March 2018


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Crackaig is a sad place. It lies in a hanging valley above steep cliffs, just a mile from the sea in Northwest Mull and contains the ruins of 12 stone dwellings. The land around still shows the shallow undulations of the strips and furrows for cultivation. Two hundred years ago, the people of Crackaig subsisted by fishing, keeping cattle and growing barley and potatoes; they even ran an illicit whisky still in a cave by the shore, trading the whisky for piglets brought over on boats from Ireland. It was a hard life, only barely above subsistence level, but the potato blight brought them to the brink of starvation. Many died, the village was deserted and those that survived, emigrated to Canada. Only a few miles back along the coast is a village called Calgarrie, which gave its name to the city in Alberta.

Across the sound from Crackaig is the island of Ulva, the domicile of the Macquarie clan, the fierce red tartan fighters who fought the English throughout medieval times and at the Battle of Culloden. Two generations later, their descendants would join the British Army. Major General Lashlan Macquarie served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars and, as Governor General of New South Wales between 1810 to 1821, was instrumental in its development from a penal colony to a free settlement. Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean is named after him. As landlords of Ulva after the clearances, his family had fought for the population to remain as long as they paid their way by fishing and harvesting kelp, which provided soda ash for soap and glass manufacture. They even commissioned Thomas Telford to design a church for them. But, the market for kelp collapsed in the 1840s at around the same time as the blight destroyed the staple potato crop. The landlord dipped into his own pocket to send most of the 600 people who lived on the island to Canada. There are now just 16 people living on Ulva. The island is again up for sale. The price is £4.1 million, a snip for somebody with the money and imagination to seize an opportunity for tourism.

 

In the early 19th century about 40% of Scots lived in the Highlands and Islands. Now that figure is around 2 to 3%. The depopulation of the highlands by what has come to be known as the clearances has become part of Scottish identity; a tragic tale of exploitation and betrayal by avaricious landowners. The truth is more complex.

The Highlands and Islands avoided the enclosure and intensive farming that occurred in the south. Much of the land was poor and inaccessible and people lived in clans or tribes, who operated a system of mutual loyalty, called ‘duathches’, based on the allocation of land and controlled by the clan chieftain. In return for the land to live on, clansmen not only had to give over a proportion of their produce to the chieftain, they were also expected to join the local militia in any conflicts with neighbouring clans. The ‘clansmen’ were largely subsistence farmers, but their livelihood was increasingly threatened by sheep farming, which was less labour intensive and used more land. Some of the clans kept cattle, which were driven south for sale in the autumn.

Chieftains were autocratic rulers with little respect for the crown, but after King James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, they backed the Stuart cause to regain the monarchy. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s march south, which reached as far as Derby, was an enormous shock for the English. King George II was all ready to escape to the Netherlands, but Charlie’s highland army began to drift away back north and were eventually beaten by the English at the Battle of Culloden. Anxious to avoid another highland rebellion, the English redcoats under the notorious Duke of Cumberland pursued the highlanders into their own country, burning their villages and killing the many of the clansmen, as in the infamous Massacre of Glencoe. The clan system was disbanded. People were forbidden to wear the tartan or play the bagpipes.

After Culloden, clan chieftains and their tacksmen became major landowners; in essence, client rulers, answerable to the crown. They struggled to make their land profitable. Some such as the Duke of Sutherland evicted thousands of families, burning their cottages in order to establish large sheep farms or shooting estates.

Donald McLeod, as Sutherland stonemason, wrote about the events he witnessed:

The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and helpless before the fire should reach them; next struggling to save the most valuable of their effects.The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and the fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description – it required to be seen to be believed. A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day and even extended far out to sea. At night an awful scene presented itself – all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once.

