Five years ago I visited Simon Weir who still lives in Burley, Hampshire in the cottage where his father Peter Weir lived till he moved to Needs Ore, Beaulieu. Peter Weir was born in 1915 and I had written a personal account of his masterpiece The Island as a Centenary Celebration and which can be found by Googling colinblundell.wordpress.com + Peter Weir. Continuing with my Plaguetime efforts at sorting out the mess in my so-called ‘office’, I recently came across a copy of a letter regarding Peter Weir from a ‘Consultant Psychiatrist’ which Simon Weir had kindly sent me some time ago. Re-reading it recently I was again appalled at its contents.
Except that I know that Peter Weir was divorced from his wife Joan sometime before 1967, I do not know exactly why he became a patient of Dr McLeish but it’s pretty clear that, via a Dr Mallett, he fell into the hands of ESFoote who, as a result of seeing him on only one occasion, saw fit to make the wayward diagnosis contained in the letter below. Goodness knows what effect it had on one of my heroes.
Official records show that Joan M. Weir married Arthur Edward De La Tour Mallett in the 2nd quarter (Apr-May-Jun) of 1967 in the Christchurch registration district of Hampshire. He is listed in the London Gazette for 11th October 1976 as having died in the cottage in Burley where he and his new wife were living; in the same source dated 1943 he was listed as ‘Probationary Temporary Surgeon Lieutenant Arthur Edward De La Tour Mallett, MBChB RNVR, He got a ‘Distinguished Service Cross’. As a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery he is obviously the Dr Mallett mentioned in the letter. Simon told me that his mother couldn’t cope with his father’s frequent depressions. Before their relationship developed into something else she presumably asked Mallett to help sort her husband out; the letter, dated 18th February 1965, indicates the Mallett intervention hiring ESFoote and, in italics, goes like this:-
Dear Dr. McLeish
re Mr Peter Weir
3 Needs Ore, Beaulieu, Hants
As arranged with Dr. Mallett, I saw this patient of yours last night. Going into his background the following emerged:-
Family History: His father was killed in the 1914-18 war when he was very young. His mother died of Parkinsonism but going into this it appeared that she developed this disease sometime towards the end of the twenties or early thirties when she certainly would have been below the age that normal senile Parkinsonism occurs. As I was also told that she was very difficult, autocratic and unpleasant to the patient, it struck me that possibly this was a post-encephalitic Parkinsonism occurring as it did at the time of 1920-30 pandemic of encephalitis. As you probably know, many patients never developed full-blooded encephalitis lethargica symptoms, but merely had a febrile attack and later developed Parkinsonism. These patients showed the typical unpleasant personality changes that one associated with that disease.
According to Simon, Peter Weir’s father died on August 2, 1918, having come home wounded from, but insisting on returning to, France. His mother was very much in love with his father and never got over his death. She expected a great deal of Peter, maybe as a compensation, and wanted him to succeed as a lawyer.
History of Previous Illnesses: apart from a herniotomy operation, apparently he has had nothing of note.
And so why draw mechanical conclusions from one evening’s interview?
Personal History: His early life shows that he was always rather nervous and shy as a boy. He was at school from 5 to 17, leaving Charterhouse, and was then articled as a solicitor till 1940 when he joined the RAF. He was a Flight Sgt, a navigator in bombers, and did quite a number of missions over enemy territory, but he was not prepared to discuss this. He was then made an instructor in navigation and describes his time in the air force as unpleasant. He said that basically he was a pacifist and disliked strongly all war.
Simon told me that his father was a pacifist in the 1930’s. One wonders if this developed as a result knowing what had happened to his own father in France.
After the war he felt he did not wish to return to law and work in an office, so he worked for the Forestry Commission more or less as a labourer. During this time he started writing, and he had one book published. Subsequently he has drifted somewhat. He was employed for some time as a general factotum to a millionaire living in the Beaulieu region, and is now occupied as a jobbing gardener.
My own early experience of wage slavery leads me to be able to understand completely why Peter Weir had not wanted to go back to working in an office. Simon told me that after the war, he worked as Forest Warden for the Forestry Commission – at a cheap rent on the Beaulieu Estate – Mallards at Bucklers Hard. Who wouldn’t rather be here than work in a solicitor’s office? Just the place for the expansion of the soul! Currently on sale for £12million!
