Once again the NHS comes to my aid as I do something part-stupid, part-unlucky. Having not crashed my bike for 25 years, I've done it twice in a month. This time, I didn't have a sense that I was definitely going to crash until it had already happened and I had landed heavily* on my right shoulder. Various people stopped to check I was okay, which was nice. My dad - entirely by chance - was running the other way and arrived on the scene perhaps 30 seconds after I had bitten the tarmac. The main response I had at the time was being frankly pissed off that I had gone to the effort of doing some exercise on a miserable Saturday morning and my reward for it was the indignity of falling off and an achy shoulder. Half-an-hour later after an ill-advised ride home, the total lack of any pain-free movement was enough to get me to admit that I probably needed the aid of the medical professionals.
The Northern General is a bleak place in the middle of a balmy summer's afternoon. In the gloomy November drizzle, well, it's certainly not better. I seem to see it as separate from the terrifying place next door - the Longley Centre, is it? - but even so A&E has a sort of desperation about it, especially at the moment as everyone there is nearly as concerned about getting coronavirus as they are about the injury they want fixed. It's also the case that no one is allowed in with you, so it's a distinctly lonely experience as well. The exception being the one bloke who was accompanied by two surprisingly good-humoured coppers, thus giving not one but two overstretched public services something to do. He even puked vigorously just outside the entrance to A&E, making sure it wasn't just the medical and crime-prevention professionals involved, but the sanitary ones as well.
There's a rather deflating moment when the A&E folk behind the desk tell you that they're passing you on to minor injuries, giving you a very clear signal that whilst you may not technically be a malingerer, perhaps 'emergency' is a bit of a stretch. It definitely was at least partly 'accident' this time, though, rather than 'entirely-my-own-stupid-fault' as it has been in the past. The diagnostic process was rapid - I might, ungenerously, have said 'cursory' - and I was off to x-ray for a few minutes with a wonderful comedy duo of radiographers whose machine had developed an idiosyncratic way of repositioning itself that meant that I had to stand out of the way at the side of the room while it did its thing. The x-rays showed a big gap where there should only be a small one between two bones up there in my shoulder, and I was off with a sling round my neck back into the murky drizzle and the words 'torn ligament' to share around on social media.
But the learning process began at home when I realised that without a functioning right hand, there are a number of jobs that I can't do. Lifting the toddler (he's nearly three, and surly and uncooperative at the best of times) is a huge challenge requiring all manner of oaty-bar-based bribery. Opening a bottle of Pepsi Max is next to impossible. Shaving my face...? No chance. Yesterday, with the thing still swollen up and tender, I opted for the weapons-grade painkillers and spent the night dreaming the bizarre dreams that seem to be contained in codeine tablets for some reason. Today, with the swelling down, it's all less intense. I can pick the odd thing up, hold a fork - although not raise it to my mouth; I look like a bad Donald Trump tribute act - and hold my hand out in front of me, although not up to shoulder height. But trying to put a shirt on is agony. Apparently I always put my left arm into my shirt first, because I've made that same mistake a few times now. Right arm first or through the roof when it pulls behind my back. Anyway, all of this is just a little bit of a Sunday evening moan that despite all my best intentions of going out exercising, what I've actually ended up doing is damaging myself. Perhaps there is a lesson in all this: exercise is, despite all the publicity to the contrary, a dangerous business, truly bad for your health.
*Folk who know me will perhaps recognise that no landing I am part of will ever be anything other than heavy; this one was heavier...
It wasn't written this November, but it is something I have written and not yet (self-) published. So here we go:
“This is madness,” Fletcher says, without turning to Strelley. “We don’t even have a side. The rebels would string us up for fighting them in Exeter, and these government soldiers are after our blood too. Well, your blood.”
“So, we just turn around and walk back… to where?”
“Anywhere where there aren’t five thousand armed men within a mile. Home?”
“I don’t have one. Not in London, at least.”
“Come and live with Longshawe and me. King Edward will give you a position. Or Cranmer. Or Somerset.”
“I can’t. I can’t be that close.”
