Well, it can't go without comment.
But let's start with this. Looking after your mental health usually means organising decent sleep for yourself, or at least allowing it to happen if it can. Having someone or something else disrupt your sleep is a real problem, and under ordinary circumstances adults in this situation start harping on about mobile phones, blue light and all that guff. Except it's not guff, but there you go. No, on this occasion I want to moan specifically about my own little boy's suddenly discovered gift for late-night wandering around. He's locked in his room (one of those gates, not an actual lock!), sure, but he's not velcro'd down to his bed. So off he goes. And - to my great discredit - I have moaned about this in my continuing riff about him being a total bell-end to whomever will listen.
Except it wasn't just a choice he was making with a view to miserabilising his parents. No, to cap off a fairly intense few weeks, it turns out that three quarters of the household has nits. And yes, I'm the remaining quarter. Nits. Poking at his ears - which we assumed related to his teeth - was just scratching at an itch. Waking up distressed, which we assumed was just more evidence of him being a dick and demanding unreasonable quantities of attention, that was caused by his head itching. Poor little soul. One application of the not-very-vegan-friendly nitbuster (other treatments are available) and a bit of brightness has come back into his world, and so, mine.
I have recently received some new-and-improved safeguarding training as a result of my frankly mule-headed insistence on remaining in the teaching profession. I have taken the trouble of recording a few of the more remarkable sentences I read - yes, almost all of the 'training' was reading a slide that was copied-and-pasted from a government document that I had also already read - and over the course of the next few paragraphs I'll give you a flavour of exactly what the government is telling me about looking after students and their mental health.
I have tried to write coherently about suicidal thoughts before, and I'm wary of doing it again. But I want to try to make the distinction between those people who are able to look at their own suicide from the outside, from the perspective of other people, the future without them in it, and those whose suicidal thoughts are entirely internal, focused only on the end of whatever it is that is hurting them. I don't think the minds of those who have written this guidance have fully taken in - much less experienced - the brutal reality of the thought that the best or indeed only way out of feeling this way is to take your own life. And there it is, in a sentence. That's the challenge. Those are the kids who need the person next to them at that moment to accept their reality, and their thoughts about it, as real. Even if those thoughts and that reality are wrong, the way it is to be that person just does not admit of being persuaded round to a positive view. That's not how a broken mind works; it can't be fixed by trying the normal methods of changing someone's mind, because that's how it got there in the first place.
I think there is an opportunity here for some properly detailed development of these ideas in a way that could be used by actual rank-and-file teachers in front of kids, but I'm not sure I'm equipped to do it (and certainly not alone). The tough thing is to recognise the nature of the thought. A kid can say that they thought about killing themselves, and that can mean a lot of different things. It can mean everything from an idle speculation about how it would be received, with no attachment to it as an act. It can mean contemplation of the act - the moment, the method - without any engagement in the meaning of the act. It can be that the kid saw death as the way out of a problem and that problem could be a simple one, fixable by small changes. But equally that problem could be huge, looming, inescapable, engulfing. And the distinction that needs to be made between how that problem appears to the outsider and how that problem appears to the person in question is that it just doesn't matter if the problem isn't what it seems to be, if things will change as time passes.
The same guidance gives the following list of symptoms of depression:
There is a problem that mental health is still not a comfortable subject for lots of people, many teachers included. Building up enough trust with a young person for them to feel able to discuss their mental health, particularly their poor mental health, is a labour of some form of love, often punctuated by moments of utter frustration. But it is one of few ways to get to the root of a problem, and a kid feeling that they have someone on their side is a decent step on the way to coming up with a strategy to manage it. Equally, crap mental health is not an excuse for bad behaviour, even if it offers an explanation, and some teachers are so nervous - and so ill-equipped with understanding - issues around mental health that challenging an instance of unacceptable behaviour becomes impossible. And that leads to a bad outcome, which is that bad behaviour choices are linked to (blamed on, excused by) bad mental health, rather than seen as just a part of the picture and one that still needs the same careful management as any disruptive behaviour choices.
So, what? What could and should be done? I don't know, but I really want there to be a force for change in the way that safeguarding children whose mental health is bad is pitched to teachers. The goal is for kids to be able to trust their teachers to listen when it comes to their mental health, and for teachers to have some sort of clue what it is like for the kid, and then what to do about it. Teachers aren't going to have the solutions to hand, but they can be part of that solution if they are aware enough. They certainly care enough, by my reckoning.
There's never going to be a right week to give up a crutch. But it turns out that the hospitalisation of a near relative (to use the rather stark phrase from the Leave of Absence policy) is definitely not a good background to it.