Maybe he rented the Coach House. Or else a cottage in the grounds…
In any case, he ran the estate and acted as River Bailiff , taking visitors out fishing because he knew just where the fish were to be found. He waded in the river to retrieve caught fish for people – was told it wouldn’t do his health much good. This was after living in Gussage All Saints in Dorset where Simon was christened. He was 4 (1958) when his parents moved to Burley – Joan Weir did not want to go there. Was it too isolated for an apparently ‘happy-go-lucky’ woman? ESFoote said scornfully that Peter Weir was ‘occupied as a jobbing gardener’; Simon told me his father had gardening jobs; when a lawnmower was being filled with petrol Simon said how much he liked the smell; his father said he hated it – maybe as a result of his RAF experience?
This doesn’t seem to me to be working ‘more or less as a labourer’. What ESFoote, revealing his own staid middle class view of the world, describes as ‘drifting’ sounds to me like making a positive decision to work in the open air in a responsible sort of way – ‘he ran the estate and acted as River Bailiff…’ When I left the Westminster Bank to become a teacher, the exit interviewer said, “You’re a bit of a rolling stone, Mr Blundell…” I don’t think I bothered to say that I had made a positive decision to quit a life of turgid paper-crunching. He probably thought I was ‘inert’.
[Your patient] married some 11 or 12 years ago, and there is one son, aged 10, by this marriage, but he and his wife, though friendly and having normal marital relations from time to time, live 18 miles apart. They each occupy a cottage. Apparently, and this was confirmed by the wife, it is impossible for them to live together, as their interests are so divergent. She is happy-go-lucky, breeds dogs and everything in her cottage is unorganised. He is completely obsessional, meticulous and perfectionistic and is a complete devotee to the music of Mozart. I gather that her tastes run more towards the Beatles!
With this history of lack of drive, ambition and deterioration from professional to labouring work, one naturally thinks in terms of simple schizophrenia.
This is such a crude conclusion! It’s the staid, middle-class, arrogant, self-satisfied, comfortable, professional person lauding it over a mere labouring man who, so he opined, had ‘deteriorated’ thus and coming to a seemingly profound conclusion that gets the subject neatly pigeon-holed. It strikes me that Peter Weir had a profound ambition and a drive to get out of slaving over a solicitor’s desk. Since he’s obviously suffering from schizophrenia, ESFoote cannot understand how he could possibly have qualified as a solicitor!
Against this, however is that this illness normally develops in the teens and would have prevented him from qualifying as a solicitor. Talking to him, one was struck by the fact that his answers to questions at times were rather irrelevant, but I could find no evidence of any other symptoms of schizophrenia. His previous personality is certainly obsessional, and like so many possessors of this type of personality, he is tense and easily becomes wrought up. I believe that his periodic alcoholic excesses one related to this tension, and that he is tending to use alcohol as a tranquilliser.
ESFoote had clearly done no real research and had certainly not read The Island, nor did he know that there were manuscripts of short stories and two further novels which I have edited and produced in book form. He found Peter Weir’s ‘answers to questions at times… rather irrelevant…’ and took this as a sure sign of schizophrenia when it could well be that his subject found the questions completely irrelevant anyway.
If, in order to prepare himself properly for the evening interview he had taken the trouble to read The Island, he might have picked up some clues to his subject’s actual thinking processes. The hero Tarn, whom we might reasonably suppose to be Peter Weir’s spokesperson, becomes a teacher; his teaching methods might very well have been a factor in forming my own desire to be a teacher which, after various dead-end office tasks, I fulfilled ten years after first reading the brilliant novel. Here’s how Tarn copes with apparently ‘irrelevant answers’ to questions:-
To sum up, therefore, in spite of my suspicions that this might be a relatively unlit schizophrenic illness, I was not able at one interview to substantiate this. His wife,
whom I interviewed, said that at times she doubted his sanity but was, I think, using this phrase in the looser sense and certainly could not give me any examples that were of significance. Whilst he is certainly schizoid and rather inert, I do not think we can say any more. His anxieties are possibly twofold in origin, one inherent in his own makeup and the other one factual, because he has some real financial problems.
Forcing the subject into a box labelled ‘schizoid’ and ‘rather inert’… What a crass conclusion! I think that people might sometimes apply the word ‘inert’ to me with no idea what is going on inside me. In my Celebration I observed that ‘…there is no sense of authorial intervention in… the book, characters do their own transformation of natural images in internal reflection which never comes over as author commentary…’ This for me is Peter Weir performing ‘inertly’ and brilliantly, leaving it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.
The strange consultant, authority figure, asking a series of diligent professional questions, might well have been intimidating to the grown-up ‘nervous & shy’ boy whose prose style in The Island reminded me of conversations in a Pinter play – inconclusive, drifting off or fading into one another. In Celebration I said that ‘…very often a conversation fuses with a depiction of the natural scene or else it melds into past times, stream of consciousness style… The poetic prose of the opening tells us linguistically about Tarn’s interior landscape: ‘…Then there came through endless woods and hollows as if from another world – winding slowly far away – the long clear notes of a horn…’ which seem to haunt the whole novel. My own adolescent poetry sang out with absence and the sound of far-off horns; it was full of images of ruin and desolation!
ESFoote might have picked up this valuable artistic quality in his subject instead of slotting him neatly into one of his professional pigeon-holes.
I found a note at the end of The Forest manuscript:-
He is ‘constantly seeking, but ultimately gives in to authority…’ as he presumably did to ESFoote. Just give him some pills to get him off my back.
I would suggest, if you agree, that he be tried on Stelazine 1 to 2 t.d.s. [ter die sumendum – to be taken three times daily] to start with, gradually building up to 5 mgms t.d.s. In the lower dosage it will be a good tranquilliser for his anxiety, and if he is not too doped by it, the longer dosage might well stimulate him to a little more activity. In my opinion, it is the most useful phenothiazine for treating these rather inert schizoid and/or simple schizophrenic illnesses.
I have not made a further appointment to see him, but I, of course, would always see him at my out-patient clinic at Poole Hospital, if you so desired.
Senior Consultant Psychiatrist.
Under his original name, Noel Stafford Robinson, Peter Weir had a play Glasstown published in 1974 by French’s Acting Editions
Peter Weir died at the age of 63 on 7 March 1978 at 3 Needs Ore Cottages, Beaulieu in Hampshire. He was found dead in his cottage and the coroner stated ‘that he took his own life’. According to the certificate, Peter Weir was a retired solicitor.
From the death certificate:
Registration district – New Forest
Sub-district – Lymington
County of Hampshire
Date and place of birth – 28 January 1915 Gosforth Northumberland
Cause of death – Pentobarbitone (Nembutal) and Alcoholic Intoxication It is assumed that he took his own Life.
One wonders if Dr McLeish prescribed Pentobarbitone as a sedative; its overuse gives the impression of alcoholic intoxication. Simon Weir told me that his father seemed no more depressed than usual in the days leading to his [presumed] suicide. He thought his father was ‘born before his time’: sensitive, anti-pollution, keen on wild life. His novel The Island is certainly before its time.
Among his books – the ones that were not taken by his wife when they divorced – were copies of Marcus Aurelius, Plato’s Republic, Tolstoy’s Resurrection, works of Kipling, Socrates’ Apology etc, Emerson, Hardy, Thomas Kempis. There were two volumes of Turner watercolours.
In a folder of cuttings from The Listener, there were articles by ANWhitehead and Bertrand Russell. When there was a change of Editor at The Listener PW was pretty miffed. In the same folder there was a love poem by Peter Weir addressed to his wife while he was living at Needs Ore. Simon thought that his father was not really into that role – there were no hugs. He was grumpy but never raised his voice. He hated news of disasters & disliked change. He was happiest when riding in the Forest with his sister Valerie.
I used to preserve articles from The Listener! I know that I would have been very much at home with Peter Weir. I could have lived quite happily in a cottage in Needs Ore.
3 thoughts on “PLAGUETIME 12”
A sad, but very moving, story, Colin. I think that I too, would have been “very much at home” with Peter.
A story, in part, of the dangers of making judgements without examining ones own life. The psychiatrist, given the power of medical knowledge and society’s approval sees life through this lens and judges illness. I am reminded of Russell Hoban’s The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (Novel, 1973) in which a similar theme is played out and which you used as a text in your A level course.
I thought the other day about the effect that words of others can have on one appearing and repeating as they do. Without the self strength. awareness and reflection words can eat away at you. A mother in law once said ‘sometimes I doubt his sanity’! Then there is the critical voice within to contend with..
The damage done by force and having to conform to power possessors certainly leads to many unnecessary examples of loss of energy and damages minds. ‘.. that writing should come from the soul..’
Thanks for reminding me about Russell Hoban’s book! Now I shall have to read ‘The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz’ again after so many years!! I well remember it as a brilliant piece of writing but I have forgotten any relevance to Peter Weir’s experience of being got at. I don’t know what impact this trickcyclist (Bandler’s word, like the-rapist, he used to demolish the dictates of the ‘learned’) had on him. I don’t like to ask his son who, I think, still reels from the experience.
In the end I think the knack is never ever to identify with the words of others – positive or negative – but simply to say to oneself, “Well, that’s the way it is then!” and pass on to the next thing in External Considering…