“Edward…” There is a thundering report from a battery of cannon, clouding the battlefield briefly with gunpowder smoke. Fletcher picks up his own thought. “So you will not go to her? You’ll wait for her in heaven but you won’t see her at Hatfield?”
“It’s not for me, is it?” Strelley watches as the smoke clears, and there are gaps appearing in the rebel lines. “She has to think that there is no hope. Then she can be free of me.”
“If I understand you both right, you will never be free of each other.”
“I don’t know,” Strelley says, and he is crying. “For me, I don’t care. I will live. For her, I wish only that she is happy.”
“But, Edward, she thinks the same, doesn’t she? Save you from the hurt, take it on herself… Accept that, then you can decide.”
“You can’t change it. You fell in love with her, and she with you. You can’t just push her away, because she knows you well enough to know that’s what you’re doing. So believe in your love for each other.”
“You wanted me to resolve to stay away from her.”
“That’s never quite what I said. I thought it might save you from yourself.”
“Guy,” Strelley says, “did she send you?”
“You have asked me that before.”
“And you failed to answer the question then.”
“I saw her, before I set out west.”
“And,” Strelley says, eyes narrowing slightly, “did she tell you to bring me back to her? Or did she tell you to keep me away? You have been utterly unreadable.”
“She wants that decision to be yours.”
“I do not want to cause any further hurt.”
“Well,” Fletcher says, “if you think that you are helping her by being here, you are not. She suffers as she ever did.”
“So I am to choose for her, then?”
“No, you are to choose for you. She knows the pain of your absence, only too well. She does not know the pain of your presence, whatever it might be, but she is willing to take that risk. Are you?”
“I understand. Finally I understand. You came, but you were not to tell me what to do, one way or the other.”
“That is it. Your choice.”
“I wrote it down.” Strelley smiles thinly. “My prayer that I would not have to make this choice.
“God, do not call on me to choose: her or not her.
“Let me be, alone, with regret for things not said.
“Should she ask, I do not have the strength to say no.”
You can interpret that headline however you wish. This post is a discussion about the way that Remembrance (and remembrance) takes place, with a diversion into an argument that seems to rile a certain set of people beyond all reason.
Let's start by examining the question of what the right way to celebrate the people who fought and died to preserve the freedoms that we currently enjoy. Celebrate is the right word: I do not mean it in the sense of having a jolly old knees-up in the pub, but rather the act of acknowledgement. How do we sensibly make it a part of our lives in 2020 that in the past some of our ancestors put their lives at stake, and in many cases lost their lives, in order to defeat a terrible, murderous regime? Well, I have a suggestion that might rankle with some. Dressing up as those very people and dancing on the White Cliffs of Dover is not the way to remember the lives lost. The Second World War was not, as far as I can tell, a caper. It resulted in the deaths of getting on for a hundred million people, both military and civilian. It was a rare example of a war with a just cause, although the methods of its prosecution are not necessarily justified in the same way. That it has elevated one man in particular to the status of great hero despite his failure to achieve goodness in a lot of his actions is an anomaly, worth discussing, but not here, except to say that the very celebration of that individual can have the effect of erasing some of the badness just as the victory and the justness of the fight have erased some of the badness of the war itself.
Lest we forget, though, war is not glorious or honourable. It is very rarely undertaken for ends that are unambiguously right and it has not been the last resort of desperation in the past. It results in the deaths and displacement of countless people for whom the political outcome of the war is moot. It asks people who do not want to fight, who do not want to kill their fellow man, to do exactly that. To kill people who may not - indeed, probably don't - share the political convictions of those who made the decision to go to war in the first place. In short, war is to be avoided at almost any cost.
Remembrance is a tricky balancing act, then. People have died so that I might have the freedom to write this piece, to keep Europe free of fascist dictatorships (!), to defend me from the horrors of being a victim of an attack on civilian targets. People have died because of the mule-headedness of politicians. People have died because the ego of individual politicians demanded it. Sometimes, people who were basically good did terrible things to their fellow men, often in the mistaken belief of righteousness, and in some cases what war brought out was a tendency among many people to go along with what they were told or what the mob wanted despite the awfulness. Sometimes people's cruelty and desire for power over their fellow man took over and made them do things that in isolation look frankly unbelievable. Sometimes, people died to save their fellows or in pursuit of victory over a truly terrible enemy. Sometimes, people who did terrible things died at the hands of those who might not have wished it to be that way, but could see no other, better way.
