Saturday, 24 July 2010


One of the incidental pleasures of second hand bookshops is the conversation – yours or other peoples.

Lost amongst the shelves in a large London shop last weekend I listened to some talk between a staff member (owner?) and a customer. He once worked in the psychiatric establishment and she is a therapist (or psychiatrist). They were talking of the changes that have taken place over the last 50 years, and how the idealism of the 1960s has been transformed in the corporate model, that we see today. A period that has seen the idealism of a person-centred approach transformed into the profit motive, where the drug companies and bureaucracies rule.

It was a fascinating conversation, perfect accompaniment to browsing amongst the books. There was his experience of the old psychiatric world: of eccentrics and outsiders still locked up in asylums; the old libraries of the staff (the basis of this shop’s origins?); and of safe communities, eg on the Isle of Mull, where the mentally ill support themselves. And her views: the current melange of corporate control and patient’s rights - a corruption of the patient’s advocacy movement of the 1960s; of the transformation of good ideas (when people start getting paid to do the work?); and the need for professionals to have values…

The last point was particularly interesting: is it possible for a member of staff to understand and help someone with a mental illness? Or, as a current trend would have it, is it only those with an illness who can understand it. Yes! she thought, if a person has the experience, understanding and values. And these people are needed – for those who cannot help themselves (eg for people who need help to self-medicate). This sparked off a constellation of examples from the shop owner: examples of where understanding and sympathy allowed for non-interventionist treatments, working with the mental constructs and habits of the patient. For, of course, whilst they shared similar assumptions, and had very similar perspectives, they also had profound differences; for the owner appeared to be very close to the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s, and thus far more in favour of patient independence and autonomy.

Who is right? Does it matter? Not having the knowledge or experience I couldn’t possibly say. It was the quality of the conversation that counted on the day, and is something, perhaps, that only the second hand trade can create. Are they the last home of those eccentrics and outsiders?

Unlike Waterstones, which seems a perfect metaphor for the way good ideas become corrupted over time. Once a marvellous book chain, but now committed to survival, and thus the watering down of its stock – even the Hampstead shop has now declined, with gifts and cards where once lived an excellent selection of fiction.

This is often forgotten: that ideas have a life of their own, they grow and mutate; they are not fixed in time, to be applied without variation to all periods and situations (think of the use of Adam Smith in current intellectual discourse – turned into a sort of statue, monumentalized in the newspapers and enterprise institutes). Ideas change with use; and if they are popular they will, over time, take on the aspects of the dominant culture. The clearest example is democracy. In theory we run the country. In practice we merely observe the power plays of the corporate world. That is, the idea of democracy has changed – it has become essentially a passive medium, where we select from a limited number of political brands; brands, of course, that have as much relation to the nature, and the interests, of a political party as do Heinz Baked Beans to the corporation that owns it.

An astonishing book that shows how this happens is Peter Brown’s, The Rise of Western Christendom. Just one example from hundreds:

In the West, a strong current of opinion… expected that the triumphant grace of God would show itself within society, in the form of holy persons who were, more often than not, called to be leaders of the Catholic Church. Grace enabled such persons to “overcome the world.”… Holiness and ecclesiastical office tended to converge… [they became] rulers of cities and the embodiment of law and order in Gaul and in other western regions.

This was not so in the East. In Syria and Egypt, and elsewhere in the territories of the Eastern empire, the Holy Spirit was thought to have raised up holy men and women in great numbers outside society, in the desert…

…only in the “desert” – that is, in a place to one side of settled life – could a few great ascetics bring back, through long penance and hard labour on their own bodies, a touch of the angelic glory which Adam had enjoyed in the Garden of Eden.

The ascetic and the worldly woman: our shop owner and his customer?

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