Dr Clive Parkinson is Director of Arts for Health at Manchester Metropolitan University. He began his career as an artist working in a hospital and is a passionate advocate for culture and the arts. In this moving account, Clive recalls his personal experience of the power of art to change our lives...

Here’s a thing. I started out in life doing really quite badly. But I won’t give you a weepy: an arts-and-health Angela’s Ashes - no - I’ll tease you with a few choice morsels and leave you to fill the spaces in between.

So, here’s one of those spaces - a long, blank gap that spans ten years or more - with a cast of characters, fictional and non. A Quentin Blake drawing made real - stretched and scratchy and preposterously drunk - lurching along Edwardian promenades into my childhood. In his red and bloated hand, always in his hand - a tarnished trumpet. His spittle-rages in pubs and on promenades - the horror sound of the fox hunt.

But that’s a long, long blank gap peppered with (so they say) the things that don’t kill you but make you stronger. Well, they didn’t kill me.

Giorgio de Chirico, Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914.

Giorgio de Chirico, Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914

Here’s a moment - very real - and like all memory, faded golden cinematic, skittering through some summer urban townscape, devoid of life, de Chirico’s last light. I stand behind my mother who is painting at the table, tablecloth neatly protected (gingham, orange, green and white).

I’d never seen her quietly doing nothing. Yet here she was, doing nothing. I stood quietly, shifting in my skin, just watching. A stag in a forest. Small plastic pots of paint and my first inhalation of turpentine. Numbers. Like a Wadsworth dazzled ship. All by the numbers.

Soon she’d be animated again. Doing all those things. Cooking, mending, caring. Her apparent function.

My brother had taken a turn for the worse and was, for a few incredible moments, quite mad. This wasn’t a moment of ill-health, even an overwhelming psychosis - he’d transcended to something else. We’d talk about it for years to come. The time between right here and now, and then.

But for short bursts of time, my mother had granted herself leave from this extremis and immersed herself deeply, unexpectedly into this hobbyists art form, evolving in her final decades through evening classes, dabbling in ‘modern art’ and refining a skill. Amateur: one who loves.

So here’s another space - we can settle on a decade or two’s worth, condensed into 280 characters. Local headline-grabbing tragedy as Alan Bennett finishes filming All Day on the Sands, the toxic local waters claims a trinity of unformed friends, weighed down by Strongbow and solvents, the vicious crack and long-drop fractured things more delicate than bone. All washed up now.

Nipping in and out of the shadows, I absorbed something of my mother's deep immersion in the possibilities of art making, picking up a little disquiet on the way. Our town with its two great asylums: one for ‘Idiots and Imbeciles of the Northern Counties’, the other for ‘Lunatics and the Insane’ - my brother in one, me in the other - both unfolding into some unplanned careers, where creation expands opportunities for living, or medication, shame and stigma consume the last vestiges of the self.

Edward Wadsworth,

Edward Wadsworth, Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool, 1919

Walking down arterial corridors painted by well-meaning community artists became a daily nightmare. Hundreds of yards of jungle, funded by ‘the friends’ while managing ‘florid’ symptoms, was not conducive and a salutary reality check on the place of ‘art’ in hospitals for me. Creepers and vines.

But here’s the real thing - my modicum of talent paled into insignificance alongside the great untapped and frustrated passions of the women and men of the Royal Albert Hospital. It would be easy to delude myself - I’d brought the arts into these peoples lives - but in truth, it was these day-to-day encounters and shared exploration that informed the person I was evolving into. Doing with, not to. Over a decade. Me - pen, paint and paper and him - a biro in the arm and years of fag ends and indigo blue dermabrasion.

A first taste of education too, not state-sanctioned, but a choice. Expanded fields of colour and shimmering tastes of all that might come. All the stuff I’d been doing somehow made sense. Connections, linkages and blind alleys. Knowing less than people half my age, always feeling a fraud, but drinking it all up. Institutions of different kinds for two people growing older. Experimentation on the self, supported by always-helpful clinicians. This Molotov cocktail wasn’t for lobbing at a wall but doled out in terminal instalments.

Introduced to a long-dead philosopher by a very present lecturer, I found out that art helps us make sense of the chaos of our lives. Legitimised. A small thing that I was glad to know and carry around with me like ‘the Knowledge.’ The fetid daubs of Mary Barnes came later and the insight of difference expanded by playwrights, poets and psychologists, continues to compel.

Clive Parkinson - Dis/Ordered

Clive Parkinson’s powerful performance-presentation 'dis/ordered' is a moving exploration of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

So it’s been strange, all these years down the line, to find myself inhabiting this community of arts and health and even stranger still, opening up recently, to an invisible paying audience at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. The spotlight on me and my divided (other) self and on all those redacted moments of this temporary conjoined life.

Only this week, but ten years on, alone I scattered his mortal remains across the tops of the hills above the town. Lat/Long: 54.0287-2.69599571. A view of everything and everywhere he’d known. From the gods, both hospitals are clearly visible, framed by the sea. Bright winter sun. Grey ashes on my hands as I consume bread and cheese. Cannibalistic somehow. On these windswept moors, a lone young deer, its body twitching, watches me.

What might have been. What was. Dizzying Kodachrome moments.

One lost in it all.

The other tranquillised and elevated by the potency of art.

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Dr Clive Parkinson is Director of Arts for Health at Manchester Metropolitan University, the UK’s longest established arts and health unit. Clive led on the HM Treasury-funded Invest to Save: Arts in Health project between 2003-2007 and is a passionate advocate for culture and the arts. In 2009 he was awarded an Enterprise Curriculum Fellowship to develop bespoke arts/health training. In 2016 he was made a Reader at the Manchester School of Art, focusing on Arts, Health and Social Justice and has been awarded a Visiting Fellowship at the University of New South Wales and is a doctor of philosophy. Clive is on Twitter (@arts4health).