I live around the corner from one of the world’s most remarkable streets, Cowley Road in Oxford. It’s a hive of different cultures – Bangladeshi, Moroccan, Chinese, Ukranian – and has a vibrancy that cannot be found in the cobbled medieval lanes of the city centre. It has even been the subject of a fabulous book, Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey, by James Attlee, in which the author wanders up Cowley Road philosophising about the sex shops and curry houses. But if there is one thing that makes Colwey Road truly remarkable, it is Alan Human.
He’s a familiar sight, usually wearing a shabby coat, often without shoes, and jabbering away quietly to himself as he picks up cigarette butts. Most people ignore him, just as they do the other street people who spend their days on Cowley Road. I was lucky enough to meet Alan seven years ago, in rather unusual circumstances. I made a ‘portrait’ of him for a project I was working on at The Oxford Muse, in which we were trying to get beyond the tourist guides and discover who really inhabited the city. The portrait was in words: I had a recorded conversation with him about his life, transcribed what he said, and arranged it into a narrative in his own voice. After showing it to him, Alan made some changes, gave his final approval, and the portrait was published in a book and on the web.
So who is the remarkable Alan Human? Here is the portrait I made, in which Alan tells the world who he is, in his own words.
What a philosopher, certified insane, thinks about his doctors – a portrait of Alan Human
1983 was when my life fell apart completely. From 1983 to 1988, which is six winters, I spent outdoors in Oxford, working on my ideas in the Bodleian Library by day and sleeping rough by night. I lived a very exposed life. I only had a groundsheet and sleeping bag, and if it was raining I tried to cower under the ground sheet. My emotional life was non-existent but I was growing intellectually throughout that time. I was doing several things in the Bodleian. One, I was desperately worried about nuclear war and so was trying to work out a way out for the human race on earth. Two, I was reading the works of Freud, Marx, Einstein, Darwin and Jesus, trying to work out the core structure of what they were talking about, trying to reintegrate the human psyche so that you didn’t have to choose between arts and science, you didn’t have to overspecialise, you could create your own synthesised worldview.
Basically I’ve been living with myself for twenty years now. The advantage is that you do get a lot of time to do thinking, which people who are busy in life don’t get to do. So I have thought out a great many things in life that other people haven’t thought out yet. And I say, ‘what’s your position on X?’ And they say, ‘I haven’t thought about it’. And I say, ‘my position is this’. I’ve worked out my position on most things. I’m trying to bring out a philosophy journal called The Street Philosopher. I’ve got my first 22 subjects written down. It starts off on the nature of evil, on the nature of truth, the nature of matter, the science of psychoanalysis and so on. For a long time now I’ve had a lot of ideas that I’ve put into a coherent mass and I’ve been trying to communicate them to my friends and the people I meet, without much success.
I have this imaginary party which I call the Good Samaritan’s Party. Everybody who’s anybody in history is invited. So Jesus and the 12 are there, Herodotus, Salome, Socrates and perhaps Plato if I’m feeling in a good mood. I walk up to Socrates and I say: ‘I come from the British empiricist school of philosophy where they say that only thing you can know is what you experience. You are on record as saying that the only thing you know is that you can’t know anything. I want to dispute this.’ Then Socrates turns to Jesus and says: ‘I hear you think you are the Christ for the Jews. What makes you think that you are the Christ for the Jews?’ And Jesus looks around and says: ‘I hope there are no mental hospital people here…because God told me so’. ‘Oh,’ says Socrates. ‘And how can you be sure that God told you so and that it wasn’t a hallucination?’ Then Jesus is stumped!
I see myself as a human being with nothing else to do with the rest of my life except what I want to do, because thanks to the fact that I’m a nutcase I get a weekly income and I have no obligations at all to do anything for that income. I’m officially diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic with a history of violence, which is about as bad as you can get. I’ve been ‘sectioned’ 17 times altogether – certified insane and locked up in the loony bin. We call it being ‘sectioned’ because it refers to Section 3 of the Mental Health Act. I didn’t have any real schizophrenic experience until 38 or 39 – in 1989 – when I discovered this amazing world of the fairies, the unborn children in outerspace, the little people and all that. And I thought, this is such rich territory I don’t want to lose it. And everybody said, you’re mad, we’ve got to lock you up.
