Daniel Morgan: Three months in Horton Hospital, Epsom, Surrey - 1966

It was London, 1966, I was 24, and losing the plot. My lover and myself had broken up a couple of years earlier after a three year relationship which was both tumultuous and ill-fated and I was still reeling. I had lost my job as a stage manager in the west-end and was dossing with friends in Bayswater. I was using prescribed drugs for depression and had developed a crippling form of eczema on the palms of my hands which cracked open the lines and made them bleed: for a while I developed a Jesus-complex and was convinced I had the stigmata! I continued in a downward spiral of confusion and misery until, unable to bear it any longer, I begged my GP to get me into hospital so as I could get some care and help, and reluctantly he booked me into Horton Hospital in Epsom, Surrey.

Horton Psychiatric Hospital was a huge late 19th century bin (aka looney-bin) set in extensive grounds and housing about 3000 inmates. It was one of three such hospitals in the area. When I arrived I was asked to take a bath and then consigned to a bed in the admissions ward with about fifty other souls. A male nurse examined my hands and cleaned and dressed them, which was the first decent treatment they had received. The next day I was interviewed by a staff psychiatrist named Dr Tidmarsh who took my details but appeared to express little interest in my predicament. At one point he was called out of his office and left alone I took a quick look at the notebook he had been writing in as he listened to my woes. The only words on the page were 'butter, cheddar cheese, milk, cat-food.' The guy was writing out his shopping list.

From then on I was really left to my own devices and decided to explore the hospital. I couldn't believe the size of the place and was amazed by the volume of human traffic along the incredibly long tiled corridors. There was a constant movement of people - patients, staff, catering people pushing jangling tea trolleys, sad old people shuffling along as though they had been there for ever (many of them had spent most of their lives there), crazy leering people, important-looking folk in white coats clutching paper files hurrying along to avoid contact with lesser mortals. Within a couple of days I was hooked by the place. The misery I had been feeling evaporated as I became consumed with interest. I was in a huge nut-house! And everyone, including most of the staff (especially the consultants), seemed to be mad. No-one really seemed to be in charge either. Occasionally the Consultant Psychiatrist, Doctor Low-Beer, a huge man with a mane of wild grey hair, would make a lightning tour of the wards accompanied by an entourage of fawning courtiers. He was massively charismatic - almost messianic - and everyone was in awe of him. Crowds of patients gathered just to get a look at the good Doctor and if he had worn a robe many of them I'm sure would have seized it and kissed the hem.

I spent about a week of freedom wandering around the huge edifice that was Horton Hospital and at one point discovered a large auditorium with a proscenium arch stage and because of my work in theatre decided to investigate the backstage facilities. Standing in the wings I discovered the tall figure of a man in his thirties with a pale complexion and swept back hair wearing John Lennon glasses and swathed in a floor-length black cloak. On his shoulder was perched a snow-white dove. Both man and bird stared at me in a very dignified way but otherwise ignored me. I beat a hasty retreat. A couple of weeks later I happened on this spectre again. He was sitting quietly on his own in a side room knitting. Less fearful this time, I asked him what he was knitting. 'My shadow', he replied matter-of-factly, and held up a six-foot length of black wool cross-stitch.

A friendly black nurse called Robbie suggested I might be interested in attending an Occupational Therapy Unit on the far side of the hospital and accompanied myself and several other patients to the unit on a cold winter morning. Once through the door we were locked in for the duration (many of the patients who used the unit were from locked wards). The unit was made up of about a half dozen large rooms - an art room, a basket-making facility (from which the pejorative term 'basket-case' is derived), a reading room, etc. The place was packed. Three or four tough-looking male nurses wearing dark suits kept an eye on the proceedings whilst the Director of the unit stood in the doorway looking equally formidable. Rudy Capek (pronounced Chaypak), built like the proverbial brick latrine, was in his forties and of Czechoslovakian origin. He had a big leonine head and a large-featured ruddy face that was marvellously plastic and expressive. He spoke good English but with a heavy accent.

I didn't mind being in the unit but I strongly objected to being locked in like a prisoner and consequently I became unwilling to participate and basically just hung about looking fed up. After lunch we trailed back to the unit where I continued to behave in a sullen fashion. For some reason Capek espied me and came over to have a chat. He then took me round the unit, pointing out activities that I could get involved in but I was unresponsive. The next day he sought me out again, trying to encourage me to get involved. Why not read the newspapers, he suggested, to people who couldn't read themselves? All to no avail. On the third day he tried yet again but I was quite rude to him, telling him to get off my back. To my horror, and to the amazement of everyone else, Capek suddenly grabbed hold of me by the collar and half dragging me, marched me over to the door of the unit, unlocked it and literally threw me out into the corridor, slammed the door shut, locked it, scowled through the glass at me, turned on his heel and marched back into the room. I was dumbfounded. I suppose someone else would have reported they guy but although I was shocked I felt a sense of liberation: I was free again to wander the hospital.

But after a couple of days of dubious liberty I became bored and after a lot of thought I decided to return to Capek's unit. Sheepishly I knocked on the locked door. A sea of face turned towards me from inside the room and then Capek himself pushed through the crowd and threw open the door with a great flourish. I muttered an apology and Capek's face broke into a big grin as he threw an arm around my shoulder (sometimes life is stranger than fiction and I often wonder if I imagined these events, events that seem like a naff, third-rate movie script. But, honestly, this is the way it happened). From this point, I made myself useful in the Capek realm. I helped people in the art room (Jenny Brown, a beautiful young heroin addict, painted frightening pictures of monsters emerging from hypodermic needles), read the newspapers to people, and started an improvisatory drama group, which was a surprising success with the participants and those who watched: I set a half-dozen patients a situation where they had just returned from burying a man called Joe and suggested that each of them improvise and invent a eulogy about the deceased. The first two actor/patients delivered their thoughts on Joe with believable conviction but spoke of him with distaste: one of them, a young Asian man, went so far as to describe Joe as 'a bastard.' At this, a little old Polish man, who had been in Horton most of his life, leapt to his feet and cried out 'No! No! He wasn't like this! He was a good man, he was my friend! He was my friend!' He became very emotional and started to speak passionately in his mother tongue and we all gathered round, trying to comfort him. Rudy Capek told me later that this was the first time anyone had heard the old man speak and Capek seemed to think that it was I who had effected this 'breakthrough.' I personally thought I had simply upset and disturbed the poor man with my silly dramatics.

I suppose I became a bit of a favourite with Capek: we certainly got on well after my welcome back into the fold. Capek told me astonishing stories about his life. He claimed he'd been a cavalry officer in the Prussian army, that he'd been a professional theatre actor in Prague, and a businessman. Capek could certainly tell stories, and not only stories about his life, but traditional Czechoslovakian tales and myths as well. I discovered this one day when one of the patients asked him to tell them a story and a load of other long-term patients started to chant 'Tell us a story, Rudy, tell us a story!' He obviously had a fan-base here! Reluctantly, Capek lowered his bulk into a chair, while about forty people including the male nurses, gathered round him. He was absolutely amazing, telling us fairy stories full of fantastic characters, playing all the parts, doing all the voices, with the most astonishing facial movements. His big face could bring frighteningly into being the wicked ogre but he could also transform his ugly mug into the beautiful young damsel, speaking in charming dulcet tones. He was electrifying, as attested to by a rapt and silent audience. It was wonderful stuff.

Some of the younger patients in the unit grumbled that Capek was a bully. He certainly gave short shrift to anyone he suspected of carrying or dealing drugs and I once watched him and a member of his staff forcibly search a young guy. They didn't find any drugs on him. Not that there weren't illicit drugs to be found in Horton -drugs were a common currency in the hospital and marijuana was widely trafficked and used.

Shortly before Christmas, I was busy in the art-room when two of Capek's' heavies' appeared and informed me brusquely that Capek wanted a word with me. They almost frogmarched me into his office, shutting the door firmly behind, and then placed themselves either side of me like a couple of warders. Two other members of Capek's staff stood impassively on the other side of the room and Capek himself sat at his desk staring at me in a rather threatening manner. My heart missed a beat (had they found out I'd shared a joint in the washroom on my ward?) when suddenly Capek threw his great head back and let out a roar of laughter. The other guys sniggered as Capek reached into the desk and drew out a bottle of Scotch and half a dozen glasses. 'Merry Christmas, Morgan - have a drink' he bellowed, and proceeded to pour six generous shots. You couldn't make it up.

I was surprised to discover how young many of the patients were in the hospital. Some were quiet and introverted but there were a lot of boisterous and anarchic characters. I became part of a 'gang' who travelled round the hospital creating as much havoc as possible, mostly in the evening when staff were thin on the ground. Chris, an articulate nineteen year old who wanted to topple 'the system' had drawn our attention to the sad state of those people who were being given ECT (Electric Convulsive Therapy). We'd see them drifting back from their sessions dull-eyed and confused, quite often ending up in the wrong wards or the wrong beds. It didn't take much for Chris to convince us that ECT was akin to mediaeval torture and that night we crept into the ECT department and vandalised one of the machines. On another occasion we broke into one of the administration offices, located our own files and dozens of others, and took them into the grounds and made a bonfire of them.

On quiet nights a few of us met in a vacant washroom with a couple of portable typewriters and had poetry-writing competitions accompanied by endless spliffs to help with the creative process. Occasionally, a couple of the black nurses joined us and a good time was had by all.

Robbie, the black male nurse I mentioned earlier, had a soft spot for me and I used to talk to him about my troubles. One of my current problems, I complained to him, was that I was unable to get an erection. He laughed and said 'It's just this place, man - it can do that to you - you'll be alright.' The next morning I woke about 6-30am feeling distinctly tumescent. When I opened my eyes, I found Robbie sitting at the side of the bed with his hand under my blankets. He gave a big grin and said 'There you go, Danny Boy - I bought you a cup of tea to celebrate!' (Now that's therapy).

Actually, there was a strong erotic charge at Horton: a walk in the grounds at night-time made you aware of this - people having sex in the bushes.

But, of course, there was the tragic side of psychiatric hospitalisation. People were in terrible emotional and psychological pain (I shall never forget two elderly men on my ward who in the evening would sit and cuddle each other like little children), people died, people overdosed, people hung themselves in the hospital orchard. People were sectioned and incarcerated for the duration. Some patients simply vanished overnight. One young guy from Liverpool called John had an epileptic seizure in the TV room one evening and in the absence of night staff, we patients had to restrain him to stop him injuring himself. We got him to his bed and, managing to undress him, discovered he had no genitalia. We found out later that he'd performed this radical surgery himself. John vanished the next morning, never to be seen again.

I spent three months in Horton. When I finally discharged myself my psychological wellbeing had certainly improved, as had the condition of my hands. Horton Hospital had been a transformational experience for me, one that I would not easily forget: I was introduced to a side of humanity which few of us, perhaps fortunately, get to experience in our lifetimes. I learned to appreciate that old maxim about people being worse off than yourself big time. I also had the privilege of meeting some truly heroic figures at Horton. One of the last people I said goodbye to was a middle-aged man named Dennis de Costa, a lifelong manic depressive. Dennis, who'd been a patient at Horton for years, was always telling anyone who would listen that he would be leaving the hospital soon, that he was getting better. Dennis never got better and, as far as I know, he never left Horton.

Daniel Morgan 13.8.2008

PS 5.10.2008: My psychodrama activity (somewhat more extensive than I wrote about) reached the ears of Elsie Green, who I discover from the internet, was something of a mover and shaker at Horton in her capacity as a theatre director and drama-therapist at Horton and other hospitals for about thirty years. I have a hazy recollection of a conversation I had with her during which she asked me to contact her after my discharge from the hospital. Goodness me - was there a chance of a job in the offing!

As it was, immediately after discharging myself from Horton I got a job stage-managing a production of Joe Orton's black comedy 'Loot' at the Jeanette Cochran Theatre, London, and thence for a year with the Royal Shakespeare Company at their then London base at the Aldwych Theatre. I guess a return to the Horton Repertory Theatre would be perceived by me as a poor career move and so I never got back in touch with Elsie.

Horton Hospital

The original of this article was written to assist the BBC with its series State of Mind in January 2009.