Outer Squalor, Inner Ecstasy

by Calum Armstrong


There’s a scene in The Look of Love the 2013 biopic of adult entertainment mogul and one time richest man in Britain Paul Raymond – where the self styled ‘sex king of Soho’ (played by Steve Coogan) tries to impress his date with a little story:

Soho, as Raymond tells us, was where our childhood history class favourite Henry VIII would go to hunt. His hunting cry of choice you ask? Those two ebullient syllables: ‘So-Ho!’

The best part of 500 years later and Soho remains a hunting ground. Central London very soon had itself a 2 and half square kilometre sandpit for the sordid. The pursuit of pleasure facilitated by the many pubs, clubs and ‘alternative shops’ that sprouted up in Soho over the rolling decades would allow a great many to find a place for their then culturally divergent interests (be they dicks, drugs or disco) to nest and find nurture.

But the dream is dying, and Henry’s hunting cry has fallen away into dark and fretful echoes…

Source: Amazon

Matty hangs out of the window gasping lungfuls of London air until he feels the snake crushing his chest being to slacken. Another Valium and he is able to slow his system long enough to admire his shaking hands cease their frenzied conduction. The night sweat of panic dries saltily upon his body and rational thought returns to battle the visions in his nightmare.

Soho in the time of late capitalism is where Venetia Welby chose to set her debut novel Mother of Darkness, the world wherein protagonist Matty Corani (young, rich, doomed) battles demons awoken by the death of his mother amidst Central London’s carousel of pain and pleasure.

Corani’s world has boiled down to a sad pantomime of archetypal figures: he swings between visits to his drug dealer ‘Fix’ and his therapist Dr Sykes (always ‘Dr Psycho’ to Matty) as he wrestles for release amidst the material and spiritual decay of Soho’s eerie shimmer just beyond his bedroom window.

For Welby, Matty feels like someone she may have herself known through the friends she made during the formative adult spent years living and working in London. Welby was a friend of the late Rupert Green, whose tragic suicide earlier this year brought urgent attention to the need to reform UK drug policy via his father Lord Monson’s impassioned public campaign.

However, upon reading MOD it is somewhat surprising that Welby’s debut novel had not burst out sooner, with her nimble prose and ambitious conceptual thrust reminding the reader of Will Self’s work (albeit in a more digestible form) and Soho legend Sebastian Horsley’s phenomenal Dandy in the Underworld.

With the utter void of constructive, drug policy persisting to blight old Blighty – where a great many of the poor and homeless live in constant chaos at the hands of Spice, and the suicide rates of young adults among all class groups tick ever upwards, I spoke to Welby to discover her writerly perspective on mental health and drugs in the UK.

Venetia Welby and James Elliot (Source: Charles Dawes, Tatler)

What motivated you to explore drug addiction amongst young adults (in particular men such as Matty) in Mother of Darkness?                                                

It started more as an exploration of escapism – the idea of a young man’s reality being so unbearable that it’s preferable to block it out and live within the worlds of his own mind. Matty is in crisis and attempting to carry on with his life, though that life as he knew it is over and now full of grief and guilt. Drugs enable him to disappear from this daily horror show and access the infinite possibilities of his vast, if somewhat egocentric, inner worlds. I wondered at what point this internal reality becomes not just more compelling but more convincing than the external world.

In what ways do you think modern psychiatry can help public understanding of mental illness, and in what ways do you think it can harm our collective understanding?

I’m no expert on modern psychiatry – but I did do some psychological research as Matty’s visits to his shrink, Dr Psycho as he fondly refers to her, form a framework of objective reality through the novel. In my twenties I shared a flat with a university friend who was training to be a psychiatrist, doing endless night shifts.

More recently, I edited the book of a Jungian analyst and consulted a psychotherapist with an interest in attachment theory – they both directed me to various excellent books on mother, messiah and Peter Pan complexes, and the narcissism that goes hand in hand with all three.

From what I understand, psychotherapeutic schools of thought are hugely diverse; there is no one-size-fits-all approach, which is probably a good thing, given how different we all are. I keep hearing the term ‘neurodiversity’ and a call for society to appreciate it as we do biodiversity. Maybe psychiatry is too quick to label every aspect of divergent personality – certainly the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has grown in girth magnificently over the last century. It started with four entries and now has around six hundred.  

MoDis your debut novel, what challenges (if any) did you face in getting your book published, and what advice would you have for other aspiring novelists who may find themselves in a similar position to the one you yourself have been in? 

Lots of challenges! Not least getting the book into publishable shape, which took some time and experimentation. I naively thought that once picked up by a literary agent my path to publishing success was assured, but it doesn’t always work like that. The subject matter of MoD is raw and dark but also blackly comic, which is probably quite a risky mixture for a publisher to take on… so I was thrilled when Quartet Books, who have a reputation for being brave and alternative, decided to do so.

To aspiring novelists, I would say, try to arrange your life so the pressure on your writing to be successful is minimal. Don’t expect it to make money, and don’t give up the day job (though making it freelance is helpful). Write about something you find utterly fascinating, irrespective of whether it’s a popular theme. You simply can’t second-guess what publishers will be interested in by the time your masterpiece is ready for lift-off. And it will prove essential to be wholly absorbed by your subject matter if you’re going to come back to it time and time again. Finally, never give up. Writing is a craft – you get better at it as you go, and you gain more experience as you live.

How have you found the reception to MoD– in what ways have your opinions on drug related issues changed between the conception of MoDand the reception?

It’s been generally very positive. A few people have said they felt I’d told their own story, or that of someone close to them, which has been reassuring and saddening in equal measure. In most cases I had no idea the person had been through anything like Matty’s experience, which is I suppose proof of the continuing stigma of mental illness. People are still very reluctant to talk about it. Some newspapers felt that a tale of drug addiction and madness would be too dark for their readers. I feel just the opposite, and want to bring these taboos and the shadow side of the psyche into the light.

In what ways does the UK, in your opinion, have a different cultural relationship to drugs than other countries around the world?

As there is between rich and poor in the UK, there’s a chasm dividing those who take drugs to party and those who do so to escape reality. There’s a hedonism in the cities and music festivals of the UK that seems more permissive than most, but we also seem to have a gravely floundering stance on drug addiction of the poverty-stricken, homeless or mentally ill. We are unsure of the boundary between sick and criminal, and hopeless at helping or curbing either. We don’t seem to know what the hell we’re doing, in other words. Does anyone else? My experience is limited. I did some tutoring in a ‘luxury’ rehab centre in the Arizonan desert once and was amazed by the cult-like language, the prison-like structure and the quasi-Eastern philosophies. These places are, above all else, most lucrative businesses.

What are your plans for your writing in the future, and would you ever explore drug related issues in a future novel?

I’m working on a new novel, and yes, absolutely – I think the contrast between the outer squalor and inner ecstasy of drug use is a rich seam for stories, as is the strange machinery of state intervention and rehab.

You can purchase Mother of Darkness via Amazon. Venetia Welby will be teaching at a creative writing retreat in Montenegro, with a view places still available. Tweets @venwelby

Calum Armstrong is a freelance journalist and consultant specialising in drug culture and policy. He was formerly Staff Writer at Volteface, and his work has also been published in The Influence. Tweets @vf_calum

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