Keats, melancholy & mental health – I blog again for The Wordsworth Trust

KeatsblogIt is hard to keep my blog up to date at the moment, with lots to write and things to think about, but I can never resist the opportunity to write about John Keats for the lovely Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog. In the past two years I have written about how a particular Keats poem speaks to me, about his time at Guy’s Hospital undertaking medical training and a piece on the work of two young film makers taking ‘La belle dame sans merci‘ to new audiences.

This week I am on there again, looking at the ways in which the letters written by Keats offer inspiration and solace in difficult times, and how much of his work can be seen as ahead of its time in its relation to current psychotherapy practice. In his letters you can find expressions of what it means to be ‘mindful’, being accepted for who you really are, learning to cope with anxiety and depression, and finding inner strength. You find empathy and a willingness to walk in another person’s shoes before judging. To really understand how wonderful his poetry is, read his letters and get to know the man. His philosophy is at once melancholy and heartening.

Anyway, you all know how much I love his work and how appealing is his character. Take a trip over to The Wordsworth Trust blog and see how he wrote those inspirational quotes so much better than all those you find on your Facebook news feed.

I would also recommend you take a look at the other posts on Romantic subjects, posted regularly on the blog. They are fascinating and offer a terrific picture of the Romantic period. I am proud to be on there.

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‘Splintered Innocence’ by Peter Heinl – the refugee crisis highlights a timely reissue of an important book about war trauma

Splintered innocenceWhilst writing Shell Shocked Britain I was lucky enough to talk to eminent psychiatrist Dr Peter Heinl, a man who has long been determined to raise awareness of, and work with, those suffering from the lasting effects of war trauma. He was an inspiration to me as I worked hard to make my argument about the lasting impact of the First World War, and was very helpful and supportive, reading the manuscript and commenting for the cover of my book.

So when he told me he was working on the re-issue of his important book, Splintered Innocence:an intuitive approach to treating war trauma and asked if I might help with the final proofreading, I was thrilled, flattered and convinced he had chosen the best time to publish it again.

In his foreword Dr Heinl says:

“I…hope that Splintered Innocence will raise the awareness of the terrible price wars exact from human beings and that it is worth fighting for peace……the topic of the long-term psychological effects of war…[on] children in particular is a field in great and urgent, if not desperate, need of receiving the attention it deserves”

In the first edition he refers to his work with survivors of the atrocities of the Second World War, but relates his findings to previous, and now subsequent, conflicts. Even before the most recent refugee crisis, he had highlighted in the book, and to me when we spoke, his concern that the legacy of the terrible civil war in Syria and the upheaval across the Middle East and Africa would be lasting psychological damage that will manifest itself over decades to come. Having seen the photos and films emerging from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Europe as desperate people flee unimaginable horrors, it  would be, surely, impossible to disagree.

Syrian-refugees-in-northern-Iraq-Christian-Aid-using-Syria-Crisis-Appeal-funds-photo-credit-Christian-Aid_Sarah-MalianThe fear on the faces of children pulled and pushed from adult to adult as they struggle to board trains to the West, the loss of life in shabby little boats as the last of a family’s life savings is taken by people traffickers who abandon them to the whims of sea, weather and coastguard , the struggles when safety is reached, but in a place with  no access to work, education or even housing and food – all these are, to Dr Heinl, indicators of the mental health crisis that could follow. Having written, in Shell Shocked Britain and subsequent articles, of the ways in which trauma can manifest itself years later, and across and down generations, I consider there to be years of evidence to support his assertion that people suffer, physically and psychologically, for the rest of their lives. Even if they themselves don’t realise it.

And that is the message one gets from this wonderful book, aimed primarily at other therapists but accessible to anyone with an interest in the way the human mind takes in and processes everything it experiences. The adults fleeing conflict show pain writ large on their faces and in their desperate and sometimes angry reactions to some new injustice. They have expected too much of a world which really has no idea how to provide a solution. The children are afraid, confused, terrified of losing those they depend on, clinging to a mother’s skirts or carried in a father’s arms, but they have no voice. The work Peter Heinl has done,  my findings in Shell Shocked Britain and the work currently being done with service personnel traumatised by their work in Afghanistan, Iraq and other global missions, highlight the fact that this trauma can lead to a life blighted by unemployment, substance misuse, homelessness and domestic violence. Relationships are harder to maintain when trust and attachment are issues and marital breakdown and periods of depression and anxiety are more common, as is suicide. Yet the root causes of these issues aren’t always obvious and are often missed; it takes a skilled practitioner to uncover, and help the man, woman or child to deal with the damage that has been done.

At the end of Splintered Innocence, Peter Heinl quotes the Greek saying ‘ War is the father of all things’ and relates it to the history of his native Germany, currently taking in the majority of Syrian refugees currently stranded in Europe. He goes on to suggest that  now we know the horrors war is parent to, perhaps we should re-write the saying as ‘Peace is the father of all things’, and who, witnessing the plight of the millions displaced by war in Syria, could pray for anything less?

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Guest post: Words are tools of healing by Vivienne Tuffnell


I was honoured to be asked to write the Foreword for Vivienne Tuffnell’s latest book, ‘Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking, and today she is guesting over on ‘let’s talk!’, writing about the healing power of words – both reading and writing them. Viv was the inspiration behind the title of the book I edited in 2012 ‘Dandelions and Bad Hair Days’and wrote two essays and a poem for that book. Do take a look at her work and let me know what you think about words as therapy…..

Originally posted on let's talk!:

41Z6WYh-WXL._UY250_Our thanks today to our guest blogger, writer and poet Vivienne Tuffnell, author of a number of wonderful novels, including Strangers and Pilgrims, The Bet and one of our favourites, Away With the Fairies, all dealing with the human condition in a mystical and spiritual way. Her short story collections are full of mystery, with supernatural elements and a deep questioning of what it means to be human. She has written and spoken of her own struggles with depression and has just published a fabulous selection of her prose pieces from her popular blog Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking. These essays challenge, question and nourish the spirit, offering support to others in mental and emotional distress. Depression and the Art of Tightrope Walking is available from Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.

Just words

No one listens to me.
But then I have nothing to say
I have not…

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From shell shock hospital to magical community – my trip to Seale Hayne

11958244_10154172096635031_9052966308211887393_oLast week I was lucky enough to be invited to Seale-Hayne Hospital, near Newton Abbot in Devon, to meet Ray Bartlett, Chair of the Seale Haynians, who has a special interest in the role of Seale-Hayne as a military hospital during the Great War. The building is now run by one of Britain’s oldest charities, Hannah’s (run by the Dame Hannah Rogers Trust) which is ‘dedicated to empowering children, young people and adults with profound physical and learning disabilities, providing them with life-changing opportunities and advocating their needs…… challenging societal beliefs and cultural acceptances surrounding disabled people with the aim of making disability incidental.’

Arthur Hurst

Arthur Hurst

I have written about Seale-Hayne before, as I researched the work of Dr Arthur Hurst there for both Shell Shocked Britain and a lengthy article for Britain at War magazine, so I was thrilled to be able to appreciate the beautiful buildings first hand. Hurst was the doctor behind the grainy black and white films detailing the experiences of men admitted suffering from the effects of shell shock and he made claims for a cure rate of around 90%, a figure that has been challenged along with his methods. Much of the controversy seems to be caused by a 21st century determination to judge methods used 100 years ago by present day standards. This applies not just to the treatment regime but to the making of documentary films, and it has infuriated Ray Bartlett, and others on the research team working to find out more about the men who spent time at the hospital in 1917 and 1918.

images (1)Having discussed this controversy in a previous post Shell Shock on film – myth or reality, I won’t detail it again, but the matter is complex. Ray was generous with his time and I enjoyed hearing first hand his enthusiastic defence of the doctor.  Real or reconstructed, the symptoms exhibited by the men on the films are as described in much of the documentary evidence of the time, and Hurst’s use of hypnosis and suggestion achieved its greatest success in the reduction of ‘somatic’ or physical symptoms – facial tics, contractures, sensory impairment for example. How far he ‘cured’ men of the impact of the psychological trauma of war is certainly debatable. Ray and the team have uncovered success stories, particularly that of Percy Meek, the ‘star’ of the films, but the psychiatrists of the First World War were notoriously bad at follow-up, and the numbers breaking down post war suggest that for many, respite was short-lived.

11951526_10154172096655031_4646655159308305315_oRay Bartlett thinks Seale-Hayne is magical, and having visited it I have to agree with him. The men treated for shell shock were given the opportunity to work on the farm land around the hospital, rest in the grounds and use the workshop space to gradually rebuild their skills at woodwork, pottery and basket making. The views across the rolling Devon countryside are stunning (although there is concern that housing developments are encroaching at an alarming rate) and the peace and quiet can only have been beneficial to the traumatised minds of men sent home from the Front so desperately damaged.

horticulture.1024x384What is so significant though is how, despite being housed in buildings that spent much of the 20th century as an agricultural college (the purpose for which it was built, before it was briefly used as a military hospital), Hannah’s has somehow taken on the mantle of Hurst’s work nearly 100 years ago. People with profound disabilities have opportunities to work alongside members of the local community in areas dedicated to horticulture and creative arts. Art exhibitions, small creative businesses and story telling areas sit alongside sports facilities, hydrotherapy pool and a polytunnel. Psychological therapies are available, as is accommodation for respite care. The similarities to Hurst’s mission are significant, but because it is the 21st century, there is a bistro, shop and other ways to support the building financially, offering meeting and conference facilities.

