Poetry 'n Prose Reviews

Sonorous by Wise Journey


A supple willingness to just embrace the day

with yesterday long gone –

shed off like locust skin

in tune with now: so simply

just let in.

Breadcrumb thoughts now sprinkled in the ashy snow.

A sonorous, lazy, quiet letting go.


See WiseJourney for more uplifting photography and mindfulness in writing.

Opinion Reviews

On Sylvia Plath

Ever since my early twenties I have been inexorably drawn to Sylvia Plath. There is something that haunts me about her life, her poetry and her deep rooted despair and depression and how it came out in her writing.

I remember when I first felt a kinship with Plath, it was reading her diaries (from her early years at Cambridge), around the time when she met Ted Hughes. Reading her diaries it seemed to me that Plath constantly lived on the cusp of a complete and utter nervous breakdown. Her mind was often ravaged by scarred thoughts of the past, oscillating between bouts of severe depression and terrifying anxiety.

I too am more than acquainted with the ‘black dog’ of depression, and I know only too well that the ordinary act of waking up can bring with it a sense of pointlessness, unimaginable panic and feelings of desolation. I can only begin to imagine the additional pressures that weighed in on Plath’s depression: child rearing, marital distress, the unresolved feelings she held towards her father for whom her poetry and prose, was filled with rhythmic, angry, injecting volatile emotion into a myriad of words.

I try to relate Plath’s battle with depression to the generation that influenced her. The early 1960’s was a terrible time for women. Worse still for clever ambitious women. Valium had been on the market for a few years in and by this time was being advertised aggressively by the medical profession at healthy women who felt trapped. Tranquillizers were commonly used to silence the voice of dissatisfaction, descent and unrest of women in society. These desperate and distress women had to be medicated away. Why wouldn’t any woman (or man) go mad in a society like this?

These days depression is the stuff of dinner-party prattle, but Plath explored the condition with no sense of its being a “condition” that others shared, no established therapeutic vocabulary, and no Prozac was on offer. It wasn’t until the early 1990″s that depression entered mainstream social discourse and began to lose its stigma. Ironically, now that we regard it as a standard, hardly shameful diagnosis, routinely treatable with drugs, we may have lost a raw sense of how awful, terrifying, and bleak is the real thing. Plath reminds us sharply of that horror.

I also wonder if Plath would have been better able to cope had she been born in a different time. Would she have found our modernity, a cosy coffee-house environment (complete with wifi internet access) easier to live with. Would she have been less dependent on the approval of viewers and critics and more aware of the positive effect her book was having on young and splintered psyches?

Would she have found a way to connect with people who understood her aesthetic and validated her experience? Would she have been better ‘received’?
Or would that kind of facebook connectedness and access to unmitigated and often misspelled negativity have driven her even madder? I wonder.

Haphazardly one morning, I thought I’d type her name into YouTube. After all these years, for the first time I heard Sylvia’s voice. It’s a beautiful voice with its educated, New England lilt of a kind that barely exists anymore. It’s also lucid, articulate, strong, and witty as she talks of how prose allows you to include more of the detailed experience of life, those “toothbrushes” you can’t put into poety. And there she is reading Daddy!

“Daddy,” it begins, “I have had to kill you.”

The poem’s rhythms, that potent blend of nursery rhyme and ragtime, still thrum through me:

“You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe”

rhyming daringly at the stanza’s end with “Achoo”.

“the brute heart of a brute like you”…

Plath’s narrative voice resides inside my head conscious and unconscious, sometimes fluttery, self-conscious, sometimes melodramatic, sometimes afraid. But which ever it is there a sense of the irrepressible effervescence, amongst the personal hauntings, and the fact that women inflect experiences differently from men. We cannot, it seems, escape that.

By some accident of time and place, I met the feminist poet Doris Lessing whose writing was one of the first to introduce me to feminism. Lessing had known Plath for many years and she told me of Plath’s life and her vivid presence as well as of the tragedy of her suicide, in part occasioned by a toxic cocktail of anti-depressants she was allergic to.

But what Lessing also recalled was a story of a woman, a mother, a daughter, a wife, an artist who still believed not just in the possibility of happiness, but in herself. However brief and fragile her moment of hope, however anguished those last months of her life, Plath recognised the timeless incandescence of her achievement.

The suffering of those who take their own lives seems to me to be unimaginable – a terrifying and heartbreaking thought, how much worse their psychic pain must have been than anything one has oneself experienced. This psychic pain invades us all, at some point in our lives. The floor of some world seems to fall away from under us, and keep falling and falling. It shakes us to the core and renders our deeply held beliefs in kindness, compassion and love into doubting heaps of pain-filled ‘what ifs’.

Plath’s poetry attempted to answer this, though ultimately I suspect nothing ever can, not even poetry. But I will always admire her attempt, with her fierce intelligence, her language, her wit, her consonantal music – her sheer gift, and what must have been her drive, as its guardian, possessor, possessee, to realise it.

Plath’s poems walk with me each day, like inner voices, where even the parts of a rejected self, can find and incorporate a greater whole. Plath’s poems gives me a gentle hand on the shoulder and a quiet place under the Hawthorn tree to find that whole.

It is, as she wrote:

“A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for …”

It is, a star passing from her hand into ours.

Star Clusters

Music Reviews Soundscapes

A Hymn To Hope

A Hymn To Hope is an instrumentation set to Dream Listener : An audiobook in three movements (2007) by Montreal artist Karen Elaine Spencer

Dream Listening centres in on the lives and experience of people sleeping on the streets who attend the St James’ Drop-in Centre in Montreal. I first heard Dream Listener in 2008 and it immediately resonated with something inside.  Karen’s work questions our values and investigates how we, as transient beings, occupy the world in which we live.

In the narrative Karen leads us to Dee’s story of homelessness, which is not just the absence of roof, warmth and relationships but a state of mind. It is often the very bottom of poverty, the depth of despair. People with no roof have a sense of hopelessness, resignation and powerlessness.

Poverty does not of itself ennoble and there is little romantic within it. Sometimes however it does enable you to see people anew in a strong stark light which takes away all the trappings. When everything is taken away, or more especially given up, some begin a journey which can become an Odyssey, into themselves.

Dee’s story illustrates how often the homeless have a shattered knowledge of themselves. They have been compelled, like tortoises, to carry absolutely everything important with them. They have been compelled to come to terms with fundamental and disturbing experiences which can both impoverish and uplift.

Karen’s work can be found on her blogs:

Dream Listener can be ordered here and have been used for this project with kind permission of the owner under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License


The Song of the River

It’s very exciting for me to unearth contemporary poets, especially those who write of ordinary everyday things with authenticity and creativity. When it happens, I find it brings with it moments of unguarded, unfetted, bliss. Sometimes it’s instant, or immediate (like a sudden enlightenment) and sometimes it follows hours later  lingering (like a gradual awakening). Rarely does poetry do both, to me at least. Well that was my experience until I accidentally unearthed the poetry of Francina Hartstra. Francina’s is a well seasoned poet, who’s blog had already impressed me with her Haiku.

Francina writes in single brush strokes of her pen and reveals pure observations, peppered with the Zen spices and Tao herbs of wisdom and compassion. I started slowly delving into the back catalogue. Captivated by older pieces, I wanted to know more about her work. Particularly about the reoccurring theme of water? So I asked Francina about this and how I may obtain a copy of her earlier published book The Song of the River. Days later Francina’s book came through my door, as a generous gift!

Song of the River

The Song of the River is a beautifully bounded book with great artwork on the front, and paper which gives off a rich texture to touch before you even open the book. The type print is simple and starts off with a bold Red letter. It hints of a romantic letter and seducing the reader into what follows. What follows a gentle lingering like the memory of a lover, the poetry walks with you, taps you on the shoulder and gives you pause for thought. It’s a pure reflection of life, without sentimentality.

Don’t bring roses
only to wither in a vase
so soon to be forgotten,
Share instead with me instead
a sunlit bed of white flowers
where memories blossom

Effortlessly she takes me on a journey from bleakness in Winter Mood,

Through sheer layers of mist
the fading sound from a distant train;
down the street house look like ghosts
with their dark hollow eyes, reflecting
no more than the coldness outside:
footsteps bounce back from silence
in the vacuum coloured by grays
where the living are not to be found
yet one lone soul still wanders around.

and then her words picks me up and lifts me onwards to the other side of season cycle in Summer Wind.

