Monarchy in the UK: how White power does its thing

“Master, you eated me when I was meat, and now you must pick me when I am bone” (Anonymous Canadian slave, 18th century, reported in Patterson 1982, p. 338)

It was sobering to come across this very recent news item concerning a guest at a reception at Buckingham Palace being racially abused by a ‘Lady of the king’s household’, one Sarah Hussey, a godmother to William Windsor, the king’s son; and as it goes the widow of old Marmaduke – ever a name to conjure with – who used to be Chair of the British Broadcasting Corporation, way back and long before I built me a barrel to barf in.

Now, I don’t want to pile in upon, brandish my stick at or in any other wise throw  self-righteous stones at Lady Sarah, properly vertiginous as has been her fall. She definitely doesn’t get a free pass, but I am solemnly conscious that there are people much closer to me than her who might also not have shone on such an occasion. The thing to do, I believe, is not to locate racism in the even-more-privileged other, but to work all the harder to uproot it in oneself.

Ngozi Fulani, the founder of Sistah Space, who was the person abused, has indeed very aptly pointed out that what is clearly needed over at the palace is some cultural competency training, rather than (yet more) scapegoating – and so there we will leave the matter – except to say that here is a link to the Sistah Space website if you would like to find out how to support their very important work.

I begin with the incident at the palace, though, not for what might be inferred about any particular person who is part of the failing institution that is monarchy in the UK, but rather for what might be said about the institution itself – and about the White power that it propagates.

The story particularly caught my eye because, now that we have us a ‘Charles III’ on the throne of this country, my mind has kept going back to what was wrought by his forebear Charles II (and that ‘merrie monarch’’s brother the Duke of York, later James II). I then wonder what might be said about the period of world history that runs (on an admittedly parochial view!) between those two right Charlies: from the Restoration of the Monarchy (and the accession of Charles II to the throne of England, Scotland and Wales) in May 1660, up to and beyond the succession of Charles III (to the throne of the United Kingdom, and of those other ‘Commonwealth’ countries that still for various reasons bow the knee) this last September.


Charles Stuart, exiled in Europe after being defeated by Cromwell in 1651 – and via many a jolly jape (dressing up as a servant, can you imagine?) as he escaped England and the fate that befell his father Charles I – lived off of the hospitality and generosity of his fellow monarchs for the rest of that decade, nursing his grievance and plotting his revenge, in France and then in Spain.

Perhaps part of the whole appeal of kingship, if you are professionally speaking a scion of a royal family between gigs, is first of all payback and, immediately following, nest-feathering. Certainly the very second thing that happened after Charles claimed back his father’s throne (and had those responsible for his father’s execution hung, drawn and quartered) was the Chartering in 1660 of the Royal Company of Adventurers Trading into Africa, afterwards known as the Royal African Company. Adventurers, indeed! James Stuart, Duke of York, was the company’s primary shareholder. Initially it traded in Ghanaian gold; but it was also an official instrument of State policy of taking control of the slave trade and excluding other European powers, at that time especially the Dutch, from its lucrative profits.

Bear in mind that ‘the scramble for Africa’ of mid to late Victorian times is yet two centuries into the future. The Portuguese had started taking sub-Saharan African people into slavery in the second half of the fifteenth century (armed with the blessing of, and a guarantee of immunity issued by, Pope Nicholas V, who decreed that any and all “Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be” might be reduced to ‘perpetual servitude’). But by the 1660s, the presence in the African continent of White European invaders is still limited to a hotch-potch of coastal forts and outposts, regularly changing hands as the next particular Power-of-the-day would come along to claim and gain the ascendancy.

The English muscled their way into the slave trade in the second half of the sixteenth century, after Henry VIII’s excommunication in 1538 had rendered irrelevant the continuing Papal protection of the Portuguese; and by the first quarter of the seventeenth century the demand for unpaid labour in the sugar plantations of Britain’s new Caribbean colonies had generated a sustainable ‘market’ for slaves. However, it was only when the Stuart family got in on the act that the violence and plunder began to escalate.

Here, if you don’t believe me, is the Company’s coat of arms, which rather says it all. Its Latin motto, incidentally, translates as “By royal patronage commerce flourishes, by commerce the realm”; or, to put more directly, “we expect a free pass, for we are only in it for love of country, and there’s gain for you all and plenty, if you turn a blind eye, o citizens of Thebes”. That there were no illusions, about who authorised this trade and who were the primary stakeholders, is evidenced by a contemporaneous reference to the ‘Barbary Company’ in Samuel Pepys’ diary.

From 1663 the Royal African Company’s renewed charter not only specified that slaves were part of its stock in trade but, according to the custom of those days, it explicitly claimed monopoly in that trade. By the 1670s the Stuarts had formalised the ‘triangular’ slave trade. Ships loaded with goods for trade sailed from England to Africa; captured and abducted slaves were transported to the West Indies (this was the ‘middle passage’); and plantation produce (more plunder) was then shipped to England – thus generating yet more wealth and profit, and new goods a-plenty to be traded abroad.

The Stuarts in the end didn’t profit quite as much as they no doubt had hoped, as that piratical royal ‘Company of Adventurers’ were in turn displaced by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The slave trade as dominated by the English/the British in fact only really boomed after the Royal Family relinquished its monopoly in 1689. Nonetheless, between 1672 and 1731 the Royal African Company transported more than 187,000 slaves to the Americas (or towards the Americas: nearly 40,000 of these died en route).

The Company thereby violently displaced more human beings than any other single entity in the whole abominable history of the Transatlantic slave trade. Many of those 5,000-yearly people transported in the 1680s were branded on the face with the letters DoY (for Duke of York) or on the chest with the initials of the Company (RAC). The wealth generated and plundered by the triangular slave trade that the Stuarts inaugurated would kick-start the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions and power the might of British imperialism into the nineteenth century and beyond.


This prolonged and terrible violence is a story that cannot be told often enough. It will be familiar to many if not most readers. However, I must also acknowledge that anyone with access to Google and a smattering of British history for background and context could put together a similar account – and I must also go no further without owning my own positionality as a White man and property-owner who is beneficiary if not accessory after the fact of this colossal criminality.

As I have already commented, neither is it open to me to attempt to project racism into the Other: it is mine for the owning. Anti-racism begins at home. So I must say now why this story needs this, my particular re-telling. The thing I want to do here is look at the history specifically as a history of White power and Whiteness: how it operates; how it propagates and reproduces itself.

Fear and disparagement or demonisation of the Other is as ancient an aspect of human history as the first forming of humans into social groupings. However, racism is a distinctively modern strain of ideology. The concept of ‘race’ came into being among the White colonial powers of Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century, at around the time of the Enlightenment – and the reign of the Stuarts. Racism launches and lands as ideology as part of the social, economic and political and philosophical processes that also birthed secularism and liberalism, industrialism and imperialism.

The historical moment in which racism, in what would become the modern sense (Audre Lorde defined racism as “the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance” (2007, p. 45)), is first enshrined in law arrives with the Barbados Slave Code of 1661 (the year after the Restoration). This piece of legislation, formally known as ‘An Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes’, came into being because the White planters felt the need to scaffold their violent exploitation of their enslaved workforce with a legal framework. It was this document, not so much ruthless as pre-ruth in its conception, that established the legal status of slaves as ‘chattel’ of their masters (as the great Angela Davis noted, constructed as “a herd of subhuman labor units” (1981, p. 12)).

In order to profit to such an extent from treating human beings like cattle, it became ‘necessary’ to establish in law an equation with cattle as the status of certain groupings of people. Racism was the ideological rock out of which this legal dungeon was hewn. It set a grim and gruesome precedent, template and augury for the legal codification of the violence of slavery in multiple other jurisdictions, including the American colonies.

By means of and consequent upon its spurious clustering of all Black bodies as ‘Negro’ and its outright denial of their humanity, the colonists, traders and slavers of multiple European nationalities came to construct themselves, in antithesis, as White and human:

“The Atlantic slave trade had taken Africans from numerous and widely differing cultures and ethnic groups and defined them en masse as ‘negroes’. Now the pioneers of English plantation slavery … ushered all Europeans, irrespective of their ethnic or social backgrounds, into the new category of ‘white’; a term that had to be explained to newly arriving Europeans who were unfamiliar with the working of the new slave society” (Olusoga 2016, p. 71)

‘Whiteness’ and ‘human-ness’ became a subliminal equation built into the molecular structure of modernity. WEB Du Bois famously observed that “[t]he discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing” (1903, p. 227). The emergence of skin colour as the imaginary determinant of identity and worth and the construction of Black-ness as equivalent to dangerousness, worthlessness and Other-ness (an inferior, ‘sub-human’ Other-ness) has led, among other disastrous consequences, to the emergence of a (mostly but not always) subliminally-held and (perpetually) self-reinforcing belief system built around the assumption of the ‘good’ of Whiteness.

The ideology of racism emerges out of slavery, but slavery pre-existed racism for millennia. Black people were not exposed to explicitly ‘racial’ prejudice until the British planters in the Caribbean required ideological justification for the slave trade and the plantation system it serviced and sustained. The construct of ‘race’ is the ideological creation of White people and Whiteness is an offshoot of ‘race’. Emergent white European capitalism and imperialism (and the profits to be made from sugar, cotton and tobacco if labour costs were minimised) begat the Atlantic slave trade; the slave trade (gradually) begat ‘race’; and ‘race’ begat ‘Whiteness’, which Guilaine Kinouani defines as “the production and reproduction of the dominance, and privileges of people racialized as White” (2019, p. 62)

Racism as an ideology is therefore not alien to, or outside of, or some aberrant offshoot of the emergence of modernity in the Global North: it is foundational and central to that historical process. Hiding in plain view amid the outpourings of hostility towards racially minoritized peoples is the elevation and idealisation of Whiteness and the White body, of White culture and aesthetics, dressed up as the ‘natural order of things’. The ‘bleaching’ or ‘White-washing’ – both representationally and conceptually – of the Brown bodies of both the Ancient Greeks and the historical Jesus and his disciples offers one example of how discourses and aesthetics of Whiteness continue to dominate thought and perception and practice in the Global North. Indeed, Orlando Patterson has chillingly pointed out that the very idea and ideal of ‘freedom’, so exalted and beloved in the West, emerged

“as a necessary consequence of the degradation of slavery and the effort to negate it. The first men and women to struggle for freedom … were freedmen. And without slavery there would have been no freedmen” (1982, p. 342).


So, let’s ask: what is it that White people need, in order that Whiteness may continue to be propagated? The answer, my friend, is not so much ‘companies of adventurers’, though there have been plenty of those. What White people need is institutions: institutions steeped in Whiteness, dedicated to reproducing themselves, having survival as their primary task. The monarchy of this no-longer-really-very-United Kingdom is but one example of this phenomenon.

Every so often a sudden, fleeting cloud of consciousness scuds across the white-walled face of that institution. ‘Hang on a second’, the cloud seems to whisper, as – just for example – happens when a local charity is rewarded for its work with a reception at the palace: ‘isn’t it somehow our task to stop this sort of thing happening?’

Perhaps this fragment of awareness is what possessed Sarah Hussey to act into her given role in such disinhibited fashion the other evening. But it’s only by seeing that her words were not egregious in relation to their context that the institution she represents can be seen in a clear light: not as harmless, decorative, ossified, irrelevant, but rather as living and breathing and propagating, beating out its ancient and deadly rhythms with a steady hand and a constant pulse.

It won’t do to simply squeeze the zit, cover up the traces with a dab of foundation, carry on as per usual. It’s the internal toxins that need draining and cleansing and healing.


Much of the line of thought in this blog and some of the forms of words derive from my work with Chris Scanlon and in particular from Chapter Eight of our book together that came out earlier this year (Scanlon and Adlam 2022). I no longer know where my thought ends and Chris’s thought begins and I find that this is an experience to cherish rather than to worry about. But thank you, Chris!

Many thanks also to Leslie Brissett, whose conference presentation earlier this year caused something to ‘click’ inside me about Whiteness, and who put me on the trail of that old villain and war criminal, Pope Nicholas V.


Davis, A.Y. (1981) Women, race and class. Reprinted 2019. London: Penguin Modern Classics.

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903) The souls of Black folk; with ‘The talented tenth’ and ‘The souls of white folk’. Reprinted 2018. London: Penguin Classics.

Kinouani, G. (2019) ‘Difference, whiteness and the group analytic matrix: an integrated formulation’. Group Analysis 53(1), pp. 60-74.

Lorde, A. (1978) ‘Scratching the surface: some notes on barriers to women and loving’, in Lorde, A. and Boreano, N. (eds) Sister Outsider: Essays and speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press, pp. 45-52.

Olusoga, D. (2016) Black and British: A forgotten history. London: Pan Macmillan.

Patterson, O. (1982) Slavery and social death: A comparative study. Reprinted 2018. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scanlon, C. and Adlam, J. (2022) Psycho-social explorations of trauma, exclusion and violence: Un-housed minds and inhospitable environments. London: Routledge.

Down by the river – the death of Oladeji Omishore

“…when a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed” – James Baldwin ([1963] 2017, p. 51)

 “The disproportionality in the use of force against Black people adds to the irrefutable evidence of structural racism embedded in policing practices” – Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST

“Any death involving a BAME victim who died following the use of force has the capacity to provoke community disquiet leading to a lack of public confidence and trust in the justice system. This can be exacerbated if people are not seen to be held to account, or if the misconduct process is opaque” – Angiolini Report (2017, p. 15)

“Were they afraid of me? Was it to control and subdue, as opposed to treat and help? Was it a decision rooted in fear of the ‘large Black man’?” – David Harewood (2021, pp. 194-195)

One sunny Saturday morning last June, down by Chelsea Bridge in central London, a Black man named Oladeji Omishore, known as Deji, was ‘Tasered’ by two policemen.

A report in the Guardian said that the Metropolitan Police stated that “they had challenged a man on Chelsea Bridge and discharged a stun gun but that “did not enable the officers to safely detain him”. The man, in his early 40s, “subsequently entered the river”, police said, ”and was rescued by the RNLI, which took him to hospital”. He died the next day (Sunday 5 June 2022).

The verb ‘to Taser’ obscures, no doubt for purposes of linguistic hygiene, the fact that a ‘less-lethal’ weapon has been fired at an innocent citizen. A ‘taser’ (says Wikipedia) is “an electroshock weapon used to incapacitate people allowing them to be approached and handled in an unresisting and thus safe manner…It fires two small barbed darts intended to puncture the skin and remain attached to the target, at 55 m/s (120 mph; 200 km/h)…Tasers are marketed as less-lethal, since the possibility of serious injury or death exists whenever the weapon is deployed.”

There is plentiful evidence that these weapons are (a) deployed ‘conservatively’ by police to reduce the possibility of police injury and (b) deployed discriminatorily, in that racism as well as stigma around mental ill-health determines who gets assaulted with these weapons and who does not. If you are a Black man presenting erratically in a public place you are very greatly more likely to be assaulted with ‘less-lethal’ electric shock by a policeman than I am as a White man having myself a bad morning. I have written elsewhere about the long grim history of torture, humiliation and death inflicted upon Black people by White people under a racist flag.

The details of police actions that led to Deji’s death are the subject of an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). The bereaved family are trying to raise funds to institute judicial review of this inquiry. Many of the facts in the story have yet to come to light and I may return to this theme once more has been published.

My purpose in writing briefly on this story today is first of all to try to boost the Omishore family’s crowdfunding campaign, which has until Tuesday at noon to meet its £10,000 target. Click on that hyperlink in the preceding sentence, read what the family have to say and pledge most generously!

Secondly, I want to urge that White people need to stand up and fund these kinds of campaigns if the White in-group is ever going to be effectively held to account for its (our!) brutal treatment of the Black out-group. It’s as simple as that. In my book with Chris Scanlon we observe that

“the in-group does not give up power, although it is adept at appearing to do so. It relies heavily upon “the patience and forbearance of the poor” (James, 1938, p. 299). We the authors are sufficiently implicated in its manoeuvring to know that it will not go against its own prime functioning – which, as we have argued throughout this book, is to hold onto power by excluding and oppressing the out-group – no matter how many people take to the streets of its capital cities to protest.” (Scanlon and Adlam, 2022, p. 152)

I intend to stand by and live up to these words if I possibly can. Let’s not leave it to the out-group to fund challenges to power on their own. Let’s not go along with stuff we know is inexcusable. Let’s dismantle our own toxic power structures – brick by brick, if needs must.


Angiolini, E. (2017) Report of the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody.

Baldwin, J. ([1963] 2017) The Fire Next Time. London: Penguin.

Harewood, D. (2021) Maybe I Don’t Belong Here. London: Bluebird.

IOPC (2021) Review of IOPC cases involving the use of Taser 2015-2020

James, C.L.R. (1938) The Black Jacobins. Reprinted 2001. London: Penguin.

Scanlon, C. & Adlam, J. (2022) Psycho-social Explorations of Trauma, Exclusion and Violence: Un-housed Minds and Inhospitable Environments. London: Routledge.

‘You can’t argue with luxury flats’

‘Up on Housing Project Hill, it’s either fortune or fame …’ [1]

Amidst the bustling if battle-scarred banlieux of South London, where generally I may be found, beating my barrel and pestering the passing populace, I observe that you can scarcely throw a brick across the grounds of a psychiatric hospital without it breaking the window of a luxury flat that’s popped up, seemingly out of nowhere, to grace what once were the rolling parklands of those asylums that of old delineated the darkness at the edge of town.

A périphérique, if you will, of places for the kettling and containment of worklessness and fecklessness and other invented psychosocial ailments – near enough to the capital’s centre, as Foucault taught us, to be projected into; far enough outwith the city walls to manage the fear of contamination.

Now that London has expanded its perimeter to the point that the M25 is the new South Circular, numerous White men in waistcoats have not been backward in coming forward to point out just how expensive land has become in what once was the outer rim and now is the ‘Zone Two/Three’ inner doughnut around the central hole of the capital.

What a lucrative and slam dunk, sure-fire winner of a business model Mental Health Trusts of various descriptions could be on to, these good people proposed, if they were to dismantle the old asylum buildings (think ‘spacious’, not to say ‘spreading’) and sell off the land to the pseudo-sanitised corporate fronts of offshore money-laundering syndicates, falling over themselves in their rapaciously desperate urgency to build de luxe apartment blocks where once walked wardens (think ‘atmospheric’, ‘historic’, ‘vibrant’, ‘cutting edge modern amenities – crèche, gymnasium, underground car parking, ECT suite, Clozapine Clinic[2] – all thrown in’).

Ever mindful – in their own particular and peculiar, one-eyed fashion – of what we have come to know as the ‘optics’ (and never ones to miss out on a good bit of spin if the price is right), I hear in my imagination those mocca-chino’d money-men also murmuring that there could even be new-build hospital units in the mix, if the Trust executives played their cards right. More compact, of course – smaller footprint and none of your old-school sprawl – but (you know the tune: you could hum it for me, I’m sure) perfectly formed, purpose built, fit for purpose, COVID-secure, environmentally-friendly, hybrid conferencing facilities: all the trimmings.

Look at it this way (quietly they insinuated, over their flat whites and macarons): who’s going to argue with luxury flats, if the pay-off is air-conditioned consulting rooms with anti-barricade locks, and flat-screen technology you could open a pub with?

Well, I mean to say, I ask you: what’s not to love?


Now I don’t know if you the reader have ever previously come across the phrase “you can’t argue with luxury flats”, but I’ve heard it so often now that I have started to hear it as something a lot closer to an actual instruction to desist than an arch and knowing nod to the Zeitgeist, or a sort of pallid Stoicism about the common sensical and inexorable nature of it all. I rather fancy that before you can so much as mumble ‘antinomianism’ to yourself, La Cruella and her squalid band of cheerleaders will have made it illegal to ‘argue with luxury flats’ under some obscure but nakedly violent sub-clause of the Policing Act.

Cue a nation of nodding dogs, remarking sagely that ‘they must know what they’re doing’ or ‘someone must want to live there’ or ‘you can’t stop progress’ or ‘bringing service delivery into the twenty-first century’ – well, you know the sort of thing …

I do nonetheless feel moved to argue with luxury flats – and with hospital new-builds, their deniable and spurious offspring. I am positively hissing, in fact, and I would proclaim my pissedness from the rafters, if only the bulldozers had left any rafters (for afters). If indeed it is, any second now, about to become against the law to argue with luxury flats, then the Home Secretary may do her Braver worst.[3]  My barrel is easy enough to find and open to all elements, desirable or otherwise – no need for an anti-barricade lock here …

I will argue with luxury flats, and here’s how:


To begin with, we must note that this land has been NHS land since the 1940s, and once it is gone, it is never going to be possible to get it back again. First, we pave the parklands, then we put up a parking lot and contract it out to make fortunes for cowboy enforcers while deterring visitors to the site; then we wash our hands of the well-being of future generations altogether. Instead of blocks of privately-owned flats encroaching inside the agora boundary-stones[4] of NHS hospital grounds, before we know it, there’ll be nothing but little outcrops of outpatient clinics engulfed by housing estates.

Examples abound (and I’m not going to name current names), but Exhibit One, m’lud, is the old Henderson Hospital site in Sutton – the building that housed the Democratic Therapeutic Community there for nearly half a century (after it eventually moved there from Belmont) was dismantled brick by brick and carted off, and now the only evidence of a system of health and social care is a shiny new GP practice, where, no doubt, post-austerity and COVID-19 and Brexit, you can’t get an appointment with a human being at any price.

Privatisation, to put it simply, means deprivation, whichever way you slice the cake. You could resource new hospitals without selling off land to developers: it’s called funding a national health service, and it only takes, say, sending a handful of Challenger tanks a year back to BAE Systems marked unused and surplus to requirements (at £5,400,000 a pop and change – or approximately the equivalent of the yearly saving that would come from the Government not spending any money on legal fees defending bullying or sexual or financial misconduct complaints against MPs and cabinet ministers).

Now I don’t wish it thought that I fume and fulminate out of some faux or toxic nostalgia for the ‘back wards’ and abuses of the old asylum system – nor indeed for the dilapidated nursing barracks that have accommodated outpatient and inpatient care in many of these places. But those open spaces mattered, were balm for the soul. There’s no therapy quite like sunlight through the trees, bird song and fox bark and the snail on the leaf.

You’d think that the architects (in both senses of the word) of the new-builds would have learned the value of this even as they drew up their plans to dig up the grasslands, but no! It can’t be monetised, so it doesn’t count. There’s nowhere now to walk except on pavements or parking lots, ‘outside’ spaces are now landscaped inside the new-builds – on artfully constructed roof gardens or enclosed courtyards – and of course you can’t actually open any of the windows in these buildings, for ‘health and safety’ reasons.

I also get it that there really is a housing crisis in the London area and that some of the new blocks that have arisen from the rubble of Victorian outpatient departments are designated ‘affordable’. Forgive me though while I quietly choke on that word ‘affordable’ in this context. They’re not affordable to the local communities most in need of them – although they are affordable to that well-known engine-room of the British middle classes, the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’.

As for the ‘luxury flats’ – only money launderers can afford to renovate them and only money launderers can afford to buy them.[5] Only time will tell whether anyone at all actually wants to live in them. The housing crisis will escalate regardless, since the structural factors creating homelessness and displacement are intensifying rather than abating and ‘luxury flats’ and gentrification generally are precisely an example and epitome of this.

So, marvel not, my friends, at these shiny hospital new-builds, for they rise from the ruins of excluded communities and marginalised ‘patient’ populations – and the ghosts of generations of sufferers howl wordlessly as they claw impossibly at the reinforced glass walls of that ostensibly inviting new atrium.

And don’t forget that inpatient mental ill-health beds are down 25% since 2010 and falling, in the context of a rising and increasingly unsettled population. One thing these new-builds are not is larger – and of course the land on which that bed capacity could be restored…has been sold for luxury flats. Whatever the merits and demerits of medical model inpatient care for psychosocial distress and disability – both in principle and in practice – the reality in South London is that most of the time an NHS psychiatric bed is not to be had when it’s needed – but still those bulldozers and money-launderers rampage through the foundation and fabric of the post-1945 welfare settlement.

Spare a thought also for the invisible cost in terms of the wellbeing and viability of the various and numerous community teams who have been repeatedly and seemingly endlessly displaced and unsettled by the shuffles and decants they have been put through because the land their offices previously stood on has been sold for luxury flats. Outreaching mental health practitioners need a secure base from which to explore, but their needs and by extension their patients’ needs are never factored in to these increasingly complex ‘chains’ of moving house and not infrequently there is simply no room at the inn at the end of the chain.

Let’s not overlook, either, that in South London, that means there is a dimension of structural racism to the question of who gets valued and who gets dehumanised in this property gold rush. Plus ça change

If I come last of all to the actual service users invited into those alluring new-build atriums to take a seat in those shiny new waiting areas, it is not to overlook that ultimately it needs to be all about these our fellow-citizens or nothing has been gained – it is just that I don’t wish to ventriloquise and it’s not for me to say what might be another’s experience of such a welcome.

I will say what my worry is, as a ‘mental health practitioner’ myself. I was kidding you not about those anti-barricade locks. They are on every consulting room door in one particular new-build I have in mind. They cost upwards of £5000 per door. The ‘forensic’ non-throwable chairs will also set you back something nearer four figures than two. Not that you’d want to buy one in the first place. Or try to sit in one. Let alone throw one at the designer.

Construct our fellow-citizens as ‘other’; attribute, across the divide we’ve just randomly established, diseases of the mind which we’ve often just invented in our lunch-break; corral and kettle ‘them’ like so many fish in a fish farm; get affronted when ‘they’ become vociferous in their objection to being so toxically othered; put up a Lord Kitchener-type poster proclaiming that abuse will not be tolerated – and see where it gets us. That seems to be the game plan.

And that’s why luxury flats can be argued with.

‘… if you’re lookin’ to get silly/you better go back to from where you came…’

[1] The lines that open and close this blog are both from verse four of ‘Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ by Bob Dylan, from his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.

[2] The footnote indicator here is to mark that, while I hope this little piece may support the theory that irony is not yet dead, the reader must know that there is absolutely nothing funny about the suffering of the people for whom these last two interventions are generally intended, or more broadly about the psy-industrial complex and its instruments of social control.

[3] I am conscious in making these references that the shelf-life of UK Home Secretaries has lately been shorter than that of the most transient and flash-in-the-pan of weblog posts, so: blink and you’ll miss her, but Suella Braverman is the one we have right now. Be afraid: be very afraid.

[4] This idea about holding open the ‘agora’ or public spaces against privatising encroachments, and the perspective of this blog generally, draws upon the argument in my book with Christopher Scanlon ‘Psycho-social explorations of trauma, exclusion and violence: un-housed minds and inhospitable environments’ and if some of this is of interest you can read Chapter Two open access via this link:

[5] You’ll appreciate that I am using the term ‘money laundering’ in a broader than usual sense, to include asset-strippers and climate despoilers of every description.

The Diogenes Paradigm

Announcing the impending publication of:

Psycho-social explorations of trauma, exclusion and violence: Un-housed minds and inhospitable environments

Christopher Scanlon and John Adlam – with a Foreword by Earl Hopper and Prologue by Anne Aiyegbusi

Routledge: New International Library of Group Analysis

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee (John Donne)

…we are headed for a whole world of people searching for a home that no longer exists (Naomi Klein)

Our central theme and field of study is the operation of discourses of power, privilege and position, and of relations of domination, between privileged in-groups ‘in possession’ and oppressed and dispossessed out-groups. We explore how these discourses and power relations exclude individuals and sub-groups of people from experiences of belonging and potentiality in ways that are not only (re-)traumatising for those who are excluded but also deeply damaging and endangering for us all.

We locate ‘the problem of homelessness’ in the continuing inability, of this society in which we live and of those systems of care in which we have been working, to recognise and to integrate, into its responses and interventions to this problem, both the sociological fact of dispossession or not having a ‘fixed abode’ and the psychological experience of feeling disrespected or of not feeling welcomed or accommodated in increasingly inhospitable environments.

Our term ‘unhousedness’ denotes individual and group experiences of having been displaced, in ways that are fundamentally unsettling, from membership of communities, large or small, with which one either identifies or finds oneself problematically identified by others. Our concern is therefore with what it might be like to not have a place to belong – of what it might feel like to have nowhere to go and no-one to turn to in order to feel ordinarily safe (or safe enough) or to find refuge or asylum.

We offer a tool for the exploration of these psycho-social dynamics in the form of what we call the ‘Diogenes Paradigm’. This Paradigm is located in our own re-re-telling of the legend of the itinerant vagabond-philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope: of his encounters with his fellow citizens and his trenchant critical commentaries upon the State in which he lived. The Diogenes Paradigm is a lens through which to explore the politics of otherness and unhousedness, of provisional inclusion and structural exclusion; and a tool with which to analyse phenomena of reciprocal violence between in-groups and out-groups and the contested nature of the public/private spaces, within and outside the agora.

The fulcrum of our Paradigm is the legendary ‘out-reaching’ encounter in the ancient Corinthian agora between the irresistible force of the mighty empire-builder Alexander of Macedonia and the immovable object of the marginalised street philosopher Diogenes of Sinope.

We use the lens of the Paradigm to frame and potentially re-imagine the fraught encounters between in-group and out-group, between the inhospitable environment and the un-housed mind, both at the ‘micro’ level of the traumatised and traumatising system of health and social care and at the ‘macro’ level of climate disaster and human mobility and their intersections with carbon capitalism and empire.

At both levels we interrogate the claim that there is ‘no room at the Inn’: that Big Lie which is iterated by the welfare state in the grip of discourses of ‘austerity’, or by the ‘Metropolitan’ nation states of the Global North, as the unsettled peoples whom their projections of globalised power have displaced come knocking at the gate, in search of shelter from those storms that ‘we’ of the Global North unleashed upon ‘them’.

Central to the Diogenes Paradigm is our move to take the contested conceptualisation of ‘trauma’ firmly out of the Clinic and to understand instead psycho-social processes of (re-)traumatisation. The pejorative attribution of ‘disorderliness’ is only ever applied ‘downwards’ in the societal hierarchy, from privileged, mainly white, people in power, to less privileged others with less power. If we must retain the idea of ‘the disorderly’, then the Paradigm invites us to look ‘up’ the hierarchy to those Alexanderesque generators of disorder who govern us and who thrive upon the disorder that they generate.

We therefore propose that to be psycho-socially un-housed is most often a consequence of traumatic experience; and that to live un-housedness is also always re-traumatising: a violent and violating psycho-social double-whammy of what went before colliding with what is now, in ways that are deeply damaging to the possibility of re-imagining what might be yet to come.

Whether we are settlers or nomads, to be un-housed and dis-membered is something that haunts us now, as it did in the past and always will do – until the end of human-time. A properly psycho-social exploration of traumatic unhousedness does not locate the unhousedness in the un-housed mind of the individual but in the transgenerational, psycho-social dynamics played out between those un-housed minds and the current and historical inhospitable environments that un-housed them.

In our book we examine how the most vulnerable members of society – those whose psychosocial status is ‘unhoused’ and excluded – are victims of inequalities and structural violence, and how social policy aimed at promoting inclusion and integration often perpetuates and exacerbates these issues.

In Part One of the book, we redefine our thinking about the nature of unhousedness and unsettledness in inhospitable environments and our particular reconceptualization of psycho-social trauma and of (re-)traumatisation; and we set out our development of the ‘Diogenes Paradigm’ – a tool for the exploration of the phenomena of reciprocal violence between in-groups and out-groups.

In Part Two we use the lens of the Diogenes Paradigm to discuss these fraught encounters between unhoused out-groups and inhospitable in-groups at the ‘micro’ level of the traumatised and traumatising system of health and social care and at the ‘macro’ level of climate disaster and human mobility and their intersections with carbon capitalism and empire.

In Part Three we foreground issues of racial inequality, racialised trauma and the possibilities of anti-racist practice. We set out ways in which the ethics and the methodologies of activist research and anti-oppressive practice might enable us and others to push back into and against the wind of prevailing discourses. We ask what it would mean for white people (and white men in particular) to give up our power, position and privilege, or whether only violence can dislodge us. We pay particular attention to states and practices of equality and to states and practices of disappointment.

We conclude by discussing possibilities for the opening-up of community-based psycho-social conversations of different kinds; and we offer a roadmap for the creative re-imagining of the places and spaces in which necessary conversations about restructuring and reparation can become sustainable.

The book itself is but a start, and but one small part, of the conversations we hope to be a part of. We hope you will be drawn towards reading it, and we look forward to hearing what you make of it.

Practising ignorance – exercising restraint

“…ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have”. James Baldwin (1972)

The online Cambridge Dictionary records that the word ‘ignorant’ signifies not having enough knowledge, understanding, or information about something – and the online Collins English Dictionary adds the nuance that when we describe someone as ignorant, we mean that they do not know things which they should know.

I think I may therefore confidently echo James Baldwin in suggesting that ‘ignorance, allied with power’ may be understood to be embodied in the priapic figure of our present Premier when, politicking around the Home Counties with Priti Patel recently (as is his chilling wont), he prescribed membership of “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society” (Guardian 2021) for those convicted of ‘anti-social behaviour’ (no trace of irony there!).

In case this spot of racist dog-whistling was too shrill for human ears to detect, he also lit the gas on half a century of fraught community policing when, with his very next breath, he proclaimed that ‘stop and search’, that key instrument of racially-targeted State oppression in modern Britain, was “a kind and a loving thing to do”.

It’s always problematic engaging on any level with the proliferating populist poseurs that (over-)populate the public sphere in post-modernity. Best in some ways to let it all wash over us, pour ne pas encourager les autres. But I want to try to think and write in a clear-eyed way about ‘race’ and racism and I think that these prime ministerial pronouncements illuminate the mindset of a whole class. As it happens to be the ruling caste in this country, it’s worth paying attention. And because it is about ‘race’, silence from the likes of me very quickly tips over into collusion or endorsement.

In that press conference, chattel slavery in the American South of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – as particularly extended through to the present day by the American penal system (in which more African Americans are incarcerated, than there were slaves in the United States in 1850 (Resler, 2019)) – is an historical phenomenon that is being referenced, but its true nature, its continuation by other means, and the identity and mindset of its perpetrators is being actively ignored.

Our protagonist, therefore, is being ignorant in the most violent possible way. He is indeed a candidate, as Baldwin warned, to be “the most ferocious enemy justice can have”. Furthermore, as Baldwin had previously observed, “whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves” (Baldwin [1963] 2017, pp. 43-44).


Because this particular paragon of our ruling ‘elite’ is such an admirer of Winston Churchill – that Colossus of Empire (in its (British) late period) and committed ideological adherent and proponent of racist imperialism, who in 1902 insisted that the “Aryan stock is bound to triumph” and in 1955 proposed “Keep England White” as the Conservative Party’s electoral slogan (and so who undoubtedly would have nodded his head at that ‘chain gang’ dog whistle) – it is with the figure of Churchill that we may as well begin.

In Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (1998), reference is made (pp. 641-642) to an episode when Churchill was Home Secretary, in which he and his Parliamentary Private Secretary Edward Marsh “spent an entire afternoon beating each other’s buttocks with a plaited birch”. There had been debate whether official adoption of this newly designed implement amounted to cruelty and so Churchill and Marsh had ‘done their duty’ by testing its efficacy. They are supposed, in Barker’s retelling of the tale, to have drawn the conclusion that “they’d had worse beatings at school” (Churchill’s experiences of being caned at Harrow are well-documented; the incident with Marsh is mentioned in Hassall (1959); Churchill’s Parliamentary Private Secretary during World War Two, Brendan Bracken, set up his own secret summer school in the 1950s so that he could contrive to have himself regularly caned, in role as a 16 year old schoolboy who suffered from premature ageing).

Now, it is not my purpose here to practice ‘wild psycho-analysis’ at a distance, or to pry into private lives, even if some such details have come into the public domain; nor to be prurient or judgmental about sexual or sexualised practices in what were sexually repressive times. We might at most very gently and cautiously infer, at the human and individual level, that these are the survival strategies of tormented souls. Moreover, I too am a survivor of single-sex boarding schools: to declare an interest, and not to put myself above the fray. I too must atone for my own guilt by association with the racist ravages of Empire.

No: the context and rationale for having anything at all to say about the personal lives of such historical figures lies in their power and privilege in the public sphere and the relations of domination which they considered themselves entitled to pursue. What I want very simply to notice for now are two particular phenomena: the first of which is the pervasive quality and characteristic of cruelty – elevated almost to the status of a virtue, as in ‘it’s cruel to be kind’; ‘it will make a man of you’; and other more or less insidious bromides and banalities of that ilk.

(‘I went through it, and it didn’t do me any harm’ is another one of these sayings, and it reminds me that at the boarding school in which I was deposited, I was a member of the first intake after the practice of being required to act as personal servant to the older pupils had been abolished. This was certainly a matter of personal relief to me; and it also meant that I bore witness to the disappointment of those who arrived in the four years before me, who had the practice passed on down to them, but couldn’t ‘make it alright’ by passing it further on down the line (and therefore had to find other less structured ways and means to assert dominance).)

The second phenomenon I want to foreground is the practice and exercise of restraint.

I have in mind to make full use of the double meaning of this word. It was essential in these disciplinary institutions that one took one’s beating (from housemasters or from older ‘fellow’-pupils) with a ‘stiff upper lip’: one did not ‘blub’; cruelty was something to be bitten back and doubled down on. This is not self-restraint in the sense of that conventional social virtue associated with the Aristotelian ‘Golden Mean’. This is systematic ‘control and restraint’, deployed ruthlessly against the creative spontaneity of the self, in order to suppress any upsurge of human emotion and cut it off at the source.

The Duke of Wellington famously claimed, on behalf of his officer classes, that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. His rank and file (those who survived) might have begged to differ. But we could perhaps argue that the great prizes of Victorian Empire – the power and reach of British dominion between the moment of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état in Paris in December 1851 and Gavrilo Princip’s two well-aimed pistol shots in Sarajevo in June 1914 – were won behind closed doors, in places and spaces dedicated to ritual humiliation. Generation upon cold, repressed, brutalized generation were sent away by their parents to be restrained in disciplinary institutions where they learned to exercise (self-)restraint when cruelties were administered to self or other; thus were they ‘trained for Empire’ and then sent out from these schools, and these shores, to rule over their fellow human beings, for whom they had no fellow feeling (were perhaps not capable of entertaining such fellow feeling).

The ideology of Free Trade presented them with an overriding mission to profiteer and to plunder; the ideology of racism allowed them to consider that their subjects were not human beings at all; and the ideology of Christianity (as opposed to the teachings of Jesus) provided the figleaf of the ‘civilising’ project, to still any lingering qualms.

This was the Rule of Britannia.


Toni Morrison wrote about chain gangs and restraint in Beloved (1997): her furious, anguished, transcendental account of the trauma and the ghosts of slavery. A ‘chain gang’ (so ignorantly referenced in that prime ministerial photo opportunity), in the world of Beloved (pp. 125-130), means forty-six Black men caged in boxes like kennels or coffins (except that both dogs and the dead are housed in greater decency and comfort); the boxes lined up in a ditch dug five feet deep, five feet wide. Woken each morning to gunshots; uncaged and forced to pass a thousand foot of chain onward to each other through their ankle irons; forced to submit to sexual abuse from the guards before being marched to their long day’s sledgehammer toil in the quarry; sleeping, if sleep be found, in mud and floodwater, waiting for the bite of the cottonmouth.

This compass of cruelty beyond measure or comprehension is not literally what is being proposed today as Conservative policy; but it is what is being referenced. In case you doubt me, one notorious and flatly despicable scribe writing in The Sun (I won’t give him the recognition of an actual reference) in the immediate aftermath of that dog whistle suggested that these new ‘chain gangs’ in their new yellow jackets should be made to sing ‘Negro spirituals’: so that passers-by would be sure they were ‘wrong ‘uns’, as they scrubbed graffiti off of walls or picked up litter off of grass verges.

To be very explicit: this extreme of cruelty and intensity of white supremacist ideology is being referenced because our ruling ‘elite’ have a notion that there are enough nodding Churchills among us who find the references congruent with their innermost feelings. They calculate that it is worth being referenced. They’re not just chatting around the dinner table as the port is passed (in such conversations, subliminal referencing and sly dog whistling aren’t felt to be needed and more open language is used). They’re speaking to us this way because experience tells them that there’s votes and funding in it for them.

Have these pontificators and provocateurs read Beloved? The question is irrelevant. They are ignorant, because they elect not to integrate the knowledge, the awareness, and the shame that is present and inherent in the history.

If any of them have read that book, they will also have encountered what Morrison writes about the ‘bit’ or ‘iron-bit’ or ‘face iron’. In her story, the character Paul D., who has escaped that Georgia chain gang described above, is reluctantly disclosing to Sethe, his host (whom he knew from ‘Sweet Home’, an earlier and relatively less troubled period of captivity) some of what he has endured. Sethe asks him why he didn’t say anything at a particular juncture in the story and Paul D. tells her that he had the ‘bit’ on him – and therefore he was physically unable to speak:

“he wants me to ask him about what it was like for him, about how offended the tongue is, held down by iron, how the need to spit is so deep you cry for it.  She already knew about it, had seen it time after time in the place before Sweet Home. Men, boys, little girls, women. The wildness that shot up into the eye the moment the lips were yanked back.” (1997, p. 84)

This practice is also briefly depicted in episode three of the recent television adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad (2017). However, Irina Popescu (2017) explains that contemporary research into slavery, restraint and torture has uncovered very little information on the iron bit. She hypothesizes that “this suggests that its physical representation and implementation remains locked away in the realm of the unimaginable”. She continues:

“Some human bits covered the entire mouth, neck, and nose, leaving the eyes unfettered so the slave could continue to see and thus proceed with his or her work. In this sense, the bit initially prevented speech by covering the mouth. After the bit was removed, the mouth was so dehydrated that the victims found themselves too hoarse to form words. (ibid.)”


James Baldwin once wrote: “For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language” ([1963] 2017, p. 62); and I must at once concede that at this point I don’t know what to write. I don’t know whether I can, or should, write anything at all. It may well be that my complicity disqualifies me, white middle-class male of a certain age that I am. I do know for certain that I can add nothing to what Toni Morrison has written. Here is unspeakability; unthinkability; unimaginability.

And yet: I perceive that it demands to be known. No – let me not hide behind the passive voice. Let me say rather that ‘it’ (the unspeakability, the unthinkability, the unimaginability of restraining human beings in chattel slavery) demands of me that I know it: that I not practice ignorance in the face of it; that I not stifle or suppress it, nor leave it lying in the shadows of consciousness, a ‘subjugated knowledge’ (Foucault 1976). I also think this is what Paul Gilroy is getting at when he writes of ‘imaginative proximity to terror’ (although that would be Baldwin’s or Morrison’s, not mine to claim) and says that “though they were unspeakable, these terrors were not inexpressible” (Gilroy 1993, p. 73).

Restraint. Control. Mild, measured, moderate-sounding words. A clinical tone, when coupled together – ‘control and restraint’ – the ‘and’ forging a collocation, a connection, like a link of chain. Makes eminent, self-evident sense, on the face of it, no?

But now let’s review some more recent history. Here is David Harewood, speaking of his own lived experience of ‘control and restraint’:

“I remember being confused and terrified … my body was under assault. They performed a ‘rapid tranquillisation’, which was as terrible as it sounds. Whilst I lay there, just trying to stay alive on the floor with seven people holding me down, the drugs slowly started pulsing through my body. I was held down for about two hours until finally I stopped resisting. … In my own records I’m often described as a ‘large Black man’ and it’s also interesting to note the very high doses of drugs I received (Diazepam and haloperidol), both at levels four times the current recommendations. What was the thinking behind these high doses? Were they afraid of me? Was it to control and subdue, as opposed to treat and help? Was it a decision rooted in fear of the ‘large Black man’? It’s no wonder Black people are so reluctant to seek help with their mental health.”

Harewood (2021), pp. 194-195

David Harewood has said that he feels lucky to have survived his ordeal. Here now are the deaths of six Black men; five of these deaths taking place in the UK, the sixth in the USA. There isn’t space here to do justice either to their lives or to the manner of their deaths; however, what links them, apart from the social constructs of ‘race’ and gender, is the fact that all six of them died of asphyxiation and/or cardiac arrest as a result of being restrained by agents of State. Three of these men at least – the first and the last two – found breath, during the restraint, sufficient to be able to say, to those agents of State, “I can’t breathe”.

David Bennett died during a nursing restraint on 30 October 1998 at the Norvic Clinic, a Medium Secure Unit in Norwich in which he had been for many years, off and on, a patient. Bennett wrote a letter to the Head of Nursing Services in 1993, on a previous admission, observing that “there are over half a dozen black boys in this clinic. I don’t know if you have realized that there are no Africans on your staff at the moment. We feel there should be at least two black persons in the medical or social work staff. For the obvious reasons of security and contentment for all concerned please do your best to remedy this appalling situation” (Independent Inquiry 2003, p. 9). On the evening of his fatal restraint following a violent disturbance on the ward, Bennett was heard saying to the nursing team “Get off me, get off me, I can’t breathe. Get off my throat” (Independent Inquiry 2003, p. 21).

In January 1999, Roger Sylvester died under police restraint in Haringay, London. The report of the inquest (Guardian 2003) relates that Sylvester:

“stopped breathing at the emergency psychiatric unit at St Anne’s hospital, Haringey, when six police officers held him down on the floor for about 20 minutes, St Pancras coroner’s court heard. He fell into a coma and died later at the Whittington hospital, north London. The court had heard that dangerous and unreasonable force was used and Mr Sylvester was handcuffed and sometimes restrained on his stomach.”

On 21 August 2008, Sean Rigg died of cardiac arrest and partial positional asphyxia under police restraint in Brixton, London. The Wikipedia summary of the circumstances of his death record that Rigg was chased by four police officers and

“was handcuffed and restrained in a prone, face down position as officers leant on him for eight minutes. Arrested for assaulting a police officer, public disorder and theft of a passport—which was actually his own—he was then placed face-down with his legs bent behind him in the caged rear section of a police van and transported to Brixton police station. During the journey “his mental and physical health deteriorated” and he was “extremely unwell and not fully conscious” when eventually taken out of the van. This followed a delay of ten minutes during which he was left handcuffed in a ‘rear stack’ position, unattended and unmonitored while the van sat outside the station in the car parking area.”

On 4 November 2013, Leon Briggs died under police restraint in Luton. According to a news report of the inquest (BBC 2021b):

The way police officers moved a restrained man who later died was “potentially dangerous” and against “strict guidance”, an inquest heard. Leon Briggs, 39, was restrained under the Mental Health Act on a street in Luton, handcuffed and placed in leg restraints on 4 November 2013. He was lifted face-down to a van and taken to Luton police station. He later became unconscious and died. An officer told the inquest carrying Mr Briggs face-down was “not ideal”.

The jury found that “there was a gross failure to provide Leon with basic medical attention and that there was a direct causal connection between this conduct and his death. They recorded a conclusion that his death was ‘contributed to by neglect’.”

We should pause here in the sequence to note that, in January 2017, the Angiolini Review report (commissioned by Theresa May) found that:

“57.  There is evidence of disproportionate deaths of BAME people in restraint related deaths. Any death involving a BAME victim who died following the use of force has the capacity to provoke community disquiet leading to a lack of public confidence and trust in the justice system. This can be exacerbated if people are not seen to be held to account, or if the misconduct process is opaque (Angiolini 2017, p. 15).”

Now we come to the fifth of these deaths: consider this BBC News report on the death of Kevin Clarke under police restraint in Lewisham, London in March 2018 (BBC 2021a):

“Mr Clarke had been lying on the ground and attempted to get to his knees before being restrained …. He was handcuffed and legs restraints were applied. Police body-worn video footage reveals Mr Clarke repeatedly told officers “I can’t breathe”, before being made to walk to an ambulance, still bound at the knees while barely conscious … .”

The final death in this sequence is perhaps the most well-known. On 25 May 2020, in Minneapolis, George Floyd was killed under police restraint. Here is the Wikipedia summary of witness accounts and video recordings taken at the scene:

“Floyd can be heard repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe”, “Please”, and “Mama”; Lane then asked for an ambulance for Floyd, “for one bleeding from the mouth”. Floyd repeated at least 16 times that he could not breathe. At one point a witness said: “You got him down. Let him breathe.” After Floyd said, “I’m about to die”, Chauvin told him to “relax”. An officer asked Floyd, “What do you want?”; Floyd answered, “Please, the knee in my neck, I can’t breathe.”


James Baldwin (to which very great writer, we can never return too often) once wrote that “when a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed” ([1963] 2017, p. 51). Derek Chauvin is now serving a 22.5 year sentence for second-degree murder. However, in the UK, it is a fact that:

“despite more than 1,700 deaths in police custody and following police contact since 1990 there has never been a successful prosecution of any police officer for murder or manslaughter (Coles 2021).”

192 of these deaths were of people racialized as BAME and this number (14%) reflects the overall population ratios in the UK as of 2011. However, BAME deaths in police custody involving restraint, use of force and mental health issues are in each category more than twice as likely compared to other deaths in custody. Coles, who is the Director of INQUEST, has also argued that “the disproportionality in the use of force against Black people adds to the irrefutable evidence of structural racism embedded in policing practices”.

A very recent United Nations Human Rights Commission report (United Nations 2021), commissioned in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, concludes:

“61. Behind today’s systemic racism, racial violence, dehumanization and exclusion, however, lies the lack of a formal acknowledgement of the responsibilities of States, institutions, religious groups, universities, business enterprises and individuals that engaged in or profited from, and that continue to profit from, the legacy of enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and colonialism”

and calls on States Parties to the UNCHR to take action thus:

“68. Listening to the voices of people of African descent, the need for a global transformative agenda for racial justice and equality is clear. The four-point agenda in the annex sets out the key changes that are needed, which have also been elaborated in the present report under the subheadings on the way forward. Comprehensively implemented, the agenda would:

 (a) Reverse the cultures of denial, dismantle systemic racism and accelerate the pace of action;

 (b) End impunity for human rights violations by law enforcement officials and close trust deficits;

 (c) Ensure that the voices of people of African descent and those who stand up against racism are heard and that their concerns are acted upon;

 (d) Confront legacies, including through accountability and redress.”

Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur (United Nations 2017) has commanded States Parties to the UNCRPD (United Nations 2006) to desist from all coercive practices in psychiatry and this would include ‘control and restraint’. The importance and urgency of the challenge to the status quo upheld by the racist State, and to the range of practices by which that status quo is maintained, cannot be overstated.

I am conscious of not having said anything new here as such and I hope this piece reaches a readership who may instantly recognize just how far behind the curve I have been – and, likely enough, still am. But I want to say that I’m taking notice and that taking notice is, I believe and trust, a creative antidote to practicing ignorance. Those great lambasters of restraint of trade and mealy-mouthed objectors to restraint of press freedoms that have been governing this country since the days of Empire are pursuing the active continuation of the practices of restraining entailed in slavery and the toxic ooze of it seeps out through every membrane of the body politic. And I wonder what happens to a ruling class, to use that term, when in order to keep power it has to (officially) renounce the practice that brought it such unimaginable riches and yet corrupted it so completely? What happens when institutional approval and statutory sanction for the handing down and passing on of misery and cruelty is withheld? Perhaps practices of cruelty on such a scale must somehow persevere and find outlets for expression, because such drives can never be sublimated.

Racist dog whistles are not ‘merely’ racist dog whistles. They tell us that nothing – nothing whatsoever – has changed in the mindset. And this brings us back to the beginning of this blog, and the need to take our leave of the present monarch’s present First Minister (and let’s take every opportunity to remind ourselves that it was the Royal Family in this country (albeit in those days not the Windsors themselves, but the Stuarts) that formalized the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the seventeenth century (hence the mind-boggling wealth now at the Windsors’ disposal)).

What, then, are we to make of the figure of the man whose remark apparently in passing set us off on such a journey? Perhaps the figure of Churchill may provide further illumination, if not the kind of light that anyone would much want shone…

For if associations to Churchill’s cane inexorably took us back to the ‘iron bit’, then associations to Churchill’s cigar lead inevitably to another pale, scruffy-blond-haired, ‘Aryan’, self-promoting, ‘Establishment’ (of the ‘in it yet not of it’ type), self-consciously ‘eccentric’, bonhomous, clowning, hob-nobbing, celebrity serial abuser; hiding in plain view, in the very apple of the public eye, on first-name terms with the world at large; impervious to questioning, immune to criticism; the full horror of his depradations and the full extent of the cover-up around him only emerging even partially into view after he had passed beyond reach of the law of this country, or indeed of any other earthly judgement….


Racial abuse. Let’s renounce it in ourselves. Let’s call it out in others, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly, privileged, supremacist head. Let’s be going along with it not one second longer.


Angiolini, E. (2017) Report of the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody.

Baldwin, J. ([1963] 2017) The Fire Next Time. London: Penguin.

Baldwin, J. (1972) No Name in the Street. London: Vintage.

Barker, P. (1998) The Regeneration Trilogy. London: Penguin.

BBC (2021a) ‘Kevin Clarke: Met Police apologises over restraint death’.

BBC (2021b) ‘Leon Briggs: Police and ambulance ‘failures’ in restraint death’.

Coles, D. (2021) ‘Deaths in detention: Why aren’t we learning lessons from UK deaths in police custody?’

Foucault, M. (1976) ‘Two lectures’. Translated by A. Fontana and P. Pasquino. In Gordon, C. (ed.) (1980) Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, pp. 78-108.

Gilroy, P. (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso.

Guardian (2003) ‘Detained man unlawfully killed by police’.

Guardian (2021) ‘Johnson proposes hi-vis chain gangs as part of crime plan’.

Harewood, D. (2021) Maybe I Don’t Belong Here. London: Bluebird.

Hassall, C. (1959) Edward Marsh, Patron of the Arts: A Biography. London: Longmans.

Independent Inquiry into the Death of David Bennett (2003).

Morrison, T. (1997) Beloved. London: Vintage.

Popescu, I. (2017) ‘Biting iron, forever smiling: the iron-bit, the wounded mouth, and un-silencing in Toni Morrison’s Beloved’. In A. Lobodziec and B.N. Fondo (eds) The Timeless Toni Morrison: The Past and The Present in Toni Morrison’s Fiction. A Tribute to Toni Morrison on Occasion of Her 85th Birthday. Oxford: Peter Lang.

Resler, M. (2019) ‘Systems of trauma: Racial trauma’. Issue brief.

United Nations (2006) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

United Nations (2017) Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health. UN General Assembly – A/HRC/35/21.

United Nations (2021) Promotion and protection of the human rights and
fundamental freedoms of Africans and of people of African
descent against excessive use of force and other human rights
violations by law enforcement officers
. A/HRC/47/53.
Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Whitehead, C. (2017) Underground Railroad. London: Fleet.

Of unhoused minds and the ‘personality disorder’ fallacy

“So Koestler condemned himself to homelessness. All that remained were the ideas he dragged around with him like Job…Home finally was mind; home was homelessness; Koestler was the homeless mind.” David Cesarani, Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998)

“The sufferer who frustrates a keen therapist by failing to improve is always in danger of meeting primitive human behaviour disguised as treatment” (Tom Main, 1957, ‘The Ailment’)

Recently, Barrelman gave a talk at the launch party of a book, in which he and a fellow Cynic have a chapter published. The book’s called Psychoanalytic Thinking on the Unhoused Mind. It’s put together by another comrade of ours – and a very fine volume it is too (this is the weblink if you’re interested).

Now, I get why the various chapters were collected under the rubric of ‘psychoanalytic’ and when I myself started off down this trail I admit that I hadn’t yet quite got over a lingering infection of Kleinitis that very briefly even threatened to develop into the rabid form of that ailment… However, as that other wandering Cynic once sang, ‘I’m younger than that now’ – and I find myself altogether more in the ‘psychosocial activism’ line these days.

Coming back to the main current of the whole ‘homelessness and ‘unhoused minds” project got me thinking about Cesarani’s famous rhetorical ending to his biography of Arthur Koestler – and also about another great twentieth century Central European Jewish author in the high literary tradition… Franz Kafka’s The Castle, as many of you may know, tells the story of K, whose profession ironically is that of land surveyor. K gets himself a gig in the eponymous castle – but no-one seems to know anything about it and he can never find the tradesmen’s entrance, nor can he find acceptance in the nearby village; and yet neither can he cannot go home.

As the following excerpt begins, K has been lying in wait, in the snow, in the yard outside the village Inn, to accost a fellow named Klamm: suspected to be a Castle official who could unravel K’s Gordian knot of longing, bewilderment and annihilation. K’s plan is derailed by a shaming encounter with a mysterious young gentleman (and accompanying flunkey) who orders him to move along and advises K that whether he waits or leaves, he will miss Klamm just the same…

“Then I’d rather miss him waiting’, K. said defiantly… K saw himself being left behind alone…both of them going very slowly, though, as if wishing to show K that it was still in his power to fetch them back.

Maybe he had that power, but it could have done him no good; fetching the sledge back meant banishing himself. So he stayed where he was, the only one standing his ground, but it was a victory that brought no joy…it seemed to K then as if all contact with him had been severed and he was now freer than ever before, no question about it, and might wait in this otherwise forbidden place for as long as he liked and had fought for and won this freedom as few others could have done and none might touch or banish him, barely even address him, but – this conviction was at least equally strong – as if at the same time there was nothing more futile, nothing more desperate than this freedom, this waiting, this invulnerability.”


My ancient ancestor, that homeless, wandering, Cynical-with-a-capital-‘C’, manic street preacher of ancient times, Diogenes the Dog, was once found, (down on his dodgy knees) begging before a statue. The townspeople asked him what he was up to (for this is their more or less bemused role in all such stories: they are the Chorus). ‘Oi! Diogenes!’ they cried. ‘What on earth are you doing down there? You’re not going to get very far with that statue, now, are you?’ Diogenes replied: ‘Can’t you see? I’m practising disappointment’.

Now, for K, permanently displaced and snowbound, outwith the Castle walls, disappointment in the ordinary sense is a practice in which he will become very well versed. He can’t come in from the cold, in any direction. The more hopefully he travels, the more disappointedly he doesn’t arrive. But what I especially appreciate about the story is the hint of possession and constancy about K as he makes his stand and stakes out his resistance. It’s the only place he can stand – and in a moment of autonomy and self-possession, he comes to a realisation about this, however fleetingly. He could be understood as refusing the ride he is ambiguously and ambivalently offered by the mysterious stranger…the stranger certainly experiences him as having chosen not to take up the offer…but it now seems to me that, for K, it’s not a question of refusal. It’s more that the ride just does not compute. It’s a wagon he can’t imagine jumping onto.

When we started riffing off of the story of Diogenes and Alexander, we constructed Diogenes as refusing Alexander’s offer of accommodation, in an expression of what Zizek called Bartlebian politics – ‘I prefer not to’. According to this way of seeing things, K is saying: ‘I prefer not to catch a ride on any sledge commanded by you, Mister’. He ‘prefers not to’ cede any power or to banish himself – or to draw upon the example of Antigone, whose position in relation to Creon, the tyrant of Thebes, is very similar: ‘I decline to recognise your secular, public authority in any domain that pertains to my private and personal values and allegiances…’.

I celebrate anyone who can take and articulate such a stand but I now think that this reading is not quite right – that K’s resistance is more important than his refusal. I think where K takes his stand and stands his ground (K and Diogenes and Antigone and Bartleby and, say, Greta Thunberg) is in the only place he can stand. He resists the force that would drag him away from his moment of autonomy into what would in essence be someone else’s idea of how his narrative should read. The ‘Bartlebian’ moment is then the realisation of this – not the practice itself, but the reflexive consciousness of the power of the practice. Nobody can twist his arm into banishing himself.

The idea of ‘refusal’ remains significant – but its significance lies in the experience of the offerer, when he feels that the offer of accommodation is refused. It feels like refusal to the offerer, when his offer is not accepted. But the object of the offer may or may not have refused it. We know only this much: that the offer has not been taken up – at least, not on the terms in which it was made. The object of the offer isn’t ‘failing to improve’: it’s more like they’re resisting ‘improvement’.

One of the things that got me thinking about this was being part of a treatment team, being party to an offer that was constructed as having been refused. This was on an inpatient ward where the ‘objects’ of the offer were malnourished or starving people (mis?)constructed as or (mis?)understood to be suffering from ‘eating disorders’.

An entry would go on the progress notes: ‘food was refused’. Such was certainly the experience of the offerer – the nursing staff, for example, who have walked down the corridor with a tray in their hands and set it down beside the ‘patient’ – and then found themselves walking back down the corridor again, still carrying on their tray the untouched plates of food.

But I began to understand – and in fact, the ‘patients’ very patiently took my education in hand, in this regard – I began to understand that sometimes the sufferer, out of sheer terror, or bewildered and bewildering and circular rumination, hadn’t been able to come to a decision. The offer just did not compute. Like K in the snow, they had been able neither to move towards the offer or away from it. They had simply stood the only ground they knew how to stand upon in that moment. The offer – the offerer, even – had been resisted. It had not necessarily been refused.


I think it does also behove us to resist. By ‘us’ I generally mean everyone, when it comes to pernicious discourses of any kind, but I particularly mean, for present purposes, those of ‘us’ who do the offering in such settings (or the writing about the offering). It may be, that as our practice develops, we may risk losing our compass – fluidity is our friend and rigidity our enemy, but fluidity is not the same as going with the flow.

For my part, as I get older (and older – or, remembering Bob Dylan again, do I mean younger?), I realise there’s stuff going round that I just can’t be doing with any longer. I don’t think that I mean this in self-deluded ‘heroic’ identification with some Wilsonian constructed outsider; but rather because it simply won’t wash and I decline to be aligned with it any longer. The lies and venality of our political classes, to give a pressing example: but the list is long, and I’m not here to have a rant. However, the one I particularly wanted to end by mentioning, by way of publicly correcting the record, is the deployment and weaponisation, within the system of care, of the contested diagnosis – the fallacious concept – of ‘personality disorder’.

Now the record needs correcting, because although those early papers were written in ‘critical’ mode, nonetheless, I’m sorry to say, the reader would possibly have come away imagining that there really was such a thing as ‘personality disorder’ and that all it needed was a spot of reframing. But it needs to be said very clearly that it just will no longer do to be telling people that the problem with ‘them’ is that ‘their’ personality is ‘disordered’, and that the remedy for this is a little more of that much-evoked and apocryphally ‘containing’ secular deity, Laura Norder. There is, in particular, and by logical extension, no such thing – no such illness entity – as ‘borderline personality disorder’. Note carefully that it therefore can’t be meaningfully researched, such as to test possible treatments for said non-existent ailment.

This is a blog and not a book (note to self: must write a book some time!) and so I can’t give you the whole lowdown as to why in the not so distant future the whole concept of personality disorder will only be found lurking in dusty box files in mildewed archives tagged ‘pseudo-scientific colonialist claptrap of the Industrial Age’. But a little history goes a very long way…

So next time someone uses the term ‘personality disorder’ about someone else, recall, if you will, Prichard’s 1835 definition of ‘moral insanity’, in which a diagnostic entity is inferred from a judgement on presenting behaviour and ‘the individual is found to be incapable…of conducting himself with decency and propriety in the business of life’ (this was before the present Conservative government was even a twinkle in the eye); and recollect that the formulation of ‘moral insanity’ was the medical ticket into expert witness status in the criminal justice system as psychiatry emerged as a distinct profession at the beginning of the nineteenth century (here I am greatly indebted to another fellow psychosocialist, David Jones, for illuminating some of this in his own comprehensive history of the development and deployment of the term…).. Remember the 1938 pronouncement of the psychoanalyst Adoph Stern that ‘it is well known that a large group of patients fit frankly neither into the psychotic nor into the psychoneurotic group, and that this border line group of patients is extremely difficult to handle effectively by any psychotherapeutic method’ – for this is the moment when the term ‘borderline’ came into the frame.

Fast forward then to 1980, amidst the tsunami surge of the neoliberal turn, when suddenly there was no such thing as society, the jobless we created were either ‘feckless’ or ‘on their bikes’ and only ‘hard-working families’ were beneficiaries of government policy: and the American Psychiatric Association published DSM-III with the caveat and proviso that its system was so imprecise that it should never be used for forensic or insurance purposes (and then fast forward to the sales figures for DSM-III, which very quickly persuaded those august gentleman of the APA that there might be mileage in more classifications and more disorders).

Pinch yourself on the cheek, therefore, next time you hear the term ‘borderline personality disorder’ and remember that it’s not yet forty years old and has been more or less discredited for at least half the duration of its (non-)existence. Remember Main’s warning about the risk of ‘primitive human behaviour’ being disguised as treatment. And ask yourself if this might not be a Bartlebian moment after all.


I’ve stopped going along with the whole ‘there is such a thing’ discourse (as far as I can: I’m sure I can still be called out on this) and I’ve started actively resisting it. It’s kind of a liberating feeling (and I sincerely hope that it’s not only me that gets liberated, of course). You know how the way to negotiate the perilous web of a supermarket is consciously blinking, so that you don’t get stoned on the sounds, scents and settings spun by the marketing spiders as they pre-plot your purchases for you? It’s the same with all that stuff about borderline personality disorder. Once you start to resist, you’ll start to wonder how you ever got taken in. If there’s a single discursive practice we can pick out and say, well, no offence to Diogenes, but that old Dog has surely had its day, it’s what Edward Said in Orientalism called ‘othering’: by which he meant ‘disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region’.

To which I would add the prefix: ‘toxic’.

Toxic othering: there’s much too much of it about. It’s like air pollution: you get so used to it, you don’t even know you’re dying. The only remedy is a zero emissions policy. When it comes to the homeless, the displaced, the dispossessed, let this new book, and maybe in some small way also this blog, be some part of the process, not so much of psychoanalytic reformulation, but of a psychosocietal process of resistance and realisation – I hope that a range of emergent practices may coalesce and cohere and crystallise (but not solidify) around it, as did K’s awareness in the snow – let’s all, indeed and after all, prefer not to go along with it a moment longer.

“Hit the ground!” On the (im)possibility of exhaustion

 “In German, Erlebnis … can also refer to an intense disruptive episode, one that makes an indelible impression, changing a life course, the kind of experience not so much integrated into a life but which relegates the old life to the past and inaugurates a new sensibility…”

(From Defiant Earth, Clive Hamilton, 2017 p. ix)

“The problem is that the problem is us.”

(From Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton, 2015 p. 68)

“…this other Great War about which we are learning, stunned, that it has already taken place – and that we have probably lost it…”

(From Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, Bruno Latour, 2017 p. 10)


On the evening of Friday January 18th a massive fireball killed scores of people as they sought to fill makeshift containers from a leaking oil pipeline in Tlahuelilpan, in the state of Hidalgo in Mexico. Incinerated corpses littered the fields around the place where the leak was being exploited. On the webpage of the news article (Guardian 19/1/19) you can watch video footage from earlier in the afternoon as people gather eagerly and purposefully around the fuel fountain, covered in petrol as they jostle for position to fill their containers. The news article goes on to report that “screams could be heard later as a fireball shot into the sky. ‘Hit the ground,’ one person yelled at those fleeing.”

Such pipelines are notoriously and dangerously vulnerable to leakage but in parts of Mexico there is also an established practice of intentionally rupturing pipelines in order to steal the fuel – those who lead such practices are known as huachicoleros. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador leads a governmental initiative to eliminate fuel theft, deploying the army to guard Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex, the State-owned oil company) installations and to lead the fight against the gangs that have developed to exploit the availability of stolen fuel. Pemex reported 42 ruptures of pipelines daily through 2018.

It is perhaps quite tricky to ascertain whose goods have been stolen; who here is the ‘joker’, or who the ‘thief’. Does the oil belong to the Earth; to Gaia? To humankind? To the Mexican Government? To Pemex? To the Mexican people? Is the thief in the story the impoverished peasant risking his life to fill his jerrycan? The gang member profiting from the trade in fuel? The oil company executive (and/or shareholder) profiting from the trade in fuel? The government guarding its supply lines in order to ensure its own income streams? Or perhaps your correspondent, the horrified petrol consumer across the Atlantic Ocean, reading the news on his multi-plastic laptop in his centrally heated but indifferently insulated London flat…?


On January 29th (to arrive at my second story) it was announced that a consortium of carbon speculators (Total (French), Edison (Italian) and CNOOC (Chinese)) had identified a new gas field under the North Sea with potential for the extraction of the energy equivalent of 250 million barrels of oil (both these stories, by the way, prompted me to ponder the potential bathos inherent in writing this blog under the name ‘Barrelman’). The Glengorm field is the eleventh largest find in the UK in the last thirty years. The article reports that the gas is in a reservoir with high pressure and high temperatures, meaning it will be more costly to produce than other gasfields (this rather glibly glosses the escalating ecological costs of extraction in hard to access fields).

A spokesperson for Total Oil said the find was evidence of the company’s “capacity to create value in a mature environment” (make pretty much whatever you will, of the use of the words ‘value’ and ‘mature’ in this phrase). Then a Mr Andy Samuel, the chief executive of the UK’s statutory regulator, the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), said that this was “very exciting news” and added that since the UK continental shelf is still estimated to hold a further 10bn-20bn barrels of oil and gas, there is therefore “every chance of yet more significant finds”.

You can check out the OGA here: You may even wish to drop them a line…You will find that the statutory task of the OGA is “to regulate, influence and promote the UK oil and gas industry … The development of a series of strategies represents a key step in setting the strategic direction of how the OGA and industry will work together to maximise economic recovery (MER) from the United Kingdom Continental Shelf (UKCS)”. (Observe, if you will, that capital letter ‘M’, for ‘Maximise’, in the rather conveniently euphemised acronym ‘MER’ – in case you were wondering, it doesn’t stand for ‘Minimise, in line with the Government’s obligations drastically to reduce emissions, as signatory to the 2016 Paris Agreement’…)

Those OGA people sure do have themselves a strategy, folks, and it has to do with something they like to think of as ‘asset stewardship’: “The MER UK Strategy underpins our work and came into force in March 2016. It describes how MER should operate in practice, setting out a legally binding central obligation to take the steps necessary to secure the maximum value of economically recoverable hydrocarbons.” You may possibly be more alarmed than chuffed to hear that the OGA professes to have “strict controls in place to ensure that operators manage the risk of induced seismicity from such operations” (high pressure, high temperature reservoirs, anyone?).

Well: frack me sideways!…I hope that my own weatherworn old barrel can survive a spot of drilling-induced seismicity – and yours too, dear Reader – but no doubt we are in capable hands…all those earthquakes we in the UK have recently been having are no doubt nothing much to fret about… (see the ‘fracking’ references below, including OGA gloss on the possible harm, and also Naomi Klein’s extensive analysis in This Changes Everything, eg pp. 213-17).


Sadly, there’s no shortage of news items touching on ideas about climate change and the ways in which carbon-fuelled capitalism and its projected consequences damage or threaten to destroy the biosphere. So why these two particular stories, Barrelman, I hear you ask? I have two responses; one is to say that in a moment I have a story of my own that I want to add to the picture.

I want first of all to observe that both these news stories subliminally proclaim the inexhaustibility of those resources in pursuit of the plunder of which we organise ourselves: either societally, in corporations, or in other kinds of sociopathic gangs.

It’s often suggested or assumed (or maybe that’s just Donald Trump I’m thinking of here) that there is something peculiarly American about the American Dream and the American idea or ideology of ‘Manifest Destiny’ that emerged into public discourse in the mid-nineteenth century. The journalist John L. O’Sullivan coined the term in an article published in 1845 in which he was arguing for the annexation of Texas to the Union, in pursuit of “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions” (see my 2014 essay on the ‘Evangeline Oak’). Much later on, in 1992, President Bush proclaimed in similarly emphatic and entitled tones that “the American way of life is not negotiable” (cited in Latour 2017).

The westwards expansion towards the Pacific of the nation State that emerged out of the war of independence of the New England colonies of the eastern seaboard – and the genocide of the indigenous peoples encountered along the way – can be understood not only in the particular historical, geographical, socio-political, technological, ethnic and demographic context of the wagons rolling west (the American population nearly doubled in the two decades from 1840 at the same time as the printing presses and the railroad tracks multiplied). O’Sullivan’s words and the ideology they articulate also stand for an imaginary manifesto of imperialism generally and of Western imperialism and carbon-fuelled capitalism in particular (and it is but a very thin veneer that separates his portentous phrase from the speeches of Hitler on the rightful claim of the German people to its lebensraum, only ninety years or so later).

In the age of Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin, Orbán, Erdoğan, Assad and Brexit – of neoliberalism run rampant and off the rails – it is still the imperialist ideology of manifest destiny that drives the impulse to drill in Alaska or to frack in the great National Parks of the Western United States or derogate from the Paris Agreement – or has the Canadian government calling in the Mounties to disperse First Nation protests against the systematic desecration that is the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands – or that opens up the Glengorm field or the Cuadrilla site at Preston New Road near Blackpool for exploitation, or causes us to export our used rubber tyres to India for burning (Guardian 30 January 2019) – or (a quarter of a century ago, but nothing much has changed…) that saw Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight colleagues hung in 1995 by the Nigerian government, at the behest of or with the connivance of Big Oil, for their activism protesting Shell Oil’s pollution of his homeland of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta – or that (at the time of writing) drives Theresa May and her Churchill-worshipping cohort-in-cahoots to believe God is on the side of a no-deal Brexit that will restore Britain’s imperial ‘glories’ [sic] (see also my barrelblog last month on this theme).


One thing we can learn from this overview is that the Western, whether in film or in literature or song, may be a significant genre for understanding the relationship between capitalism and the Earth System. John Wayne riding shotgun for the stagecoach (or for his platoon in the south-east Asian jungle in The Green Berets) embodies manifest destiny and slaughter in the service of capital, be it buffalo or Native Americans (the actor himself is on record as stating ‘I believe in white supremacy’) – whereas the revisionist Western, from Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller onwards, tends to be suffused with melancholy – what Renee Lertzman calls ‘environmental melancholia’ – for the loss (the destruction, in fact) of that sense of clear limitless immensity you might yet perceive a vestigial trace of in Monument Valley at sunset or along the high passes into Yellowstone or Yosemite. Henry Fonda’s enforcer in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is the amoral gun for hire for what Bruno Latour calls ‘globalization minus’ or Pope Francis called ‘the globalization of indifference’ – we’re pushing the railroad through and we recognise no boundaries and know no limits and no suffering shall deflect us from our purpose – whereas Clint Eastwood’s rebel drifter in The Outlaw Josey Wales, gathering about him his motley ragtag multicultural crew of fellow wanderers, respecting the land and the land’s custodians, represents ‘globalisation plus’ in all its creative potential.

In John Williams’ (may we say?) ‘revisionist Western’ novel Butcher’s Crossing (spoiler alert!) a young man, Will, quits his studies at Harvard and heads west ‘to see as much of the country as I can’. He bankrolls a party of hunters who head out on a long trek in search of a remote Colorado valley where are reputed to roam a vast herd of buffalo who have avoided the hail of bullets that have decimated their brethren of the open plains. Will’s innocence is washed away in blood as a season of slaughter ensues: the entire herd is massacred and the buffalo hides pile up but the hunters are then snowed in for the winter – as though the mountains protested the carnage and exacted their own tax upon the ‘produce’. The following spring many of their prizes are lost on their arduous journey back to the ‘buffalo town’ of Butcher’s Crossing – whereupon, they discover that the bottom has fallen out of the market in buffalo hide they had been so sure would outlast the animals themselves. It was all just a craze – their wagonloads of animal skins are worthless.

I have yet to see this novel referenced when the literature of climate fiction is being catalogued and yet it vividly and harrowingly captures and illuminates this ‘Western’ dialectic between, on the one hand, the pure jouissance of techno-industrialist capitalism, and what Naomi Klein calls ‘extractivism’ (that which drives the OGA, it would seem) run rampant; and, on the other hand, the melancholy of devastated ecologies left in its wake (for a pellucid exploration of the impact on the Crow Nation of the loss of the buffalo, see Jonathan Lear’s 2008 text on culture collapse and radical hope). By jouissance I here intend to evoke what Žižek elaborates as the Lacanian ‘superego’ injunction which is covertly the very opposite of the Freudian ‘civilizing’ prohibitory force within the psyche. Jouissance has to do with ‘enjoy yourself’; ‘get it while you can’; ‘you can’t take it with you when you go’; ‘the best thing about the Earth is if you poke holes in it oil and gas come out’ (the aptly named Republican Congressman Stockman in 2013, quoted by Klein); or, notoriously, ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’. This last quote is apocryphally attributed to General Philip Sheridan, the veteran commander of the American Civil War who instigated ‘scorched earth’ warfare in pursuit of Robert E. Lee. Sheridan later presided over massacres both of the bison and of the Native Americans of the Great Plains – and then only partially redeemed himself, in later life, by defending the lands that would eventually become Yellowstone National Park against the claims of agents of capitalism and extractivism even more rampant than he.


My other reason for picking out those two news stories? My father died in the very early hours of Boxing Day morning, 2018 – just about six weeks ago. He’d had a long illness – he had a degenerative neurological condition and had been first restricted in his movements and then immobilised and then bedbound in a nursing care home while Alzheimer’s Disease had taken his memory of us and, in some sense, our memory of him. In early December he seemed to simply stop eating (did he somehow will this, in some deep internal nook or cranny of remaining consciousness? Did he simply kind of forget? Did he get frightened of being fed? I have no idea…). He contracted pneumonia and (perhaps) this brought a mercifully rapid end to what might have been a very miserable and extended long haul (but who am I to say?). I beg permission to set out a few thoughts about what passed between us, as another way to illuminate my theme.

After about the first twelve years of my life, I was not close to my father – if by ‘close’ is meant, able to manage and savour a mutual sense of intimacy, enjoy each other’s company, pick up where we left off, know each other’s minds. We were close in the sense that he was my father and half of me is him – close in the sense that we couldn’t bear to be ‘close’ with each other. So I don’t want you to think of me as grief-stricken or overwhelmed – not exactly, anyway. It’s been unexpectedly an upheaval – I know this to be an expected thing, in other people’s lives – but not in my own. I find myself not at all knowing what this event is doing, taking place in my life. It’s somehow not supposed to be there, but somehow, precisely because of this illusion, nothing is ever going to be quite the same again, now that it has revealed itself as having been in prospect all along. My Erlebnis, perhaps, to borrow the word from the quote that opens this piece…

In my latency years –  from, say, 5 to 11 – I don’t recollect all that much but I do seem to remember that he was pretty much my hero. What he said was right (and what he said was law, even if it might transiently have felt unfair). My Dad was stronger and cleverer and wiser and lovelier than anyone else’s Dad, and that was that. In public – at school, at family gatherings – I modelled myself on him and worked hard at my studies because that was what he expected and I’m sure it never occurred to me that there was any other option. There’s pictures of me in blazer and tie and side parting, aged about eight going on eighty, looking not one little bit like I live in a barrel – a miniature version of him that if anything I believe I was looking to perfect, rather than reject.

Around the age of thirteen, the Adolescent Spring surged its way along the southern Mediterranean seaboard of my familial bonds. Like many an old school Arab tyrant, my father had not ever heard of such a thing as adolescence among his people; had not prepared for it in his own mind and was therefore utterly ill-equipped and confounded when it exploded into life before him. It’s maybe a measure of just how high were the pedestals on which the statues of the nation’s hero had been placed, in the hierarchical structures of my mind, that their plummet into pieces on the ground was so precipitous. Violent was the revolt, then – and violent, too (but ineffectual), the reciprocal early attempts to quash the uprising.

I repudiated my father – damning was my disdain of him. For a couple of years I could scarcely look at him. I elected to remake myself in my own image – a grandiose project! – or at any rate, to cast myself in the mould of new masters. He never repudiated me, although I’m sure he was less than well pleased with his unexpected usurpation. Later tentative and awkward olive branches from my father-in-exile (to extend the analogy) were, I am ashamed to say, pretty much scornfully rebuffed and rare indeed were my own equivalent moves to make peace – was I not after all the wronged party? I was prodigal and proud – perhaps I should say arrogant, since in retrospect I have no idea what I was so proud of. I strayed far from the pathway that had been set out for me and on occasion, disoriented in the gloom, wandered perilously close to the cliff-edge. From time to time I was not so proud as to rule out coming home to ask for help, which was always made available. But by then there was no longer any shared language with which to process or metabolise any moment of rapprochement.

I know on one level I’m giving myself a hard time here and that we are all allowed life crises in adolescence (and even in adulthood!). I also don’t want to say that this rupture was the ‘end of history’ for the two of us. Conflict drifted into wary circling and then gradually towards a surface geniality that suited us both well enough for our different reasons. At some point along the way I was helped to the realisation that maybe not everything was his fault and he was living by his own lights and steering his own path as best he could; that after all he was my father and half of him was me. Those deeper longings of father and son went largely unavowed and unmet, but diplomatic relations were restored, even if there was no talk of a return to power.

It saddens me to think that by the time things had settled down into this unsatisfactory but mostly peaceful accommodation, the early signs of neurodegenerative illness were already upon him – he knew something of his doom, even if I was unconscious of it. There’s always another time for the Great Conversation, but the seasons flourish and fade and the years fall away and ‘suddenly’ it’s too late and there was my father, first wheelchair- and then bed-bound, incontinent, not knowing who I was or remembering anything much at all about me except a nagging feeling that at some point I had disappointed him. I think he was revealed to me on his deathbed, almost more than he was in life – naked and vulnerable – my father, in his own right – and (selfishly speaking, of course) a unique and irreplaceable resource, exhausted.


You can see where I’m going with this. Many voices have spoken to their own Erlebnis in relation to the climate crisis (one such story that you can find in the public domain is told by Paul Hoggett, right at the start of this clip: For is not this new and familiar story of mine the very quintessence of environmental melancholia? Did my practice in relation to my father not in essence embody a kind of grim extractivism in which both the internal and external resources he represented (the father-in-my-mind as well as the father-on-the-end-of-the-phone) were indifferently available to me either to be tapped or to be squandered? Do I not deny both my parentage in Gaia, my Cosmopolitan species-membership (Diogenes would turn in his grave!), and the finite mortality and exhaustibility of those parental resources, every time I turn my key in the ignition of whatever real or metaphorical piece of carbon-fuelled technology most powerfully excites my transient fancy?

Slavoj Žižek, in his own analysis of what he calls the primarily ecologically-driven ‘apocalyptic zero-point’ of the global capitalist system, observes that “the limitation of our freedom that becomes palpable with global warming is the paradoxical outcome of the very exponential growth of our freedom and power, that is, of our growing ability to transform nature around us, up to and including destabilizing the very framework for life” (2011 p. 333). Neil Young (that great if erratic songwriter of Westerns both revisionist and, on occasion, decidedly old school) proclaims that we “got a man of the people/says ‘keep hope alive’/got fuel to burn/got roads to drive”. Do not we as a nation or a species, find ourselves ‘destabilizing the very framework for life’ every time that we plunder a pipeline – or build one? The men in suits celebrating the ‘find’ in Glengorm are more responsible for the plunder of the Earth System than those impoverished desperate people who burned to death at the end of that petroleum-fuelled Bacchanale in Tlahuelilpan, but the ailment is surely the same and I know my own complicity: my own carbon footprint remains indefensibly in the general category of ‘wanton’.

Have we not all been guilty of prodigally postponing that Great Conversation with our planet-parent that might have offered redemption, back in the day, only to discover (as we did yesterday) that (for example) fully one third of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya icecap, the greatest concentration of ice outside of the two poles, is already lost? Is not climate disaster the very thing that somehow was not supposed to be there, and is it not precisely because of this illusion, that nothing is ever going to be quite the same again, now that it has revealed itself as having been in prospect all along…? The only difference between the personal and the eco-political in this rhetoric is the crucial one: that human beings really are mortal, whereas the human species and the global climate, as two parts of the Earth System whole, are only being destabilized into crisis or collapse, because of the irresponsible abuse of accelerating power by the human species – which is of course why we have now got ourselves a whole geological Age, the Athropocene, named after us…


Žižek arranged the five chapters of Living in the End Times to accord with the five stages of grief set out by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Lertzman (2015 p.6) writes about environmental melancholia as unresolved mourning, “wherein one may be ‘frozen’ or otherwise arrested due to lack of acknowledgement or recognition of what has been lost”. She adds that the sense of loss can be ‘anticipatory’ and that melancholia can then be all the more frozen and disorienting and unresolved. This goes to the question running through all of the stories in this piece, which I think has to do with the varying difficulties in knowing about loss at the emotional-thinking level (rather than in a split off way, either cognitively or affectively) according to whether the loss is foreseen, perceived, experienced or remembered. Severe emotional trauma can cause disruptions in the field of time – perhaps this is somehow true at the species and Earth System level also. Maybe this is how it comes about that, as Latour points out, we can be sleepwalking into a war we’ve already lost.

There are certainly powerful voices now to be heard, mobilising the available empirical evidence in the service of grim analyses and dark forebodings of the possibility or even probability of exhaustion. Hamilton asserts that “we must concede the material possibility of our own extinction, or at least the collapse of civilized ways of life, as a result of our own actions” (2017 p. 37). Jem Bendell’s text on the necessity of ‘deep adaptation’ (2018 p. 11) argues that “the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war…When we contemplate this possibility, it can seem abstract…But when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water running out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go.” The full text, available online but not in published print, comes with a health warning just about the consequences of reading it. We are hitting the ground and hitting it hard.

Roy Scranton predicated his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene upon his own Erlebnis as a soldier in the 2003 Iraq war and his conclusion is succinct: “We’re fucked. The only questions are how soon and how badly” (2015 p. 16).

I think I may be finally starting to have a sense of how badly.



Adlam, J. (2014) ‘The Evangeline Oak: of Lost Loves and Found Objects.’ Free Associations, 66, July 2014.

Bendell, J. (2018) ‘Deep adaptation: a map for navigating climate tragedy.’

Francis (2015) Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care of our Common Home.

Hamilton, C. (2017) Defiant Earth. Cambridge: Polity.

Klein, N. (2012) This Changes Everything. London: Penguin.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Latour, B. (2017) Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity.

Latour, B. (2018) Down to Earth – Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity.

Lear, J. (2008) Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Harvard: Harvard.

Lertzman, R. (2015) Environmental Melancholia. London: Routledge.

O’Sullivan, J.L. (1845) ‘Annexation’, The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17: 5-10.

Scranton, R. (2015) Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. San Francisco: City Lights.

Williams, J. ([1960] 2014) Butcher’s Crossing. London: Vintage.

Žižek, S. (2011) Living in the End Times. London: Verso.

On fracking:

On ‘migrants’, climate change, doublethink and Brexit

“Even a Diogenes has the right to a barrel…” (Bruno Latour, from ‘Down to Earth – Politics in the New Climatic Regime’)

“I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame…I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message – ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ – because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.” (Hilary Clinton, November 2018)

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated.” (George Orwell, from 1984)


Two articles occupied the front page of The Guardian on Saturday December 29th (alongside a picture of Twiggy…). “Councils pay for rough sleepers to leave town”, the first of these announced (or muttered…you could tell it had been tricky to strike the right note…). 83 councils had purchased 6810 travel vouchers for purposes of ‘reconnecting’ street homeless people to their ‘areas of origin’. Local authorities said the policy was pursued on a voluntary basis only – rough sleepers felt they had no choice and reported being sent places they had never been before.

‘Experts’ apparently ‘advised’ that “without support and accommodation, the policy does not resolve homelessness, but moves it to another area”.

Well, yup, o experts, that is indeed pretty much the nub of it.

The second piece bore this headline: “[Sajid] Javid declares migrant boats a ‘major incident'”. 106 ‘migrants’, many of them reported to be Iranian, had been detained in the Channel since Christmas Day and the Home Secretary had curtailed his Christmas holiday in South Africa.

This was not (you might fondly have imagined) to make sure there was ‘room at the Inn’ for these desperate wayfarers, but rather to appoint a ‘gold commander’ (take that, annoying unwanted ‘economic migrants’!) to deal with the growing crisis (ie get them back across the Channel and deter them and others from attempting the crossing) and to ask the French interior minister Christophe Castaner for an urgent (pre-Brexit?) chat about the situation.

On New Year’s Day it was announced that two extra Border Force cutters would be deployed pour décourager les autres. Javid made various noises about the nautical perils involved in the crossing and then got to the point he is there for: “I want to send a very strong signal to people who do think about making this journey – we will do everything we can to make sure it is not a success, in the sense that I don’t want people to think that if they leave a safe country like France that they can get to Britain and just get to stay … our job here is to make sure this doesn’t turn into a new route for ever-increased illegal migration [note: migration is not illegal!], so I want to stop it now as much as I possibly can.”

It was thus clear that the cutters had been deployed because the treacherous waters of the English Channel were no longer doing their job of being the ‘Border Force’ well enough.


These two stories are connected by underlying individual and collective tragedies in human lives and indeed it is striking how little sense of tragedy gets communicated in the news stories or in the responses of the various authorities. But the particular point I want to pick up here is that in both stories, the responses of the authorities are located in a deeply-rooted piece of system or societal doublethink.

This doublethink is contained not only in the idea, common to policymakers in both stories, that there might be ‘somewhere else’ for displaced people to go – it is also inherent in the idea that there are people in these stories who somehow or other are not displaced.

The housed are still constructing themselves as the housed in relation to an outgroup who are unhoused and feeling better about, more securely housed in their housedness, as they always have done. At the level of the nation state, this is located in the idea of a border, over which the nation state has control and therefore the final say on who can cross the border and who must stay outside – or, to put it the other way round, who can stay inside the border and who must leave. At the level of the borough council, it is this idea that drives the policy of paying to send rough sleepers ‘somewhere else’.

This idea of a controlled border was never an absolute truth but we could perhaps nonetheless think of this as the defining construct of the Holocene age – that age of relative climatic stability that for ten millennia has framed and enabled that phenomenon we call ‘human civilisation’ – that age which eventuated and reached its dénouement, over the last three hundred of those ten thousand years, in the Enlightenment, the Age of Empire, the Industrial Revolution and the great drive of carbon-fuelled capitalism towards what Latour argues was the chimerical horizon of ‘globalisation’.

In the Anthropocene age now upon us – the age in which human beings are understood to be the main agents acting upon the climate and in which, perhaps more importantly, the climate – the behaviour of the Earth – is understood to be the main agent acting upon humankind’s chances of survival – in the Anthropocene, this idea no longer has any ground left to hold. Carbon particles observe no boundaries.

Here is Latour again, worth quoting at some length:

“Most of our fellow citizens…understand perfectly well that the question of migrants puts their dreams of a secure identity in danger…The climate crisis is forcing people they do not welcome to cross their frontiers; hence the response: ‘Let’s put up impenetrable borders and we’ll escape from the invasion!’

But…the New Climatic Regime has been sweeping across all our borders for a long time, exposing us to all the winds, and no walls we can build will keep these invaders out.

If we want to defend our affiliations, we shall have to identify these migrations also, migrations without form or nation that we know as climate, erosion, pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction. Even if you seal the frontiers against two-legged refugees, you cannot prevent these others from crossing over.

‘But then is no one at home any longer?’

No, as a matter of fact. Neither State sovereignty nor inviolable borders can take the place of politics any longer.”


So then: welcome to 2019, and Fortress Britain, the ‘armed lifeboat’ with its Border Force and its threats and posturing, battening down the hatches and affecting not to worry who gets caught in the incoming hurricane. It would seem that the British government is of a mind with Hilary Clinton in her finding that the lesson to be drawn from the rise of populism is that Europe should have been less hospitable to climate change refugees (for this is what ‘they’ are…).

And this of course is the whole point of Brexit, right? Climate migrants are understood to be a plague, and Brexit the quarantine strategy. ‘Bad luck, our erstwhile European friends, but you’re already contaminated and there’s no saving you now. So long – it’s been real, but we gotta go…’

When the Referendum was first called, I believed that the case for Remain lay squarely in the necessity of maintaining solidarity with the European project that had bound together the major Powers since the post-WW2 reconstruction – that George Steiner’s Europe was a Europe worth preserving. In the wake of the vote and the accelerating disarray of the last year, I became convinced that the central issue and the overwhelming argument for Remain was the Irish Border and the honouring of the post-imperial compact that had brought a tenuous but creative peace to those troubled lands.

But it’s now clear to me that I have been underestimating the catastrophic consequences of Brexit. Brexit is nothing more or less than a desperate flailing and utterly doomed exercise in climate denial and doublethink.  If Britain (and indeed the rest of the English-speaking world) pursues the ‘logic’ of Brexit and fixes machine guns to the rails of the lifeboat rather than distributing lifebelts, the waters will rise and consume us all.

The last word goes to Fred, a voice of reason on the streets of Dover, reported in the follow-up to the ‘lifeboat crisis’ story we began with.

Numerous voices complained that the wrecked lifeboat was an eyesore and that the desperate travellers were ‘economic migrants’ and ‘benefits scroungers’. Now, this is the language our masters and our media have promulgated and it’s not for me to judge people for their fearful responses to the incoming storm. But here’s Fred, and he has a point to make that I think we all urgently need to grasp and understand and take on board:

“If we were in a similar situation, from a war-torn country and trying to make a better life for ourselves, we would do the same thing…But people don’t think about that. In a way, we are all migrants…”



For factual correction of official and media commentary on the crossings, see this from the Refugee Council:

Latour, B. (2018) Down to Earth – Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity.

Orwell, G. (1949) 1984. London: Penguin Modern Classics.

Steiner, G. (2015) The Idea of Europe. London: Overlook Duckworth.




On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the closure of Henderson Hospital Democratic Therapeutic Community

Alexander     Dost thou not know that I am able to give thee a kingdom?

Diogenes      I know thou art able, if I had one, to take it from me; and I shall never place any value on that which such as thou art can deprive me of. …

Alexander     … for which purpose thou hast forsworn society, and art retired to preach to trees and stones.

Diogenes      I have left society, because I cannot endure the evils I see and detest in it.

From “A Dialogue between Alexander the Great, and Diogenes the Cynic” by Henry Fielding (1743)

Henderson April 2008 005

On 23 April 2008 at 2.00pm, a certain NHS Mental Health Trust closed the Henderson Hospital Democratic Therapeutic Community on a ‘temporary’ basis – pleading or otherwise peddling the usual piddling managerialist alibis and nostrums.

Even if you weren’t there, you can guess the sort of thing they said. What’s a fellow to do, we were – and are still – invited to consider, when he runs a big business and he can’t secure his cash flow? Our hands are tied. It’s no longer financially viable … and so forth … (if you can bear to look, some of it is laid out in the weblink listed at the bottom here). It’s been the same old song, for many years now, and it never lets up (or lets on) (or lets anyone off) and at some point you just know you’re going to hear those two dread words – ‘luxury flats’ – and another expanse of the Attlee/Bevan post-WW2 welfare settlement will have gone down with all hands on deck and the officers in the lifeboat, to the sound of cash tills singing ‘ker-ching!’ and developers popping corks – and also, somewhere at the edge of audibility, the continuing suffering of the marginalised and traumatised and dispossessed and excluded …


I was there. A bit player: not one of the residents, or the residential team; not one of the potential candidates for admission suddenly denied an opening – but I was there through the death-throes of the community and I was there the day it was finally evacuated and boarded up. I was working for the Henderson Outreach Service team: it was my first NHS job. I started there in April 2001 and was there for seven eye-opening, humbling, almost overwhelming years that educated and moulded me as a person, as a citizen, as a mental health practitioner and as a psychotherapist. I then joined the massed ranks of the redeployed – an ongoing upheaval still playing out its consequences a decade down the line, in a minor but nonetheless sharply-pointed echo of and parallel process to the upheaval endured by those residents and candidates.

This is not all about me – but I do want to say how vividly I remember my first contact with the Democratic Therapeutic Community (DTC). As part of the interview process I was invited to attend the 9.15 community meeting. I was intensely anxious. Staff and residents congregated in this long rectangular space, dark in my memory but lit by windows and glass doors all along the long side facing the garden and full of assorted faded and shabby but snug and inviting furniture and fittings of the sort that nowadays would have the corporate drones diving for their alarm buttons on about 57 grounds of violation of health and safety edicts (NB this and other photos in this blog were taken the day the hospital closed, by the way) …

Henderson April 2008 006

Visitors were participant observers in the community meeting but active verbal participation was strictly limited to stating one’s name and business when asked and otherwise to remain silent. It’s an old cliché of the DTC, but it was not an easy matter – and why should it have been? – to distinguish staff from residents by any visual cues, and this is one of the things I remember so well: the disorienting (transformative) almost visceral experience of stepping out of the world of vertical hierarchy and rigid structure and into a liminal space where everything seemed to be up for negotiation in a flattened (not entirely flat, but flattened) hierarchy. And the other memory I retain is how excluded I felt: I was wrong, somehow, wrong to the very core of me; I did not understand, there was a language and vocabulary whose key I did not possess; I felt received but not welcomed.

I quickly came to perceive that in this way some fragment of the experience of the residents had been located in me, or I had identified with, as though this community had a sign above the door that said “do not abandon hope, all ye who enter here, but check your privilege, interrogate the quality of your own hospitality and get your head around what it’s like to feel excluded and outcast, and that right speedily, because this is the emotional work we do here and it matters very much” – or something like that, and I’m sure that anyone who lived there for the allotted year would be able to come up with something decidedly more pithy and concise…


This is not about me and it is also not about recording a formal history of the unit: plenty of other places where that can be researched. But in case you don’t know what all this is about, I’d want to include you in! The Henderson DTC was in its sixty-first year of existence when it was closed. It therefore just pre-dated the inception of the National Health Service. It opened in 1947 essentially as a trauma unit, for ‘shell-shocked’ soldiers struggling to reintegrate back into civilian life after the end of World War Two. It went through changes of identity and changes of location over the years – and changes of funding, especially in the wake of the advent of the ‘internal market’ but if you want to know what people remember and mourn, when the Henderson DTC model is evoked, it is this:

  • Staff had no control over admission and discharge of residents inside the maximum stay of one year
  • Admission was by majority vote of a group of nine residents and three staff members – early departure from treatment depended on the vote of the whole community (in which residents always outnumbered staff)
  • There was no use of psychotropic medication permitted or prescribed
  • There was no coercive psychiatry or medico-legal technologies involved – no use of the Mental Health Act (or Probation Orders or conditions of residence or restriction orders of any kind) – no curfews, no restraints – as far as is possible to sustain in the UK of the late twentieth and very early twenty-first centuries, residents entered and stayed of their own free will
  • There were no ‘one to one’ psychological therapies available but a range of therapy groups, work groups and community meetings, which latter could be called at any time, day or night, if an issue affecting the whole community demanded the community’s whole attention

The American social anthropologist Robert Rapoport studied the Henderson Hospital in the 50s and in 1960 reported that four key characteristics defined the therapeutic milieu of the then twelve-bedded unit (when I joined in 2001, there were 27 beds as well as two other ‘replicated’ communities of similar size, in Crewe (Webb House) and in Birmingham (Main House)). These four characteristics Rapoport identified as democratisation, communalism, permissiveness, and reality confrontation. Transposed to the late period Henderson DTC model, these four ideas relate to major decisions all being taken by majority vote; to the ethos (‘communalism’) of staff and residents sharing with one another all the tasks and processes of daily living in a flattened hierarchy, with conventional roles consciously blurred; to the principle (‘permissiveness’) that there were no transgressions but only enactments, in that there were plenty of ‘house rules’ prohibiting all kinds of violence but it was understood that residents were not expected immediately or magically to relinquish safety practices (such as practices of self-injuring) that had got them to the door; and finally (‘reality confrontation’), to the principle that permissiveness did not preclude challenging the individual to understand that within the communal frame his or her actions had an impact on the rest of the community – and that by engaging in a given safety practice (slamming a door in frustration, for example) it was understood that distress had been expressed but that the individual had still placed themselves thereby outside the (conceptual) boundary of the community and would need to ask the community’s blessing to ‘come back in from the cold’ and to continue their emotional work (again, others may be able to put this into words better than can I who worked mostly at the edge of this system).


Elsewhere, I have written in perhaps more moderate and balanced tones about the demise of Henderson Hospital and looked at some of the ways in which the DTC  in its defiant persistence may ultimately have contributed to its own dénouement:

“The Henderson DTC … not only represented an affront as well as a reproach to the over-use and abuse of medico-legal technologies deployed by the conventional psychiatric services for trauma and social exclusion that surrounded it: it also rather enjoyed actively poking its thumb in that system’s eye and should not perhaps have been so surprised when it eventually got thumped for its pains.” (Adlam, article in preparation)

“The Henderson’s own fraught relationship with the system of care … perhaps meant that it found itself too closely identified and ‘damned by association’ with the troubled, anti-social outsiders and misfits who were its client group.” (Adlam and Scanlon, 2013)

But what is a blog for, if not for engaging in familiar safety practices – which, in my case, right now, may well mean slamming a door, or even breaking a window or two? In the permissive culture of the therapeutic milieu, it’s understood one can’t be, would not want to be ‘reasonable’ all the time. Confront me, o reader, with reality – but not just yet, if that’s okay … because it’s ten years since Henderson was closed, and I am still influenced and shaped and inspired by my experience then and in the aftermath of its closure and I’m still mourning its loss but most of all at this the tenth anniversary (give or take a week or two of assembling my thoughts) I am really very deeply furious that it was shut down. I read through contemporaneous accounts of the closure process (some of which weblinks I’ve included as references below) and it still makes me furious. And I’m furious to feel that, provocative, even Diogenesque, though we may have been, nonetheless, some of the Alexanders of the field (not those many allies who stood alongside us, but those arbiters and authorities who stood by) did not come to our aid, or came too late, or came with weasel words, when eventually they rocked up outside our barrel…

Most of all, I’m angry because I keep encountering people who I feel would have found hope in the idea of the availability of the Henderson Hospital Democratic Therapeutic Community as a national specialist resource for traumatised and dislocated souls – and for whom that hope has simply not been available. That door has closed – like so many other doors.

People have died.

Who knows if they would still be alive, if they’d made it into the DTC? No-one can know this. And not everyone who did spend time at Henderson felt helped by it. But austerity and managerialism are violent and mendacious discourses and so let’s not get confused. Of course we could afford to keep the Henderson open. We could then and we could now. Spare me all that crap about cross-subsidies. The annual budget of the Henderson was about a third the cost of a Challenger tank (well, I’m approximating this detail off the top of my head, but that’s the joy of a blog, and you get the point I’m making).

In 2001 the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. They felt, so it seems to me, that the Buddhas constituted the wrong sort of evidence base and they hated how much those giant artefacts were revered by those whose hearts and minds they were determined to dominate. The closure of the Henderson was, on a much smaller scale, an analogous act of irrevocable cultural vandalism. I sympathise then with Fielding’s Diogenes, who forswears society because he cannot abide the evils he perceives in it.

We can’t just start up a campaign to re-open the Henderson. It’s gone. It leaves a hole in the fabric of the body politic that can never be repaired.


Adlam, J. & Scanlon, C. (2013) ‘On agoraphilia: a psychosocial account of the defence and negotiation of public/private spaces’, Forensische Psychiatrie und Psychotherapie, 20 (3), 209-227.’On_agoraphilia_a_psychosocial_account_of_the_defence_and_negotiation_of_publicprivate_spaces’,_and_Diogenes_the_Cynic—a-failure-by-the

Henderson April 2008 007

On ‘consultation’

“It is too often forgotten that the gift of speech, so centrally employed, has been elaborated as much for the purpose of concealing thought by dissimulation and lying as for the purpose of elucidating or communicating thought” Wilfred Bion (1966)

“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies…” (George Orwell, from 1984)

“…there is a ‘symbolic’ violence embedded in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call our ‘house of being’ … this violence is not only at work in the obvious – and extensively studied – cases of incitement and of the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms: there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning.” Slavoj Žižek (2008)

“He lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, ‘I am looking for a man’.” Diogenes Laërtius (early third century AD)


Recently Barrelman and his colleagues have found ourselves being (apparently) consulted. There was a ‘Service Review’ in Athens and when its findings were announced, the thing that was proclaimed to follow was a ‘thirty day consultation period’. And when that was done, we were all unceremoniously turfed out of our barrels.


It all reminded us very strongly of the last time the elders of the city conducted a Service Review. On that occasion, it was to consider the possibility that Socrates, late of this parish, had been ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’. Instead of a consultation, there was a trial – as you may have heard; and at the end of the trial there was a cordial invitation to come by for a cup of something strong.

Socrates could have done a runner at this point, but he elected to drink the hemlock and of course it terminally disagreed with him. In this way, the outcome of the review came to pass exactly as it had been planned and intended when the review was begun – which makes us Cynical types wonder, naturally enough, what on earth was the point of all that window dressing in the first place?

So when the local bigwigs announced a Review, last Spring, our thoughts turned to all those dreary preparations that would eventually turn out to be necessary: like rolling our barrels over to some shady olive grove; finding someone to look after the dogs; writing our wills; that kind of thing. But they were very clear with us that it was not about, you know, ‘jobs’ and such, or clearing undesirables out of the city – and the summer was long and hot and there was plenty to be getting on with, so we just kind of let them get on with it really.

Conceive, if you will, of our discombobulation, when the findings of the Review were announced and they were exactly what had been predicted. It was indeed all about ‘jobs’; and those wandering undesirables (Barrelman in particular, it must be said) were indeed, after all, to be shunted off into the suburbs.

So much for the legendary hospitality of the agora towards the maverick and the marginal!

But it did raise a dilemma: because there was this thing called a ‘thirty day consultation period’. What could they possibly mean by this? If we were being consulted, did this mean what it said on the tin? Or was it something a bit more like ‘insulted’? Or ‘assaulted’, even?

Well, the Cynical response seemed clear: we’d question the ‘findings’, whether or not anyone was interested.

And of course, no-one was.

At least, none of the city elders were interested. Plenty of people in the demos had some very strong feelings about it, being somewhat partial to the itinerant philosopher community and having come to rely upon us for a good old-fashioned harangue when times were tough (which was pretty much always, as the city elders tended to keep all the good stuff for themselves and the people could go hang…)

Still, it left a bit of a puzzle all the same: what was meant by ‘consultation’?


When in doubt about something like this, there’s worse moves to make than to go down to the library at the Metröon and look it up! And what we found is that ‘consultation’ derives from the word ‘consult’, meaning ‘seek information or advice from’ (someone who knows something). This in turn derives from the French verb ‘consulter’, from the Latin infinitive ‘consultare’; which in its turn derives from ‘consulere’, meaning ‘to take counsel’.

We also looked up ‘consultation’ and found that this is ‘the action/process of formally consulting/discussing’. Here is a definition that makes more sense if you are an Athenian elder – because if you take that definition and you stretch the word ‘formally’ just as far as it will go and then some; and if you then compress the term ‘consulting’ within that definition down to the smallest scrap or iota of meaning that you can manage; then you’re somewhere in range of what they meant when they said there’d be a ‘consultation’ period.

To put the matter succinctly: when you hear an ordinary human being, with a mind of their own and no tail, use the word ‘consult’, what’s going on is that someone doesn’t know something and is seeking counsel from someone who does (like consulting the oracle at Delphi, for example, a thing Barrelman once did, and never looked back…)

But when you hear the word ‘consultation’ being used, especially by officials of the Metropolitan City-State, what is meant is ‘the formal process of NOT seeking information or advice or enlightenment of any description from anyone at all …’.

To which one might add ‘… whilst nonetheless indulging in a piece of transparently cynical (with a small ‘c’) and spurious virtue-signalling to an imaginary constituency of people, presumably all born yesterday, who might be supposed to be capable of imagining or believing that a decision of such import had been taken with meaningful and dynamic and interactive reference to the views and experiences of those who knew something, from lived experience and expertise, about the processes being discussed’.


So look – Barrelman is not one for special pleading. I don’t want you thinking he’s got a personal beef and he’s just using his platform to vent it. Not that much of a platform, let’s face it. But Barrelman did feel at home in his barrel in the agora and he loved his interactions with the townsfolk and passers-by and as far as he is concerned the Metropolitan City-State and all its works can shove it where the sun don’t shine.

That’s the thing about a barrel – you can always just up and roll it to some other parking place.

But there’s two things stick in his craw. The first is that he has a hunch that the good people of Athens, if asked, would have had other ideas. It’s not comfortable or pleasant to see people being trampled upon in the service of ideologies to which they are not subscribed. But I don’t want to say too much more about that here – not least, because those people are very well able to say it themselves and probably say it better than Barrelman ever could.

No: the main thing to say here is this: there’s a violence done to language in this use of the word ‘consultation’. It’s a symbolic violence but it’s no less lethal for not being a contact sport. Lies and doublethink begin with expedience and end in totalitarianism. ‘Consultation’ is a phenomenon of epidemic proportions, reach and spread, in these post-truth times.

Language is an infinitely versatile but also unwieldy technology. Fiddle with its very basis and you mess most dangerously with minds and souls and systems. This is why Barrelman carries a lamp even in broad daylight – hard to spot an honest man about the place…

To borrow from a joke that’s even older than Barrelman: that ‘consultation’ was no bacon tree – that was an ‘am-bush’ …



Bion, W.R. (1966) ‘Catastrophic change.’ Bulletin of the British Psychoanalytical Society, 1966, N°5.

Orwell, G. (1949) 1984. London: Penguin Modern Classics.

Žižek, S. (2008) Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile.

Dariusz Galasinski writes beautifully about corruptions and collapses of language and communication in mental healthcare systems, including difficulties in psychiatric/clinical consultations – see his blog at

Diogenes Laërtius’ account of the life of Diogenes is at