NWR Issue 95

Questions, Answers, Fools and Kings

In 1954, author Caradog Prichard's mother died in Denbigh ‘seilam’, having spent thirty years inside. Prichard felt complicit, and was crippled by it. He erected an emotional bulwark, forged of distance from his home village of Bethesda and a flashy Fleet St lifestyle. But still his stifling filial relationship continued to haunt him. Late November saw the fiftieth anniversary of Prichard’s autobiographical novel, the greatest written in Welsh, Un Nos Ola Leuad (One Moonlit Night, translated by Philip Mitchell).

S4C’s celebration included a new documentary, Afal Drwg Adda (Adam’s Bad Apple), inspired by Prichard’s autobiography of the same name. Its hallucinatory imagery, featuring C’mon Midfield actor Llion Williams gowned up on a surgical table in the middle of a lake, boosted my confidence in the channel. Not since Con Passionate has S4C so indulged fans of the surreal. There can be few affected by the old mental asylums that miss them. John Sam Jones’ memoir, Crawling Though Thorns, records his barbaric ECT course at Denbigh, the cure-de-jour for homosexuality as late as the seventies. Charles Russell’s recent art book, Groundwaters, A Century of Art by Self-taught and Outsider Artists, however, shows the ways in which some hospitals created a nurturing environment that accepted people on their own terms, and most importantly, as creative people.

Groundwaters champions twelve visual artists, untrained, and/or mentally ill, whose work displays ‘significant visual achievement and meaning’, and traces the ways in which they found an audience. From the 1920s onwards, enlightened psychiatrists such as Walter Morgenthaler, Hans Prinzhorn and
Leo Navratil played their part in this movement. The latter founded Haus der Kunstler (a type of sheltered housing for troubled artists) in 1981 outside Vienna, which still exists in its new incarnation of Art/Brut Center Gugging.

Groundwaters’ subjects are marked by their laudable ignorance of stylistic fads. Their oeuvre spans 1905 to 2010 and includes enormous bodies of work, many pieces being undated. Repetition and obsession go with the territory, especially where the creative urge displaces extreme anxiety and expresses a pathological will to dominate an environment (male sexuality in the case of Aloise Corbaz; the world itself in those of Henry Darger and Adolf Wölfli).

Relatively stable ‘self-taught artists’ are covered, such as spiritual medium Madge Gill and former slave Bill Traylor, whose shadow-puppet silhouettes twitch like hanging men. Henry Darger’s fantasies played out beneath the shrinks’ radar. In 1973, his landlord forced entry to his flat, packed with manuscripts and panoramas of idealised children of confused gender, freak storms and torture. Darger expert John M MacGregor reveals these scenes to display ‘the ongoing fantasies of a serial-killer’. This superlative book provokes two questions. What insight into the mind does art give us? And: how many potential artists are lost in our darker cyber-corridors?

The world’s first psychiatric hospital, also Viennese, lends its name (Fools’ Tower) as well as its setting to one of our fiction extracts in this issue, ‘Narrenturm’. Disturbingly, a little Googling reveals another connection to our earlier theme of ECT, in that the tower housed an early lightening rod. It isn’t known, however, whether this was used to treat patients with electricity’s ‘health benefits’, as they were considered in the eighteenth century. Newcomer Eliza Granville’s story struck me as a chilling combination of Jenny Erpenbeck’s novella The Old Child and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

'Fools’ of a different variety – common-or-garden misbehaving men – are the subject of Chris Meredith’s The Book of Idiots, his first adult novel in thirteen years. ‘The Death Game’, previewed here, displays Meredith’s trademark understated psychological truth; also his passion for the south Wales locale, dialect and history. And his humour: ever pondered on which king died of ‘a surfeit of lampreys’? Answers here.

But which member of the royal family visits Porthcawl each year? Robert Minhinnick knows: it is the true King, Elvis (though the ‘unlistenables’ are also listed). Keiron Smith, meanwhile, reveals why John Ormond should be hailed as Wales’ great film-poet. Critics have asked why the rarefied worlds of Dorothy Edwards’ fiction seem to belie her socialism. Answers on p80 & 98, where Steven Lovatt and Claire Flay navigate terrains fictional, personal and political with the use of quite different lodestones. Who has the ‘nutty wonderstuff’ of great walking writers? Mike Parker, says Horatio Clare, even
though he’s a ‘truly terrible walker’ liable to burst into tears at the raindrop of a cloud. Whose poems from his spring collection Witch are previewed here; where is the best pick of recent books? Here, here.


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