After a winter in Brittany – ‘The Darkling Thrush’

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Yesterday…

It snowed again this morning. On the 14th of April. Yesterday was so beautiful – the sky blue with a very few clouds occasionally blurring the warm sunshine – so waking up to the white stuff was a complete surprise. It didn’t last long and didn’t settle, but it was a reminder that our first winter in France has been unpredictable – in weather and in mood.

It is not the fault of Finistere; we knew we weren’t moving to a climate very different from the one we were leaving in the South West of England. It is about two degrees warmer here, and drier in summer, but the winters are wet and the skies leaden for days on end. Living so close to the forest we see both the benefit of this rain, and its disadvantages. The spring greens are just taking over from the brown, bare branches and we know that there will soon be a carpet of shiny green under our feet, and dry firm paths where now there is wet leaf mould and slippery mud. This is a fantastic place to live, and we have no regrets. But we now know why many here head for sunnier climes in January and February – it is a time to ‘tough it out’, rather than feed the soul, for me anyway.

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Our wonderful, primeval, but muddy forest

My mood became very low, and I was unable to work at anything other than routine admin, of which I had plenty. The four books I have now been commissioned to write should have excited me, but instead weighed as heavily on my conscience as the clouds over the treetops, constantly threatening a deluge. I underestimated the difficult transition period needed after the change we had made. I worried about our grown-up children in the UK, was convinced I was physically ill because panic gave me symptoms and I became fearful of leaving the house. Masking depression and anxiety is hard work and that masking feels necessary when you don’t know the people around you very well (even though we have met some really lovely folk here) and are unsure of their response. I was, as the doctor here suggested, depressed about being depressed, furious with myself for not appreciating how lucky I am – always a dangerous place to go. 

A friend from England saved me, in a way, by writing, on paper and sent in a real envelope, long letters two or three times a week, about day to day life, family things, normality (or what passes for it) and wise words. I am hopeless at replying to letters, but I wasn’t required to so I didn’t. What a relief. I can’t thank her enough, or those other friends who write and keep me in touch with the world. I felt a long way away.

There have been some wonderful times, when the sky has cleared for a few days, and the paths have had a chance to dry out sufficiently for me to look at something other than my feet as we walk, enabling me to look into the treetops, spotting long-tailed tit, wagtail, hearing the buzzards mewl and see them wheeling on open wings above the fir trees. There were snowdrops, and other wildflowers I didn’t recognise and days at the coast when the sun was warm on our faces even though it was March, and there was always Teddy the dog, and Peter, just sitting there with me.

220px-Turdus_viscivorus_in_Baikonur-town_001And there is the thrush –  mistle I think, rather than song – who started singing from February dawns (which are late here, an hour ahead of the UK) and who continues now, even as I write this in the early evening. He has favourite phrases, some almost nightingale pure and so loud you can focus on little else but his beauty, sitting proudly, as he does, on the topmost branches of the trees around the house. He may be three birds or more, but for me, it is one solitary companion lifting the heart, and the mood. He is marking his territory, impressing the lady thrushes, living his few short years on this earth to the height of his ability. And he speaks to my soul. I am writing this, and have made decisions about my workload and will now focus on writing and editing, as I have always wanted to do. The sound of the bird song reminds me there is so much more to living than the stuff the 21st-century calls ‘life’, and you can go days without spending more than a few euros here. So my mood is lifting, and once again I can see depression for what it is – an illness that comes and goes, like the weather. Spring is here, and soon we should get a warm settled spell.

I haven’t stopped reading poetry of course, and although I would love to find a reason to include some lines from John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ here, (rightfully one of the most famous love songs to nature, and a treatise on life, and death, and feeling and  – well read it…), that would be to cheat Mr Thrush and the joy he has brought me recently. So instead here is Thomas Hardy, who could often reflect, gloomily, on the human condition and in this poem of the winter, of the turn of the year and a century (it was written in 1900) he meditates on what feels like a dark time, for him, for the world.  Even as the song of the thrush intrudes upon such thoughts, he can’t be sure why the bird is so cheerful, or whether it is truly a sign of hope. The poem is more complex than I make it sound and reflects the scientific and religious developments of the 19th century and the conflict this caused many, but for me, at this moment, it is simply a tribute to the power of the smallest things to bring the greatest hope.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy

Shell Shock on the Somme: keeping the stress of war in the news

The Somme

sommeWhilst I was researching for my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First world War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health (Pen and Sword Books October 2014),  I came to understand how, during certain periods of the war, concern about the numbers diagnosed with shell shock, and the possibility of it becoming an ‘epidemic’ grew. Never was this a greater worry than during the battle of the Somme, when official reports suggest that, in a six month period, more than 16,000 men were recorded as a casualty of war owing to the trauma they experienced during the Somme offensive that lasted from July  1st to November 2016.

They suffered the classic symptoms – mutism, blindness and deafness, facial tics, paralysis and depression, alongside nightmares – reliving the horrors night after night. My grandfather was a victim, which led to lifelong anxiety and a terror of thunderstorms. My great uncle was hospitalised for a year with war trauma and, four years after the end of the war, he committed suicide, first murdering his ex-girlfriend by cutting her throat. It is the story that inspired my book , and, as I discovered, there were many similar tragedies played out across the country in the years after the war.

Featured Image -- 5439Of course, as Shell Shocked Britain describes, even the extraordinary figure of 16,000 would be a gross underestimate. Many men were recorded as physically, rather than mentally, wounded and others did not break down until later, even many years later, when an event seemingly unrelated to their military experience would trigger a breakdown. It is important too, to note how class based was the diagnosis and record of a man’s experience. As I sat in the various libraries, researching my book, the fact that officers were more likely to be diagnosed with ‘neuresthenia’ (or a long term break down resulting from the pressures they were under) where others might be categorised as ‘Shell Shock Sick’ and therefore not a ‘real’ casualty of war, became clear. Post war, men who remained hospitalised as a result of their trauma had their pensions docked to cover their treatment, where a man with physical wounds did not, leaving many families impoverished.

The First World War was a very different kind of war to that anticipated in the heady patriotism of 1914. The battle of the Somme was one of the first full scale battles in which volunteers and conscripts took part, and they had to endure days of heavy bombardment as thousands of shells were used by both sides. They could be buried alive in the stinking mud as trenches collapsed, blown into the air by a shell or mown down by machine gun fire. The would lose many close friends, often as they stood in the same trench, and it is of little surprise to us now , when we know that even the battle hardened regular troops were breaking down, that many thousands of others with less experience should find it hard to cope.

It is a subject I return to again and again as I give my talks – the sheer unfairness of the response to shell shock; the desire to ‘keep the numbers down’ in an attempt to ensure morale was not affected; the different treatments meted out depending on which hospital, which doctor and which class you were classified in – all are shaming. What is worse, in my view, is that 100 years on, things have not  changed sufficiently to prevent significant numbers continuing to suffer from what is now often referred to as ‘combat stress’. Veterans of conflict (or some ‘peace-keeping missions’) still find it is hard to ‘come out’ about any mental health problems they are experiencing and some are left with the same lifelong psychological wounds as their forbears in the Great war,  leading to alcoholism, family breakdown and ultimately, suicide.

So as I end my talks, I would just like to end this piece, marking as it does the start of that battle, with the thought that this commemorative period will come to mean little if we don’t, during the four years, work to properly understand the issues men faced then, and those our forces veterans face now. We must keep the pressure on the necessary organisations to ensure that research into the causes of and treatments to alleviate the symptoms of combat stress, PTSD or whatever we now choose to call it is properly funded. Charities are finding themselves overwhelmed as the MoD and NHS fail to meet the needs of men and women affected by war trauma. And the sort of legacy  left by the terrible crisis in the Middle East and the horrors experienced daily by civilians and troops in the war zone is incalculable.

So, even whilst the madness of the political situation Britain currently faces seems to hog the limelight, be sure to remember what happened 100 years ago, and consider the horrors still witnessed that leave a psychological scar that may never heal.

Shell Shocked Britain is published by Pen and Sword Books and is available from their website HERE or on Amazon HERE. It can also be ordered from any bookshop.

 

How depression has been let down by the media: On Hopkins, Morgan & the battle ahead

Katie Hopkins
Katie Hopkins

I have tried so hard not to write this post. Don’t get me wrong – it is not through any feelings of shame at admitting my years of battling depression and anxiety (anyone who knows me and this blog will know I am totally open about my mental health issues and have a page devoted to posts on the subject by me, and by others) but because I felt I had nothing to add to the discussion of the Germanwings plane crash tragedy and subsequent media treatment of the story. I shared a couple of posts on Facebook, but quickly realised how wound up I was feeling and made the decision to step back and observe, as people I respect and mental health organisations made statements I heartily endorsed.

But this morning, having read a great post from The Blurt Foundation and more of the marvellous Matt Haig (whose book about his own experiences of depression Reasons to Stay Alive was published last week), and seeing the vitriol being poured forth by Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan on twitter, I can resist comment no longer.