In this open outstretched land
my thoughts fade away in silence
with the whispers of long grasses
to flee with the summer wind.

All the while her tranquil words offering inner warmth, the tonic I needed as the cold nights draw in.

The title piece is a siren’s call, pulling me towards the rocks, but at the same time giving warnings to the dangers that lays ahead.

While water of the wildest river
unveils our deep passion
deep blue water at rivers end
calls to us love and loss

The theme of Water Gypsies and Fast-earth, harking back to ancient greek mythology, a time when nature had little trouble beckoning us to return to her, our true self. Actually all of poems in Francina’s book points towards a deeper source, to keep our earth-spirit awake, to come back, like some some lost love affair we once had with our lives and the planet.

Listen how the old river softly sings,
so softly the songs of yesterdays;
the longing in my soul grows stronger,
to return to when the river was my home

Francina’s book holds me in the scene, like I’m there, right there in the picture. I’m At The Beach, dipping my toes in the laughter of water. The oceans currents covers my feet. Happy feet as I walk along the long rocks and the soft sand along the shoreline, marooned or “stranded”, yet reaffirming the unrelenting “surge of life” as if shoring against ruin. You can see the glints on the wave tops as the detergent foam flecks the air. There is a sky full of birds. Their thin hearts are happy. Their minds are like water-beds.

The moment after resting down The Song of the River, is similar to that moment when the poem is just complete and the world is bright before the doubt starts, before the need to repeat arrives, before the can I, before the will I, before the is it, before the does it, before the itch and gnawing kicks in, before all that.

Francina’s poetry remains with me like a subliminal faith. I know it’s there and yet feel refrain from speaking of it. Like a child I shall sit wearing my Sunday suit in this byre in the shade and floating motes with the soft sweat at the back of my collar until the time for the service comes round and instead of rising and preparing myself for songs of praise, I shall stay on here in a somnambulant buzz.

See Francina’s website

Poems used with kind permission. Please respect her copyright.

Copyright © 2004 by Jerry H. Jenkins
Helionaut Publications
Louisville, Kentucky, USA

Essays Opinion Photography Reviews

Mindful Pilgrimages

Dear readers I confess. I affirm and attest that I am a more than occasional countryside rambler. Because of that I understand that our relationship with the land is not a straight forward one. It can inspire and infuriate, it can scare us to death and nourish our spiritual needs. It can take us on a journey to places far beyond the literal surroundings of where we happen to be at any given moment, whether it’s a feeling to escape from crowded, chaotic lifestyles or just the feeling of a fundamental connection within ourselves.

We have words and phrases that allude to this magical, mystical quality: genius loci, ley lines, Cynefin and hiraeth (Welsh), psycho-geography, terrior and La France Profonde (Deep France), Aboriginals relate to it as ‘Songlines’ and more recently ‘spirit of place’ – a term coined by the Australian singer songwriter Shane Howard in his seminal folk-rock outfit Goanna.

These words might have different meanings, but they are all rooted in the belief that landscapes, like you and me, can speak to us in some way. I recall excitedly reading Lyall Watson was all the rage in the seventies with his best-selling books ‘Supernature’ and ‘Lifetide’. This scientist, biologist and spiritual thinker’s role in life was to build a between scientific investigation and mystic revelation. He profoundly opened the door to many around animalistic beliefs, stating “I have no qualms about seeing the soul in a rock and attributing awareness to a tree… I think the whole Earth is intelligent and we simply are the most vocal part”.

I don’t mind admitting that it took me over a decade to become converted. However please let me assure you I was no spaced out hippie leftover from the sixties. I consider myself to be scientifically sceptical and experimental in my existentialism. But I accept there is something more out there that we can possibly define or claim to have one source, one maker, one belief system.

A few years back I’d gone to Carreg Cennen Castle, an abandoned stumpy-toothed ruin perched on a cliff in the desolate Black Mountains region of the western Brecon Beacons. The ruin had such an unsettling – but not altogether unpleasant – effect on me. I cannot properly explain it, but a postscript to my journal at the time read “It feels as though a stronger light is on me, I feel dizzy,  as though a sledgehammer punch has just been dealt”. I was frightened, tearful and yet exhilarated. The only other time I have felt that was standing at the base of Uluru, in central Australia (climbing up the rock is believed by tribal Elders to be an act of desecration).

Each time I have come away with uncontrollable shivers down the spine. Like Lyall Watson I believe that the reach of landscape extends way beyond the stuff that fills the confines of Ordinate Survey maps, it is alive; animate and articulate a repository of folk memories, war and peace, life and death, fire and rain, love and sorrow. And you don’t have to be a loopy mystic to join in. It’s out there (in simultaneously in there) for everyone.

Mostly I feel lucky in Britain, for the island is latticed with highly charged Celtic trails, ghostly highways (there’s one outside my door), old Roman roads and drover’s routes that can take us further than we’d ever imagine. Unsurprisingly the landscape is a constant source of literally and artistic inspiration, it’s the backdrop of a vast library that continues to expand our consciousness with a momentum that paradoxically seems to increase the further we distance ourselves from our primal past, the days when crops gave us our daily bread, not computers (yes I’m a Luddite but rather than slipping into that territory, I’ll get back to point).

Sadly some books I read have not always treated our landscape as the starting place of spiritual journey. In 1920’s Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame wrote A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, finding the mountains to be “a horrid and frightening place, even worse than those mountains abroad”. OK Defoe didn’t like mountain then. But what’s not to like? They are primeval and magnificent, a magnet for any red-blooded man or women. However thankfully, and not a moment too soon, the travel writer and Observer columnist, Robert MacFarlane has but all this straight in his wonderful contribution ‘The Mountains of the Mind’.

It’s odd though, Defoe’s view was not in industrial Britain either, he was writing in the days before urban slums, teeming new towns, belching chimney smoke, huge furnaces and coal mines, when the mountains were only seen in terms of danger and death. As depicted in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the industrial revolution changed everything, ushering in a new dawning of an age and a major shift in the relationship that we had with nature. The wild nature that scared Defoe now inspired different emotions. Nature became sublime, an escape from the harsh realities of a new, ugly, unforgiving “march of progress” of the industrial age.

William Wordsworth eulogised his beloved Lake District – romance was in the air and on the canvases of JMW Turner and John Constable. The doors of perception, possibly of Blake’s mystical vision – of a New Jerusalem, were beginning to open and we’d never look back on the landscape the same way again. It became a benign retreat, a space to breathe for the urban masses, leading to the creation of The Nation Trust, which would never ‘prevent wild nature having its way’. I don’t suppose Daniel Defoe would have signed up as member.

So here we are, in the early 21st Century, with Darwinists like Richard Dawkins telling us fundamentally there is no God (and maybe his scientific argument is correct, even if his method of persuasion isn’t), however look closely and you’ll notice how science is coming up with ever more astounding revelations, binary codes, the mathematical language spoken by computers, transforming everyone’s live as the giants of Facebook, Apple and Microsoft slug it out for world domination. Who needs magic and mystery in all this? The probable answer is: most of us. There are other meanings and realities out there for the grabs, you don’t need to believe in science fiction, bug-eyed Martians, UFO’s, parallel universes to be touched by them. The evidence is much closer to home.

After my Uluru and Carreg Cennen baptism I headed west to southern Ireland. To Burren, that moonscape of fractured limestone rock just south of Galway. It’s an otherworldly grey dome of apparently barren landscape, except for the rare plants that grow in its fissures. The wind howled in from the Atlantic Ocean and the sun blasted through the clouds like some biblical searchlight as I approached Poulnabrone Dolmen (Standing Stone), the skeletal framework of a Neolithic tomb balanced on the limestone pavement. Those were only the elements of the scene. The sum of the parts between the rock, sun and man was somehow much greater. Something lifted up inside me, an energy – a synergy, that wants to escape my flesh and blood.

AE Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’ from his ‘Shropshire Lad’ cycle of poems evoke a potent vision of Englishness and country life, tinged with a lost youth:

What are those blue remembered hills
What aspires, what farms are those
That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways were I went
And cannot come again

Reading this also takes me back to the work of the seminal TV dramatist Dennis Potter (remember when, in the good old days, TV plays were about something other than shouty social realisms). Anyway his words are suffused by a spiritual sense of place, in his case his native Forest of Dean, just down the track from Housman’s Wenlock edge. Potter pinched Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’ as the title for his 1979 play featuring adult actor taking the part of children romping about the forest, a location that cropped up in ‘Pennies From Heaven’ (1978) and the Singing Detective (1986).

The Forest of Dean is one strange spooky place, a high plateau on the road to nowhere, bypassed, ignored, arcane and insular. These ancient Oak woods, laden with memories of the forest as King Canute’s royal hunting ground, begin to incongruously at the back door of the industrial terraces. Spirits even exist underground as one of the free miners of the forest once told me about the tradition going back to the 13th Century “this mine is a living thing for me, with a language of its own. It’s always telling me something”.

Then there”s Wye valley on the border of Wales and Herefordshire. Close by is a walk up to Hergest Ridge from nearby town of Kingston. One day I went up the graded slope and was met by wild horses. There they stood on the ridge so ethereal, perfectly still, I could not tell if they were really there or if they were an apparition of my mind at the time. I sometimes feel as though the mind does play tricks and yet when it happens I don’t mind; dreams and legends, hopes and fears all make up the tapestry of the land. It is a subjective world and such journeys can shine the brightest imaginably light, not only on the lives of our pre-historic ancestors, but it also offers an atavistic revelation bathed with an umbilical sense of connection to our lives today.

If any of this sounds too trippy for your taste, let me assure you again that I’m a level-headed kind of guy, for most of the time. Lots of New Age mumbo jumbo leaves me stone cold. I don’t do hallucinogenic drugs, instead dark ales and single malts spirits are my poison. And I don’t feel any great need to believe in pixies, fairies and the like, but I respect those I know who do. But I do believe when you follow an old drover’s road or pilgrim’s trail, those footprints that went before you, although long gone, leave behind a legacy. Such experiences lie on the surface and just below we have relics of timeless history. Their residue reveals a sense of attachment, or perhaps a higher purpose to life or it can leave us in solace and comprehension of the every-changing nature of things, the Tao, within our busy lives. It’s the same when you come across a place that immediately speaks to you in a language can – and yet can’t – understand.

Where next then? One day, I’ll travel up to the Orkney Islands, maybe in my favourite time of year mid-winter (it’s the only time to go, you know). I hope to end up, as you do, at Skara Brae, Northern Europe’s best preserved prehistoric village. My efforts to trace my family tree, reveals that I have Scottish ancestry near this lonesome part of the world. It’s a remarkable site that became known to the world, following a great storm in 1850. Before then it was lying buried beneath the sands for more than 40 Centuries. It’s not that I desire to simply poke about the dark confines of the dark low, covered passageways and well-preserved. For me it’s a spiritual journey to my own hereditary past. a nation of people I never knew, like Shane Howard, unearthing the roots of deeper cultural connection and sense of belonging, my spirit of place.


The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot
Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton, 2012)
A brilliant account of what can happens to ramblers in-between the country pubs.

‘The Other Side of the Rock’,
Shane Howard.
(Goanna Arts, 2012)
A great new album which illustrates how communities of Mutitjulu, Imanpa & Kaltakatjara, in central Australia have retained a strong connections to Uluru.

For Albert, my companion in the pilgrimage.

Essays Opinion Reviews

The Alleged Lunatics

John Thomas Perceval (1803 – 1876) founded the first ever user-led advocacy service, the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society, in 1845. Perceval’s beliefs about mental distress and recovery resonate with those of the service user/survivor and advocacy movements today.

Perceval was a very remarkable man and was author of a moving account of his own incarceration and (mis)treatment for mental ill health, A Narrative of the Treatment Experienced by a Gentleman, During a State of Mental Derangement: Designed to Explain the Causes and the Nature of Insanity and to Expose the Injudicious Conduct Pursued Towards Many Unfortunate Sufferers under that Calamity. The first volume of the Narrative appeared anonymously in 1838, and the second volume, under his name, in 1840.

His father was a politician who became prime minister, only to be assassinated in the Houses of Parliament in 1812, when John was only nine. His killer was John Bellingham, diagnosed as insane and hung shortly after. In his Narrative, Perceval describes an idyllic upbringing broken by the murder ‘I was born of parents powerful, honourable, and happy, till a cruel blow deprived my mother of a husband, and her family of a father.’ He was educated at Harrow, served briefly in the army, but left and went up to Oxford University. While there he heard of an evangelical group in Scotland and decided to leave to learn more of the so-called ‘Row miracles’. However he found the experience of seeing others having visions and speaking in tongues in church disturbing, and the group in turn considered him very odd.

Perceval left Scotland after three months and went to stay with friends in Dublin, and it was here, in December 1830, that he experienced his first breakdown. In January 1831, his oldest brother Spencer brought him in manacles
by coach from Ireland to the well-respected private madhouse establishment of Dr Edward Long Fox (1761–1835) at Brislington (Gloucestershire). Perceval was ‘treated’ with shockingly iced baths and forced dunkings, cold vapor baths, and medicines that he called ‘noxious fumigations’, and twice with bloodletting.

In May 1832, after continual protests, he was transferred to Ticehurst House in Sussex, owned and run by Dr Charles Newington and probably the most lavish asylum in the country – although luxury was most certainly not Perceval’s experience: ‘I met… with nothing but severe falls and blows on my face and arms from the door, and rough handling from my attendant; who threw me back violently on the seat, and when there struck me in the abdomen, and then pitched into my face.’

Perceval became deaf in his left ear as a direct consequence of the attacks he experienced from his ‘keeper’. After three long years in madhouses, Perceval finally got his freedom in 1834, moved to London, and married Anna Gardner. They had four daughters – the first born in 1836. He decided to write a book of his experiences and moved to Paris in 1835, where he met Dr Esquirol, soon to be a leading figure in the reform of asylum abuses, who advised him about the political actions needed for reforming the lunacy laws. Perceval wrote a great deal of his Narrative, published in two volumes in 1838 and 1840, during this period.

Journey out of madness Perceval’s Narrative is essentially a journey backwards into madness, in which he is trying to make some sense of what happened to him, five years on. He describes the barbarity of treatments beginning in Dublin, at Brislington and later at Ticehurst. Some were part of the so-called ‘heroic regime’ – based on attempts to shock the unwary lunatic into sanity – which included freezing baths. Other strategies were based on disrespect and devaluing, which Perceval found unusually abhorrent because of his aristocratic background: ‘The gross want of respect to situation, rank, character, or profession, manifested by these men on all occasions, is shocking to the imagination, and revolting to reflection…’

Other practices were simply ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ – the characteristic of mental health services for centuries – ranging from mocking and winding up through to unnecessary seclusion and manacling to kicks and punches. Things were done daily without the slightest attempt to consult or engage with him. The madhouse regime was aimed at breaking down his will and rendering him remonstrance; and impolitic, without a thorough knowledge of the temper and humour of the individual to whom it was applied.’ The Narrative reflects on what might help in healing. ‘The chief thing to be desired in the treatment of an insane person is quiet, peace, security; security from intrusion, observation, exposure. A lunatic appears insensible, but his is, perhaps the most alive of any mind to ridicule, and to the contemptibleness of his state… If indeed, he were in quiet, peaceful circumstances, if he were secure he might find his mind reflect to his conscience perfectly, what the trouble occasioned by internal and external alarm prevents him noting; but the opposite is his position.’

As Perceval gradually recovered, he considered the key issues in healing and understanding. He explores the meanings of literal and metaphoric communication as well as the spirit: ‘… you will hear one lunatic declare that he is made of iron, and that nothing can break him; ‘I resolved – I was necessitated – to put my strength and abilities against that system… in order to expose and unravel the wickedness and the folly that maintained it, and to unmask the plausible villainy that carried on totally passive and compliant. My silence, I suppose, gave consent. I mean, that I was never told, such and such things we are going to do; we think it advisable to administer such and such medicine, in this or that
manner; I was never asked, Do you want any thing? Do you wish for, prefer any thing? Have you any objection to this or to that?’

