Three days before Christmas 2015, my friend Mark killed himself. He had a well-paid job at a respected law practice in London. He was close to his family and friends. He was about to go on honeymoon. He was just 38 years old.
On the afternoon of his death, he had arranged to play tennis with two friends from the tennis club he and I belonged to in north London. He never turned up. When his wife discovered him that evening, he had been dead a couple of hours. They had been married only four weeks.
What makes someone with so much to look forward to take his life? At Mark’s inquest at the coroner’s court in Barnet, there were few answers. The coroner considered reports from Mark’s employer and his GP. He then read out part of a note Mark had written before he died, addressed to his wife. It had been left on the kitchen table of their flat, along with car and house keys, bank cards and a photograph of their wedding. On the table, too, were the remains of lunch and a cup of cold tea.
A couple of hours before Mark died, he had talked on the phone to a friend to confirm a game of tennis that evening, and mentioned he must get round to buying a turkey for Christmas. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide. Nobody, he said, could have done anything more. It was Mark’s decision, brought on, at least it seemed to me, by debilitating depression.
When I met Mark after he joined our tennis club six years ago, I recognised a fellow tennis obsessive. We were about the same standard and we ended up in the same team. When I took over as the team’s captain in 2015, it was on the understanding that Mark would be my deputy and soon take over from me. He was, after all, the same age as most of the other team members, while I am about twenty years older. After our matches, Mark and I often stayed late in the club bar talking about the shots we were proud of and the mistakes that would haunt us for days afterwards. It’s the nature of the game.
Sometimes, after we had exhausted all the arguments about topspin or slice, our conversation might switch to less important things such as work and life. And then, after another beer or two, we might talk about relationships and about how happy we were with how things had panned out, both being sons of Irish immigrants who had done well in Britain although we both lost our mothers before their time.
Once or twice we did touch on their deaths, only to be interrupted by other tennis friends coming over to our long, black sofa to gossip about who was playing well and, more importantly, who wasn’t. People knew that Mark wouldn’t turn them away even if all they wanted was to complain about why they weren’t in the team: he was one of the few players in the club who was genuinely loved. And so we budged up to make room and the conversation switched back to tennis, and an opportunity to deepen our friendship was missed.
The Wednesday before his death he took part in our team’s Christmas game, when everybody played wearing the Santa hats I’d bought at the 99p shop on the Holloway Road on the promise they would glow in the dark. Mark seemed uncomfortable and not on form. His looping serve was sluggish, his volleys wayward. The light on his Santa hat kept going out. After the game, he sat in the corner of the Turkish restaurant we had adjourned to and said very little. At one point, I asked him if he was OK and he nodded, but he looked as if the blood had drained from his body. Somebody took a picture of us that night and there he is, frozen in time, right at the end of our group when he was usually in the middle, looking pale and withdrawn as he tries to smile. I said to him afterwards he could ring me any time and he nodded, but he never did.
Last year the Office for National Statistics published a report showing that men are still three times more likely to kill themselves than women. Although male suicide reached its highest levels in Britain in the early 1980s in England and Wales, it remains the most common cause of death for men between the ages of 20 and 49, which Mark was. In the early 1980s, when I came close to killing myself, so was I.
It was the winter of 1983. I was 29 years old and living in a shared flat in Wynford House, a postwar north London council block just up the Caledonian Road from King’s Cross. Four of us had been rehoused there while our short-life houses, five minutes’ walk away in Richmond Avenue, were turned into permanent homes.
Despite Margaret Thatcher’s second electoral triumph that June, those were good times to be in London if you were young and politically radical. Across the road from us lived Margaret Hodge, the dynamic leader of Islington Borough Council, one of the most left-wing in the country. The development officer who had masterminded the transformation into a long-term co-operative of our run-down Victorian terrace, originally occupied by squatters, was another Islington Labour councillor, Chris Smith. He soon became Britain’s first openly gay MP.
A couple of friends of mine had powerful positions at the Greater London Council under its new leader, Ken Livingstone. Others worked in left-wing bookshops or made films for the new Channel 4. My own housemates were employed by CND, Release and Shelter. There were many exciting possibilities to combine work, politics and life. Instead, I became depressed.
A month earlier, I had started a doctorate in sociology at the University of Sussex to reinvent myself as an academic. As the nights grew colder and the theory tougher, it became an ordeal. My manic working-class confidence, which had seen me through a university degree and then helped me get work with the half-dozen radical book publishers that were then flourishing in Britain, ran out of fuel. I crashed down.
One Monday morning I took the train to the campus in Falmer, near Brighton, rented a student bedsit and retreated from the world. When I failed to return to London for the weekend, my housemates became concerned. When I still had not made contact after a week, one of them drove down to find me. I wonder what would have happened if he had not.
For days on end I had stayed in bed until mid-afternoon and gone out only when it was so dark that I wouldn’t bump into anybody. I ate convenience food but did not allow myself any alcohol, because that might make me face up to how miserable I was. Late at night, I would creep into the university library and take from the shelves something that was straightforward to read and that would distract me from reality: a history of pop music or a detective novel. I would stay in the library for hours, returning to bed only when I was about to collapse. Occasionally I might venture out to walk the coastal path to Brighton and allow myself to be buffeted by the waves washing in from the English Channel, wishing one of them would sweep me away. I kept putting off any decision to live or die until the morning I felt sure would come, when I would wake with certainty about what to do: either start living again or kill myself.
Fortunately, that morning never came. Instead, there was a knock at the door that wouldn’t go away, until I was forced to answer simply to stop the noise. Standing there was Christian, one of my London housemates. He put his arms around me and took me back to London.
Back at Wynford House, Susan, an ex-girlfriend, took over my life and negotiated with the university, my GP and local social services to sort out my affairs and find me an alternative to mental hospital: in the spirit of those times, we all thought that there would be nothing worse than ending up on a psychiatric ward.
Through friends of friends, Susan discovered the Arbours Crisis Centre in Crouch End, a private community with origins in the anti-psychiatry movement of the late 1960s. At that time, Arbours offered intensive residential therapy for those with “serious emotional problems”, which I certainly had. She applied on my behalf to Islington council for a grant for me to stay there, which my GP supported. The council approved the money and I spent four weeks at Arbours receiving psychotherapy twice a day. It saved my life.
Arbours survives today but its innovative crisis centre is no longer. Gone, too, are other crisis intervention teams that were part of the NHS, such as the one that ran for many years in Barnet and which would have been available to Mark, day or night. Instead, the help on offer these days for people who find themselves in the same despairing place as he was usually comes down to antidepressant medication, combined, perhaps, with a weekly visit to a counsellor. In an emergency, you go to A&E.
There are places on psychiatric wards in general hospitals for people at serious risk of suicide but that risk often becomes clear only when it is too late. Many men like Mark are “smiling depressives”: we hide our despair under a cloak of cool bonhomie. So, we don’t get help until it’s too late or until some of our loved ones insist that we do.
Thirty years ago I was lucky. My smiles had long gone. Everyone could see how desperate I was. My friends were determined to find somewhere for me to be safe. Without them I wouldn’t be here today.
After Mark’s inquest, held at the end of April last year, I left the coroner’s court in Barnet, crossed the high street and passed the parish church, resisting the urge to go in. Instead, I found a French coffee shop run by hospitable Kurds. It was early spring. The sun was shining. The coffee was fresh and strong, and the Danish pastries inviting, but nothing could lift the deep sadness I felt.
This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda