Brian’s Story

In a the town where I grew up, which was also the town where Brian Davis grew up, people dreaded seeing their names in the newspapers. The dread was irrational since very few of the local inhabitants did anything newsworthy enough to get themselves into print. In today’s culture of publicity and celebrity, it seems inexplicable. But in a small provincial town in the north of England, 50 years ago, being mentioned in the press or on radio or TV wasn’t a sign of success but a brand of failure, and worse- it meant being involved in a crime or a fire or a bankruptcy or an indecent exposure or a brawl outside a pub or an affair between the vicar and a parishoner’s wife. It meant either you’d done something terrible or something terrible had happened to you, which was probably your own fault anyway since there’s no smoke without fire.

So it was with every sort of apprehension that I read in the newspapers about “Brian’s Story”, a TV documentary about my friend Brian Davis’ descent into mental illness and alcoholism, his living rough on the streets of London as a tramp, and his eventual, violent death. In the days before transmission, there were frequent trailers and I would suddenly hear Brian’s voice coming from the TV set, as if from over my shoulder, speaking in his familiar cadences that I hadn’t heard since we lost touch 12 or 13 years earlier.

WhenI say Brian was my friend but it would be more true to say we were the same age and we grew up in the same town. His mother knew my mother. Brian and I went to the same school and later to the same university, though I don’t recall ever seeing him there. He came to London to become a journalist. I also came to London, and became a journalist. By the time I turned freelance in my late twenties, Brian was a commissioning editor on a trade magazine covering the advertising industry, and I wrote for him on commission. That was the period when we got to know each other, when the coincidence of our lives that other people are always so keen to point out to you (“you come from the same town and the same school and you’re in the same line of work, you must be friends”), converged for a while, and we did indeed transform our acquaintance into a kind of friendship, more than strangers but less than intimates. There were many things I didn’t know-will never know- about Brian (for example, in the film Brian describes how he has a severely mentally handicapped brother. That was the first I’d heard of it). We spent a lot of time drinking together after work, but I don’t remember us talking much about the past, either about Cambridge or our old school or Wallasey, which is the name of the town where we both grew up. We talked about movies and books and the gossip of the journalism trade. Mostly, I think, we talked about the future and our plans for the future.

Brian was still talking about his plans for the future in the documentary, although by the time the film was shot, he had been a manic depressive for a decade, an alcoholic for part or all of that time, and homeless and destitute for the previous seven months. Neither he nor the filmmakers knew it, but he had six more months left to live. “I have plans,” he tells the camera over and over again. “I know exactly what I’m going to do and how I’m going to do it.” “In a year’s time I’ll be very successful”. “In two days’ time, I’ll no longer be living in chaos-maybe make that a week.” We see him sleeping on benches and in shop doorways in London. Then we see him living in a small, empty house in Liverpool lent to him by a cousin, a house Brian immediately reduced to an indescribable state of filth and squalor, filling every inch with rubbish. That rang a bell. I’ve seen that before, never in as extreme a version, but always as a symptom of terrible, unbearable depression and mental turmoil.

Throughout, Brian himself remains sanguine and full of plans. Over the course of the few months’ filming, the plans change- diminish. He starts out trying to get enough money to travel to Paris to interview Roman Polanski. Then he scales down to tidying up the house and “going back to writing”. Finally he ends with the aim of getting through a single day without some fresh disaster. Not that it really matters what his plans are. We know at a glance, we know before he opens his mouth to tell us about them, that Brian’s plans will never be realized.

Watching a mad drunk destroy himself isn’t a pleasant experience, whether or not you know the person concerned. I kept getting up from my chair and walking out of the room or across the room to a point where I couldn’t see the TV but I could still hear the sound. I wanted to reach inside the set, and then reach inside Brian’s head and click the mechanism, turn the dial a couple of notches clockwise, or perhaps counter-clockwise, and make him see what he was doing. Because that’s all it would take. Just a matter of a notch or two, a couple of degrees, a few more or less chemicals, a handful of neurotransmitters here and there, and Brian would be bound to understand what was so blindingly obvious to the rest of us.. Please, I wanted to beg him, please Brian STOP! DON’T DO THIS!!!

