• The Lunatics are on the Grass • 01.11.21
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
God's Fox is a literary photobook, an intimate documentation of the once largest 'mental' hospital in Europe, situated in Prestwich
To get into an adequately queer mood for this book it is recommended to tune into the sly tune 'In My Area' by the ever devious band The Fall. In it Mark E. Smith, shit-stirring mastermind of The Fall, paints a picture of the lunacy in his neighbourhood: the streets, the pubs—and his own reflection staring back at him in the mirror of Prestwich, this notorious suburb of Manchester where he grew up.
Austin Collings, co-editor of God’s Fox (Pariah Press), is himself marked by the area. Of course this is why he acted as co-author of Renegade—Mark E. Smith’s autobiography which is, just like the man himself, defined by sharp-tongued cynicism and grotesque stubbornness—the Prestwich way. And it was indeed Mark E. Smith himself who introduced his mates Collings and Charles Gordon “Don” Montgomery to one another in 2005. Without the tiniest trace of vanity, Don took pictures, from the 1970s until the end of the 1990s, of the mundane insanities in this bizarrely reputed periphery. He chucked his photo-prints in carrier bags, left them to rot under his mattress or wasted them as beer mats. He never considered publishing them, he did not identify as an artist. Taking pictures was part of his life just like his vices. He was even less affiliated with an art school than he was with Marcel Prawy. Don’s father was a radio operator for the Air Force, his mother a barmaid with a reputation, or how Collings put it: “People came from far and wide to get told to fuck off by her.” When Don crashed in Prestwich in the 1970s by pure chance, he found fertile ground: a gang of hardcore hippies, who would smoke up peace doves for breakfast and scare off young punks with their dead dark humour. Working-class people who would devour avant garde ideas just to throw them up half-digested. Building Fires in the 'Mental' Hospital
Prestwich was a working-class area with a strong Jewish community and pub talk had it that whoever decided to stay here was either Jewish or bonkers. After all, in 1851 Prestwich became home to a psychiatric clinic, which became the biggest in Europe with more than three thousand patients by around 1900. The phrase 'going to Prestwich' became an expression for going insane.
And it was exactly here where Don found work. Janitor is probably an exaggeratedly fancy term for the job: for years all he had to do was to keep an eye on the heating system in the basement. He would regularly drop acid and stroll down the corridors 'under the influence', or hang out and have a good time with his mates in the boiler room. When they switched the heating system in the 1990s, he became the institute’s own light bulb changer. After the morning shift Don would sit at the pub with his mates. “The pub was their arena”, Collings proclaims. The timetable would strictly switch between work and the opposite, sprinkled in-between: playing pool, fights, rest, and without ambition a consistent taking of pictures.
God’s Fox first chapter exclusively features photographs of the hospital: patina coated copies of cheap colour film without any artificial aesthetics. Glimmers of light in endless corridors shining through metal-grilled windows. Patients appear out of nowhere, snuggle up against radiators, weirdly twisted, or huddling below in their Sunday best attire bristling with cleanliness. They wear clothes that even back then seemed out-dated; and their faces, shape-shifted during years of hospitalisation: other-worldly grin, dead behind the eyes, missing teeth. We see their human side, and a fatal serenity with raw humour twinkles. In-between aimlessly wandering feral cats, and the terrestrials follow their lead, sinking down wherever they please: sometimes we see a shadow of liberty, sometimes it tips into tragedy, but Don’s photography never tries to expose. He becomes part of the haunting. Without Don, the ecstatic poltergeist, no heating, no light bulbs, no boiler room parties. He doesn’t illustrate a pretend horror show, instead he enchants his lens with a humane filter. If the reader is interested in explicit records of horror in psychiatric hospitals this author warmly recommends Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Titicut Follies.
By the way, English photographer Martin Parr also took a series of pictures in Prestwich Asylum. They do not even get close to the empathic relationship of Don’s, who spent a quarter of a century there and carried the spirit of the underground within him from the get-go. He depicts the ladies and gentlemen in dignity, not as cheap gags, even when they are dressed up in party hats, waving under flimsy Union Jack flags or waiting for an epiphany in a fairy costume, holding cake on cheap paper plates. It would be easy to make a joke of it all. Building a relationship with these people invokes the opposite. A curtsy, and respectfully we head home.
But not without a detour to the pub.
City of Black Eyes
The second chapter is simply called 'Black Eye'. Back in the day it seemed to be bon ton in Prestwich, to have one and wear your violated eye proudly—sometimes even both of them or in combination with cracked bones: a local grounding that elsewhere would have been a knock-out.
The third and final chapter 'The Village' is dedicated to the black hole that is Prestwich, a place that no-one would seek voluntarily. We witness pub scenes with babies eating cigarettes; psychedelic fruit machines with seductive halo; out of hand house parties: with unorthodox costumes, real weapons, old-timey wallpapers. Suddenly gangs of children appear; they do not trust anyone over sixteen and let you know it.
Mark E. Smith comes round the corner and plants himself down at the pub with a rebellious attitude. The next day he lingers in a door frame, the dreadful flipside of amphetamine and whiskey written into his ashen face. Behind him on the windowsill, right next to a flower vase: a ready-to-go bong.
Even ex-model and tragedienne Nico—who, with her cool voice, gave The Velvet Underground its transcendence—glimmers through as 'Prest-Witch': many were puzzled back then, what the ever stumbling superstar was looking for in this 'shithole', but Nico found a liking in the pubs, where she could play pool anonymously. And heroin was a steal. When Don took her pictures she would hide her dope eyes behind sunglasses. Her face crumpled by life.
Throughout the whole book drags a trail of the anarchist-moody spirit of reneged 'misfits'—like in Prestwich Hospital, like in the wild, neither of whom should be reduced in arrogant pity: often it is them who sneer at the ones who adapt. What Richard Billingham photographed at home for his book Ray's a Laugh—a hyper-personal gaze on his alcoholic family, stumbling between euphoric dance and disastrous crash—happens all around Don in the whole of Prestwich. He was in the eye of the storm, but the 'mental' hospital was not necessarily the center of the anomaly.
Austin Collings' writing contours Don’s being, and in action almost tenderly. The photo sequencing was executed utterly thoughtfully after five years of plastic bag archive work. The created image dialogues catapult their own rollercoaster of associations, jumping in a puzzle picture between cries of despair and joy. Another lightbulb blows.
Don’s life ends in a similarly dire condition to that which his liver must have been in. His wife Julie kicked him out. Too much “madness in my area”, as companion Mark E. Smith already mumbled in the 1970s. Don moved to another gaff in Prestwich and bunkered up with his dog to dwindle into an endless loop of telly. In 2016 he died of cancer.
The magic attributed to the northern English snake pit that is Prestwich was dark and did not come with a safety net: with all its blood and beer soaked carpets, biting ruthlessness for the institutionalised, and stitched up cuts above the eye instead of pats on the back. For years the gentrification mob around Manchester wondered whether Prestwich is up-and-coming or has cum already. The matter of the fact is: the pub culture documented in God’s Fox has disappeared, the hardcore hippies have died out, and where Don once simmered in the 'mental' hospital, today stands a massive Tesco supermarket.
Clemens Marschall © 2021 Translated from the German by Lisa Lorenz © 2021 Originally published in Austrian national broadsheet Wiener Zeitung, 28.10.21 Photo of Clemens Marschall courtesy of Florian Rainer ©