A food-writing prescription to cure clean-eating

 

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Not ‘clean’ but fun. And we’re in danger of losing that.

The concept of clean food is a crock, posing as wellness when in fact underneath lie some pretty disordered ideas about food and eating, denial and body image. Clean eaters often demonstrate extremist beliefs and magical thinking about food and they tend to be obsessed with their physical appearance (their rhetoric exhorts us to eat clean in order to gain a flat stomach, a lean physique) at the expense of their psyches. The term is meaningless, its context weak, narcissistic and stripped of indulgence, pleasure, and love. Their locus of control is firmly centred upon the external because everything is a potential threat: food can harm them; food will make them fat; food will make them sluggish; they cannot rely on their lymphatic, hepatic and renal systems to detoxify- indeed they do not trust their own bodies at all.

The real problem with clean eaters is their lack of an internal locus of control. They seem to believe they are at the mercy of food, their appetite, and their desires, and the sense of agency and self-determination which are both necessary for a healthy psyche have become quiescent. They blame their food instead, as opposed to their own thought processes, yet food cannot be dirty or clean unless you are in the habit of rolling your weekly shopping through the mud or putting it through a hot wash. The moral value of a foodstuff lies in the method of its production, not in its inherent nature, taste or effects. If you really aspire to eat well, cut out battery hen eggs, eat meat from animals that are treated in a more humane manner and buy your fruit and vegetables from local producers who don’t use horrid pesticides or cut down their hedgerows. Shop for ingredients when you need them, cut down on food miles where possible and learn to scratch-cook using fresh and seasonal ingredients where possible. This is good food, not clean food.

If you want to learn how to take greater pleasure in what you cook and eat then I’ve compiled a reading list by authors whose love of life is expressed in the way they write about food. If eating has become a bit of a minefield, their words might help you see how rigid boundaries and self-denial can suck all the pleasure out of life. Nobody should be telling you that you can achieve via puritanical restraint and self-denial: it’s a mean old message. Publishers and commissioning editors bear much of the responsibility for turning odd, crackpot nutritional ideologies into a multi-million-pound industry as do food writers who don’t consult or quote state-registered health professionals when offering dietary advice but I’ve yet to see anyone else daring to say this. But that’s a subject for another post in the future.

If you seek order and routine in the kitchen, learn how to bake which is a discipline full of science and precise weights and measures. Chuck out the scales in your bathroom and buy a gorgeous set of scales for the kitchen instead. But please don’t be afraid of food and don’t be afraid of your appetites.

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Rachel Roddy’s zingy and warm exposition on lemons and lemon spaghetti is utterly divine. I could read this over and over again and never tire of it. Simplicity can be indulgent although Rachel is not the new Elizabeth David as many claim. I think she will be even better.

Some Like It Extra-Hot: David Ramsey’s eye-wateringly good account of eating at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in the Oxford American precipitated a rush on this much-loved Nashville chicken joint. Ordering the extra-hot became a culinary rite of passage for (mostly) male food writers- especially British ones -and triggered the opening of copycat establishments everywhere. This is the original, and best article.

Susan Hill on mushrooms, taken from Through the Kitchen Window (Penguin books)… “girolle mushrooms, apricot-coloured and apricot-scented, with fan vaulting below the cap, as in some ancient cathedral.”

An Encyclopedia of Seafood Cookery by Molly O’Neill, taken from her memoir, Mostly True, in which she comes of age as a chef and moves beyond her landlocked American culinary horizons. O’Neill is such a warm and wise writer and addresses her own body image issues, which were, in part, triggered by her mothers need for perfection through her daughter’s body shape.

Back to the Old World, 1962-1967 by Marcella Hazan is a chapter from her memoir L’Amarcord. It is a masterclass in how to cook from fresh market produce as Marcella distills the guidance of the stallholders into mini cookery lessons.

Gardens on the Mesa by Eugenia Bone is an excerpt from her book, At Mesa’s Edge and is a perfect little explanation about how growing one’s own food helps us develop a more grounded attitude towards cooking and eating. She peppers her text with recipes and delicious suggestions for what to do with ingredients: “With the first home-grown tomato of the season, I am transformed into a novice gardener cliché: amazed that it grew, astounded by the taste, proud as a new parent.”

Norwegian Wood by Margit Bisztray was first published in Gourmet, back in 2004 and this deceptively simple account of the foods the author enjoyed as a child during Norwegian summers draws you in until you find yourself recreating her recipes: smashed wild-strawberries on whole-grain, the amber sun-warmed plums, and blueberries harvested from the timberline. In Best Food Writing 2005.

John Thorne’s food writing keeps me grounded and that’s important in a field that seems relentlessly obsessed with the new. Thorne reminds us that everything is new to someone and his down to earth essays reacquaint us with the familiar, encouraging the reader to see it in a fresh manner. His e-zine Simple Cooking is a cornucopia of food and life as is his collection of essays, Mouth Wide Open. One of the essays inside, The Marrow of the Matter is one of the best pieces of writing ever, discussing as he does, his re-acquaintance with what he refers to as ‘the soft, fatty, helplessly vulnerable vascular tissue’ that hides in the interior of a bone- the marrow. Thorne tells us about his purchase of a specialised English spoon to prise out the marrow and his preference for marrow from smoked ham bones (which he buys from a supplier who has to sell them as dog bones)- pure unctuous pleasure.

Katy Vine’s fantastic exploration of the food scene of American state fairs would definitely be in my top ten food pieces. Published in Texas Monthly, you don’t have to like fairground food to enjoy the creativity of the grandmasters of Extreme Frying whose economic drive has resulted in such creations as deep-fried coca cola, fried butter, Texas-shaped sopapillas and the recipe profiled in this piece- deep-fried lettuce.

Another wonderful piece rooted in the ‘ordinary’ foods of Texas was written by Irina Dumitrescu and uses a lovely hologram metaphor to encourage us to take a closer look at what she refers to as ‘the cheap food of a city’ which is ‘key to its soul’. Dumitrescu is Romanian and her time in Texas was spent in part exploring the liminal places where other immigrants live, work and feed others; the less expensive ‘edges and corners’, as she describes them. Our food longings may be more about habit than nostalgia she suggests, and it is the melding of the old ways with the new in a kitchen that can be the most interesting.

Food is love and never more so when you are caring for someone who is dying. Sarah Di Gregorio is a food reporter and usually focuses on the latest eating trend. But when her mother was dying, Di Gregorio saw how her magical thinking about food could have so much more meaning than she ever thought. When There Was Nothing Left To Do, I Fed Her Ice-Cream is short, pragmatic and deeply moving.

Geoff Nicholson moved from the north of England to Los Angeles and the pigs trotters he grew up with wouldn’t be left behind. So he wrote this.

Tales From the Hunt in Diana Henry’s Roast Figs, Sugar Snow has an introduction that is a perfect distillation of game: earthy, muscular and real. She writes about flesh and sinew and the focus required to bring such bounty to the pot. Buying game might mean a walk to the local butchers but there can be so much more to it as she writes and even if you do buy your game ready-prepared for the stove, there’s a connection with the landscape that eludes other meats. Her recipe for roast pheasant with blackberries and heather honey is the sweet-boskiness of the British countryside on a plate.

Modern Salt is a relative newcomer to the food-writing annals but it is already establishing itself as a source of modern culinary longform and Jill Norman’s piece about her trip to a peppercorn plantation is the kind of food-writing I like most. For the reader, the journey to the plantation is as fascinating as is her account of the pepper-harvest: “A six-hour drive from Bangalore took me past rice paddies where bullocks pull ploughs alongside tractors, past plantations of coconut and areca palms, rubber trees, cardamom and ginger, coffee and tea, through bustling villages and towns and the lively city of Mysore, with its vast palace and chaotic traffic, up into the Ghats and to Wayanad.”

I’d like to recommend every single word written by Southerner James Villas who began his career writing for Town & Country magazine but I’ll limit myself to two books. The first, called Stalking The Green Fairy, is an anthology of his food-writing and the second is a cookbook he wrote in conjunction with his beloved mother, Martha. My Mothers Southern Kitchen highlights family and tradition which are the parts of life that clean-eating neglects. When it comes to shared culinary genealogy, eat clean serves up a barren table indeed. This book is packed with anecdotes and good-natured sparring about some of Martha’s predilections and it shows how the different generations can learn from each other in the kitchen.

Read Jane Grigson on strawberries: “Do you remember the kind and beautiful girl in Grimm’s fairy tales, who is driven out by her stepmother to find strawberries in the snow? How she comes to the dwarves’ house, and shares her crust of bread with them?

And how, as she sweeps the snow aside with their broom, she finds there – strawberries? That vivid image of delight, of fruit and snow against forest darkness, is never forgotten. It’s our northern winter longing for summer, a joy of the mind. And yet, in the sudden snow of winter a couple of years ago, I went to sweep our doorway – and found strawberries.”

In this short extract alone, Grigson shows us that food is about heritage and memory and a dash of the right kind of sentimentality although her writing never becomes sugary-sweet. Grigson is the distillation of all that is great about British food writing and I (whispers) prefer her to Elizabeth David because Grigson doesn’t do archness or snobbery and doesn’t make me feel inferior because I don’t have a stripped pine basement kitchen in Chelsea or monthly access to vine-screened terraces in southern France.

Alison Uttley’s The Country Child is saturated with vividly-written passages about food from accounts of the great farmhouse Christmas Day feasts to Susan, the book’s central character’s obsession with a ‘bloated, enormous’ chocolate Easter egg she sees sitting in the sunny window of a wealthier family. Even a few lines about the contents of Susan’s Christmas stocking tickles our taste buds: “Next came an apple with its sweet, sharp odour. She recognized it, a yellow one, from the apple chamber, and from her favourite tree. She took a bite with her strong sharp teeth and scrunched it in the dark.” Uttley writes about everyday food and makes us desirous of it. Another, less accomplished, writer would render it prosaic.

“They say it takes nerve to drink a Moxie” wrote Robert Dickinson in a letter to the makers of this soft drink from Maine. What follows is a wonderful exploration of foodways as Dickinson tries a drink that one imbiber described as like drinking a telephone pole.

The debate about high/low foods continues in a wonderfully polemic fashion. The writers who are able to write well about haute food and the everyday meals that result from a desperate scrabble in a depleted store cupboard are few and far between. Even rarer is the writer who elevate the most humble of foodstuffs into something that even the biggest food snob ends up craving. James Villas does it with a vignette about Duke’s mayo and a short piece eulogising the basic bitch of the sandwich world (sliced tomato, if you want to know) and he goes shopping in Sam’s Club then writes about it. Keith Pandolfi achieves it here, too, in his tribute to inexpensive coffee. From Folgers and the yellow packaging of Chock-full-o-Nuts to the sky blue cans of Maxwell House, he revises his previous insistence upon the finest of drip-coffees served by a beard in Brooklyn and gives us a finely drawn portrait of his stepfather too.

Keith Pandolfi is my imaginary food-writing husband. His talent makes me cry, laugh and twist my mouth into wry ‘I will never write like this’ shapes when I read yet another of his perfectly-crafted and often-whimsical pieces. The ‘Case for Bad Coffee’ piece (linked to above) is one of my favourites but the one Pandolfi piece you should absolutely read is Bright Lights: what the holidays taste like in Florida. The opening line is as finely drawn as it gets:’as Mom and I pull into the Publix in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, she parks her silver Cadillac beside a large crepe myrtle tree so the leather seats don’t get too hot while we’re shopping’ and his description of her dressed all in white, complete with sun visor, cha-cha-cha’ing down the supermarket aisles is love, pure and simple. I once spent the two weeks before Christmas in Florida, driving across to Miami from our Fort Myers base, admiring the white lights which decorated every house on Sanibel, watching The Grinch in a little art deco cinema near Estero Beach and being drawn into the seasonal excess at Disney against my cynical ‘ole British will. Once I allowed it to happen, it was good. When we flew back it was to the news that my beloved grandfather has just three months to live and life was never quite the same again. He loved Florida, had visited relatives there several times and he’d have adored Pandolfi’s piece.

Who owns southern food is a question that many have grappled with but few as generously and eloquently as  John T. Edge & Tunde Wey in an Oxford American essay that also references a piece by Hillary Dixler, “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining. The latter gave a [deserved] platform to Michael Twitty, author of Afroculinaria blog which greatly annoyed the [white] cognoscenti of Charleston. Edge and Wey write that ‘the issues Dixler and Twitty raised about authenticity and ownership and appropriation will fester if they’re not further explored.’ They are right.

Ronni Lundy’s musings on recipes and memory make the important point that how we learn to cook, and from whom, is not usually a linear process. Lundy’s mother was the culinary version of a boogie-woogie piano player she writes, ‘riffing through her songs with a deceptive ease’ and delivering ‘old standards with a daily grace that gave these recipes a subtlety and savor that was totally lacking when they were reduced to their elements and rearranged as words on a page.’

When I was given a copy of ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin, I learned that the hero of the series, Michael Tolliver, hailed from the sunshine state of Florida. This state is home to thousands of acres of orange groves which helped to supply much of the juice that graced American breakfast tables. So John Birdsall’s piece about the economic boycott of Floridian OJ as a protest against Anita Bryant’s homophobic rants struck a chord with me. Bryant was crowned the Sunshine State’s official OJ sweetheart by the Florida Citrus Commission, a politically powerful consortium and appeared in many of their TV ads. The boycott of these products served as a test case for consumers and the emerging civil rights movement.

The Southern Foodways Alliance collate my go-to site, a place to forage for great writing, southern esoterica and the voices of people who live there. This essay on the indulgence of pickled baloney, ‘a corkscrew of delicious processed meat,’ as the author describes it, lacks pretentiousness or food snobbery and paints an exquisite picture of the author’s growing up. I cannot deal with food snobbery which shuts off good and clear voices just because they didn’t grow up eating rarified cuisine. Silas House is not immune to the effects of snobbery as exemplified by this sentence: ” I eat it with a strange mixture of guilt, because I know what’s in it, and delicious nostalgia for a place and time that is gone forever,” but thank goodness any dissonance was challenged long enough to commit these memories to the page.

I’ve been reading Jeffrey Steingarten since his first columns in American Vogue and as he became well-known after publishing two books of food essays, I saw how (mainly) male British food writers fell over their feet such was their hurry to copy him and his experiences. This piece, where Steingarten attempts to master K-Paul’s iconic coconut layer cake is wonderful and oh-so him. This is the man who takes an almost Socratic approach to food whilst losing none of his salt, pith, and vim.

“What the public will tolerate in terms of how badly we treat prisoners is really bad,”says Jean Casella, co-director, and Editor-in-Chief of Solitary Watch in a discussion about the problem of how we feed prisoners and whether their punishment should extend to food. If you believe that the best punishment to fit the crime is a deprivation of liberty, then the shocking state of American prison food documented by Kevin Pang in this piece for Lucky Peach will disturb you, used as it is as punishment.

Here come the #HeadClutchers – images of mental illness in the media

If you are thinking of writing an article on mental health and illness, why not use our handy guide to some of the most popular and predominate images of this in the media- the ones that are the symbolic and metaphorical equivalent of a brick over the head in their subtlety, bearing little accuracy to the lived experience of people.

Clearly media folk are super important and very busy so we’ve decided to save you having to think at all about how you depict mental illness and mental health problems. So let us help you with those important editorial decisions.

The first one is the most critical. It is vital that all images of people with mental illness convey the levels of their despair in the most terribly obvious manner and the easiest way to do this is by use of the #HeadClutch. The only decision you need to make is about how many hands the person uses to clutch their face-

(1) Is it a one hand kind of article:

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(2)or a double hander?

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Once you have made this decision, we need to consider the surroundings and remember that people with mental health problems-

(3) appear to spend a lot of time in alleyways.

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(4) Or on the floor in the dark.

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(5) They also appear to like to sit on the side of an unmade bed. Never a made one.

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(6) If they are male and have ever had a mental health problem then they will invariably be unshaven.

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(7) And spend a lot of time clutching their heads on a park bench.

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(8) If it is raining or too cold outside, then the alternative is the corner of a room.

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(9) Or on the floor by open doorways with light streaming out of them. To convey, you know, a light at the end of the tunnel in an artistic manner. See too- the Venetian blind backdrop as that’s very popular, especially with picture editors who grew up listening to Japan in the 80’s.

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(10) Or maybe they prefer to spend time in weird never ending corridors?

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(11) Which is enough to turn anybody to drink.

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(12) When there is light in the world of mental health imagery, it is often a light not seen in nature. We like this pink shade to ring in the changes.

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(13) And when things get really bad, there’s no longer any need to even see their face. And a bit of fog never did any harm- go that pathetic fallacy!

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(14) Although sometimes articles are illustrated by photos of people with mental health issues doing extra weird things like playing ‘Ring a Roses’ the wrong way around..This symbolises hope apparently.

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The MOST important thing you need to remember though is the #HeadClutch because without it, how will any of your readers know that the article is about mental health problems?

Every single one of these images was taken from an article in the mainstream press about mental illness or how to regain mental health. Google those terms and see what images come up.

Here are some other images of people you could use who may or may not have mental health problems, the point being it is not a fixed state or something that necessarily shows-

(1)  People with other people. Talking.

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(2) Or just people.

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(3) Or finding comfort in the coping strategies they have developed to manage their symptoms.

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(4) or follow the example of the IAINews and use images like this to illustrate the themes of your piece on the future of psychiatry:

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(5) Or get really creative and use photos showing groups of four people to illustrate the one in four stat that any one of them could have a mental health problem. Here’s four people doing regular stuff. Like eating and drinking.

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(6) Or images that show just how strong people with mental health problems can be and how strong they HAVE to be to cope with all the stereotypical crap in the media.

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So- editors, photo editors, journalists and copy writers….Are you going to settle for one of these same old stereotypes or maybe, just maybe, you might decide to be a little more careful and creative with the images you choose to portray mental illness in your next copy?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Telling it like it is’ -Saint Audry’s + the story of an asylum

“No restraint can be employed which is so powerful as tenderness.” Dr John Kirkman, Medical Superintendent (1829-1876)

ST AUDRY’S PROJECT- TELLING IT LIKE IT IS

 

The St Audry’s project is a Comic Relief funded project exploring the history of St Audry’s Hospital and it draws upon contemporary experiences in a consideration of how attitudes to mental health have changed. Artist Juliet Lockhart has worked on the St Audry’s project alongside local people to depict the hospital, its history and attitudes towards mental illness both yesterday and today.

St Audry’s Hospital, situated in rural Suffolk, closed its doors in 1993.  Originally a workhouse, it became the Suffolk County Asylum in 1832.  Countless people passed though the hospital, for many it became home, and they left behind their stories, some of which are recorded, the majority lost. Sadly the nature of mental health means that patients historically have been voiceless both politically and culturally- how many people today know that a person under a section of the Mental Health Act legally cannot vote? In addition, data protection and privacy laws means that a hundred years must pass from the death of the last patient before any personal details can be released into the public realm. 

In 2012, a project was set up by the Museum of East Anglian Life to explore the hidden history of St Audry’s. The Museum, alongside Felixstowe Museum and the Suffolk Record Office, were recipients of the hospital museum collection and archive when it closed.  ‘Telling it like is: the story of a psychiatric hospital in Suffolk’ collaborated with mental health service users to create work to accompany a permanent display in Abbot’s Hall, part of the Museum. The project also explored and recorded people’s emotional connections with the St Audry’s site.

Artist Juliet Lockhart worked alongside the Museum to deliver a series of textile, stitching and creative writing workshops.  From these workshops came a wealth of material that informed two artworks, now on display in Abbot’s Hall.

The workshops were designed so that people could participate in as many as they wanted to.  Some came just once, others were regulars throughout the project.

Using the collection housed at the Museum as a starting point, people began to explore issues around mental health through art and writing.  Words such as ‘lunatic’ and ‘asylum’ were discussed and ideas sprang from associated thoughts about the values and judgements society (and the individuals who make this up)  ascribe to people and therefore the words they choose to describe them with;

     “lunatic should be accepted as a word     

          from history that is

          now outdated”.  F.M.

 The first textile pieces produced were a series of images and texts using cyanotype fabric prints.  These distinctive blue and white prints were created by designs drawn onto acetate which were then used in a similar way to a photographic negative.  The acetate was placed onto the chemically treated fabric, exposed for a few minutes in sunlight and then rinsed in plain water.  During the process the fabric undergoes several colourchanges before the original image appears in white against a blue background.

The images produced were emotional responses to objects in the Museum.  The Black Shuck is part of the folklore of East Anglia.  A ghostly black dog is said to roam the highways and byways.  A terrifying sight, a beast associated with the Devil and a harbinger of disaster.  For the artist of this piece, The Black Shuck represents her depression, sometimes it is overwhelming, at times it shrinks but it is always there hovering, ever present and interestingly, the ‘Black Dog’ is a common metaphor for depressive disorder, Winston Churchill famously called his depression the very same name. 

Simple printmaking techniques were also explored during these sessions and some of the thoughts that came from discussions around mental health were incorporated onto the fabric pieces.

The textile sessions went on to inspire the creative writing workshops and through a series of writing prompts and visual images, a selection of poems emerged.

TELLING IT LIKE IT IS 

This tree has no root system.

 The branches are fragmented

much like my existence.

 On a road to nowhere.

 Leaves on branches that bear no fruit or future,

malnourished waiting to fail and die.

 The leaves shake as if nervous with a gentle breeze.

The branches sway as a large feather

to the white clouds above.

 

Clearing a passage to the sky

so I can finally rest in pieces .

 After the ten workshops had ended there was pile of images, words, paper and fabric that needed to be brought together somehow but from the outset of the project, the work produced was always driven by the individual. No set rules meant that each person could respond to the themes however they wished with the guidance of Juliet Lockhart.   The finished pieces differed in size, content and execution as a consequence; an important metaphor for people so often defined amorphously when in fact they are as unique as any other societal group.  Ruth Gillan, the project manager took inspiration from a photograph of a ward in St Audry’s when it was first opened.

A replica of part of the room divider shown in the photograph was commissioned with the idea that the panes of glass would be replaced by a series of fabric panels. 

 

A series of sewing workshops took place in the splendid dining room in Abbot’s Hall.

The various pieces of text and images were stitched, appliqued and embroidered before being joined together as crazy patchwork.  Crazy patchwork uses irregular piece of fabric combined to create a haphazard design.  Crazy patchwork is usually embellished with embroidery, as well as  buttons, lace and ribbons.  It is extremely creative and free flowing and so fitted in with the ethos behind the artwork.

 Many of the panels were worked on by more than one person.  Pieces of fabric were passed around for someone to stitch words on, someone else to add a border and someone else to embroider.  Some of the pieces went home to be worked on and some to Woodlands, the mental health unit at Ipswich Hospital.  Fabric and threads were confined to a blue palette to create unity.

Finally the crazy patchwork was mounted onto wooden frames and fixed into the wooden door frame.

Juliet Lockhart worked on the second artwork to be installed.   Ruth Gillan had sourced an original metal hospital screen, the kind that was used to provide a modicum of privacy in a crowded ward.

 She began her research by visiting the Suffolk Records Office to look at some of the old 19th century admissions records from St Audry’s. On some of the pages staff had clipped photographs of patients.

Juliet wanted to give these patients a presence in the collection at the Museum.  She used two of these images to create shadow figures, which she cut out of muslin and bonded onto a muslin panel.

Further inspiration was a comment made by a participant during one of the creative writing workshops.

 ‘I would like labels in life to become a thing of the past’

 Juliet made white labels and printed them with a variety of diagnoses and slang words connected with mental health.  Some of these were sourced from the admissions records, others more up to date.

The aim of this artwork was to stimulate a discussion around the use of labels.  She asked a series of questions, Should a label define who we are?  Who creates these labels and why?  Do we treat people differently if we know that they are labeled as having a mental illness?  Does a label such as ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘psychotic’ actually provide help to a person?  Do we know what that label means or do we just take a guess?  Does that label undermine the humanity of a person?  Do labels become our identity?  Are labels positive or negative?  Do we try to see the person behind the label?  Should labels become a thing of the past?

The artwork seen and text reproduced in this report were created by Juliet Lockhart, Melissa, J.A.M., Richard and Fred.

Thanks go to Comic Relief for funding this project.

 

The Black Dog Project

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‘I Had a Black Dog’ is a comic, fun and heart wrenching story about one man called Joe and his own struggle with the multifaceted entity known as depressive disorder. Originally written by Matthew Johnstone, an artist, writer and photographer, the book is a radical and humane departure from the traditional self help format of many books about mental health and illness. Sometimes we need to NOT be advised in an overt manner; rather we need to walk alongside somebody who just ‘knows’ and this book (alongside the theatrical version in development) is just that. Acknowledging that depression can mess with a persons ability to ingest and digest information-although intellect is left intact- the book offers non patronising and intelligent pictorial depictions of the ways in which thought, affect and feeling can all be warped by the illness. This is as important for carers, friends and relatives to understand as it is for the ill person to know he has been understood.

Small Nose Productions is developing The Black Dog Project via a series of research and development sessions (a total of 3) held at local theatres and arts centres in front of small audiences. The New Wolsey hosted one of them under its #Scratch banner at their High St Gallery venue in Ipswich, a beautiful multi -use art gallery. Mark Curtis from Small Nose, in a previous interview, told Stage Review: “The project is about trying to raise awareness about Mental Health issues – and begins with this first 30 mins (a scratch production) of the best selling book. The company hope to take it to a full length version later this year”.

Watching the project in its rough format followed by a Talk Out/question & answer session provided us and the cast with a valuable opportunity to pool knowledge both lived and learned, offer feedback and share our experiences about an illness that has no definitive truth or any one narrative. Mirroring the book, the Scratch production clearly values that lived experience and the intra-personal above others and gains emotional resonance with its audience as a result. Spending time talking with audiences helps them manage powerful feelings brought back into now by what they have seen; shows such as this can be cathartic but only if one is given the space to make sense of what has been felt and thought.

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Developing a theatrical production from such a simple book contains its own challenges – reflecting the evidence base, keeping the simplicity of the concept which was consistently cited as one of THE main points of success whilst layering in subjective and individual experiences. Building in humour was vital too. Outreach work conducted by Small Nose Productions told them that their initial audiences needed their experiences acknowledged; they had to see themselves in the main character but how to avoid building a composite that ended up reflecting nobody? Audiences do not want a’ Greatest Hits of Depression’.  The work of Doctor Stuart Brown into the neuro-psychological effects of laughter was another important building block. Alongside the plain old enjoyment of a good laugh, the humour here has a more vital role- there needs to be a leavening too without making the laughed with, laughed AT. Our own experiences of a former career in mental health alongside living with PTSD shows us that the dark humour of staff and service users needs to be celebrated; it is dry, observational, political and astute.

Said Johnstone of Small Nose: “Their chaotic approach, constant search for the correct balance between laughter and something more poignant and their audacity for things that are silly and at the heart of us all, makes this company the perfect eclectic mix for dealing with the dark world of the Black Dog.”

The uses of comedy in the early production was multi-faceted. It lightened, it played with our feelings of inclusion and exclusion and it played with the characters inclusion and isolation. At times the humour tangibly pushed Joe aside and at other times it united us. Should the literal depiction of the metaphorical ‘Black Dog’ be less comedic? Some feedback suggested the dog lacked the overtly oppressive nature of depression, that it was too approachable or not ‘nasty’ enough or that it needed to be approachable and comforting because the heavy blanket of depression can in itself be a comfort. Hard for non sufferers to sometimes grasp, people speak of depression as an identity with gains at times; provision of a ‘get out’ clause for everything they find too difficult or taxing, hence the feelings of apprehension and even fear at thoughts of recovery and all that this entails. At least Depression is known. There is a difficult kind of solace in that and so we have a furry, cuddly playful dog leaping into the lap of Joe, throwing its arms around him and draped all over him, limbs splayed and not quite under its control, a playful clown mitigating the oppressiveness of the illness. Think Boxer or Spaniel rather than lupine and dark.

At times the laughs of the audience at the boisterous expressiveness of the Black Dog and its total unawareness and lack of control of its own corporeal body was unbearably poignant in that it highlighted the essential disconnect that lies at the centre of the world of the person with depression. On stage all was busy and social (in the restaurant) as life and the world moved and morphed around Joe. The audience seemed to be in collusion with the Dog against him and he was at a still point outwardly whilst his mind was clearly in turmoil. Disconnected from the world, from his own body (he did not inhabit it comfortably), from other people, his only consistency to be found was in his own intrapersonal relationship- the one with himself and his depression. We found it very hard to look at Joe as he sat there because he inspired feelings of guilt in us that we had laughed in the face of such inner turmoil.

We saw the beautiful subtlety of a facial expression that was really a non expression, a terrifying combination of both blankness and inner confusion. No confusion on his face but we knew it was there. Exacerbating this even more was the dogs vital engagement with us, playing to the crowd, prancing, clowning and making us feel uncomfortably disregarding and dismissive of Joe’s alienation. The dog was like a black hole, drawing all attention and life towards it. We were in the moment and Joe was not. He was scarcely in the play. The dog became less a reflection of his feelings,  more a case of reflecting all that he was not and no longer acting as metaphor for his illness. We wondered then ‘should the dog be just a dog and if so, should it be more dog like?’ Using a more lifelike mask (with a better budget maybe?) might help us manage the conflicting feelings about what the dog is but on the other hand, this uncertainty accurately mirrors the larger questions about what depression actually is and what it is not. Indeed is that something we should even need to delineate? Managing dissonance in an audience is tricky and we will be interested to see how this plays out as the project develops.

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The use of space and props has huge potential and already encapsulates some of the Depressive imagery and metaphor. Kicking off with Joe having a restless night, we see the lights go up on a sparsely inhabited set; bed, a set of drawers, a wardrobe, a bathroom, a desk for work, a kitchen table /  restaurant table….Illuminating the different room spaces and activities sparely and sparsely draws us into Joe’s inner life and the subsequent terrifying lack of. Having Joe and his Dog move the set around is part reflection of budgetary constraints and a deliberate feature. The actor playing the dog morphs into the waiter, the secretary and Joe’s girlfriend with his/her costume changes contributing to the comedy and Joe’s disconnect from it and our reactions. We laugh at the ill fitting wig, the crooked moustache, and throughout this Joe remains painfully and terrifyingly removed from it all. It is not that depression = feeling miserable. In fact depression can mean = feeling nothing at all. What on earth must it be like feeling nothing at all? 

One problem we could see with the idea of Joe and the Dog having to do the set changes themselves is that we lose some of the chronology of his illness. One of the ways in which depression affects a person is by changing the way they move, speak, think and act. The biological signs of a depressive disorder can include changes in sleep, appetite, sex drive and how we move- do we slow down (retarded movements) or do we speed up and become more agitated? Joe wound down like an old clock; he became less purposeful, less methodical despite trying to cling to routines and to us, this appeared commensurate with what we know to be the symptoms of some types of depression. Seeing Joe move the set around to reconfigure the furniture in a fast, strong and purposeful way (because of time constraints) interrupted this progression and we suggested that the company employ theatre students as interns dressed in the customary black to act as stagehands. Having Joe lost and still in the midst of a set change might enhance our sense of his life unfolding and renegotiating apparently without his consent or understanding. Or Joe could be more ineffectual at set changes which would reflect the unravelling of his life- the end of his relationship with his girlfriend, the changes in his job that he found so hard having previously arranged work to best suit his nature. He is not managing these well so he should not manage the set changes well either.

As the play approached its conclusion we were apprehensive that Joe’s final wresting with his illness, the all at sea analogy was actually leading towards suicide and this was compounded by our obscured view of the scene- a problem of the venue, not the play. Unsure as to whether anybody else in the audience interpreted it in this way, we felt anxiety at how on earth the play could come back from this story development despite the fact that this is sadly not that far removed from reality for some people with mental health problems. The actual ending, Joe developing ways to live with his depression reflected the book but the lack of explanations as to how Joe achieved this left us feeling a little adrift. It risks being seen as a hasty ‘wrap up’ rather then the truth of the book that inspired this play. Finding ways to bridge this gap we feel, is important whether via play content, talk out or within the programme notes.

We are greatly looking forward to seeing the finished version of The Black Dog Project and are grateful for the opportunity to both see and contribute to the development of the show. Thanks to the New Wolsey Theatre and Small Nose Productions. 

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