Today I have the pleasure of introducing Bill Douglas, whose book “Mad Worlds” I had the fortune to review for the Historical Novel Society
“Mad Worlds: A Tale of Despair and Hope in 1950s England” by Bill Douglas is a very memorable and emotional read about mental health care in Britain during the 1950ies. It tackles an important and difficult subject and handles it very well with believable characters and excellently researched details.
We witness teacher John Chisholm and his life in the Springwell Mental Institution while his wife Heather has to continue life on the outside, with many problems and tough choices to make of her own. Love, loyalty, prejudice, soul searching, frustration and hope feature in this moving and eye-opening book. It is a very powerful read that not only provides historical insights but also an interesting story beyond the mental health issue. Although set in the past, the themes touched upon are still relevant to our time, which made this book particularly rewarding.
Reviewed for the Historical Novel Society, Indie Awards.
Welcome Bill, please tell us a little about yourself, as writer and as person:
Born in St. Andrews Scotland in 1935, I published last year my debut novel ‘Mad Worlds: A Tale of Despair and Hope in 1950s England’. From an early age, I’d enjoyed short stories and on retiring from full-time work started writing them. Thoughts of tackling a novel came only in recent years.
Paid full-time jobs were in mental health social work through the 1960s, then in public sector academia (mainly on social work education) into the 1990s. After retiring I re-trained as a counsellor, to work part-time in a bereavement centre and an NHS locality service for folk with mental health issues referred by GPs. I volunteer for Samaritans and my local church.
I’m married to Elisabeth – a talented fellow writer and brilliant listener – with children & grandchildren. We’ve a similar sense of humour and share many current interests – voluntary work, social issues, meeting with our family, writing, golf, board games & puzzles, church, holidaying…
Why historical fiction?
I’ve always loved to hear tales of the past, to relive these in my imagination. I want readers of this novel to relive likewise.
Also I see history helps us to understand better our heritage and to infer some lessons for policy and practice.
What in particular fascinates you about the era you write about?
The mid-20th century was a fascinating era to live through – one of challenge, threat excitement and suffering. Of particular interest to me is how those afflicted by mental ill-health – and their relatives – were seen in society and the different approaches to dealing with and treating them. Talks with an aunt suffering bouts of depression, in the late ‘40s and well into the ‘50s, inspired me to seek work in mental health.
What’s the concept behind the book and how did you get the idea?
I’ve retained my interest in mental health. When I saw a ‘Starting your Novel’ module advertised, I had the idea of maybe writing something set in a historic mental health context. On that module an exercise – to write for a few minutes about a guy in a confined situation – got me scribbling about him sitting around on a locked ward. I came away bent on writing about a man compulsorily admitted to a harsh mental institution – just before England’s 1959 Mental Health Act, when some places were like that.
What song would you choose to go with your book?
Possibly La Marseillaise, with its strong anti-tyranny message. In my penultimate draft, my character John whistles this as he walks from the now-rapidly-transforming institution. In my final version John whistles Elgar’s tune which starts ‘All Men must be Free’ as this relates directly to his situation. Both songs are contenders. I’d welcome any views.
Are you like any of the characters – and if so, how?
Of the point-of-view characters, I’m quite like John Chisholm, in terms of humanitarian values and (an ‘only child’) a tendency to indulge in reverie. Likewise I’d share Jamie Macdonald’s idealism – and I resemble both characters in brooding over, but dealing with, loss. My similarity to Sam Newman extends only to the tackling of mental health emergencies – emotionally-charged situations that will keep presenting in any era.
Maybe I’d most resemble Browncoat Mac, in attitudes and values (and his approach to academic work!), as well as in both his institutional roles. A post-grad student in 1959-60, I worked over the first six months as a part-time ward orderly in the local mental hospital, and later worked as a P.S.W.
Were the plots and sub-plots completely planned, or did they change?
I developed a story-line, and in telling the tale changed both character and plot a bit. Having started with one main character (teacher John), I soon realised I needed Heather to be a second main character, to show the struggle and pain of his bereft loving partner. And I needed latterly Jamie Macdonald as another point-of-view character resolved to transform this punitive system. There changes led to shifts in the plot.
And I decided on different endings for some characters, e.g. ‘Sarge’ Parker, plus an additional sub-plot in Heather’s parents revealing their ‘terrible secret’ – which leads to her more truly understanding John.
My aim in writing it is to re-create a dramatic era and stimulate thinking on mental health issues. So I want very many people to read and talk about it.
My title: I intend ‘Mad Worlds’ to convey the craziness of places called ‘mental hospitals’ being about control and detention of patients. I see that readers may well assume my title refers to characters’ internal musings. I began with ‘A Mad World’, realised this could describe our planet, changed to ‘Mad World’, saw this title for the Evelyn Waugh biography, and adding an ‘s’ then seemed okay – with a sub-title. Guess I should have stuck with the singular as that bit of the title refers to this institution (& others like it).
I’ve been lucky to retire on a decent pension, so currently don’t need mega bucks. (Just as well – the book’s very far from best-seller lists!). Money from sales is going mainly to causes I support – so far Samaritans, Imagine Mozambique (former charity), intend MIND, Vasculitis UK in future.
How have you found the experience of self-publishing? Highs and Lows?
Overall good. My publisher has been excellent to work with. The promise was to publish within six months, and there it was in five. Main benefit is I’ve written the book I wanted to. Of course it costs and there’s no agent to promote. My publisher’s helped on social media, but I’m a slow learner!
What are you working on now?
Memoirs, from which I might be able to craft a mid-20th century semi-autobiographical novel.
Re-visiting and revising stories I’ve written, maybe for a collection.
What book are you reading currently, and in what form?
‘The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden’ by Jonas Jonasson. Paperback.
This 80,000-word novel follows two main characters:
Young teacher John Chisholm, who is haunted by a past tragedy and believes his wife no longer loves him, is stressed to near-breakdown. He is forcibly removed to a harsh mental institution, Springwell, where he is certified and detained indefinitely. He endures and witnesses abuses – some in the name of treatment – and meets fascinating eccentric fellow inmates. Although suicidal at times, he resolves to survive and escape.His wife Heather Chisholm, who has recently battled a post-natal depression, is distraught. While pining for John, she sees her priority as ensuring their infant child is properly cared for, and tries to rally support from neighbours and her parents. Encountering John’s hostility on visiting, and horrified at the conditions in which John is hopelessly trapped, she becomes vulnerable to romantic overture.
Others through whom parts of the drama unfold, are: Sam Newman, the local authority Mental Health Officer responsible for tackling emergency situations, who is instrumental in John’s removal to Springwell, and who lusts after Heather; ‘Sarge’ Parker, an ambitious and sadistic Charge Nurse who sees patients as madmen to be coerced, targets John for abuse, and vows he’ll seduce Heather; Jamie Macdonald, who emerges latterly as the new Medical Superintendent, driven by personal experience and ideals to attempt reform in Springwell.
Will John ever escape the harsh threatening environment in which he is imprisoned? How can his relationship with Heather survive? Can grief-stricken Heather, further burdened by her parents’ ‘terrible’ secret, get the help she desperately needs for her and her beloved child? How will she respond to the advances of the helpful Newman, and of the ‘friendly’ Parker? And, critically for John, can Macdonald make any real impact on fortress Springwell?
‘Mad Worlds…’ is a novel set in an era when England still operated under harsh, stigmatising Victorian legislation in the field of mental health. Readers are invited to eavesdrop on realistic scenarios, both within and outside a mental asylum of the 1950s. With flashes of dark humour, this is an intriguing, sometimes horrifying tale suitable for fans of historical fiction and those who are interested in issues of mental health, relationships and loss.