Escaping

I don’t watch TV much, most of the time; but sometimes I come across a series I like, and I binge-watch. If I watch it with Isobel, it will usually be a new crime drama, probably Scandinavian, as they are the best. If I find a war drama, Isobel will nod and say: “Oh, that’s good, you can watch that yourself then.” So, I do.

A couple of weeks ago, on Youtube, I found all 28 episodes of the BBC TV series Colditz. It was shown first from 1972 to 1974. So, when it ended, I was about 12. I watched some of them when I was a boy, but just a few. I vaguely remember thinking it was very dark – difficult to see; and our small black and white TV may have added to the gloom. This time, it was easy to see. And I was addicted. When I got to the end, I felt sad there was no more.

This post isn’t entirely about the TV series, so I’ll not go on and on about the great acting, and the gritty scripts, or that some of the scenes were shot in Stirling Castle, or that I ordered Pat Reid’s accounts on which the series is based, or that I also ordered a new book on Colditz that came out last year. I don’t want to bore you with all that stuff. On Colditz, or on its special role in escape history, I’ll just say this: it was deemed by guards and at first by prisoners as being a place from which it would be impossible to escape. Yet, there were escapes. There were escapes because of three human qualities: courage, collective ingenuity, and comradeship.

When we read words like ‘courage’, it’s difficult if not impossible to see what they mean, without a living example. I suppose it’s the same with lots of other human qualities. And then, when we do see the quality as it come alive in the story of a person or a group of people, it’s so bound up with the details of that story, it may be hard to imagine the same thing in another story. Until we see – the courage of a nurse going into Ninewells Hospital, to work every day to fight day after day against the Covid threat. At any moment, the infection could have attacked any nurse, perhaps fatally, with the same deadly efficiency as a bullet shot at an escaping prisoner from Colditz Castle.

The stories we tell each other of things that really happened keep alive something of the human qualities displayed in extreme circumstances. Also, through reading a book or watching a TV series, we can escape from our own troubles, for a while. How strange it is that we often choose to ‘escape’ through paying attention to accounts of struggles where the notion of escape or even survival seemed – almost impossible.

A few times in my life, I have felt as if I was in a hopeless situation which I could not ‘get out’ of. Not long ago, I heard of a terrible tragedy. I knew I had to help a person who was suffering, but I was very uncertain if I could. I felt overwhelmed by memories of past tragedies I had encountered.  I’ll not give the details. It’s enough to say – I decided, that if others could face and survive the ‘impossible’, then perhaps so could I. So, I did. I helped a person. I survived. And I moved on, escaping from the gloom into the sunlight.

I am sitting at my desk writing this, and somewhere behind me, Nergal, our cat, is sleeping stretched out on a chair, a perfect image of peacefulness. Oblivious to the worries of people. Yet, I think she was aware that I was recently worried, as she spent more time with me, demanding to be sat with and stroked. 

Many people these days are facing huge problems, as the cost of living goes up and up. With courage, collective ingenuity, and comradeship, millions of people – especially in trade unions – are fighting back. There are times in history where a mass break-out from the situation is needed, and these times we are living through fit that description perfectly.

Very slowly, and despite getting a bit older, I feel that I am getting stronger, in terms of dealing with past trauma. My own personal escape route included long walks along the Fife coast. I’ll do more of that. And I’ve been helped by a lot by good people, and a cat. I also find that what I sometimes worried about I don’t need to worry about at all. By that, I mean – I worried that I was too caught up in personal escapes. But now, I see that I can and do help others by looking after myself. Not only that, but by writing of the miles I walk, and things I see, I can help others plan their own escapes, their own ways to survive and to get through storms. So, with that in mind, I am writing more often and more publicly about mental health. I wrote one post for the Blog ‘Mad in the UK’ in January, and later in March, I have a deadline to write for an American event on Critical Psychiatry (more details soon). And, I have more essays planned.

The thing about escaping, although I am no expert, is – you have to wait for the right moment. Careful planning is required. It’s best to have a good team around you. It’s also good, I think, to keep in your mind a clear picture of where you want to escape to. So, I look at maps and pictures of places around Scotland where I will walk on my days off work: Loch Ness, all around the Highlands, and I’ll never get tired of the Fife coast and the fishing villages there. And, I look forward to visiting Sweden and then Spain later this year. And one day, I hope, my only working responsibility will be to write – escaping to a life of writing books. Until then, I have a couple of really interesting books I’d like to escape into. So, that’s all for now.

Harvey Duke

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