In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the idle classes used to pay one pence, old money, to visit the Bedlam hospital so they could gawp and laugh at the zany antics of the mentally ill patients who were incarcerated there.
Thankfully we live in more enlightened times and understand that charging people to gape at the eccentricities of the psychologically impaired is morally wrong. It’s much more progressive to shut the hospitals down and force the loonies out on to the street, so we can witness their ridiculous frolics for free.
Not only is that one pence, old money, saved for us all every single day (that’s a latte and a half’s worth per annum), it also gives our lives an extra exciting frisson: we never know when one of these nutty pranksters will push us under a bus or stab us in the face with a knitting needle or shower us in a heady cocktail of their own bodily fluids and then stab us in the face with a knitting needle and push us under a bus. Everyone is a winner.
But once you get over the moral indignation and accept that there’s nothing you can do about it, you do start to realise that those insensitive Victorians had a point: the non compis mentis are pretty damned entertaining.
There’s the ginger haired man who wears shorts, whatever the weather, who wanders up and down the Thames tow-path arguing with himself: firstly saying something calm and reasonable, and then immediately yelling (at himself) “Will you just fucking shut up?!” Quietly, he will try and defend his previous position and then loudly object, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Fucking shut your fucking face, you fuck!”
There’s the aged lady who stands on the traffic island on Trinity Road in Tooting in a flimsy nightie, merrily exposing her ancient private parts to passing motorists. There’s the man in Hammersmith who scurries around with his shoulder to the wall and his eyes constantly staring at the ground, holding a sign saying, “I am under surveillance by the British Secret Service,” which you can only think is something that would be making their job a lot easier, if it were true.
Admittedly, any humour here is grim, any laughter hollow and dry-throated. Our amusement relies on us being able to ignore their individual tragedies, but that’s something, as a nation, that we’ve got pretty good at doing.
The true fascination with madness and the mad is our unspoken awareness that the line between sanity and insanity is as flimsy as a Trinity Road nightie in a hurricane. Which of us haven’t heard ourselves pontificating and wished we could shout expletives at ourselves? Which of us haven’t dreamt of running naked through the streets? Which of us doesn’t secretly believe we are having our every private moment filmed by a reality TV show, which everyone else is watching, but that doesn’t appear on our own television and that’s why people laugh at us in the street?
The mentally ill aren’t consciously challenging our pre-conceptions of the arbitrary notions of what is and isn’t acceptable, but that’s what they do. I wish that we did more to help them (whilst not really being prepared to do anything directly myself), though I’m not sure locking them away from sight is any more of a solution.
In a city where trying to engage in conversation with someone on a train that you’ve never met before is the height of lunacy, whilst having full sexual intercourse with someone you’ve only just met in a night-club is normality, it is tempting to ask, “Who are the madmen?”
In this case it’s the people trying to talk to strangers on a train, when they could just as easily be shagging them in a toilet. What are they thinking? The nutters!