Friday, September 30, 2016

Black Dog Dead - September

I’ve spent more of this year broken than I would have liked. Much more.

Especially a large, long part of August that seemed to drag on forever. Now, the fact is, in the scheme of a 365-day year, maybe it doesn’t add up to all that much. But once again the extent to which I was broken skews my ability to measure such things. It takes a conscious effort to adjust the scale.

Generally when it comes to beating ourselves up, we’re straight in there with the boot. But it takes an effort to be kind to ourselves. To stop and judge ourselves more favourably.

Here we are now at the end of September and I am recovering from my broken August, day by day, but part of this month’s recovery process involved constant reminders of how far behind I’d fallen with my planned work. Tough to escape that when you’re getting yourself back on track and you’re coming face to face with how much you have to do daily if you want to meet that deadline you’d set yourself.

As discussed last month, some of that can be countered and remedied by paring back on your ambitions. In my case, that has amounted to narrowing my focus down to the single main project. Postponing other aims is hard and feels like failure, but we just have to remember that we can protect ourselves to some degree by separating what happens from how we react.

As always it’s a matter of control and while we can’t always control how we respond to anything, we stand a much better chance of controlling that than we do of controlling the things people do or say to us, or to just random shit chucked our way as part of life’s rich tapestry.

It’s up to me to be satisfied with achieving what I achieve, instead of feeling disappointed with what I’ve not managed. I’m not there yet, by any means, but I’m conscious of it and I’m trying to catch the self-critical thoughts before they sink their teeth in too deep. The best argument I can offer them will be what I do achieve when I meet that self-imposed deadline for the much narrower scope of ambition. If I can point to that by early November, then all that I didn’t achieve in August will no longer matter in the slightest.

That’s my theory anyway.

It amounts to mental filing, really. With that (sort of) dealt with my principal challenge for September was just handling the day to day. And I’m not sure where the idea came from exactly, but I recall thinking about how much better I’d been doing in January, despite the year starting so miserably for so many, with a number of celebrity heroes dying on us, and I guess it occurred to me that I’d quite like to celebrate those of my heroes who are still, thank goodness, in the realm of the living.

We’ve seen too many photos in 2016 with the letters R.I.P. attached, after all.
So I made it a daily practice to post a pic per day on Facebook of a personal hero of mine. It’s a small, trivial exercise but it helped. Just reflecting on these figures – in music, movies, TV, writing, whatever – and how they inspired me supplied a spot of daily inspiration. Like a snack for fuel for the soul.

There’s a risk, of course, in sharing your heroes – or anything you like – online. Some danger of trolls, people too quick to attack those things you treasure. And I say that as a caution to more sensitive souls than me. I’m lucky, I have a great collection of online friends and acquaintances, respecters of different tastes and opinions.

A sum total of one idiot trolled in with an abusive remark about one of my heroes. But he’d been on thin ice anyway, so that was his ticket to Blockland. If you’re plagued by the Black Dog and you feel like trying something similar, just be aware that these are your heroes, they’re for you and your own inspiration. They’re like flags on your Facebook page or wherever, to wave you on for that day.

And if even with that in mind you’re a little wary of sharing, then just make a note of them, or have a picture of them for your background on your PC for that day. If they’re musicians/singers, play one of their albums or a video they’ve done. Actors, watch a movie or TV episode or scene from such. Youtube is your friend.

Might not do anything for you. But it was a useful exercise for me throughout September. And it was fun, thinking of 30 muses.

What was not fun was the old insomnia pattern. Which was just getting worse, to be honest.

Short of knocking myself out every night, I have tried everything.

Or thought I had.

Often, I’d have such a crappy night I would get to about 3pm and feel a nap dragging at me like quicksand. And I would generally try to resist because, for one, I would usually wake from an afternoon nap feeling worse than when I’d zonked out, and for two, it would only make the subsequent night worse.

But one day I thought sod it and gave in to the nap urge. And on that occasion I woke feeling a bit better, a bit more alive anyway. And it occurred to me, why don’t I split my days into two mini days.

If I’m only going to sleep half a night, I may as well have a shorter night and shorter days.

It’s still relatively new, so I’m adjusting to this new cycle, but it has been showing some benefits thus far. Packing myself off to bed around 1am, reading for a short while, sleep – or time set aside for sleep anyway – until 6am, early breakfast (aka first breakfast), so begins the first day of that day. Then a scheduled sleeptime between 2pm-4pmish is followed by a second breakfast and the beginning of a second mini-day.

It’s a bit of psychological trickery, I guess, but I have found I do get a few hours sleep at night and 1-2 hours during that daytime kip. So while you’re out there having your Mondays and Tuesdays and so on, I’m just having my Monday As and Monday Bs, Tuesday As and Tuesday Bs etc. It also enables me to break down the day’s goals into smaller bite-size portions. And – so far – because I have embraced the idea of those afternoon sleeps I’ve found I don’t wake so groggy and worse for wear as when I fought it.

The days aren’t equal halves, but I seem to be getting about 6 hours of sleep – or rest anyway – per 24 hours, as opposed to my previous 4 if I was lucky.

So a combination of tricks has assisted me through the month of September and, assuming I make the adjustment, I’ll keep going with the new sleep schedule onwards into October.

Which reminds me, it’s coming up to 2pm now.

My second bedtime.

Goodnight. See you tomorrow morning later today.

SAF 2016

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Stranger Things...

It’s rare you’ll find me in church, let alone on a Monday. But Stranger Things Have Happened.

That’s how I kicked off my week, at a concert in St-Giles-in-the-Fields, London. There to see – and hear – Clare Maguire.

Back in the days when my parents used to force me and my sisters to go to church, if they’d told us there was going to be a show like that on instead of some dry priestly sermon we wouldn’t have kicked up such a stink. I’m still an irreligious soul at heart, but concerts of this calibre would confirm me as a regular churchgoer.

The support act, identifying herself as Klara from Sweden (check her out on Facebook) warmed us up with some hauntingly beautiful numbers, one or two that would not have been out of place as themes for some of the Nordic Noir crime dramas I’ve been watching lately, and then the main act was something else.

Solely on the strength of her Light After Dark album, I knew Clare was an incredible singer – it’s why I travelled up to London to hear her. But performing live, pared of production, turns out she’s even better than I knew. There’s an almost gospel quality to her voice that sells every song with power and emotion. Right at home, while bringing the roof down.

This was the start of her tour to promote Stranger Things Have Happened and due to circumstances beyond my control I hadn’t heard anything of the new album. At other concerts where I’ve heard artists’ tracks for the first time, the lack of familiarity has been known to create a degree of distance or detachment, but something definitely resonated on this occasion because every one of the new songs connected. Hit home – like bullets through my bones, you might say.

Put it down to that rare conjunction of talent, performance and a beautiful setting. This was my first visit to St Giles and it made for an amazing venue, accommodating a modest but enthusiastic crowd. Especially when Clare sent out for beer for the audience. Which maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned, because people might expect that at every show. But it’s a good illustration of the great sense of humour that seasoned the gig between songs and added to the all round entertainment.

Me, I didn’t avail myself of the beer – I had another train to catch after the show and who needs an alcohol buzz when the music buzz is that good – but I did stick around to say hello. And Clare took the time out for a chat and sign a CD which were pretty much the icing on the cake of a very worthwhile trip up from the remote reaches of Cornwall.

All in all, a brilliant night and as I headed back home, Clare was on her way to tour dates elsewhere, so if you happen to spot a poster saying she’s appearing at a venue anywhere near you, I seriously recommend you go treat yourself.

Might not be in a church. But it will be special.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Black Dog Dead - August

You know you’ve had a bad month when you find it a struggle to face your blog post on the battle versus the Black Dog.

It’s not the admission of defeat, so much – and after all, I’m here, I’m writing it, so it’s not a defeat. It’s not a victory, either. But it’s not a defeat. It’s just that so much of how we evaluate these things lies in how we feel. Even if that is some distance from the truth.

One truth is that I feel defeated.

It doesn’t help that the subject header is staring back at me, taunting me. Because back in January I made the rash decision to title this, Black Dog Dead. My main aim this year being in essence to bury the Black Dog. See, I’d made such good progress last year that I felt I had moved on from the battle versus the Dog to the issue of where to go from there, how to maintain the peace, so to speak, after the war.

Mind you, I didn’t kid myself it was actually over. But there was a sense of leaving the worst behind and the will to rebuild.

And in January of this year, I was – if not on a high – at my best. My biggest problem that month was a series of strange confrontations with loneliness, born of the unusual circumstances of having a lot of really good days and nobody to share the good news with. Aside from those tearful spells (as much a result of a still-too-recent separation as anything else) I was on a creative roll, achieving loads and feeling good about myself.

Wind the clock on eight months and I find it hard to fathom how I sank so low. But more than that, it’s tough to figure out how or why I remained so low for so long. Because one thing I had learned – and learned pretty darned well – was how to cope with the setbacks, how to keep them in perspective, feel them, then bounce back and move on. Damnit, I thought I had myself well-trained by now.

But – and I take no pride in confessing this – all it took this month was a single disappointment. Sure it related to something close to my heart, and it hurt, but – and here’s the weird thing – it struck in amongst some good news on other fronts. But while the good news was a hearty morale boost it proved only temporary, while the Black Dog sensed weakness around the wound and sank its teeth in deeper.

My usual coping mechanisms failed me. Worst of all, the most common NAT (Negative Automatic Thought) known to plague me so much in the past – that dread question that echoes up from the empty spaces inside, “What’s the point?”- became the much more destructive and emphatic answer:

“There is no point.”

For 10-14 days I wrestled with that. Lost bout after bout.

After all my talk the previous month of returns to Square One and knowing what to do, something inside went AWOL.

I knew the steps involved in fighting back. I knew what I needed to do. But I could not motivate myself to do them. And I don’t know why. Sleep by and large abandoned me altogether, which just added crushing fatigue to the mix. I was down to existing and going through the motions of each day. All the while wondering why I was bothering.

The best I could manage was to sit down once or twice and plan out a carefully thought-out programme for recovery. Only to watch that fall by the wayside day by day as I failed to do any of the things planned.

I resorted to social media a lot. Not to broadcast what was going on. Rather to maintain a ‘normal’ front. Engage in discussions, have a laugh, get angry at political goings on, the suffering in the world et cetera. And people will warn you some of that isn’t good for your health and sometimes they’d be right. But to be honest, I think most of it was a useful diversion at least. Toys in the pram when you’re not capable of doing much else.

Occasionally they were more than a distraction. They acted as fuel. Anger at social injustices or and the like could, of course, further compound despair, but at least it ignited some energy within me. And jokes and conversations about trivial crap like Doctor Who or some other TV I was watching by way of retreat, well, beyond being fun they were a lifeline. Not exactly rocket fuel, but a spur. Driving me, nudge by nudge, back to normalish health.

If nothing else, it amounted to something I could engage in. Better to feel a part of a virtual world, if you can’t function especially well in the real one.

From there, I broke my days down into bite-size pieces. Things to do between social media interactions. And yes, I fully appreciate how sad and pathetic that sounds. But that’s why I’m confessing it here. Because I have to be okay with admitting to sad and patheticness as a means of forgiving myself for sinking quite so low. And arriving, ultimately, at the point where I know it is not in fact sad and pathetic, but merely a necessary survival technique at the time.

(It’s also worth adding that I set myself a deadline of sorts: i.e. that I hadn’t lifted myself out of the slump to some degree by the end of this month, then I would go back to the doctor and seek help. And it was useful having that safety net in mind. It emboldened me to at least try to turn things around myself.)

A drowning man grasping at straws may appear sad and pathetic to you and probably to him. It’s desperation in action. But more important than anything else, it is strength. 

At least he’s grasping.

Which brings me around to the point I made at the beginning of this post.

One truth is that I feel defeated.

The other truth is that this, writing this post here on a sunny Monday in my local café, is a victory.

To those who hop out of bed and enjoy breakfast and look forward to whatever the day has in store, it may be measured as a feeble sort of triumph. But on the scale that some of us have to gauge by – which sometimes has to be measured minute to minute, hour to hour – it’s a huge win.

Where I am now – I’d estimate somewhere around Square Two – means more feeble/huge wins will be required. But the fact that I set myself this task, wrote this post – and if you’re reading it, I will have managed to post it online too – is a surefire indicator that I have regained the will to take the steps required.

That ‘There’s no point’ NAT has reverted to a nigglesome question at the back of my brain.

“What’s the point?”

No idea. I don’t have an answer ready for it. So I’m choosing to ignore it. Telling it to to go away and, hopefully, not come back while I try to figure out an answer.

For now, I have a clear goal in mind. I’ve had to pare down my short-term ambitions considerably and focus on a select handful of projects. And the terrible August has put me behind schedule so I will have to be busier than I had planned for the next couple of months.

What I’m hoping is that the busy-ness will help with the focus and drive. And for the immediate future fend off that NAT with an answer.

The point, for right now, is to get this, this and this done. Anything after that, come back and ask me then and I’ll see if I have another answer for you.

And of course, by ‘you’ I mean myself.

SAF 2016

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Labour's Love Lost

Politics and Doctor Who should not mix.

And yet today I can’t help thinking about the latest developments in the Labour Party in light of the 1970s Jon Pertwee story Day Of The Daleks.

In that story, you see, a bunch of time guerrillas travel back to assassinate a diplomat they believe started a war and landed them in their present mess, but ultimately their destructive efforts end up causing the catastrophe they hoped to avert. And elements of the Labour party, without the benefit of having come from the future, are achieving something very similar.

Armed with no foreknowledge whatsoever, they have convinced themselves that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable and so they are attempting to blow up the party in order to avert disaster, and in so doing have brought about the exact result they were so desperate to prevent.

Well done. Give those men an ice cream.

They are more delusional than the time guerrillas, however, in that they point to Labour’s woeful slippage in the polls as evidence to support their actions. Look, they say, at how disastrously Labour is doing against the Tories, expecting us to overlook the correlation between the party’s death throes and the point at which they hit the detonator.

They are not ignorant of their own responsibility. This is intentional, utterly deliberate. Their delusion lies in perhaps forgetting that they shed some 5 million Labour supporters during the course of their previous time in government, because so few of us could tell the difference any more between them and the Tories. Their delusion further lies in their apparent conviction that we are stupid.

We aren’t. Far from it.

Neither are we Trots. Or thugs.

Don’t know about you, but I’ve not personally been dubbed a Trot yet, but surely it must only be a matter of time. I have, though, been accused of having my fingers in my ears; I’ve seen more intelligent and articulate people than me being accused of being blinkered; I’ve seen other intelligent people declare all Corbyn supporters to be stupid, to be somehow fooling themselves. And there have been even more ridiculous labels thrown this way.

It’s very sad. What’s especially sad about it is that, you end up arguing with people who, in theory, ought to share some of the same socialist values as yourself. As I said to someone the other week, I miss the days when I just used to argue with Tories.
It’s much harder work and much more draining arguing around in circles with fellow Labour supporters. And most of the time it’s not even that we support different Labour parties. And the accusations sting all the greater because they are coming from people I generally respect and admire.

Hence this blog post, really. Because I’m unwilling to engage in that debate online any further. It’s a pointless spiral that does nobody any good. And since I’ve been unfairly accused of sticking my fingers in my ears, well, that is what I am doing as of now. Unreasonable? Perhaps. But this is the fruit of persistent assumptions and accusations etc.

Besides which, my mind is made up and I may as well don those blinkers. What’s to be gained from further discussion? What’s to be gained from reading further smears of a man’s character? It’s not as if the opposing side has anything to say much beyond ‘We don’t like Jeremy Corbyn.’

See, it’s not even about Jeremy Corbyn versus Owen Smith.

It’s about Corbyn or Not-Corbyn. That’s what this Labour Party leadership election boils down to in the end.

Because I’ve not seen any of my most ardent anti-Corbyn friends actually champion Smith. And why would they? What is there to actually champion? Surely if Jeremy Corbyn is all the things his opponents claim, then the alternative put forward should be a candidate possessed of all the qualities they maintain that Corbyn lacks.

Jeremy is unelectable. Sorry, I’m not detecting some superior electability in Smith. Maybe you see it, I don’t. Jeremy’s leadership is characterised by incompetence. All I’ve seen from the opposing campaign camp are staggering levels of incompetence and farce. Jeremy doesn’t wear a suit and tie. At the outset, Smith was seen tieless, in his shirtsleeves, trying to look cool. Rallies of ten thousand people don’t win elections, he says, while addressing crowds of a hundred. Then asking to speak at Corbyn’s rallies of thousands.

Practically the first words out of Owen Smith’s mouth as he launched his campaign were, “I’m normal.” What kind of statement is that? Is that intended to persuade me to sit up and take notice? That this, perhaps, is a man who is so much more electable than Jeremy Corbyn. Owen is normal. Okay. Not sure what I’m meant to do with that. You should be declaring yourself to be exceptional, mate. Or, better yet, demonstrating it rather than telling us.

Owen Smith has also stated, “I’m as radical as Jeremy Corbyn.” But it’s no use just adopting policy promises and paying lip service to socialism if nobody believes you’ll actually deliver on them. Sorry, but we live in an age where much of what you said is on record and freely distributed around the internet, along with your actual voting record. We can compare and contrast your statements with your intentions. In the past, politicians enjoyed far greater freedom, I imagine, to tell us one thing and do another. Now, not so much. Even if memories are short, Google has a long reach.

Jeremy Corbyn is a personality cult. Well, we can’t accuse Owen Smith of that. But the impression I get is that the anti-Corbyn crowd is in essence an anti-personality cult. They simply do not want Corbyn. Which is fair enough, but I’m not seeing a dislike of the man as any better than or in some way a superior stance to take than liking the man.

And I’m told that other potential leaders might be waiting in the wings, but they dare not put themselves forward for fear of the flak and abuse they might have to endure. Well, come on in, the water’s toxic. Jeremy Corbyn has been swimming those waters for nigh-on a year. And he’s withstood more abuse and smears than anyone. Honestly, if you’re a better leader than him, if you’re more prime-ministerial than Owen Smith, why aren’t you out on the battlefield standing up for what you believe and enduring whatever gets thrown at you like an actual leader would be? Where are you? Because it’s beginning to look like Owen Smith isn’t intended to be leader at all. It’s beginning to look like he’s just some stand-in, some decoy to take the flak before the intended successor takes over. Which kind of paints the mysterious intended successor as a bit of a coward and not much of a leader in the scheme of things.

This, unfortunately for all the chicken-coup crowd, makes Corbyn look even better in comparison.

But for my part, it’s not even just about being pro-Corbyn. This is about so much more. It is, for one, about what he stands for.

These, for example, are the ten pledges Jeremy has set out in his leadership bid:

Ten Pledges

An economy that works for all

Secure homes for all

Security at work

Secure our NHS and social care

Free national education service

Democracy in our economy

Cut income and wealth inequality

Act to end prejudice and injustice

Peace and justice abroad.

He’s also talked about parity for mental health alongside physical health, and that’s an issue close to my heart. As well as – at the rally – issues specific to our region. All of which will be part of the message we will need to convey across the country once this leadership election is resolved.

Anyway, that’s the kind of politics he stands for. There’s not much I can see in there to which reasonable people could object. And I happen to believe Corbyn can deliver them. I trust him. I happen to believe he is eminently electable. I want a PM who believes in a fairer, more equal society, where we actually care about the poor and socially disadvantaged, those less fortunate than ourselves, whatever position we’re in. Those are the values I stand for and those are the values I would like to see represented in government.

Of course, I’ve been told that 29% of Labour supporters would rather see Theresa May than Jeremy Corbyn as PM. Nobody has said how Owen Smith stacks up against our anti Human Rights, Snoopers Charter PM. But in any case that statistic speaks far greater volumes about the kind of Labour supporters they must be than anything it purports to say about Jeremy Corbyn. They appear not to take into account what May stands for – which is everything the Labour Party should oppose, heart and soul and tooth and nail.

Beyond that, it has come to be about more even than Corbyn and his values. It has also come to be about the values apparently held by his opponents within the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) and the NEC (National Executive Committee). The tactics that have been employed have been a disgrace, offensive to members and damaging to both the public perceptions of the party and to the core democratic principles on which the party was founded.

While I respect the right of the NEC to set the rules for its own internal elections, you cannot take membership monies on the written understanding – as advertised on the website – of their right to take part in leadership elections and then withdraw that right. That is false advertising, taking money under false pretences.

If the move was to guard against entryism, well, nobody between Jan 12th and June 24th knew there was a leadership election pending – nobody except the coup plotters anyway, who may have been planning the move for some time. A fair cut-off would have been the date at which the leadership election was announced, but for starters the website should have been amended promptly to reflect that.

As for the £25 registered supporter fee, that remains an outrage, utterly at odds with the principles of fairness the party is supposed to uphold. That’s a third to a half of a week’s income for those on benefits and a sizeable chunk of change to those on low incomes, now set as the price of a vote in a leadership election in the party for working people. My blood still boils at that one.

But apparently, the party wasn’t satisfied with driving my blood to boiling point. No. Because a group of intrepid Labour members went to court to fight the NEC ruling on that cut-off date and they won... briefly. The NEC was awarded the right to appeal and they took the opportunity to place themselves in the absolutely ridiculous and offensive situation of using members’ money to fight to exclude members from the democratic process.

In the same week, deputy leader insulted all those youngsters so recently engaged with politics by launching into wild conspiracy theories about Trots (Trotskyites) intimidating young voters into supporting Corbyn.

And I’ll not say what I want to say at that point. Because a) we are looking to pursue a gentler, kinder politics and b) I purposefully postponed writing this blog post so that I might stand some chance of getting all the way through without using swear words.
So just imagine a few paragraphs here peppered with choice profanities. That should give some impression of my anger without causing undue offence to sensitive eyes and ears.

As heartening as attending that rally was last Saturday, this week’s events have been proportionately disheartening.

So whatever I think of Corbyn and his values is, while by no means immaterial, just a partner to what I think of those in the party who have set out to destroy him. You could replace Owen Smith with St Frances of Assisi or Marilyn Monroe right now and I still wouldn’t vote for them.

If this is the approach chosen to demonstrate electability, competence and a party in touch with the electorate then it is a woeful failure. At a time when the membership is at a high and when we should be focused on attacking the Tories, the party has effectively made enemies of its own members. Showing levels of contempt and incompetence only rivalled by their supportive movement’s command of irony in calling itself ‘Saving Labour’.

They come not to save Labour, but to bury it.

Whatever emerges, if allowed to emerge in their hands, may bear the name, but it will not be Labour. That alone is enough to commit me to the Corbyn campaign.

Declaring someone unelectable does not make it so. What it does is make me want to work towards getting that someone elected. So much more so when people call me stupid, so much more so when the opposition employs low tactics. Because I hate to break it to you there in the PLP, but if you’re questioning someone’s electability then you really need to prove your ability to win elections fair and square. Because, as a rule, you don’t get to win General Elections by excluding groups of voters.

When this is all over and when Corbyn has been elected a second time to the party leadership it is my hope that we can get on with the business of opposing a Tory government.

Whatever others decide to do in that eventuality is up to them, but I hope we can discuss our options, our approach, strategy and tactics together with a united aim. Because in terms of policy and values at least I believe we can find plenty of common ground.

It’s a long and difficult road back from here and already there’s a great deal of damage to be repaired – and this pointless and unnecessary fight isn’t over for another month or more.

Until then, I’ll be saving my breath because I’ve said all I want to say and I’ll need my energies for when we return to fighting Tories. I've no energy or desire to argue any more with friends. And if there are any arguments to be had, given their tendency to be circular anyway, I’ll just send you back here. Like a time loop.

But hopefully one of a more constructive nature.

SAF 2016