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Having a beady eye


Alfred Chester's mental illness
Diana Athill Writer
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Then what happens next is… I thought there he was and he was having this lovely time and he had got this lovely boyfriend and all was well. Next thing is I come into the office one day and a rather alarmed-looking switchboard girl leaps up and says, 'There's someone here for you'. And I look around and there's Alfred, sitting. And I thought… I looked at him and in one look, I thought, 'This is bad news'. I said, 'Come upstairs, Alfred. What is it?' And he comes upstairs and he says, 'I want you to get onto the Prime Minister and tell him to stop the voices'. I said, 'What voices?' And he said, 'You know'. I said, 'I don't know, Alfred'. And he said, 'Yes, you do. We were talking about it when you were in Fes the other day'. And I said, 'But Alfred, I wasn't in Fes'. And he said, 'You were'. And I thought, well, wait a minute, I must be careful here. I said, Well, I'm not aware of having been in Fes'. And it then turned out that he had absolutely gone around the bend, completely. And he had, in fact, apparently attacked poor Drif… Driss. Driss, his name was, I think, because he'd been denying that there were any voices. And Alfred said, 'But he cannot possibly have failed to hear them, because they were going on all night and he was there in bed beside me'. And then he'd gone over to New York to try and get some money from his mother, and he'd attacked her with a knife, apparently, too. And I thought, well, what does one do? And I said, 'Well, I can't get onto the Prime Minster. I don't know the Prime Minister. But if you like, I can ring up an MP.' And he said, 'Well alright, you do that'. And then he became rather rational, and he said, 'And can you give me some typing or something to do meanwhile? Because, if I have typing, I don't have… it smothers the voices'. Well, with a great piece of luck, I had a manuscript that needed to be typed, so I was able to give him that.

And he typed it beautifully and very well. And he also said, 'Do you have a good dentist, because I need to go to the dentist'. And I gave him my dentist's address and he went to the dentist and he was perfectly sane with the dentist. And meanwhile, I rang up an MP, who I, you know, someone I knew, and he said, 'Are you mad? Don't you realise that practically every day some nut rings us up and tells us to stop the voices'. And I said, 'No, I didn't know that', and so I… then I thought, when he was coming in, I thought well, now… I asked… I was a bit frightened. I asked someone to be in the room next door, because it was quite clear that I might become one of 'them'. At the moment, I wasn't, but I might, because I had to tell him that, no, I couldn't ring up the… I couldn't find anyone to do anything about it. The MP wouldn't do it. But somehow he'd gone a step more sane for that moment. And he said, 'Well now, look, you did try, and so in exchange, I will go and see a psychiatrist if you'… he said, 'It's… you must understand that I know you think I'm mad, but you must understand that these things that are going on in my head are as real to me as that bus going by in the street'. I mean, he was sort of sane about his own madness. And so I got hold of… not Ling… no Lang, but his… he had a man who worked with him a lot, whose name I've now forgotten. An Irishman. And he agreed to see him. And he went and saw this man, but he wouldn't work with him, because he said to me, 'He's exactly like my Irish bookie, I don't trust him'. But the man did suggest to put him in touch with a sort of psychiatric social worker, who was rather a nice young man, who agreed to go and see him, and talk him through this thing. And who did that. Alfred had a friend somewhere, in a remote suburb, I can't remember where, that he went and stayed, and this boy went and talked to him, and rang me up to tell me that it had been a privilege to be in connection with this wonderful mind. And finally, I, by that time, was really chickening out. I thought, I cannot cope with this. I mean, I'd never come across anyone who was really absolutely as bats as that. And I didn't know what to do about it. I felt I was letting him down terribly, but I was actually, sort of… you know, I thought, well, I suppose I ought to go and see him, but I thought, well, I'm not going to. I can't. I really can't. And then the psychiatric social worker rang me up and said, 'Well, he's gone back to Morocco'. And I said, 'Do you think he's any better'? And he said, 'Well, I do think that at least he was able to make his mind up to go to Morocco'.

He was no better. He went and he was quite mad, and they threw him out from Morocco, and he went to Israel. He was a Jew. He thought he might feel happier in Israel, and he felt awful in Israel. He finally died, I think… we don't know whether he actually committed suicide or whether it was just drugs and brandy were too much for him, but he died all alone. Dreadfully sad. But… and left one very brilliant but terribly mad remains of a book. Because he could write very clearly, always, but he could write very, very clearly about this mad world. And so why… you know, the first time he did it, you just thought that it was perhaps, sort of, imaginary. But it wasn't imaginary. What he was writing about, you see, was to him as real as the bus on the street. Which was why it was so powerful, really. It was awful. Awful, awful, awful. But he did leave me an inheritance of… my best friend, now, was his oldest friend, an American poet called Edward Field. And Edward, who was trying to find out, you know, came across and said, had I got any letters of Alfred's, because Edward works tirelessly to get his letters and things read in America. And Edward and his boyfriend, Neil, have now become my dearest and best friends. They're lovely people. I adore them. They come every year.

Diana Athill (1917-2019) was a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she came to be 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, Edward Field, Neil Derrick

Duration: 7 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008