The Hats We Wear / Blank Versing the Past is an NHS-funded anthology of mental health service users’ writing published under the Waterloo Press imprint. This is a groundbreaking publication in a number of ways, not least its innovative two-in-one reversible production style, comprising as it does two separate books – the slimmer Aldrington Day Hospital selection of outpatients’ poetry, and the more extensive collection of writing from inpatients on an acute ward at Mill View Psychiatric Hospital. Selected, edited and introduced by Waterloo poet and voluntary creative writing workshop tutor Alan Morrison in collaboration with occupational therapist Jan Hill, the book collects together writing of over 70 mental health service users, produced during weekly one hour creative writing workshops. The anthology – launched at Brighton Jubilee Library on 12th November 2009 and featured in the Brighton Evening Argus – has been funded by Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust through their NHS Artists’ Award Scheme, and supervised by Mill View Activities Co-ordinator Nick McMaster.
Extract from Introduction, ‘A Nice Edge – Comment from a Poet Volunteer’ by Alan Morrison
The Evolving Mind
If the human body evolves, then presumably so does the human brain? And at a faster rate in some cases than in others? With these notions in mind, this extract from a piece of writing by a highly intellectualised workshop participant, seems all the more compelling:
How much of that unused brain contains programming for modes of living totally irrelevant to our present situations?
Having taken the number of whacks to the head that I have had, I feel I have become quite used to having to improvise with my internal filing system. ...So whether or not I would correspond to Fowler’s findings I don’t really know. It’s one reason I’m not especially scared of ECT...
The striking phrase ‘internal filing system’ might have struck a real chord with Laing in his assertions that psychosis could have an underlying rational cognitive function in processing irrational realities. How could we begin to attempt unravelling the threads of such intricately woven thought processes? (Laing would probably have said there’s no point: better let them ravel their course, accelerate them through creative application. That at least might well ease the tension of mental rebellion so it may slowly reuptake the crutches of more rational regulation).
The piece of writing extracted above was written during an exercise focusing on a glazed porcelain phrenology head, designed by LN Fowler & Co. in the mid-Nineteenth century, now something of a Victorian curiosity. Phrenology was a pseudoscience that attempted to map the different areas of the brain and their respective faculties; not only in broad cognitive and behavioural strokes, but also in the finer pinpointing of more specific cerebral nuances, labelled with highfalutin synonyms such as approbativeness (vanity), amativeness (libido), inhabitiveness (staying close to one’s roots etc.).
Our phrenology session brought with it not only some striking pieces of writing, but also a fascinating anecdote from one participant: that after Darwin’s first trip to the Galápagos Islands, his father commented that his son’s head had changed shape, as if it had to make room for the intake of new revelatory knowledge that would lead to his theory of Evolution. It would be somewhat ironic to imagine the father confirming his observation by measuring Darwin’s head with the same craniometer37 his son had used on monkey skulls to confirm his groundbreaking discoveries. (Whether or not this is true, it was an unexpectedly colourful association tapped from the object’s trigger; not to mention ripe for the poetic microscope).
Nowadays, phrenological ideas have transmuted into a less poetic, cognitive mapping of the brain, scientifically based, which identifies the behavioural functions of cerebral lobes. This has led to further insights into the neurological nature of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, though actual cures still elude us. It has culminated in the modern psychiatric consensus that invariably mental illnesses have chemical aetiologies; anxiety and obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders, for instance, are ascribed to varying levels of serotonin in the brain. This has in turn led to a pharmaceutical sub-industry of anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medications, of varying brands and colours. In spite of indiscriminate side effects, such medications have in the main alleviated the degree of psychological suffering in those prescribed them. But medication is no long-term solution in itself, and needs almost always to be combined with regular and accessible therapy and, ideally, some meaningful activity through which a sufferer can regain a sense of purpose in their life, which is where Occupational Therapy comes in.
It is not enough for a human being to simply have a job, to simply be employed; it is also essential to a person’s wellbeing that they are suitably employed, that their occupation is not just fiscally, but also intellectually, creatively and socially, remunerative38. Such insights have been articulated ever since the Industrial Revolution began to mechanise — and thereby dehumanise — the nature of labour: from the artisan ideals of the Luddites to the bucolic nostalgia of the Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites; from the Arts and Crafts movement38 to the Labour movement; from the emergence of socialist thought, through Existentialism, to Holism39. These incarnations of industrial skepticism have been variations on broadly the same theme: a struggle for the unfettered expression of the human personality in the materialist age.
Or, as visionary thinkers such as John Ruskin40, Karl Marx41, William Morris37, Oscar Wilde42 and Jean-Paul Sartre43 would all have argued — in varying idioms: the conflict between the will to be a socially purposive individual and the industrial obligation to be a manipulated functionary (or a ‘cog in the machine’ as the idiom goes). Durkheim44 and Laing would probably have phrased it as authenticity versus inauthenticity. (Only in my capacity as a volunteer poetry tutor at Mill View have I cultivated an occupational authenticity that sadly paid employment has rarely given me. A wage is almost implicitly a barter for labour which, if it were not for financial necessity, one would often otherwise not choose to do. Volunteering gives the flexibility to shape one’s own occupation, but at a financial sacrifice. It is ironic then that many of those in society who can afford to contribute free time and labour to their communities choose instead to continue profiting from their status).
These perspectives are just as relevant today, especially in the current capitalist crisis. And yet, ideological lessons have still not been learnt: today’s neo-Thatcherite parliamentary consensus is reasserting an industrially motivated model of occupation, hijacking the ‘health through occupation’ ethos in a manner which arguably ‘...couches coercion in the rhetoric of empowerment’45. This consensus misses the point of why so many people are on Incapacity Benefit in the first place: due to the unreasonably stressful industrial model of ‘work’, its pressures of time and performance on employees, and the suppression of the creative personality in the workplace.
37 A tool of Craniometry, the study of character traits from the formation of the cranium and physiognomy, pioneered by Swedish anthropologist Anders Retzius (1796-1860).
38 see William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890); and various pamphlets and essays
39 Jan Smuts, Holism and Evolution (1926); Emile Durkheim, various works
40 see Unto This Last (1860); and The Stones of Venice (1851-3)
41 see Das Kapital (1867)
42 see The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891)
43 see Nausea (1938); Being and Nothingness (1943)
44 see Suicide and his work on anomie