Four years ago, Mrs Richardson spent a week in hospital being treated for, and recovering from, viral meningitis. So we were at least aware of the combination of debilitating symptoms from the last go. But this time, it wasn't so much meningitis as all the symptoms of meningitis but none of the causes. No virus, no bacteria, just the thundering headache, light aversion and stiff neck. I've remarked before that the last place you want to be when you're ill is in a hospital (it's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now) because if nothing else it's full of ill people. But during the CV-19 pandemic, having the symptoms of a potentially infectious disease that lands you in the infectious diseases ward looks like a very poor life choice.
Still, we're all back home and a treatment plan - for something entirely different - is in place. That's just an intro to a couple of observations about the hospital and its systems. The first is that there seems to have been a shift in the emphasis in hospital treatment. It's all 'care', with a bit of 'health' mixed in. There is a legion of dedicated people looking after the inpatients, almost none of whom have any medical training. Doctors are understandably called to the cases where actual dying is a real and imminent threat, which on E ward right now seems to apply to a lot of patients. Getting any sense of what is happening is a challenge, because there's someone else whose needs are more pressing. Which is how it should be, of course, but it shows in very stark terms the strain on the resources that this whole situation has created.
The second observation is that having spent a few afternoons visiting this place, according to the test-and-trace app, I have not had any contact with any Covid-19 positive folk. Unlikely, but there you go.
If you were soundtracking this period of time, it feels like the only thing to do would be to go ominous. The people in charge of decision-making at the highest level seem to be drawn by the opposite pulls of keeping people as safe as possible and trying to get the country at large doing stuff in such a way as to end up achieving neither. It's not like I know what to do, and it's not the case that anyone has a magic plan up their sleeve which would make this all go away. But the people who end up making decisions - the great British public with the common sense - are being asked to weigh up risks that they can't possibly enumerate, and behave accordingly. That's an impossible task to get right. The thing that seems to be lacking is any over-riding sense of principle, any sense that there is a central guiding idea that all decisions refer to. I have written characters with a thoroughgoing sense of principle, although the one who I probably think about the most, Edward Strelley, is on the record as saying that he will bend his principles before the wind if needs be... It serves to make a point, which is that a good principle on which to rely might, in this case, to take the kindest, most patient, most humanistic route. Not to serve the needs of big corporations, or of shareholders, or even of something nebulous like 'the economy', but to start to think in terms of how these decisions impact individuals. The strident voices of those who support a return to normality are relevant in this discussion, and the appeal to a principle - freedom of choice - not without its argumentative merit. Indeed, one might side with the sentiment expressed by Ben Franklin: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." But we're not talking about purchasing temporary safety. We're talking about tens of thousands of lives (already) lost. So, what price do we put on those lives? I don't know where to draw a line, but my instinct is to say that wearing a mask is a small and reasonable price to pay. Not enjoying the fun university experience by getting battered at a party and talking wibble-y rubbish to your new mates is perhaps a slightly bigger price for those paying it, but still reasonable. It'd be interesting to get Franklin's views on the contemporary crisis. I suspect if he thought the disease could wipe out a huge number of Americans, he wouldn't be so keen on defending the liberty of the mask-refusers...
A mate of mine changed from his rather prosaic, biblical first name that even in the late 20th century sounded pretty old-fashioned to his middle name, exotic, windswept and interesting. He ceased to be Peter and became Damon. Of course, this was possible only because his new university mates had no idea that he was previously known as Peter, and therefore we couldn't challenge him on it until much later, by which the name he had chosen had stuck. He is as little Peter to us as he is Damon to his family. It doesn't always run thus: another newcomer to the university restyled herself as Sky, only to find that some of her mates from school had also turned up at the same place and insisted on remembering that she had been called Helen up to that point. At some level, kindness prevailed among these young adults, because her choice was in fact respected.
Well, this is a bit different. I am in the process of choosing, not what other people call me, but which version of me I want to be. I have been a sort of calm, dull version of myself for a year or so. This version of me I have chosen to take over affairs when the other version of me starts to break down and fail to function, by the relatively simple expedient of a little tablet a day. It's not - as I was expecting the first time I started taking them - a little tablet on the lines of the Mother's Little Helper of Rolling Stones fame, which dulls the edges as you take it. It's one that needs a while to get going, and one that - it turns out - takes a while to stop having an effect, even though the effect it is currently having is unpredictable at best, and certainly not the dulling of everything that I had chosen. Why choose that version of myself if I am so averse to it, if I can write about him in such disparaging terms? Well, he is calmer. He is more peaceful. He doesn't struggle to do anything useful for a day when he is forced to think about or talk about suicide (as I wrote in February this year):
Like wading through treacle...
