Last night was the 21st Anniversary of Survivors’ Poetry. It’s not difficult to fill the Poetry Café in Betterton Street, London, but it was a suitable venue for what was for me, an emotional occasion. Being involved with Survivors’ Poetry through the 1990s was instrumental in my getting involved with the Disability Arts Movement.
Joe Bidder was then and remains to this day, an engaging mentor and advocate. Without him I would never have been able to move forward with the work I’ve done within the Disability Arts Movement over the last twenty years. At the event he reminded us how instrumental Arts Council were, then, through the vision of Bushey Kelly, in establishing Survivors’ Poetry. Joe reminded us how radical and effective the group was in establishing the first ever Arts Charity staffed and run exclusively by survivors of the mental health system.
Another founding member Frank Bangay recalled how much of the organisation of gigs and workshops, back in the day, happened from his ‘office’ in the local telephone box! Frank’s poetry always stirs with a spirit for understanding and compassion, arresting the listener with images of the healing power of nature. Accompanied on guitar by Alastair Murray and with a mean harmonica in hand he gave us his song of hope for England.
Frank has been a cornerstone of the Survivor Arts movement since the 1980s and continues to be a prolific writer and producer though his work with Core Arts. I’d recommend reading an interview with him by Xochitl Tuck published in the Spring/ Summer 2005 edition of Survivors’ Poetry Express.
Another founding member Hilary Porter, talked about her initial reticence, followed by her gratitude for everything that Survivors’ Poetry has meant to her. I remember her dedication to making the events and workshops all those years ago so welcoming. Her self-effacing, warm nature were an inspiration that kept the Survivors’ spirit alive through many years.
Razz has also been there since the beginning. He continues to bring an ineffable charm and enthusiasm to the performances and workshops he organises with Xochitl and takes part in at the Poetry Cafe and Tottenham ‘Chances’.
The event made me realize how much I miss the spirit of survivors performing and the gentle supportive vibe that is such a hallmark of what is so valuable and necessary to giving survivors of the mental health system a space to express ourselves and to cope in a world that can be so cruel and insensitive towards those of us who struggle in our daily lives.
Simon Jenner continues to keep Survivors’ Poetry going. The website contains some great live films of performances by various members of the group, including some of the wit and wisdom of the fourth founding member of the group, Peter Campbell, who unfortunately was unable to make the anniversary night. When Peter talks about the presence of God on Cricklewood station you just know he speaks truth. Go to http://www.survivorspoetry.org/the-poetry/performances/ for some real gems.
I finally got around to reading John O’Donoghue’s autobiography ‘Sectioned: A life interrupted’. It won the MIND book of the year in 2010 so has been on my shelf for a while now. The preface hurls you into the author's world as a teenager with a tale of exorcism, after the death of his father, and his mother's subsequent breakdown.
From that point, the use of narrative and the clarity of the storytelling brings alive the people and experiences John lived through, primarily in London, during Thatcher’s reign when there was ‘no such thing as society’. The dialogue in particular gives a vivid portrayal of an array of characters from hospitals, residential homes, hostels and squats, complete with mannerisms and accents.
The writing carried me through from episode to episode of psychiatric incarceration and homelessness, willing the bad luck to end… knowing that a point of turn-around was coming. I was glad John finally found some positive advocacy through MIND. I had some good experiences of the group in Camden in the mid-80s, and then again in the early to mid-90s, in association with Survivors Poetry.
Above all I was deeply moved by the determination, resilience, humour and humility that comes across through all the travails John experiences through psychosis… against all the odds. I was struck by the honesty in the face of those misguided notions that have haunted practices within psychology, where so often damning judgements are brought to bear in the guise of being ‘non-judgmental’ and ‘therapeutic’.
Sectioned illustrates a universal truth that so much more than diagnosis and drugs and therapy is needed. What really changes lives is a bit of understanding applied from the right quarters at the right time. Understanding isn’t something you can train anyone to have. Books like Sectioned help, but, in the main, understanding of mental and emotional difficulties are either things people get or don’t get. So often the ability to proffer understanding is equally something that is dependent on a whole set of variables.
Sectioned also illustrates - without falling prey to victimhood - how much the system fails people; humiliates, degrades and punishes like the worst bully. Even some of the worst stories, like being sent to prison for two months for stealing bin bags worth 80p, are told with a humour that makes you question the way society is run.
All those people getting hyped-up in the media and prosecution service about the recent riots would do well to read this book – and maybe think again about the impact their decisions and judgments have on the lives of young people as they react to the urge to ‘make an example’.
Left-wing liberalism has lost its edge recently with all the media hype about responsibility and respect. Even The Guardian seems to have suddenly become a proponent of the Big Society. In its place the class divide has suddenly got inextricably deeper. The same old story comes around as it goes around. Not only do the poor get shafted by all the institutions set up to ‘serve’ but it is done at enormous expense to the taxpayer. Where’s the justice?
‘Sectioned: A life interrupted’ by John O’Donoghue is available from Amazon price £5.99