• 50 years ago today. Sergeant Pepper 02 May 2017 | View comments

  • 2nd May 2017 | By David Jolley

    John Harris’s piece in the Guardian on Saturday reminded us that it was May 1967 when we first heard Sergeant Pepper. The sound has haunted us through all these years and the image of the record cover is amongst the most recognisable ever, and everywhere.

    I remember it as a warm summer. I was in the upstairs sitting area at Severalls Hospital in Essex near Colchester. One of the other residents in the nurses’ home had brought the record eagerly from town and we shared its marvellous difference. There had never been anything like it before. It was a step into another world of music and how it could be presented.

    I was at Severalls for a month ‘special’ placement within my course at Guy’s. I was drawn there by a lecture from Dr Russell Barton, its charismatic Medical Director. He had come to Guy’s as a guest lunchtime lecturer at the invitation of Dr David Stafford Clark who was the senior psychiatrist at Guy’s and played an important role in demystifying and destigmatising mental illness through pioneering television broadcasts.

    Russell Barton was not a privileged teaching hospital consultant like most of the other guest lecturers. He worked in a county asylum or mental hospital, Severalls. He told us of life there, of the enormous numbers, over 2,000 who lived in large and deprived wards, set apart from the community and segregated, men from women, by buildings and exercise gardens which were secured by bars. He told that he believed much of their disability could be blamed on the effects of an imposed routine of institutional life. He had called this ‘Institutional Neurosis’.

    His earlier experience included working with prisoners of war and he likened the effects of mental hospital life to that of starvation and brutal humiliation meted to prisoners detained by the enemy during armed conflict.

    Taking down the bars, allowing men and women to mix and to be involved in meaningful work and social activities were his armoury for therapy amongst the inmates of Severalls Mental Hospital. It was captivating stuff, inspirational.

    All this was happening just a few years after the 1959 Mental Health Act had made it legal for individuals to be treated in mental hospitals without certification. Effective antipsychotic and antidepressant medicines were being used. They and electroconvulsive therapy had demonstrated that physical treatment, alongside humane social and psychological therapies could return individuals to health from many of the disorders which had filled Severalls and county asylums throughout this and other countries.

    It was a time of optimism and concern for fellow human beings. Sergeant Pepper was an anthem to all this and the freedom of thought and compassion which characterised the years of recovery from the trauma and learning of the Second World War.

    We came to know Lucy in the sky and lovely Rita, and ‘she’s leaving home’. Some thoughts on the lives of young women. Mr Kite, fixing a hole, and musing on life at 64, when I get older!

    And during that time at Severalls I saw what Dr Russell Barton and his colleague Dr Tony Whitehead were achieving for older people with chronic mental illness and with dementia. There were no effective physical treatments for dementia, and the impact of phenothiazines and other medication on those who had lived with active schizophrenia for four decades or more was not impressive. What did help were the humane improvements in the quality of furnishings, clothing, food and activities within the hospital. And for old people not yet in hospital, there were active outreach teams to visit them at home or in care homes or general hospital. This was a glimpse of a future that we have all benefitted from.

    At the time I was not much aware of the earth-shaking political initiatives led by Barbara Robb, but strongly supported by Russell Barton and Tony Whitehead. Perhaps they thought that concentration on the clinical work was best and the politics too dangerous for a young student. I guess they were right.

    But this was an extraordinary time, fifty years ago today!

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