Perceval sums up his brutal experiences in Brislington: ‘For nearly eight months I may say that I was never out of a strait-waistcoat; I used to be tied up in it, in a recess the whole day, on a wooden seat, for months and months, with my feet manacled to the floor, and in the presence of fourteen other patients.’ In the eyes of Perceval, the mad doctors understood very little about insanity and its treatment: the 19th century mental health services offered almost the exact
opposite of what was needed for recovery: ‘I needed quiet, I needed tranquility; I needed security, I needed even at times seclusion – I could not obtain them. At the same time I needed cheerful scenes and lively images, to be relieved from the sad sights and distressing associations of a madhouse; I required my mind and my body to be braced, the one by honest, virtuous and correct conversation, the other by manly and free exercise; and above all, after the coarse and brutal fellowship I had been reduced to, I sighed for the delicacy and refinements of female society.’

In Perceval’s view, staff needed to comprehend the whole social context of their patients. This had to begin with understanding the meanings of the various ‘delusions’ expressed. Nothing was just nonsense; everything had some sort of meaning. Instead: ‘If the insulting and degrading treatment… was indeed designed to mortify and probe the feelings, it was preposterous, without explanation, expostulation, or another, that he is a china vessel, and that he runs in danger of being destroyed every minute.

The meaning of the spirit is, that this man is as strong as iron, the other as frail as an earthen vessel; but the lunatic takes the literal sense, and his imagination not being under his own control, he in a manner feels it.’ Later he becomes even more specific about methods and remedies. He starts to consider the central significance of breathing and the links between body and mind: ‘… a healthy state of mind is identical with a certain regulated system of respiration, according to the degree of bodily action; that the exercise of reflection or of conscience, in the control of passions or affections of the mind, is concomitant with, or effected by a proper control of the respiration – quiet when the mind is quiet,
accompanied with sobs and sighs when otherwise. That the mind and the blood being intimately connected, the health of the body depends also on this healthy regulation of respiration, promoting a proper circulation and purification of the blood; that, consequently, the effecting respiration by mechanical means, without the control of the muscles by thought, is profitable to the health of the body, and also to the mental faculties.’

Slowly Perceval’s distress and confusion turns to compassion for others, and on to advocacy. In chapter xxvii of the Narrative he comments extensively on ‘my wretched companions in confinement, and in affliction’. He writes about 12 individuals, one an elderly man, and feels for their pitiable circumstances. ‘The treatment I had endured was shameful, but yet I was a young man. The treatment of this old man was horrible. All day long he was confined as I had been, on a wooden seat, amidst noise, insult, flippancy, and confusion. After sitting a whole day, in the evening I heard him begging for one of the hair cushions of the chairs, to put under him; no one attended to him; I did: the servant desired me not to do it, but I gave it to him.’

Perceval became a warrior for better conditions and compassionate care. In the opening section of the first volume he cries out: ‘I open my mouth for the dumb… I entreat you to place yourself in the position of those whose suffering I describe, before you attempt to discuss what course is to be pursued toward them. Feel for them; try to defend them. Be their friends – argue not hostilely.’ In the second volume, it becomes a bold cry to arms. ‘I resolved – I was necessitated – to put my strength and abilities against that system, to fail in no duty to myself and to my country; but at the risk of my life, or my health, and even my understanding, to become thoroughly acquainted with its windings, in order to expose and unravel the wickedness and the folly that maintained it, and to unmask the plausible villainy that carried on.’

He saw the law and the English desire for justice as the primary route for radical change. He struggled to use the legal process for better conditions and his own release, with disappointing results. ‘In order to succeed I desired first legal assistance to set forth my case and to save my rights; secondly to be taken to London to be for a short time under the care of a surgeon who had known me from a child, that he witnessing my state of mind and body, and hearing my complaints, might be able to argue and to give evidence concerning the necessity of requiring me to use the cold bath, at that inclement season… These requests were denied.’

Soon after the publication of the books, Perceval began advocating for people in poverty, detained lunatics and against the new Poor Law. He gained an appointment as Guardian of the parish of Kensington. During his statutory visits, he learned about Richard Paternoster being confined at Dr French’s madhouse in Kensington, and campaigned for his release. When he was freed, Paternoster wrote a letter to The Times ‘for fellow sufferers to join him in a campaign to redress abuses in the madhouse system’. Perceval soon joined him, and they petitioned the city magistrates for an investigation into asylum treatment.

