Cole, Neil Donald - Odd bedfellows, the MP and the anxious gangster
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Odd bedfellows - the MP and the anxious gangster - By John Mangan October 10, 2010
THE people you meet while you're in a psych ward.
As a politician, part of the job is mixing with citizens from all walks of life. But even by those standards, former state shadow minister Neil Cole raised the bar when he spent a week sharing a ward in the Melbourne Clinic with one of the nation's most notorious gangsters, Alphonse Gangitano.
'We didn't talk much, but when we did, it was good,'' says Cole, a lawyer who these days works as a counsellor, a researcher at the University of Sydney, a playwright and, most recently, a novelist.
''He was quiet and reserved. He didn't put on a big act. He didn't cause me any harm, didn't ask me to turn my music down.
''I'd been dealing with people like that all my life as a lawyer, so it didn't worry me, and also I'd been used to dealing with people like David White and Rob Hulls, so I felt at home.''
At the time of his encounter with Gangitano in 1995, the MP had just publicly declared that he suffered from mental illness, and stepped down as shadow attorney-general. ''Subsequent to that, I did become very ill and ended up in hospital in the Melbourne Clinic. When he came in, I didn't know who he was, but everybody else at the whole hospital seemed to know all about him.''
The ignorance was mutual. ''I don't think he knew, nor did he care who I was. I certainly didn't introduce myself as a member of parliament.''
Cole says Gangitano, who was gunned down in his Templestowe home in 1998, was being treated for anxiety. ''I did say to him at one stage - because he was worried people were going to kill him and I was in there with severe depression and melancholia - that we should swap beds, because it really didn't worry me if I got killed at that stage. He just grunted. Maybe he didn't realise my offer was genuine.'
Mental illness is a great leveller - that's Cole's point, a point he drives home in his first novel, Colonel Surry's Insanity.
It's a fictional tale, though fuelled by Cole's experiences with mental illness and treatment, tracing the life of an Australian World War II hero who is institutionalised during the Vietnam War, a conflict he regards as sheer madness.
Over the past 15 years, Cole has written a dozen plays, 11 of them having been produced in Melbourne and interstate by companies such as La Mama.
The idea for a novel came out of a discussion with his boss at the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Sydney, Professor Ian Hickie, about a new academic book on depression that was likely to be read only by academics.
''I said, this is silly, we really should have a novel that tells the story, because you can do so much more in a novel, in fiction. People will read Colonel Surry's Insanity because they'll take it off the shelf for a read.''