‘John McPake and the Sea Beggars’ by Stuart Campbell


John McPake is trapped. He used to have a wife and a job, but now as considers life ahead of him, all he can see is loneliness, self-hatred, delusions and medications. He feels suicidal just thinking about it. But he has one goal in life, and that is to find his long-lost brother Andy, and for that he needs to stay alive. As I was reading, I developed a fondness for this sensitive man who does his best even as schizophrenia disrupt his ability to think, understand his own surroundings or effectively communicate with those that are attempting to help him.

John now lives in a hostel for men with severe mental illnesses. There is Mike, who sees fascists conspiracies everywhere, Jack who is (literally) digging his own grave in their garden and Paul who likes to make trouble. Although the hostel employs people to make the residents’ food and ensure they take their medicines, John and the other men are given a certain degree of independence (such as controlling their own money and wandering the city of Edinburgh as they like). John prefers to spend most of his time traveling on trains, walking streets searching forAndy, hoping that one day chance will bring them together.

In that moment, John wrongly assumed that I had forsaken the narration and that he was at liberty to pursue his own thoughts. It seemed unfair to disabuse him as he tentatively savored the silence in his own head. He genuinely thought he was taking stock. Or, put another way, judging himself harshly. Not realizing that I was recording all the while, John reflected on how listening to the unrelenting parliament of Voices in his own head had robbed him of the capacity to think uninterrupted.

The voices in his head are so strong, so controlling that John is not even able to narrate his own story and most of the book is written as what the voice called the Narrator tells John what John is thinking. Our main character’s own inner though-process is usually completely submerged beneath his inner voices (their interactions and bickering) or his other delusions. No wonder the poor man contemplates suicide whenever he has a spare moment. It is a bit confusing to begin with, but after a bit you begin to distinguish between when you are reading the monologue of the Narrator, the dialogue between the Narrator and the other voices John hears, and when we get glimpses of John’s own thoughts hidden underneath the cacophony occupants inside his head. We get to see how the voices disrupt John’s life, but also how they sometimes help him: like cracking jokes when he is being sectioned (again) at a mental hospital and making the experience a bit more bearable:

“Hello. Welcome to the Psychiatric Hotline.
If you are obsessive compulsive, please press 1 repeatedly.
If you are co-dependent, please ask someone to press 2.
If you have multiple personalities, please press 3, 4, 5, and 6.
If you are paranoid-delusional, we know who you are and what you want. Just stay on the line so we can trace the call.
If you are schizophrenic, listen carefully and a little voice will tell you what number to press.”

There is particularly one delusions that develops in John’s mind as the book progresses – a story about three weavers traveling through the Low Countries in the 1500s. They are looking for a lost boy and must traverse a country at war and with a starving population. The delusion was inspired by a Bruegel painting John has, for some unknown reason, been obsessing over ever since he became ill.

Bilderesultat for hunters in the snow
Pieter Bruegel’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’

The Flemish part of the story was entertaining was interesting, but I enjoyed the bits about John in the 21th century. To other people, John looks scary with his odd behavior and large body, but we, the readers, and his carers at the hostel know that John is only a danger to himself. He assumes that the hostel workers like him because he can, unlike his fellow residents, can be rather eloquent and classy when healthy, but I suspect they like him the same reason I became so fond of him: John is a really brave and strong person, who perseveres where plenty of others would collapse. I would certainly not be able to cope with his life!


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