Ups and downs

Sometimes of a morning I feel that things are going well. This is an unusual state for me. Often I feel neutral, and often things can seem pretty dark. As the day goes by, the mood inevitably changes for better or worse. Sometimes I think it is the Welsh weather in me. So what conjunctions in my sky?

I often wonder whether I ‘should’ read accounts of madness, but they are of absorbing interest to me, and often uplifting, even when tragic. Thus such reading reflects life itself. Hastening to choose something at the library for my weekly London visit (this needs to be engaging but not demanding) I set upon ‘An unquiet mind: a memoir of moods and madness’ written by Kay Redfield Jamison, of whom I have long been aware. It was first published nearly twenty years ago by this American clinical psychologist with first-hand experience of manic-depressive illness. Well, it was a dramatic book. I could hardly conceive of how she came through and gained acceptance for herself in practice, and happiness in her life. She also writes from the U.S. psychiatric perspective, which is strongly ‘medical’ in tendency, though she does also allow that talking therapy gave her courage and a way to integrate the powerful experience of mental illness into her life. She demonstrates the most destructive end of a spectrum which in a milder way affects us all, yet it is necessary for me to continue to hold in mind the different ways to understand human nature and nurture, generate meaning, demonstrate acceptance of and empathy with others and seek my own meaning – something I have found singularly hard to do.

The previous week we visited Chichester, to escape flag-waving of the Queen’s tea-party. At the Pallant House art gallery was the annual ‘Outside In’ exhibition of ‘extraordinary’ work produced by artists excluded by the conventional art world. Nowadays it must be admitted that they get a lot of wallspace, one way and another. Angus MacPhee was a Hebridean islander who was admitted to residential care in Craig Dunain Hospital in Inverness during WW2. After his day’s work on the hospital farm, he used his native skills to weave ropes and clothing from grasses and wildflowers; objects such as he remembered holding together the precarious life on the harsh islands of his birth. His sister spoke of him very touchingly in her soft voice – he was invalided out of the army, he wasn’t ‘coping’ and they ‘though it was for the best’. He spent maybe 50 years in hospital, without speaking, before coming home a year before his death. He didn’t show any sign that he knew he was a person of interest to art therapist Joyce Laing but he did once make her a hat, which was saved from the bonfires which consumed most of Angus’s work, left hanging in trees in the hospital grounds.

extraordinary art

The artists in the Pallant House exhibition fell into three groups, it seemed to me. They demonstrated intersections of degrees of disability and talent, which challenge the definition of ‘Art’. The broadest definition of disability would include poverty, poor education and naivete, exclusion by belonging to a minority community, learning disability and physical and mental handicap. There’s a political correctness to ‘inclusion’ which can become problematic. But some of the individuals exhibited great ability on a technical and aesthetic level, whereas others were purely and simply compulsive makers of …  stuff of varying interest and appeal. Making has many purposes in life; the activity is rightly considered therapeutic, an expression of humanity. A 2013 exhibition of ‘outsider art’ at the Wellcome Collection used the word ‘Souzou’ of such a generative force. There is no direct translation to English, but it can indicate both creation and imagination in Japanese. New ideas are born and take shape in the world.

My first encounter with ‘outsider art’ was while living in Switzerland. The main body of the collections of Jean Dubuffet reside in the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne. This place became a destination for many outings, and maybe influenced my decision to train as a psychiatric nurse. Sadly, art doesn’t have that much to do with 21st century mental health care, with honourable exception of institutions such as the SLaM Bethlem/Maudsley Hospital who run excellent projects, a gallery and museum. Funding, staffing, time seem not to permit.


Attending a bank annual meeting may not sound like an inspirational activity, but among other customers of Triodos UK is Age Exchange, founded in 1983 to bring ‘reminiscence and intergenerational arts’ to people suffering from dementia and other difficulties. Their cafe, library and education space is right on the high street in Blackheath, and I’m planning a visit soon. (Triodos supports enterprises which share the bank’s unusual (for banking) values of building on social, environmental and cultural capital.)

While we’re on the subject of cafes, this morning saw the second ‘Transition Coffee’, a new daytime meeting for members of our town’s struggling environmental group. We run a bookstall at the Farmer’s market to raise funds and meet up for drinks one evening  a month. The group has been quiet for some time, after several key members moved away from the area, and these social events allow the remaining members to gather their resources and decide what next. Last month a new friend mentioned the work of environmental campaigner and therapist Sophy Banks who founded the Totnes Transition Heart and Soul group, and has worked on the idea of ‘inner transition’ as a way of avoiding the condition so common among activists and vocational workers, undervalued as they are, yet completely dedicated to one or many deeply humanitarian causes. Our insights into the future are frightening, and do not seem to be appreciated by society at large. Each minuscule element of progress is so dearly bought. It’s not a wonder many cannot face the commitment of this work, and bury themselves in other (it must be said, equally valid and more enjoyable) priorities. We ‘burn out’. So gathering all these strands together, I again forge the intention to affirm my long-held values, to foster my community, to enjoy myself in ways which are deeply meaningful to me, and once again pick up the banner of activism.


Author: hilary neilson

Middle aged woman with green tendencies

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