Not reading the books I've written already, I hope. No, creating the fourth one under the influence of the dulling (numbing?) effect of the otherwise excellent, perhaps even life-saving citalopram hydrobromide. I'll be honest: the same bit of my mind that does the creative stuff when writing, be it music or fiction or this very blog, well, that's the same bit of my mind that does all the damaging bad stuff. And when it's in the wrong sort of mood, if you will, it is capable of being very destructive indeed. Is the sacrifice worth it? I don't know in the sense that I do put quite a bit of energy into creative stuff, and so when it's not happening that can in itself be very distressing. But I do know the damage caused by not having the armour, if indeed that is the right word, to get through to the end of a day (or more often for me to get through a night) is truly irreparable.
Even a cursory check through the blog archives - this version of it, that begins June 2018 - suggests that my mental health has swung fairly wildly from robust enough to be helping others with theirs to bad enough to require the artificial armour that is the anti-depressants. I was looking for the post, though, where I describe Edward Strelley as having passed through a period where ending his own life was a real possibility, and that at the moment of writing that post, I no longer feared that as a possible outcome for him. It will presumably come as no great surprise that a lot of Edward Strelley's experiences mirror my own. He might be described as a 'romantic' by some, definitely not the ideal Homeric hero who does his duty. And yet he does - like pius Aeneas - say goodbye to the woman he loves and turn away from her, more than once as we shall see. For his own immediate protection, yes, but he wrestles endlessly with the thought that his choices might cause her harm, and what he should do. He writes - as I do - in a way that does not expect anyone to read what he has written. But that in a sense makes what he writes that much more significant. It is true in a way that perhaps anything written in the knowledge that lots of people - even one person - would read it cannot quite manage to be so. Strelley does not get to choose who he is by using evidence-based medicine, although there are moments when he tries what he can (drinking and smoking).
So what am I choosing? Presumably that's obvious. The version of me who lives just a little bit of Edward Strelley, and Elizabeth, and Longshawe and de Winter and Pike and all the others. The version of me which can write a conversation between a fictional character and a fictionalised historical character and weep for an hour afterwards. The version of me that cries at adverts. I've kept that blog post. Actually, I've kept the whole blog from the 'before' blog, but this bit is worth sharing now:
In an apparent attempt to make me cry in assembly this morning, the kids who were responsible for it put the following set of videos on. I may have missed some, I may have blocked some out, but you can imagine, if you dare to watch them, what I was like during and after.
Mog’s Christmas Calamity | Sainsbury’s Ad | Christmas 2015
Christmas Truce of 1914, World War I - Christmas is for Sharing
BBC One Christmas 2017 | The Supporting Act
Hopeless. Except not, because of course the whole point of all of them is hope. The utter heartbreak of the 1914 Christmas Truce one is that the hope embodied in the Christmas message was more or less taken away in its entirety from those young men (and women, presumably) who were involved in the war. I did think that one might have been a step too far, but there you go.
I also gave some books away today. I wonder sometimes what, if any, effect this has, but I can only hope that it gives someone some enlightenment of some sort. Perhaps it was motivated by some sort of sense of having far too many damned books in the house. We certainly have that.
So there you go, that was me a year or so after last giving up on citalopram. I seem to be choosing to feel, whatever that means. That old blog makes me cry. I shouldn't read it, although the bit of me that wants to feel recognises that crying isn't a bad thing in and of itself. Dwelling probably is, and I sometimes find it hard to recognise the difference between dwelling on something lost and celebrating something that was - is - worth celebrating. The specifics? It might not mean anything to anyone reading this, but it was my own mention of Canon Tony's voice - and how Cranmer speaks with it - that set me off. This is the passage I quoted:Cranmer looks at him, steady and calm. “You consider that God is not there at all?”
“I have always found that thought, somewhere in my mind, sometimes hidden beneath some other notion. At times it has eclipsed all my other thoughts. And then, her. I have never been at peace but that I have been with her.”
“So you know no peace now.”
“That is it. And I cannot conceive of feeling that peace again.”
Why choose this version of me? Because this is the version of me writes books, sings songs, falls in love, swears inappropriately, makes rash but affirming choices, cries at Disney films (and adverts!), lives. Because I could exist for another 40 years on the anti-depressants and I'm not convinced I would live more than the odd day.
Pray for me. Whether you believe in God or not.
When the block is bad, I take to writing short pieces of 500 words or so. I did this before and during the writing of the first couple of These Matters books, and I have found it to be a good way to get some ideas out that don't belong in my novels. It's as though these ideas sit at the front of my mind until they get themselves out onto paper (screen?), and they they can just exist. What I find is that I'm useless at writing them as stories in which something happens. What they almost always are is little vignettes, a piece that a character might have written. Often, they contain a riff on an idea that might have arisen as part of the writing of the books, but there's just no way to crowbar them in: they just don't belong in the context of the 'live', scenic way I describe the world of These Matters.
So, as I have mentioned on this very blog, I have found dragging the story out to bring book IV (which I have, I think, settled on calling Truth to Power, but that is still up for grabs) extremely difficult, a labour not so much of love as of labour. And writing is no fun when it feels like work. So I've let the voices inside my head out in these little flash pieces that don't belong anywhere other than perhaps as submissions to flash fiction competitions.
Here are, then, for no other reason than that they exist, a couple of snippets.
And that’s it, isn’t it? By listening to her, by allowing her to think out loud, I might be letting a thing that would just go away all on its own become a thing that will stick and last and reverberate (another word he’d like) forever. These wounds that I see, supposedly what I’m doing is poking and prodding at them, rather than patching them up. Perhaps. It’s hard for me, because I can’t always predict the results of what I say and do, especially how they will make people feel. In some ways, that’s a superpower, because I see things in a different way. In others, it’s a disability, because I don’t see things that might be obvious to someone else.
But I return to that word, ‘ordinary’. It carries with it, perhaps wrongly, the sense of dull or commonplace. And sometimes that is exactly what it serves to pick out. Not here. What I mean is that there is no high adventure, no last-minute rescue from a nearly-lost-you moment. There is none of that stuff - the romantic gestures, the complicated weave of storyline - that writing about love seems to need to be interesting to people. Not in my dreams. There is just the enveloping, protecting, world-defying peace that being with you brought.
What I recognise in writing them is that I still cannot capture the voice of these characters. What they do - always - is speak through me, their ideas using my language to get themselves out. Perhaps I could learn to let them speak unfiltered, but I'm just not good enough as a writer to do that (yet?). That's part of the challenge of writing any character, I suppose: would they say that? Here it's a different question: would they write in the first place? In a lot of those vignettes, the answer is no, so I'm forcing the fiction, channelling an idea but through my expression. Whereas when I'm at my best writing These Matters, there's no question. It's not a question of whether they would say that, because in some sense they already have. My challenge is to get those characters to live and breathe on the page. Sometimes I even think I get close.
It's official. I've worn out the refresh button on my computer. In a quixotic attempt to get a test for my daughter, I have travelled - only across Sheffield, mind, but I have travelled and I have witnessed the wild geese in their natural habitat - and I have entered my details, then hers, then mine again, a number of times beyond counting.
It's a simple enough rule, and one that could actually improve the safety of all sorts of people if it is followed: don't go to work or school (or indeed anywhere else) if someone in your house gets coronavirus symptoms until that person gets a negative test back. But the tests, oh the tests! Like prising work out of a challenging Y9 class last thing on a Friday, getting the test is a matter of great frustration. There are the moments of blissful promise, such as when I had checked a slot at Chesterfield's stadium late yesterday, but the lack of a confirmatory email - and the fact that the website spat me back out to where you first start entering your details - was enough to tell me that despite my willingness, a trip to Chesterfield would - figuratively, at least - get me nowhere. Briefly, this morning, there was the promise of what appeared to be a rather posh health spa in Bolton (not -upon-Dearne), a mere hour-and-a-half's drive away, with 18 slots. But those 18 slots were an echo, a whisper of a time 0.007 seconds previously when they were not already filled by other, faster clickers of the refresh button.
Rumours abound: you can walk in to to walk-in centres, and they will see you there and then. Counter-rumours spread: they will not see you, despite your desperation. The centres themselves, certainly the two that I have visited (and not been able to get a test from) were not busy, at least not in the sense that they couldn't have handled more people. Some sort of quota is preventing them taking more people through, which we must assume is the capacity to analyse the tests that have been done. For me - in decent health, despite a dignity-stripping tumble down the staff room stairs yesterday morning - this is a frustrating adventure, the kind of computer game where you always die on the same bit because it's just too hard. For some people, it's getting close to life-and-death. And that's where the joking has to end.
It's not that the government of the day has got everything wrong, although their decision-making has a bit of the drunk-teenager-on-a-Friday-night about it, wilful, dangerous, almost trying to do something stupid. No, they have put in place measures that, if enforced sensibly, if followed, if consistent with other measures, might have helped. But too many of the decisions have been made for the wrong reasons, leading to contradiction (go out and spend money, but don't actually go out, that would be daft), confusion and a general sense that listening to them is futile, so I'll just do what I please.
The NHS has stepped in to save me on a couple of occasions, and those around me on several more. It is not a perfect system without flaws, and it does not get everything right. But - ambulance-chasing lawyers aside - we do not expect perfection. We expect a system that is grounded in a desire to do well by everyone, not one that is about enriching companies or individuals. That system is kiboshed if its workers are grounded at home because their children have a temperature...
This is the sort of thing that happens to me. Indeed, I'm quite relieved that it wasn't in fact me that the story was about. And I suspect the person involved does not find it especially funny, but at least it's not yet another story about coronavirus. The other thing that caught my eye reading the news was this one about a young woman who got to the point of seriously attempting suicide, but surviving.
Towards the end of the story, it says - in a crisis - not to do all the things that you tend to do when you're feeling down - listening to sad songs, looking at photos on Facebook - and it also says not to drink or use some other drug. Hmm. It's the sort of thing that sounds like good advice. It might even be good advice for the more-or-less rational person who is thinking about suicide as a way of avoiding the future, and although suicide is a fairly robust way of avoiding the future, anyone who is capable of thinking in those straight lines can be persuaded that their vision of the future is wrong. I think - if I have understood the models of treatment correctly - this is the sort of thing that cognitive-behavioural therapy can help, because the rational bits of the person are still functioning at some level, just doing their job wrong.
I think there is a very different urge to suicide in some people. In fact, I can speak to this urge more faithfully than to the one I've just described. That urge is driven by pain so blinding that dying seems preferable to continuing to experience the pain. Just as with physical pain, though, it ebbs sometimes, enough to catch hold of the idea that actually the pain may not be permanent, it might change. That change might be through treatment in the form of talking therapy, or it might require the assistance of (sensibly chosen) drugs, or it might happen through a change in circumstances that you couldn't foresee. When I was at my very worst, I needed to hear the words (or read them, but I found listening easier as my thoughts tended not to wander as much) of other sufferers of depression, those who had experienced something like what I'm describing. As much as anything, I needed a sort of validation: yes, it really can be that bad. And it can change even when it is that bad. Perhaps I had a sense of what the first phase of my treatment needed to be, perhaps it was blind luck, I don't know, but I needed to know that my depression was real, and that there were people out there who could talk about their experiences of it.
I would encourage anyone to find a safe way to talk about how they feel, but I would go further. I would not say that I found comfort in talking, not initially, but it seemed to act to relieve that unbearable pressure that had built up inside me and was threatening to burst me open. Soon, though, as a result of those first moves - talking about myself and my feelings - I found that I was beginning to piece together a route through. Recovery is the wrong word, because it sounds like the depression is gone and all is right, but learning to manage might be better. And for now I'm managing.
Writing about love is a fool's errand. It's dangerous territory, because the writing - the story - can be far too simple to represent reality, far too easy, it can confuse (physical) desire for (whole-being) love, basically, anything you might write about romantic relationships ends up being subject to a charge of being rubbish. It could be sentimental rubbish, and certainly I would expect that criticism of book IV in relation to Edward Strelley. But the criticism wouldn't necessarily hold that it was unrealistic, because that's a matter of what any given individual has felt in their life. Someone might recognise Strelley's collapse into depression and failure to function properly in the world; someone else might say that a love affair - even one like Strelley's that remains stubbornly distant as history and our story take him close then far away again - could possibly affect someone like that. Well, it might. Someone might ask why the intelligent and perceptive Caroline de Winter would be interested in the (initially) boorish Longshawe, and that might be answered by pointing to Thomas Seymour and Catherine Parr, another case of a strong, intelligent woman who seems to fall for a man who, to the outside world, looks like he's no good. Longshawe, of course, is a different man altogether by the time Caroline and he begin their relationhsip. Thomas Seymour did not seem to be improved by Catherine's influence, which is both a shame and a surprise, as she even seemed to work some good into Henry VIII in his dying days.
Love in stories isn't usually about the mundanities of a relationship. You don't get much in the way of TV or film, or indeed novels, where a couple in love sit down and watch a film on a Thursday, fall asleep, wake up and have breakfast together, all while having the odd minor argument but generally supporting each other and being kind. That wouldn't be interesting, apparently. Though I think it could be, if handled correctly, I take the point. Conflict, the ends of relationships and the aftermath, and of course the beginnings, these are what stories are made of. The old married couple aren't the centre of the story, they're a peripheral character, an add-on or a deliberate insertion to make some sort of point. Perhaps, increasingly rare as it seems to be, a marriage surviving into deep middle or old age should be celebrated in literature rather than ignored. I'm not at the level of skill to tell that story just yet, though. As a goal, that stability, that sense of coming home and being welcomed by (or indeed welcoming) a person whose day you want to share, whose story you want to hear - even if it is mundane - it's a good one.
While I'm on the subject, I note from reading a bit of stuff about religion and philosophy that the notion of romantic love is often either absent or positively rejected where the ideas are (or claim to be) noble and pure. That's a really interesting and, as far as I can understand, arse-about-face way of looking at the world of human experience. What it actually is, to extend a point as far as it will go, is elitist bollocks. Only I can separate myself from the world so that I can spiritual cleverness, but you ordinary human beings must make do with your love affairs, your marriages and your worldly possessions... Go out, experience a rock concert, a football match, an opera, a film, a really immersive computer game. I don't care which, it could be all of them or a bunch of other things, but this notion that austere spiritual contemplation is the only way to experience the fullness of human experience is total nonsense, and while I agree that thought, contemplation, quiet stillness of mind, meditation*, all of these have a value as a part of the whole, they are not the end, just part of the journey. Caritas - charity, agape, whatever name you know it by - is also a part of that fabric of human experience, and for people like me for whom happiness is almost a contradiction in terms (life just doesn't work like that...) what fulfilment and joy there is often comes from moments where that kind of love is at work. Those moments when you improve a person's day just by smiling at them, or by doing them a small favour, or by being kind when they were not being kind back, those are the things that improve the world at large. I will be trying to do more of them now that lockdown is finished.