Evicted tenants were resettled in coastal crofts (small tenant farms) where they kept a few cattle, tried to grow crops on impoverished land, fished and gathered and burnt kelp for potash and soda ash, which was used for glass making, soap and fertilisers. But rents were high, there was no security of tenure and access to land was limited. People were dependent on their landlords for their survival. Some people resisted eviction; there were riots. On Skye, the population of one village burned the bailiffs’ papers and sent the back home naked, but a few days later, they returned fully clothed and with soldiers. Others threatened to emigrate and reconstitute their societies in Canada, but the landlords needed to retain the croft industries. The Island of Harris was effectively divided in two. The open grassland to the west was used for sheep farming while the crofters were huddled into the poor rocky and boggy land to the east of the island. Despite the privations, the system worked and the population of the Highlands and Islands continued to increase into the early nineteenth century.

During the Napoleonic war, young men were recruited from the clans in return for land. It was said that the war had harvested sons. Prices escalated during wartime. Many landlords were already in debt, because they wanted to mimic the lifestyle of the lowland landlords.  Increases in the price of fish and kelp from the croft industries protected them from bankruptcy for a few years, but as markets expanded after the war, cheaper sources of potash became available and cattle and fish prices fell. Crofting was no longer profitable. The final straw was the failure of the potato crop due to blight. This led to widespread starvation and with it disease.  People left Crackaig after an epidemic of typhoid, during which many died.

This second wave of highland clearances, like the first, was not a case of abandonment by foreign landlords, as it was in Ireland.  The landowners were of their own stock. Many of them tried to protect their tenants from the worst ravages of the potato blight, but since the famine continued for several years longer than it did in Ireland, it became more profitable and humane to pay for their tenants to be transported.

The chief of the McLean clan found it necessary to lease the Island of Rum to a single sheep farmer and move the whole population to Cape Breton. Late spring in North Uist became known as the transportation season because that was when the boats arrived to collect emigrants for their passage to Canada. But not all the tenant crofters were forcibly transported against their will; the majority of people left because of their impoverished circumstances at home and the lure of an affluent new life in the colonies, symbolised by abundant land and the discovery of gold. Some, taking up their cross of presbyterian guilt, even felt they had deserved the hardship and privation, they had endured, because of their sins, and felt ‘called’ to begin again abroad.

A third of the population of the highlands left between 1841 to 1861. It was not until the Crofters’ War in the 1880s and the deliberations of The Napier Commission in 1886 that those, who had remained, were allowed to own their own crofts and even have the vote, but the land was barely sufficient to make a living. The economic depression of the late nineteenth century caused more people to leave. The price of wool continued to decline. More land was given over to shooting estates, which cost less to maintain and attracted tourists from the south.

These days, the biggest source of revenue in The Highlands and Islands is tourism. The area is one vast theme park. Sheep capitalism has become the leisure industry. Following on from Sir Walter Scott and the endorsement of Queen Victoria and the British Royal Family, the highlander has become a romantic figure. The tartan, the bagpipes, haggis and all things Scottish have been reinvented. The highland diaspora of the 18th and 19th centuries has meant that most people of highland descent prosper in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where many still retain highland traditions.

Notwithstanding the romance o the highlands,  the Highland Clearances continue to represent a deep sense of betrayal in Scotland.  According to popular myth, the government in the shape of their landlords or chieftains had demanded the highlanders’ loyalty, their livelihood and even their sons in return to small piece of land to live on, only to deprive them of their birthright and exile them to another country.  The  ‘Clearances’ became more significant as a symbol in the 1960s and 70s with the rise of Scottish nationalism. ‘The highlander became the political conscience of all Scots’.

This post was inspired by our recent holiday at Treshnish on the Island of Mull, during which visits to Ulva and the ruins of Crackaig made me want to find out what happened.

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Caravaggio,+Narcissus

Narcissus by Caravaggio. 

 

‘He constantly goes on about his own stuff and never listens to anybody else’

‘She is so fond of the sound of her own voice’; I can never get a word in sideways’

‘Their children are so wonderful, I can’t quite believe it’.

‘He just needs an audience. It is so boring.’

 

When I was growing up, there was nothing worse than to be big headed. It echoed the other big taboo: being spoilt. We all recognised it; the boy who told us how wonderful he was, who insisted on having his own way and was not interested in anybody else except himself; the girl who was constantly preening herself, going on about all the friends she had, all the boys who lusted after her. It was Sigmund Freud, who first called this ‘narcissism’, after the myth of Narcissus, who spent so much of his time gazing at his own reflection in a pool in the forest.

The prince who fell to earth.

Everything came so easily to Jake; he never needed to try. He had achieved top grades at school and won a scholarship to Harvard, where he obtained a first class degree in economics. He was, it seemed, guaranteed a brilliant career. If Jake is given a target to aim at, he would excel, but he finds it difficult to motivate himself; he plays computer games, surfs the internet; anything except working.  At weekends, he goes to parties and gets high on drugs. Despite his natural brilliance, his life is going nowhere. He tells me that he is working on a project that could net him millions but he never seems to get on with it

An their only child, his parents had viewed him as the embodiment of their own frustrated ambitions. His father had a job on the railways, his mother in a shop. They worked hard and saved their money in order to give Jake the best education they could afford. Although he realises how much he owes his parents, he blames them for controlling his life and not letting him find his own way.  Jake still lives at his parents’ home. He has the best bedroom, converted the garage into his personal gym and uses the living room as his office, but he continues to persecute his parents for not giving him the ‘space’ to work.

Jake contacted me to help him get some direction in his life. At his first visit, he was  agitated and never stopped talking.  He listed his numerous achievements, not only in the academic world, but also as a skier, mountaineer and competitive motor cyclist. It seemed there was nothing he could not do, except get on with other people. He finds most people boring and either escapes into his computer games, obsessive work or gets high on drugs. He has a girl friend but finds her boring and only good for sex. He seems lost and lonely.

The essence of narcissism.

The essence of narcissism is self-centredness. People with a narcissistic personality tend to exhibit a grandiose sense of self-importance, exaggerating their achievements and talents and expecting to be recognized as superior. This may not always be without reason. Some, like Jake, have achieved a great deal.

Driven by fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love, their personal standards often seem unreasonably high. They are ‘the chosen ones’, entitled to be the focus of attention, attracting special treatment and only associating with high-status people or institutions.

Since their focus is on themselves, people with a narcissistic personality show little empathy with the feelings and needs of others, whose achievements are often derided. Nevertheless they are often oversensitive to being ignored or criticised.

The bigger the front, the bigger the back: a narcissistic personality often conceals a profound emotional fragility; their boastfulness compensates for a severe lack of self confidence; their fragile personality is over-dependent on the approval of others but does not trust it.  Self aggrandisement can oscillate with self deprecation and self denigration. If things are going well and people respond to their extravagant and impulsive behaviour, they feel confident and happy, but if others fail to respond or are critical, they may easily become depressed.  So people with severe narcissism may oscillate between ‘exuberance and depression’ as they try to navigate their way through the world.

In their narcissistic world, everything that happens is perceived with reference to themselves; they not only feel specially privileged when things go right but also unfairly treated when things go wrong. They lack the empathy to see things from the others viewpoint and understand, forgive and forget. This may cause them to slip into paranoia.

Personal relationships are largely superficial and serve to enhance their own self importance rather than any genuine care or interest in another’s personality or opinions. Men may chose trophy girl friends or wives; women – successful husbands. The lack of any emotional connection between narcissistic partners inevitably leads to disagreement and disappointment and may culminate in hatred and rejection.

What is the origin of narcissism?

Narcissism depends on consciousness of the self and that only arises with the development of episodic memory somewhere between the ages of two and three. It is then that the growing infant realises that they are not the same person as their mother and cannot do exactly as they wish. ‘No’, is the most important word, any of us ever hear; it launches us into a life of increasing separation and independence. We are not the only pebble on the beach; there are others to be accommodated; not just mum and dad, but brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunties and uncles, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Self awareness might be said to mark the beginnings of socialisation.