What does all this mean? My choice to wear a white poppy is astonishingly controversial, given that last paragraph. It's also surprisingly controversial given that, by definition, 'all the victims of war' includes those who fought on the side of Great Britain. What seems to provoke anger is that I am actively acknowledging the deaths of those on the other side. Whether that be Germans in WWII, Germans in WWI, Taliban Fighters in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden himself... The argument runs that in doing so I disrespect the people who fought and died on my behalf.
Simply: no. Being a pacifist does not mean that I am unpatriotic, although the concept of patriotism itself is far from uncontroversial. Being pacifistic does not mean that I cannot appreciate the sacrifice that some people made - in a context where the decision to be part of the fight was not a career choice - to defend this country and by extension the world against great evil. I can think it sad that someone like Osama Bin Laden had to die for the world to be a more peaceful place; he was still a man, whatever his crimes. In a way, it makes me wish that there was a God who could show him, from the safety of heaven, what great sadness he caused. Who could put an arm around him, and while offering him forgiveness, show him why what he did was wrong. The God that the Bible tells me about would not refuse to mourn for the death of any man, even the greatest of all the sinners. And that - as far as I can tell - is the problem with the White Poppy. That peace requires forgiveness. That the achievement of peace is not about celebrating victory, but about celebrating the end of war. That the red poppy, as it is worn today in 2020, does not make that clear: that remembrance is not about the sacrifice that some made for this country, but that the sacrifice was for peace itself. That is what makes the sacrifice worthwhile. It is not dulce et decorum to die pro patria, but rather for the cause of peace.
The issue has been co-opted by folk who see the white poppy as something that a coward would choose. Well, I am prepared to need to be brave to face the criticism I will attract for this conscious decision to make myself different. It equally attracts criticism of the form: you think you're so clever with your white poppy... I think in some cases this is a cry of anguish, that anyone could have a different view of the right way to remember. In some, it is a more calculated, purely political, act, where pacifism is intentionally and wrongly conflated with other left-leaning political ideals, and where it is attacked from the right as being merely cowardly and not the outcome of deep consideration. Perhaps - and this might be my answer for this year - the thing to do is to wear both, or even a sort of Tudor amalgamation of the two.
In any case, I think that those people who died fighting against Nazi Germany in the Second World War would be disappointed to think that a kind of tyranny of ideas had taken over and that a dissenting view could not be held in public. That, after all, is where it starts to go wrong...
So I'm finally going to find some resolve to be creative regardless of tiredness and all manner of lockdown-based distractions. 'I will be creative' is one of the most useless sentences I can utter to myself (yes, I will sometimes talk to myself; often it's the only way to really assess what my brain is trying to put out there), but the point - that I will do things that enable creativity regardless of the barriers - is not a bad one. So I'm going to go for a scattergun approach to this, and just do whatever my brain wants for however long it can stand it, and then move on. If all the stuff is churning around, at least getting it out will allow the next thought to come. I have written on here about how sometimes I'm not so much writing a scene in These Matters so much as letting it out from wherever it hides/resides in the aether. Well, other things push too, so why not let them...?
Here's a short snippet of something I was working on a long time ago which I have now torn apart to re-write more in the style I have become a bit more accustomed to, namely that all the scenes are written as if they are on TV, so we can't access the internal processes of the characters and have to infer them from the evidence...
“Gaius…” A man in his early fifties speaks as he embraces the young man we have just met. “Tell me he did not suffer.”
“He did not. He was dead by the time I caught up with him.”
“Always… He believed in his own ability to cheat death.”
“He did. I called him back. I told him-”
“I do not hold you responsible. You know that.”
“I do. He wished to be the better brother.”
“And yet… Gaius, your brother accepted you. He accepted you as a brother, as my son.”
“That is a pleasant fiction.” Gaius smiles, pushing the other away from him. The smile twists into tears.
“You are my son. I would stand before the gods and repeat it.”
“And they would remind you of who you are, and who I am.”
“You are Gaius Regulus Albus.”
“You are Regulus Serenus. I am no Roman.”
“Now is not the time to reject the name you took. When you are free from this grief, perhaps then. But not now.”
“I am sorry. For him. For your loss. For my part in it.”
Regulus Serenus tries to smile, but cannot. Gaius Regulus Albus puts his arm around his shoulders, which shake with weeping.
And, while I'm on, something a little bit more familiar:
I look at every face that I pass. I hope it is you, so that I might catch your eye, promise you by a look that I have never stopped thinking about you and I am sorry for all the ways I failed and that I am tearing myself apart wanting nothing more than to sit opposite you and tell you how I have been since last we met. To hear how you have been. To find out that your life has been good, and that I might be at peace because it doesn’t hurt you any longer. To know that you have lived out the things I have always thought best, even if the selfish bit of me hasn’t wanted you to live those things out. That you are able to just be in a world that doesn’t care if I am in it or not.
We both know that it can’t be that way. To even exchange a glance would be to confirm everything that we are both duty-bound to forget. For you to smile at me… It would take us right back to where we once were, and all of the time since we were last together will have been for nothing, because it has not healed the wound at all. So when I look at those faces, trying to find you, I am doing my best not to find you. Not to catch your eye. Not to set it all off again.
I was happier than I knew when I was with you.
Yep. This time last year, I made the choice to go (back) on anti-depressants. There are a lot of reasons why that was the correct decision at the time, and my life over the past twelve months or so has been made easier by the comforting fuzziness of dulled feelings. And at least now I know a bit more about the effects of both going back on and coming back off. The first time I gave up on the Citalopram (three or so years ago), I did not get the apparently common side effect of feeling 'electric shocks', but this time I think that's exactly what I did get. It's a bit like what you get when you've got a bad cold, where you suddenly become really aware of everything touching you, your heart leaps a bit, and you just generally need everyone and everything to lay off for a few minutes. My short-term memory has shown some remarkable lapses, as though a new train of thought is able to completely derail a previous one to the extent that the earlier does not leave an impression in my mind. I think some of that is down to my specific strategy for dealing with all those competing ideas jostling for position, which is to focus on one to the exclusion of all the others. It leads to black holes of dwelling if you're not careful, but it quietens the noise. I learned previously to step away from the black holes, and I think that's something that I will never be cured of but something I will need to be aware of for ever, that I am prone to harmful and pointless dwelling.
But there's a difference between letting my thoughts run away with me, and letting my feelings through. I don't want - and I don't think I ever wanted - the anti-depressants to stop me feeling grief and sadness, but I did use them to stop that grief becoming all-consuming. Being sad about someone dying is not a bad thing in itself, nor is being angry about the circumstances and the hypocritical things that people say after the fact. To give just one relevant example...
Last night, for a bit of light relief on the last day of the half term, I watched X2 (as in, the second X-Men film). Now, I can remember having watched it before, and I knew what was going to happen, but for whatever reason the bit at the end (SPOILER ALERT!!!) where Jean Grey 'dies' really got me. Tiredness contributes, no doubt, but this was the first time in a long time when something fairly basic in terms of storytelling did that thing: the thing that those Christmas adverts I wrote about once did. I think Jackman as Wolverine contributes as well, because he's so convincing in the role and the thing he shares with Jean Grey - they obviously have a connection - is itself equally convincing. It's impossible for them to be together in the way that he wants, and anyone even vaguely familiar with my writing will know that I have explored that in great depth and continue to do so as I finish book IV (yes, it's coming!).
So... What? I'm happy to be that person again, the one that my friend, colleague, boss, sparring partner and mentor saw in me, the one that is 'so human', to use her words. It's not comfortable or easy, but it's right for me at the moment. We'll see if that lasts through the winter...
Is it right still to be angry when someone is described posthumously as 'highly respected' when that definitely wasn't the case (for some) at the time? It certainly still hurts to think about it. For anyone reading this who knows what it means, I'm sorry if I have made you sad.
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...
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought