What if schizophrenics had a king? The way gypsies have a king, like a local king in the community that people called a king. Sort of an anonymous character, like Strider or Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. He lurks around pubs and walks the wood-path, and does stuff on the edge of the kingdom that no one knows about, and finally emerges later as the King. —Ken Baikie
Interview by Kenneth McCormick
It was a bitter Saturday in mid-December, 8:30 am, deserted, windy. Saturday, OMQ offices usually closed, Dinah came in, kids in tow. Security check. I was ready to speak with Ken Baikie, a short-story writer and author of “Every Inch a King” (p.57), which appears in Open Minds Quarterly’s anthology In New Light: The many paths of identity, struggle and mental illness. Ken is also the author of a number of other short stories in OMQ since 1999.
Ken lives in the small town of Northwest River, Labrador, in the centre of the northernmost region of Newfoundland and Labrador in Atlantic Canada. The town is one of the area’s oldest, and was the locus of the Hudson Bay Company in the mid 18th century.
We had to do a short recording check before starting; I was starting to realize that these phone interviews could be a little twitchy. Ken told me he and some family were replacing a boiler that morning. Given his location, and the brutal winter, my short stay out in the cold waiting for Dinah didn’t seem so arduous. The connection was a bit twitchy as we commenced the interview, but nothing was lost during Ken’s charming conversation with me.
(The following interview is edited for brevity and clarity in a very minimal sense, and is the most faithful recreation of our phone interview within my abilities.)
[Kenneth McCormick]: “Every Inch A King” is your short story in the In New Light anthology. Can you tell me a bit about it?
[Ken Baikie]: The essential idea behind it is, it handles the question that I raised myself years ago. I had schizophrenia, and the gentleman that the story’s about is an older gentleman that was in the hospital with me in the eighties, and he also had schizophrenia, and it handles the question What if schizophrenics had a king? The way gypsies have a king, like a local king in the community that people called a king. Sort of an anonymous character, like Strider or Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. He lurks around pubs and walks the wood-path, and does stuff on the edge of the kingdom that no one knows about, and finally emerges later as the King.
So it handles the question of, What if schizophrenics in St. John’s, Newfoundland had a king? and also tries to handle the question of Who was to be his successor if he were to die? The guy himself, who it’s based on, had the delusion that he was King Richard the Lionheart. Now, he didn’t act particularly bizarre or anything like that, he was a very much a gentleman, but he liked to “lift his pint”, he liked to pub-crawl, and he liked to be admitted to The Waterford every now-and-then just to be with the other patients and the staff he was familiar with.
[KM]: The Waterford?
[KB]: The Waterford Hospital, the mental hospital in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I was there maybe twenty-odd times in the eighties.
[KM]: From how early an age?
[KB]: I was first there when I was nineteen. I was diagnosed almost immediately for a form of schizophrenia that’s no longer in the textbooks called “hebephrenic” schizophrenia. It’s one of the disorganized forms of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is grouped at two opposite poles: organized and disorganized. Paranoid schizophrenia is the best example of the organized type. It comes from the name for the Greek goddess of youth, Hebes. Since the people who had this particular form of illness were teenagers, usually male, and since the illness was characterized by laughing and inappropriate affect, they named it after her. I studied Greek and Latin at university [Memorial University, Newfoundland], so I’ve always kind of enjoyed having so much Greek and Latin vocabulary follow me.
[KM]: It’s quite early-onset, then.
[KB]: I think I had it as early as thirteen or fourteen, it just really wasn’t noticed. Except for a guidance counsellor I had when I was about sixteen, a wonderful man named Jim Burby. He’s deceased now. He turned me on to things like bibliotherapy, authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Herman Hess, Thomas Mann…mostly German, Eastern European and Russian writers. He was a Vietnam veteran, and he was a heavy smoker and he was a heavy coffee-drinker — both of which habits I have now — and he actually died during my first year at university. He was the first of quite a few losses I’ve had; I’ve lost about thirty or forty people to suicide. Jim actually died of a massive cardiac arrest while driving a car from the airport in Toronto. He had treated me for about a year before I went to university. He thought I’d make a writer, he thought I had a great aptitude for it, so he prescribed all of this wonderful literature that opened up a whole new world for me. He gave me my year’s tutorial in preparation for university, and then he died.
[KM]: He was probably a huge inspiration for you.