When I was 22 in 1989, I had a job restoring Old Master Paintings, I was in love with the man I worked for and life, on the surface at least, was good. On my return to London after a trip to India, I discovered that he wanted to end our relationship, and was seeing someone else.
As a child, I wrote diaries. I loved January 1st, that new page and all the promise of a New Year. I always tried to make my handwriting neat, before it descended into a hurried scrawl by mid-month. I didn’t realise it until I looked back, but that bedtime habit really helped me through some difficult times.
I found the book both passionate and poignant; I thought the description of mania and slow realisation/sense of alienation from the outside world was brilliantly portrayed and one of the bits that really moved me was his phone calls when the truth of his abandoned and isolated status from previous friends and associates came to life. Hilary (Occupational Therapist – Mental Health)
The madness, the craziness, all the text book symptoms come to life. The seductive dreamlike internal logic of psychosis. I’d been fast-tracked to a dazzling paradise armed with cosmic insights you wouldn’t believe.
South London, the summer of ’89. Dan Blake’s world has been turned upside down by mental illness – inexplicable, invisible and certainly not cool. He’s been sectioned – life in Woodland Park Hospital is no picnic, but it does have its moments.
…He was plugged into the main source, lit up. He could live on light. He could feel it, taste its liquid gold running through his veins. It was love, love… Love that he couldn’t see. Or touch. That could never be taken away… What was going on?
‘I read it practically at one sitting … House of Bread is very impressive. Vivid, painful and completely engrossing.’ Howard Schumann
‘This is a brilliant book in all respects. His incomprehension at his predicament, being detained under the mental health act, forms the initial part of the narrative. Gradually we learn the events that lead to Dan’s incarceration, on the way discovering how quickly one becomes a non-person when caught up in the mental health system. Friends one has had all one’s life find nothing to say when faced with observing discomfort. Fellow patients become closer than family. The advantages of psychiatric medication are quickly shown to be far outweighed by the appalling side effects – the ‘Largactil shuffle’ and the drooling rigidity that accompanies it. Dan eventually learns almost by accident that he is a manic-depressive and that his colour and number (7) filled world of complete invulnerability is paralleled by the depths of despair and utter hopelessness of suicidal depression. That he survives his stay and finds genuineness and indeed love in the process must fill the reader with hope. This book is a must for anyone with either a passion for a good read or an interest in mental health. The description of the roller coaster highs and lows of manic depression is perfect in every detail and challenges us on every page. A must for professionals and those it affects personally.’ Hannah Walker (Service User)
‘I have just finished reading House of Bread and found it to be an entertaining and moving insight not only into mental illness but also into the service user experience. I considered myself to be an enlightened and empowering nurse, but this book has shown me that, at times, I have been far from that. I believe that everybody working in the mental health field should read this, and I will be recommending it to many colleagues.’ Kate (Registered Mental Nurse)
‘I found the book both passionate and poignant; I thought the description of mania and slow realisation/sense of alienation from the outside world was brilliantly portrayed and one of the bits that really moved me was his phone calls when the truth of his abandoned and isolated status from previous friends and associates came to life.’ Hilary (Occupational Therapist – Mental Health)
‘This is an extremely well written, intelligent, sharp, funny, sad and philosophical novel. The setting is extremely well handled. Dan is sectioned and the plot cleverly builds around what took place before he was sectioned and how this is affecting his life and the life of his friends and family. He’s got ‘clinical happiness’ and I’ve not seen a better descriptive fictional account of this disorder. Contemporary fiction tends to be aimed at the twenty/thirty-something market, but this novel would be bought by readers of all ages. The book is both challenging and readable – a skill which not all writers possess.’ Publisher’s Reader review
‘I think this book will appeal to many, as there are many who have been there and are there and will be there in the future. Often those on the outside who have never suffered from a mental illness cannot understand that you can’t take a few pills and then get better in a week.’
‘I very much enjoyed House of Bread. It is a fascinating account of what goes on in such a hospital. I found it hard to put the book down.’
‘I enjoyed Amanda Nicol’s book enormously. I was intrigued by the plot, which reveals itself slowly and I was invigorated by the pace. I think more people would enjoy this story if they could see how sensibly and humorously she has treated the subject. Speech is beautifully recorded. I found the book hard to put down.’
‘I loved this book. It tells us about the many who are having a very difficult time in their lives and brings ‘mental illness’ into a humane context so that we can identify with the characters and feel love and sympathy. To make it seem not the secret terrible shame is a great achievement. I was brought up with mental illness, my aunt didn’t speak after a breakdown when she was about 18 and she spent the rest of her life as a sort of shell of a person, it was heartbreaking for my family especially my grandmother. We never knew when she would have a turn. Thank you, Amanda, for describing the experience so well, I feel it will have helped many.’
‘I was moved to e-mail you since recently reading ‘House of Bread’ by Amanda Nicol. I am a very selective reader and it has joined the ranks of ‘unputdownable’, I read the book in one sitting and am recommending it to friends. I found it be both humane and human, well written, accessible, darkly and appropriately humorous and definitely required reading. Anyone who has been on a ‘wobble’ (just about everyone I imagine) can identify with the experience of Dan to a greater or lesser degree. It is not in the least a depressing account of subject matter that can and has been stigmatised. I feel that this book would be a fantastic addition to recommended reading for young teenagers at school, normalising that which can seem both isolating and terrifying.’
‘Amanda has crafted a very well-written novel, and fully deserves the praise that has been heaped upon her in other reviews of the work. It is, in turns, funny, touching and thought-provoking. Her portrayal of the vulnerable Dan is very effective and I was immensely satisfied that the ending showed hope for his future. Her obvious knowledge of the mental health care system and the treatments used enriched the story, which was strong enough to stand on its own. The characters were sympathetic, the dialogue wonderful and I found it an excellent, life-affirming read.’
‘I expected this to be a difficult book, but no – straight in, easy to read, I laughed, I cried and I found, unexpectedly, bits that hit a personal note.’
‘…there’s a wealth of detail in here (the author writes very, very well by the way) so that you know the author has been there, done that. It’s not a novel which requires a plot; it’s just about a stay in a mental hospital. It’s completely undramatised and all the more effective for it. The problem is that I don’t suppose the author will produce anything else – what would you expect to follow on from this anyway? You know better than I do. And you also know whether or not you can sell such a novel. If you tell the sales department you want to consider a novel about a sectioned manic-depressive, they’ll groan. But given that’s what it is, it’s very, very well done. It’s hard to work out quite what sets it apart from the usual slush-pile loonie-bin saga, but something definitely does.’ Publisher’s Reader review
In Jerusalem by William Blake Plate 31. Los, travelling thro’ darkness and horrid solitude crosses London: Thence to Bethlehem, where was builded Dens of despair in the house of bread; enquiring in vain of stones and rocks he took his way, for human form was none… Bethlehem translates as House of Bread, and St Mary of Bethlehem was the priory founded in 1247 in Bishopsgate which became a mental hospital by the 14th century and known as Bedlam.
Like trees coming into leaf, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when change begins. Once established, it’s too late, you can’t imagine the possibility of bare branches. Dan was feeling really good. Something weird had happened to the world around him. He knew it had begun with the altered colours, but he couldn’t have said when. In fact, by the time traffic lights began to leave their normal confines, radiating diffuse mists of red, amber and green, mingling with the air in watercolour washes, he was past the point of no return.
Mat’s tapes had transformed his solitary state into a communion with musicians. He would sit with his headphones on, watching the outside world as it changed and remained the same, then, transported by a particular passage or solo, he’d close his eyes and sink back onto his bed as high as an opium eater. What had been a track, a song, a tune, words, was now a picture in sound. Suddenly it all made perfect sense. Rhythm sections were the root, foundations for a mathematical construction. Each player’s part separate, a coloured thread in a tapestry. He could pick one out and follow it, sometimes loose, sometimes tight, always connected.
His mind began an elaborate improvisation on this theme. As he gazed outside, buildings became the drum and bass. The trains played percussion. Wailing planes were guitars. Horns, well, obviously they were the horns. Shouting, barking and chirping provided vocal harmonies whilst the breeze sent a plastic bag tumbling and soaring in the sky like a clarinet or a flute.
It seemed to him that the whole world was a sort of symphony. He felt that he had just stumbled upon a mighty truth. If nature, music, the workings of his body, the paths of the planets, everything, was interwoven in some simple yet complex way, governed by patterns which, if you could get far away enough you would see, then … then what? It was as frustrating as trying to remember a dream – he just couldn’t put his finger on it. Whatever it was all about, he was happy. The point was that if all things were connected then he wasn’t alone after all. Or at least not all of the time. Occasional unison was as inevitable as the long, nerve-racking solos.
Nerve-wrecking solos more like. This must be payback time, he thought, as he breathed in the air, now as intoxicating as an Arabian night. The exact inverse of the way he’d been feeling a couple of months back when the possibility of suicide had been the only thing that had kept him going. At that point he’d been a mistake. An unadvised, misplaced incidental. Something to be edited out. So alone, it took solitude into a new dimension. Without even himself for comfort. A worm on concrete on a hot day, a broken down vehicle on the hard shoulder, a spider in a bathtub, the sole, sickly survivor of a nuclear holocaust… Anything awful, anything bleak. So unlovable, so incapable of love, devoid of humanity. Sick. Ill. A waste of space. Without feeling, untouchable, unreachable. Seeing no worth in anything, thus unworthy, worthless. Meaningless. An unpleasant taste, an ache, a pain. A pain in the arse.
He shivered, picturing as he did several times a day the ransacked medicine cabinet and his hand, blurred by tears. Once capable, useful, now full of pills, which he’d expected to be the last thing he’d ever see. If only he’d known that this sort of happiness was possible. After all, what had he suffered? His life hadn’t been hard. Maybe it hadn’t been hard enough. It was pathetic. The loss of a lover, not through death, but to someone else. It’s hardly uncommon. But now, in the face of his new-found, all-encompassing, cosmically connected, (if semi-clad) truth, it dawned on him that what he’d lost wasn’t love, but a poor imitation of it. He’d been in love with her like a tightrope walker loves his rope.
To happiness then! Joie de vivre! It was more than just feeling good now. It had become an exquisite and protracted high. It stayed with him night and day. People started to comment on how well he looked. Mat was convinced he’d got a girl tucked away somewhere.
‘You look like you’re getting it good an’ proper, mate!’ he said winking at Dan, who was happy for him to think so. His energy levels were rising. His need for sleep was falling. He was up with the lark, and still up with the birds that remained twittering incongruously under streetlights in the wee small hours. He liked to position himself in front of the wall of windows, watching the squares of coloured light that were the windows of the opposite block. As more and more of its inhabitants went to bed, the building would dim, like a huge machine shutting down for the night. Gazing outwards, his stereo by his side, he’d peruse the FM dial, considering the possibility that external forces were programming estate dwellers to transmit information to the heavens by means of light switches.
What was happening? He knew that it was out of the ordinary, this boundless energy that found him walking from south London to the city to borrow fifty quid from his perplexed brother. Spurred on by the music from his headset, he wove his way through the busy jostling mass of, he decided, mostly miserable faces, seeing new and profound meaning in every signpost and advert. It was as if the world up until then had been in code, and he had just found the key. God, the colours! So bright, so cunning. Luring, implying, seducing, warning. And numbers! He wished he’d been good at maths. A computer whizz-kid. Then he could decode all these patterns, all the waves, all the geometry inside. He saw himself in front of a computer, tapping furiously at a keyboard, a modern day Einstein, winning the Nobel Prize for his Theory of Absolutely Everything.
Back in his flat, garish and unlikely garments that had inexplicably found their way into his possession were now his favourite clothes, as if they’d been lurking there at the back of the cupboard just waiting for his reinvention. He was fun to be with. Soon he was the life and soul. Friends started to hang around. He and Mat threw impromptu parties that took place in their two flats, annoying the neighbours when they started to spill out into the corridor. He found that his disinterest in the opposite sex had, like everything else, turned upside down. Suddenly he was brimming with confidence. He seemed to be able to have anyone he pleased. It was all part of the general excess, never lasting longer, or even as long as a night. But it was great not to care. Not to be thinking about Her. When had he become attractive? He wasn’t complaining. He could have taken on the entire female population, and taught it a thing or two.
Mat decided that with their combined talents they could start organising bigger parties. The success of these would guarantee club nights, leading inevitably to their own clubs, record label, company, empire. It may have been just another dream for Mat, but the idea mushroomed in Dan’s mind until it became destiny. The theme would be, well what else? Saving the world from the destruction wreaked on it by capitalism. Well, somebody had to. Hadn’t he always known he was different? The depression must have been some sort of test, some sort of interview, which he’d passed. After all, it wasn’t going to be easy to save the world, there was going to be resistance, there always was, wasn’t there? Obviously, the clubs and the merchandising would kick-start the movement… A whole new system of economics and everything had to be conceived of and put into practice, and all by him. Jesus, it was quite daunting.
Alas, all this was to fall by the wayside, if it hadn’t already, the day the light changed. Dawn was breaking. He and Mat were on their way home after a night out. They’d decided to walk, Mat was speeding, Dan may as well have been. Both of them assumed that the energy of the other was down to the same thing as their own. They climbed over the railings to cut through the park. To Dan’s surprise, it had transformed into the Garden of Eden. The landscape was trembling as the intensifying daylight pushed away the darkness. Everything was glowing as if embarrassed to reveal its nakedness. He stopped, allowing the geese, illicitly grazing on the sports fields, to waddle back to the safety of the lake. Throwing himself onto the damp grass, he looked up at the sky, dug his fingernails into the earth, rolled over and breathed in the ancient, homely smell of it. Rich, resinous, spicy and as sweet as an exotic cake mix. The sponge, the base, the envy of all planets – God, he could have eaten it, it was so good.
Mat was laughing at him.
‘C’mon man, get up!’
‘But it’s so beautiful!’
‘You’re tripping mate. Let’s get home.’
On the other side of the fence, he saw colour seeping from the traffic lights.
‘Mat, look at the light!’ He stopped dead in his tracks, tugging on his friend’s sleeve.
‘What are you on?’ said Mat, urging him homewards. They parted at their respective doorways.
‘Get some sleep. Laters.’
Dan knew that there was not even the remotest possibility of sleep.
A few days, or maybe even a week later he knocked on Mat’s door, at a time when most of the block was sleeping. Mat opened it with a towel wrapped round his waist.
‘Listen man, I’m busy right now,’ he said, winking at his neighbour.
‘Can’t you just come round for a minute? I haven’t seen you for ages. I need to talk to you…’
Mat wasn’t listening. He was looking at Dan strangely.
‘You look thinner… You’re looking good though…’ From inside they heard a girl calling him back to bed.
‘Gotta go mate. Check you tomorrow.’ He leant towards Dan’s cheek and gave him a kiss. This seemed quite normal to them both. Then he whispered in his ear, ‘It’s taking over this town, you know about it already don’t you? That’s what you were on, wasn’t it… Remember, the other night?’
Dan remembered, in fact, it wasn’t really a case of remembering since the feeling had only intensified since then.
‘What’s taking over?’ he said, alarmed. They looked at each other, saucer-eyed and excited. Luminous green shimmered around Mat like phosphorescence, and when their eyes met there was a flash of white light.
‘Ecstasy mate, Ecstasy,’ whispered Mat. With that, he went back to the waiting girl. As far as Dan was concerned, this confirmed everything. But he hadn’t needed to take a tablet. He’d been chosen. There was no doubt about it. He went back to his flat and catching sight of himself in his bathroom mirror, saw that he was lit up like a standard lamp, tall and thin, his face a glowing porcelain shade.
He switched on his ancient telly. He discovered that if he turned the contrast, colour and brightness right down and fiddled with the channel knob, very interesting patterns appeared, dancing across his screen like Bridget Riley paintings come to life. When he grew tired of this, he blackened the screen further, until it became a window onto deep space, with the odd distant glimmer here and there.
He remembered someone telling him that space was as empty as a cathedral containing three grains of sand, and looking out at the strange orangey-yellow night sky, it looked even emptier than that. Once that would have freaked him out – the terrible enormity of the universe and, worse, the inversely proportionate terrible insignificance of self – but now it didn’t bother him in the least. Other dimensions, nothing scary about that. If there were three, then why not six, seven, nine, ten? He looked at his fingers. Ten of them. His digits. People were saying that digital technology was going to change the world forever, and for better, in the next, significantly, ten years. Did they mean like digital watches? He’d always liked the neat way that all ten numerals fitted into the little upright rectangle. He turned to the silent television. The jumping dots had become a tightly knit crowd of dancing human beings, all fitting into the rectangular screen, a synchronised tribe, a living jigsaw. It looked so real, God, he was going crazy! He blinked and rubbed his eyes, but it didn’t go away. Was digitalis the name of a medical condition? If so, he’d got it.
It was almost dawn. This time of day was becoming familiar. Why didn’t anyone have the time for him at the moment? No one seemed interested in his plans. The parties had stopped as soon as their novelty had worn off. Raves somewhere off the M25 were the thing now, but the last place he wanted to be was in a crowd. He didn’t need it. He was having a wild time, all by himself. With his head as light as a feather, his physical self was turning over so fast that it seemed slow, a spinning wheel of a machine. Or a rocket that had just been launched into space, getting lighter and higher as redundant sections of himself were jettisoned, falling away into deep space, paring him down to the essential. It was pure pleasure, languorous, abandoned, decadent, delicious. He was transparent, porous, perforated. He could feel wind and light rushing through his cell walls. He was plugged into the main source, lit up. He could live on light. He could feel it, taste its liquid gold running through his veins. It was love, love… Love that he couldn’t see. Or touch. That could never be taken away… What was going on? For want of anything better, he christened this concoction of sensation The Feeling. It had to last forever.
He lit a cigarette, dragged on it once or twice, then put it down in one of the ashtrays that were filled to overflowing with perfect tubes of grey ash where many had burnt away unsmoked. He seemed unable to remember trivia such as the fact that there was already one lit, dying a slow death, three feet away. Who cares? It seemed funny to him. Everything was funny. Funny and serious in that somehow even a joke had more meaning than you’d once thought. God must be a joker. God must be a boogie man…
He looked around the room. He was pleased with what he had done. That’s why he kept asking Mat to come round. He’d transformed the place. It started with a few party decorations, before becoming the prototype club, venue, whatever, for the entertainment conglomerate that was soon to be Mat’s and his. Paper and pencil had quickly been abandoned. The walls were now a psychedelic jumble of colour. His mind was constantly playing the word association game, one leading to another, the association having more significance than ever. If not linked by meaning, then related by rhyme … or shape, or … anything. He was trying his best to concentrate on the grand plan… It wasn’t easy… But then it wouldn’t be, would it? Coincidence abounded. Everything that caught his eye, every cover of every book or tape was just what he’d been thinking about, looking for, was about him, was the writing on the wall… Not for nothing was there a cockerel on a cornflakes box, oh no, it wasn’t just marketing, it was a sign. The herald of the morning, a new day, a new life. The colours telling you something very important indeed. In fact, he decided that if you were to eat one thing the colour of every colour of the rainbow then that would be enough, whatever it was. One cherry tomato, one cornflake, one banana, one pea, one blueberry (if you could get hold of one), one… What was indigo? A glass of Ribena maybe, violet – God, it was outrageous that he wasn’t sure of the difference between indigo and violet. He really must go to the shops, he thought, chewing on a stale cornflake. Maybe he had a picture of a rainbow somewhere in the flat. He hunted around feverishly, thinking about how funny it was that he’d always thought that it was a fine toothcomb, not a fine-tooth comb. A fine-tooth comb was something like a nit comb, whereas a fine toothcomb was something that someone like Marie Antoinette would have used as an eighteenth-century equivalent of dental floss. Very ornate, with a long handle of silver or gold … inlaid with gems with a tiny ivory comb at the end for picking bits of wild boar from between the royal teeth, or what was left of them…
He gave up looking for a rainbow and turned his attention to the rising sun. The city was stretching and yawning. His friend, the bravest pigeon of the lot, seemed to see him from a way off and flew towards the open window. Graceful and confident on the wing, the bird landed unsteadily, scrabbling and flapping on the hostile windowsill. He held out a few cornflakes in his cupped hand to the bird, who cocked his head and turned his orange eye on him with suspicion. All in good time, he thought, dropping them before the shy creature. It seemed wrong to offer something and then only give it on his terms.
The sun was well and truly up now. It was going to be a beautiful day. The sky was pink seeping into blue and the scrubby grass and little trees seemed to be dancing, swaying, with one gentle motion. Everything that lived – tree, dog, bird or man – was surrounded by the snap, crackle and popping green light that had danced around Mat the other night. The sun was blaring out its rays like a child’s drawing. He found that he could reach out to it and take a golden thread, pulling off more and more, a sunshine candyfloss man, or write in the air with sparklers for fingers, scattering electric confetti wherever he pleased. He anointed Pidge with a smattering of sunshine, and he was transfigured into the Holy Dove, or something suspiciously like it.
He turned away from the window reluctantly. He wanted to lie down, but there was to be no respite from the work he had to do. The sense of urgency was overwhelming. It had to be done today. If he didn’t get it together today, something was going to happen, something bad. All he had to do was finish the business plan, sort out his paperwork and get to the bank. Get the loan and get started. Hang on, what about a bit of publicity first? Why hadn’t he thought of it before? The newspaper building on the other side of the park! He’d go in there, maybe dress up a bit first, and tell them about it… Something told him they’d be waiting for him. His time had come.
He sat on the floor in front of his pile of notebooks to take yet more dictation from who knows what, his jumbled thoughts tumbling onto the page as the night flights made their descents into the London morning from who knows where.
© Amanda Nicol 2011