Wednesday, 17 March 2004

Mike Jay: The Air Loom Gang (2003)

Edition: Bantam, 2003
Review number: 1228

The most famously insane person of the eighteenth century was of course George III, one of the most celebrated madmen of all time. Yet his case is not as interesting in itself (rather than for who the patient was) as that of a contemporary Englishman, James Tilly Matthews. The turn of the nineteenth century was a pivotal time in the history of the treatment of the insane, as asyla began to be built which were more like hospitals than the prison-like buildings which preceded them, and the way in which Matthews was incarcerated turned out to be important in the precipitation of this change. Matthews' life and delusions are fascinating in themselves, as well as being unusually well documented (this fact meaning that he is one of the first cases where psychologists have been able to attempt to make a modern diagnosis).

The Matthews case basically begins, as does Jay's book, with a disturbance at the Houses of Parliament. Matthews interrupted the closing stages of a debate in the early 1790s, the one which lead to the declaration of war with revolutionary France, by shouting out "Treason!" from the Visitors' Gallery. He was led away and committed to Bethlem Hospital, the place that is the origin of the term "Bedlam". He remained there for a couple of decades until just before his death. His delusions were principally that a secret organisation was using a device called an "Air Loom" to control people's thoughts and precipitate a war between France and Britain. The really odd thing is that Matthews had actually been involved in secret negotiations with the revolutionary government, so that his delusions had some basis in reality. That of course was not acknowledged by the British government of the time.

So many elements come together in the Matthews case that it is easy to see why Jay chose him as the subject of his book. He has responded to the story with a book which is exciting as well as fascinating. In places it even seems as though it is a historical thriller rather than a non-fictional narrative. (It reminded me of "steampunk" novels, like K.W. Jeter's Infernal Devices, for example; this is partly because of the science fiction resonances of the air loom device.) The Air Loom Gang is very highly recommended; wonderfully written, engrossing.

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