Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Black Dog Down - June




So, the other weekend I was at a friend’s wedding reception and an alert came through to my phone: Facebook letting me know that said friend had got married. Social media, on the ball. Important not to let these little details slip you by when you’re attending a real world social occasion.

Turns out no similar notifications are sent out on your newsfeed when you change your Facebook status from married to single. Well good, that’s a downgrade and nobody wants to advertise that.

Still, it’s a fact and unless you’re a bible-thumping creationist from the Deep South or an Islamic fundamentalist heavenbent on world (and your own) destruction, facts are by and large inescapable. So yes, now I’m young, free and single. Or, as my sister put it, two out of three isn’t bad.

Updating (or downgrading) your Facebook status is not the primary concern in the midst of a painful decoupling, but I went ahead and attended to that minor spot of book-keeping on the Friday afternoon that my wife left because frankly I was in denial, half-convinced that she was only setting off on a weekend trip and I was crying for no good reason since she’d be back Monday.

Essentially, I had to acknowledge what had happened. And in fact my tears were not for no good reason. They were built on very solid foundations. Unlike those only the day before, when I was walking home from a pleasant morning’s writing session in the local cafe and started crying my eyes out on a public thoroughfare.

Now, I knew that tomorrow was impending (it usually is) and that my wife would be departing (I’d known that for a month or more), but I couldn’t swear to it that had anything to do with that sudden tearful spell. It sort of crept in and pounced and it was a whole sorry mess of feelings, specific source indetertiminate.

What that Thursday-Friday contrast hammered home to me was that stark and horrible contrast between depression and things that are upsetting. Some don’t grasp that distinction. Once upon a while ago, both my parents would ask what the hell I had to be depressed about. Simple answer: nothing and everything. There was nothing they perceived as wrong with me or my life (other than they really felt I ought to give up this writing pipedream and get a proper job) and, incidentally, there were a lot of people worse off in Africa. (Paraphrasing there, but you get the gist.) While if they’d been the viewpoint character in this story they would have seen that I had everything to be depressed about. Everything, including all those worse-off people in Africa.

The truth is I could win the lottery this week, net my life-long dream and land a massive publishing contract, get rogered senseless by the hottest woman on the planet and still be depressed. Whatever Maria might tell you in song, thinking of a few of your favourite things doesn’t always set the world right. She’s kidding herself if she thinks a few warm woollen kittens can fend off the Black Dog.

Obviously the question at the centre of this year-long blogathon is, what can? Equally as obviously, I haven’t answered that yet. Give me time, ha.

Well, the discipline and the environmental improvements are helping to a degree. Having a good domestic clear out has been a healthy step and will likely continue. This does not include turfing out your partner, I should add. It wasn’t like that.

While I can very easily identify the difference between depression and common or garden sadness – they’re like chalk and cheese where even the simple cheese is way more preferable, even to the most dairy intolerant of us – I can’t recommend adding to your life’s upsets. That’s like building a house out of tyres when your rubbery foundations are on fire. No, ideally you want to be focused on adding to the good things in your life, even if it’s just a minor inexpensive treat each day.

But.

But there’s a strange relief in grief from external sources. What you’re experiencing, after all, is a healthy emotional response to stuff that’s expected to make you feel like shit. Stuff that comes at you from without rather than within. So I guess what I’m saying is don’t go looking for bad, hell no, but if it comes your way then there’s something to be said for recognising it.

MyJune then has involved a pressing need to handle reality. A bullet headed my way at the end of the month and no way of dodging it. It involved a great many practical concerns – of which the Facebook update was the least, I should probably add. Separation brings with it more financial considerations than I’d properly appreciated.

Truth to tell, I’ve not earned any sort of living off my profession since I wrote my last Merlin novelisation (and holy crud, that’s depressing – by which I mean it’s a clearly identifiable external root cause of deep dissatisfaction, disappointment etc, possibly contributing to and reinforcing my depression, but not actual depression in and of itself). So even setting the emotional side aside, I’ve found myself having to devote inordinate amounts of June to form-filling, benefits applications, banking arrangements, new tenancy agreements, switching water rates to my name only, desperately trying to rethink my business approach to somehow make more income out of this writing lark etc etc etc. (Etc.) I can’t tell a lie, it was all hugely daunting and wearing, but it was diverting. Not like watching a bad movie, but definitely a pain-in-the-ass distraction from both the impending separation and the depression. Nothing like a headache to relieve the heartache, eh?

Of course, the downside to that distraction was that ultimately it’s a return to life on benefits and that feels too much like a return to one of the times in my life when the Black Dog was at its blackest. Every silver lining has a cloud.

Still, as I write this I’m acknowledging that while June represents an ending I owe myself my absolute best efforts to view the 1st of July as a beginning. Ultimately, that’s what this separation was about – my wife and myself seeking different things in life that take us in different directions.

And of all June’s hard practicalities, that task of coming up with ideas to further  my writing career and so on has had a positive, re-energising effect. Not to any miraculous degree, but in small, subtle ways that I hope will turn out to be the stem cells of this grand new rebirth. Okay, that’s possibly overstating it a bit, but we’ll see. At the end of the day, I’ve armed myself with plans and a number of things to look forward to...

So, here’s looking you in the eye, July. Episode One of a new solo spin-off series. And my wife has her own new series too. Good luck to you, Mrs!


SAF 2015

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Black Dog Down - May




Previously on Black Dog Down...

“A month of R&R. Surely even I can’t fail at that.

Thought I’d open with that quote as I was fairly sure at the time I wrote it that, yes, even I could fail at a month of R&R. And I did, to some extent.

You see, the truth is, well, I did some work. I wish I could claim I didn’t mean to and it just happened, but I would be deceiving myself. Which isn’t difficult after years of practice pretending to friends and family and casual acquaintances alike that you’re okay or doing fine. But I can’t make a convincing case here.

By the start of May I was still behind schedule on applying the make-up and cosmetic surgery to the latest book in my Evil UnLtd series. And with it being a sci-fi comedy I was keen to see it released in time for Towel Day (25th May). Not imperative – I mean, the world wouldn’t have imploded or been consumed by a mutant star goat if I didn’t make it. But – but I kind of knew the Black Dog would chew away at me if I let that goal pass me by.

So it became a matter of balancing the need for R&R with the – let’s not say need, but – preference for realising this one small-scale ambition. And actually I’m glad to say I managed to achieve that. Most days this month involved a decent quantity of rest and recreation – catching up on some good TV, a trip or two to the cinema, liberal dashes of video gaming, fun day out at a local beer festival (yesterday), availing myself of a few new purchases, treats edible or otherwise –  all interspersed with rationed spells of productivity. Not to mention a healthy portion of that productivity qualified as bona fide creativity, aka fun, aka didn’t feel like work at all.

So. Score one for the good guys. Take that, Black Dog. I’ll soon have that bastard performing tricks for me on Britain’s Got Talent.

Well, okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Before we hang out the bunting and start tossing confetti and fireworks all over the place, it’s important to acknowledge that there have been setbacks.

Folks in the UK will recall that we had a General Election here at the beginning of May. It’s all done now, albeit the dust will continue to settle over the course of the next five years.

Now there’s nothing quite like news and politics and global events to depress the shit out of you. So much so, it’s a wonder that constipation is still so common in the modern world. Such worries are like foxes constantly getting in amongst my personal chickens. These are realities that I’m sometimes ashamed to say I have to isolate myself from, retreating into my shell to protect myself. But if I find it a challenge to refrain from work for a month, I find it impossible to not care.

Care often translates into anger and, yes, further depression. There’s a sense of futility too, when you realise how little difference you can make. Obviously, you know you can’t carry that on your shoulders, but that doesn’t prevent it from weighing you down on (too many) occasions.

Anger can be useful. Indeed, prior to the election, it energised me to quite a degree and some stories in the press continue to do so. But at the same time I am conscious of a level of deflation in the wake of the result. Without getting into the political debate, it was an outcome I believe will have disastrous consequences for many of the poor and disadvantaged in this country. Note: not me. People who are far far worse off than me.
Anyway, it affected me and before we get to the longer term damage to society etc, it had an immediate impact on my battle versus depression. Not as major an impact as the word count afforded it here will lead you to believe, but significant, I’d say, and worth taking the time to reflect on and consider how I can better manage my reactions to such things in the future.

(Ultimately, it’s another reason why we need to be more conscious of mental health issues, because while some of us retain some element of control over our own environs, wider society will inevitably have its effects and those are something that, beyond the power of the vote, most of us can do approximately sod all about.)

Speaking of the future, it was nearer to the end of the month that news struck closer to home. News of an impending change of personal circumstances that, although it hasn’t happened yet, is having its impact. The kind of impact that ought to seriously trouble my pet dinosaurs if I had any. Yes, there’s a personal asteroid headed my way and there’s not a Bruce Willis or a Ben Affleck with a space shuttle in sight to divert it off course.

Don’t worry, it’s nothing life-threatening. But it is mental-health threatening.

My preparatory coping strategy in response to this is to try to focus on the practicalities. Finances and the like. At some point there will be emotional fallout to deal with but for the time being I am maintaining a (slightly wobbly, I’ll admit) equilibrium.

So we approach June knowing there are clouds on the horizon and with a high probability that the Black Dog will be pawing at the door.

But I think the (mostly) time off in May has helped me. It’s less a matter of armouring myself, more a case of affording me a little clear headspace, freeing up a bit of room in there to (we hope) deal with things better. We’ll see, time will tell and all that, as usual.
Since May turned out to be a mix of work and recreation, I’ve promised myself an extension of that ‘holiday’, with at least the first week dedicated to more of the same.

Actually, more time off and (aside from some ongoing short story writings, which are just another form of gaming in a way) less work.

And around midway through I’ve plans to start work on a new project which, in theory, should provide some creative excitement and enthusiasm. To say nothing of an added diversion from real life.

And I don’t know that it’s entirely healthy to say this, but diversions from real life are always welcome.

SAF 2015

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

4D


They're back. And it's about bloody Time.

It had to happen sooner or later.

For one thing, in this age of self-publishing books have a tendency to breed that makes Tribbles look celebate.

For another, if you've grown up on a regular Saturday tea-time diet of Doctor Who, it's really only a matter of time before you're exploring time-travel in your own sci-fi series.

Hence, introducing Evil UnLtd Vol 4: Tempus Sinister.

Evil enters the 4th Dimension!

We'd like to tell you more about it and I expect we will, but for now consider this a spoiler-free promotion. Check out our spectacular foursome!



Available now on Kindle (Amazon.co.uk) and (Amazon.com).

Other ebook formats and paperback version to follow.

As per all the books to date in this epic series, all royalties continue to go to Cancer Research UK.


SAF 2015

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Thoughts For Election Day



OberTory. Leader of the Cockwombles of Bullingdon.*


Never talk about religion or politics, they say. Those on social media may have observed a degree of political activism from me over the past month. For which I am not about to apologise. (Sorry.)


I can at least promise not to bring up religion. Beyond advocating the Christian tenet of love thy neighbour. Unless he’s some kind of benefits-scrounging foreigner fresh off the plane from Eastern Europe.


Oh wait, that’s not my view. That’s the general attitude of the political Right in this country. Voiced loudly by UKIP while the Tories endeavour to distance themselves from their splinter group. Like the People’s Front Of Judea denouncing the Judean People’s Front as a bunch of splitters. But even if the Tories don’t rant so volubly about immigration they’re certainly glad it’s perceived as such a key issue. When things aren’t quite hunky-dory on the home front it’s traditional to point a finger at foreigners. Combine that with heaping blame on the previous administration and you’ve got yourself a persuasive argument to present before the electorate.


Right?


Well, no. But the sad truth is, it works. At least on about a third of the populace. And that, in our British brand of democracy, could be enough.


Of course, I’m being unfair on the Tories there. Yes, we’ve had five harsh years of austerity and we’ve all been in it together, but after all the hardship they have ushered in an era of economic growth. I know this because the BBC News keeps citing stats like zero inflation and rising house prices and so on.


It just feels strange because I’m writing this from a high street cafe that’s going to be closing down on Saturday, just opposite the bank where I’m enjoying an interest rate of 0.1% on my paltry savings. The bank, I daresay, will do okay, but this cafe will join the ranks of 25+ businesses now in Penzance that have shut up shop, enter a chrysalis with a For Sale sign in the window and possibly emerge in a few months as a charity shop.


Personally, I’ve nothing against charity, but their shops do tend to look a bit untidy when you have too many of them on one street. Like the homeless people begging in their porches, they don’t really advertise success.


But it’s good to have an easily accessible point where we can donate a share of our disposable income to the needy. We Brits pride ourselves on being a charitable nation. Yay us. And yet...


The last opinion poll I saw gave UKIP 14% of the vote share. UKIP, who want to cut our foreign aid budget. I don’t get it. I guess the mentality there is those folks can always salve their conscience with a donation when Children In Need, Comic Relief and Sport Relief come around on the annual calendar.


Most of us have a conscience.


Of course, when it comes to General Elections most of us vote based on how it affects our pockets. An expert on the BBC said that this morning, so I know it must be true. It feels true.


It’s understandable. Who doesn’t put their own family, their own household first? Fair play to everyone for that – and I know what it’s like, I have two cats to feed. And don’t get me wrong, I want nice things, I need money to keep me in DVD box sets and video games, wine, beer, all of life's essentials.


But.


If we are really going to examine what each government has inherited from its predecessors over the past few decades, we should peer past the previous Labour administration to the Tories under Thatcher. They dismantled our industry, privatised a great many public services, gave council house tenants the right to buy their homes. Not only did that approach lead to a gross shortage of social housing, give birth to the profiteering con-artists we know as the energy giants, rip-off rail travel etc, it shifted this country to an overly heavy reliance on the banking/financial sector (basically, gambling) and fostered a climate of greed and insecurity.


So that now in the 21st century we inhabit a new kind of wilderness where ‘survival’ centres on amassing wealth and property. There’s not a world of difference between a leopard hauling an antelope carcass up a tree to keep it beyond the reach of other paws and non-domiciles and tax avoiders ferreting away their gains so that, heaven forbid, anyone else might benefit. Except the leopard doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from, while the fat-cat Tory only has to decide which restaurant he’s dining out at tomorrow night.


Oh and leopards are beautiful, majestic wild creatures.


Whereas tax-avoiding wealth-hogs are civilised human beings.


Humans, bless them, have developed self-awareness which places them much higher up the evolutionary ladder than leopards. Beyond that we’ve developed a social awareness.


For me, a General Election is, above all other considerations, an opportunity to exercise that. It’s not about how it affects my bank balance. A General Election, if you care to think of it in simple terms, is an opportunity, like Children In Need, to stop and think about others. Except it only comes around every five years. Which makes it a rarer opportunity.


And yes, you may feel that politicians are all the same, that your vote makes no difference etc. Been there.


And gawd knows (and I say gawd, not God, because I promised not to bring God into it) Labour aren’t perfect. But if we want perfect politicians I think we have to move to Utopia. Fine in theory, but I gather they’ve just instituted some uber-strict anti-immigration policies.


Heck, I felt betrayed by Labour when Blair led us into war. Wasn’t going to vote for them again after that. But at the end of the day, Milliband is not Blair. Milliband opposed the war, I can’t fairly judge his (prospective) government on Blair’s actions and the man enjoys a bacon sarnie like I do.


It’s not clear what sort of government Milliband PM will give us. You win votes in an election. You can only win trust in your 5-year term of office. What he’s promising 
sounds a whole lot better to me than what this nation has suffered over the past 5 years.


What the Tories are promising, well, that sounds a lot like more austerity, more Thatcherism. Yes, among their pledges, the Right To Buy is back. Pledge, of course, being a furniture polish. An aerosol (or something like that) spray to make things look a bit shinier. Also, says Cameron, no increase to income tax, national insurance or VAT. And an extra £8Bn a year for the NHS.


Wow. How can you do all that, Dave?  Can’t say.