Nothing human can ever be strange to us from the Hitlers and the Mansons to the low-grade, common-or-garden deviations from the norm represented by mentally ill homeless and the street drunks who are the closest most of us are likely to come to the darkness inside the skull.. Once I’d overcome my reluctance to watch, I realized Brian was still Brian. He was filthy, he was gaunt, he was ragged, there was a Prince Charles-type bald spot on the crown of his head that I didn’t remember being there, but the damage of the last decade and a half hadn’t erased him though it had knocked him about a bit. There’s a skill among theatre designers called “distressing”, meaning they take brand-new scenery, props and costumes and deliberately mess them up so they look used. Brian looked as if something like that had happened to him, as if he’d been “distressed” in all senses of the word. Mind you, on TV, you don’t get the smell.

The filmmakers kept showing old photos of him the way he’d been before his illness. There was a photo of Brian in his Cambridge graduation gown; another in a dinner jacket at some advertising dinner; another interviewing someone across a desk with Brian turning his head to the photographer. They were photos taken during the time Brian and I knew each other. The film was in colour but the old photos were in black and white and I thought that was appropriate because a BA gown is black and white; a dj is black and white; and normal, ordinary life, the life Brian led then, is also a matter of black and white, the colours of reason- or at the least, it involves an unspoken agreement on all our parts to behave as if it’s a matter of black and white. The filmmakers kept cutting back to the old shots, milking the pathos between the glittering youth and the middle-aged down and out, but that wasn’t the message. I got from the pictures. Filmed in colour, in his fifties, after seven months sleeping rough as a vagrant wino, Brian looked more interesting than he did in the pictures taken in his twenties and thirties.

Brian was a handsome guy, a little too much the pretty boy when he was younger, though he was never a ladies’ man. (His heart lay elsewhere, I suspect, and I suspect it was with his mother.) He was quite a short man, densely knit with a big head, and very regular features down to the deep cleft in his chin. A lot of male Hollywood stars have the same basic physical structure: it’s a structure that photographs well. He’d weathered and aged and if you’d cleaned him up….well, there was one shot of him in a battered hat hunched over a guitar and he looked like one of those hard-living rock n’roll troubadours, a Tom Waits or a Keith Richards figure. It can happen that way with people suffering from mental illness and/or drug and alcohol addiction (two categories that overlap but aren’t the same thing. Depending on your point of view, all addicts and alcoholics could be considered mentally ill but all mentally ill people are not addicts or alcoholics). Some of them end up looking and sounding like Old Testament prophets or backwoods philosophers or, as in Brian’s case, street poets, which is how and why a lot of crazy people, some harmless, others less so, got themselves accepted by the hippies in the Sixties.

Brian was no Charles Manson. He wasn’t remotely dangerous to anyone except himself. Even as he descended into madness he couldn’t shake his middle-class manners. On camera, he was polite, articulate, mild and soft-spoken, except when he lost his temper and screamed obscenities; and even then his outbursts were brief and always ended with his saying “Sorry! I’m sorry!”. He was trying to keep himself under control, you see, trying not to let down his family, his school, his town, his university, his class, his country. Brian was trying not to get his name into the newspapers, which begs the question of why he allowed himself to be filmed in the first place.

Or it would do, if the film itself hadn’t provided the answer. Brian, we were told, wanted to tell his story, which he himself imagined was a story about how easy it is to lose the trappings of success, to drop out of society through bad luck or by accident, and which he conceived as having as happy ending in which he got his life back on track. Nothing to do with insanity. Nothing to do with alcoholism. A kind of cautionary, moral tale for our times with homelessness as the contemporary test, the challenge the hero has to overcome, Brian himself being the hero of his own story.


