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Mary Barnes: Two Accounts of a Journey Through Madness

Mary Barnes


A few years after the end of Kingsley Hall I went to Sweden to visit a very disturbed friend in a mental hospital. Her father said to me, "You have moved thirteen times since leaving Kingsley Hall". He had carefully kept a list of all my different addresses. There was a good reason for every move.

In 1970 I was left alone in Kingsley Hall. The Philadelphia Association had moved out. I visited Joe who had long left. He told me about an attic flat that was available in Hampstead. (A lovely area of North London) I said, "I can't afford that". Joe replied, "Just go and look at it".

I did and I took it. The owner said she had been a nurse, S.R.N. I said, "So was I", and that was that.

I moved in, bag and baggage, including a bicycle. The Heath was below me and I ran wild on it. Five years in the East End of London and now I was like an animal released. The wind was in my hair and I swam in the ponds on the Heath.

Spring came and then a field of buttercups and I filled the attic with yellow. In the kitchen I unblocked a fireplace and sometimes lay on the floor in front of a fire. It was living in the country. I usually ran, for the sheer joy of my body, with my bare feet on the grass.

In the house, below the attic, were children. Matthew was about seven years and showed me his jar of tadpoles. Mary, his mother, was such a joy to know. But I would scamper up the stairs, somewhat afraid of "the family".

This fear was "sorted", as you would now say in Scotland, thanks to Joe who suggested - "Mary, don't be afraid. Invite the mother with the children to tea in the attic and tell them about yourself". This I did, a picnic on the floor, with orange squash for the children.

It certainly worked. As I told 'MaryH' where I had come from, she expressed fears and rumours of Kingsley Hall, "Dr R.D. Laing's mad house in the East End of London." But 'MaryH', who lay stretched across a table cloth on the floor, told me of her experience of psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic. She touched me. I realised she was enlightened and felt very relieved. Trust evokes trust.

I still stay with the "family" when in London and "MaryH" brings me up to date with all the news of everyone.

But I always wanted to live in the country. Ronnie, the late Dr. R.D. Laing, had a holiday house in Devon, just outside Chagford on the edge of Dartmoor. First, I found a furnished bungalow, for three months. That was a few miles out of Okehampton on a rarely used bit of railway track. There I picked wild primroses for the first time in my life.

I went to church in the nearby village of Sampford Courtenay - St. Andrew's - and the local vicar came to visit me. It was a terrific Spring, my bicycle, the country and wild primroses.

Then I had got a very derelict cottage in the village of Chagford about ten miles away. My aim was to settle there to live. I also went to the local Catholic church which was in nearby Okehampton. On Sundays I was usually given a lift there by Betty, the local farmer's wife. But on a week day, with more time, the walk up across Dartmoor, which came out in Okehampton near this church, was glorious and was much to be preferred.

The cottage in Chagford had been empty for some time. However, it was mine and the quicker I got there the better. Betty, my friend and her farmer husband John, came with a van and we soon loaded up with my bits and pieces. It was about ten miles to Chagford, and there on a fine spring afternoon I arrived. With a big old-fashioned key I opened the front door. There was a very large empty fireplace, the type one could stand in and look up the chimney. I relished the thought of a real fire. John got open an old sash window and we piled in all my things.

There was a rather rickety open staircase. Sometimes I slept upstairs on my mattress on the floor. But when the open fire was alight, I slept downstairs. The old place looked wonderful in the firelight and in a corner of the room, with a candle and a little statue of St. Joseph, was my shrine: a special corner for my prayers.

I often went to evensong in the beautiful old church in the village and Sunday mornings I went to Mass in the nearby Catholic church, where sometimes I did the flowers, which in May were masses of wild bluebells. I loved Chagford and the cottage. I would still like to be there.

What was my special purpose in coming to Chagford, the village of the country house of the late Dr. R. D. Laing? It was because at that time his group, the P.A. (Philadelphia Association,) wanted to start a country household. I wanted to help him find a suitable property.

I looked around Devon and eventually I came to Saint Dympna's, a large property above the sea near Seaton on the east coast. It was empty, except for a old lady and a Catholic priest and two mentally handicapped girls. It had been a Catholic Home for mentally handicapped children. They hoped that some group take it over for some work of a psychiatric nature.

Two people from the Philadelphia Association, one a nun and one a psychotherapist, came to look at it. I moved over there. Eventually the P.A. did not take the place.

Looking back I see it was the right place at the right time for the one person who did join me there. That was Ann, who previously lived with her family in nearby Exmouth. She had been a social worker and a probation officer. Now she had therapy with a local Devon psychotherapist, Michael, who lived with his family in Ottery St. Mary.

Ann came to live with me there at Saint Dympna's. We lived alone in the large upstairs part of the house. Below us lived the old priest and the elderly lady with the two mentally handicapped girls. Michael visited us, Ann and I, upstairs, by way of an outside metal fire escape stairs, which was our way in and out.

Eventually, Saint Dympna's went to a local Christian group. Ann went back to her parents' house and garage in Exmouth. I took an unfurnished flat in Ashburton in Devon. It was an upstairs apartment with an open fire and on a level with a tree in the opposite old churchyard.

It was during my time there that my brother, Peter, died of a sudden heart attack. After seeing to his funeral, which was a cremation in London, I came back to London to live in a small Philadelphia Association household in Ealing. From there I went to Scotland.

It was the eighties. I moved to Glasgow. The two people who came with me, an Irishman and an American lady, quite soon moved to the States. Ronnie wanted his group, the Philadelphia Association, to start a household in Glasgow, his home city. A journalist, Kay Carmichael, wrote about Ronnie and his work in a Scottish newspaper. The job now was to find a suitable property for a psychotherapeutic household.

Ronnie came up from London and visited Ninian Crichton-Stuart in the Palace of Falkland in that village in Fife. There had been a possibility of a house within the Falkland Estate. That did not come off but, thanks to Ninian, I moved to Falkland to live in the village. Ninian with his wife Ann and their two children, Christina and Francis, lived in an Estate cottage. I was very glad to be back in the country.

With Ninian I went once a month to meet with a group in Glasgow. It was realised we needed a separate charity to start a household and to further psychotherapeutic work in Scotland.

In London there was Ronnie with his Philadelphia Association and Joe with his group, The Arbours Housing Association. The group in Glasgow was known as the Core Group. At one monthly meeting of this group we were sitting together wondering about a name to register ourselves under as a charity. Looking up at some books on a shelf, I said, "Hand me that Scots dictionary". I opened it and saw the word "shealin" - "a place of shelter for shepherds and sheep". We settled on that, thinking of ourselves as therapists and clients.

Before I had left London, a P.A. psychotherapist said to me, "Remember Mary, Scottish people for Scottish things". At that time in 1987 the Shealin Trust, having been established as a charity, which was largely by the work of Ninian Crichton-Stuart of Falkland Palace, I felt it was time for me to somewhat withdraw.

I often had various talks to give, at home and abroad. But, by now, due to generalised osteoarthritis in my knees, hips and back, I could only walk slowly with the help of a stick. I decided, when on a visit to friends in Exmouth where there was a "Disabled" shop having a closing down sale, to see what they might have to offer me.

They had a self-propelled wheelchair. I bought it and so solved the problem of pain and mobility. Nowadays, I have two such wheelchairs, in case of tyre punctures. I always carry a cycle pump in a bag on the back.

Thanks to Joe and his wife Shree and various kind friends, I also have an electric scooter on which in the summer I can venture further afield.

Nowadays I usually paint rather than write. I have been very fortunate with my paintings. In 1966 when living in Kingsley Hall in the East End of London, I suddenly started to paint. It seemed to just well up out of me.

After finding household paint in a cupboard and painting black breasts on the walls, I went on to paint with oils, first on wallpaper backing paper, I would paint long scrolls of paper unrolled on the floor. I made little stories which I illustrated. Later, on canvas, I painted many different pictures of the sun to illustrate a short story for very little children. It was called The Sun Book. I also painted, on canvas, many times The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, and many other religious subjects.

Before I left Kingsley Hall in 1969, I had an Exhibition of my work at the Camden Arts Centre in London and at the Calouste Gulbenkian Gallery in Newcastle.

When the play by David Edgar, "Mary Barnes", was being played at Giessen in Germany I had an exhibition there of my work.

In 1974 my paintings were part of the International Exhibition in Milan, "Painting of the last One Hundred Years".

I have always found painting a fulfilling experience; a movement, as it were, of the eye, the hand and the soul.

In the different places where I have lived I have always had an Exhibition. In Scotland in 1987 at the Byre Theatre in St. Andrews; in 1992 at the Kirkcaldy Gallery of the Municipality and in 1998 in the Glasgow Trongate Gallery.

The paintings have been well cared for by Ninian Crichton-Stuart of Falkland Palace and I do so thank him for this.

Where I now live, in Tomintoul in the Highlands of Scotland, in 1995 I exhibited in the local Memorial Hall. For all the help I had with that exhibition and for his ever-present encouragement with my painting I very much thank the Church of Scotland minister, the Rev. Sven Bjarnason of The Manse, Tomintoul.

And for typing this and every word I have written in the Highlands, I gratefully thank Jean McLellan. May this new edition of my book with Dr. Joseph H Berke be a joy to all who read it.

Tomintoul, Scotland

March 1999


from the 2nd Edition, © 2002 Other Press
All rights reserved.

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