering slabs of brown on grey on black
and got up to get scissors and masking tape
unrolled a sheet of frosted tracing paper
and hung it over his face to make a veil
then looked out over where there once had been
a vista of roads and homes, park and shops
where far off normal people – smudges, lines
and dots – moved this way then that, while back
at the tables, they watched and waited just like
the others had always done and then the art
therapist asked: “So tell us what you can see?”
Animal shadows? Waves? Or weaving bones?
Fuck off. Smudges. Lines. Dots.

The Ken Porter Ward

I am ‘admitted’
They strip me of my belt
My change. My keys. My smooth
stone the shape of an egg
That Robin gave me.
Suicide tools.

They rock and dribble
Like all the scary pictures
I’ve ever had in my head.
One edges towards me
like an antelope to a water hole
Where are you from?
Your skin is so smooth.
Have you had your medication yet?
I don’t know why I’m here, I say.
Have you ever scored
a treble word score in Scrabble? He replies.

I ‘abscond’ – a word they like –
spend the afternoon by the scuzzy pond
at the end of the path lined with crusty dog shit

A boy of 15 walks around naked
And wants to hug everyone.
He even wants to hug me.
But I won’t let him.
He tries to bite me.
Next morning, he’s gone.
I can’t remember his name.

Every pillow
Every pillow of squeaky nylon
Property of Barnet Psychiatric Unit.
Every sheet
Every thin grey sheet
Every blanket is labelled
Property of Barnet Psychiatric Unit.

Mum reminds me when she visits
– ‘You were so good
at science. So good, so good, so…’

I get a letter from my brother in Japan –
I’ll visit when I can.

My dad takes me for coffee and cakes.
He sighs a lot. I understand
why he sighs. I understand
why people sigh. Why everyone sighs. I dream later
I’m filled with sighs and lift
above High Barnet like The Red Balloon
before being shot down.

They change the policy, lock the doors at eight
Risk management.
I spend the night picking scabs
Later they will become
White constellations
When my arms brown.

She sits one legged
on a wooden chair
tells me how her mum
had not dared come near
so she had wrapped a wire
just above the knee
pulled until it hurt
then pulled some more

My guts wake me
from a dreamless dry mouth sleep.
The night shift are leaving.
They wheel the meds trolley round.
That one wheel that squeaks
and squeaks

I am explaining myself
to myself each night.
I am explaining why
Nobody will hold me. Why
I will not get out.

Mum reminds me – ‘You were so good
at English. So good, so good, so…’

They find Larry face down in the reservoir
He used to cadge cigarettes
Move from bench to bench
I’m not well, he would say
over and over again.

John hunches motionless
in the plastic chair all night.
Robert snores.
Maureen chants all night
I work it out eventually.

Nobody brings flowers.

We sit on Larry’s old bench
surrounded by fag ends
overlooking the cemetery
I tell Ellie my story
He offers to go get
his gun from the car

I find a friend and cling.
We watch fireworks break over the car park
from the laundry room.

I hold her hand.
It won’t last say the nurses, say the doctors
says the washing machine.

The custodians drift
in white-jacketed shoals
disappear into the Pink Room
through heavy doors head down
with coffee mugs and syringe.
Later they lead out
the quieted
with eyes milk-mild and sugary
startled by fluorescence
shuffling obediently towards
the trolley of stale digestives
and plastic cups of lukewarm tea.

You were so good, so good, so

The Eel (Recovery)

Beneath the ice
an eel slipped through the murk
mouth bigger than the world.

The man watched and shivered
in the face of what he’d become.
His mind could not respond.

His body had to be coerced
by something other
or be abandoned.

His legs, heavy and traitorous, began
to bisect dreamless streets.
He still looked down

caressing the blade
whispering in his pocket.
His eyes were eventually drawn

by scaffolding and cigarette packets.
By pipework: the earth opening up.
Railway sidings at dawn:

The tenacity of dandelions!
He failed at first to recognise
this emerging appetite.

You Didn’t Tell Me

You didn’t tell me there would be days when I could walk out
on a garden by a low stone wall and breeze from the Baltic.

You didn’t tell me there would be chaffinches in the oak
and gentle hill curving down to the reeds, lake and an empty boat.

You didn’t tell me there would be oars, that I could steer to middle water
overlooked by black and white storks in towering nests.

You didn’t tell me there would be time to pull in the oars,
let drift and swirl, that distant bells could sound like glockenspiels.

You didn’t tell me that shivery and jagged reflections of white trees
could settle themselves into distinct silver parallel lines.

You didn’t tell me that I could return at any time to the jetty,
or that when I stood, a turquoise dragonfly could land on my arm.

The World Is Full of Toilets To Cry In

Old smelly ones of course, uninspected, with cracked floor tiles, damp inglorious seats and broken locks, where one tap gushes forever hot and the dryer doesn’t work, even if you bang it several times. And where you’re not so poorly as to fail to notice the plethora of metaphors.

I can feel more at home in posh ones, conference centres, government agencies and four star hotels (you can sometimes sneak in if you’re desperate) where Mozart streams in from unidentifiable wall speakers and the soap and incense sticks, in your justifiable fury, are easily nicked.

There was one (soon after she left me) where the urinals were ringed in a hazy ultraviolet light like the one that went round and round in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (though maybe I’m wrong. She said I was a lot of the time. Maybe it was white). It could be some sort of futuristic antiseptic. But it had me so captivated that I forgot. For a while.

But mostly I prefer the everyday ones, in railway stations or shopping centres, just about clean enough mostly, to let you know you’re alright in the end, not too shiny to make you feel awkward for feeling so rubbish. And at least you’re never alone. I don’t mind paying 20p for one of those.

A Letter of Apology
From an inmate of a Victorian Asylum

Sir, it was not so much due to
the loss of those civilising attitudes
or everyday habitual temperaments
upon which you, and your esteemed
fellow professionals attribute,
significant value, or that which
you declaim that I, and all
my brethren in these miserable
whereabouts should possess and
lately, unfortunately, temporarily
one hopes, for reasons that I,
and perhaps we cannot yet
fully explicate, have not.
But for that which you
display when you attend my
personage and inspect my
parts, therein illustrating
evidence of considerable lack
yourself – that is the truth of why
I spat in your face.
much damaged, much displaced.