At the start of April I left London, where I teach British Literature to students from Florida State University, and moved up to Scotland. Thanks to a Wellcome Trust Research Bursary (https://wellcome.ac.uk/funding/research-bursaries), I’ve been able to take up a position as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Glasgow’s University’s Medical Humanities Research Centre. In Glasgow, I’ve been researching the papers of the radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing, whose archive can be found in the University Special Collections.
The archive is vast, including Laing’s personal library, drafts of work, patient records, correspondence, press cuttings, films of lectures, diaries and notebooks. My focus has been on a book with the intriguing title of Asylum: To Dwell in Strangeness.
This text, which never made it to the publisher, was going to be about Kingsley Hall (the experimental community that Laing and others set up in 1965 in East London), and subsequent communities of the 70s and 80s set up by The Philadelphia Association, the mental health charity that Laing and a small group established in the mid-60s.
The book project began in 1965 and continued off and on until the mid-80s. Laing wrote just the introduction; most of the contributions were by residents of, and visitors to, the Hall.
I’m asking myself how writers took up the challenge of representing Kingsley Hall, an experiment in letting madness take its ‘natural’ course in a non-medicalised setting that was, by all accounts, at once exciting and disturbing, adventurous and baffling.
How, I’m wondering, did writers take up the position of guide to somewhere that certainly wasn’t a hospital, but was underpinned by a desire to provide asylum (in the sense of a sanctuary, an inviolable place)?
I’m interested, too, in the relationship between Kingsley Hall, which became a place of countercultural pilgrimage and media interest, and the locals of Bromley-by-Bow in London’s East End. The Hall’s windows were smashed; some residents were attacked. But how open were the pioneers of 60s radical psychiatry to engaging with the world beyond their front door?
The stories of the Hall are engaging, and often amusing. Frequently, they convey a sense of adventure—of being involved in a community that disrupted (even if it didn’t completely overcome) boundaries between madness and sanity, normality and abnormality, and the professional and the patient. But there are doubts expressed, too, as well as negative viewpoints.
No scholar so far has spent much time with accounts of life at Kingsley Hall that can be found in the Laing archive. I’m privileged to be able to do so, and, having spoken about the Hall at two conferences this Summer (The PsyArt Conference on Psychology and the Arts, and The London Literary Society Conference), I’ll be writing up my research in a journal article.
Dr Adrian Chapman