BOOKS / Reflections on the sound of music: Mind over matter: Mary Loudon meets the psychiatrist and writer Anthony Storr

Common sense is not something we always associate with psychiatrists. Generally seen as people on the other side of life's great questions, they are sometimes thought to possess almost mystical powers of perception and insight: and even though we know this isn't true, many of us are quite fond of the myth.

There is one man, however, who is not, and he has done a great deal to dispel it. His name is Anthony Storr, and although he spent over 30 years as a practising psychiatrist until his retirement in 1984, he has made his name as an author of popular books on psychiatric and psychoanalytic ideas, and as a communicator whose greatest strength lies in an ability to write about confusing and often painful subjects with insight, clarity and compassion.

Storr had no intention of being a full-time writer. His first book, The Integrity of the Personality, was written not for publication but as an attempt to sort out his own ideas about the human psyche. However, other books followed fast and furiously, and have been translated into 17 languages, including a Past Master on Freud; a Modern Master on Jung; the best-selling Human Aggression, conceived in horrified response to the newsreel films of Belsen; and Solitude ('written as a protest against conventional ideas about relationships'). His latest book, Music and The Mind, just out in paperback (HarperCollins, pounds 6.99) is the result of a lifetime passion for, and fascination with, music.

Storr himself is rather like his prose: quiet, clear and kindly; not tall, not imposing, not grand. Given his gifts, his reputation and his age (he is 73), one might reasonably expect him to be a man of some considerable self-confidence, but he isn't. Or if he is, it doesn't show. He is the sort of person you might miss in a crowded room: he'd be standing to one side, not saying much. He is genuinely, unusually, modest.

Brought up in the splendid gothic shadow of Westminster Abbey, where his father was a canon, the young Storr learnt the violin and self-sufficiency: he was the youngest of four by over 10 years. Despite the fact that his parents were 45 and 54 when he was born, Storr was 'very very fond indeed' of them. Canon Storr was 'an anxious, nervous man' who turned down a terrific number of jobs, mostly because he was ill at ease socially. 'He hated entertaining.' Storr's mother was 'a saint', but not a healthy one. When Storr was 11, she became a partial invalid following a serious illness. 'I was alerted to thinking of how one could help others and be considerate from a very early age, and that may have had something to do with my choice of profession. It certainly removed an element of lightheartedness from childhood.'

Illness continued to play a central role in Storr's life. Along with two of his siblings, he suffered from severe asthma, and at 13 - just before antibiotics came in - he cut his head open, developed septicaemia and nearly died. 'I was ill for months and months and months, so one feature of my life has been that I have never had physical self-confidence, and that made a lot of difference to me. Being at ease with your own body is a very important source of self-esteem.'

As a result, Storr engaged in the less active, more cerebral, pursuits. He hated games, but loved music passionately from a very early age. He was sent to boarding-school aged eight: 'I had no friends of my own age before I went away, so I found it very hard to get on with other children and felt very out of things and ill at ease. I hated school from beginning to end. It was absolutely ghastly.'

Not hale, not hearty, Storr sought peer respect in some way that involved neither cricket nor chumminess; a near impossible feat in a male prep school, but he managed it. 'I discovered that I was a good listener. People confided in me. Becoming a good listener was a very good way of ingratiating myself with other people: it gave me a status I wouldn't otherwise have had. And I don't think I'm alone in that. I think a lot of psychiatrists are people who have been rather ill at ease with others.'

And isn't listening also an effective form of self-defence? 'It certainly is, yes. It's a way of relating which is protective because you don't have to reveal yourself, and therefore you don't have to risk rejection or being despised - which I certainly felt for most of my childhood. So yes, I think psychiatric practice may be a subtle form of one-upmanship. Of a rather despicable kind]'

It was while reading medicine at Cambridge that Storr mentioned to his tutor, C P Snow, that he was thinking about psychiatry. He was fascinated by its more philosophical aspects. 'I think you'd be very good at it,' said Snow. Storr was convinced. He married at about the same time, and had three daughters, but the marriage, 'which was very happy in some ways', ended in divorce. The break-up, he says, 'was entirely my fault. I was too young and I felt constricted'. He is now married to the writer Catherine Peters, and they live in Oxford.

Perhaps not surprisingly, psychiatry helped Storr cope with his own problems. 'I feel not at all sure now that I was a very good therapist, but I had a lot of very grateful patients, and that helped. Nevertheless, it was a great strain at times. I know the conventional portrait of the analyst is of someone who's detached, but listening to distressed people for eight hours a day is exhausting to oneself.' Also exhausting was the predisposition to depression that Storr inherited from his parents, along with the asthma and the reticence. He has had bouts of it all his life, and they sound severe, but he dismisses them, as one might expect, as merely 'an awful lot of ups and downs. Not enough ups'.

None the less, despite his personal and professional experience of depression, Storr hopes that genetic engineering won't see the end of manic-depressive disorders. 'So many of the world's great creators have been manic-depressives. It's when writers and musicians get a little bit high that all the ideas come. There have been creative people who've been treated with lithium for manic-depression, and have objected to the fact that their mood swings got flattened out and their ideas stop flowing, and I can understand that. I've had some of those ecstatic highs myself when writing, and that's when the ideas flow.'

There is something poignant about Storr, as he sits in a sunny room surrounded by his own bestselling publications, openly confessing to long-held doubts about his profession. 'I would really have liked to have been a musician. Passionately. It was the thing in which I was always most interested, but I wasn't frightfully gifted, so nobody took seriously the idea that I could do it professionally. I still regret it very much. I would have liked to have done music more than anything in life by far, and writing is a very poor substitute.'

We drank tea and ambled happily round the house, but I remained haunted by this clear admission of regret. Surely the psychiatry, the teaching - surely the writing - meant something to him?

'Well it's all very second best.'

But that's really sad, isn't it?

Storr smiles. Not a sad smile.

'Everything,' he says, 'but everything is second best to music.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker