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

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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 His first book, The Integrity of the Personality, was written not for publication but as an attempt to sort out his own ideas about the human psyche.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)