"Tony Jackson" by Mike Lesser.
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Date: Sun, 25 Sep 2011 Time: 10:42 AM
We tend to associate the places that we have visited with the people that were with us at the time. Tony and I saw heaven and hell together. He is my friend. By no deliberate choice we were born into identical worlds, by accident we share a common sky. I did not meet Tony; he was one of the phenomena that loomed out of the fog and havoc of my first school.
Marshal McLuhan noticed that the school room is a place from which everyday life has been scrupulously excluded. Burning with the desire to discover, I experienced school as a broad and determined attempt to eradicate my curiosity. Education seemed to be a self contradictory exercise. As a child I was amazed at my elders' ability as hypocrites. In this tormented land of intellectual subduction and petty brutality I found one or two like spirits. Tony and I could hardly be said to have been friends at this time. He was eighteen months younger and the arbitrary distinctions of age and form served to separate us. Even so we stood too often one behind the other outside the head master’s door in the queue for beatings to be unaware of each others metal.
He was a ruthless fighter in the struggle against tyranny. Although an organizer and leader of savage forays he was equally as willing to hurl himself single handed against the edifices of ignorance and folly. Mostly those in authority would peel him from their persons or psyche and gripping him between the finger and thumb of one extended hand would drop him in the queue for thrashing.
He was discovered on one occasion, well after lights out, under his bed with a block of toilet bowl perfume and a dry cell battery. In reply to the head master’s demand for an explanation he confessed that he was trying to blow up the school. He added with a shrug that he must have got hold of a dud battery and, Without being asked, he bent over for his beating.
Our elders and betters did not however get it all their own way. For instance although they could not claim to have had the satisfaction of actually killing any of us Tony could truthfully have made that boast. Mr. Wells, a new master at the school, had been crippled by a gas attack in the first world war. He was a chokeing twitching shuddering wreck of a man. It was his doom to be put in charge of the fourth form during the time that Tony and another notorious kid called Christopher Cabanos were doing their bit to ensure that the form maintained its traditional reputation for violent lunacy. They had a sure grip on the job having been in the form for several terms. If academic merit had been the sole criteria for promotion they, I, and a vast host of others would probably be there to this day.
Pandemonium broke out before Mr. Wells had taken more than half a dozen steps into the class room on the first day of term. Legend has it that Tony and Cabanos took one look at the shaking figure in the door and actually fell out of their desks laughing. At this the rest of the form exploded into paroxysms of mirth so loud that the head master rushed from our class-room, grabbed Tony by the hair and thrashed him in the corridor.
Undeterred by this and countless other beatings the class was subsequently unable to see Mr. Wells twitching through the door without breaking up. It had become a reflex. When it became clear that this situation was to earn them shower after shower of blows they became bitter and restive. It was in this spirit that they initiated the train of action that was, in the end, to lead to pedagogicide; that is the killing of one's teacher with malice aforethought.
There were two pianos in the school. They were lodged in small cubicles, one on the ground and one on the first floor. The upper music room was bright and airy. A copy of the Daily Telegraph was left there each morning. It was a meeting place for discussion between the more serious minded of the senior boys. The windows of the lower music room were obscured by the laurel bushes that grew outside. The dark and slightly smelly room was a haunt of dissident members of the lower school.
Tony and his friends found a novel use for this obscure pit, they played the piano there. They did not however sit enraptured whilst the more talented of their number exposed the wonders of the great masters. They composed a death chant.
The first essential was to pack the room so tight that the windows misted over. This called for more weight than the fourth form alone could muster and selected members of the third and even the second forms were recruited. Until the air became so thick that the weight of the mass of writhing bodies was partially supported by the turgid atmosphere, the music could not begin.
There were no preliminaries. Tony and Chris Cabanos sat cross-legged side by side level with the keyboard on the heads and bodies writhing on the floor beneath them. They struck up the rhythm giving the keys prodigious two handed blows with the heels of a pair of shoes. An answering chant burst forth from thirty hysterical throats.
I never learned all the words but they would invariably end the performance with five savage smashes on the keyboard and the words "Boo to Mister Wells."
This final chorus echoed all over the school. After a short period during which he appeared a little grayer and shakier each day Mr. Wells finally took to his bed. The chant continued unabated, penetrating even into his small attic bedroom. He grew worse and was shortly removed to hospital.
The chanting stopped and there the matter would have ended had it not been for the intervention of Mr. Candleflax the head master, a man of China missionary stock. Candleflax was tormented by the fact that although the fourth form had won a significant and highly public victory, there was no way in which he could invent a school rule against sorcery with which to restore the position. To prosecute them for rudeness would, he understood, have missed the point. He finally decided that the guilty pair should accompany him on a visit to their victim in hospital.
Unaware of the fatal disaster brewing around him he coached them in conventional expressions of sympathy as they bumped and rattled their way to the hospital in his antique but pristine Austin.
Tony utterly forgot his instructions the moment they arrived at the bedside. “I'm sorry we've killed you Sir," he blurted. Wells, stiffened up to this time through all the long years of suffering by a soldier's pride, confronted with an officially sanctioned parade of his infirmities, took an agonized look at his small, tormentors then closed his eyes and sank into a coma from which he was never to recover.
I lost touch with Tony when I left the school and I did not see him again until the early sixties. It was a wild time in London. There was a rocketing demand for drugs excited by the newspapers' daily reports of the rich and famous endorsing the product by being brought to trial for its possession.
Within this whirlpool Tony had developed a new style of dealing hashish and was doing well. Abandoning the tradition of a discrete flat and a clientel of trusted regular customers he had moved his show onto the street. It was not possible to arrange to see him but every now and again, in someone's flat, at a pop show, on the pavement. or even in an underground train you might cross the path of a herd of shambling dopers in the middle of which would be Tony doing a roaring trade. When the opportunity arose I dragged him to one side and asked him about his operation. Ruthlessly interrupting himself and frequently lapsing into gibberish he told me that he had discovered that the more dope he gave away the more he could sell. He provided two lieutenants with enough to keep them continuously rolling and passing out reefers; the mob, he affirmed, seemed to gather of its own accord. Safe, within this cloud of excess, he transacted business ranging from the sale of innumerable finger sized chunks extracted from the kilo in the bag slung over his shoulder to deals in which, acting as agent or broker, he would arrange for the disposal of lorry loads of the stuff. He believed that he had arranged things so that he was down hill to the demand. All he had to do was dance out his part of the measure and he reckoned that the business had to roll towards him. The only drawback that he had discovered was that he had to stay on the move. The moment that he stopped the magical fields reverse their polarity and his cloak of invisibility turned into a medium sized riot. He admitted that, excellent though the arrangement was from the commercial point of view, the strain of staying on the move twenty four hours a day was beginning to tell on him. He said that it was not so bad at night because the mob thinned a little and that he often managed to catch a couple of hours sleep in the afternoon by herding the whole circus down into the underground railway system to ride round and round the circle line.
I ran into him again a few weeks later. He was utterly wasted. Wide eyed, his face locked into a grinning spasm, he confided that business was booming. Proudly, but with a shaking hand, he patted his pockets and the bags and bundles with which he was festooned, confiding in a hoarse but gleeful whisper that they were all full either of hashish or money. He informed me that the problem of resting was over since he had discovered that if he took enough dope he did not have to sleep at all.
It hardly came as a surprise to hear that he had been taken to a mental hospital having tried to join a cinema queue without any clothes on and had been hustled away in a police van loudly protesting that they must be mad to treat God in such a disrespectful way.
I went to visit him in the mad house with a mutual friend by the name of Robert. Robert had a penchant for straight jobs; every now and again he would shock everyone by turning up in his working cloths. Innocent passers by occasionally got their brains strained by the sight of this old Harrovian in black brogues and a pin–stripe three piece suit chain smoking reefers whilst assuring the less determined that we would take out the British Army before they noticed that the fight had started. Amongst the few of us that knew what appalling scams brewed beneath that impeccable exterior he became known as the anarchist werewolf.
Tony said that things had started to get freaky, "You know, demons and eyes and seeing peoples’ auras and things," after he had been without sleep for about three weeks. He finally decided to stop taking the dope but in spite of this, things did not go back to normal. When he began to suspect that he was never going be able to go to sleep again the terror began in earnest.
Since he had been inside he reckoned that he had sorted it all out. The fact of the matter was that Adolph Hitler had won the war and was now washing dishes at the center of the moon. It was obvious that he was quite off his rocker. He informed us triumphantly that in the nut house the telepaths were eating at the government’s expense.
Being firm believers in the rights of the individual we were content to see Tony comfortably installed in the place where he so obviously wanted to be. Our satisfaction with this state of affairs was abruptly ended by a phone call from Stanley Jackson, Tony' father, a rich and successful promoter of intangible assets. He told us that the doctors wanted to administer electroshock therapy. Thinking the man to be an out and out conformist and convinced that he would slavishly obey any order given to him by a uniform or a white coat I spent a frantic ten minutes denouncing the psychomedical profession and the so called treatment. When I ran dry he explained that he had no intention of letting them do such a thing to his boy. He had telephoned to enquire if Robert or I had any suggestions as to action.
We agreed in the end that although none of us could claim to have any deep knowledge of the inner workings of the mind we had no intention of allowing them to fry what was left of Tony' brains. He was to be removed from the hands of those who would contemplate such an act.
“We have come for Tony Jackson." We informed the blue uniformed doorman sitting in his dusty glass cubicle with the air of something that had been stuffed last century and was waiting till it became fashionable again.
"Ward B. Third floor." He muttered, consulting a list in front of him without moving his head. We fancied that we were home and dry as we strode down a nightmare of a corridor which combined the stench of hospital antiseptic with the architecture from a gothic horror novel.
"Can I help you? " enquired a fat little male nurse at the door of the ward. He asked the question in a way that made it clear that he hoped we wanted to gargle with prussic acid or practice leaping from the tops of tall buildings.
"I've come to take Tony Jackson home. I'm his father."
"Well you can't," The nurse snapped and turned and walked away.
"Excuse me." The man turned, warned by the tone of Robert' voice that he was about to be assaulted.
"Yes?" he snarled, his fear turned to anger by an obviously habitual trick of internal alchemy.
Robert smiled, his rage apparently evaporated. "Are you really in charge of this whole vast place?" he asked in a voice soft with awe.
"Of Course not."
"Then," said Robert in the savage tone used to tell skittish children that the game is up "go and get your boss."
We waited in the sterile vault with our hearts in our boots. Finally a white coated figure appeared at the furthest end of the corridor. It was obvious from the manner in which he strode towards us that he was enraged. His every movement was charged with scarcely suppressed violence. "What do you want?” He demanded in a loud voice whilst still some distance off.
We waited until he came to a halt a few feet in front of us.
"How do you do?” oozed Robert, “This is Mr. Jackson, Who, may I ask, are you?”
“I’m the head nurse of this ward. What do you want?"
"Do you have the authority to discharge Tony Jackson?” Robert asked the question in a way that made it sound hypothetical.
"I most certainly do not."
"Would you tell us who does?"
"Only the doctor in charge of a case can release a patient," He seemed to draw some satisfaction from our apparent ignorance of the protocol of National Health Service mad houses.
"Then would you get the Doctor, please?" Robert still smiled the smile of a clockwork diplomat.
"I most certainly will not."
"Oh dear," sighed Mr. Jackson. "Then we had better go and find him. Come on boys," He turned and began down the passage.
The Head Nurse overtook us in three strides. "Wait here." he snarled over his shoulder.
We waited there and we waited there. We waited there until we were on the brink of putting into action the dire plans that had been forming in our minds. We had become desperate men by the time another nurse, female this time, came to usher us on our way with a bright and cheerful "Dr. Signat will see you now."
Within an office a horse faced doctor made a crude attempt to ignore us by shuffling important papers across his desk, It was an impression marred only slightly by his surreptitious attempts to adjust his obviously hastily donned white coat.
Without looking up he muttered "Please sit. I'll be with you in a moment."
True to his word, in a moment he looked up, smiled and clasped his hands in front of him on the desk, "Now about this therapy. We really must get Tony well, mustn’t we? Its a simple matter. If you will just sign this" he offered Mr. Jackson a printed form, "We can get on with the treatment."
Dimly aware that his words had produced something other than the desired effect the smile on the Doctor's face became fixed. His hand stopped half way through the act of offering the paper.
"Put it down," said Mr. Jackson in that impeccably neutral voice that hard men hold in reserve for moments of great stress. "You know I've come to take Tony home."
"I'm afraid that’s impossible," the Doctor began in a strangled voice. Then, taking a grip of himself he became grave and confiding. "You do understand that we are discussing a schizophrenic. Probably incurable." He shook his head.
"Do you have a telephone?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Jackson, what did you say?" asked the Doctor startled out of his sombre reverie.
"Do you have a telephone?"
"What for?" asked the doctor, now completely out of his depth.
"I want my solicitor down here before we continue with this conversation."
The Doctor leapt to his feet with a croaking sound and scrambled out the door with out further word. Seeking to smooth over a rather abrupt departure I carried the phone over to Mr. Jackson. He shook his head. "No need for that. He's gone to sort it out." We sat, mostly in silence, frozen in the ugly little office chairs for a full hour before the Doctor returned. In his hand he clutched a sheaf of typewritten pages.
"Please sign this.” He dumped the papers on the edge of the desk and stood back waiting.
It was an amazing document. We were to acknowledge that, knowingly and against medical advice, we were taking into our charge an incurable and possibly dangerous schizophrenic. Whatever the outcome of our act the hospital could in no way be held responsible. The old man signed it and passed it back without a word.
Within minutes we were out of the place and stuck in the nice friendly traffic jam that lurks around Clapham Common. In the back huddled Tony, shaven headed and utterly demoralized.
"Tony do you understand what's going down?" asked Robert. " They were going to give you electroshock therapy and your old man decided to spring you. You're going to come and stay with us in the country.”
Tony nodded. Later when he was in better shape he said that it had been just bearable up to the moment when he had felt well enough to defy the nurse on the ward. Before he knew what was happening three nurses leapt on him wilst a fourth banged a syringe full of Largactil through his trousers into his thigh. Largactil is a downer, if injected in large enough quantities it has a paralyzing effect.
He lay where he had been dumped, face down on his bed. It took more than. a minute before he could take a breath and an hour before He could move a finger. It was during this hour that his frantic imagination and the casual violence of his captors combined to convince him that he had fallen into hell. He accepted the prospect of electroshock therapy as a logical development of this situation. He reckoned, in retrospect, that his friends’ reaction to the treatment was the first hint that he might not, after all, be condemned to eternal torment.
When we arrived home we explained that as long as he remained within the house and garden he could be as mad as he wished but that if he strayed amongst the public there was a good chance that he would end up with his brains being fried. He absorbed the information with the grave acceptance of a serious child.
His madness had begun with his rejection of what he considered to be exterior constraints. It had gained its dreadful momentum from the will that he had exerted in his struggle to purge what he thought of as other from what he judged to be self. It was obvious that he would return to sanity, not so much because he was now prepared to test his assumptions but more that he had accepted once again that his reality was the product of social interaction.
In the beginning it was far from easy. Despite taking massive doses of depressant drugs he hardly ever slept. We were frequently aroused from our slumbers by a diffident and highly apologetic Tony driven past the point of courtesy by the boredom of his twenty four hour day. Believing that this problem was in itself a sign of recovery, raving nuts are never bored, we slept in shifts so that he could enjoy company most of the time.
We talked away the nights investigating the borders of madness. We decided that each person's lunacy was as unique as their sanity. We reckoned that people went mad to try to escape the burden of sanity but that it turned out that even if you gave up pushing the cart you had to go on shifting the load. It seemed to us that although the conventions of normality were absurd and often self contradictory the patterns of every day life also contained subtle elements that served to correct catastrophic imbalances. Do it yourself realities seemed to lack these elements and tended to precipitate their inventors into a rigid system of delusion, mania or catatonic depression.
In an atmosphere of intelligent and friendly curiosity Tony' condition rapidly improved. We stolidly refused to accept or even discuss his delusions. He began to abandon then when it became clear to him that their sole function was to exclude him from the conversation. Within a month He was off the downers and within six weeks He seemed in every way normal. We decided to celebrate Christmas in London, camping in the luxury flat of Robert' parents who were out of town on their midwinter cruise. It was in these plush surroundings that the final crisis occurred.
The central heating, the solidity of the furniture, the vast colour television and the acres of sand coloured fitted carpet, the bulging cocktail cabinet, excellent hashish and bevy of French girls kindly provided by one of the guests all combined to produce a most convivial atmosphere. Tony, whose mania had been somewhat tinged with religion, became absorbed in a television transmission from the Catholic Cathedral at Westminster. The sound of the High Mass and the cataracts of gold mosaic filled him with ecstasy. This exultation jarred most horribly with his frustration at discovering that the one French girl that he fancied had arrived firmly in the clutches of our otherwise faultlessly generous guest.