Narcissism can be thought of as a failure of socialisation. If children are overly praised and incompletely sanctioned, they can grew up thinking they are the most important person in their world. Perhaps they were too much desired; conceived to enhance their parents lives or fulfil their ambitions.

Too preoccupied with their own needs, narcissistic parents may never allow their children to develop their own separate identities, but keep them close in order to enhance their own self regard. Parents who sacrifice themselves to educate their children, may rear children who are programmed to succeed in order to obtain love, but feeling they don’t exist if they fail. Unable to be loved for themselves or even to know themselves, they may come to feel there is no real meaning or purpose in life. This may explain why Jake not only attacks his parents but also tries to annihilate the person they had produced by dangerous activities and self destructive behaviour.

So are narcissists the children who have never grown up? Is their whole purpose in life to fulfil their parents ambitions and succeed? Do they tend to attract similarly narcissistic partners who see themselves reflected in the regard of their attractive and talented partner?  ‘What is falling in love but the mutual expression of narcissism?’

Can we all be narcissistic?

The American Psychiatric Association estimates that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is present in 6% of people living in America. This figure might seem unrealistically low, but it only represents those people who have such persistent narcissistic behaviour that it is a dominant feature of their personalities.

Narcissistic behaviour is pervasive throughout our society. We all have acquaintances who are so ‘full of themselves’ they never listen to anybody else. We are all familiar with the daily exhibitions of self aggrandisement on social media sites. We all know people, who are constantly obsessed whether somebody likes them or not, or those who continue to carry a sense of personal grievance for years. These are all aspects of narcissism.

It can seem we are living in a narcissistic world, where so many people tend to talk at each other and compete rather than engage, where all of their stuff is put out on ‘Facebook’, which serves as a poster board rather than as a vehicle for communication, and where everybody aspires to be a celebrity. Is this the result of increasing cultural insecurity, greater opportunity and reward for self advertisement, the prolongation of a state of childhood, or a combination of all three?

We can all exhibit narcissistic behaviour at times. Who among us cannot recall a time they were so carried away with their own exuberance after some particular achievement that they felt ashamed? Who has not been in situations where feelings of inadequacy has led them to overcompensate? Who has not felt ostracised because of something they might have said or done? Narcissistic behaviour depends on what happens, especially how other people behave. Promotion, reward or praise may release the brakes on self publication. Conversely, feeling ignored or treated unfairly may consolidate a sense of grievance or paranoia.

Self-centredness should not always be seen as a negative quality. When we are threatened and in danger, it can ensure our survival and the survival of our dependents. And, off course, we all need a degree of self belief if we are going to manage in the world; we cannot always expect to be looked after. The aim of socialisation might be expressed as the ability ‘to be ourselves in the company of others’, which implies sufficient self awareness and belief to survive in society. Like everything else, narcissism is a matter of degree and balance.

There are of course certain occupations where narcissism is encouraged and rewarded. Actors, politicians, sportsmen, performers of any sort, captains of industry, military commanders, all need to express a strong sense of self belief, which they do not always feel.  We respect and admire their narcissism and even wish we were not held back by conscience and could be like them. My friend and fellow university lecturer, David Rumsey, understood this, when, on the occasion of my appointment as Professor, he said, ‘we are all delighted that Nick has got a shiny new chair, because when he sits down, we shall get the reflected glory.’  We all need friends who can contain our narcissism with gentle humour.

Not only promotion, recognition and achievement, but in particular falling in love can be seen as an expression of narcissism. There can be nothing as intoxicating as perceiving your reflection in the eyes of your beloved; it beats staring into a forest pond.

The occasion flush of narcissism is quite normal and can feel wonderful but needs to be managed in order to remain healthy and survive in the society of others. Too much of it can lead to unreality and therein lies a form of madness. This may explain why so many celebrities find it difficult to survive failures and reversals without self doubt, extreme depression and escape into addictions. I used to encourage my more ambitious research students to dream with their head in the clouds, but always to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground.

Managing narcissistic behaviour.

Extreme narcissistic behaviour is like drug addiction; it perpetuates itself. If narcissistic people are getting attention they crave, why would they want to change? And if they get it wrong and are ignored and disapproved of, all they want is to do is to make themselves feel confident again. Unless they crash, there is no incentive to correct their behaviour. But narcissistic personalities crash all too commonly; marriages fail, children are damaged, the career that was so brilliant, can collapse because of the one hasty decision  that didn’t work out.

Time and life experience can provide the opportunity to reflect on life’s reversals, understand others’ points of view, appreciate the consequences of their behaviour and change. But patterns of behaviour consolidated over a lifetime rarely change unless they get help. Psychotherapy can help people gain that sense of perspective and control over their own behaviour by creating the mental space to reflect with a therapist on what has happened.  A combination of mentalisation to promote understanding and empathy and cognitive behavioural strategies to modify responses, may correct patterns of socialisation and normalise mood and behaviour.

The British psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, coined the term ‘the depressive position’ to describe the developmental phase, when an infant realises his own limitations. He (or she) can’t do just what s/he wants to do and has instead to conform to the mores of family and society. This leads to feelings of depression, which nevertheless encourage thought, course correction and learning. People with narcissistic personality disorder may never resolve ‘the depressive position’ early in life and are most likely destined to repeat it later, often many times.

 

They said this thing just couldn’t be done.
With a smile, he said, he knew it.
But he tackled this thing that just couldn’t be done
and he couldn’t do it.

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When I was much younger, I worked for a few months at The Villa Maria Mission Hospital near Masaka on the western shores of Lake Victoria. Every evening, I had dinner in the refectory with ‘the white fathers’, who ran the mission. Sustained by delicious African food and the local beer, we shared views on life and the state of the world. One evening, the conversation switched to sex. I tried to justify the fact that I was still in an early ‘experimental’ stage of sexual relations with young ladies and not inclined to ‘go steady’.  I explained that, although not a catholic, part of me felt drawn to a contemplative, monastic existence. My companion turned to me and somewhat ruefully commented, ‘You remind me of Saint Augustine; you want to be good but not yet.’

That made me curious. Who was this kindred spirit and why was he a saint? I thought little more about it until this week’s episode of In Our Time on Radio 4 when Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Augustine’s ‘Confessions’.

Augustine was brought up in the Roman province of Numidia in what is now Algeria in the 4th century AD. His was a typical Roman colonial family of freed slaves. His father was a merchant; his mother a Berber, but deeply religious and fiercely ambitious for her son. He had a good education, studying Latin, rhetoric, grammar and logic. He learnt how to deliver speeches and wrote a good many letters. ‘I lie for a profession’, he once declared.

‘Confessions’ was perhaps his most famous work, in which he acknowledged not only the hedonism of his youth but also his long term relationship with a concubine, who bore him a son. This was a different world: at that time young Roman men were expected to gratify their sexual desires with slaves, who were often willing partners since they derived benefits from the relationship. Although Augustine explains that the relationship started with an act of lust, he became devoted to his mistress.  He nevertheless abandoned her in order to marry and obtain a dowry that would allow him to advance in his career and perhaps obtain a provincial governorship.  His designated fiancé was just ten years old and Augustine had to wait until she was 12 before they could marry. Although he satisfied his lust with another concubine, his heart was no longer in it and he gave up all three women for a life of chastity and devotion to God.

In what now might seem an intellectual defence, born of guilt, Augustine wrote of how the the divine spark, the purity of a relationship with God, is corrupted by the appetites and desires of the body. This led to his notion of original sin; the notion that man is born fallible, but can be redeemed, not necessarily by repentance and discipline, but by the grace of God, the arbitrary nature of which was beyond man’s understanding.

At the time, Christians expected that Jesus would return; after all, hadn’t he promised he would? The fact that he didn’t suggested they were irredeemably bad, which coincided  with the notion of original sin, but Augustine suggested that there was no real evil in the world, only human weakness; a rupture of the will.  Sexual desire was part of human nature, which was inevitably flawed. People were all too ready to submit to their own desires and turn their back on God. Augustine confessed his human weakness, but was never certain he had received the grace of God.

Augustine’s Confessions included a detailed discussion of how he stole pears from an orchard when he was a very young boy, explaining how he was not hungry, nor did he particularly like pears; in fact he threw them to the pigs.  No, he just wanted to experience the thrill of transgression – being naughty, but he recognised that if he could steal pears, he could also steal land or countries; there was no moral difference.  Adam and Eve lost paradise because they disobeyed God, followed their own will and stole the apple. The trivial act of stealing fruit was a metaphor for something much more important.

Augustine’s conversion to Catholicism occurred after he met Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Ambrose introduced Augustine to the philosophy of The Neoplatonists and he begin to contemplate on the inner world rather than the outer world. He concluded that God was real but immaterial all at the same. The same might apply to the concept of the mind. He also preached that the Bible was not meant to be taken literally. It was a series of allegories; lessons on human nature.

I wonder how Augustine’s philosophy would have been received by our current secular society.  It seems that the extended metaphor of the Bible would have included the deity; the; the immaterial human mind transposed for God. Existential concepts such as sin, guilt and shame have been encultured in us by upbringing.  Childhood and adolescence may be seen as a process of increasing socialisation, a time when we adopt the mores of the culture. Transgression does not offend against God, it offends against our own nature and is punished by feelings of unworthiness and depression.

But how might we equate sexual freedom with fidelity? Augustine’s prayer, ‘grant me chastity and continence but not yet’, seems a pragmatic solution, that identifies him as a human being, with all the virtues and faults that entails. We might all identify with that. As long we can behave in a way that does not undermine cultural values by exploiting or harming others, we may accept and live with ourselves without conflict and guilt.  After all, Augustine has been there before us and survived.

Donald-Crowhurst-on-board-001

In 1968, Donald Crowhurst, an electronic engineer and inventor in his mid thirties, living in Teignmouth with his wife and young family, decided to take part in the Daily Mail Golden Globe challenge: to sail round the world single handed without stopping. He had even mortgaged his house and business up as security on a loan to pursue his dream and collect the prize. The problem was that Crowhurst, a weekend sailor, had only ever sailed as far as Falmouth before. Nevertheless, he managed to convince his sponsors that his trimaran design would be faster than other boats. Moreover his bid would publicise his inventions: The Navicator, a hand held navigation device, and a unique buoyancy aid for trimarans consisting of a self inflating balloon fitted at the top of the mast that uprighted the boat if it capsized.

Starting nearly three months after the other eight competitors, Crowhurst had decided to finish off the refitting of his boat while at sea. Just a week out, he encountered a fierce Atlantic storm and realised that he and his vessel, the Teignmouth Electron would never survive the seas he would encounter in the southern ocean. The gaskets leaked and the hulls were filling with water, the buoyancy device had come apart and the plywood construction could not withstand the buffeting of the waves. But with the hopes of the people of Teignmouth, not to mention the support of his sponsors and the enormous publicity he had attracted as a plucky amateur, he carried on down the Atlantic through the horse latitudes, much too slowly to have any chance of winning.

50 years ago, we didn’t have global positioning satellites; the only way people knew the speed and position of The Teignmouth Electron were the reports he sent back by radio telephone. At some stage, Crowhurst must have decided that, in order to maintain the interest of the public and potential sponsorship, he would need to fabricate his position, making out that he had speeded up, even breaking the record for the greatest number of miles sailed by a single handed yacht during a single day. But somewhere in the South Atlantic, he punctured one of the hulls and had to put into the coast of South America for repairs. He could not face the reality of failure, so he went out of radio contact, leaving others to assume he was now in the southern ocean, but in fact he was drifting around somewhere off Argentina. Seven weeks later, about the time a fast boat would have made it round Cape Horn and back into the Atlantic, he came back in radio contact. There was great excitement. There were only two other yachts in the race. Robin Knox Johnston was already home and claimed the prize for the first back. There seemed a good chance Crowhurst would overhaul Nigel Tetley and win the prize for the fastest circumnavigation, but that would mean his records would be inspected and found to be false, so he mooched along slowly in the Sargasso Sea waiting for Tetley to get back. Coming in a plucky third after eight months by himself at sea would still mean he would get a lot of publicity. Then disaster struck: 1000 miles from home, Tetley pushed his boat so hard to stay ahead of Crowhurst that his boat broke up and sank and he had to be rescued. Crowhurst just had to return to win the prize, but if he did that, his deception would have been discovered and he would be branded a cheat.

He went out of radio contact again for the last time. The Teignmouth Electron was discovered by the RMS Picardy drifting in mid Atlantic like the Marie Celeste. Crowhurst had gone; his body was never found. Had he committed suicide? Had he just fallen overboard? Or had he lost his mind because of the months of loneliness and intolerable stress? Examination of the boat showed that he had thrown his navigation gear and cut the trail line that he might have grabbed hold of if he went overboard. His log books revealed a confusion of philosophical ramblings on Einstein’s theory of Relativity, and a last enigmatic entry: ‘It is finished, it is finished; it is the mercy.’

His family were devastated and were only saved from total destitution by the winner and sole remaining competitor, Robin Knox Johnston, who donated his prize money to Crowhurst’s widow. Clare Crowhurst did not marry again and is still alive in her eighties. She has never believed that her husband had committed suicide.

So was Donald Crowhurst a fantasist, carried away by a dream of adventure and glory? Was he so lacking in self esteem that he needed to do something that he and his family could feel proud of? Did he feel stuck in the rut of his life? Probably all of those are correct, but his decisions were all about Donald; he never seemed to consider the impact of his actions on his young wife and family. He put his personal shame of concealment and loss of face above the devastation of his family. Yes, he was courageous to set out on such an adventure, but the braver thing to do would have been to admit he couldn’t do it after just surviving that first storm, or perhaps put the challenge off until the next year when he might have been ready, but that was clearly not an option. He was already in too deep water to pull out.

From a psychotherapist’s perspective, Crowhurst showed quite driven narcissistic behaviour; he put his own self aggrandisement and idealisation above any empathy for his family and friends and could not face up to the reality of his situation.  There are some indications from Donald’s early life that offer insight into possible mental instability. After he was born in India in 1932, his mother had so desperately wanted a girl that she dressed Donald in girl’s clothes for the first seven years of his life. Perhaps he never felt he could be loved for the boy he was. His father worked for the Indian railways, but when India gained independence, the family returned to England, leaving their savings invested in an Indian sporting goods factory, which burned down in the riots. Crowhurst’s father never settled back in England and died of a heart attack the following year. Donald was forced to leave school early and started a five-year apprenticeship at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. In 1953 he received a Royal Air Force commission as a pilot, but was asked to leave in 1954 for reasons that remain unclear. He was subsequently commissioned in to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in 1956. but he left the same year owing to a disciplinary incident. All of this suggests some confusion of identity when he was very young, and some degree of impulsive behaviour as a young man. So perhaps Donald always had a tendency to get into deep water, which might have contributed to feelings of inadequacy and an intense need to prove himself even if it meant taking extreme risks and hiding the truth.

A new film about Donald Crowhurst, ‘The Mercy’ starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz, has just been released. I enjoyed it.