Published: Mar 2014, 232pp
Robert Dellar’s reminiscences impart a strange, unwholesome joy, like smoking a cig dipped in popper juice. The only response to the atrocious farce of modern life has to be this savage laughter.
Out to Lunch
In this incendiary slice of under-the-radar British social history we meet everyone from Ronnie Corbett to a Broadmoor inmate whose index offence was the subject of a D-Notice. Robert Dellar’s anti-authoritarian and take-no-prisoners spirit of mischief makes it possible for readers of every persuasion to find something to offend their sensibilities.
Simon Morris (Ceramic Hobs)
Chapter One: Problem Child (Extract)
I arrived at work at one o’clock in the afternoon. It was January 2003 and I was coordinator of the Southwark branch of Mind, a nationwide mental health charity with a network of local and barely-related affiliated groups. Southwark is a borough in South East London which includes Peckham, Camberwell, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. Compared to other Mind groups, we were almost unique in terms of being entirely managed and staffed by people with mental health problems, and successful. The office in Camberwell was hard to get to from Hackney, and the progressive deterioration of the public transport system had added hours to my journey to and from Southwark since I’d first started helping to set up the charity in 1998. But I got on with it, and as was often the case, I had a bad hangover from the day before and I’d been topping myself up on the way in.
By now I’d already handed in my notice. Fifteen years at the cutting edge of mental health services takes its toll, and depression and heavy drinking had crept up on me. I wanted space to sort myself out, and hoped to tidy up some of the loose ends at Southwark Mind before I left. Some chance.
Stumbling into the office, I was informed by our admin officer Teresa Priest and volunteer Robert Radford that our chair, Lynne Clayton, had commanded that I was not allowed to be at work because I was ‘too ill’. She was right, though at the time it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black: Lynne was as high as a kite. “I’ll phone the office in an hour” she told me over the blower. “Time enough for you to have a cup of tea. If you’re still there in an hour, I’ll come and physically escort you off the premises.”
Lynne wasn’t joking. Although small and apparently frail, she had a black belt in karate. You messed about with her at your peril, and rumour had it that her several hospital admissions had been made easier for her by her skill in the martial arts.
Feeling a bit rejected, I went down the pub. I tried to help keep Southwark Mind ticking from the pleasant afternoon environment of Monaghan’s bar, using my walkie-talkie, and I completed a Disability Living Allowance (DLA) form for my friend, Ted Curtis, over a few beers. DLA forms are notoriously painstaking to complete. They’re fifty pages long and require almost novel-length accounts of woe in exchange for the substantial amounts of money due to the recipient if anyone can be bothered to complete them. On these forms, you have to pretend that you don’t know your arse from your elbow. It’s been the difference between poverty and survival for tens of thousands of people. You have to wallow in your incapacity in writing at great length and, for my sins, I have acquired the knack of filling in these miserable things, benefiting a great many people. I have cost the decent, honest taxpayer a fortune.
Prior to this it had been a difficult few months, full of tragedy and high stress. After various people committing suicide, people around me being ill all the time and numerous demanding situations both domestically and at work, all of it was compounded by the death of my friend and Mad Pride colleague Pete Shaughnessy, who threw himself under a train at Battersea on December 15th 2002. I was informed of the event by mental health activist Cath Collins the following day, my 38th birthday. Pete’s death knocked me sideways and convinced me after several months of thinking about it that it was time for me to blow out my job. Life seemed too short to spend all of it being a wage slave, especially since I realised that I was no longer the most competent person for the post.
Somebody had to pay. To cheer myself up, back in Hackney I walked up to B&Qs in Lea Bridge Road to buy a power drill. Returning home along the cycle path which doubled as a footpath towards Upper Clapton, a cyclist approached shouting “get out of the fucking way you stupid cunt!” One little nudge was all it took. Straight into the path of an oncoming lorry. Splat! It wasn’t my fault, it was just one of those things. I used my walkie-talkie to call emergency services, but it was too late: the cyclist was dead. It’s bad when that happens.
Things like this made me want to reflect on how it was that I had arrived at this situation. Self-indulgence is a vice I sometimes try to avoid, but who knows, I thought, something could come out of it that might help chart part of the rise of the mental health service user movement, in which I’ve been far from a disinterested observer.
‘Splitting in Two’ is a catchy title, and also one of the best songs by one of my favourite bands, Alternative TV, run by Mark Perry, who has unwittingly been a major influence on me. For a start, the layout of Southwark Mind Newsletter, which I edited over consecutive, uninterrupted months for 61 issues prior to my resignation, was ripped off wholesale from Mark’s fanzine Sniffin’ Glue which he edited during 1976 and 1977. ‘Splitting in Two’ was also the final song performed, by ATV, at the tribute concert for Pete Shaughnessy, held by Mad Pride at the Garage, North London, on summer solstice night 2003. Music has always been a major preoccupation of mine and has affected my approach to work and life generally in many ways. I don’t know how anyone manages without it.
More pretentiously, Splitting in Two can refer to the dialectical model of philosophical and political analysis first elucidated by Hegel and then developed by Marx. Loosely, dialectics consists of separating elements of received ideas, situations and facts into opposing and contradictory parts, contrasting them, and allowing the ensuing contradictions to stimulate higher, better approaches and methods of thought. This is how human progress is made. As human beings, we are unable to advance from what faces us without such a process. Our social being consists to begin with only of what we encounter and what we absorb, and advancement is possible only through deliberately applied reason, not magic or genius. Dialectical analysis allows political and scientific development. You won’t find much dialectics in here, but hopefully it may feed into a dialectical process somewhere along the line. Ben Watson is very hot on the subject: check out his book Art, Class and Cleavage.
Splitting in Two also reminds me of R.D. Laing’s seminal mental health book The Divided Self, which attempted to make some forms of madness comprehensible within a materialist framework, through debunking the myth that what is labelled ‘schizophrenia’ can be reduced to ‘split personality’. Laing too has been a great inspiration for me, more because of his numerous and committed caring initiatives than his theories, which are at times unempirical. I’ve also shared with him an often dangerous lifestyle, and a propensity to burn myself out. Overall, Splitting in Two is a phrase rooted firmly within the punk tradition, and it accurately describes my state of mind and that of most of my friends, much of the time. As with any undertaking involving memory, what follows is selective and at times inaccurate. I’ve censored my writing out of a wish not to upset anyone who wasn’t asking for it, to avoid dwelling on things which are too awkward, and to protect myself from consequences. Some names have been altered to protect confidentiality. I don’t consider my experiences to be any more important or interesting than anyone else’s, though recalling some provides a context for various observations, which may or may not be taken with a pinch of salt.
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