Down the road in Perth this weekend the SNP were gathering for their conference. Meanwhile in Glasgow the Mitchell Library was host to the much less assuming literature strand of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. Events are taking place all over Scotland now so go and have a look. This is the first year that Aye Write have been involved. They are hugely successful festival of writing in Glasgow which sells out almost immediately and it is good to see them being involved in the festival. The events in the Mitchell were much quieter. As the programmer of the events Stuart Kelly said in his introductions to Alisdair Gray, was this partly because of the subject matter and the stigma that surrounds it? My pal Jacqui and I would both admit we are drawn to the dark side a little and have no such reservations we did not feel “brave” as Stuart suggested but privileged to get the opportunity to hear some old and new writing talent.
And we did. Nathan Filer read an incredible first chapter from his debut novel “The Shock Of The Fall”. Nathan has worked as a psychiatric nurse and this novel is written from the first person perspective point of view of Mathew who has never fully recovered from the death of his brother. His website is www.nathanfiler.co.uk if you want to read more about him. He was sharing the platform with ex psychiatric orderly, poet, writer Dennis O’Donnell who read from his book “The Locked Ward” about his experiences of working in an acute setting. I found it interesting that Dennis’s agent told him to write the book after he didn’t get the deal for Susan O’Boyle’s biography despite knowing Susan and her family. I found it sad that the old Bedlam mentality where folk used to visit that institution for entertainment has never gone away but we are a nation of voyeurs, that’s why we read so much. However both authors attempted to portray that behind the label of mental illness there is a person sometimes struggling not to be hidden behind all the trails of glory that accompany it. Dennis has a blog dennis.odonnell.blogspot.com
Feeling like we had sneaked early out of school on a Friday afternoon we arrived for Santham Sangera visit his website for more information about his journalism and other books. www.santham.com. He read from his moving memoir “The Boy With The Top Knot” about his experiences of growing up in a Sikh family in the Midlands. Both his father and sister live with schizophrenia which he did not find out until he was twenty four. He talked about the negotiations he had with his family so he could tell their story. He movingly described the book as filled with love for his mother. Sangera has some controversial ideas about language. He described how he saw nothing wrong in the use of words such as “Mental” and “mad” to engage people and then challenge their perspectives. This was followed up by a conversation about how language can be a tool of oppression and do writers have a responsibility to challenge the narrative? The first day were chaired by Mark Buckland of Cargo Publishing. An amazing man who set up CARGO with no experience of publishing. He has struggled with mental ill health instead and is open about his recent diagnosis of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is one of the most misunderstood and feared mental health conditions. Folk are frightened by stories in the media and the misrepresentation of living with psychosis. Prejudice exists at all levels. I remember a friend telling me not to mention she heard voices when applying to join the British Psychology Association or tell her university lecturers. People with schizophrenia are seen as dangerous and out of control, which is are from the reality that people recover and keep well live ordinary lives. In my humble opinion THESE are the brave people!
Saturday saw us seeing Jenni Fagan whose novel “The Pantoptican” has had critical acclaim. Jenni shared that no less than Ken Loach is making a film of the book. When asked who she would like to play Anais, the main character she replied a unknown. Jenni was brought up in the Care system and she mentioned how many young people she had known throughout her life had simply disappeared. This book was a love letter to them Jenni said. Read one of her few interviews here http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/books/jenni-fagan-on-life-in-care-and-her-new-novel-1-2896052 and buy or read this book. Denise Mina read from the “Red Road”. I was ashamed to say only very recently introduced to her books by Jacqui as they were crime books. Can’t recommend the Garnethill Books highly enough. Denise gave a great interview where she talked about predatory forces and imbalances of power. This goes on in the sex trade and in all areas of power. She described how seven global capitalist companies predate on us all bringing power, money and privilege. She talked about the lack of conversation about the YES and NO camps and how we will get along in a small nation. Will definitely try and convert Denise. Her website is www.denisemina.co.uk
I felt it very appropriate that Alisdair Gray should close the festival. This was the largest audience by far. The great man (because he is), was on good form talking about his bawdy interpretation of Dante’s Inferno and his other writing. He thinks 1982 Janine is his best book. Gray himself said that he only likes to talk about things that make him happy but he believed we should vote for Independence for a “new way”. He condemned the labour authority in Glasgow for closing the “health centres” in the East End for the Commonwealth Games. I think he meant the closing of the Accord. Gray told many amusing stories tinged with darkness. He even attempted to make light of his suicide attempts and his frequent brushes with alcoholism with the brightness of his personality must come darkness too. A great two days.
It was good to have the Festival in the Mitchell Library the events I attended were in the Jeffrey room. The Victorian patriarch looked down on us in this room filled with all his books he had bequeathed to the people of Glasgow. In the days before the Internet and access to superfast information people pondered over atlases and reference books now they just give an impression of grandeur. In Mr Jeffrey’s era the treatment of people with mental health was much different than today. Out of sight out of mind. Bad morality was seen as being infectious unwed mothers might find themselves incarcerated in an asylum. The remains of Glasgow asylums can still be identified on the skyline but as care in the community has become the norm the old buildings are now more likely to be luxury flats. People with mental ill health have to find asylum elsewhere. The stigma still remains though despite the efforts of various campaigns. As was highlighted at the festival, TESCO and ASDA employees did not think that “fun” Halloween costumes would upset anyone or were inappropriate. It was only when folk protested that they were removed. Discrimination against mental illness is still a permanent part of our culture. It is up to us all individually and collectively to try and put an end to it. I believe that language is oppression and that writers and those who contribute to the narrative of society have an obligation through their stories to tell the stories of those who Denise Mina suggested are marginalized and remember it is not them and us just simply us.
So a good weekend and a great start. However a few considerations the festival needs to be more accessible. Physical access was difficult for those of us with mobility problems that can be fixed but access is so much more than that! I know bigger audiences are necessary but how do we ensure that writers living with a mental health condition are more represented? that people living with mental ill health feel more able to contribute to the questions. It is a great opportunity for all of us to share what it is like to see the world through a different lens. It is great to see a literary thread weaved into the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. Those of us who came were lucky and privileged to hear so many different experiences of living with mental health and how it affects families and society. One of the themes of the weekend for me was that many of the stories were shared with love from the perspective of professional, family member or affected person. Another was the secret and lies in families and communities I hope we can move to a more open society where mental health is not something we don’t talk about. It seems to me that this is one of the biggest personality trait issues that we face collectively. Lets get more secrets into the sun where they can be dealt with not left to fester in wee dark corners.Thanks again to Mark Ryland and Stuart Kelly for wonderful interesting questions Again I have succeeded n getting through this without sharing too much of why this festival and it’s conversations meant so much to me. That’s a story or two for another day but I know the black dug well. Love and Peace to you all. Thanks Jacqui for a wonderful couple of days and to all my friends who sometimes dance in the dark thank you for being wonderful you, xxx