So what? Love. What makes love the exception? Only love can break your heart, but even if it does, maybe the moments were worth it.
*I hate the word. It conjures lentil-weaving, yogurt-knitting, tie-dyed hippy bullshit. But it captures an activity that can't really be described otherwise...
That's what it's like. The scary stuff that lurks in my mind, the stuff that has the power to make me unable to do stuff, that made me unable to enjoy anything, that made reading a story to my daughter like a form of torture, that made going into a classroom full of kids feel like being rubbed with sandpaper... That fog is what keeps the scary stuff at a sufficient distance to operate 'normally', whatever that is. The fog, in my case, is courtesy of anti-depressant medication, and to which I owe a certain amount in terms of my continuing to function at all. But it's not a happy partner when it comes to creativity.
All of those things that are now hidden by the fog, the things that have the power to drop me to my knees, those things are mixed, connected, with the things that come out when I am writing. I have tried, in the past, to describe the process as a sort of channelling, the ideas, the events and the characters are not being created by the writing process. Rather, they are being written, translated from something that is already there. But it is hidden in the fog, to my great frustration. I haven't written much of These Matters during the five months of lockdown. I have been at a sort of ease with myself, I suppose, (truly) enjoying time spent at home with two children I otherwise wouldn't see even close to so much of, and being part of their development in a way I might otherwise not have been. Although given the boy's current predilection for weeing on the floor, perhaps I should duck out of contributing so directly. But that ease - the relaxation, I guess, of not having to be mentally prepared for a day of face-to-face teaching - has not brought with it any outpouring of words, or indeed of music.
I've found a few projects to busy myself with (technical stuff - fixing things, learning how to use software to record, buying things for the studio) but all of these have engaged, if you will, the engineering side of my brain. The bit of me that likes to attack a problem, think about it directly, and solve it. The side of my brain that writes books has been quiet, desperately so. I know the story is not finished, and that there is something else yet to happen before even this chapter of it closes, let alone the long arc of the future and the way my characters fit into it; but there is nothing there in my mind for me to mine. When I'm at my best, the scenes are almost pre-formed, gushing out without a great deal of pushing. The last few months have been dry. I once wrote that I don't suffer from writer's block, but I can see now that this is it, for a writer like me. I have so little faith in my own process that I barely sit down to write at all, and when I do, it is usually on this news page. So, what? Give up on the fog, let it lift, and deal with what it reveals? Or stick with its protective shroud? I don't know, yet. I do know that this autumn will be difficult, regardless of my choice. I know that some parts of me function at their best when the weather is growing warmer, the days longer, and that the retreat of the light and warmth of the sun, and the way those processes trigger memories of the sort that lead to rumination, is a time of danger for me. I do not yet know how best to navigate it. Perhaps in a year's time, things will have changed so that those memories no longer have that power to drape themselves over me and envelop me in their twists and folds.
The last few days of a holiday are never a good time to take a decision, especially not a Sunday night. I can feel the pull of withdrawing from the tablets. I can, equally, sense the attraction of asking the doctors to double my dose, to wrap me up in cotton wool so I don't feel. It can't hurt when you don't feel, but there's a bit of me that knows I would gladly trade a bit of the hurt for the intensity of the feelings. I can see that it's both or neither, no having the cake and eating it.
Whoever you are, if you are reading this, I hope you are well, that COVID-19 has not been a time of misery and disappointment, and that my wittering on here is not triggering or otherwise upsetting. I hope this autumn brings you peace, hope, and the faith to keep going.
Female main character: good. Strong female characters: good. Diversity (of race): good. Beautifully shot and realised: good. Sadly, of these three, the amount of quality writing is limited, and the one with the most convincing dialogue is the one with the least obvious diversity of characters. The Mandalorian is, to use a potentially confusing phrase, good bad TV. It uses the Star Wars universe - established elsewhere - to anchor a set of stories that are, if not convincing, then at least entertaining. In a way, it is the very improbability of the setting, the unlikely invincibility of the main character, that allows the program as a whole to get away with its stories, some of which deserve a fuller realisation than the episode length they get. The episodic nature of it means that there is a bit more coherence to each hour (or so) than there is in either of the other two, and I suppose that is also something positive about The Witcher. Having said that, the frankly unfathomable long-range plot of Witcher is such that you basically have to watch it twice before any of it makes any sense.
Both of those programs, although perhaps stiffly written and keen to establish a sort of coolness, do well at rollicking along and drawing you in. But there are far too many moments where the dialogue only exists to serve the story, and that puts actors into a difficult position. In the case of the Mandalorian and the Witcher, what comes across on screen is believable, even if it takes a little bit of indulgence. Sadly, there are too many moments in Cursed where you just don't end up believing what's going on. They try - and that includes such things as a nod to inclusivity in the form of the main character saying two women kissing have done nothing wrong - to make it work. They try to make it appeal. The Fey are great for a set of outcasts, different people who thereby are persecuted. The Red Paladins are a good concept for evil, but as is often the case with a set piece of drama like this, their evil is almost too committed to be believable. There is no need for there to be a romantic storyline between Nimue and Arthur, but it is there nevertheless, and there is antagonism among the goodies. It's all there. But the problem - if it can be reduced to this - is that whatever the quality of these actors, the lines are so creaky that it's impossible to let it slide. The only one who works across the whole program for me is the wonderfully unhinged Gustaf Skarsgard as Merlin, but even then his story is so preposterous as to require a superhuman effort not to just abandon the series altogether.
So, a recommendation for the second series. Worry a bit less about the long-range plot. Worry a bit less about making sure the characters have their moments. Write a great story, and tell it in such a way that the characters can do the story, rather than tell it by talking to each other. And - for Heaven's sake - let's get away from this brain-aching thing of changing from one story to another every fifteen seconds. Please.
I've written before that the mark of a person is how they treat people they don't like, they aren't attracted to, and they don't agree with. It's rare to find the best sort of people in positions of power and influence, precisely because a rise to power and influence often necessitates the poor treatment of those around you in one way or another. In politics, just by way of an example, it doesn't play in the current climate to say of your opponent that she's got some great ideas, that she's working towards a noble and valuable goal or that she's offering a sound critique of your decision-making but that you still think, on balance, that your way of going about it is the right one. Much better to question her parentage, her intelligence, her principles and her behaviour in some other aspect of her life; much better to deflect criticism by pointing at some perceived (or even real) flaw in the other person, distracting and moving the conversation away from the very criticism that needed addressing.
So why am I writing about this again? I've made the mistake of using Twitter a bit recently, and checking what sorts of things people are writing on there as a sort of barometer of what's really going on in the country. Bereft of a long drive to and from work for the past year, my total 'Radio 4 time' has been much reduced this year anyway. And then in lockdown I haven't been able to muster the concentration required to listen to Today*, editing the programme in real time so the 8-year-old doesn't end up listening to the frequently heartbreaking news from around the world. She is an anxious worrier (I wonder where she gets it from), with a rampantly dark imagination at times, and a real difficulty in controlling the thoughts that flood her mind particularly after lights-out. Insulating her from the worst the world has to offer seems like the right approach at the moment, but there will be a time when that is no longer possible, and I dread it already.
After that diversion, returning to the hopeless pit of blunt assertion, flat denial and personal abuse that is Twitter, I note that even rather intelligent people with a developed sense of fairness and finesse in argument struggle to get their point across on the platform. Fair enough; I cannot say what I want to in 256 characters, but given that I don't really participate in that side of Twitter, I don't feel I need to. But the sad thing - the thing that perhaps highlights the same issue that afflicts any text-based 'conversation', the same issue that means people in cars (yes, including me) use language to describe other drivers that they would not dream of using in face-to-face conversation, the issue of distance - means that instead of spending effort on understanding the other person's point of view and offering a firmly critical but friendly response, most of the 'discussion' on Twitter is people calling each other 'twat' or some such variant thereof. Anger is rife; winning the argument by whatever means is the goal, even if it means reducing it to an extent that makes it not worth winning. Pointing out personality flaws is something of a sport. Anything with even the slightest potential to seem hypocritical is jumped on with relish. So, what? It's an extremely popular platform and it seems to have a real pull as the mechanism for political discourse at the moment. One could reason sensibly that the deterioration of the quality of political dialogue in the real world is life imitating the internet, although I would expect to hear from older generations that it really was always this bad. Who knows...? As such, though, decisions made by Twitter have an actual, material effect on the way things are discussed. All that JK Rowling business about trans women and feminism has played out on Twitter. It's a good example of the genre: Woman with large following makes statements that are intended at root to champion the cause of one oppressed group of people (what she would define as a woman, a biological female, tough to delineate clearly as she found...), but in doing so fails to catch the wind of opinion of a large group (roughly speaking, young people) who place the lines differently and champion the cause of a smaller, perhaps even more oppressed minority (namely trans women). We hear the line 'trans women are women' (notably from Stonewall), and that gives a clear enough definition. You are a woman if you identify as a woman. The line that the TERFs take (and let's acknowledge straight away that TERF has become a pejorative term, not just a description of a point of view) is that being a woman is at least in part a biological phenomenon, not purely an identity phenomenon, and you can't decide to be one, or to become one. From my limited experience, this last argument is the one that is in error, because trans women don't decide to become a woman. She was always a woman (girl?) even when she was being called 'he' and going to the boys' toilet. I suppose that is exactly the thing that is denied in the TERF view, but it seems to hold at arm's length the actual individuals for whom this situation obtains, instead seeing them as a sort of social phenomenon, a mob wanting to crash a party to which they were not invited. Can this argument be policed by a white bloke? Well, no. But as I have always tried to do in whatever context, creating understanding of the point of the participants in an argument is the key to fruitful discussion. Calling someone a knobhead doesn't have a practical de-knobbing effect, even if the person is a knobhead.
