Splitting In Two: Mad Pride & Punk Rock Oblivion
Robert Dellar’s new book is part autobiography, part social history and in places morphs into fiction. It covers both Dellar’s own life via punk rock and the dehumanisation of those deemed clinically insane by the powers that be. While in academia the idea that madness might be the only sane response to capitalist society is often discussed in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s anti-Oedipal theories, Dellar has a more hands on and activist approach to ‘bad craziness’. At the turn of this millennium, Dellar helped found the Mad Pride movement to fight against the stigmatisation of those labelled as having mental health problems.
Most of Splitting In Two consists of straight-forward accounts of Dellar’s life and his thirty odd years of involvement in the fight for the rights of psychiatric survivors. When the book occasionally blooms into what is obviously fiction, I take this to be Dellar’s way of illustrating how easy it is for anyone to go off their rocker in the sick and insane capitalist society that blights all our lives. The writing is never academic and it is much closer to a punk rock fanzine in tone than the post-modern abstractions of ‘anti-psychiatrists’. There are also quite a few pictures to break up the text. The title of the book and every chapter title is more or less a punk rock song, and the acts thus cited but not named are Alternative TV, The Damned, Sham 69, Annie Anxiety, The Flamin’ Groovies, The Adverts, The Raincoats, Johnny Moped, The Sex Pistols, The Lurkers, The Flies, Zounds, Public Image and The Saints. The musicians Dellar actually writes about because he has a personal involvement with them are generally lesser known but include The Apostles, The Astronauts and Alternative TV (and I’ll stop there although I haven’t got beyond bands whose names begin with ‘a’).
I personally know quite a few of the people Dellar writes about (as well as Dellar himself), but there is plenty in the Splitting In Two that I either didn’t know or had forgotten. For example, this description of the opening event for Hackney Anarchy Week at Chat’s Palace in 1996: ‘Stewart Home was heckled as “sexist” by some of the audience as he deadpanned a sequence from his classic novel Defiant Pose, in which a skinhead recites Abeizer Cope’s A Fiery Flying Roll while he gets a blow job in a boat floating down the Thames, London simultaneously being destroyed by anarchist rioting…’ (page 86). I got heckled a lot in the 1990s and while I remember the event at Chat’s Palace, I have no memory of having abuse hurled at me there, although I’m sure Dellar is right about this and I’ve simply forgotten it. What Robert doesn’t add was that I agreed to do this event thinking it was the launch for a fiction anthology he’d edited that included me. I didn’t know when I said I’d do it that it also counted as a part of Hackney Anarchy Week!
Just as usefully Splitting In Two draws out the relationship between drugs, death and mental health – because despite the scare stories run by the tabloid press, those stigmatised as crazy are far more likely to hurt themselves than to attack someone else. So suicides are a feature of Dellar’s book, including that of Pete Shaughnessy, who was another key figure in getting Mad Pride off the ground. Dellar deals with such matters in a personal but understated way. To cite just one instance of this (dealing with drugs rather than suicide), he writes: ‘Cat Monstersmith introduced me to Hackney artist Gini Simpson, thinking we’d get on, and a relationship began which was hard work but never dull… Gini was still traumatised following the breakdown of a disastrous affair with a guy named Miles, and although I avoided hard drugs, substance abuse was a permanent feature of the time we spent together. Nevertheless, Gini was ablaze with wild energy, creativity and blinding intelligence, and after five months of feeling as if I was in a virtual stupor, I felt enlivened’ (page 148). The understatement of Dellar’s phrase ‘hard work’ becomes clear as Simpson’s behaviour, including an attempt to kill two guys by running them down in her car, is described.
Although Splitting In Two is not written as a theoretical treatise, there is plenty of material within it with which one can think through – everything from capitalist society to the relationship between madness and punk rock. That said, it also contains many well-told stories. Dellar writes of taking the Hackney Patients Council 5-a-side football squad to play at Broadmoor. There he met Robert Hunter who was incarcerated for killing seven cops when he used dynamite to blow up Greater Manchester Police Station. Dellar quotes Hunter as saying: ‘There were ten coppers in there… and three got out alive. Luckily though, I got the one I wanted, the chief superintendent who was my dad. He’d been knocking my old dear about for a while and of course, something had to be done…’ (page 76).
Dellar knows how to deliver a punchline even if it comes out of someone else’s mouth. This and his humorous approach to what might otherwise be some very depressing subject matter makes Splitting In Two a fast and furious – not to mention deeply informative – read.