My feelings about the loony scene and the way it treats people are very strong indeed. I think it’s organised harm, basically. They break your personality with drugs and the way that they treat you, until you’re just a brain dead zombie. The ethnomethodology of then loony scene is very crude. The standard medical model is that schizophrenia is a chronic condition, it can’t be cured and can only be managed by symptom management with medication. The first question they ask you when you have a schizophrenic interview is, ‘do you hear voices and have visions?’ You say ‘yes’, and they say, ‘OK, off you go, 1600 milligrams’. I’m medicated at the moment which means that as far as I’m concerned I’m brain dead in terms of the thinking I want to do. I have tremendous problems with short-term memory because the medication knocks that out. Once you’re labelled a loony then everything you do is a sign of your madness – getting angry or whatever. There are perfectly ordinary understandable reasons to get angry but if I get angry they say, ‘Oh my God, you must go to the anger management group’!
They don’t have any overall holistic approach at all. I think schizophrenia is a rational response to experience. I take the psychoanalytic view that pathological schizophrenia, which I do believe exists, comes from intrusive mothering in the first year of life. So therefore if you want to ‘cure’ a schizophrenic, you actually do regression therapy and help them rebuild themselves from babyhood upwards. I dispute my diagnosis. I say that it’s paranoid hysteria, not schizophrenia, with a history of violence, because I think it’s a completely different emotional set that develops with hysteria than develops with schizophrenia. My argument is that psychotic experience is not necessarily the same thing as mental illness. People can be psychotic and mentally well. The psychiatrists won’t even countenance it. I’ve been trying to persuade my psychiatrist to let me voluntary quit the medication. He’s digging his heels in and saying, no, you’ve got to stick with it, you’ve got to be free of hospital for five years before we’ll even consider reducing the medication.
The people I mingle with from the loony scene are mostly broken, they’ve just given up. All they think of is the next meal, the next cigarette, the next high. They’re not living productive lives at all. The potential for production, particularly amongst schizophrenics and manic depressives, is very great. They’re creative people. Give them the right environment and there’s no stopping them. At the moment they’re given a lousy environment, they’re given very bad treatment, they’re given drugs that destroy them, and it’s not conducive to our common humanity.
All of us on the loony scene know that we have been rejected by society, we are the throwaways that nobody else wants. We live in social dustbins which are the drop-in and day centres, and the world has turned its back on us. If you walk into a party and say, ‘hello, my name’s Alan, I’m a paranoid schizophrenic’ – the chill that will go through the room if you say that…I’m supposed to be a mad axeman. All schizophrenic’s are mad axemen, aren’t they?! They’re human beings like everyone else and they’re not treated as human beings. Loonies in general are not respected by anybody, and then they lose their self respect.
Once I’d been behaving oddly in the house I was living in, jabbering away to myself, the way I do quite a lot. So they phoned up the police to come and get me sectioned. The policeman forced me down in the back seat of the police car and said, ‘how do you want to die, a bullet through the brain or gas?’ Since then, I’ve not seen eye to eye with the police, I’m afraid. He was just winding me up for thrills. Sometimes young adolescents, particularly 18 to 23, take objection to this ageing hippy walking down the street in sandals and they try to mock. I just block it out. I used to respond to it, argue the toss and so on.
We had the Hearing Voices group for a time in Oxford where we tried to say that we hear voices and we think our voice hearing is valid. We had a tame don at Magdalen College called Gordon Claridge, who facilitated us on Sunday afternoons once a month. And his view was that the schizotypal personality is at the forefront of human evolution because we’re creative. It was really nice to have someone on our side.
I’m living among the lowlife of Oxford. I’m very strapped for cash, I’m very, very impoverished. I spend my money on cigarettes and cups of tea, that’s all. At the moment I’m spending eight or nine pounds a day on cigarettes. I need 100 cigarettes a day to feel right. When I run out of cigarettes I’m down the street picking up dogends. There is a literature on self-medication by psychotics. It’s acknowledged that psychotics need to self-medicate using cigarettes. It keeps you stable. So it’s not just my fantasy to say that.
I live in a group home with three other nutcases and my daily life is just on the street and loony drop-in centres like the Mill, Acorn, Oxford Survivors, occasionally the Gatehouse. I eat out at the Gatehouse, The Porch and so on. I don’t by food at all. I give away half my money to a friend who needs it more, basically because I’m Christian. Any Christian would understand it – if someone’s in more need than you, you help them out. She’s way below the bottom line of Marlow’s hierarchy of needs at the moment and I’m just above it.
At the lowlife end of Oxford there’s three basic scenes. There’s the loony scene, there’s the drugs scene, and there’s the ordinary down and out scene, which is the street scene, having no money. They do overlap, but they are distinct scenes. On the loony scene you get snapped up by the loony industry – the mental health industry – and they never let you go once they’ve got you. They supervise your life at some level or try to. You’re in a scene where you’re always mixing with loonies. The drugs scene does partly overlap, because some loonies turn to drugs to keep their experience within bounds, to block out the bad experience. I don’t do the drugs scene at all myself.
The down and out scene is the kids between 16 and 25 who are homeless and so on. They get a really bad deal because they get an income of about £25 a week I think, and they’re expected to keep themselves in cigarettes, food and shelter for that. I’ve been trying to champion the cause of young people but haven’t had much success. I asked The Porch in writing whether they’d be prepared to give free meals to people between 18 and 25 on the basis that the kids didn’t have enough money. They wrote back saying no they wouldn’t. So what’s happening is that The Porch isn’t having many young people go there at all. It’s mostly middle-aged people who are on the down and outs scene.
The group I’m most involved with is Oxford Survivors. We have a day centre that’s open two days a week and we run it ourselves: we have no staff from outside. We’ve got a budget of about 10K, which just about pays the rent. It’s up at the Barnes Road Community Centre in Cowley. We take over the youth wing on Fridays and Saturdays, and open up from 11 until 4. I’ve just been elected secretary for the next year of Oxford Survivors, which I’m quite proud of. I’m trying to get myself competent to do the work. It’s for people who’ve been through the mill of the mental health scene. They’re very anti-drugs. If people come in smoking joints and things like that, they chuck them out.
For the proper street people as oppose to the druggies and loonies and drinkers, there is a code of conduct that goes with that. One of my friends drew up beside me the other day on a bicycle and I said, ‘here’s two fags’. And he said, ‘yeah, sure, where are you going?’ And I said, ‘Acorn’. He said, ‘have you got any money?’ I said, ‘no’. He said, ‘here’s two quid to buy yourself a meal’. That’s the street code working at its best: when you’re up you help those who are down, when you’re down you get help from those who are up. People who stick to the street code are very valuable people in my life because we share and share alike. There are less that a hundred of us in Oxford. I know about 20 or 30 of them.
I once did an experiment at The Porch. There were about six people in the room, youngish, under thirty down and outs. I put my full fortnight’s money on the table, which was about £40 in those days. I said, ‘I’ve got my needs and you’ve got your needs, how shall we share this?’ There was a moment of stunned silence, eyes glazed, and then they dived at the money and I was left with four pence to last me a fortnight. I analysed it later. I thought, in terms of the emotional capitalisation of the people in the room it was probably a fair reflection of the needs. The one who grabbed the most was probably the most emotionally damaged; they needed more.
The access to resources of these three groups is not adequate to satisfy their basic needs. So what I’d like to do is get some sort of movement going to try and get these people who are at the bottom of society, the underclass, some sort of claw into society, where they can start to lead decent lives rather than just be thinking of the next cigarette or the next cup of tea or whatever, because they live from moment to moment. It’s a very important project. You see people driving down the Cowley Rd in £9000 cars and you look across the road and there are beggars knocking back the booze. That disparity has got to be addressed by this society, otherwise we’re never going to get anywhere. A society can be judged by how it treats it’s least well-off members.
I was born in 1950 and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa until I was 12. My dad was a chartered account and my mother was a trained teacher, although she never taught in South Africa really, so she was housewife. They were both South African born, of English stock though. My parents’ marriage broke up and my mother brought us three children to England. I went to public school at Abingdon School and got an open scholarship to Oxford. I had three years at Oxford, studying philosophy, politics and economics. My specialist subjects were Philosophical Logic and Marxism. Marxism left a huge mark on me – you know, the idea of from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.
My life’s been downhill ever since. The best job I had was that I got a job as a milkman as soon as I graduated from Oxford. I then flew across the Atlantic chasing my girlfriend, Alden. The first night I spent in bed with Alden we didn’t have any contraceptives so we couldn’t make love. So we just lay in each other’s arms and talked. That was a lovely night – in New York, 1973. We were talking about the whole of our pasts, we shared our whole lives with each other. I brought Alden back as my wife. We then started a ménage à trois – me and Fran and Alden. About a year later Alden got pregnant and my life took on a very serious turn because what started off as just a brave venture in terms of relationships suddenly had children on the scene. I thought, oh my god, life’s gone serious, I’ve got to do something to deliver a decent world for my children, you know, particularly in a nuclear war society and so on. We all thought the bomb was going to go off sometime. For five years, from 74 to 78, I was involved in my ménage à trois, which broke up. Each of us got off with somebody else.
I wrote a novel when I was 29, in 1979, 1980. It should be published, it’s a very good book, it’s got some very interesting ideas in it. The big question I was asking was…all the philosophy that I’d been taught at Oxford didn’t give an answer to the question, should I have children or not? There I was with two-and-a-half children already and I was trying to work out some sort of philosophical position as to why to have children. I eventually came up with ‘cosmic utilitarianism’. The goal is cosmic utility maximisation. They key thing is what matters to you is how the world is after you’re dead. Some people don’t give a damn, they say, ‘just use it up and throw it away after I’m dead’. Some people say, ‘I want to conserve the world and have it going on for ever’. Do you want to be involved in a larger thing, a happy cosmos, which you can imaginatively inhabit in your own lifetime even though you might not live to see it? I think it’s an existential choice. I want to conserve the world and have it going on for ever. A gallon of petrol used now takes a way a gallon of petrol from somebody in 200 years time. You want there to be future people therefore you want to have children. That solves the ‘why breed?’ problem.
By 1983 I was over the wall with nuclear war anxiety. I worked out a game plan to try and stop it but I couldn’t actually implement the game plan, which made me even more anxious. So I thought the only thing that I could do would be to refuse to join in society as much as I possibly could, so I put myself outside, sleeping rough in Oxford. I promptly went nuts when I came back in, in 1989, straight after the wall came down.
I work my life in ten-year plans. My thirties were my learning generation, my forties were my loony experience, my fifties – I’m now 53 – I want to be my flowering and productive ten years.
There are a lot of things I want to change about my life. I want to get decent accommodation where I have control over who comes in and out of the front door. They come down every day at 3.30pm to give me my medication and they make me have in front of them.
I think it’s incredibly important that we try to share our personal truths with other people. My main motivation at the moment is trying to find a way to get people to listen to what I’ve worked out and to tell me what they’ve worked out. On the loony scene, where I spend most of my waking hours, all they ever talk about is money, medication and food. Literally. I try to get decent conversations going and one or two people do it but the rest of them don’t want to know. All the talent has left the loony scene. They’ve gone and got themselves plugged in and got better lives. So what we’re left with is the residue. I thought, with my friend Abby, to ask Oxford Channel 6 TV to start a loonies chat show, where you have to have spent at least one night in a mental hospital to be on it. If we could persuade Channel 6, late on Saturday night we could have one hour and invite all our loony friends to come on.
The sort of things that I’m in touch with in my delusional life make me think that the future’s going to get a lot better. If I tune into the media and extrapolate from what’s happening, what I get is more and more layers of control. It’s a completely dead, sterile society. So I’ve got two sets of input. One my psychotic input, and two the media input. What sustains me against the media input, which is just so awful at the moment, is the psychotic input, where there are reasons to be hopeful, God’s on the case and so on.
All the propaganda on television is trying to get you to consume. You’re not going to get any happier by consuming more things. I suspect that everybody really knows deep down that it doesn’t add up to happiness but the pressures to conform in a consumer society are great. The interesting that happened with the lottery, which I was amazed by, was that once people won those millions they gave a lot of it away. They didn’t want to consume at the limit, they wanted to help other people, which kind of undermines the assumptions.
They call me Jesus Alan some of the time, which is quite flattering, because I used to have hair long. I’m a lovechild of the 60s remember, John Lennon’s generation. Four failed relationships and six children later I still believe in the power of love, even though it has failed and continues to fail.
In 1980 I changed my name by deed pole. I had all these children with different surnames and I thought what we should do is go for our common humanity, the lowest common denominator, so I changed my name from Alan Lewis to Alan Human. Two of my ex-wives, Rita and Ann, and two of my children, are christened or took the name Human for a time. But now they’ve all reverted to their other names, so I’m the only Human left in our family.
Here is a short video of Alan talking about his life and the Oxford mental health scene.
Postscript: Alan died on 18th August, 2012.
Roman Krznaric is a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living. His latest book is Empathy.