I don’t know to what extent the filmmakers bought this version of events, but my guess is that they did buy it, for a while at least. The very title of the film, “Brian’s Story” plays into this scenario, whereas the harsh truth is that Brian’s didn’t have a story to tell, heroic or otherwise. Being a mentally ill alcoholic is a non-story- story’s end- like writing, “and he lived unhappily ever after”. At best, it’s a hiatus in a story that only resumes with the commencement of recovery. I doubt the filmmakers understood this. It’s amazing how ignorant otherwise intelligent and educated people can be when it comes to addiction and mental illness, and at a loss as to how to deal with them.

So there was Brian, in between bouts of mania and mayhem, squatting in a shop doorway or sitting on a park bench, smoking and talking about his plans and sounding completely unfazed, as if he was at a suburban dinner party discussing his plans for the summer holidays. If I closed my eyes, his voice was exactly the same as I remembered it, albeit with added sound effects, the chokes and rasps from another thirteen years of chain- smoking. The same old Brian, wry, easy-going, persuasive, stubborn, a little defensive sometimes, the persuasiveness coming close to the edge of pleading, but by and large, he sounded so- there is no other word for it- so reasonable.

Until I began to realize something else was going on. From the conventional point of view, Brian’s plans were clearly delusional, part of his refusal to accept the reality of his situation. Looked at another way, though, his actual plans weren’t the point, any more than was the patent impossibility of their fulfilment. When Brian clung so desperately to the idea he had a plan, he was clinging to exactly that- to the idea of having a plan. Nor was it Brian Davis my old friend and homeboy who clung to this idea when he couldn’t remember anything else for ten minutes at a stretch. It was his mind itself clinging to the word “plan”, as if clinging to its own shadow.

The shadow was the shadow of sanity. To have a plan is to behave like a rational person, to own a sense of order, to be in control of reality or rather, it’s a little more complicated than that- the nature of the word “plan” is that you don’t have reality under your control aka obedient to your will at this precise moment but you will have in the future. And you know how you’re going to get from here to there. You may not be able to impose a rational structure on reality right now; but you can project a rational structure into the future, at which point you will be able to impose it

How elegantly Brian’s hopelessly disturbed mind still functioned. Somehow, that mind knew it wasn’t working very well, but it was determined to preserve the hope that it would work one day; and that hope acted as its own guarantee. So long as he had a plan, Brian had a mind. He couldn’t be crazy. Any lapse in rationality in the present could only be temporary and incidental. Brian’s mind was mounting a last-ditch defence against insanity, and it was using the notion of a plan to admit and deny its situation simultaneously; at one and the same time to confess it was crazy and insist it was still sane.

Did Brian’s ability to come up with such a comprehensive mental strategy mean that he was sane after all? Unfortunately not. Every time Brian told the filmmakers “I have plans. I know exactly what I’m going to do. I know how I’m going to carry out my plans” I simply substituted the words “I’m sane. I’m not mad.” And every time I wanted to reply, “why do you think you’re protesting so much? Of course you’re mad. Why not just admit it?”

There’s a moment in the film where one of Brian’s plans does succeed, and it’s worse for him than when they don’t. In fact, throughout the film, whenever anything positive happens, it turns out worse for Brian. He gets 700 in back pay from his state benefits meaning he can get a room. He can get off the street. He’s been saying this is all he needs, some money so he can make a fresh start. And he blows it. In two days, the money’s all gone, he’s drunk it, he’s lost it, who knows what’s happened: the fool a.k.a. the madman and his money have been parted. At this point, Brian comes face to face with the consequences of his own insanity in a way he can’t ignore-but he can’t admit it either, because to admit you’re insane is an impossible contradiction in terms (how do you admit you’ve lost your mind, making a rational judgement that you can no longer make a rational judgement?). And in this psychological dead-end or no exit situation where our hero is cornered and you think, at last, he’s got to break down, he’s got to ask for help, check himself into a psychiatric hospital, whatever, what does he do? He goes straight back to talking about the plans he has for the future but with a new twist. He’s not worried, he says, he has very precise plans but “I’m not going to divulge my plans.”

There’s the twist: his plans are now a secret. Who are they a secret from? First and foremost, is they’re a secret from Brian himself. Faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Brian’s mind, in extremis, is still struggling to preserve an image of itself as rational and falling back on the only possible strategy left to it. Brian’s plans aka his sanity, are now a secret, since the only alternative is to admit they don’t exist. You can see in the very denial involved, in his struggling to insist to the camera that he still does have plans, although he can’t say what they are, Brian’s mind making a desperate attempt to will its own sanity back into existence.

How should we view what happens next? Brian gets off the streets and out of London. A deus ex machina in the form of a cousin, never shown on camera, intervenes to offer Brian a place in Liverpool, a small terraced house to himself. Two things happen to Brian while he’s in this house, two images, one aural and one visual, that any film director worth his salt would kill for because you couldn’t invent any better symbols. The first thing is when Brian arranges for some of his old possessions that he’s kept in storage to be delivered to the house (actually I suspect someone else made the arrangements, probably the filmmakers). They include a stereo and Brian’s collection of LPs. But when he tries to play them the stereo is set on 45rpm, and he can’t figure out how to change it to 33. So he plays the LPs, mainly old jazz and American popular songs from the 1920s-1940s, good stuff, at 45rpm. Over and over again we hear these gibbering chipmunk voices, this nonsense hurdy-gurdy music, going faster and faster and of course to us the viewers they’re a detailed aural map of the landscape inside Brian’s head.

The second image is even more breathtaking because it’s on a grander scale and it’s visual. What we see is the state of the house after Brian has lived in it (if living is the word) for a few days,and then again after a few weeks. It’s worse than a rubbish tip. It’s beyond squalor, beyond chaos. When a social worker finally visits Brian- a scene that takes place off camera- we’re told the social worker takes one look at the house and exclaims “Good god! “. The social worker says he’s never seen anything like it, and that what the house tells him is that Brian is seriously depressed. The social worker is only putting into words what we the viewers understood a while ago. The state of the house is an analogue for the state of Brian’s mind. The house has become Brian- or Brian has become the house- to the point where Brian himself doesn’t need to be “in” it for the house to tell his story for him, and more truthfully than he can tell it for himself. All we have to do is see the interior of the house in order to know everything we need to know about the interior life of the person who lives there.

In the end, the 45rpm stereo and the trashed house didn’t do Brian much good, but seeing them helped me. I find it very reassuring that the universe seems never to give up on us, that it goes right on mirroring and reflecting and adapting itself to us symbolically, as well as evolving geologically and biologically and all the other ologies. In fact, since this is a personal piece, it’s time I confessed I played my own lost-and-found, pass-the-parcel games with sanity, those games in which the abuse of alcohol seems essential to staying in the game while making it increasingly certain you’ll lose. Infinite reassurance (defined as a god who isn’t me) is the basis of my recovery and everyone else’s recovery I know, “everyone” being people like Brian and myself.

Only Brian didn’t recover. He was unlucky if you’ll allow “luck” to stand in for a whole lot of things I haven’t got time to go into. Above all, he was unlucky in having two things wrong with him instead of one- double trouble, a double whammy. Brian was both an alcoholic and also a manic depressive (and who knows which came first?). If he hadn’t been an alcoholic, he might have been able to deal with his mental illness. If he hadn’t been mentally ill, he might have been able to get sober. The two together pretty much sealed his fate.

The other thing I learned from the film was that Brian’s mother, who I recall only as a voice on the phone in a handful of brief conversations, died three years before the film was made. There were no other family or relations apart from the distant, benevolent cousin. Brian never married or had children of his own. Under these circumstances, and harsh though it may seem to say so, the best, the most merciful outcome for him was probably an easy death. He got one, or as close to one as possible. The universe can’t always oblige- those interfering human beings again-but it did for Brian. At the end of the film he agrees to enter a psychiatric hospital for treatment and we’re all ready to breathe a sigh of relief, except that six weeks later, when the camera picks him up again, we see nothing has changed. Brian is still insisting nothing is wrong with him, which is a classic trait of manic depressives and of alcoholics, and a principal reason both conditions are so difficult to treat.