What are people like Hopkins and Morgan FOR? Who do they think they are representing? Why should they be allowed to berate those with mental health issues on a public forum in the most hateful and bullying terms and be allowed to get away with it? I am not going to give any more publicity than is absolutely necessary to the comments Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan have made – if you are interested you can go on their twitter accounts – but the general gist is that those of us with depression are self-absorbed, malingering, attention seeking hysterics who are only after a sick note. In addition, we are a danger to the public and, as a consequence of the Germanwings crash ought not to be allowed to use anything resembling machinery. Continue reading “How depression has been let down by the media: On Hopkins, Morgan & the battle ahead”

Post-book blues? On losing the will to write…

don_t-be-a-slave-to-writer_s-blockWriter’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.” — Philip Pullman

That is us told then…those of us who think ourselves writers.  I found another contemporary writer willing to pass on their advice, Barbara Kingsolver, a woman whose work I admire as a rule:

It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.

Oh dear – she isn’t willing to collude with me either. Help……

At the risk of worrying my publishers, I can’t write at the moment. Well, to be more accurate I can’t write books at the moment. Clearly I am writing this blog post, and I have written another post for wonderful The Wordsworth Trust Romanticism blog on new ways of interpreting John Keats’s poetry. But nothing else seems to make sense as it leaves my brain and reaches the screen. Even my love of writing with a pencil in my favourite notebook seems to produce nothing of any meaning. It is a tough time, and worrying about it seems to make it worse.

Shell Shocked Britain, a book that took two years of research and writing, was published by Pen & Sword Books in October. Since then I have done lots of talks and have been marketing it madly on blogs, in magazines and via twitter and Facebook. It has gone well, but I feel as if it has been sucking inspiration and motivation out of me. I am not sure if other writers feel this way, although I suspect it is more than likely, but for me I know this feeling is a route into a more general depression. Scary.

I was of course anxious about the success of Shell Shocked Britain– all writers want to be read. It is a book about mental health  – looking at the shell shocked men and families who lived through the Great War 100 years ago and examining how the trauma still resonates with us today. It has sold well (I was well aware it was a niche subject, albeit an important one) so why are my anxiety levels so high that it is hard to work? Why am I railing at myself for my seeming inability to engage with the world in a healthy way?

Telling myself to ‘just write’ is not really working, unless a post like this is in some way building up to a wonderful bill-paying opportunity. I write because I enjoy it; I also write because there are bills to be paid and I have found sharing my thoughts and knowledge in articles, on blogs and in talks offers an opportunity to make an albeit meagre monthly income. Asked recently whether I would, as it were, ‘sell out’ and write commercially rather than for love then the answer had to be ‘yes’. Just because I don’t adore it doesn’t mean others won’t, and there is always the chance that an idea that really grabs my imagination will materialise from the most unexpected of places.

X2GFS_H1T1My mood is low, my anxiety high and my inspiration flown. I have two more books to write over the next two years and must start making sense of my notes. It feels terrifying. As always, my ability to procrastinate remains stubbornly expert. Perhaps I should take Neil Gaiman’s advice:

Start at the beginning. Scribble on the manuscript as you go if you see anything you want to change. And often, when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are. And you do it all one word at a time.”

Certainly, thinking ‘Oh my goodness I have to write 200,000 words before the end of 2016’ is giving me palpitations and preventing me from writing even 200.

As is always the case, in life as on this blog, I turn to John Keats to put me right. In Endymion, a patchily brilliant poem he wrote before his most stunning work was penned, he says:

But this is human life: the war, the deeds,
The disappointment, the anxiety,
Imagination’s struggles, far and nigh,
All human; bearing in themselves this good,
That they are still the air, the subtle food,
To make us feel existence, and to shew
How quiet death is.
from Endymion, Book II, l.153-159.

Maybe this period of post book blues is all part of the plan then, and I am simply ‘feeling’ my existence as a newly published writer.

Whatever. I just want it to stop.

Shell shock on film: myth or reality?

shell shockWhen I began researching and writing Shell Shocked Britain I watched the grainy, black and white film footage of shell shocked soldiers readily found on YouTube. They show a number of British soldiers filmed whilst undergoing treatment at The Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley , near Southampton or at Seale Hayne Hospital in Devon. In one episode of Jeremy Paxman’s documentary series Britain’s Great War a brief extract was used as he spoke, briefly, on the subject outside Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland (which doesn’t actually feature in any of the footage). Entitled War Neurosis 1917, the film was shot over a period of eight months and is the only surviving footage of the effect of shell shock on British soldiers in the Great War.

Arthur Hurst
Arthur Hurst

The films were directed by Major Arthur Hurst, who had volunteered for service with the Royal Army Medical Corps having established a neurology department at Guy’s Hospital in London. He went to France to see the work doctors there were doing with men diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’ and was able to travel on to witness the horrors at Gallipoli, before coming back to England to put new treatments he had learned into practice.

Pathé cameramen were used to film at both hospitals and the work they highlighted led to Hurst being lauded as a miracle worker in the press. But was he simply a good self-publicist who hid himself away in the Devon countryside to ensure his methods were difficult to verify? As I delved deeper and spoke to 21st century experts in military psychiatry, I began to view the films very differently.

Hurst’s film, whilst supposedly offering itself as a tool for training other clinical staff, is a masterpiece of promotion and marketing. One can watch it as a piece of social history, but as documentary evidence of medical treatment it seems exploitative and disturbing. Among the men filmed was Private Percy Meek, a 23-year-old man from Norfolk, who joined the army in 1913. First wounded in the thigh in May 1915, he was treated and returned to the Front later that year and served without further incident until February 1916. Hurst’s lengthy report on Meek’s case explains that the young man was stationed in a trench subjected to a period of continuous bombardment by German mortars. As the noise and anxiety became overwhelming, Meek’s comrades had to prevent him from going ‘over the top’ in panic, to attack the German position.

We first see Meek sitting, like a baby, in a straight-backed, wooden wheelchair undergoing an examination of his rigid ankles for the benefit of the camera. Yet over a period of months his voice and understanding gradually returned, and, after transferring to Seale Hayne in April 1918, his physical recovery quickened and the film shows a much healthier looking Private Meek, wearing the uniform hospital blues and running up and down the steps in front of the building. The film shows his recovery to be so nearly perfect that by June 1918 we see him supervising fellow patients in a basket weaving shop at the hospital.

Other patients include Private Preston, aged 19, who reacts to the word ‘bombs’ by running for cover under his hospital bed. Private Ross Smith has a facial spasm affecting his ears and head with violent twitches, which disappear under hypnosis, only to return with renewed violence when he wakes. Private Reid, aged 32, was buried by debris from an exploding shell and, though without physical wounds, he has become unable to move; the film shows him returned to full mobility and able to work on the hospital farm.

The simple peace of the rolling Devon countryside offered solace to the damaged men. Unlike some other hospitals, the staff at Seale Hayne refused to bully a patient into submitting to the will of the doctor and the army. Hurst was keen to ensure the dignity of the men was maintained, with no pressure to get them back to the Front at all costs. In some respects his treatments resemble present day treatments for moderate depression and anxiety. But to the frustration of his peers, Hurst would never elaborate on his methods and there were few witnesses to his successful treatment.

hurstbookHurst only detailed his methods as the Second World War entered its final stages, in his book Medical Diseases of War:

Directly the patient is admitted the sister encourages him to believe that he will be cured as soon as the doctor has time to see him…The medical officer …tells him as a matter of course he will be cured the next day. The patient is made to understand that any treatment he has already received has prepared the way, so that nothing now remains but a properly directed effort on his part for a complete recovery to take place.

This now appears to be a deception, a practice widely used as a ‘cure’ for shell shock and it was not considered an unethical practice. Fake operations to cure deafness were staged, going so far as to anaesthetise and cut patients who had been told the procedure would cure them. Frederick Mott at the Maudsley Hospital recognised that, as the war progressed towards a conclusion, the best ‘cure’ was to assure a patient that they would never be sent back to the Front.

It is hard to assess which parts of Hurst’s film are what would now be termed a ‘reconstruction’ and which are genuine. He certainly never tells the viewer. The facts of Private Meek’s trauma are undisputed, but the film, shot in just eight months, documents a recovery that took over two years. It was a similar situation with other patients on screen. Men had been asked to re-enact their symptoms, which, as they were apparently lacking a proper consciousness as they experienced them for real is worrying. Audiences, still unused to seeing ‘moving pictures’ would have taken them at face value. People still do.

Reports in the press, from ‘honest’ witnesses describe how Hurst’s cures could take just a few minutes. The descriptions of a paralysed and dumb man being ‘cured’ within 10 minutes, to the point where, simply by coughing, he can be encouraged to sing the whole of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, appear somewhat suspicious. Hurst and his team claimed that in 100 consecutive, successful treatments, they were curing, within days, men who had on average been treated in other hospitals for 11 months prior to admission. Ninety-six per cent were treated and cured in just one sitting, at an average of 54 minutes per patient. Of the four cases that required longer, all took less than four weeks. Despite these claims, it is almost impossible to establish what percentage of the men treated later relapsed.

So was Dr Hurst actually ‘a bit of a fraud’, as he has been described to me by a psychiatrist? Watch the film and see what you think. He was not a man who inflicted unnecessary pain on his patients, as other doctors did, and men responded well to the environment around the hospital. But these films are so often shown as ‘fact’ that his contribution to the study of the subject must be questioned.

Arthur Hurst has offered us a glimpse of the physical symptoms the shell shocked of the Great War experienced. But more than that? How far does the knowledge that he asked men to live through the horrors again affect our views of his work? His work was not miraculous and certainly flawed – but fraudulent? I am still unsure….

Speaking to the dead: spiritualism, secularism & seeing the ghosts of the Great War

 

Mina Crandon  known as Margery) one of the most controversial mediums of the 1920s
Mina Crandon known as Margery) one of the most controversial mediums of the 1920s

Do you believe in ghosts? Can you trust in mediums who claim to commune with the dead? In Shell Shocked Britain I look at the rise of spiritualism during and after the First World War, examining why it experienced an explosion in interest and what it offered a nation traumatised by loss and grief. It is a fascinating subject that encompasses not just the supernatural, but issues of gender, the role of religion and the psychological need for both certainty and succour.

Even before 1914 church attendance was declining. As now, the majority of the population would classify themselves as Christian, but religious observance was increasingly confined to traditional holidays such as Christmas, Easter, harvest festivals and rites of passage – births, marriages and deaths. Demographic changes had led to the breaking up of small and close knit communities and young people were finding the strictures of the scriptures less relevant to their lives.

The Great War thrust the established church back into the limelight as clergy were called upon to rally people to the cause and offer hope and comfort to combatants and civilians alike. However, many found the support of their local priest wanting.  The church was sometimes viewed as too ready to promote an aggressive patriotism, focusing on fighting the good fight, rather than offering the necessary emotional support to those grieving. Yet if an individual priest were seen to be questioning the war, he would be vilified in local and national press. The church lost its way and a grieving nation sought meaning elsewhere.

Spiritualism as we would recognise it today began in mid-Victorian North America and by the 1870s there were numerous Spiritualist societies and churches throughout Britain and the United States, which in 1891 joined together to form the National Federation of Spiritualists. In 1902 the organisation became the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), which still exists today.  Spiritualist mediums, whose influence had declined following the the heyday of the séance in the late nineteenth century, became, for thousands of people during the First World War,  a focal point for grief and hope. Great crowds would attend spiritualist meetings across the country and enthusiasm for the gatherings went across all classes.

espiritus‘Celebrity’ endorsement furthered the cause. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge were great advocates for the movement, affected as they both were by the loss of sons to the war. In Shell Shocked I look at some of the key reasons why such eminent intellectuals were ‘taken in’, and at Mrs Osborne Leonard, one of the mediums who made such an impression on them. It makes disturbing reading, but in the 21st century there are equally audacious ‘cons’ that draw us in. Many sought to prove spiritualism was a fraud, including illusionist Harry Houdini, but that interest only heightened the public interest.

Gladys Osborne Leonard was born in 1882 and would later say that she had first had commune with spirits whilst still a child. Thwarted in her ambition to become a professional singer by illness, she turned to spiritualism and was giving professional sittings by 1915.  It was when she came into contact with scientist Sir Oliver Lodge that her fame spread. Lodge’s experiences of working with her to communicate with his son, killed in action in 1915, were written up in his book Raymond or Life and Death – a paean to the afterlife and ultimately to his desperate grief at the loss of his son.

Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge
Spiritualist medium Mrs Osborne Leonard, who worked with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sir Oliver Lodge

Leonard worked with the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation established to prevent fraud, which offered a veil of respectability.  However, many later suggested Leonard was a clever charlatan who used auto-suggestion in a similar way to many of the doctors treating shell shocked soldiers, tapping into her client’s unconscious until they believed what she wanted them to believe. Her work may seem feeble by today’s standards, but in the days of early wireless technology it was not difficult for Sir Oliver Lodge to believe that invisible radio waves were acting as a conduit to his dead son’s existence on the other side.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a firm believer and said of Leonard: “The greatest trance medium with whom the author is acquainted is Mrs. Osborne Leonard. The outstanding merit of her gift is that it is, as a rule, continuous. It is not broken up by long pauses or irrelevant intervals, but it flows on exactly as if the person alleged to be speaking were actually present. The usual procedure is that Mrs. Leonard, a pleasant, gentle, middle-aged, ladylike woman, sinks into slumber, upon which her voice changes entirely, and what comes through purports to be from her little control, Feda”

It is little wonder that so many were attracted to this contact, and with the ‘Happy Valley’ in which Leonard said dead soldiers lived a comfortable life. They smoked pipes, drank whisky and took springtime walks.

As worrying as the fraud on the recently bereaved was the exploitation within spritualism itself. In the 19th century, the formal spiritualist movement had been dominated by female mediums, such as the Fox sisters. It was closely allied to women’s suffrage and offered an opportunity for women to make their views known. However,  some of these women were preyed upon by male confidence tricksters who, to all intents and purposes, ‘pimped’ them around meetings and informal gatherings. A movement that had originally given women subject to the restrictive social mores of Victorian and Edwardian society a ‘voice’ now became another way to subjugate them.

In the inter-war years spiritualism was the only way many could make sense of loss and cling to the belief that their loved ones were in a ‘better place’. It stepped in where the Anglican church, along with other denominations, seemed muddled and without a lead, unable even to agree on what was meant by an ‘afterlife’.

In Shell Shocked Britain I look at this subject in  more detail, to assess how hundreds of thousands came to rely on the voices of the dead to keep them in the land of the living. It is a fascinating aspect of the emotional turmoil the whole country experienced during and after the Great War, and one that is rarely discussed.

‘Mental Cases’ by Wilfred Owen: Writing the horror of shell shock in poetry

Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920)
Wilfred Owen

On Friday 21st March it was World Poetry Day. It is often one of those ‘days’ that passes people by, especially if they do not consider themselves a poetry lover. (I don’t think anyone truly dislikes poetry; they just haven’t found the right poet…) The UN states that World Poetry Day reminds us that:

‘Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings’.

As anyone who follows this blog regularly knows, I would agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I adore poetry and like nothing better than a couple of hours browsing an anthology or looking at the Poetry Archive online and discovering someone new; or a poem that expresses just how I am feeling at that time.

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegA common humanity and a recognition of kinship is something I have been working through in my book, Shell Shocked Britain, which has been occupying a lot of my time recently. My editor is sending me her final edits and I am adding a few, last paragraphs that I have thought of since the manuscript was first presented in December. I have also started a twitter feed for the book and given it a Facebook page to ensure I can follow as many interesting First World War sites and projects as I can and offer tantalising snippets from the book and the research I have done for it. If you feel like following either then do ‘like’ or ‘follow’ for more details.

Anyway, as it was World Poetry Day on Friday, and because I was unable to post anything whilst in London for the day (and at the launch of Angela Buckley’s fabulous book ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes’) I thought I would offer here a poetic tribute to the shell shocked men of the Great War in the words of the wonderful Wilfred Owen. Owen was himself hospitalised at Craiglockart in 1917 to recover from neurasthenia (another term for shell shock). A chapter in Shell Shocked Britain uses line 15 as its title – Always they must see these things and hear them. It sums up the enduring trauma the men experienced, during and after the war, and indeed the whole poem expresses vividly the horrors that haunted the men that broke down, unable to articulate their pain.

shellshcokIn my book I do recognise that many men came through the war and lived happy and fulfilled lives, safe with families and able to leave the war behind them. Some trod a path between the past and the futures they wanted – a narrow way that held dangers should life decide to deny them the support they needed to maintain their sanity. Others could never recover and spent the rest of their lives dismantled emotionally and physically – ‘set-smiling corpses’ that woke each day to face new torments. Ten years after the war 65,000 men were still receiving treatment and many broke down many years after the conflict ended.

These truly were ‘the men whose minds the Dead have ravished‘.

Wilfred Owen – Mental Cases

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, – but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

– These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them, 
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense 
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
– Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
– Thus their hands are plucking at each other; 
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness

The images Owen uses, of nameless men reduced to’slavering’ like animals and suffering an endless purgatory, is surely a metaphor for the de-humanising effects of the war and the resultant retreat inward to a hell these ‘helpless’ men cannot escape from.

Do read this poem through a few times if you can. It is shocking in its graphic description of the men Owen was treated alongside at Craiglockhart, under the enlightened care of psychiatrist William Rivers. It is a vision worthy of Dante and surely berates us should we forget these men who reach out to ‘paw’ and ‘snatch’ at those of us who might live on without giving them a thought….

The BBC, the Great War & being part of the ‘bandwagon’…?

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From the jacket of Shell Shocked Britain

First of all, thank you to all those who chatted to me, on and off-line following my Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain post. It was really heartening to find out so many are interested in the legacy of the Great War for the mental health of the nation and I have worked hard to do the subject justice; but the next six months are not so much about writing as marketing and I want to approach that properly as well.

