Observer: Tim Lott (May 2000)Saturday, 02 April 2011 05:32
21 May 2000
I approached Dorothy for the first time many years ago. I’d never heard of her, which is something of a disgrace considering that by that time she’d written about 10 books. I was writing my first book, The Scent of Dried Roses, about my own experiences of depression and my mother’s suicide, and part of researching my book was trying to understand what depression was. I had my own idea of what it was out of my own experiences, simply because when I suffered my nervous breakdown in 1987 I had been brought out of it by taking anti-depressant drugs, so I believed the route to depression was physical and emerged out of some dysfunction in your brain chemistry.
I happened to be reading a newspaper article by Dorothy about how depressed people have to take responsibility for themselves, and I remember feeling quite angered by it. I thought that was a really unhelpful thing to write, because when you’re depressed you can’t take responsibility for yourself. Nevertheless, I thought I should talk to her about it so I could incorporate it into my own understanding of what had happened.
I went to see Dorothy in her flat in Russell Square thinking she was just a journalist, and noticed all these books by Dorothy Rowe and suddenly felt rather shamefaced. She was obviously a very significant thinker on these matters. Anyway, we went for a walk in the park and I talked to her and listened to her, and tried to understand what she had to say — but I still didn’t really buy it. She was quite impatient with me, and I think she thought I was just another hack that had come along to waste her time. I asked her to recommend some of her books to me.
I read her most famous book, Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison and then The Art of Happiness — Wanting Everything, and I was absolutely amazed. It was like discovering someone who was able to express ideas about the way the world was that I had, on some level, understood too but had never been able to find the words to do so. I became intoxicated by these books. Dorothy has wonderful insight —she writes about how people build a picture of their world within themselves and the choices that involves. I began to understand what she meant when she said you have to take responsibility for your depression, you construct your own sense of reality — she changed the way I looked at the world.
Dorothy also writes a great deal about uncertainty, that what people fear in life is not death or pain or age but uncertainty, and once you understand this dread, a whole lot of the world falls into place.
I felt intimidated when I phoned Dorothy a second time, but I thought the books I’d read were absolutely rivetting and I’d got a wonderful opportunity to talk to the author. I liked Dorothy very much. She’s a warm woman, though she’s reserved and restrained. She’s not an easy person to get to know. I don’t think she gives out very much about herself— perhaps that’s part of her professional training, or perhaps it’s a natural distance. We’re very different in that way. Dorothy’s careful with her thoughts, and parcels them out in packaged bits. I spew everything out constantly —I’m Oprah, for God’s sake.
Dorothy is my mother’s generation, and I met her shortly after my mother died. Dorothy’s nothing at all like my mother, but if I need someone who will listen to me and understand me in a way that perhaps I would have hoped my mother might have, though she never would have, Dorothy is there. It’s a great privilege to have her. It’s a very special relationship.
The first time we met, we went down to the gardens in Russell Square, walked around and had a coffee. I talked to Tim about my theories — they incorporate Buddhist teachings, which say that as we’re constructed physiologically, human beings cannot see reality directly — whatever reality is — and what we see is what we’ve learned to see, and what we experience as perceptions are constructions that our brain has constructed using the only thing we’ve got to use, which is our past experience.
This means that if you don’t understand this about yourself, then you grow up believing the world actually is the way you see it — and that you are fixedly as you experience yourself to be, and if that’s what you believe, then sooner or later you’ll get into difficulties.
I tried to explain this to Tim, but he just found it all very confusing. Also, he can look sceptical without actually saying anything. After that, Tim went off to read my books, and then he rang me up and invited me for dinner. We went to a Turkish restaurant, and he told me a lot more about his mother, and I remember asking how old she was and talking to him about her experiences. That was where we started to talk, really talk, far more personally.
I didn’t find psychology terribly relevant, so when I left university in Australia, I taught for a few years. Later, I trained as an educational psychologist and loved it. I did a lot of work with disturbed children and their families and at night did my diploma in clinical psychology. Then my marriage broke up and my son and I came to England in 1968, and I got a job with the NHS. I didn’t leave the health service until 1986 — by then I realised I could support myself by writing and teaching.
It was very interesting that at the same time that Tim was writing his novel about friends, White City Blue [now out in paperback], I was working on my book, Friends and Enemies, so we spent a lot of time talking about friends and friendships and men’s friendships. One of the things I found when I was asking people about their friendships was that people would talk about having a group of friends, whereby no one friend supplied everything but the group altogether did. So with Tim, what he supplies for me is that we have really good conversation. Tim is the only person I know who I can talk to about writing and the problems we are having, so we moan together. You need someone like him in your circle of friends, otherwise writing is just too lonely.
Tim and I don’t see each other all the time but we send a lot of emails. We don’t have to apologise if we haven’t been in touch for a few weeks, which is the mark of a really good friendship.