It’s okay, because if you have any experience at all looking after your own family and household budget, you can do the maths. Where will that £8Bn a year come from if not from taxes, national insurance or VAT?


Bear in mind that they can’t borrow the money. Borrowing is what the Labour Party do and obviously no other government has ever run a deficit for its successor to inherit. On top of that, these are Tories, and their most powerful friends are the wealthy and privileged, including those banker types (who gambled with the world economy and lost, sank this country into the mess for which the Tories are so keen to blame Labour and conned customers into paying for PPI for which I still get unsolicited f*%$ing phone calls every sodding day). Hmm. Where to get the money.


Well, if you can’t take from those who have, clearly the only option is to take from those who haven’t. Benefit caps and cuts are in the wind, friends. The social horror show of the last 5 years will be nothing to what’s to come. The poor and socially disadvantaged will be hardest hit.


And the Tories will do their damnedest to make you look the other way.


It says something that house prices are an indicator of economic growth since that should push most properties further out of the reach of those who couldn’t afford a house anyway. The gap between wages and house prices, by the way, is already insurmountable here in Cornwall.


Never mind that one of the closed businesses has been adopted by the LibDems to have its windows plastered with posters proclaiming their candidate’s success. Bang up job, sirrah. Hats off to you.


Anyway, in essence, what I understand from that is that those who have property are better off. Which, apparently, is a reason to give the Tories (and their LibDem partners) a pat on the back. Because that’s how they’d like us to measure their efforts, not in closed shops and homeless people.


That’s what Right To Buy really constitutes. It allows those with a roof over their heads to own the roof over their heads and does precisely squat (!) for those with no roof over their heads. It’s a bribe, yes. Along with the absurd tax promises. Worse, it’s an attempt to seduce you to the dark side.


They would like you to feel like you are one of the Haves, separate from those unfortunate Have Nots. Deepening those divisions that damn near tore this country apart back in the heady heights of Thatcherism and enticing you into judging the state of the nation according to their scale. It’s an attempt to buy you into their ideology.

Which, in one word, is Self.


Now, a modicum of selfishness goes a long way, I say. But an excess of anything (unsurprisingly) goes too far.


That, I think, is what is at stake in this General Election. Continued damage to our society. To social conscience. It is a question of survival for many. Five more years of any Tory-centred government will take us 5 years further away from the values that should be at the heart of society.


It’s a jungle out there. But in the 21st century there’s no reason it needs to be. Social conscience is what separates us from the beasts. The capacity to see beyond our own walls, past our own pockets and bank balances, to care beyond our own borders. And, for that matter, down our own street.


There is nothing intrinsically wrong with wealth, only with too many who have acquired an excess of it. I genuinely fear a society that preys on the ‘weak’ and disadvantaged. That’s no society at all.


Me, I aspire to pay more taxes. Huge, vast amounts of taxes.


What people seem to overlook is that if you’re in some higher rate 50% income tax bracket, your glass is way more than half full.









SAF 2015
*The Cockwombles of Bullingdon. They live on Nothing Common and eke out an existence on all their millions and whatever scraps of misery they can find and/or create.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Black Dog Down - April




Writer’s block.

No such thing, I’ve heard a number of writers say. It’s all in your head.

Well, I can’t speak for them, but my head is where at least half my writing gets done. At least, I’m fairly sure all my writing starts there.

Of course, I can force myself to write. To type anything and fill up the page. Indeed, I resort to that on many of my worst Black Dog days, because it’s my only option. Achieving something, anything, is one of my main weapons (or pieces of armour) in my battle. Anything to make me feel a little bit better. Progress on some project or other has often been my measure of a good week.

As medicines go, it’s as effective as any pharmaceuticals I’ve taken.

Warning: potential side-effects include self-reproach for failing to meet targets and reading back what you’ve written and declaring it all to be crap. The words ‘not good enough’ continue to resonate in my subconscious after years of throwing my best work at the brick wall of traditional publishing. Having it bounce right back at me like Steve McQueen’s baseball in The Great Escape.

If you stick at it long enough, you may learn that ‘good enough’ has nothing to do with it. And that’s harder to deal with, because then you have to confront and somehow overcome this realisation that nothing you do makes any difference. It’s not you, it’s not your work, it’s the state of publishing, it’s the economic climate, it’s – basically – factors that are all comprehensively outside of your control. So you keep throwing and maybe one day you’ll throw the right ball at the right wall. Repeatedly doing the same actions over and over and hoping for different results, that’s the definition of insanity.

You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.

Still, the ‘not good enough’ mantra echoes from the old days of insecurity and uncertainty. And as we know, the Black Dog loves a weakness or vulnerability to prey upon. Those are its chew toys.

More than the discipline of sitting myself down to write, I have to train myself not to judge. Not to criticise. That’s the substance of the block.

And that was my plan for April – to properly tackle that, head on. I had a very clear schedule and an achievable, if ambitious, target for the month. The plan: write, write, write. Clearly delineated morning, afternoon and (some days of the week) evening sessions. The goal: finish two novels by end of the month. (Don’t worry, they were both in different states of partly written already and one was somewhere near 90% complete. I’m not that mad.)

For the record, I failed to hit the target. I may as well fess up to that now. One of the novels was politically themed and I’d wanted its release to coincide with the upcoming General Election. That ain’t gonna happen now. And I felt bad about that for a week and it’s resurfaced to niggle at me now as I admit it here in black and white.

What threw me off schedule was two days out of commission courtesy of a stomach bug, where all I produced was – well, let’s just say it wasn’t anything good. After the flu-type biological warhead in March, that was all it took to make my goal, well, improbable at best. Two more days to make up was asking that extra bit too much so I revised my aims, moved the goalposts and moved on.

The goal was less important than the psychological training really. So I’m setting the ‘failure’ aside and not beating myself up about it. See, I even put ‘failure’ in quotes to make it less real. 

The training side of the exercise succeeded (in part at least!) in a number of ways. 1) Re-connecting me with the daily discipline of writing, allowing myself to write rubbish, safe in the knowledge that I could whip it into better shape on a better day. 2) Focus: a busy mind has less time to dwell on depression (although it does get tired and the Black Dog is often waiting to strike). 3) It taught me to be kinder to myself. (A lesson I’ve learned many times but one that bears repeating.)

Hard graft warrants rewards and I was mindful enough to make sure I had something good/enjoyable/entertaining between sessions. So that the breaks felt like proper breaks. Even treated myself to some new music purchases and bought myself a ticket to a concert later in the year. And in terms of quantity, if not quality, it was good practice for me to look at what I had achieved on a given day, as opposed to focusing on what I hadn’t.

And there were days when it was – gasp! – a lot of fun. Which is what it always used to be about.

Clearly, I’m some distance from forgiving myself my ‘failures’ altogether and in addition to pretending not to hear those echoes of ‘not good enough’, I also have to fight off the whispers of ‘what’s the point?’ – which are more sinister and more dangerous really.

But I am here at the end of April with the sense of having done a bit more than just survived. There were still some of those (what I like to call) Walking Dead days in the mix, but on the whole I can reflect back on the month and feel there was more to it than that. For one thing, I will have one of the books completed, so that’s glass half-full.

Realistically, I know I’m never going to totally beat my personal brand of writer’s block. No more than I suspect I’m ever going to throw off the Black Dog altogether. But you make what inroads you can and you acknowledge them.

And you award yourself treats, because that’s all part of the Pavlov’s dog training, remember. Of course, I realise that treats like purchases and concert tickets depend on funds and those aren’t always available. But I recommend, if you have any spare dosh, spend it on something nice and non-essential. Such morale-boosts are transitory, it’s true, with the Black Dog ever-present but music, for example, is a gift that can keep on giving. And even a small indulgence can be an act of defiance in the face of depression.

Among the rewards I’d promised myself is a month off ahead of beginning a new project, a chance to rest my over-active sleep-deprived brain. That’s independent of whether I hit my April targets or not so I’m still going ahead with that plan.

A month of R&R. Surely even I can’t fail at that.

SAF 2015