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.


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.


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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Back Dog Down - March

It’s with some shame I admit I struggled this past month. With almost everything. No triumphs or victories to sing about, barely scraped together a draw. I managed some writing, some editing and managed to feel good about some of my work. Not a great deal of blood or sweat involved, but quite often there were tears, for no good reason, regardless of whether the writing went well or not. Meanwhile, as far as home environment is concerned I managed maintenance rather than any marked improvement. But sometimes I guess it’s enough to maintain the status quo. Just ask Status Quo.

After the Germanwings disaster, I even struggled with the notion of writing this blog. Black Dog Down sounds like the sort of tactless crass headline a daily rag might plaster across its front page. But in some ways the gutter press helped me make up my mind. By doing their level best to stigmatise mental health problems, they aggravated my anger issues and if nothing else anger can be a potent motivator. (Although it derails me about as often as it fires me up, so it’s a bit of a coin-flip.) I’ve no need to comment on any of that, because MINDexpressed it so much better than I could.
In this case, the argument in my head boiled down to no, damnit, this monthly blog is all about coaching myself (and hopefully encouraging others) to openly talk about depression. Sensibly, maturely, unashamedly.

Can’t claim to be there yet. Sensible was never my strongest point and the maturity ship has either sailed or never arrived. As for the shame, well, depression is certainly not something I feel I could own up to or discuss with acquaintances in the street. Friends, yes, but even then only a close circle.

So in that respect I guess I do enough to stigmatise depression and mental health for myself without the aid of the tabloids. As I said, it’s with some shame I have to fess up to struggling this month. And while we’re being honest, if I think about it enough (which doesn’t require much) the posts I wrote previously were all done with a degree of shame.

The internet at least provides a helpful screen to hide behind while you make your confessions. But there is always that part of my mind ready to judge. I have to remind myself that it’s the same patch of cerebral turf patrolled by the Black Dog.

Depression’s not a sin. It doesn’t require confession or absolution.

For most of us, if we had an actual disease we’d sooner or later drag ourselves out of our sickbeds, pack ourselves off to the GP’s surgery, explain our symptoms and tell him or her how shit we felt in our mission to extract as much sympathy and medication out of them as we could.

Funnily enough, one of the things that (partially) derailed all my best plans early on in the month was getting struck down with a dose of man-flu. Which, as we all know, is a lot worse than just ordinary flu. It was grotty and it really hacked me off that right at the beginning of the month my carefully laid out schedule was torpedoed by a murky head and a sore throat like I’d recently taken up sword-swallowing as a hobby. Scratch the first week of the month, essentially, and then I’m left with the constant sense of having to catch up. Working harder just to get back to where I should have been anyway. Not a terrific morale-booster for me.

Anyway, long story short, despite the ensuing frustrations and annoyance at the microbes that struck me down like a feeble Martian war machine, when I was ill I gave myself permission to be ill. Gave myself days off, grabbed rest when I needed it, generally made allowances.

Stupid really. Because when have I ever done that for depression?

Well, to be fair, I have on occasion. But that’s a relatively recent development on this slow learning curve. But I find I have to consciously coach myself, to remind myself to be more understanding. We rarely need reminders that the Black Dog is snapping at our heels, but we do need to stop and remind ourselves what that means. Amongst other things, to be kinder to ourselves and treat it on a more equal playing field with other illnesses.

Such an obvious, non-revelatory lesson, it’s almost a waste of blogspace. But like bread and milk on my shopping list writing it down should help me to remember.
So first of all I’m making great mental efforts not to mark March down as a failure or a loss. Call it a draw, like I say.

And if the world of germs plays nice next month (aka tomorrow +), the plan is to dedicate April to writing in quite a rigid disciplined way. It’s not for everyone but as a born writer it’s actually a key essential for my mental health to feel that side of life is going well.

The trick, I think, will be less about adhering to the schedule I have planned and more about writing without judging.

And if I manage to do that with fiction, well, let’s hope this time next month I can do that with respect to depression. Because, let’s face it, if we are so susceptible to our own judgment, small wonder we dread the judgments of others. Small wonder we keep this disease so much to ourselves.

It’s not a disease we should feel ashamed of. People appear on telly with more embarrassing things, for chrissakes, on Embarrassing Bodies. Or with even more embarrassing conditions, like chronic talentlessness, on I’m A Celebrity! Get Me Out Of Here. You must know that invaluable piece of advice to those nervous about public speaking: look at your audience and imagine all of them on the toilet. These days we don’t have to imagine. Just watch what people are up to on reality TV. It won’t necessarily cheer you up – god knows, it depresses me to think that this is what’s classed as entertainment. But it ought to teach us that there’s more shame in other things and some folks seem able to overcome that. So we should be able to, if not actually hold our heads high, look friends in the eye and ‘fess up’ to depression.

So, here’s me telling the world (from behind the protective barrier of the internet) about my month. For more than half of it, I felt like crap, and the things I love and the things I love doing were a battle. And even when the mornings went well I often cried in the afternoons and I couldn’t give you a decent explanation as to why.

It’s all in our heads. It needs to be out there.

Happy Easter, ladies and mentalfolk.

SAF 2015

Friday, February 27, 2015

Black Dog Down - February

Welcome, my friend, to the show that never ends. Welcome to my personal War On Terror.

Perhaps an overly dramatic way of putting it, but I was always told you need to open with a good hook. And maybe a song.

Anyway, so here we are and the end of month two is nigh.  So I’ve just made the mistake of reviewing my goals and aims for the month, looking at all I’ve achieved – and all I haven’t. And despite going to all the trouble of marking the achievements with a big red asterisk, guess which ones stand out the most? That’s right, the failures.

Except, of course, they’re not failures, are they? They only happen to be goals I missed. We hit the crossbar or headed it off into the crowd. And believe me when I say I hate football, so I would never use such analogies lightly. It annoys me that I didn’t manage to score every goal, it frustrates me and, yes, it compounds my depression.

There’s a little Yoda in the back of my mind that shakes his head despondently and murmurs something about there is no try, do or do not. But what does the stunted old Jedi Master know? He can’t even form proper sentences.

That’s going to be a key battle in this war. Unlearning all those habits, all those NATs (Negative Automatic Thoughts) that, frankly, ought to begin with a G the way they swarm around and settle on any piece of shit that springs to mind.

What I have to consciously coach myself to do is to see the red asterisks in bold and not berate myself for the blank spaces. Missed goals don’t amount to much when you’re still in the match and the referee’s not about to blow his whistle. There’s no time limit here. I have, it’s true, set out this year as my own personal target for ‘re-training the Black Dog’ (sic) but that’s only a neat, convenient and (we hope) realistic and manageable timeline for what is, after all, a fairly major project.

This then would be an opportune point to report some of the things I have achieved in practical terms. In some respects, this blog is like checking in with a therapist, so as much as it’s also meant to be of some help to other depressives, it’s helpful for me to account for my time and recognise any progress et cetera. Like, say, if you’d trained your pet (Black) dog to roll over and play dead you’d want to tell everyone, right?

Well, fair to say, I’ve not achieved anything quite so spectacular this month. What I have done is continued the de-cluttering campaign that I began in January. It’s a slow and steady process, highly compartmentalised. Mostly a couple of hours every Sunday, cleaning and tidying and, for example, sorting/clearing out a particular cupboard or shelf or drawer.

Pretty basic stuff, but the kind of stuff that qualifies as a major victory when you have some mornings where you wake and lie there in bed afraid to get up and start your day. It’s helped me conquer that ‘terror’ for a minimum of one day a week – Sundays I don’t fear at all, because I’ve come to understand that Sundays are comprised of tasks that are perfectly do-able, tasks that I am more than equal to. It’s rewarded me with visible, measurable improvements in my home environment. And it’s (slowly) encouraged me to care. You know, where these things felt utterly pointless and futile previously, I now feel it’s worthwhile. It makes a difference.

Another part of the plan for this month was to really launch back into my writing. It’s something that’s never gone away altogether, but it has deserted me for longish periods now and then. I’ll talk at more length about that next month (largely because I’ve chosen to make writing the priority for March – it being an instrumental element of my mental health), but for the present it’s probably enough to note that after a scrappy start I didn’t hit any sort of creative stride until 16th of February.

Halfway through!

Again, I must resist the impulse to beat myself up about that. Yes, Master Yoda, some days there was no try.

Forget all that. The flip side is that the same half-empty month is in fact half-full. I’ve been busy and productive most of the time since the 16th and while some of what I’ve written was, if I’m being kind to myself, utter drivel, it was still writing and when I despaired at a particular chunk of scribbles I’d produced last Friday I confronted it head-on the following day and actually salvaged something passable out of it. To the extent that I could feel pretty good about it.

That’s a win. Not the match, but a point.

In fact, tennis will probably work better as an analogy for me.

I love to watch Wimbledon every year – it was one of the interests me and my mum shared. And I’m a big fan of Maria Sharapova – the last Wimbledon I watched with my mum was the 2004 final when Maria won. And I’ve been an admirer of hers ever since.

Now, I’m a deep thinker but I’m not without my shallows, so yes, it hasn’t escaped my notice Maria is pretty. But one of her qualities you’ll often hear commentators commentate on is her mental strength. And that has made at least as strong and lasting impression.

Guess what? She loses. She loses matches. She loses points all the time. She can have serious runs of bad games in a set. But she composes herself, wipes it from memory almost and is one of the best at tackling one point at a time.

That is the kind of contest we’re in here. A year-long tournament, month-long matches. Maybe a week is a set and days are the games. However you choose to look at it, you – and by you, I include myself – have to view each point for what it is. A single point. If you lose one or even let one pass you by, you don’t dwell. Because you can win the next one. Difference is, we only have to win a few points to win a whole month/match.

So in that sense, I have it easier than Maria. I mean, apart from her millions and her looks. But, like I say, I have to keep my goals and ambitions realistic.

Anyway, that is essentially the belief I have to carry forward into March and beyond. And I’m the umpire as well as the player in this tournament. I get to say whether the ball is in or out. And the Black Dog can call on Hawkeye all he wants, but I have the final say.

As it is, I can’t bring myself to call February a victory. But I’m calling it a draw at this stage and I think I’ll win on a closely fought tie-break.

Next month, we’ll aim to prove the pen is mightier than the tennis racquet. Write is might.

That Black Dog is going down.

SAF 2015