This Isn't Some Kind of Metaphor, Goddamn, This Is Real!

By John Doran

My name is John Doran and I write about music. The young bucks who run VICE’s website thought it would be amusing to employ a 41-year-old who wrote all of his university essays in ballpoint pen.

In case you were wondering or simply too lazy to use urban dictionary, ‘menk’ is Scouse/Woollyback slang for a mentally ill or educationally subnormal person, and is a shortened version of mental. As in, “Your Sergio Tacchini trackie is sick la, look at that menk Doran, he can’t even afford a Walker trackie. Let’s hit him with a brick and push him in the canal."


As the 106 nears the bus stop in Lower Clapton where I need to alight, a disturbing thought occurs to me: I feel like crying. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with men crying per se, but personally I don’t like it. I don’t like it when I do it and I don’t like it when other men do it near me, but I especially don’t like it when I do it. Some chaps may find it empowering or be proud of how in touch with their feelings it makes them but it makes me feel sick, weak, degraded, degenerate and one step closer to madness and death. I only weep two or three times a decade and the longer I go without doing so, the more apocalyptic the outburst tends to be when it eventually happens. In fact these events are usually so wretched that I sometimes choose to stop myself by punching the nearest wall repeatedly until the moment passes, thus putting off the evil day by (hopefully) up to another couple of years.

But the lachrymal tides are swelling inside me and I fear the dams may burst, leaving me clutching onto a lamp post on Urswick Road, howling like a Sicilian widow at a multiple family member funeral caused by a mining accident. Except I’m not at a funeral, I’m just walking down the road. And this is why I’m embarrassed. It never happens at funerals. I never break a sweat at wakes. I’m constantly angry with myself at how little I mind going to funerals. It doesn’t happen when visiting seriously ill people. Nor do I cry at the end of relationships. But I did once spend a quarter of an hour sobbing into the abyss after seeing a photograph of a squirrel. Wailing, clutching a tear sodden picture of a squirrel.

And it wasn’t even a particularly melancholy looking squirrel.

As I walk up Homerton Grove past the Hospital Arms pub, I’m feeling super-fucking-lugubrious until I see a fat man, clearly a patient who has snuck out for liquid lunch, smoking a roll up by the front door. He stamps it out and scurries back inside. The lyrics to that song by Editors spring into my head: “The saddest thing that I’d ever seen / were smokers outside the hospital doors.” Then suddenly I feel a lot better. Ha ha ha! Fucking Editors. Fucking Primark existentialists. Ha ha ha! How fucking bad can it actually be being married to Edith Bowman… fucking Wetherspoons Joy Division…

The upsurge in mood as I walk into Homerton Hospital is dizzying and disorientating. I walk past a man leaning against a wall weeping into an iPhone held in both hands: “I told her Sheila… I told her… and she said… Oh God… she said…” Now I can’t stop chortling and I’m finding it hard to not whistle. On my way to Plastics, I get lost near Acute Care and pass two more people weeping inconsolably. A demented impulse rips through me almost making me grab one of them for a dance like Fred Astaire in a romantic musical comedy. It’s ages since I’ve had a manic episode. I have to lock myself in the toilets until I feel like I can achieve and then hold onto some sort of equilibrium. There has to be a reason for all this emotional imbalance.

As I’m sitting in one of the stalls with my head on my knees, counting breaths in and out I remember that the last time I came to Homerton Hospital was the last time I cried. It was two and a half years ago and I was with a writer friend, the Rastafarian. But I can’t tell you the full story of what happened to him. I want to, but I can’t because I’m not a good enough writer.

I don’t even deserve to call myself a writer. Well, not according to Graham Greene anyway. In his quite bracingly charmless 1971 autobiography, A Sort Of Life, he recalled recuperating from appendicitis on a hospital ward, where he got the chance to observe several deaths at close quarters. One of the unfortunate souls was a ten-year-old boy who was admitted because of a broken leg but who later died unexpectedly because of complications.

Greene throws more relish into recalling this incident than a Bond villain explaining his plan for world domination, making his point effectively, if nothing else:

“… to shut out the sound of the mother’s tears and cries all my companions in the ward lay with their earphones on, listening – there was nothing else for them to hear – to Children’s Hour. All my companions but not myself. There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer. I watched and listened. This was something one day that I might need: the woman speaking, uttering the banalities she must have remembered from some woman’s magazine, a genuine grief that could communicate only in clichés.”

When I lived with the Rastafarian he nearly died three times in a week after falling off the wagon. The third incident was savage and happened in the house we shared together. I don’t want to state the obvious but you really don’t want to live in a house where someone you care about dies unnecessarily in unpleasant circumstances. It isn’t very nice. Getting someone sectioned isn’t particularly nice or easy either but in this case it was the only option available. Once the wheels were in motion he ended up in the evaluation wards of the secure psychiatric unit of Homerton Hospital within 24 hours. It sounds silly to say it, but I had to engage in some chicanery to get him locked up. I still feel slightly uneasy about this.

The next day after speaking to the doctors who were assessing him, I went to visit him on the ward. At first it was quite upsetting. He didn’t seem to have hit his bottom yet. He was raving at me for letting him get locked up indefinitely, when he believed he was only going in for overnight observation. He wouldn’t stop going on about getting out in time to watch a football match down the Hospital Arms. “I’ve decided, it’s OK,” he said. “I’m just going to start drinking again when I get out. Slower. Maybe take less drugs as well but it’s going to be OK. I’ve decided it’s going to be OK."

He walked off to have a cigarette in the smoking room.

“Don’t drink the water,” whispered an androgynous youth near the water cooler. “They put heroin in it."

A shaved and drooling manatee in hospital robes shuffled past, slack mouthed and seemingly unencumbered with any comprehension of where he was. I could feel my lower lip wobbling and my eyes brimming. This was so obvious. So banal.

After a few more hours of having the same angry conversation with the Rastafarian that I’d been having with him all week, I started getting ready to leave: “You know. When you get out of here and start drinking, you’ll die before the end of the year because you’ve got nowhere left to go. There’s nothing below mental hospital in this scenario, just the morgue. And when you die, I’ll steal your story and write it. And the women… the women will throw themselves at me because of the power of my writing – except it won’t be because of the power of my writing, it’ll be because of your story. And you will not be able to enjoy these women because you will be dead… You will be dead and unable to enjoy the company of women. Or you can not drink, get well, get out of here and write the story yourself. And the women… the women will be yours. The choice is yours. If you die I’ll steal your story. I really will."

I didn’t notice exactly when it happened but by the end of the week it felt like he was about to turn a corner. He’d stopped talking about going to the pub as soon as he got out and had started entertaining the idea of going back to AA. After a chat it was time for the football to start so we went and sat in the communal TV area with its suspiciously stained sofas and large, cheap wall mounted flat screen behind a scratched, bolted in place sheet of plexi-glass.

The match pre-amble seemed to last for ages and then the cameras switched from the studio to the pitch as the teams filed out. At first I couldn’t place the song they were playing in the stadium as the teams lined up facing one another. It was some sort of trance-y UK hip-hop thing: “I wake up every day it’s a daydream / Everything in my life ain’t what it seems.”

It was a few more seconds before I realised it was Dizzee Rascal: “Some people think I’m bonkers / but I just think I’m free / And I’m just living my life / There’s nothing crazy about me."

Unable to stop myself I started giggling. I looked round the room but it seemed like everyone else was too doped up to realise what was going on. I started laughing nervously and nudged the Rastafarian: “Bonkers!” He clicked what song it was and started singing along to it: “Bonk-bonk-bonk-bonk-bonk-bonk-bonkers!"

And we sat there laughing. And for the first time in weeks a weight like an anvil lifted from my shoulders and I allowed myself to believe that there was a chance that things might start improving slightly.

[Note: I asked the Rastafarian for permission to write about this. It’s not just that he’s a writer, although that comes into it – you tell another writer’s stories you might as well have sex with his wife – it’s mainly because I haven’t got the nerve to repeat stuff like this normally. I can’t stand the idea of upsetting people, causing them even more grief when it comes to personal stuff, especially when they’re good friends. I haven’t got a splinter of ice in my heart, I’ve got a slice of lemon drizzle cake there.

But last week something happened to another friend. Someone who is reading this, I hope. I can’t speak to him now until he goes into a 12-step programme, rehab, the full works because it’s gone too far this time. I just wanted to say to him that when he does, I’ll be there. And in the meantime I hope he stays safe. And if he doesn’t, well, then he will get sectioned and if that doesn’t work, then he will die because that is the juncture he now finds himself at. And when that happens I’ll steal his story and I’ll tell his story. And it is a great fucking story. A fantastic story. And the women… oh, the women… they will love to hear his story. The Rastafarian, hasn’t so far felt the need to write his story… not since discovering online dating anyway, but at least he still has the option.]

Previously: Menk, by John Doran - Circling the Drain

You can read all the previous editions of John's Menk column here.