The twenty-second of August, 2011: Dr Clutterbuck will see you now

Lately, the world has been full of coded messages imploring me to return to Clutterbucking. There was, for instance, a Mr Clutterbuck in the Guardian magazine on Saturday. There was also a Clutterbuck in the last book I read. So okay, world, I can take a hint.

The last book I read was The Air Loom Gang by Mike Jay (Bantam, 2004). It’s the astonishing story of James Tilly Matthews. Matthews was confined in Bedlam (that is, the Bethlehem hospital for the insane) in 1796. He was kept there for the rest of his life.

He claimed that he had been involved in covert diplomacy with the Revolutionary government of France. This – to some extent, at least – was true (although he didn’t have much luck with the French: they banged him up too).

He also believed that, from their lair in a London basement, a cabal of shadowy revolutionaries was controlling the thoughts and actions of the British government (and others) by means of an Air Loom. The Loom was powered by ‘sseminal fluid, male and female… effluvia of dogs – stinking human breath… stench of the sesspool – gaz from the anus of a horse’. The Loom ‘wove’ invisible airs and magnetic fluids into different configurations, and then projected them on to unsuspecting subjects. Among the miseries inflicted on Matthews (and others) by the Loom were the processes of ‘bomb bursting’ – filling the stomach with gas and then detonating it – and ‘gaz-plucking’ – the removal of precious magnetic fluid, bubble by bubble, from the subject’s anus.

This was probably not true.

He also, at times, believed himself to be the Emperor of the world, signing himself ‘James, Absolute Sole and Sacred Omni Imperious Arch Grand Arch Sovereign Omni Imperious Arch Grand Arch Proprietor Omni Imperious Arch-Grand-Arch Emperor Supreme etc.’.

This was also probably not true.

In 1809, Dr Henry Clutterbuck examined Matthews. In evidence submitted to a habeas corpus hearing summoned to determine Matthews’ state of mind, Clutterbuck reported that ‘he could not discover any thing that indicated insanity in James Tilly Matthews and he verily believes him to be perfectly sane’.

Mm. If you say so, doc.

But I’m being disingenuous. The question of Matthews’ sanity or otherwise is a vexed one – as, indeed, is any question of sanity. The bare facts of Matthews’ life don’t seem to encourage nuanced analysis (rather, they encourage the conclusion that Matthews was madder than mad Jack McMad), but that is just what Jay delivers in The Air Loom Gang. 

I could go on, but then you might be less inclined to read the book. I’ll just include one more snippet: a detail from Matthews’ staggeringly good technical diagram of the Air Loom. It’s a picture of the Air Loom’s victim as he comes under the influence of the Loom’s baleful emissions. Jay believes that it might very well be a self-portrait – and the only image we have – of poor, tormented James Tilly Matthews himself.


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