However, I am aware of the first rumblings and grumblings about the coverage of the centenary so far. ‘There is SO much on the television’ said one friend ‘that it is hard to see how it can continue’. Another drew attention to the fact, one hundred years ago,  the war had not even started; yet the BBC (and it is almost wholly an issue for the BBC Coverage) is offering television and radio programmes on a daily basis. Radio 4 is awash with adverts not just for its own programming, but for Radio 2 and the television channels too. ‘Every presenter seems to want to jump on the Great War bandwagon…’ they said ‘I am feeling rather ambivalent about the seeming glorification of the war’. This is not really the response one would want for the centenary of one of the great turning points in British history. What we have today, we owe to those who fought in, and lived through, a conflict that sent out those first shoots that grew into ‘modern’ Britain.

I have been gripped by many of the programmes broadcast so far, but I have a lot of sympathy with these concerns, most particularly because it is another six months until Shell Shocked Britain hits the shelves. Although it is hardly possible to comprehend, people may be jaded and less interested in hearing about the First World War by October. And aren’t I doing exactly the same thing as the BBC by publicising the book so far in advance of the launch date? I want to make sure everyone who may be interested in the book knows it is there. But will anyone still be listening?

paxoThe subject matter of Shell Shocked Britain is so different from most of the programmes aired thus far. Jeremy Paxman in Britain’s Great War touched on some of the issues I aim to highlight, but without making some of the links I think are necessary – how the trauma experienced by combatants and civilians, adults and children alike affected the mental health of the nation. How behaviours, responses and attitudes in the post war period resulted in an approach to mental illness that resonates even into the twenty-first century. It is an important subject that I hope will find an audience. I want that audience ready to listen. I want it to be there.

Is anyone out there privy to the workings of the television and radio scheduler’s mind? Has the BBC a formal programme of events across the next four years? Are we to have programmes covering each of the battles? At what point does something become, in a programme maker’s eyes, ‘worthy’ of a documentary? Is the output original, or a re-hash of things we have seen before? Is this deluge of documentaries respecting the history of the period or exploiting it? So many questions.  Can this frenzy of programme making last four years?

Over the next few weeks I am going to be posting some pieces on topics I cover in Shell Shocked. These will include The First Blitz, the outbreak of Spanish influenza, Eugenics, and the fascination with spiritualism that saw a resurgence during and after the conflict. I will also tell you some of the sad stories that have materialised during my long trawls through the newspaper archives – stories that mirror that of my great-uncle Alfred Hardiman, who killed his ex girlfriend and then himself in 1922. They highlight how the strain of dealing with trauma experienced during the war could lead even the gentlest soul to commit shocking acts, often years after the Armistice.

Is it possible to make too much of such an important subject?

So what do you think? Is there too much too soon? Is this early festival of remembrance from the BBC the best way to remember and to honour those that lived through those years?

Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain’: how war trauma casts a shadow across a century

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegI can hardly believe that Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s Mental Health has been out and available for almost a year. The time has passed so quickly and I am still talking about the book to various groups and being asked to answer questions about shell shock and the lasting trauma of war. The book has 5* reviews and universally praised for its compassionate approach, which is very gratifying. I thought I should just update this post, and of course offer a link to purchase the book – available in hardback or on eReader from Amazon or from the publisher Pen & Sword. Thanks to all who have bought it so far; it is much appreciated and I would love to know what you think.

I know that some readers of my blog (and thanks for that!) already know that throughout 2013 I was writing a book called Shell Shocked Britain commissioned by Pen & Sword History. We are now in the final edit stage, with proof-reading to come before it is finally published in October of this year, marking both the Centenary of the start of the First World War but also the month in which World Mental Health Day falls.

The publisher has given a sub-title to the book –  ‘The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health‘. I cannot argue, as it is exactly what the book is about.

I was thrilled when I was commissioned to write Shell Shocked; not simply because I got my first ever advance and felt truly ‘professional’ as a writer, but because I would have the opportunity to take the Great War and offer up an alternative view of the bloodshed and horror. There have been, and will be, many television programmes, books and academic papers released this year and rightly so, but my book examines the wider, emotional implications of the war, not just for the shell shocked troops but for the civilian population and for the nation as a whole in the inter-war period and takes a fresh look at why we may engage emotionally with WW1 over and above other conflicts. Jeremy Paxman addressed some of the same issues in his recent four-part documentary Britain’s Great War, but in a superficial, and dare I say it of the great man, rather bombastic way. Those he interviewed  must have been shocked at questions such as that asked of a relative of a conscientious objector – ‘If I suggested he was just awkward…?’ I hope I have been a little more sensitive, whilst remaining objective and accepting of realities.

Myths about the war abound and by the end of this first year of commemorative events there is a danger that arguments by politicians and media opinion will sully what should be a sombre time of reflection.  Dan Snow published a wonderful list called ‘Lions and donkeys: 10 big myths about World War One debunked that highlights how far we have strayed from what may be called ‘a truth’ about that war. It is important we recognise what was universal about WW1 as well as what was unique and for me, having just ‘completed’ Shell Shocked Britain it was a relief to see him write

By setting it apart as uniquely awful we are blinding ourselves to the reality of not just WW1 but war in general. We are also in danger of belittling the experience of soldiers and civilians caught up in countless other appalling conflicts throughout history and the present day.

Having read widely and having spoken to those who have had a role in the modern-day Armed Forces as well as the Army of the 1940s and 1950s, it seems to me that the response to the horrors of armed combat are as difficult to comprehend today as they were for those first soldiers faced with mechanised and trench warfare. As civilians we simply cannot understand the bonds between men and women in war zones; we can’t imagine what it is like to see one’s friends blown to pieces before our eyes, or sit to eat our meals with the numbers around the table dwindling as injuries and fatalities increase. We see the names but we don’t know the people, or understand what took them to that front line in the first place.

netley-shell-shock-1917Combat stress and PTSD  are the descendants  of  shell shock. Many (though not all), of the responses to the trauma of battle are the same now as they were then – anxiety and depression, anger expressed as aggressive and impulsively dangerous behaviour, alcohol and other substance misuse and nightmares and flashbacks. Currently the national charity Combat Stress is helping 5,000 veterans deal with their symptoms. By the end of the Great War some 80,000 men had been diagnosed with shell shock but there were thousands more affected, to some extent by the trauma of war.

In addition, they came home to a nation where almost everyone knew a bereaved family, even if they had been lucky to welcome their own sons home. Many felt guilty; many were themselves scarred by anxiety as they waited for the dreaded telegram, ran for cover as Zeppelins or Gotha aircraft flew over their homes bringing death behind the Front Line, or welcomed young men home only to find them taken from them by Spanish Influenza, or later manifestations of shell shock that drove them to suicide. Relationships had changed in a fundamental way and many found it hard to adapt. It can be argued (as well as challenged of course) that there was a sense of collective trauma, as the prelapsarian world of the Edwardian era was shattered

But as Dan Snow rightly points out, many young men actually found the war offered them a way out of grinding poverty and unemployment and offered them opportunities to enjoy freedoms denied to them at home. Now, we still find young men and women signing up to find a career, to gain respect and take themselves away from a damaging home situation. These young people live 100 years apart but (despite the caveat that we cannot attach 21st century mores to 20th century lives), they are not so different.

And this is what I wanted to express something of in Shell Shocked Britain; that we are a world apart now, as the last veterans pass on and the numbers who lived through that time dwindle, but we are in many ways the same people. We talk of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and the stoical way many veterans dealt with their experiences, but for many this was not simply the British way. There were simply no words to express the experience to a world that seemed desperate to get on with living.  And it is still that way today for veteran and civilian alike – the trauma has no words and if unaffected it is hard to comprehend.

However, failing to deal with the issues the war raised stored up health problems that reverberate even today. Work has been undertaken by psychologists that shows how far the memory of war can cause mental health issues not only in first generation, but second and third generations of a family. A grandchild may remember an angry grandparent, perhaps reliant on alcohol, aggressive and unkind. Or there were men in the family, like my great uncle Alfred Hardiman, whose acts changed the lives of sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces. Some of them are alive today. Ask them.

If all the work over the next four years of commemoration is to mean anything, we must try to understand, and I hope Shell Shocked Britain may help, just a little bit.

On World Mental Health Day – Dandelions, Depression & Desperate marketing

Book Cover resize (2)(Please note – this is not just a sales pitch for a great cause! I include some poems to add value so bear with me…..)

I am proud to say that today is the first anniversary of the publication of Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, the book of wonderfully creative and heartfelt life-writing, poetry and photographs on the subject of depression and anxiety. More than twenty people allowed me to use the pieces they had provided for the monthly mental health blog post I ran on No wriggling and I am terribly proud to be its editor.

To celebrate World Mental Health Day (the launch of the book was planned to mark it last year) I have reduced the price of the Kindle version of the book by half to raise awareness and get it up the charts and royalties on the ebook mean that even with a price of £1.53 more than a £1 goes to mental health charity SANE. To go direct to buy (please!) click HERE. If you would like a copy of the paperback (and a chance to see Nettie Edwards’ great photos which we couldn’t replicate in the ebook) it is just £5.99, but I have a few copies I can send at a reduced price of £4.50, dedicated if you wish. Just leave a comment below for more details.

Continue reading “On World Mental Health Day – Dandelions, Depression & Desperate marketing”