The unholy alliance that filled our cities with poor naked wretches

Lunatic asylums existed to protect the mentally ill from themselves, but not as much as to protect us from them
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The Independent Online

Funny, how a word can come to mean the opposite to itself. Take asylum. When we speak of asylum-seekers, we hear sanctuary, an inviolable place of shelter and refuge, any forced removal from which we view as sacrilege.

Funny, how a word can come to mean the opposite to itself. Take asylum. When we speak of asylum-seekers, we hear sanctuary, an inviolable place of shelter and refuge, any forced removal from which we view as sacrilege.

Yoke the word asylum to lunatic, however, and its sanctified beneficence immediately vanishes. In this "asylum" we hear confinement, exile, oblivion, cruelty - a place more custodial than curative and more punitive than compassionate, a hellhole of institutionalised heartlessness. Once upon a time Bedlam itself was simply the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem, but the benign associations of Bethlehem have drowned in the gibberings of madness.

I grew up in Prestwich, a parish famous for its lunatic asylum and nothing else. You told people where you came from and they pulled an idiot's face. At school, the boys from Whitefield and Radcliffe would shout abuse at the boys from Prestwich, making gestures with their hands as though to turn the screw that was loose in our brains. Though I have no memory of being threatened with incarceration in "Prestwich" as a child, you couldn't have an address which was a byword for insanity without fearing it a bit.

You would ride past the gates of the asylum on a bus and shudder. In truth, you couldn't see much other than the asylum's gardens from the road, but then what you can't see is always worse than what you can. What happened in there? Who were the inmates? What did they do to them? And more worrying still - what, if any of them escaped, would they do to us? It seems worth stressing, this: what we feared most was not losing our reason and being sent to Prestwich ourselves, but the number of homicidal maniacs on our doorstep. Such places existed, of course, to protect the mentally ill from themselves, but not as much as they existed to protect us from their illness.

I visited Prestwich, in the company of a male nurse who happened to be a family friend, not long before it closed. By then it had changed its name to Prestwich Hospital, dropping the "Lunatic" and the "Asylum" in deference to the daintiness of modern sensibilities. Perhaps because I was in a state of total terror the whole time I was there, I remember little of the visit except an encounter with a tomomaniac - a person with an irrational desire to be the object of surgery. A cheerful middle-aged man who was capable of whistling at the same time as he talked, he had been trying to have his stomach removed ever since his arrival at Prestwich. For 15 years he had been thwarted in this ambition by the refusal of surgeons to remove an organ that didn't have a thing wrong with it. Today, though, he was jubilant. "Look," he said to the nurse, lifting his shirt and showing the scars. "No stomach! Didn't I tell you?" Whether it was exasperation with the medical profession that gave him the disease, or whether he gave it himself by sheer force of will, he had finally contracted the cancer he had always wanted, thus answering every reasonable objection to his stomach's removal. I have never seen a man so happy or so vindicated. Not only did he have no stomach, he had triumphantly demonstrated that he never should have had a stomach.

Moral of the story: if at first you don't succeed ...

The other moral of the story: a tomomaniac acts by principles which are alien to ours and, no matter how sweet his temperament, needs to be governed by different rules. I am not saying that a man who cannot wait to be rid of his own organs will feel the same about other people's. But I am saying that we cannot, with any certainty, know what he is going to feel about anything at any time. A team of people who are meant to ascertain these things did not foretell that Peter Bryan was going to fry his penultimate victim's brains in butter, although he had already beaten a 20-year old-girl to death with a hammer, and otherwise, in and out of remedial custody, evinced dangerous and aggressive behaviour. As a society we are undeniably the more civilised for not ourselves frying the brains of every psychopath we find. But that it is civilised not to learn from experience, not to measure likelihood from history, not to make an assessment of a person's character based upon the pattern of his actions and predilections, I refuse to believe.

The improvability of man is a fine idea, but it needs tempering with a little dose of natural guilt. Not least as those who work in the improvability of man industry are more than usually susceptible to flattery.

The tomomaniac might be vain of his eviscerated body, but his vanity is as nothing compared to that of those who rescue the wicked from their wickedness. Christian or scientist, the allure is the same. To me, did Myra Hindley confide the secrets of her damaged mind! With my guidance did we steer her soul back to God! The failings of our mental health system can be sheeted back to an unholy alliance of political parties. Yes, it's the left who have ideological problems with detention, but it's the right who don't like spending the money. "Care in the Community", that open sesame which turned our cities into Lear's heath, with houseless beggars, poor naked wretches, and ranting fools on every corner, was Mrs Thatcher's damaged brainchild.

Not to spare minds did she close the asylums, but to save a quid. And asylumlessness plays well enough with New Labour. It sounds like civil liberties, it has the ring of human rights - not taking people just a little odder than the rest of us off the streets.

In the meantime, please note that it was the Home Office that wanted Peter Bryan kept inside, and a tribunal which included a High Court judge (maybe one who believes we have nothing to fear from terrorism) that let him out.