It is good to get away from Scilly occasionally… To be overloaded with such pure sensory beauty on a constant basis - that endless sea and sky, that unspoiled air, that pristine soundscape - can lead to a loss of perspective. In the same way, the social minutiae of small community life need, from time to time, to be placed in the context of 7.5 billion other people going about their daily human business.
Unfortunately for me, ever since a near-death episode on a Boeing 747 in the skies over Africa in 1999 - https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/dec/30/jeevanvasagar.lizstuart - travelling away from the islands has been a battle with anxiety and creeping self-loathing that I have lost more often than I have won. And so it was again. As I unpacked my suitcase in our Montparnasse hotel, rather more spilled out than a travel adaptor, my two smart shirts and the Rough Guide to Paris...
Winston Churchill famously characterised his depression as a ‘Black Dog’ that padded moodily around after him at times throughout his life. JK Rowling (who began writing the Harry Potter series whilst depressed) brilliantly personifies the illness in the form of the Dementor - a foul being with the capability of sucking all good things from the victim’s spirit, ultimately devouring his or her soul. The Patronus Charm is the sufferer’s one weapon - a form of visualisation which uses positive loving memories as protection but is incredibly difficult to pull off whilst under attack. For me, the creature that elbows its way out of my suitcase is more goblin-like then anything else: small enough to slip unseen into my head, with the fiendish and gleeful creative intelligence that allows it to unfold a chair and take over directing the film of my interior life without me realising.
Its first action is always to change the lens and filters on the camera. This is done subtly so that the distortions aren’t immediately evident. Some things are made bigger, some darker, and some things are bought into focus at the expense of others. The pace slows and becomes sluggish and treacly. But it’s when the Goblin gets its hands on the film script that I’m really done for. The re-written script is essentially a bile-filled internal monologue of invective, both targeted at and performed by me. I cannot help but deliver this monologue as convincingly as possible, apparently anxious to avoid the wrath of the thing in the director’s chair (which is now chomping happily on a cigar as it watches my performance). The script paints me as a thorough-going villain - the worst of men: the worst father, the worst husband, the worst son, the worst friend. The case against me is watertight, the details compelling. Every potential plot twist ends in failure, illness, catastrophe.
And so I lay in my hotel room with a hijacked head, waiting for the impact…
Just once during the week, the Goblin over-played its hand a little, straining the credibility of the movie and allowing me to regain my spot in the director’s chair (albeit temporarily) whilst it went back to the cutting room. It had come up with a projected scene portraying me leaving Paris on my way back from holiday, so full of anger and hatred towards the world that I am shown waving both middle fingers at the hotel concierge as I get in my taxi, before yelling “f*** you Paris, f*** you” at a startled Gare du Nord from the Eurostar window. Even I could see that this was a ridiculous storyline and was missing something (almost everything in fact) of my true character. Like Harry Potter’s shape-shifting Boggart, the Goblin can be made to disappear if humour, however dark, can be conjured from somewhere.
The temporarily lapse in realism allowed me a short respite. I took advantage to run downstairs and into the cheap bistro next door where the basic rustic south-western salad of confit duck gizzards and the coffee afterwards tasted incredible, particularly after my recent subsistence diet of oranges, biscuits and pills.
But the gizzards were pretty much the sole instance of epicurean hedonism. From the safety of Scilly I had carefully planned a week of eating and drinking, anxious to broaden the horizons of my tastebuds. Tauntingly, an array of modern, inventive and inviting restaurants were less than a five minute walk from the hotel. I was surrounded by the legendary bars where the likes of Picasso, Dali, Miro and Duchamp got outrageously and permanently drunk in the roaring twenties, and very close to the beautiful Jardin du Luxembourg (where Ernest Hemingway claimed to have shot the pigeons that kept him and presumably his fellow writers - James Joyce, Samuel Becket, et al - in fresh meat). Perhaps I was hoping that some of these pissed-up geniuses’ ghostly creativity might rub off on me…
But the Goblin had placed an embargo on pleasure and had returned, with a more convincing edit, to resume control. My Parisian film was back in its hands.
I know, of course, that there is no Goblin; that any dark narrative is my own invention and thus, in theory at least, under my own control; that it is probably no more (or less) than some inexplicable, unknown chemical activity that leads my thought processes to gang up and attack my own psyche, like some mental parody of a physical autoimmune disease. But the medical profession knows so little, for sure, about depression that I am more tempted at times to believe in the Goblins, Black Dogs and Dementors.
So, back in Scilly now, have I found the perspective which I was seeking when I set off on the Scillonian two weeks ago? I am worn, bruised and ginger, as if recovering from severe food poisoning (or seasickness, perhaps). But at the same time there is a dim awareness of a small new beginning. These episodes are so soul-stripping that, when they begin to pass, there is often a sense for me in which an internal slate has been wiped clean (or slightly cleaner, at least) and that some sort of re-alignment and re-set has taken place. Perhaps this is what has led depression to be linked in some way with creativity. For the 'luckier' sufferers (but by no means all, I fear) there is sometimes this clichéd silver lining to the illness in the form of some new piece of self-knowledge or inspiration, gained from the perspective within the dark cloud. It is not immediately clear what will become of it but, for now at least, I am slowly regaining control of my own narrative.
Author - Piers Lewin
I am a musician and writer living on the Isles of Scilly. These articles and posts explore music, poetry and creativity inspired by the landscape and culture of the islands.