Seamus Heaney’s letters confirm that he really was as nice as he seemed

Seamus Heaney wrote letters everywhere – waiting for his car to be repaired at a country garage, sitting over a glass or more of Paddy late at night, and above all in aeroplanes, ‘pacing the pages against the pilot as he takes us in to Heathrow or Shannon’, as he wrote to a friend in 1995. So many eloquent missives were dashed off at high altitude that his editor suggests he might have had notepaper printed with the heading ‘EI 117’, the Aer Lingus flight between Dublin and Washington DC. This airborne activity is significant because it indicates two characteristics illuminated by Christopher Reid’s riveting collection: the pressures of life

Are hallucinogenic drugs losing their stigma?

We are in the midst of a ‘psychedelic renaissance’. Not since the 1950s and early 1960s has there been so much interest in researching the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. The FDA approved a ketamine derivative for medicinal use in 2019, and has given both MDMA and psilocybin (the psycho-active ingredient in magic mushrooms) ‘breakthrough therapy’ status, putting the drugs on a fast track to approval in the US, with the UK likely to follow suit. Professor David Nutt is a neuropsycho-pharmacologist (say that three times fast) and head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College, London. He was the UK’s ‘drug tsar’ before getting sacked in 2009 for

Are we any closer to finding a cure for depression?

Some years ago, the Harvard psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg commented that, in the course of his lifetime, his discipline had swung from the brainless psychiatry propounded by psychoanalysts to the mindless psychiatry of those enamoured of biological reductionism and neuroscience.  Camilla Nord, who runs a neuroscience laboratory at Cambridge, is firmly a member of the latter camp. Though in a few places in The Balanced Brain she is driven to concede that social factors seem to play a role in mental health or mental distress, she immediately insists that ‘the process by which social factors are able to cause mental illness is entirely biological’. With the zeal of a true believer,

Another tragic case involving medical incompetence and cover-up

It was only eight lines into O Brother that I realised I was in the hands of a good writer. John Niven’s landline phone has rung. His partner hands it to him. ‘I take the phone from her as she watches me in the intense, quizzical way we monitor people who are about to receive Very Bad News.’ I can’t recall a writer noticing that before (I presume a few have), but we have noticed it ourselves. And the narrative masterstroke is that now the reader is looking at the page in an intense, quizzical way, for we want to know what the Very Bad News is. The VBN is

The trials of a Tokyo housewife: Mild Vertigo, by Mieko Kanai, reviewed

Natsumi lives in a modern flat in Tokyo with her husband and two young sons, her life comfortable but circumscribed by the tedium of household chores. Washing dishes in the sink, she finds herself transfixed, gazing at the ‘rope of water’ falling from the tap, twisting like a snake: ‘There was something Sisyphean in the nature of the roster of simple domestic tasks… never an end in sight.’ Things are at once too easy and too much for her; the kitchen is so perfect she hesitates to spoil its pristine condition and ends up buying ready-cooked meals, her life shrunk to what seems stifling captivity.   She memorises the layout of

The company of hens could be the best cure for depression

A friend of mine, an inspirational teacher, says that one of the best things parents can do is to allow children to believe that their dreams can come true. Arthur Parkinson met his first chicken as a toddler, growing up in a former mining town, and from that moment he longed for a brood of his own. So his father set to, building a handsome ark-shaped hen house, poring over Ad-Mag to find amusing poultry for sale, driving Arthur around country lanes at weekends in search of rare breeds. ‘If only you could bottle up the happiness of chickens, you’d be on to a groundbreaking antidepressant’ Parkinson also had doting,

The midlife crisis spread: why are the affluent so depressed?

‘You are here’, as those signs in windswept carparks unhelpfully point out. Yup. No mistaking it, you will tend to think glumly as you look at them. I had the same feeling when I looked at a new report from no less an institution than America’s National Bureau of Economic Research. The report is called The Midlife Crisis. It tells us that in the western world, one’s forties and early fifties are associated with problems with sleep, clinical depression and suicidal thoughts, disabling headaches and dependence on alcohol, alongside a decline in basic measures of life satisfaction. Well, fancy. I don’t know about clinical depression and suicidal thoughts, I should

How we fell for antidepressants

The French novelist, Michel Houellebecq, with his accustomed acuity about modern culture, titled his last novel but one Serotonin. By then, of course, this famous neurochemical had become the key to a perfect human existence, too little or too much of it resulting in all the little problems that continue to plague mankind. If only we could get the chemical balance in our brains right, all would be well, life would return to its normal bliss! After the commercialisation of Prozac, people started talking about the chemical balance in their brains in much the same way as they talked about the ingredients of a recipe. As Peter D. Kramer put

A gay journey of self-discovery

Seán Hewitt, born in 1990, realised that he was gay at a very early age. ‘A kind, large woman’ who was babysitting him told him that it was wrong. ‘I was perhaps only six or seven at the time, but she knew. I knew it too. It was as if she had peered into the deep, secret part of my soul and seen what I was hiding.’ Alongside the precocious knowledge came desperate attempts to conceal the truth. Hewitt adopted alien ways of being: ‘I regulated myself; I policed myself.’ As an adolescent, he spread rumours about his exploits with girls. He even watched heterosexual porn on the sitting room

Jonathan Bate weaves a memoir around madness in English literature

There is a trend for books in which academics write personally about their engagement with literature. Examples include Lara Feigel’s Free Woman, in which the author blends a memoir of her marriage break-up with a close reading of Doris Lessing’s fiction, and Sally Bayley’s Girl With Dove, which fuses an account of a traumatic childhood with sketches that focus on Bayley’s early love of books. Addressed to a wider readership, these works combine autobiography with literary criticism. They are carefully crafted, confessional and ask why literature matters. The advantage of this approach is that it avoids the pitfalls of the now highly professional discipline of English Literature, dominated in universities

Anxiety is killing parenthood

Britain is on a slow descent to oblivion. Scotland is even closer to the abyss, with a birth rate of just 1.29, well below the UK’s sub-replacement level of 1.65. It turns out the answer to the West Lothian question is that West Lothian will disappear. Doomsday demography should matter, but Whitehall is in no way prepared to deal with it. New research published this week found that mental illness in early adulthood could account for up to 60 per cent of future childlessness. A generation too worried to have children spells disaster for countries that need to support ageing societies. Researchers looking at the populations of Sweden and Finland

Christina Patterson overcomes family misfortunes

The journalist and broadcaster Christina Patterson’s memoir begins promisingly. She has a talent for vivid visual description, not least: ‘We are a pink and navy family. Two pink girls, a navy boy and a navy wife.’ Her early family holidays in Sweden, where her mother is from, are full of lingon-berries, hammocks and mini-golf. She recounts the story of her parents’ courtship as students and says of their relationship: ‘Love at first sight. Love for nearly 50 years. Love till death do us part’ — ominously pointing out how easy they have made love and marriage look. Most arresting, however, in this early part of the book, is her depiction

Will the real Mel Brooks please stand up?

‘I went into show business to make a noise, to pronounce myself,’ Mel Brooks told Kenneth Tynan in 1977, in a New Yorker profile entitled, with appalling relish, ‘Detours and Frolics of a Short Hebrew’. ‘I want to go on making the loudest noise to the most people.’ His memoir All About Me! may be his final act of this pronunciation. He is 95. His real name is Melvin Kaminsky but that wouldn’t fit on a drum — a drum is his natural instrument — and he shortened it to Brooks. He was the youngest of four boys of Max and Kate. His father died when he was two, and

Why America’s attitude to mental illness is dangerously deluded

A friend who works in social care speaks to me earnestly about a troubled young colleague: ‘Of course, she’s got a borderline personality disorder…’ I check her there: ‘What do you mean by that?’ She thinks for a moment and continues: ‘Well, she’s very emotional, she can’t maintain relationships, and she’s very defiant…’ I wait for a moment to see if there’s anything else before I say my bit: ‘Perhaps she just has a bad character — because fundamentally that’s all a personality disorder is: epithetic psychiatry. There’s no defined organic basis for these so-called disorders, no psycho-dynamic aetiology either, no progression — and, of course, no cure.’ My friend

Why I’ve gone off country sports

‘Oh, I do so love to see all the lovely pheasants running around the place,’ said the lady walking the Alsatian up the farm track. The huge dog was straining at the leash, pulling her along, but she was trying to stop for a chat with the builder boyfriend as he mended a fence. I came alongside them in my car as I arrived at the farm to ride Darcy. I got out and joined the tail end of the conversation, in which the builder b took it upon himself to explain to this sweet lady that the pheasants got shot. Look, he had to. She was under the impression

Why I’ve gone right off the police

‘Welcome to Victims First. Please leave your name and number and we will return your call. Beeeeeeeeeeeep!’ I had rung the number given to me by the police to pay my fixed penalty fine for not having an MOT. This £100 I was trying to pay was coming out of an increasingly tight household budget, incidentally, so I decided that the fairest thing to do was to claw it back from the state. I had, of course, deeply apologised to the officer who pulled me over for forgetting the MOT after the Covid extension period ran out. And I begged him to let me drive straight home, park off road,

Why the first self-help book is still worth reading: The Anatomy of Melancholy anatomised

Footling around on the internet recently, I stumbled on a clip of a young woman singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ to a full-grown cow. As she sat cross-legged, strumming away not very well on a guitar, the cow lay down beside her and gently nudged her with its huge head as adoringly as any puppy. The sight brought to mind a passage in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy in which he reflects on music as a remedy: Harts, hinds, horses, dogs, bears are exceedingly delighted with it; elephants, Agrippa adds; and in Lydia in the midst of a lake there be certain floating islands (if ye will believe it), that

A burnt-out case: the many lives of Dr Anthony Clare

Those who best remember Dr Anthony Clare (1942-2007) for his broadcasting are firmly reminded by this biography that we didn’t know the half of him. Its authors are Brendan Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry and Muiris Houston, a columnist for the Medical Independent and the Irish Times. Theirs is a meticulously sourced, clearly arranged, carefully assembled account of Clare’s packed life and multiple achievements. Yet through it thrums a sense that you can only really understand him if (a) you are a psychiatrist and (b) you are Irish. Born in Dublin, Clare was the youngest of three

Why are more people dying at home?

The death drought continues. For the eighth week in a row the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has recorded fewer deaths in England and Wales than would be expected at this time of year. In the week ending 7 August, 8,945 people died, one fewer than the previous week and 157 (1.7 per cent) lower than the five-year average for this week of the year. There is, however, a geographical divide: deaths in the East Midlands are running five per cent higher than the five-year average. While deaths in the North East and North West are slightly higher than usual. What should be worrying the government is the sharp rise

My hairdresser cured my depression

I walked to the salon in fiery sunshine. Gorgeous, zaftig Elody was wearing a short satin dressing gown of silver and gold. She was alone. ‘Ça va?’ she said, helping me into the gown. ‘Black dog,’ I said. ‘What is black dog?’ she said. ‘Cafard,’ I said. ‘A black ox trod on my foot.’ I sat in the chair, removed my glasses and stared in the mirror. The straps of my black face mask made my ears stick out. And strewth, the hair. ‘Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren,’ I said. Elody speaks no English and my French is rudimentary. ‘What?’ she said. I had a