Well, that was some week...
There are some illnesses that are very obvious, right there for all to see - or otherwise experience, in the case of the persistent cough that seems to plague my household - and fairly straightforward to diagnose. There are others which are harder to explain, and the recurrence of my frankly undignified large intestine infection is one of those. It's almost easier to say to someone: "I've got a stomach bug" than to try to get across what exactly is going on. This time, though, I didn't get to the stage where it actually burst out into the rest of me, avoiding being admitted to hospital, though not, because of the predictably on-a-Sunday timing, avoiding the Northern General altogether. I did pack a hospital bag, to be fair, and I think, much like wearing shorts in the Summer in anticipation of hot weather, this step made a material difference to the outcome...
I have much, therefore, to thank modern medicine for. Once again, the ready availability of effective antibiotics has probably made the difference between a really life-threatening infection and a pretty quick recovery to relative health. The first time, I think, with the rupture, they were genuinely considering surgery, so I was lucky to not need it. This time it never got that far, but it's still frightening to feel that something is very wrong inside you in a way that all the ordinary stuff, like drinking water, taking painkillers, hot water bottles and so on don't make better.
And then... In the category of illnesses that don't sit right there on the surface, there are those illnesses that affect the mind. Some people's mental illness is very present, making it clear to you from the moment you meet them that their internal life is disrupted or disturbed. Some people's only makes it to the surface occasionally, with the result being that appearances can be maintained even though the illness is there. There are plenty of people out there who think that the sort of mental illness I'm describing, which might come under the general headings of depression or anxiety, is really a sort of lack of moral fibre, as though if only the person suffering could man up a bit it would all go away. Fortunately, I seem to hang around with less of these people, certainly in terms of family and colleagues, than has been the case in the past. Mental health - and illness - is taken seriously, and real support is offered as a matter of course. It doesn't necessarily fix what is broken, but it holds it together while the things that can fix it do their work, much as with anti-depressant medication. It's not a failure to need the medication, just as - and I have to keep telling myself this - two goes of crying in front of total strangers in a fortnight is not a failure either. The doctor was unusually helpful, a definite realist about mental health problems in stark contrast to the first doctor I saw in the depths of my illness of a few years ago. I think the world is changing in this respect for the better, in that people at large and doctors in particular are taking people's mental health more seriously, and I think that can only be a good thing.
Interestingly, in all of this, I found myself going back through the early 'chapters' of book IV (still no definite name, by the way). Edward Strelley's suffering in those first few chapters is, undoubtedly, like mine in at least some respects. The confusion over how to feel about religion and doing good or bad by his fellow man that he feels would probably be shared by anybody with the same reflective mind. The thing he does of seeking out a comforting figure, telling his story and upsetting himself, which may seem a contrivance, is thoroughly real. His love for Elizabeth may be the driver of his feelings, but the way they manifest themselves is familiar. I'm excited about the prospect of finishing book IV, because it feels like it's good. I hope that my readers will eventually think the same, and I know it's time to get on with it and get it finished now. Fingers crossed I will find a few hours here and there to get it done!
On lying, car insurance and politics
The title says it all, really. Nine or so months ago, a bloke got it disastrously wrong at a junction, turned in front of me when he shouldn't have, caused an accident, and - I think it's fair to say - at the time he realised all of this. Now, separated by distance and the ludicrous formality of car insurance claims, he seems to have no compunction about brazenly lying, falsifying the circumstances to make it look like it might not have been his fault. The most frustrating thing about all of this for me is being told repeatedly between an hour or so after the accident and today by my own insurance company that they would do everything they could to prove that it was entirely his fault.
If they'd said, half an hour after the accident: 'look, we know it wasn't your fault, but that doesn't make the blindest bit of difference. You're wasting your time and energy, because to be honest we can't be arsed to chase it up in enough detail to back you up. Accept the inevitable, and save yourself a bit of mental exertion." If they'd said that, as I say, I would have been able to get angry about it once and then leave it. But instead, they've let me think at various times that they would back me. But they didn't mean it. Again, they have the advantage of distance - they're not looking me in the eye when they waste my time, effort and money - and so it must just feel like any other day at work to them. Which it is, I suppose. They must be trained not to start caring, because that would lead inevitably to reduced profits. And let's be clear, this is my insurance company who ought to be trying to recover their money. Instead, it seems, they're protecting themselves. I am liable - at least in the sense required for charging me extra - not because it was my fault, but because I can't prove it wasn't. They don't look at it and go, 'well, we need to give the benefit of the doubt.' That would be potentially unprofitable.
They ask you the questions in a very curious way: 'are you happy for us to proceed with 50/50 blame?' Well, no, of course not, because it wasn't my fault, regardless of the red herring about all drivers giving way if it can help to avoid an accident. He moved, I couldn't avoid him. As in, I'm half to blame for a road accident that I could only have avoided by being somewhere else altogether. If they asked: 'do you give us permission to accept 50/50 liability?', then I can answer, 'yes,' because apparently that's the only conceivable outcome. And it was only after ringing up to moan about the fact that they wanted to charge me a load of extra money to renew my insurance with them - because of an accident that was partially my fault, which just so happened to have been on this same day as the accident which definitely wasn't my fault - that they decided it was worth having this conversation. The fella on the phone probably got a bit of a bonus for closing it down, because clearly the last thing they actually want to do is spend money sorting it out with lawyers and whatever. They ought to have twigged whose fault it was when the other lot came offering to share blame 50/50, which is not something you would immediately do if you knew it wasn't your fault. Eh?
Well, whatever. It makes me realise that my own attitude to lying - one of deep unease, guilt, a real sense of the watching eye of right or God or whatever judging me as I utter even a slight untruth - is not one that other people necessarily share. I hate lying, especially to people I care about. I hate hiding something that is there, being unable to just come clean and say, "yes, this thing you think you have noticed, it's real", or refusing to answer a question put honestly because it causes too many further problems. I hate the sense that I have misled someone, moreover that I might have made them feel something bad or painful because of my words, or lack of them. I dwell - as I have written before - and the worst aspect of that is not being able to correct it, reliving it and making the same decision each time. Sometimes that decision was not a mistake, just one taken in desperate circumstances where the alternative was much, much worse. "Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong. That is your oath." I can agree with some of it. But sometimes the truth would be too painful, it would hurt the other person or people involved. Sometimes it is better to keep your counsel and wait, and hope.
And so it is with the various leaders in UK politics at the moment. Some of them have no sense that what they are saying matters. Truth or lie, the things they say affect what people do, people's lives. Some of them stand up in front of me and lie, manipulate and avoid, and they do it in order to enhance their careers. They are not lying to protect other people, but to make sure that the truth, which might hurt them does not get out. What's fascinating is how few of them are actually trying to make things better for people, and that it is such a high proportion of them that are doing and saying whatever they need to to get into power in the first place. You'd think that there were other ways of feeling important. But, as that 'servant leadership' poem says, you have to be great enough to be anonymous, victorious enough to lose, strong enough to be weak. The sad thing is how many of them want to be leaders, without realising that what makes a good leader is that willingness to serve.
Having written about my mental health at some length on here, it's worth going back to it in the moments when it is good as well as when it is bad. I wouldn't say I'm suddenly at peace with the world and free of all the strange burden that is the enveloping darkness of depression, but what I would say is that after a few good days - a party, a good night's sleep, a bit of exercise - it doesn't feel quite such a slog. I might add that it hasn't rained for a couple of days, as well, and I absolutely think that the persistence of the rain has been contributing to the problem. People often ask if there is a particular cause, and that probably distinguishes most low moods from most periods of depression: if you can pinpoint the cause, it could well have been a low mood. That is not to say that anything of the type - with a rational, sensible cause, and characterised by sadness or anxiety or hopelessness - cannot be depression, or that it cannot be a mental illness; in much the same way physical trauma can cause things to be wrong with your body as well as pathogenic organisms...
There are other things, as well, though. I stuck up a picture at my new workplace of some people from my old workplace, and even though there's an element of dwelling in the past in doing so, it has made me feel more at home. Perhaps it's just the notion that somehow I did exist before I started this job, because it can be easy to disappear, as though all the stuff before just didn't count. Perhaps it's giving me a sense of exactly how important that previous workplace and those previous people were, and that, as I wrote on here last time, it can be right to have left a place whilst also missing it terribly. Admitting, or perhaps accepting, that I do miss the things I have left behind, is part of the process of letting it go. And recognising that I have to let it go doesn't mean that all the good things that happened, all those happy moments, have suddenly lost their value.
Those sorts of thoughts are the ones that have the power to be both immensely happy and terribly sad at the same time. The swing from high to deep (the extremes of sweet and sour) can go the other way, and the feelings that those memories bring can change in the same way. What we do in life echoes in eternity. Well, that eternity starts now.
It's the tiny moments of kindness...
It's easy to think that the things that make you sad are the hard bits, when someone challenges you very directly, when things go wrong, when you end up arguing with car insurance companies or the cellar is full of water. But actually the bits that bring the sadness out of me, at least, are the bits where someone says something kind, or does something that's just a little bit patient or generous. It might be nothing more than the question, 'are you okay?'. It might be when someone who is in charge offers you a little bit of praise, or when someone mentions that you have a good reputation for something. It might even be when you get up and do a little turn on stage (yep, that was my contribution to my mate's 40th birthday party this weekend - a bit of that notoriously beautiful singing that I occasionally wheel out when I want to sacrifice myself on the altar of dignity) and someone says they liked it.
Changing workplaces has left a gap in my support network. A well-timed wander to another office, a little sit out of the way, and conversation with someone who understands - and has perhaps been through the same thing themselves - these can all be good ways of improving a bad day. You get used to a place, I think, and that includes finding ways to tolerate the bad days, working out where the right place to go for a moan is, where the right place to get a good cup of tea is, and where the unofficial chair of therapy is. You can - as I do - have some terrible associations with a place, alongside some moments of wonderful happiness. It can be right to have left, whilst also recognising that what you have left still has a strong pull on you. In any case, the point, such as it is, was supposed to be that it is difficult to generate these support networks over just a few weeks.
It is therefore lovely to hear that other people have those same frustrations, angers and needs to vent that can seem unreasonable, that they are willing to put it out there, even if it does not take away your own version of the same. It is especially worthwhile to hear it from people who have a bit of power and authority. It is not just the recognition that people have needs that come before work, but hearing that this is equally true for even the people at the top of the tree, that makes you feel valued.
On this occasion, though, the initial kindness was my own: the simple act of reminding someone that what they do is good, and they don't necessarily need to temper this thought with the constant nag of 'what could be better?'. And for some reason which I'm not sure whether I fully know myself, I disintegrated (again). Maybe one day I will finally get over that vulnerability, but for now I accept that I have it, and do my best to limit its effect. And the worst aspect of it was that I still have a sense that crying in public just isn't done, and that probably made it ten times worse. As you fight whatever it is that is trying to get out, someone asks 'are you okay?', and that's it. It might not be the right person who is asking the question, the person you wanted to be there to tell the whole story, although there is a sense in which anyone who asks that question seriously is the right person. When someone who doesn't even know your name puts a hand on your shoulder, that is a wonderful thing, even though it is a bad thing that caused it. We aren't used to being kind to people we don't know, and it does reveal a lot about people when they are put in that position.
Is there a message in all this? Perhaps. If there is, it can be distilled into the five words 'Be excellent to each other.' Because the person standing next to you might just need it right now, even if you don't know their name just yet.
It was brought to my attention today that at about this time last year, Piers Morgan had a heated debate with a representative of the Peace Pledge Union, who promote the wearing of a white, rather than a red, poppy. The thrust of his argument seems to be that by including enemy combatants in the list of people that the white poppy remembers, that means that the wearer of the white poppy is celebrating ISIS fighters, or Nazis. Well, let's try to pull that apart a bit.
The first thing is to say that the white poppy, as it is described by the PPU itself, is about remembering all the people who die in conflict. Their words: "There are three elements to the meaning of white poppies. They represent remembrance for all victims of war, a commitment to peace and a challenge to attempts to glamorise or celebrate war." The official line on the red poppy is that it commemorates "all those who lost their lives on active service in all conflicts; from the beginning of the First World War right up to the present day. It also honours the contribution of civilian services and the uniformed services which contribute to national peace and security and acknowledges innocent civilians who have lost their lives in conflict and acts of terrorism." If the white poppy tries to do anything differently, it seems that what it does is actively commemorate those people who lost their lives in war, whichever side they were fighting for. Hence, I think, the accusation that it equally actively commemorates the aforementioned ISIS fighters and Nazis.
There's an important distinction to be made, though, between the lives of the people who have died, and the cause for which they were fighting. The mistake in the line of argument used by Morgan is to conflate the two. I can, by way of an example, know that someone who held beliefs I do not share (we'll use an actual Nazi for the sake of this argument) died as a result of conflict, and be sad about that fact. I can be disappointed that the world was such that those beliefs led to a terrible destructive conflict for the six years of the Second World War, and I can be sad that people lost their lives as a result of that conflict, even if they died fighting for a set of beliefs I do not share. I can - and I am - saddened by the loss of life even of those who fight for ISIS, whose cause I do not support. There is no chance to put forward the value of peace, to promote the very cause for which British service people have died, to someone who is already dead. That is the price, I think, of conflict. The struggle is to disentangle the remembrance of the dead from the cause for which they were fighting. In the case of the Second World War, it is clear that there was real justification for going to war, to fight against the Nazi regime and all that it did. That fact, brought up as it is when we remember war dead, is not what the act of remembrance is for, though. The fact that people fought and died to free the world from the Nazis and their allies is worth remembering. But it is not the same as remembering all the victims of war, whatever cause they were fighting for.
Perhaps Morgan is too bold, in the argument as he makes it, in reducing all German WWII fighters to Nazis. That, at least in part, is the problem. It is simplistic to separate the world into them and us, and to lump all of them in together. To be clear: I have no doubt that in making this point I would be accused of celebrating dead ISIS fighters, or Nazis, or whatever hateful regime fills that particular role in this argument, and, if I were arguing with Piers Morgan, he would consider the argument won. But that is the exact thing I want to challenge, and without an appreciation of the distinction I have made, and a sense of why it matters, the argument is not settled. With that distinction in place, there is no difference in lamenting the death of an ISIS fighter and a British soldier. They both needlessly lost their lives in war. I think the issue is that blame, for starting it, for having the awful beliefs in the first place, is driving the desire to rule out those lost lives from the act of remembrance. But the fact of a person's being on the side that made the conflict happen does not mean that person's death is less lamentable, even if they wholeheartedly shared the beliefs. As the Gospel of Matthew has it: "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."
Perhaps there is something in the second and third element of the white poppy's symbolism that is not there in the red. The commitment to peace, and the challenge to attempts to glamorise or celebrate war. It's a difficult and touchy area. I can, and I do, acknowledge the need, with the way the world is, for the UK to have professional, well-trained and disciplined armed forces, whilst also lamenting the fact that the world is that way. It is conceivable, if unlikely, that there might be a truly peaceful future for mankind. But it is exactly by remembering the loss of life, the damage caused of whatever type, on both sides and by both sides, that such a peaceful future might be created.
There are some things I love about autumn: the main one being the excuse to finally put the central heating on and light the fire. At the same time, there are some things that are difficult about autumn. One of them is the very visible decay of the trees - especially in Sheffield, where there are many trees - which has that sort of desperate beauty for a few moments in the sunshine, followed in this particular autumn by three solid days of rain and knee-deep mulch everywhere. It's easy enough to moan that it is a rubbish season, lacking winter's potential for snow days, spring's promise and summer's delivery; but it does seem to be some people's favourite. For me, it's the fact that winter, with its short daylight, its lack of life, follows. That's what makes autumn my least favourite of the seasons. Those same darkening evenings and cold mornings associate themselves almost by force with some dreadful things that have happened, as though the bad stuff just wouldn't have happened if the day was light a bit longer or a few degrees warmer. Of course it would, but the driving rain just makes it feel that extra notch bad. When I think back over some of my memories that do belong in the autumn, there are some happy ones where the autumn-ness of the memory is absent, almost as though the day itself wasn't real but the memory is. Memories are a bit like that: I have sometimes recounted a memory to someone who was also there, and remembers some detail differently (incompatibly, indeed). Then you doubt yourself, because the memory felt so certain until someone called it into question.
When I'm writing These Matters, I have adopted a particular stance in terms of how I tell the story that puts that ambiguity there in the moment, rather than it being in the recall of the moment. That is to say, there are scenes of great emotion between two characters where the emotion has to come out in what they say, rather than digging into their inner goings-on. I've really tried to bring out those moments, and I would even go as far as to say that sometimes they are successful, in the way that a well-acted scene caught on camera can carry all the feelings without them being spelled out. It's at odds with an alternative style of narration that I've tried a bit with the flash fictions, where the inner monologue (if that's the right term for it) is the driver, and the individual's experience is the story, rather than there being a story with characters in it. Those flashes have a confessional feel to them, to the extent that I am just not ready to share some of them. In any case, they feel like partly a way of allowing that bit of me as a writer out, and partly as a way of telling a different set of stories. Some of them are transparently personal, as I have already hinted, and to call them 'fiction' is a bit of a stretch because they are so closely modelled on real experience. Those flashes are an attempt to tell a (part of a) story in the shortest medium I find practical, whereas this blog is probably a hundred thousand words or so of me telling my story. No one I've ever got to know well has accused me of being terse...
So why the moan about NaNoWriMo? I find it hard enough to focus myself on writing novels, flash fiction and this blog, what with professional responsibility (as in, I have to at least pretend to do my job properly), parenting responsibility (I have to at least pretend etc), half an eye on the frankly decrepit condition of my physical person (leading to something as dangerous and potentially carcinogenic as exercise), and a sideline in trying to play music. There's a whole bunch of people on Twitter who seem to be able to write all the time (although these same people seem to appear quite frequently on Twitter, suspiciously), and who have taken the step of updating their progress on their Twitter profiles. So, Twitter, balls to it. I might write a reasonable amount of book IV in November, but I also might not. And I refuse to do it badly. So, we'll see how it goes. But if you catch me on Twitter writing about how many words I've written, feel free to @ me and remind me of this post. Twitter has the potential to drive me up the wall at the best of times, but this particular trope is extra-frustrating. And let me confirm: it's not the other people that I hold responsible for this. It's just a bit of jealousy, I suppose, that they can when I generally can't (or won't).
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought