Reflections on RD Laing’s Archives Workshop

Creative Writing Event

By Cheryl McGeachan

On the 18th September 2014, a small group came together on level 12 of the University of Glasgow library to take part in Wellcome Trust supported event ‘Encountering R.D. Laing’s Archive: Mental Health, Care and Creativity’. Below are a few reflections on my experiences of the day from my pencil scribbled notes and some of the rough work produced. It was a wonderful day, full of mixed emotions as the city of Glasgow buzzed with referendum uncertainty below, and I hope to write more about the event in the near future.

The delicate sound of a young Ronnie Laing accompanying his father on the piano fills a room in the archive. I have worked on the prominent Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing (1927-1989), for many years ( and I have made his archive collections ( my second home but today I was not working alone. Twelve new friends, keen to explore Laing’s papers (some for the very first time), joined me in the Special Collections and the encounter was an inspirational one.

Our first task was tricky. “Imagine you could add something to the Laing archive”, creative writer Geraldine Perriam inquires, “what would it be?” The group discusses the politics of the archive – who decides what goes into the official repository? How would we feel about the remnants of our lives being possessed in such a way? Issues of trust and meaning are highlighted as important, privacy becomes key.

R.D. Laing Archive

It is missing. I cannot find it. Between the dusty files and the crackling tape recordings is something that is not there. Something is missing. Time rolls on and I am still searching. I climb the stacks and seek out the files – letters from friends, patients, lovers and friends long gone, case note records of patients past, diaries that document the lectures attended, books read and people encountered, photographs of ghostly relations – but there is still a feeling of something not quite there. What is it I cannot find? Maybe it is him. (My first attempt at the ‘archives’ writing exercise)

The power and the will to record, to hold on to the memories of a life are noted. Our attention is taken from the archive itself by Geraldine and out into the wider landscapes of mental health care. We think about place. Different depictions of hospitals and their grounds are discussed and described. I think of Laing and of Gartnavel Royal Hospital. I think about the people that have over the years called the place home.

We are asked to think about voice. Geraldine prompts us to write a conversation that is happening ‘in place’. The image of the hospital refuses to leave my imagination and so I write about two patients, Ethel and Rose, and situate them in Gartnavel’s grounds.


Ethel: I can’t remember the last time I saw him.

Rose: Me either (sighs).

Ethel: Did he say if he would come back?

Rose: (Long pause) I don’t remember.

Ethel: Me either.

The grey-filled sky seems to fall over the hospital blanketing it in a heavy carpet of evening light. It begins to get cold and the two women bring their white jackets closer to their bodies, clutching at the last remnants of heat.

Ethel: He felt it too, you know.

Rose: (sighs and coughs) I suppose.

The sky turns blacker as time passes by. Evening turns quickly to night and the two figures become locked into the landscape.

Rose: I don’t think it matters now anyway. The time for help has passed.

Ethel: (Laughs) There was never a chance for you, my dear.

Rose: (Slowly smiles)

Ethel: I just can’t remember when he was last here, maybe I shouldn’t try to remember those terrible days and nights.

Rose: Ronnie always was a man of many talents, disappearing seems to be his favourite trick recently.

Ethel: I hope he doesn’t stay away for long … this time.

The hospital suddenly becomes enveloped in darkness and the archive stack is locked for another day.

Rose: Maybe he will come again tomorrow?

(My first attempt at the ‘conversations’ exercise)

The group thinks about times when conversations do not flow. We think about the sometimes difficult relationships between people in the psychiatric setting and the importance of reflecting critically about listening. Geraldine then prompts us to think about ‘voice’. We are asked to think about Laing’s voice. I chuckle as I have heard this voice speak many times through different recordings, the slow Scottish drawl that could be cutting and kind.

Laing’s voice from the archive

RD: Why are you doing that?

 Me: Me? What? Sorry?

 RD: Why are you looking at my things like that?

 Me: I’m trying to understand them.

RD: Why?

Me: Because it might be important?

RD: Really? But what do you want from it?

Me: I want to know why you thought the way you did, why you wrote about people experiencing mental ill-health the way that you did, what you saw, felt, experienced …

RD: But how you can you do all that? That is a little absurd.

Me: I thought from the materials that you left behind I could trace these fragments of experience, tack them together and find something important.

RD: Why don’t you just ask me to explain?

Me: Because, you are gone.

(My first attempt at the ‘voice’ exercise)

The end of the day draws closer and the group reflects on the ways in which we can all work with different stories. The range of materials used in the workshop, carefully compiled by Sarah Hepworth of the Special Collections, from Laing’s student essays, handwritten drafts of poems, letters from Angus MacNiven and Jean Paul Sartre, drafts of talks, obituaries and press releases through to materials relating to Gartnavel such as the Gartnavel Gazette and annual reports, all inspired a range of new stories to be imagined and told. We end the event by talking about the importance of curiosity and the value it has for allowing new ways of thinking about mental health and the people who experience its diverse dimensions.

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