11057379_10154172096645031_2317976920443704293_oI spent some time in the Old Library, sitting with Ray in an environment that is redolent of the original Edwardian atmosphere and I saw the small archive they have built up, much of which is currently on display in the Newton Abbot Museum’s First World War exhibition sited in the Great Hall. The Seale-Haynians and Hannah’s are keen to hear from anyone descended from patients or staff at the hospital, or anyone with a story of that time to share and I hope to be able to help them with some of the family history research necessary to identify the families of patients they know to have been treated there.

887457_10154172096630031_1886468922130911862_oI would like to thank Ray and Hannah’s for welcoming me, and I was thrilled to have my photo taken on the very steps down which the men are filmed taking the first footsteps to some kind of recovery. I was surprised to find architecture so unchanged over a century, and one could genuinely feel that should ghosts exist, the spirits of those tormented men who sought help from Dr Hurst could be roaming the high-ceilinged corridors and rooms of the old building.

Shell Shocked Britain has offered me the opportunity for some wonderful experiences, and the visit to Seale-Hayne was one of the loveliest.

Posted in First World War, History, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

On sitting down to watch Withnail and I once again….

downloadApologies to John Keats for mangling the title of his poem on King Lear, but it seemed very appropriate. This blog has always covered an eclectic mix of subjects to say the least, breaking basic rules of blogging (know your niche, focus, give readers what they want etc) but one thing I rarely talk about is film. Yet I had ambitions – I took an Arvon Course on screenwriting eight years ago, when Jane Campion had recently stolen my thunder and come up with an idea for a biopic of John Keats that wasn’t about Keats and announced Bright Star. So I was hoping to focus on adapting a short story I had written about my great-uncle (that went on to inspire my book, Shell Shocked Britain) into a short film. On the first evening the course leaders went round the gathered company asking each of us to name our favourite film.

Now this was a challenge to me as I rarely sit down to watch a movie. My husband and I have very different tastes and although I will happily watch a two-hour episode of Inspectors Morse, Lewis or Montalbano, I am not a ‘movie night’ kind of gal.  I often lose patience mid way through a DVD, and trips to the cinema are infrequent. I do love some films –  Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation and the aforementioned Bright Star; Love Actually is a favourite at Christmas largely because Emma Thompson is so brilliant in it, and at the same time of year the Muppet Christmas Carol is an annual treat.

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Thank-you. Five Years of London Historians


I just had to reblog this piece by Mike Paterson, who founded London Historians exactly five years ago. Five years!!! I am proud to be a Founder Member of what has become a hugely popular and brilliantly run organisation, offering talks, walks, newsletters and pub meet ups for anyone with an interest in our lovely capital. I am living in exile in Somerset at the moment, still yearning a little for the city of my birth (which I visit only occasionally for research trips) .Mike has done a great job and keeps me in touch with everything I am missing! Thanks Mike.

Originally posted on London Historians' Blog:

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the founding of London Historians.

The first London Historians member card. Somerset House. The first London Historians member card. Somerset House.

I’d like to thank every single member who has joined us in that time. I’d also like to thank all the friends we’ve made at museums, libraries, historic buildings, local history societies and other heritage groups, the London Topographical Society, to pick a random example. Curators, librarians, authors, academics, genealogists, archaeologists. And tour guides, a special mention for them: there are several dozen among our membership which now stands at 520. I wonder if we can make that 600 in 24 hours?

SPECIAL OFFER NEW MEMBERS. This Day Only, ends midnight.
If you’re a non-Member reading this and would like to take the plunge, we commemorate this anniversary with a £10 discount on joining. 24 hours only! Please proceed to this page. (for “Qualifying Group”, please put LH5).

Here are some…

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My next book on 18th & 19th Century medicine – and a competition to come up with a title!

L0025088 Death as an apothecary's assistant making up medicines in aBefore you read this post, I would love to know if, after hearing a little bit more about my next book, you can think of a fabulous, attention-grabbing title. The working title is ‘Death Disease and Dissection’ but it hardly covers it! If your title is chosen (just add it to the comments below the post) I will include you in the acknowledgements and ensure you get a free copy of the book….!! 

I am actually working. Posting this is part of a proper writing day. Admittedly I have been sending lots of emails, arranging research trips and talking to people who have information that may be useful, but now I am getting words down on paper, and will continue to do so off and on for the rest of the day.

I am currently researching two commissions. The first is a book about medicine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, focusing on  young apothecary apprentices and their education to the required standard to undertake the role of surgeon apothecary, a career roughly equivalent to present day general practitioners. In a past post I have bemoaned my lack of progress, and inspiration, but something has changed in the past couple of weeks, and writing this is, to me, a proof of  my commitment to the project.

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Posted in Books, History, Keats, London, Medicine, Mental health, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 18 Comments