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Alfred Chester's mental illness

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Alfred Chester
Diana Athill Writer
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He [Alfred Chester] was a very, very remarkable person, and I think, in a way, a wonderful writer. But he was a very ugly man, poor Alfred, because when he was a child, he had some ghastly illness, scarlet fever or something, and as a consequence, he'd lost all his hair. He was completely bald, he had no eyebrows and he had no eyelashes. And poor Alfred wanted to be beautiful more than anything. He was gay, and he would have… he longed to be beautiful. And there he was, hairless and not very handsome anyway, and wearing a perfectly ghastly wig, so that he was very… I think that's why he began to go mad, eventually, because he always… he remembered when that wig was put on his head when he was a little boy, it was as though he'd been split as with an axe on his head.

But he was a beautiful writer. I mean, his writing… his actual use of words, was very elegant. And very clear and very precise. His subject was often extremely bizarre, not to mention obscene, so that was… it was a most strange mixture. We did his first novel and his first stories, which were not so extreme, and then we did a very strange one, which I think has now been reprinted twice in America, which is now fairly famous. But after that, he went quite… and we did some stories of his. But he went quite mad. And he went to Morocco. Paul Bowles invited him to go to Morocco, and he went there and he thought that it was heaven, exactly what he'd wanted more than anything, because it was a place where you could be gay without it mattering at all. It was just all natural. And it was a place where you could smoke enormous quantities of delicious kief as easily as you could drink tea. And of course, what I didn't realise was that he was using a lot of other drugs, as well, I think, at that time. And he had a lovely, very handsome boyfriend who he'd picked up on the beach, called… what was he called now? I know perfectly well. It'll come back to me in a minute. But anyway, he wrote me an imperious letter saying would I please arrange for a foot surgeon, because he was bringing his boyfriend over to have his foot operated on. He had a spur on his heel, and I must say that they were staying with me, so that they could have an invitation that I was responsible for them, and they would be here any minute. So I wrote back saying that of course I would send him an invitation. He said, 'We won't be staying with you, of course, but will you please say that?'

And they turned up, and Alfred no longer was wearing his wig. And he looked much better, because he looked like a sort of… he was brown in the sun. It was almost like a carved Indian head, which was rather fine. And I thought, this is wonderful, Alfred's found a place where he can be himself. And it really seemed as though that was so. They came to supper quite early, and they had these awful adventures they'd had. What was he called? Not… Driff… but he couldn't speak anything excepting Spanish, so we couldn't… all we could do was just smile at each other. But he definitely washed up the supper afterwards. I said, 'Alfred, we can't make him wash up'. 'Oh yes, it's… we're talking, of course he can'. And then he stuck his head around and he said, 'Alfred, she ought employ… she ought to have my brother, because it's not right that she should be doing her own washing up'. And Alfred said, 'I think perhaps you'd better not have his brother. He is very beautiful, but he is very, very louche indeed'. And the story was that on their way over, they had had a car accident. Alfred was driving. In France, not in Spain. And Alfred must have been, actually, as high as a kite, I think, when he was driving. Driff had been lying on the ground, groaning, and an ambulance and had come and whisked him away. And Alfred didn't know where he'd gone. He vanished. Well, actually, it's quite easy to ask a policeman where, if you're not as high as a kite, where it's gone. But he said he then roamed about for about a whole night, and met up, just by chance, with his boyfriend, who'd walked out of the hospital. Of course, he, the boyfriend, had had a brilliant, brilliant wheeze. He'd laid on the ground and, although he had blood pouring out of his head from where it had hit, he hadn't actually been hurt at all badly. But he had thought, 'I'll go to this hospital and I'll say that my leg's been very badly hurt, and they will do me an x-ray, and it will save Alfred money'. And so he moaned and groaned and held his leg, and was taken to hospital. But on the other hand, when he got there, unfortunately, they wouldn't allow him to smoke. And so therefore he was fed up and he walked out. And Alfred was telling me all this dramatic story, and his boyfriend was sticking his head around the door, saying, 'Tell her this, and tell her that'. And it was… they'd somehow got together in the end and driven on. And they arrived and they… I think, saw a doctor. And I think… it all became a bit hazy, then. I think they were told that he had something wrong with his foot because he had… I think it was some form of rather peculiar illness. It wasn't AIDS, because we weren't having AIDS in those days. Gonorrhoea, I think it was, but why that should have given him a spur on his foot, I don't know. But anyway, that sort of thing was always happening with Alfred.

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Morocco, Alfred Chester

Duration: 7 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008