R D Laing: A Biography by Adrian Laing - review by Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson

A Decent Man, but Fate Bit Him in the Leg

R D Laing: A Biography


Peter Owen 248pp £25

When R D Laing was thirty-six, he wrote in his diary: 'I feel I am going to become famous, and receive recognition. Most of my work has not "hit" the public yet. Eventually it will, like the light of a dead star.' Within a year of that entry, the light of the dead star had arrived, and Laing had become one of the gurus of the Sixties – together with Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Herbert Marcuse and Allen Ginsberg.

The result, as described by his son Adrian in this frank and sometimes brutal biography, was disastrous. For the next twenty years, like a fly hit by fly spray, Laing flew around in a euphoric daze punctuated by broken relationships, drunken brawls and fits of depression. When he died of a stroke at the age of sixty-one, his latest book had been rejected by several publishers, and he had been struck off the Medical Register.

Laing walked out on his young family soon after fame arrived, so he was a relative stranger to Adrian and his brother Paul when he invited them to a conference in a Christian residential community in 1974. It was a memorable occasion. They were already late for dinner when Laing persuaded a Glasgow cab driver to try and find 'Fatima House', somewhere near Kilmarnock. By the time they had stopped at every pub on the way, all three were staggering drunk, and Laing had vomited in the back of the cab. At midnight he thundered on the door until everyone in the house was awake; then, admitted to the hall, he rushed up to a statue of Jesus with the comment, 'Just the man l want to talk to', and proceeded to fondle the statue intimately and slobber over its behind while his sons screeched with laughter on the floor. Typically, Laing delivered a serious and thoughtful lecture on sin and redemption the following morning.

Understandably, Adrian Laing developed a considerable admiration for his father. This began to wear thin in the mid-Eighties, as he began to gauge the extent of Laing's self- destructiveness. Called to the Hampstead police station in the middle of the night (Adrian was by then a lawyer), he learned that

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