In Will Self’s ten-minute A Point Of View yesterday, he related the alarming experiences of a friend of his in, or it seems, ‘at’, the hands of the mental health services: Parity of Esteem.
A difficult area. “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” was invoked. I saw that whilst a psychology student and found it a bloody entertaining film, but maybe because she knew she’d spend her career working in psychiatry, my friend ended up sobbing (as so many others have subsequently while out with me) whereas I knew I certainly would not be. Years later, another acquaintance surprised me by repeatedly diagnosing people as “borderline personality”. I was surprised because so many suspects seem to be diagnosed as this these days, but I’d never heard of it and could never find out what the borderline was supposed to be between.
There’s a big American psychiatry catalogue that has repeatedly alarmed people by sudden changes in advised practice and diagnosis. Appalling to admit this but I can’t help thinking of it as The Big Book Of Madness And Spells. Each time, people ask, if it’s right now, how wrong must it have been before? And what confidence can we have in it now?
Yet another friend working in a closely related area was explaining their work to me, and I had one of those moments of quiet sudden horror when you’re too stunned to react but you know everything was going to be different from then on. They clearly thought people with psychosis were psychopaths. It was bad enough John Humphreys making that classic error, but someone employed in the area?! Yet another psychologist acquaintance was progressing their research in the field, and teaching it, whilst running a small business on the side. She advertised the “Tigers Eye” stones she sold, as being “possibly helpful in early stage diabetes”. Aren’t psychologists supposed to be scientists?
But sometimes you’ve got to do something. Another friend was involved with psychiatry but at the business end. One category of people I’ve known is those involved in one way or another with psychiatry; another is those whose life has become centred on sticking it to the lawyers they have employed but have cheated them out of large sums of money. At one time my three closest associates were in this category; it is gratifying how many of them had some success. This particular chap managed to force one solicitor to move to a different practice, even as he was himself succumbing to an even more ruthless assailant. He reminded me of the old boss of the secret service in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” who was close on the track of The Mole, whilst irresistibly slipping away himself. Eventually my friend insisted that the solicitors were trying to break into his house at night. I tried to persuade him that bad though they were, that wasn’t really their style, but eventually I had to spend a night in his house to see if we could catch them. Being in that house that night was like being in “The Shining”, but my friend was terrified all the time.
The next morning I ran around frantically trying to get him sectioned. Citizens Advice Bureau… local council… . Eventually I snagged an ambulance man on his way into the local dentist to help someone who’d fainted. Turned out he knew my friend but didn’t pay me much heed. Finally the authorities got round to it themselves but my efforts made no difference.
What can yer do. Anyway, this subject was clearly one Will Self had strong feelings on – as he had with his talk on Grenfell Tower. And as with that, his talk took on a special characteristic… but not in the way that many, including myself, change their style when angry, when we just get a bit incoherent. With Will, the components of his talk, normally handled with such careful elegance, with grace as their most salient feature, no longer strike you as graceful. They are, but now the reason for the gracefulness when executed slowly, becomes clear: now invisible, it is nonetheless present and essential for execution with this new, terrible, dispatch. It’s like a Rubik’s cube but of metal, with all the pieces curved and different, being solved by a prodigy. You can’t actually see the high precision of the pieces, or the thin layer of oil, or the astonishing expertise, but you can tell by the magic that they’re there.
It wasn’t until I’d been a fencer, and had studied performers of various grades, that I started noticing this phenomenon with physical skills. On watching Torville and Dean, I was suddenly aware of a compelling comparison with Bill Gosbee, a top British foilist. Complex action sequences rolling smoothly, coolly and perfectly through, with any apparent imbalance actually being a preparation for the next stage.
I also suddenly noticed one Christmas about that time, that the Australian James Bond, who was only in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, and who most people don’t like, was actually the best Bond of the first three. In the fights, it is amusingly clear that dear Roger Moore (as good a name as any of Fleming’s!) is really only making pantomime gestures with his blows, a bit like some kind of oriental theatre where you just accept that this is supposed to represent a fight, but Roger clearly hadn’t needed to do any real fighting since he was six, if ever. Sean Connery, whose performance I thought excellent as a kid, later struck me as an annoying teenager whose behaviour had survived to middle age unchanged. And though he clearly put a bit more into his fights, you knew all the time he was thinking “I wonder how this looks”. But with George Lazenby – my god! He just jumps out of the screen! You get that horrible but authentic sudden start, a short burst of very fast but surprisingly neat movements, and ending with perfect balance. Even though he didn’t have Roger’s or Sean’s shoulders, you just knew immediately that that guy was one of those very rare things – a genuine, well-practiced, and expert scrapper.
There were other ways in which he was a more convincing performer too. Only in recent decades have I begun to wonder whether Bond is supposed to be some kind of unobtrusive mole-type spy, or some kind of commando/SAS type. Have there really been real-life agents who combine the two? I doubt it. Moore and Connery’s Bonds clearly try to dominate any room or scene in which they appear, but some unobtrusiveness would surely be essential. And any real James Bond would surely come across as unpleasant or odd in some way: born a psychopath, or psychologically twisted early in life, perhaps. That ex-SAS bloke I lived next door to, could cycle through the stages of a pleasant conversation, but every now and then he would be happy to make a chilling short-cut, some kind of dangerous assumption that left me thinking “WTF…? What happened just there?!”. Lazenby walked in without any real effort to engage with the company, far less to charm anyone, but with his “I don’t give a shit for you guys”, and his smug handsomness all too apparent. Actually, to be fair, Daniel Craig’s Bond is even more convincing. Instead of representing a dangerous psyche, he much more resembles the surviving fighter pilots I’ve met or seen on TV, who, with the exception of Douglass Baader, seemed introverted, very determined, and very, very careful.
How, one wonders, did Will Self come by his skills? The words must have come through books, in much the same way that Stephen Fry needed books for some of his special skills. And plenty of opportunity for thinking on one’s own. But I’m convinced that such performance capabilities only originally evolved for hunting or fighting, and they’re only developed these days through some kind of competitive environment. What infernal fights or rows could frame his fearful eloquence? Who with? Where? As for when, I’d guess teenage years. Between America and the posh parts of England, he had many opportunities for meeting regularly with an exotic range of challenging environments and individuals. Ours just to wonder why. And just to wonder 🙂 .