So, what of Twitter specifically? It has found itself in a double-bind, because its users express opinions that in some cases are abhorrent. But, because it is an American operation, it has a kind of spiritual commitment to freedom of speech. What about when people say things that are hateful? Tricky, because you can't have absolute freedom of speech at your core and then try to silence folk that you think are knobheads.
Twitter has become a big player in the current debate, because as a platform it is seen to have a responsibility for policing what people say, but it does not accept that as a platform it endorses the views of those people who use it. It has removed Wiley for saying stuff that was, frankly, racist. All well and good, if it takes that line that it will limit people's freedom to say bad stuff. It occasionally censors the likes of Donald Trump for factual inaccuracy. It doesn't seem to take an active role in policing the small-time racists, though... In any case, Wiley said some stuff that was actually antisemitic, and if Twitter takes the view that racism is unacceptable, they were right to ban him. Even here there's a context, a discussion that seeks to shift the battleground, though: what one person says is legitimate criticism of Israel's government is, for another person, antisemitic. Wiley's tweets, as far as I can tell, fell very far on the side of pernicious racism and didn't even pretend to be aimed at a state rather than a race of people. On a personal note, I spent some time playing in a band with an Israeli bloke, and it would be fair to say our experiences of the world were radically different. Some of the stuff he said (about national service and about the conflict between Israel and Palestine) was so difficult to understand from my perspective that, at the time, I chalked it up to his own blinkered racism. Probably it was more subtle than that, and if I had the chance again, I would ask the better questions that I now know how to ask, and I would probably mount a better challenge to the bits of what he said that actually were rooted in racism, if indeed there were any. My memory of it is cloudy and indistinct, but I remember having the reaction that he just didn't see Palestinians as fully human, although I couldn't articulate that thought at the time. Now, I might have a bit more to contribute, certainly in terms of establishing whether this was in fact true, and getting to the bottom of how he came to hold it as a belief.
What next? The best thing for me is to ignore Twitter altogether, but there is a certain entertainment value in seeing people trade insults. The problem as far as I can tell is that honesty and integrity are almost valueless in the media and politics. For reasons best known only to itself, my phone has adopted the rather strange habit of linking me in my news feed to stories from the Daily Express, particularly ones where the SNP are handed their own arse in Westminster debates. Except that the rest of the coverage doesn't seem to reflect the same outcome. Indeed, more neutral sources suggest there was a debate and the SNP had a point. So the Express is playing to its gallery, presumably English folk who view the SNP as dangerous revolutionaries or shrieking lunatics. Now, once again I am loath to enter into a debate as some sort of font of knowledge and wisdom, but I note that the newspapers of the left seem to have headline writers at least who are shy of proclaiming outright victory for their team, or calling the other lot a pack of corrupt bastards. The newspapers of the right strike me as not having the same compunction for writing it how they wish it was rather than wie es eigentlich gewesen. It's a very tricky ground to navigate, especially when educating young people about the subject, because I can't be seen to be biased. Freeing oneself of bias is a huge challenge. A good example of this is the pitiful exchange of slanging that goes on around the BBC. Both the left and the right seem to view it as an organ of the other side, which means it is probably not doing too bad a job of being neutral.
You might have read all of this and found me to be slippery and elusive, just like the politicians I criticise. Well, perhaps in a different context I would more obviously take a side. But the thing that I'm trying to get out across the fifteen-hundred or so words of this ramble is that taking a side is in itself the wrong thing to do. I don't wade in to tell women that they're wrong about trans women, or to tell trans women that they can never be a 'proper woman', because - possibly despite appearances - I'd rather listen and understand both views than proclaim my own (and probably be wrong).
There are only a few things on which I'm fairly certain. Be kind to your fellow person, and hold on to hope. Listen, even to the ones whose views are abhorrent. Challenge, question, think.
And, lastly, England shouldn't have dropped Stuart Broad for the first test.
*My first effort at typing that came out as Toady, which is a rather different take on the morning's news; or, if you subscribe to the idea that Nick Robinson and Laura Kuenssberg are Tory Party propagandists, perhaps not.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought