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...
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought