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First Person Narratives VI

A late addition to an in-principle never-ending series. In Depression and How To Survive It (Arrow Books, 1994), co-authored by Spike Milligan and Anthony Clare, there is a rare insight into late twentieth century psychiatric recordkeeping practice. In it Milligan, the writer and comedian of affectionate memory, allowed Clare, a Maudsley-trained psychiatrist, to lay out his life in the form of a typical psychiatric assessment, with details of his presenting symptoms, his personal, family, educational, medical, marital and psychiatric history, and diagnosis. As it happens, Milligan was never a Maudsley patient – he was interviewed by Clare on the BBC radio series In the Psychiatrist’s Chair – and even if he was, records such as these would be protected by the law of medical confidence. His courageous decision to put these details on record, in the interests of demystifying the experience of depression, had the secondary effect of bringing Maudsley medical recordkeeping practice, the results of which are otherwise kept confidential, into the public sphere.

As useful as third-party medical professional analyses of the experience of depression may be for clinical purposes, no-one pretends that they may stand in for the often poignant narratives of those who suffer from it. Depression and How To Survive It opens with a poem (entitled Manic Depression) written by Milligan when a patient of St Luke’s Hospital in Muswell Hill in the early 1950s. This piece, along with other poetic cris de couer, featured in a recent BBC radio programme entitled Spike Milligan – The Serious Poet. In the programme, a recording of Spike reading his poem The Journey (starting ‘I think I am going out of my mind / The journey shouldn’t take long’) was played, but only in extract. On the morning in February 2002 that his death was announced on BBC radio, the clip was played to its bleak conclusion, Milligan rasping the lines (‘A white-washed nurse / a tray of NHS food … / it’s my stomach they’re treating / letting my head starve to death’). Unmatchably authentic, these lines were in fact written decades before his death, their grim humour attesting simultaneously to his comic genius and his periodic mental torture.