He’s still arguing that it’s everybody else who’s sick. All he needs, he says, is “to calm down” (which is, strictly speaking, true but begs all the questions). From what we’ve seen of Brian’s manic depression, our bet is that he’s more manic than depressive anyway, which is another problem for him since, if you’re depressed, you may end up committing suicide but it’s more likely you’ll reach a point where you can’t go on and you’ll seek help. On the other hand, if you’re manic, then you have the power and grandiloquence to convince yourself of anything, to override the most pressing circumstantial evidence of your own condition including homelessness and destitution.

What happens next, and last, is unclear. Brian’s doctors transfer him from the hospital to a hostel to see if he’s ready to be discharged into the community, which seems like criminal negligence but is not their fault. It’s how the system works, and alternative systems aren’t as easy to devise as they appear since what we’re talking about is taking away people’s freedom and locking them up against their will. Brian doesn’t like the hostel- or he can’t adjust to it- or something else happens. He returns to the hospital. Two days later, he disappears. As it turns out, he took a train to London, checked into a cheap bed and breakfast dump near the station, bought a bottle of vodka and a bottle of Martini from the nearest off-license and, at some point during that night, left his room, climbed out of corridor window on to the roof of the hotel, sat on a ledge overlooking an internal courtyard, and either jumped or fell to his death. His body wasn’t discovered for two days.

Though the inquest on Brian’s death recorded an open verdict, several people who saw the film, and with whom I later discussed it, assumed that he committed suicide. I didn’t see it that way. It’s possible, of course. It’s possible that the treatment he was receiving at the hospital finally kicked in, as it were, and Brian awoke in that b and b- maybe he even drank himself into wakefulness and temporary sanity, it can happen- to the reality of his condition, to the terrible damage his life had sustained and to the herculean task he faced trying to repair it. And he succumbed to despair. One doesn’t have to be a psychiatrist to think up more merciful scenarios, however, everything from a bored Brian deciding an an alcoholic mini-break from the hospital routine to a situation where the treatment had indeed stirred things up in his brain, but merely made him uncomfortable enough to want to revert to his customary way of life, which by then consisted of checking into flophouses with bottles of booze.

In short, I read his death more as an alcoholic death than a mental patient’s death. Drunks top themselves too, but more often they die of heart attacks, in falls, in car crashes, in so-called “accidents” of every sort. I can see Brian, ripped on a homemade, slum version of vodka martinis, because that’s why he bought those particular bottles, out of his lifelong love of America and Hollywood that our provincial generation shared. I can follow him as if with the eye of the absent camera that night, out on to the ledge, to get some air and grock the view (top of the world, ma!), then slipping or tripping or missing his footing or peering over or leaning out too far or trying to balance on the edge and maybe not realizing what had happened until it was (almost) all over. Until he hit the deck. Maybe he even thought he could fly. Maybe he did fly. I hope so, for his sake.


It’s a strange feeling when the last time you see a contemporary and friend is in a TV film telling the story of his decline and his death that you didn’t know had taken place. The last time I saw Brian in person was in Los Angeles thirteen or fourteen years earlier. I’d been living in L.A. for some time by then and Brian would show up in the city every eighteen months or so. As a journalist covering the advertising and film businesses, he knew Southern California, and he liked it there. He stayed with me once or twice but he had other contacts with better accomodation. Sometimes he’d house-sit an empty apartment in Santa Monica or a cottage in the Hollywood Hills, or he’d just check in to a motel. On this last trip- the last one I knew of anyway, the trip that effectively ended our friendship- he wasn’t staying with me. Instead, we met for fish and chips at the British pub in Santa Monica, then went for a walk by the ocean afterwards.

It was all there, the illness the film showed, all there albeit in a minor key, from what must then have been near to the beginning. I remember how shocked I was. You feel a kind of dread combined with vertigo in the pit of your stomach because you know something very wrong and very strange is going on, as if the fundamental certainties have shifted against you I didn’t know what was wrong with Brian, only that something was wrong and that he’d changed since our previous meeting. For one thing, he was dirty where he’d been fastidious. When he ate his fish and chips, the food went all over the place. It fell off his fork on to his clothes, it fell out of his mouth, and Brian didn’t seem to notice. I was embarrassed sitting opposite him in the pub restaurant full of clean-cut, shiny-haired Californians. Along with the physical change, what Brian was saying to me didn’t make sense either. He told some long story about selling his flat in London although he had nowhere else to live. Then staying in cheap hotels. Putting his books and other stuff in storage. Getting on the plane on impulse to fly here and there- and now to L.A. where, as far as I could follow and unlike his usual visits, he had no real plans or purpose in mind. All of it was wrapped up in a spiel about freedom: he wanted to free himself from social structures and material possessions: he wanted to live a freer life. He was saying the same thing in the documentary 13 or so years later, but by then it was clearly just the romantic soundtrack to his illness.

That day in Santa Monica, I thought he was on drugs. I could tell he wasn’t drunk- not that afternoon, at any rate. So either he was on drugs or mixed up with drugs in some way. There was a wildness about him I hadn’t seen before. I put the drugs question to him as gently as I could during our walk, but he took exception anyway, and I had to spend the rest of the afternoon taking it back, apologising for thinking any such thing, didn’t I know him better than that, etc. etc.. As it happened I saw my own psychiatrist the next day, or the day after, and when I described Brian to him, he immediately came up with the right diagnosis. Apparently, rash moves and grandiose plans, throwing up your life and setting off across the world on a whim, are classic symptoms of manic depression. My shrink ordered me to stay away from my friend in no uncertain terms. I was a common or garden neurotic, he informed me, I was not in Brian’s league.

I didn’t take my doctor’s advice altogether, though it certainly influenced me in the years that followed when I made no attempt to find out where Brian was or what had happened to him. I thought about doing so once or twice. I contemplated going around via my mother, who was still alive in those years, having her get in touch with Brian’s mother, but I let it go. I did try to see Brian before he left L.A., if only to tell him what my shrink had told me and to attempt to persuade him to get help. But when I drove out to meet him at the address where he was staying, Brian wasn’t there. Hours later came some garbled account over the phone as to why he’d broken our appointment. He’d been stranded north of Malibu (what was he doing there in the first place?) and had to walk and hitchike four hours in the pouring rain back to his motel off Ventura Boulevard, and so on and so forth. Disasters were starting to engulf Brian, that sad trail of “accidents” that attach themselves to drunks and crazies, like pinning the tail on the donkey, until, one day, one of them ignites, and the whole thing goes up in flames.

We made a second date and the same thing happened again. Then he was gone, flown back to England where he no longer had an address or phone number. I sent an urgent message after him, to a mutual friend I knew would see him, begging the person to tell Brian he was sick, that he should get help. All that happened was I lost another friend.

One story Brian told me on the last afternoon we spent together has stayed in my memory. He said he had to appear in court when he got back to London. He’d been arrested by the police. He was most indignant because they’d arrested him for doing, in his view, nothing at all (another note that had become a repetitive theme by the time of the TV film. He was always being “harassed” by the authorities for “not doing anything at all”). Brian had moved into a bed and breakfast place where he was offended by the pictures in his room. They were the terrible, garish prints or reproductions you find in those places. Since Brian’s room was on the ground floor, he unhooked the pictures from his walls, opened the window, and hung them outside on the railings that separated the hotel from the pavement.

The owner called the police who arrested Brian for attempted theft but, as Brian pointed out to me, the last thing he was trying to do was to steal these dreadful pictures. Who in the world would want them? He had merely carried out an exercise in practical criticism. When I think about that story, it seems to me that what Brian was really doing was removing the garish and terrible contents of his own mind that he couldn’t live with, and hanging them outside on the railings, only to be interrupted by the Psych. Police, who intervened because none of us are allowed such simple solutions. That was the law Brian really transgressed, the one that says we all have to own our own thoughts. Until, caught between his sick brain and attentions of the Psych. Police, Brian discovered the temporary solvent of alcohol, a cure he had no way of knowing only worsened his disease. All contents mike bygrave 2014