One flew out of the cuckoo's nest: Jimmy Laing spent half a century in mental institutions. Why? That's a good question, and a very good read

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JIMMY LAING'S book, Fifty Years in the System, is not a comfortable read. Throughout it the reader is an uneasy voyeur to a procession of grim details. Worse, the narrator's acceptance of his awful fate is so mute, it makes you want to reach into the pages, grab him by the lapels and tell him to sort himself out.

Yet there is no doubt that of all the literary gongs handed out this year, the one Melvyn Bragg handed Jimmy Laing at the Barbican Centre in London this week was the most deserved. It was the Mind Book Of The Year, awarded by the charity to the work making the most significant contribution to public awareness of mental health problems.

'I have been asked to say a few words and I will obey,' said Jimmy as he accepted his prize. 'I have been brought up to do what I am told.'

While winners of the Booker or Whitbread might have spent a couple of years in a garret preparing their work, Jimmy's was longer in its research. Fifty Years in the System tells of his life in Scottish mental institutions. Like all good reads, there is a twist to his story: Jimmy was locked away for half a century without doing anything wrong; he was never properly assessed or diagnosed. He was simply abandoned.

'When I look back on my life I am reminded of a Walt Disney film,' he said after the award lunch. 'Absurd, quite absurd.'

A dapper man at 65, with a meticulous manicure, snappy suit and polished shoes, Jimmy Laing has the look of Kenneth Williams playing a gangster. But the facial scars and missing teeth are due to accidents and lack of dentistry, not fights. He is gentle and courteous, and tells his story with candour.

It opens in Perth, just before the war. His father was in the Army, his mother couldn't cope with her hyperactive son, and, with half a dozen other children to raise, she was relieved to get him off her hands. He was nine when his parents put him into care.

He spent his youth in places so grim they made Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby look like a Montessori nursery. Beating and sodomy were the main subjects on the curriculum. War came and went, his mother shacked up with another man, and nobody seemed to notice that Jimmy was still inside. He just drifted from special school to mental hospital.

As he grew up, his life became one long plateau of mind-numbing dullness, punctuated by moments of mind-boggling cruelty. There was the time, for instance, when he was lining up outside a hospital medical room to receive electroconvulsive therapy. The screams from inside made him panic and he ran. It took six hospital orderlies to catch him. They had difficulty restraining him for the treatment because they weren't allowed to strap him to the bed. 'I found out afterwards this was because when the electrodes were attached to the temples and the charge passed through you, you would leap three feet in the air. They discovered that if patients were strapped down, they would break their backs.'

Much of the cruelty, however, was not physical. He was particularly appalled by the widespread use of drugs to suppress patients. 'When I first went into hospital I met all sorts: popes, kings, a dozen Jesus Christs. These people went in and reality hit them smack in the face and they thought, 'Uh-oh, I'm going to get out of this. I'm going to be someone else.' And they were very happy as their new selves.'

Then, in the mid-Sixties, along came tranquillisers. 'It ruined their lives. No longer were they Jesus or George III, 24 hours a day they sat there gibbering. It was absolute bloody abuse.'

He would abscond frequently, but always blew it. Once he hitched to Cornwall, set himself up with work and accommodation, and thought he had escaped. Then, one day, he saw a policeman questioning someone near his lodgings. Wrongly assuming it was about him, he legged it back to Scotland, to the hospital, where he gave himself up.

'Each time I escaped, I hoped someone would say, 'Yes he can do it, he's made it, let's leave him,' ' remembered Jimmy. 'No one ever did. Without legitimacy, it was inevitable I would go back. There was a magnetic pull back to the institution, but I wasn't holding the magnet. You couldn't really be free until that signature was there on paper.'

Every time he was taken back to hospital, he was given a bath, then put to bed and made to wear pyjamas for the next three days. Often he would be punished with a course of laxatives: 'If they couldn't beat the badness out of you,' he remembered, 'they tried to make you shit it out.'

During an escape in the mid-Seventies, he went to visit his mother. It was a big mistake. Her lover, a man called Jock McNab, threw him out. So incensed was Jimmy that he went up to the first policeman he saw and announced: 'I'm Jimmy Laing. I'm going to kill Jock McNab.' With his mental-hospital record, it was not a wise thing for Jimmy to do. He was sent to Carstairs secure hospital, Scotland's Broadmoor, to which child molesters and serial killers are dispatched and from which absconding is not an issue. The length of his sentence was not specified.

In Carstairs, Jimmy became adept at playing the system, telling doctors what they wanted to hear, taking part in petty thefts from store rooms, buttering up the violent nurses. 'In the morning, you would look at the list of nurses in charge and think, 'Oh God, it's him',' he said. 'You'd know he was the one who liked tea and toast at 10, so you made sure he got it. It worked. You could get away with murder for the rest of the day. Not literally, of course.'

And in all that time, nobody ever told Jimmy what was wrong with him. All they said was that his condition was 'custodial'.

'I remember one doctor saying, 'By Christ, James, somebody's made a hell of a mistake with you.' But he never did anything about it. It was another 10 years until I was released.'

Moreover, in half a century, Jimmy never thought it was his place to ask what was wrong with him. This is what institutions did for him, encouraging a helpless acceptance of his lot. Take the incident when, having absconded, he navely accepts the offer of a bed for the night from a man he met in the street. 'During the night I was awakened by him kissing and fondling me,' Jimmy writes. 'What on earth had I got myself into? I let him bugger me.'

Institutions took away his power of self-determination and replaced it with a routine. Scoring petty triumphs over this routine was what he lived for. Was he completely institutionalised by the end? 'No, no, no,' he said. 'I hate that word, it's a horrible word. No, I kept my sanity. I'm not quite sure how, but I had an inner determination to overcome it. God knows where it came from.'

Jimmy shows no hint of self-pity. When he was asked what was the worst thing that happened to him in 50 years in hospital, he paused, then said: 'It was something that I witnessed almost every day. It was when old people were admitted to the hospital. It was the practice of the nurses to take the wedding ring, a mark of love that had been there perhaps 60 years, off their finger. And they took away their other personal effects and put them in envelopes. Then they would run an inventory, one nurse with a clipboard, one looking at the patient. 'What colour's his socks?' 'Brown.' 'What colour's his trousers?' 'Blue.' They didn't see the pain they were causing. Among the many horrors, this was the most obscene.'

Fortunately, this was not to be Jimmy's fate. Despite the sneers of the nurses ('you'll be back, son') he survived triumphantly when he was released, by a more enlightened regime, in 1987. He wrote his book on the advice of his wife, whom he married in the halfway hospital he was sent to after Carstairs. 'It was a cleansing exercise,' he said. 'I had no idea it would be published, nor that it would touch so many people.'

Now he is feted by the psychiatric establishment whose members used only to patronise him. He has recently been appointed visiting lecturer on mental illness at Caledonian University in Glasgow ('I hope my old doctors read that.')

And now, here he is, the man who was for 50 years regarded as too much of a risk to be let out, rubbing shoulders with Melvyn Bragg and Fay Weldon, delivering an accomplished speech at a literary luncheon.

What would have happened to him, did he think, if, aged 59, he had been released and hadn't written his book? 'I shudder to think,' he said. 'But it is not so much the book which gave me support. It is my wife. Without her, I expect I would have ended up down there at Waterloo under the arches. I am extremely lucky.

'I was signing books in Bournemouth the other day and this old man of 75 came up to me and said with great pride: 'Fifty years in the system? That's nothing. I did 60.' You see, I am not alone. There are an awful lot of Jimmy Laings.'

'Fifty Years in the System', by Jimmy Laing with Dermot McQuarrie, is published by Corgi, pounds 5.99.

(Photograph omitted)