Extracts from No, I Tell a Lie, it was the Tuesday.
Chapter 11. Around the World in 99 Cromwell Road
In a memoir covering the early 1950’s a friend described me as having ‘a drink problem which he left cheerfully unsolved’. A generous interpretation, I think, but it must have been about that time that I crossed the invisible line separating the heavy drinker from the alcoholic. Most addicts are not aware of their state until some years after they have achieved it. Everyone else knows but they don’t. I was no exception and it was not until 1957 that I was ready to admit to myself that I could neither take it nor leave it.
There was no crisis, no drama, no going blind on the road to Damascus. I was sitting in my office at Macmillan labouring over a blurb for a novel, when I decided that I had a problem and I wanted to solve it. I didn’t know how but it was good to have a choice, to be or not to be.
I’d heard of an eccentric, elderly doctor called John Dent who was said to offer a swift chemical treatment with no psychiatric strings. He’d successfully treated the film director, Anthony Asquith, the uncle of Mark Bonham Carter, who’d been observing my drinking habits with increasing alarm. At least he didn’t sound like the pin stripped proprietor of some expensive torture chamber with panoramic views across London and Harrow on the Hill. So I rang him up and got my head bitten off. When I mentioned Asquith’s name he shouted that he didn’t discuss his patients. Who was I? And what did I want? I said help was what I wanted and that at last seemed to be the right answer.
Dent opened the door in his braces. Short, portly, shaggy white hair and moustaches to match, he wore a Savage Club tie loosely knotted halfway down his front. He looked like an old dog.
‘Come in, come in. I’m hoovering the tank.’
He led the way to his sitting-consulting room at the dark end of which stood a large, brightly lit glass tank, the home of his tropical fish. Guppies, Black Mollies, Tetrons and Neons made respectful rings round a magnificent solitary Siamese Fighting Fish (if you have two they fight) and a large sinister black-scaled Plecostomas, the resident window cleaner whose enormous round mouth, pressed against the inside of the glass, cleaning it by suction inch by inch. A rubber pipe, one end still the water, was dripping on to the carpet.
‘Hang on a bit till I get this finished. Won’t take long. Trick is to get it flowing without getting a mouthful. Have to be below water level.’
He crouched on the floor, sucked on the pipe as the water began to flow into a bucket, he manipulated the other end like a hoover, sucking up the fish dropping from the gravel floor of the tank. I noticed some of the smaller guppies also disappearing into the pipe line. When he was done, he scooped them out of the bucket with a strainer and put them back in the tank.
‘Makes a little outing for them. Broadens their horizons.’ He had quite a gentle speaking voice but his laugh was as loud as a shout. He was endlessly amused by what he saw, heard and thought and it was a noisy business to be in his company.
While he was out of the room emptying the bucket I looked closely at the fish trying to identify the ones who had had their horizons so suddenly broadened. Some of them looked a bit bashed but they were all swimming about quite happily. This was somehow reassuring.
He had, he said, a few questions. If I’d looked forward to telling my life story to an admiring listener, I’d clearly come to the wrong shop.
‘When do you start drinking?’
‘When I wake up.’
‘Do you get through the day without falling over?’
‘Yes, I have a job which I do quite well.’
‘You mean you think you do it quite well.’
‘Well I haven’t got the sack yet.’
‘Not yet. What do you do after your waking up drink?’
‘Look for my clothes.’
‘D’ you remember where you’ve been the night before?’
‘Let’s have a look at your shoes.’
He inspected the tips of the soles and delighted to find them badly worn away. ‘Foot drop’ he said. ‘Bet there’s no reaction.’ I took off my socks and he brushed the soles of my feet with an upward movement of his hand. ‘No reaction!’ he crowed. My bona fides seemed to be established by my unresponsive feet.
‘Before I commit myself to treating you, I need to know why you want to stop drinking.’
“Well I suppose it’s because I can’t. I mean I’ve tried to drink less, not to drink spirits and …’
‘Yes, yes, what I want to know is have you come to me to please someone else? Your long-suffering wife, your poor old mother, your rich boss, dear God, anyone.’
