Guest Post “Creating an Asylum” by John Johnson – author of #FreeFromTheWorld @matadorbooks

Published by Troubador Publishing
Available in ebook and paperback (13 November 2019)
342 pages

My thanks to Sophie of Troubador Publishing for offering a review copy of Free From the World. I’m delighted to welcome John to the blog to talk about the background to the book.

ABOUT THE BOOK

The 1960s are meant to be progressive, but as a new psychiatrist to Black Roding, Ruth does not find the staff at the large London asylum so. Instead of encouraging her attempts to implement the asylum’s Superintendent’s ideas, the staff are strangely reluctant to progress the asylum’s ways. Challenged at every turn, Ruth is forced to turn to the patients – including Richard Simms, a middle-aged man who proves hard to categorise and seems to have no apparent records of his former life.

Although she tries to help, Richard shuns her with an almost desperate denial, similar to the staff who stride the echoing corridors. Drawn to this anxious man, Ruth digs deeper into his story, eliciting a string of events that can never be buried again. Too late to turn back, Ruth is inexorably drawn into the web of Black Roding, remembering too late that the fly very rarely outwits the spider…

Creating an Asylum

The word is simple, coming from the Greek asulon, meaning refuge. We use it mostly in two ways these days. One is often with the word seeker, an asylum seeker, someone seeking a refuge and respite from oppression, tyranny, injustice – political asylum. And the other refers to what is now part our history, the often very large psychiatric hospital that housed those deemed insane or mentally disturbed, a refuge for them. In literature and film or tv the asylum has become a place of horror-a prison-like institution in which terrible things happen. Think One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a satirical work based in some real American experience, or Halloween II, a classic stereotype of the murderous institution. The reality, it transpires, was very different.

My novel, just published and called Free from the World, is set in an imaginary asylum which I have called Black Roding. There is no such place, but anyone familiar with the broad area that links N-E London to Essex will know the River Roding, whose muddy clay-filled water flows down towards the Thames, and gives its name to such places as Roding Valley station on the Central Line. And those same people will know that one sprawling London Asylum was nearby, a hospital built with over 27 million bricks, that housed 2500 patients, and had all the facilities of a large village – Claybury Hospital. It is no accident or coincidence that Black Roding is so similar to Claybury.

In 2012 I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Brunel University. I had retired from a lifelong career in education, much of it as an English teacher but also as a headteacher. I wanted to see if I could write a novel, and the Brunel course into which I had stumbled was dedicated to assisting me in that task. The tutors were published novelists, including Fay Wheldon as professor. The tutor for my final dissertation was Bernardine Evaristo, of recent Booker Prize acclaim. She certainly challenged and sharpened my thinking and my work. I was casting about for a theme or idea for my novel, having discarded several earlier notions. Running through my brain at that time were some lines by John Clare, not describing the wonders of the natural world as he is now widely celebrated for, but rather describing the inner torture that led to him being a patient in an Essex asylum at High Beach, a village in the middle of Epping Forest.

Free from the World I would a prisoner be,
And my own shadow all my company.

The paradoxical assertion of these lines had grabbed my attention. Could one choose to be a prisoner in order to be free? And while those lines rang through my head I found on the shelves of the Brunel University Library a remarkable book that led to a fusion of thoughts, and eventually to my novel. A Hospital Looks at Itself was published in the early 1970s.  It was written by a number of people inside Claybury Hospital, the Superintendent, staff, the chaplain, and inmates. It described an institution attempting a radical approach to working with those deemed insane – to be a therapeutic community, in which everyone attempted to play a therapeutic role, including the patients themselves.  It was an approach that had gained it a national, and even an international reputation.  Yet in my childhood and teen years Claybury was known to us only as the epitome of all that was scary, an unknown place in which people were incarcerated, often never to emerge once absorbed into its inner wards.  Adults spoke of it in hushed tones.  The contrast between the Claybury of my childish ignorance and that of its real attempts to roll back the frontiers of psychiatric care could hardly have been greater.  Here was a context for my novel, to present the progressive work of psychiatrists struggling against the ignorance and prejudices of the wider world. And to examine the reasons for making so many people “free from the world”, for many of the patients should never have been there in the first place.

I have tried in presenting my imaginary hospital to use the general design models of the London asylums (in fact, Claybury was originally designated the Middlesex Number 5 Asylum, but its construction was taken over by the relevant London authorities). I have modelled it on a large country house and grounds, extended and reshaped beyond recognition to house the enormous numbers of patients. That is typical of how such institutions were established. I have also tried to show that in its very enormity, location and operation it was not the most suitable of places for its inmates, however well-intentioned its original creators had been. But I have tried also to include the essential humanity of the vision behind A Hospital Looks at Itself. That story of  thought, care and compassion is truly moving.

I was also inspired by another book I found on the Brunel shelves, but if I reveal its title I will give away too much of the suspense and discovery that underpins the whole story. It described an historical event about which I had also known far too little.  I can only add that it was a strange experience to construct a novel based on the words of a poet and two revelatory factual accounts of significant social and political developments. What I describe as the fusion of the three inspired me for many a long month of writing and rewriting. If you read the novel, you will, I hope, see the fruits of that surprising fusion, and enjoy my creation of an asylum.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Johnson was born and educated in East London and Essex near to one of the biggest London asylums, which piqued his interest in what went on behind the walls. After a degree in English, he taught in four London schools, was instrumental in establishing the GSCE and became a head teacher. He has a Masters degree in Creative Writing and is married with three children and still lives in Essex.

Book buy links: Publisher Website | Amazon UK | Waterstones

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