BrainBomb is a novel based on my experiences of bipolar. I suffered severe depression in 1987 then its bipolar opposite in 1990, when I underwent a prolonged period of hypomania. Although my moods were 'up' rather than 'down,' I was equally manic.
July 1990. The central character, Neil, is convinced he has found God. He decides to affirm this newfound positivity by gatecrashing a service at St Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh. While stoned.
Rummaging through photos stuffed in a drawer, I unearth a snap of me, circa 1982. I’m going through my Mark E Smith fanboy phase, complete with grey blazer and argyle pattern tank-top. This was taken at a stag party for a colleague when I worked for Scottish Widows, my first full-time job. I recall a muted affair, tequila slammers and ogling pole-dancers replaced by pints of export and a darts tournament in a rugby social club. Perhaps the only stag do in history to feature a game of dominos. The most raucous part of the long evening was when someone scrawled ‘I suck knobs’ on the prospective groom’s Adidas t-shirt in white chalk from the dartboard.
Sucking another eye-watering lungful of skunk deep into my diaphragm, I lift a pair of scissors. Struggling against the tremors coursing through my fingertips, I remove the other hard-partying insurance clerks to leave a gurning close-up of me. I pop this inside the letter I’ve composed for Cathy Dennis.
Like some starstruck teenager, I’ve decided to send her fan mail. While her music, chart-friendly dance-pop, is far removed from what I’m otherwise listening to these days, either post-punk, Madchester or techno, her face and figure are alluring. And she’s at a level of prominence – regular Top of the Pops appearances while mostly remaining outwith the Top 20 – she’ll still be approachable and will answer correspondence personally. So I’ve invited her to drop by whenever she’s visiting Scotland. This is by far the least eccentric of my planned activities for this morning.
Forgetting to add a stamp as I poke the envelope into the post-box around the corner, I now make my way for St Mary’s, the Episcopalian cathedral whose three tall Gothic spires dominate Edinburgh’s West End.
As I head along Dalry Road, the trio of steeples growing ever closer, I contemplate the reasons why people all over the globe congregate on their respective places of worship: church, mosque, chapel, synagogue, temple or forest clearing within convenient hugging distance of the nearest tree. There are times calling for celebration, or simple thanks. There will be occasions when comfort is required, particularly after natural disasters referred to, with a supreme irony that seems to evade the worshippers, as Acts of God. There are many instances where comfort is sought after personal loss.
As I make my way inside the cavernous building to clumsily ease into the end of a row, five from the front, I accept I fall into none of these categories. Instead of utilising the moments prior to the priest’s arrival for quiet introspection, I’m gawking. My eyes are riveted by the magnificent stained glass windows capturing the sunlight, the gleaming silver crucifixes, the resplendent tapestries.
I am in awe of these icons and trappings because I was brought up in the far more austere Church of Scotland. Sunday sessions during my childhood made watching paint dry seem a riveting alternative. This lurid setting is also a Protestant church but Scottish Episcopalian, closely allied to the Church of England with its archbishops and incense, and therefore much, much ‘higher’ than anything I’ve experienced. It must be akin to being inside a Roman Catholic chapel. But I’ve targeted this cathedral for that very reason. The atmosphere seems so much more colourful, so much more intense than the stern services in drab surrounds I recall from Sunday School pressgangings. This is churchgoing on acid.
I recall school lessons about the Reformation. How religious freedom defined Scotland as a nation, Presbyterian plainness a reaction to the corruption and hypocrisies of Christendom at that time. As for the Anglican thing, one reason all these worshippers are here today can be traced right back to England’s King Henry VIII, spree killer of wives. He had required a quick divorce and when this was refused by Pope Clement in 1527, he simply started his own, Anglican, church.
Obviously there were longstanding and complex political machinations but I’m thinking it all boils down to Henry’s sex life. Specifically, the lack of the single gene present in the Y chromosome of the spermatozoon when he sploodged and impregnanted Anne Boleyn: the tiny swimmer that would have given him a male heir.
So the origins of this high Protestant church, with its ornate paraphernalia and artistic splendour, bearing such a close resemblance to its Roman cousin, is down to biology. Those very facts of life derided and denied by dogmatic preachers over the centuries. A resemblance paradoxical and deeply ironic given the fathomless hundreds of thousands who have died violently in the aftermath of the sixteenth century schism. Of course, one sperm differently programmed at that moment inside Mrs Hitler, Mrs Pot or Mrs Stalin, would have prevented millions of deaths.
As one christened into the Scottish ‘Kirk’, I feel like a Trotskyite in a Tsarist palace. But my main reason for soaking in this ambience, listening to the beautiful organ melodies piping over the congregation and swirling around the cavernous interior, has nothing to do with political ponderings or even worship. I just needed an outlet for how I’m feeling right now. Because if this is a ‘high’ church, then I am the highest thing in it. I've toked so much this morning I feel a miniscule chemical imbalance away from tripping. When I assumed this position a moment ago, it felt less like sitting down and more like melting into the furniture. It took all my resolve to stifle a fit of the giggles when I realised my t-shirt was reeking with skunk, enough to draw several knowing looks. But no more than that. I'm sure there are no "thou shalt nots" in their prized book about hydroponically-produced psychoactive drugs, although a lot of the stuff about feeding 5,000 with seven loaves of bread and some fish, not to mention the parting of seas, was surely scribed by someone out their face on some equivalent.
This manic obsession with religion began when I bumped into a daughter of one of Mum’s friends, Rosie, who lived in our street and was part of the gang when we played outside as kids. Now a married woman in her early twenties, she enthused about St Mary’s. Like myself, she was christened into the Kirk but she was drawn into the flamboyance of the Episcopalian service. And, as a diffident teetotaller, its burgeoning social scene, with all manner of clubs run by the high percentage of under-30s forming the Sunday congregation.
In my hyperactive condition I just thought it sounded like a potential pool of untapped single, cheery, unsophisticated females. There is surely a fine line between mainstream religions such as this, and the numerous cults which have twisted off on more hedonistic paths. There’s a definite hippy vibe with a lot of the young women I’m clocking here, sparking my urge to congregate.
Flanked by sub-ordinates, the priest enters the arena with much swishing of thick, velvet curtains. He raises his arms and his white robes billow. The congregation stands. Many of them raise their right hands to the heavens in what initially appear to be alarming fascist salutes, although when I study the gesture through my bleary eyes I realise their pinkies and index fingers are subtly parted, alluding to the crucifixion.
A few prayers, some chanting and several inspired gospel-style hymns later, I am buzzing with visual, aural and sensual overload. Satiating my senses with Christianity. My head is spinning. All the silver crosses capture the sun filtering through the multicoloured stained glass windows at the same moment to burn like fluorescent strip lights. Everywhere I look there are gorgeous looking females, inanely smiling, eyes closed, their features betraying how much they have abandoned themselves to the moment.
I suddenly realise, with the alarming certainty that only this moment will bring, I am about to projectile vomit. Everyone is asked to pray. When the flock bow their heads, I leap from the wooden bench. My Sambas pad swiftly down the aisle. I hurry towards the sunlight bathing the arched entrance. Outside, I am immersed by Sunday morning normality. Tourists stroll by brandishing cameras and maps. Traffic flows. Sparrows chirrup from the trees. The only thing out of the ordinary is lurking just outside the doorway of the late 19th century cathedral. A young man is throwing his guts up like a scene from The Exorcist.