No I don’t think so. I only decided this morning when I rang you up.’
‘Fine. I can’t treat people who think they are doing someone else a favour. You need to do it for your own sake. A genuinely selfish act. Today’s Wednesday, I could take you in on Friday.’
‘Could we make it next Tuesday?’
‘Please yourself. A week can be a long time. Come to 99 Cromwell Road at four o’clock’.
‘What about the treatment? What is it?’
‘Purely chemical. It’s not an aversion treatment. Large injections of apomorphine. No psychiatry. I’m not interested in your mind, just in curing your body. Read this book. It will tell you all you need to know and I can fill you in as I go along. It takes five days – maybe seven if you have a go of DT’s. You might or you might not. Not bad if you do.’
‘No! Of course not. You’ll feel extremely well. Never better.’
‘Oh, and what will it cost?’
‘I don’t know. You’ll have to pay No.99’s charges – fifty quid? The two nurses a fiver a day each. My fee whatever that may be. You’ll have to think what you can afford.’
‘And there’s nothing you want to know about me?’
‘No, thank you.’
He shouted his laugh all the way to the front door.
‘See you next week.’ Slam.
As I stood dazed and delighted, deciding where to go for a celebratory drink, the door opened again and bright blue eyes over half-glasses peered through the white hedge of hair. ‘In case you’re wondering, I’ve never killed anyone yet. And if you find you can’t last through to Tuesday ring me up. I’ll get them to keep a room for Friday just in case.’ Slam.
Dr Dent was, of course, quite right and I only just made it to Friday. Once the decision was taken, all my brakes failed and thankfully abandoned the elaborate little systems of checks and balances by which I usually remained just sober enough to manage a working day. But before the inevitable tidal wave of alcohol enfolded me I had the sense to tell my ‘rich boss’ and my ‘poor old mother’ that I was going into hospital for some tests and would be away for a week or tend days. I remember very little about the next 36 hours but some kind friend must have told Dent that I would like to come in on Friday and punctually at four o’clock pleasantly blotto, I arrived by taxi at 99 Cromwell Road. If the guppies could survive that sort of treatment then so, I thought, could I.
Number 99 Cromwell Road was one of the tall, gloomy, shabby houses which flanked the streams of traffic thronging into and out of London from and to the West of England via Heathrow. It’s been pulled down now, like most of its fellows, and replaced by a vast shiny hotel which somehow contrives to retain the air of shabby gloom which is its rightful inheritance. In 1957 it was a private Nursing Home used mostly for abortions, just inside the law, by free thinking doctors like Ellis Stungo who used to get outraged publicly but also a lot of customers.
The door was opened by an Irish dragon who offered no welcome. I told her my name and that I was a patient of Dr Dent’s. ‘Just stay right where you are and don’t go away.’ She said, and shut the door in my face. I could hear her calling up the stairs, ‘Gibson! Another of your drunks is here. Come and get it.’ Sister Gibson arrived quickly, friendly and apologetic. ‘Sorry about that. Come on up and have a drink.’
There were five floors and Dent had the call on two rooms on the top floor. The third, much smaller room was occupied permanently by a charming elderly lady, Miss Todhunter, who was fortunately stone deaf. She was quite oblivious to the comings and goings of Dent’s patients and the occasional uproars and was on excellent terms with him and with his four regular nurses. She wasn’t ill and needed no nursing, but she read a lot, preferred life in bed to trudging about outside and if the food was vile at least she didn’t have to cook it.
My room was clean and had a large window looking out on to the Cromwell Road. The bedstead was of solid-looking brass with knobs on the four corners and the mattress was thick and well-sprung to the touch. The bed was turned down and looked quite inviting. Sister Gibsen offered gin or whisky and when I chose gin said I had better stick to it. Over the next couple of days. She was writing on the cover of a new blue exercise book.
‘I’ve put you down as Tiger Tim, all very discreet, most people call me Gibby or Kate.’
I chose Kate and raised no objection to Tiger Tim. I remember him as a leading character among the animals at Mrs Hippo’s school in the main front-page strip cartoon in Playbox, the weekly comic to which I’d been addicted to as a small child. It seemed a good sign. But what about the gin? I thought this wasn’t an aversion treatment.
‘No more it is.’ She said.’ But we don’t want you having withdrawal symptoms until we have got you full of the apomorphine. So you will be needing it. It’s all in Doctor Dent’s book but, of course you won’t have read it. I keep telling him that none of you is going to read it before you come in but he keeps hoping. He’ll be in this evening and will tell you how it works. The main thing is that it does work. The first two days are rough. Injections of apomorphine every two hours followed by some gin which will make you sick. Nothing else to drink and no food of course. You will sleep a lot. On the third day and fourth day we cut out the alcohol, reduce the strength of apomorphine injections to a level where you don’t even feel sick and increase the intervals to three hours. That’s when you may get delusions, mild or otherwise, or indeed you may not. Everyone’s different and it doesn’t really matter. The fifth day you take apomorphine by mouth just to round it off and you can take me out to Bailey’s Hotel for a drink and start practising drinking lemonade yourself. And the next day you go home. That’s it so let’s get started.’
When Dent arrived that evening he was quieter but full or talk and amiable too. He said that he discovered his apomorphine treatment more-or-less by chance. In the late twenties he’d used it or emetine as an aversion treatment and noticed he got much better results with apomorphine. One patient did particularly well and he later discovered that he had neither sense or taste or smell. He realised then whatever treatment he had given this man it certainly wasn’t any sort of aversion which depended entirely on the patient recoiling instinctively from the smell and taste of alcohol.
Addiction to alcohol he said was based on two main things. First, the need for an anaesthetic to obliterate anxiety. If the back unconscious brain is in a state inertia then the pressure on the front (conscious) brain becomes eventually incontrollable. Secondly, the gradual change in the chemistry of the body, caused by heavy drinking over a long period means in the end it can only extract sugar from alcohol and not from food.
He worked on it over the years and came to a conclusion that apomorphine had the answers to these two problems, quite apart from its superficial role as a powerful emetic.
First, it stimulates the body’s main nerve centre the hypothalymus and in so doing gives the back brain a considerable jolt out of its inertia. Secondly, its effect on the digestive system is to restore the body’s natural function of getting sugar from food. With the two parts of the brain once more in balance and the ability to get sugar from the food restored, the patient is no longer addicted to alcohol.
He agreed that it all sounded too simple and that he was regarded with hostility by other British doctors in the addiction business, but the fact remained that the treatment worked and when I left 99 Cromwell Road I simply wouldn’t need alcohol anymore. I must never drink it again, but that was common sense and not dependent on any great exercise of will-power. It would take a little time to adjust my habits and find something else to do in the evening, etc. If I drank alcohol my mistake, a tablet of apomorphine under the tongue and an hour or two’s sleep would put me right.
I sounded both sensible and dotty at the same time. I can’t say that I understood the theory then or now but the same goes for television and radio and I can manage to use both without any trouble. Anyway, I’d already started the treatment and I felt an unreasoning and perhaps unreasonable confidence that all would be well. I feared no evil.
[The first 48 hours]
The next two days were really a sort of endurance test – exhausting, uncomfortable and boring. Thirst was the over-riding snag and my aim in life was to reach Sunday afternoon and drink buckets of cold clear water. Sometimes I thought of burying my face in an enormous water-melon. In fact, according to the Tiger Tim record, I slept for 22 out of the 48 hours, so I was blissfully unconscious for nearly half the time. Kate was around all day and the nights were shared by a retired hospital matron, Hannah Mason Jones, who had nursed for my late and rather grand gynaecologist uncle in Cardiff years ago, and a nice young New Zealander, Dinah, who had never seen an alcoholic at close quarters before. Hannah and I had long chats about my uncle Ewen whom she had firmly placed on a pedestal. Both he and my father, his elder brother, had been life-long teetotallers and she felt that it was up to her to get me into that exclusive club and so save a bit of the family honour. I said that I didn’t think that Dent would approve of my going through all this for the sake of the family honour but perhaps it would be OK for me to regard it as a bit of a bonus on the side.
Dent came in two or three times a day, sometimes late at night, and quite soon I began to feel that I’d never really known any other people but these my familiars.
I had my last gin at three o’clock on Sunday afternoon and at four o’clock half a pint of iced water. The best.
Apart from the injections every three hours, there was nothing particular I had to do for the next two days and I was curious but apprehensive about what form the ‘mild or otherwise’ delusions might take. I could expect anyway to become shaky and perhaps irritable in the process of wreathing the withdrawal of the gin. I slept a good deal on Sunday evening and that night I noticed the first oddity. I picked up a green Penguin (book) one of Simenon’s Maigret novels, and the green background turned to brilliant turquoise, the white buts to a violent yellow and the black lettering a phosphorescent royal blue. By next morning the colours were back to normal. But I was by no means back to normal. The euphoria induced by surviving the first and supposedly worst two days had passed and I felt ill, anxious and very shaky. A few friends dropped in during the afternoon but were not encouraged to linger. Among them were two clergy men and when Kate opened the door to them she exclaimed, ‘Christ! He’s not that bad.’As soon as the lights were turned on the colours began to change again. We had a most unwelcome visit from the Matron of the nursing home who treated us to a lengthy account of her summer holiday in Cornwall. She was a dark voluble lady wearing a white bonnet tied with a large white bow on the right side of her face and she was learning on the top rail of the end of my brass bedstead as she brought her grisly narrative to a climax. This concerned the afternoon when a shark had attacked a group of bathers from a beach near her hotel. It managed to mangle a fair portion of a man’s leg, she said with a little laugh, ‘well up the thigh’. As she gazed at me her bonnet and bow turned bright yellow and her hair royal blue. ‘I said to myself, “What ever next!” ’ she said. This was exactly what I was thinking too, because I was hearing faint but insistent voices just above me head and there was background music coming from the area of the window.
Dent came in a little later. He was reassuring but he looked amazing with all that yellow hair and as soon as I lay on my back a vast moving panoramic water scene appeared on the ceiling. I realised that I was losing control of my visual and audio senses and that these were the first of the ‘mild or otherwise’. But at least I knew them for what they were.
That night Dinah and I seemed to be in a hotel bedroom and I felt badly about having the only bed. Such chivalrous thoughts fled when the whole room was shaken by a great orange helicopter hovering just outside the window. I sprang out of bed and made for the door but Dinah got there first and I still had enough of a hold on my mind to work through her explanation. The deafening noise was that of two motor bikes revving their engines in the Cromwell Road below and the large wooden cross bars of the window frame, set against the pink and yellow glow from the street lights and the more distant West End, made up my orange helicopter. It seemed a good idea not to look at the window for a bit. However, as I turned my back on it, I was not encouraged to see three small furry animals in the far corner of the room.
By Tuesday morning my fading grasp on reality had gone altogether and I remained trapped in delirium for the next two days and nights.
When I left No.99 at the end of the week, I decided to write down what I remembered of my adventures and by cross-checking with the laconic entries in the Tiger Tim exercise book which Kate gave to me, I could even get the five main nightmares into some sort of chronological order. Now 40 years later, they still come vividly to mind, not in the same way as memories of actual happenings, but as if I had read about them happening to someone else. I’m not frightened or shamed by them.
The delusions themselves were, with a few exceptions, commonplace enough – wild animals, snakes, threatening voices, mobs howling for one’s blood, carnivorous insects, shame at one’s own cowardice, trying always to flee from danger. They contained many of the elements of adventure stories in the Boys Own Paper but put together so that the narrator was the complete anti-hero, failing each test and funking each challenge. I knew that my enemies would win every time. If Walter Mitty had had DT’s instead of daydreams I daresay that he would have fared no better than I.
But a few of my delusions were neither terrifying nor unpleasant. I recall a most agreeable game of clock gold with my sister on the roof of some high building; and running the 100 yards in my pyjamas and with bare feet in 9.5 seconds (a new world record then) was a splendid achievement.
More interesting, I think, is how Dr Dent and the nurses tried, often successfully, to find out what was happening in my world, and by their words and actions to make things better for me. Whichever of them was present in the room was always a part of my world, although they were never actual doctor or nurse but had parts to play in each dramatic episode. So what they said and did and their support, or the lack of it, was extremely important for good or ill to the course of events. They hardly ever tried to persuade me that what I could see, hear and feel was not real, but simply that with their help I could survive and cope with it. Early on when I was having a problem with rats Dinah, exhausted and exasperated, said ‘Look!’ There are no rats.’ This temporarily destroyed my confidence in her as an ally. She realised her mistake and teamed up with me again.
On the other hand when I had a lot of snakes writing and biting in the bed, Kate flung back the bed-clothes, grabbed a spare blanket from the cupboard and picked them up one by one and, after checking with me that there was none left, bundled them up in the blanket, opened the door and threw it out into the passage. A great success.
But, of course, events often moved very quickly in my world and it was difficult for them to keep abreast of new and dangerous developments. Dent and I were having tea in a recently bombed zoo in which many of the cages had been destroyed. We were in the remains of an enclosure and were delighted to find some Aberdeen terrier puppies and game them some of our jam sandwiches. At this point two hungry pumas arrived on the scene, ate the puppies and turned towards us. Dent, of course, was unaware of this development and went on placidly offering jam sandwiches. When I shouted that he was not feeding pumas instead of Scotties, he said firmly that all pumas loved jam sandwiches and proved it by leading the pumas, as they munched their sandwiches, out of the room. My relief was short-lived because he had entirely failed to notice a wounded lioness dragging herself across the floor towards us. As I made for the door Dent and I collided and a brief wrestling match took place. I had no time to tell him about the lioness and simply yelled that we had to get out. As we fought (naturally he didn’t want me loose in the passage) I told him he was an old man and could die if he liked but I was off. I don’t know how he pacified me but to do so he must have discovered the lioness in my life and shooed her off the scene. Perhaps he fed her jam sandwiches too.
At least two of the main narratives were set in or around the derelict zoo, but the first drama was certainly the siege of our room in 99 Cromwell Road. There was a noisy hostile mob outside and the building had already been infiltrated by violent, implacable dwarves who were responsible for letting quantities of rats, snakes, red ants, scorpions and the like into the room to flush us out into the street below. An entry in Tiny Tim’s log reads:
‘Patient seeing animals, rats, monkeys and dwarves sitting on the sofa …. Patient rather frightened.’
My terror, at this stage, had not entirely paralysed me and I snatched up Kate’s silk red umbrella to defend us against the rats. Before she could stop me I was out of the door and along the passage pursuing the rats into Miss Todhunter’s room and out again. They told her later that I’d come to read the electricity meter and had mistaken the room. I hope she believed them. I did at least one rat to death in one of my own shoes in the cupboard and very nasty it was. I also broke Kate’s umbrella in the process.
During the siege I could hear a loud speaker out in the Cromwell Road describing accurately my reactions to the various horrors going on. I couldn’t think how they knew until I observed the activities of a group of mice on the dressing room table near the window. They had ingeniously pushed the wing mirror at an angle to catch the sun and were heliographing the news to their comrades out in the road. Kate scooped them up in her useful blanket and chucked them out of the window and the broadcast shut off at once.
Apart from the domestic and local difficulties, there were long sequences abroad and we must have travelled thousands of miles trying to avoid my personal ‘Appointment in Samara’. We were pursued across Europe by a band of European Free Knights who bombarded us with steel arrows from a sort of pom-pom gun; stalked by a giant bald French speaking Negro, armed with a great wooden stave, through dark Brussels streets; and interrogated endlessly by the KGB and their Chinese counterparts in Moscow and Peking.
‘Blood, swords and fighting everywhere …’ according to the Tiger Time record. But we eventually got to New Zealand where things were much less hectic and Dinah even visited her parents and I saw my brother Andy and his wife and children.
Towards the end of the delirium there was a long, peaceful episode in which Dent and I and Hannah, dressed as a nun, boarded quite a comfortable boat whose destination was death. It stopped from time to time and people got on and off. At each stop my brother Donald appeared, sometimes accompanied by his sons, and urged me to get off and catch a later boat. He said they went all the time. Bertrand Russell was there, scribbling away at his desk in a corner of the bar, He claimed the he was ‘past all this death business’ and travelled the route back and forth to get his writing done. Anyway Dent and Hannah, the nun, and I decided to stay on board as death seemed to be quite an acceptable and even agreeable end to all our adventures. We held hands, said what prayers we could remember and, as the oxygen ran out, the last think I remember was the grip of their hands loosening.
I found only one reference towards the end of the Tiger Tim record to ‘lots of praying …’, so I later asked Dent whether I’d looked like dying at some point in these two days. He said no. He’d thought that they might have to interrupt the delirium if it went on too long, partly because of the strain on me and partly because they were getting seriously exhausted. It would have been quite easy to achieve by giving me several large gins but it would have meant starting all over again at a later date and anyway it was good for me to get all the horrors out. They were pumping apomorphine into me as often as they dared and sooner or later I’d come out of it. And I did.
I woke up early on Thursday morning and there was Kate.
‘So you’re back, are you? About time but you’re welcome all the same.’ I cautiously raised an arm, extended my fingers and held it there. Not a tremor. ‘It’s nice to be back,’ I said. ‘Where’s Henry?’
(At some point and for some reason Dent had become Henry to me and Henry he remained until he died five years later.) ‘Sleeping it off I hope. The poor brute’s only had three hours’ sleep in the last two days thanks to you and your antics. But never mind, he’ll be in later.
Thursday was a day of rest for us all. I sucked a few apomorphine tablets…
… and on Friday I took Kate out to the bar at Bailey’s Hotel, filled her up and drank the first of I don’t know how many tonic waters. It must run into tens of thousands by now.
Before I left on Saturday, my thirty third birthday, Henry gave me half-an-hour’s ‘waking suggestion’. He explained that it was a mild form of hypnosis. He gave me a copy of The Times and told me to read the leaders aloud while he was talking to me. He would be telling me things of an encouraging nature which I wanted to hear, e.g. I would have no need at all for alcohol, etc. If he suggested something which I didn’t like I would stop reading at once. I don’t know what he said to me so I can’t judge its effect but I didn’t stop reading aloud at all. Henry was very keen on it and said that provided there was mutual trust between giver and receiver it was a useful bit of back up.
I also asked Henry if he was sure that I shouldn’t have just a few days’ convalescence. ‘No, no, no!’ he shouted. ‘You’ve had your convalescence – a nice free trip around the world. You’ve got a job. Go back to work on Monday.’
So I went back to work on Monday morning ready to start my strange new sober life. I rather spoiled my entrance by slipping on the grand front staircase, but I think it was just a reminder of things past.
Chapter 12. Life After Dent Extract, page 151.
I felt quite timid in the first days back. I wasn’t worrying so much about reaching for the bottle – indeed the cupboard where I kept the drink was as I’d left it the previous week. When I said to Henry that I supposed it would be sensible to get rid of it he was most indignant. ‘Certainly no. Keep it by you. Don’t be frightened of it; you’ll find that you can live perfectly happily with alcohol all round you without the slightest danger that you’ll feel the need to drink it. If you’ve got any sensible friends, got to pubs, clubs, whatever with them and make sure they drink what they want and you’ll find they’ll relax and thankfully treat you like a human being. You’ll find all sorts of new things to enjoy and that’s one of them.
What was making me timid was the realisation that I now had great acres of time to fill, particularly in the evenings and at night if I didn’t sleep. Sleeping pills were taboo. ‘Not even an aspirin,’ said Henry. ‘If you can’t get to sleep at first, read a book or write a book or go for a walk or, do some work. Just remember that sleeping is something you have to do in the end – like breathing. Your body just needs a little time to adjust. It’ll come right.’
Extract reproduced by kind permission of Kyle Cathie Limited publisher of No, I Tell a Lie, it was the Tuesday. © 1997 Alan Maclean