Perceval gathered together a group of supporters. This group expanded, and in 1845 became the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society (ALFS). Most were either ex-patients or had relatives in the psychiatric system; some were Perceval’s relatives. The ALFS pressurised successive Home Secretaries for radical changes in the asylums, including Northampton County Asylum where the famous ‘lunatic pauper poet’ John Clare was incarcerated from 1841 until his death in 1864, and took up the cases of more than 70 patients.

The Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society became a major influence in highlighting the whole issue of improper confinement in the asylums with the very resistant Lunacy Commission. Differences that arose between Perceval and other founder members – not least, over his continued religious zeal – perhaps suggest that he remained a difficult person, but there is no evidence of any relapse into mental disturbance. The society advocated boarding out schemes rather than asylums for distressed people, based on the well- known Geel system in Flanders. John Bucknill, the leading 19th century alienist (psychiatrist), also recommended the Geel system. He also argued for non- restraint, with some few exceptions – an emerging characteristic of ‘progressive asylum practice.’

Perceval noted: ‘I am convinced that the collecting of lunatic patients together is a necessity to be deprecated, rather than a principle to be admitted.’ The society advocated traditional treatment systems before involuntary
admission and for after-care following discharge. Perceval gave evidence to a Select Parliamentary Committee in 1859. When asked why he was so single- minded about ensuring the delivery of patients’ letters, he responded: ‘I consider myself the attorney-general of all Her Majesty’s madmen.’

After 20 years of vigorous activity with Perceval at the helm, the society seems to have come to a natural end in the mid-1860s. ‘One suspects that the appointment of his nephew Charles Spencer Perceval as Lord Chancellor’s secretary in 1866, and later as secretary of the Lunacy Commission, finally gave him some peace of mind.’ Perceval helped us to understand in a profound way so many dimensions in madness, recovery and advocacy. He promulgated a very modern concept of advocacy – both peer, individual and collective – that flourishes robustly today. He made the valuable connection between spiritual exploration and breakdown; outlined some vital principles for healing and recovery, and linked embryonic advocacy with radical changes in the law and regulation to outlaw injuriously oppressive treatments.
His favourite offspring, the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society, was the first formal body to collectively advocate for the needs of users and relatives. Most importantly, he gave us the two volumes of his vibrant Narrative.

These wonderful volumes graphically describe the torments of an alleged lunatic, his ‘injurious treatment’ and his recovery. For which we owe Perceval an enormous debt.



Perceval J. A narrative of the treatment experienced by a gentleman, during a state of mental derangement: designed to
explain the causes and the nature of insanity and to expose the injudicious conduct pursued towards many unfortunate sufferers under that calamity.
Volumes I and II. London: Effingham Wilson, 1838; 1840.


Also see Patient and Reformer

Opinion Reviews

The Grand Design

The first new work for a decade by the physicist Stephen Hawking, after “A Brief History of Time”, starts in characteristically robust style. “Philosophy is dead” he proclaims on the first page, ending the book by stating that, if M-theory is confirmed by observation, “We will have found the grand design.”. It is statements like these which made it a slow but unstoppable read.

M-theory turns out to say that we actually live in a ten-dimensional universe (plus time), but we don’t notice the extra seven dimensions of space because they are curled up into an infinitesimally small size. They precise way they are curled up defines the laws of nature, or at least the laws the govern sub-atomic particles out of which everything else is constructed. There are, it seems, 10 to the power of 500 ways that this could have happened – in other words, a nearly infinite number of possible universes with different laws of nature to ours.

There are two ways you can react to this. The common, but broadly illogical view is to declare it as open and shut evidence of God. The other is the Multiverse – the idea that in some absolute sense all these possible universes exist.
However the authors point out that the laws of nature seem to be tuned incredibly precisely to allow life to exist. Tweak them every so slightly, and there might not even be suns and planets, let alone living things. So the vast majority of those different universes would be uninhabitable.

I’ve always been interested in Quantum theory for it suggests that what we think of as reality is the result of observation. Without observation, all possibilities exist equally. By being here, by observing, we selected one of the very few universes that could have given rise to us.

I find books about cosmology and quantum theory are never easy to read, but Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow do a creditable job with this lucidly written book, nicely illustrated with some witty cartoons and sprinkled with impish humour.

The Grand Design – Stephen Hawkings and Leonard Mlodinow (Bantam Press 2010)