Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Splitting In Two

Robert Dellar Splitting In Two (2014)
I first encountered the name of Robert Dellar back in 1983 or thereabouts as one half of Cult of the Supreme Being whose song Chlorine Fills My Lungs particularly impressed me when I heard it on a compilation tape on the Cause For Concern label; which was around the same time I first began writing to Andy Martin, then of an unusually tuneful punk group called The Apostles. Robert's name turned up time and again under various guises on cassettes put out by Dead Hedgehog Enterprises of Watford, and eventually I met him in person as I ended up playing guitar in one of Andy Martin's later bands and it transpired that they knew each other quite well.

That said, I was never quite sure what to make of him. He always seemed too busy to talk, or just about to go somewhere, and I got the impression he regarded me as merely one of Andy's many drooling acolytes. I attended a Mad Pride live event which Robert had organised at The Garage in Islington in 2003 - in part because I was amongst the performers and was scheduled to appear on stage with the Ceramic Hobs - and I was surprised when Robert came up to me, asking if I had paid to get in. His point was that my name had been on the guest list so I shouldn't have handed over any quids, but I was more taken aback by his actually knowing who I was, as it had been a few years by that point.

Splitting In Two is Robert's autobiographical account of the Mad Pride movement he helped instigate, his life, and his often fraught dealings with the mental health authorities. I know quite a few of the people in this book, and appeared on stage at two of the live musical events described herein. One of people described by Robert regularly slept on my couch every other weekend up to the point at which he started going on about buying rare Skrewdriver albums and thusly somewhat pissed on his chips where I was concerned; and I'm familiar with a few of the more unpleasant stories of psychiatric brutality related in Splitting In Two through having already heard them from Andy Martin, who was also there, and who has by various peculiar twists of fate come to number amongst my bestest friends.

The point to my mentioning any of this is that it will be virtually impossible for me to offer an objective view of this book, because I was either there, or at least stood just around the corner for some of it; although I suppose this at least means I can offer some sort of confirmation that Robert hasn't just made this shit up for chuckles.

It seems initially an uneven read, literally split between lively if occasionally harrowing autobiographical details, and the dryer tone of discussion regarding psychiatric matters, doubtless informed by the number of reports Robert has been required to submit to hospital authorities over the years. This is probably acknowledged, perhaps unwittingly, in the title, taken from an Alternative TV song, more consciously chosen as an allusion to the dialectical model of philosophical and political analysis first elucidated by Hegel and then developed by Marx, amongst other things; which is stated on the third page and probably shouldn't put you off. However, this initially uneven quality becomes less apparent as the book goes on, and I'm not sure it even matters; although I have no idea whether I would find the contents quite so fascinating were I unable to recognise at least a few of the persons and situations involved.

Well anyway, from my entirely unreliable position, I would tentatively suggest this is potentially quite an important book. Dellar's beef - as has been that of the Mad Pride movement - is that those diagnosed as clinically insane remain the last group in western society whose human rights may be legally withdrawn without explanation or accountability, who can be pumped full of dangerous mind-altering substances on the say so of someone whose stated justification requires no more medical rigour than it might work, so let's see what happens. The psychiatric system, Robert argues, might therefore be seen as authoritarian and capitalist society in microcosm, stripped free of all window dressing. He further argues that mental illness is itself more often than not either an inevitable by-product of our society, or at very least a condition which is significantly exacerbated by the same.

I'd decided on this course of action because I'd been reminded of the theoretical difficulties I had with the discipline of psychiatry, which saw distress and mad behaviour as an illness caused by genetic and biochemical factors, rather than as a legitimate response to a sad world in which sane responses had proved themselves inadequate.

Having myself briefly gone bonkers back in 2004, the blame for which I lay entirely on an employer concerned more with shareholders than those either doing or being served by the job in question, I'd say that Robert Dellar's assessment seems about right; and even my doctor told me I wasn't mad but was simply responding quite logically to a ridiculous and impossible situation.

Splitting In Two stumbles along, splattering refutations of psychiatric theory left right and centre amongst all the tales of mad stuff and far too much drink, and is a lot more fun than anything with quite so many suicides probably has a right to be, but concludes as a quietly inspiring panoramic view of our society and everything that's wrong with it; and for all the fits and starts with which it kicks off, the closing chapter, is one of the finest, most elegant summaries I've read anywhere, or at least it left me with the impression of my having read something much greater than the sum of its parts.

I have no way of telling how much sense this will make to anyone other than myself, but I hope it will make a lot, because I would tentatively suggest this is one of those rare books which really everyone needs to read.

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