GROWING UP BIPOLAR with Scottish writer & musician Mark Fleming

Mark Fleming is based in Edinburgh, his work has appeared in a number of published books and magazines including the Big Issue. He’s run workshops across Scotland and given talks on creative writing and mental health in schools and prisons.

After spending time in a Psychiatric Care Unit, Mark rediscovered his love for creative writing and music.

As well as documenting my experiences of mental illness in my 20s, my story focuses on the cathartic power of music – said Mark.

I write regular blogs about the revitalising impact of nature and music, the blog promotes positivity through writing about mental health, wellbeing and popular culture.

What is your experience of being in bands?

My first band The Seduced, were formed in 1979 at the tail end of the first wave of punk. We mustered about three songs, including a passable version of X-Ray-Spex’s ‘Art-I-Ficial’ – chosen because we had a female singer called Pauline, just like Penetration. We never played live but did get as far as spray painting our name on our local launderette!

I joined my first ‘serious’ band a year later – 4 Minute Warning, named after a lyric by our biggest inspiration, Killing Joke, and outlining our anti-nuclear/pro-CND political stance.

4 Minute Warning

At the turn of the decade a far more interesting post-punk scene began emerging. Many bands were breaking free of the three-chord, shout-along template – The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Wire, PiL, Punishment of Luxury, Gang of Four, Joy Division/New Order, Scars, A Certain Ratio, The Fall, et al – and using punk as a springboard into a whole new sonic universe.

As our music became more funk than punk we evolved into Desperation AM – named after a Gang of Four lyric. By the mid ‘80s my next band was Little Big Dig, melding post-punk, pop and Can, making it as far as a session on BBC Radio 1.

We never gigged beyond Edinburgh – and once in Glasgow, but did get a residency during the ‘85 Edinburgh Festival, in an ‘open until the wee small hours’ bar, La Sorbonne.

Gig poster for 4 Minute Warning

Mental health issues, recovery, marriage, and starting a family brought a lengthy hiatus until around 2002 when I reunited with mates from an old Edinburgh punk band, The Axidents. We covered everyone from The Ruts to Magazine then started writing our own stuff, supporting UK Subs, 999, Eddie and the Hot Rods and Tenpole Tudor.

Desperation AM reformed and were joined by Paul Research (ex-Scars) on violin, leading to another post-punk band, Noniconic. Then Covid struck. I’m currently mucking about with more ambient soundtracks under the moniker Giant Household Names – overheard in an interview with Wire.

Where did you grow up and what type of kid where you – playing football/in a gang/a member of a youth club ?

I grew up in Shandon on Edinburgh’s west side – traditionally the Hearts side of the capital although my dad was from Monaghan in Ireland, so I chose Hibernian. But I was always more into music than football.

In the late ‘70s uptown Edinburgh was a no-go zone, we were too young for pubs, and spiky hair/badges/ripped jeans were a red rag for ‘punk bashing’ by the far more prevalent ‘trendies’ who preferred disco music.

We’d stick to hanging around youth clubs where you could take your own records to pogo to. Youth was much more tribal back then, so if you were into punk, it was like being in a gang. But nothing like the Edinburgh street gangs, with names like Young Leith Team and Gorgie Jungle, where the emphasis was on violent ‘turf wars’ – it was always about the music for us.

North East band Punishment of Luxury.

By the ‘80s the stubborn punks who refused to embrace post-punk did become much more aggressive. Sporting cockatoo hairstyles and studded biker jacket uniforms, the bands they were now listening to, typified by local exponents The Exploited, resembled heavy metal being played at 78 rpm.

By that time we were into Punishment of Luxury, the North East’s finest sons since Penetration, Angelic Upstarts and The Carpettes!

Check out the interviews with these bands on the Alikivi blog.

What does music mean to you?

Music means everything to me. In my 20s, I struggled with bipolar disorder, and was sectioned in 1987 spending time in intensive psychiatric care. My wee sister Anne, bringing in cassettes of my John Peel recordings during visiting hours, was a pivotal moment in my recovery. I’ve only recently come off long-term medication (lithium) and music remains crucial to my wellbeing.

BBC Radio 6 presenters.

I’m an avid listener of BBC Radio 6 whose DJ’s include many long-standing musical heroes of mine – Iggy Pop, Marc Riley and Tom Robinson, along with a host of enthusiastic presenters like Craig Charles, Elbow’s Guy Garvey, Steve Lamacq, Mary Ann Hobbs, Stuart Maconie and others.

Although post-punk remains a major influence and I still love playing my now increasingly scratchy/jumpy 45s from 45 years ago, I prefer constructing playlists based on brand new songs introduced across the board on Radio 6. Listening to these on headphones while strolling along the Firth of Forth on my doorstep, is wonderfully therapeutic.

Book cover for ‘1976 – Growing Up Bipolar‘.

What have you got planned for the Autumn ?

I’ve just completed a memoir that takes in my bipolar experiences of low manic depression to the high of mania and psych wards set against the backdrop of electrifying post-punk scene of the ‘80s that coaxed me back towards stable mental health.  

1976 – Growing Up Bipolar’ is based on a novel I wrote a while back called BrainBomb. The title is a homage to the massively underrated and still out there being creative and inspirational – Punishment of Luxury.

I’m being interviewed about my book at the Portobello Book Festival on October 1st. Gig-wise, I’ve got tickets booked for Public Service Broadcasting and Pale Blue Eyes at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall in September.

I’m also making the trip down to Middlesborough to catch Punishment of Luxury in December. I never saw Punilux first time round so immensely looking forward to that.

Paperback copies of ‘1976 – Growing Up Bipolar’ are available to buy from Waterstones and most retailers. The ebook can be downloaded from Kobo, Nook, Scribd and Hoopla.

For further info check the site:

MARK FLEMING – CREATIVE WRITING & MENTAL HEALTH // MUSIC & PHOTOS. – Home (markjfleming.net)

FUNK OFF – The Punishment of Luxury & further tales of musical adventures. | ALIKIVI : NORTH EAST UK (garyalikivi.com)

Alikivi   September 2022