It came to him in this slightly fevered state that what he needed was a blast of hash. To the delight of the guests he sat himself on the floor, surrounded himself with the impedimenta and loaded up a hookah bowl in the style that had made him famous, The chillum - a hookah bowl smoked directly in the mouth rather than on a water pipe - was ignited with much ceremony. Tony, as both tradition and pyrodynamics demanded, wreathed himself in clouds of fragrant smoke with four or five gasping drags. He did not look too good when he ambled out after passing the pipe but then blasting a chillum into life is no part of a nature cure.
In fact the agonized look on his face was but a small part of it. As the dope hit him he had with eidetic clarity recalled one of the Doctors warning him that if he ever took hallucinogenic drugs again he would become finally and irrevocably mad.
A few minutes later he crawled back through the door and gasped out my name. “Mike, I'm so frightened." He spoke so softly that I had to bend over to hear him.
I tried to help him to his feet and like a pair of shattered housewives coming out of a bombed supermarket, we staggered down the deep pile corridor. His breath came in desperate gasps and he was shaken with huge spastic twitches. It was hard to keep him on his feet; he seemed to want to curl up into a ball.
We fell through the first unlocked door onto a dust sheet shrouded room. Tony crouched on the floor in the foetal position shaking like a blancmange in a railway carriage. His breath was so irregular that I thought he might suffocate.
"Tony, you have got to breathe." No reaction. "Can you hear me man? You must breathe." Bellowed inches from his face it produced a faint moan.
“In…Out…In… Out…” I shrieked. Gradually his broken panting began to fall into the rhythm of the shouted instructions. Then, through clenched teeth he ground out the single word, "Cold."
He was rigid shivering and covered in a clammy sweat. I piled him with the covers from the bed and crawled in beside him. As he warmed he became less rigid and the twitching redoubled in intensity. Drowning in a fresh wave of panic the rhythm of his breathing broke and he curled back into a quaking ball.
I suppose I must have lost my temper, we seemed to be going one step forward and two back. Yanking his wrists above his head I flattened him out by rolling on top of him. Pushing my mouth over his I sucked and blew at his lungs. His convulsions made it hard to keep him pinned down.
"Fuck you Tony, you've just got to breathe. In, out, in, out." I shouted, desperate and by now quite as mad him. "Don't you remember anything? We have got to share breath. You are lost amongst your own projections. You're lost in the fucking bardos."
At first his movements were strong but random. I had to yield to him to keep my grip. I could feel that he was surprised to understand that the firm yields to the clinging and so we rolled across the floor wrestling out the habits and postures that build into the game of sanity.
Tony was really fighting now. I realized that if I didn't hang on I was going to get beaten up. “I can breathe." He snarled. I pulled my head away and the fight continued with redoubled vigour as we both now had a better chance to breathe.
Gradually it began to dawn on him that he did not know what we were fighting about. Finally he relaxed. I rolled off the top of him. He drew a deep breath. "God almighty!" He exclaimed. And he laughed. I laughed too.
It is impossible to explain exactly why we laughed. I suppose we laughed to learn that Tony had never been mad and we laughed because it was also clear that he had never been sane. And, of course, to learn that the same went for me. And, of course, to learn that the same goes for you.
About the Author
This is a true story, none of the names have been changed & the innocent are definitely being protected.
Mike Lesser & Tony Jackson attended William Ellis School, Hampstead, London, together in the 1950s & became good friends. The third member of their triumvirate, Robert Tasher, was also a good friend. This article was written before Tony died. And so Tony was originally called Louis in the article, actually his middle name.
In those days ECT was considered a reliable means of tranquillising psychotics; you just turned up the voltage & current until they became vegetables. Horrible. Permanent often. Damaging always. See Electroconvulsive Therapy (Wikipedia).
Nowadays Lithium the 'preferred' treatment , though Largactil is still used.
See Tony Jackson (The Flower Raj Encyclopaedia page for Tony). And his photo album Tony Jackson Photos.
Sun, 25 Sep 2011 at 7:01 PM, by
I went to see Tony when he was in Tooting Bec hospital with another Tony who was/is a psychiatrist. I think he was at school with Tony J and Mike too. Tony J was apparently calm and coherent when we visited him. Perhaps he'd been dosed with Largactil, My recollection is that Tony J had become involved with the Aetherius Society and was delusional about alien visitors from distant galaxies.
I remember Tony J with huge affection -- despite the fact that he landed a punch on me on one occasion that sent me reeling to the pavement outside 56 Prince of Wales Rd -- the squat Tony donated to me before he set off on an ill-fated trip to Afghanistan... but that's another, longer story.
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