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Cosmo Landesman

ISLINGTON writer and journalist Cosmo Landesman, whose son took his own life, told Exam that mental health care in Britain is still a ‘Cinderella’ service.

In his often angry, humorous and pissed off new book, Jack and Me: How Not to Live After a LossCosmo, who lives near Essex Road, describes the enormous stress, pain and guilt he suffered after the tragedy.

Jack, Cosmo’s son with ex-wife, writer Julie Burchill, died in 2015, aged 29, after years of heavy drug use and regular bad temper.

The couple divorced when Jack was 10 but he lived with each of them at different times and was in regular contact.

Although he was bright, sensitive and cheerful in his youth, learning to play the guitar and joining several bands, things started to get emotionally difficult for him in his teens and twenties.

He enjoyed staying with his famous American-born grandparents on Cosmo’s side, Fran and Jay Landesman, at the Angel. They both died in 2011, four years before Jack’s untimely demise. Fran, 83, was a singer and poet, and described as the ‘godmother of the hip’ while her ‘bohemian’ husband, writer and editor Jay, has died aged 91.

Cosmo illustrates in detail what it was like to have a loving son who had a tendency to self-harm and sometimes confessed to his father that he no longer wanted to live.

A writer for Sunday time and The viewer, Cosmo said, “Mental health is always a second-order concern after cancer and physical health. We talk a lot about the importance of mental health, but the real infrastructure to deal with the problem is not available.

He writes that for a long time he “dodged questions of suicide and mental health.” But he “worked through his own anger” and took up meditation, something his late mother Fran first introduced him to as a child. He, like her, has now, he says, adopted a semi-Buddhist approach to life.

Cosmo still has fond memories of his son’s visit to places like Essex Road Library, Camden Passage Antique Market and Jack’s beloved Camden Town.

How was Jack? Cosmo writes that often the “Jacks of this world are lost, lonely, depressed, often on drugs, and out of the grid of adulthood. They are full of pain, anger, and self-loathing.

But Jack also had a sweet, good-humored side. A former girlfriend he met in Camden Town described him as “funny and different from other boys”, in that he was not interested in his appearance or in sexual conquest.

His worried mother, Julie Burchill, who lives in Brighton, told him: “You are very smart and you need to stop looking at the dark side. Volunteer for a charity and you’ll meet people that way. Go back to college. My friend graduated at 50.

He could also be the young man who approached you on the street, wrote Cosmo, and asked for change for a bus or a hostel. “In my mind, I see Jack and he is still alone, pacing in the open cage of his loneliness.

“We don’t teach our young people how to deal with loneliness because we don’t know how to deal with it ourselves.”

At 18, Jack did reasonably well in school and won a place at Queen Mary University of London to read English literature. He did not complete the course. He suffered from occasional anxiety and depression but, as Cosmo writes, who doesn’t at that age? However, Cosmo was convinced that Jack had been hiding a drug problem from him and Julie. He also occasionally self-harmed.

“We modern dads like to think we can read the signs of sadness. But some kids are good at hiding their problems and pain,” he writes.

In his early twenties, Jack became a patient at the private Priory Clinic, where he was officially diagnosed as depressed and at risk of self-harm. He was given antidepressants and became an outpatient. He found the therapy helpful and mom and dad were relieved.

However, at 24, he quickly moved in and out of low-paying jobs and rock bands.

When he moved in with his grandparents, he refused to use a proper bedroom. Instead, he insisted on camping in the first floor restroom of their spacious home in Duncan Terrace.

Cosmo was appalled by these living conditions, but his father Jay was more of a philosopher.

Jay told Cosmo, “’Don’t be so bourgeois! Let the child do his own thing. If he’s happy to live in a toilet, that’s fine. If not, he will find something. He’s a smart kid.

Soon Jack was in the care of social workers from the Mental Health Assessment and Counseling Teams in Camden and Islington, who were warning him about how drugs were affecting his life.

Cosmo writes about his various emotions as he carries his son’s ashes along Islington High Street. It’s a moment of great sadness but Cosmo can’t help but imagine the humor. “What if I fell and knocked Jack down.”

Writing the book, Cosmo said, was a reminder of her son’s voice, music, and even smell. “There was his maddening maddening Jackness and the grief and guilt he brings to me.”

Finally, Cosmo urges people to “be nice” to each other. He quotes Aldous Huxley who was embarrassed that after a lifetime of trying to understand the human condition, the only advice this highly intelligent man could offer was “try being a little nicer”.

Jack and Me: How Not to Live After a Loss. By Cosmo Landesman, Black Spring, £20

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