I have chosen to go to places where my life has been threatened, from bars in Brazil to besieged Sarajevo. But the closest I came to dying was no choice of mine, but back at home in suburban north London.
In August 2014 the President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Sir Simon Wessely, told the Guardian that two-thirds of psychiatric patients don’t endure poor treatment – they get no treatment at all. ‘Imagine it was cancer,’ he remarked, adding that mental health provision in the UK was ‘dangerously close to collapse’.
Anne and I live on the top floor of an Edwardian house. Across the street is a flat occupied by a woman I will call ‘Sam’. She is in her mid-forties and has a long history of mental illness. She seems to have been in and out of prison more than in and out of hospital. At least twice a month, there are two, sometimes three, police cars outside her home and usually an ambulance.
Twice, armed police from the Specialist Firearms Unit have turned up. On the first occasion, I was walking home from the shops and saw an officer hiding behind a bush near her flat. He put a finger to his mouth to warn me not to give away his presence. Did he want me to hide behind a bush too?
On the second occasion, I was watching armed cops from my window. Sam turned the corner and walked up to her front door. The police did nothing. After she’d entered the house and closed the door, they rushed it, screaming. She was manhandled into the street.
Sometimes she’s taken away in an ambulance and sometimes in a police car, but every time she’s back home that night or the next day. Perhaps poor Sam is used for exercise. ‘What have we got on tonight, lads?’ Silence. ‘Let’s go to Sam’s.’
Madness, yes. But whose?
Living on the ground floor of our building was an ex-teacher, Roger Sutherland. He was a member of the Scratch Orchestra and a co-founder of Morphogenesis1. He also wrote the book New Perspectives in Music. He was an eccentric avant-garde composer, but we got on well enough – most of the time. He lived a quiet life and insisted that everyone else did too. He’d complain about the slightest noise, even going so far as to telephone the next-door neighbour when she put her pots and pans away.
The strangest example of his insistence on quiet was on December 31st, 1999. Just before midnight, Anne started to beat her Native American drum to welcome in the Millennium. Almost immediately the phone rang.
‘Stop that noise,’ Roger shouted. ‘I’m trying to sleep!’
I told him my mother had died that day, that it was minutes from New Year and that he should get a life. I then turned the receiver toward the window as the whole of London exploded with fireworks.
Fast forward to four years later. February 5th, 2004, the night of a full moon, the time of month when police, midwives and hospitals acknowledge to be their busiest. I had gone to bed and Anne stayed up to watch Six Feet Under.2 At midnight, she called up the stairs. ‘David, I can smell gas.’ She was right.
We called the emergency services and then Roger to warn him. Shocked and dazed, we stood at the top of the stairs, watching as firemen entered the building and police questioned him in the corridor below. We were astonished to hear that, after trying to take his own life and endangering ours, he was offered a choice as to what he wanted: the police cells or the Whittington Hospital. Not surprisingly, he chose the hospital.
As the officers escorted him out, he reached to turn on the hall light. A fireman shouted, ‘Don’t touch that switch. The place will blow!’
I woke up in the early hours to hear the front door opening, but went back to sleep. Just after 6am, Anne woke me shouting, ‘Smoke!’
Coughing, we ran downstairs where the smoke was so thick we couldn’t see the bright blue numbers on the oven’s digital clock. Anne rang 999 for the second time in six hours as I staggered through the blackness to the street.
Two firemen carried Roger out, naked and smoke blackened. Later we discovered that he had set fire to his foam rubber mattress which gave off cyanide fumes as it burned. For half an hour, I watched as they tried to revive him.
In hospital, he was put on life support. His daughter was told he was brain-dead and made the difficult decision to turn off the machines.
His estranged wife told us later that, in the previous month, she’d made over 50 calls to Roger’s GP, desperately trying to get help for him. That the day before his death, he had turned on all the gas rings, trying to kill himself. Something she’d neglected to tell us at the time.
As compassionate as we felt toward Roger and his mental health problems, the reality was that, within the space of six hours, he twice came close to killing us. Our ‘pots and pans’ neighbours told us that the fire chief told them that the level of gas had been so high that, with one spark, not only our house would have blown up, but also the houses on either side.
Channel 4 TV came to interview us and our MP, Jeremy Corbyn, instigated an investigation as to why Roger had been allowed home in the middle of the night. At the Coroner’s hearing, the hospital apologised that they didn’t have sufficient resources to section him that night. The police claimed to have come round to us soon after Roger had escaped from A&E to warn us that he was back in the building. They testified that we hadn’t answered the doorbell. The police had our telephone number, but their communication’s systems didn’t seem to have advanced much beyond the days of Dixon of Dock Green.
The Coroner ruled that Roger’s death was due to ‘unknown causes’. It couldn’t be ruled as a suicide as Roger’s finger marks were found on the wall beside his front door.
I came closer to death in my own home than I did in Sarajevo when I had to run across Sniper’s Alley. The moral of this story? Your life can be threatened by wars abroad and by health and welfare cuts at home.
1 Morphogenesis was an experimental music group specialising in improvised music and unconventional instruments. Set up in 1985, Roger Sutherland was, with Mike Cosgrave, one of the founding members. Stewart Lee shared a flat with Mike and here is what he wrote about them. “Morphogenesis moved out of the gloom to take their places: a half a dozen or so shady individuals who looked like they should have been manning a Baader-Meinhof Group terrorist cell, or else researching the growth of unusual moulds in an underground room somewhere. What followed was not music or entertainment as I understood it, but an undulating, formless wash of drones, clicks and bubbles, that resisted all formal development and didn’t even allow any room for a solo on those carefully arranged elastic bands. There sat Mike, a man who could pick up any tune instantly and play it back to you note perfect, reduced to dropping matches onto his frets in absurd concentration, while a man stood behind him making irritating squeaking noises by rubbing a partially deflated pink balloon And when the balloon promptly burst in his hands, he reacted only with a smug expression which suggested the object’s implosion was not actually a mistake, but part of a far greater artistic whole which I would never be able to understand. After 45 minutes or so the sounds mercifully subsided, and I hurried downstairs to get a drink, barely able to suppress my laughter at the most pretentious and pointless display I had ever witnessed.”
2 Despite having gastric flu, Anne forced herself to stay up on the night of February 4th, 2004 because she couldn’t bear to miss Six Feet Under. Had she not done so, she would not have smelled the gas. In the early morning she woke up uncharacteristically early because of abdominal pain. It was only her stomach flu that prevented us being overcome by smoke and fumes.