Every status update since the dawn of Thomas


Saturday, 26 May 2018

Tooling up in the struggle to live: How my view of mental health has changed

Last week was mental health awareness week. Appropriately, I was aware of this, and yet I still seem to have missed the boat on posting these choice few words on how my view of mental health has changed over the years. Ah well - since choosing to point my career* firmly in that direction in recent times (after years replete with many a "hmm" and also a "ha"), every week is mental health awareness week for me now, so let's crack on.

Figure 1 - What it's not, quite, really

When I was a young man, even after initially studying psychology, I suppose that I saw mental health and mental illness in terms of Figure 1. Broadly speaking, I thought, most people - normal people - cruise along happily untroubled by mental health issues, beyond perhaps a bit of neurotic emotional navel-gazing if they're the over-thinky type that watches too many angsty TV dramedies. Mostly, normal people (I didn't necessarily think I was one) get through life being relatively functional, happy and successful without ever having to deal with their "brains going wrong", I thought - but a minority of poor souls have periods where bad times happen or their chemicals go wonky and they fall off that normality wagon and things get all messed up. With treatment and time these poor souls can get better; though for some even poorer souls they get stuck in that messed up place of "mental illness" for life. 

Very, very generally, of course, that outline is not completely wrong... it's not that it's without a shred of truth, but it comes nowhere near doing justice to how things actually are, or how life actually feels for the majority of people - it's far too simplistic. For a start, where are these normal, functional, happy and successful people, untroubled by mental health issues? I seem to be discovering that they are a much rarer beast than I imagined, the more I get to know people in general. In fact, to me, normal people just don't appear that normal anymore - by which I mean both that everyday "normal" folks are choc full of strangeness and dysfunction (and in that I include myself); and that these fabled paragons of unwavering good mental health that you hear of in myth are just not normal. The older you get the more aware you become that your family, friends and colleagues are all a bit peculiar in their habitual ways of being, and so are you; people's relationships are even more peculiar, riddled with questionable quirks, unhealthy habits and habitual irrationality; and people's mental health is not consistent and smooth, it rises and falls with circumstance, sometimes dramatically and alarmingly.

Biology and context

I don't mean to downplay the experience of those with more severe mental health challenges here - a "we're all mad really and that's just fine" attitude is lovely in sentiment, but it really is a bit insulting to compare feeling-sad-for-a-bit-too-long-after-your-pet-died to the full-blown staring-into-the-abyss-with-the-weight-of-a-mountain-on-your-back-24-hours-a-day-for-months of major depression; or being-a-bit-of-a-clean-freak to the hundred-life-crippling-little-rituals-you-HAVE-to-carry-out-before-doing-anything of severe OCD. We have to be able to distinguish, certainly.

That said, I don't think the general public realises how uncertain - and how thinly supported by hard science - many of the current categories of mental illness that you hear about really are. Currently not a single mental illness is diagnosed solely by looking at the brain or biology. That means the assertion that we know for sure that many diagnostic labels are definitely, basically, mainly, simply just down to brain wiring and chemicals and all that, is not a safe assumption to make - because actually we don't know the mechanisms by which the biology is linked with what are by definition behavioral and psychological expressions. Certainly some conditions must have a heavy influence from things like genetics and brain changes, as the biology and the behaviour appear together - but as for how exactly the nuts and bolts of it works, a huge damn lot of that is still "black box": we know there is a relationship but we don't know exactly how it works.

For many other disorders (depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD) the role of biology is often overstated well beyond what the current evidence can tell us, and there is just as much empirical evidence that environmental and experiential factors - as well as purely psychological therapies - affect the associated biology. Many mental health issues arise in a particular social, environmental or personal history context - e.g. trauma, poverty, work stress, bereavement, bullying, childhood abuse and neglect to name but a few more obvious examples. By analogy, suggesting we could adequately explain language by looking only at what happens in the brain when we use it would be absurd - to understand language, how it arises, functions and is transmitted we need to understand social interactions, developmental context and even human cultural history - which is not to say the mechanisms of the brain involved in it are not also massively important.

Categories vs continuum

So if mental illness is not diagnosed by looking inside the brain, how is it diagnosed? Currently by tick lists of symptoms. Which, clearly, is not an exact science. If you display a certain number of apparent symptoms on this list or that, that's what you get diagnosed as, even if you don't have every symptom on the list. This means, in some cases, two people can have more differing symptoms than the same symptoms, yet be diagnosed with the same condition. The same symptoms can also appear on the lists of different distinct mental illnesses, something called co-morbidity. This is not necessarily a problem - for example in physical illness, the symptom of "fatigue" may have many different ultimate causes, and appear as a symptom in many different illnesses. In mental health, though, due to our poor understanding of the mechanisms behind mental illness, it also means people can be given a different diagnosis at different times by different professionals for expressing very similar behaviour, sometimes with worrying potential consequences - they may be given an incorrect life-affecting label that they can't shake off and may never get corrected, or they could be given inappropriate treatment that may do more harm than good. In some cases the distinction between diagnostic categories may be artificial, more a result of us clinging onto past theories than what current evidence is telling us.

I admit I'm not too keen on the "categorical" approach to mental illness, that treats labelled disorders as strictly distinct from, and of a different quality to, the common mental health ups and downs in the general population. There are serious questions over how well supported such hard-and-fast category distinctions are by the current evidence. Schizophrenia in particular has been called a “failed category” with too wide a spread of symptoms and pretty poor support for being a single, distinct and cohesive condition. For example, evidence is mounting that similar biological, social and environmental factors may underlie psychosis - a key symptom in schizophrenia but also a symptom of mood disorders - regardless of diagnosis. And importantly the same factors may be involved in less severe "sub-clinical" symptoms in the general population, such as social withdrawal, unusual visual and aural perceptions and magical thinking, that may reveal a proneness to psychosis under the right (or wrong) circumstances. Basically, there is co-morbidity too between defined categories of mental illness and also the more common mental health issues of the general population - the distinction may be a matter of degree, of severity, of extremity rather than a strict fire-walled difference of type, in at least some cases. The ramifications of this are huge, as it means the relation between good mental health and mental illness is more of a constant continuum or spectrum than we previously thought, rather than a bunch of different boxes and labels that do not overlap and should be treated separately.

Figure 2 - More like how I see it at present

Anyway, enough of that guff and back to my original point. I no longer see mental health as straight-and-true track that most people are on and a poor minority fall off of. Rather we are all involved in the same kind of processes, bombarded with pressures and having to adopt often only half-successful strategies to deal with them. But some people, for some periods of their lives at least, have a lot more to deal with than others, whether that's a barrage of seismic life events; the awful way other people treat, or have treated, them; work, money and social pressures; ingrained and damaging bad habits that they struggle to break out of; the continued effects of trauma in the past; their own bodies malfunctioning; or, most likely, a toxic combination of more than one of those factors.

Life is complex and chaotic and living it is difficult. The purpose of most mental health treatment is not to "cure" us of our "illness" and set us back on the problem-free healthy highway with all of the other mentally healthy normal people. That highway doesn't exist. The purpose of mental health treatment is, as suggested in Figure 2, to arm us with whatever tools we can get our hands on to carry on the fight and get through life - which for many involves very tough circumstances - and perhaps even be able enjoy (some of) it. That is, tools to calm the symptoms that cause us distress and stop us from living well; tools to bolster our resilience, store up our support, preempt predictable problems; tools to help us learn about ourselves and others and learn how to manage ourselves and others; and tools to get strategies to cope that work and are not dysfunctional. In short, I didn’t decide to pursue a career* in mental health to "cure" people. I decided to do it simply with the aim of hopefully, somehow, some day, helping people to live. That is all. But in the broader, long-term view, we also need to take more seriously the task of addressing the societal and environmental factors that can apparently play such a key role in damaging our mental health - and not simply ignore them because it's easier to blame each individual's condition simply on the attributes of that individual themselves, in isolation from context.

*Speaking of categories, the rather "unique" combination of roles I have thus far undertaken may be too broad to call a "single, distinct and cohesive" career. Ho Hum. 

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Life goalz ~or~ 'what I found out': 2017

It’s New Years’s and also I’m 40 (in case you missed me mentioning that in every blog post this year) so I am going to take a moment to quickly review my LIFE GOALS. Now there are three that are so apparently amazeballs that we’re all supposed to want them 2 the Max, and if we say we don’t, we’re lying. Well, get a load of me:


I have worked in various roles in various spheres now and have become quite familiar with the lot of managers and bosses and the ladder and all that. Working in regional news I got to see behind the curtain of a lot more institutions and organisations and came into frequent contact with movers and shakers at various levels in various hierarchies. The more exposure I had to this the more it began to dawn on me: I actually don’t want much in the way of power. I’m happier working relatively independently and certainly have no desire to tell other people what to do; in fact that’s a headache I could do without. I really, really value my independence and freedom of expression – freedom to speak my mind honestly and critically without having to toe the line; to do my own thing how and when I want to do it; to turn off from work and turn my attention to other things once I’m out the door; to go about my business fairly anonymously etc – to the point I will retreat from anything that threatens these freedoms. People at or near the top of the chain in institutions may not have anyone specifically telling them what to do, but they are hamstrung and compromised in dozens of different directions that would make me recoil, and the further up the chain you go the more enmeshed you become – to have to tether your entire being to some corporate or public entity or enterprise; to be under scrutiny constantly; to be responsible for the gripes and security of an army of people below you; to have be publically accountable for a whole range of crap that may or may not be your fault. Urgh. No, ta. The very idea brings out my soul in a panic rash.


If power could in fact end up restricting your existential freedoms, that’s nothing compared to fame – what a poisoned chalice that has turned out to be now we have learnt of it, readers! I used to want to be a rock star. Phew, eh? What a lucky break that never happened. Naw, seriously though, like a sizable majority of the population I used to see fame as the ultimate success because, I suppose, it appears to be validation on all levels – that you are special, you are talented, your skill is recognised, you have influence, you are fundamentally an interesting person. Except that fame does not actually prove any of those things, but what will happen is that you and your life will become public property that is fair game for everyone to chip in on, and you and your life will become a business commodity that everyone will constantly want a piece of. And what then? Many are tied to the desperate Sisyphean treadmill of maintaining it, others are stuck with it but desperate to escape back to anonymity. Now: I am really not a public person and I really don’t want to be one. I was not even comfortable putting my face next to news stories I’d written, or getting too much attention on twitter (seeing as it has become the place that people go to be truly awful to each other these days); I could not cope with fame. Fame sounds amazing for about the first year or so, then it sounds like a hollow victory and bubble-like existence. Ta, no.


Now come on Thomas, really? Ok, yes, I would sorely like to be considerably better off, that is a given. Everything is just harder to do and maintain when you’re poorer, and having to count the pennies is depressing and grinds you down. Yes, I want to have the money to buy nice things now and again, live in a nice home, travel more, and not worry about the expense. But, in line with studies that suggest money does not make us happier beyond a certain point where we are out of poverty and into comfortable, reasonably flush security, I have no real desire for flashy excess at all – in fact I kinda think flashy excess is pretty much always a sign of vacuous amoral try-hard bullshit. Add to that that, unless you win the lottery, you don’t just get rich without strings attached (see Power); and that there are consequences for your conscience, relationships and sense of self; and that I don’t buy for a second that wealth is necessarily anything to do with merit and... well, a friend and I had wildly divergent responses to the Scorsese black comedy The Wolf of Wall Street, thus: I found it morbidly fascinating, a tale of vile people with awful inter-personal relationships and something critical missing in their souls cutting a destructive swathe through the world of high finance. “But wouldn’t it be ace to actually live like that?” my mate said, referring to their lavish lifestyles. Well... “Um. No,” I had to tell him. Whatever bit of people it is that craves superyachts and absurd shiny rollerskate cars and a house with 15 empty bedrooms and cocaine on your private jet and gold leaf on your f***ing ice cream obviously just isn’t in my peasant-stock blood. It just all looks like so much empty swank wank, wastage of existence to me.

So, if I’m pooh-poohing power, fame and riches for their distinctly turn-to-ashes-in-the-mouth potential, what kind of life goals would I push in their stead on this dawning of a new hopeful year?


Actually, end-state goals are a bit suspect in general I think, because the Buddhists were right – everything is temporary. I am old enough now to have seen plenty of people attain 'living the dream' status, and lose it again; to appear to have the perfect life one moment, then really not a few years down the line – and vice versa (the good news is while cloudless joy may never last, nor does lightless suffering, a mercy often overlooked but built into this 'time marches on' business). Things simply do not stay the same, and even if you can hold onto something, or keep doing the same things, the world changes around you and things go stale – so simply planning to achieve one state, one situation, one goal, and assuming that’s your happily ever after, is rather unwise; because then there’s the whole of the rest of your life to negotiate. I was once forced, at gunpoint (not at gunpoint), to watch 25 minutes of JoJo Bows, and her mum, repeatedly tell a TV camera about how she was finally living her dream and she never thought she would but she always dreamt of it and now she was living it and this was her dream and she was living her dream and this was great – and I got sad because I could only see impending child-star breakdown because what then, JoJo, WHAT THEN? No. If I am going to set a post-40 life goal a good one would be this: To strive not for any particular one end state, but for greater resilience, robustness and savvy to weather the slings and arrows, storms and changes that will be happening in life anyway, whatever. That takes an openness, a resourcefulness, flexibility, intelligence and, importantly, this...


Because they are everything. If I stop for a moment to consider it, it moistens up my ducts because everything about where I am now is down to the friendship, support, influence and companionship of family and friends. They have been my rock, my mirror, my focus group, my bed and bread, my entertainment, education and enlightenment, my shoulders to cry on, mentors, cheerleaders, life coaches, homies and my home – and much more. They make me proud to know them and want to strive to live up to who they want or need me to be, or think I could be. I can’t overstate it – I, Thomas, an acknowledged selfish, self-absorbed loner and misanthrope, owe everything to the good people in my life, and hope I can give something back to them all. In particular (it will come as no comfort to the lonesome) but hitching yourself to another human in a relationship scenario, if it works right, just changes everything: Suddenly there is a net of support, a bed of warmth and comfort, that makes all kinds of things possible that just weren’t before and in many ways allows you both to stretch out and become more confident in various directions, while simultaneously acting as a shock absorber and balm for those slings and arrows mentioned above. I'm sorry for the yuk, but it's true. That's why nurturing good relationships is a goal in itself because there's not much more that is so utterly impactful upon our lives. Also, you learn stuff.


Back when I was a philosophy teacher I used to try to explain the ongoing drive to ask those big, impractical questions by saying: "When you are born into the world you have no idea what you are, what the world is, or what on earth is going on. As a child you ask and learn more about this, but once you attain adulthood you’re just supposed put all that on one side and turn your attention to making money, being useful, making a family, making a name. Well, I never felt I got a satisfactory answer, so I’m still asking." That was fine for a while, but when I left teaching for the more worldly world of journalism I too had got a little tired and jaded with the inconsequential and unworldliness of philosophy, thinking “What does it matter? It doesn’t help you live.” I thought I’d reached the end of the road with all that deep thinky stuff, having arrived at a kind of mellow, world weary nihilism after endless circling on the same old questions. But I was wrong.

The past four or five years have thoroughly jolted and shaken me out of that kind of slumber and shown me without a shadow of a doubt, that as clued-up and wise-ass and jaded as I got, I still did not have life, or the workings of the world, or people down at all; because there were multiple surprises, twists and turns in store, both alarming and wonderful and, man alive, there was stuff to be learnt. The past couple of years in particular have unexpectedly transformed everything in ways I could never have predicted in my personal life, and have shown me you can explore those big questions not just as well as doing the work and family thing, but because of and through the work and family thing – it's all more life, and real with it. This has left me with a renewed thirst to learn more and more – I don’t mean just the accruing of facts or experiences, but the real stuff, the how-does-this-all-work: What we are, what the world is, or what on earth is going on. I feel both like I’ve made strides in that compared to my previous understanding, but also that I am newly confident in my capability to learn more, and newly confident in the value of it, even if it’s an endless task. It does matter, because it can help you live – with an intelligence and purpose that bolsters the above-mentioned Robustness. Of course, I will only get so far before I shuffle off: The Buddhists are right, everything is temporary. But in that time I reckon I can get a heck of a lot further than those who are dicking around, tunnel-visioned and half-sentient, chasing power, fame and riches for reasons and ends they don’t even really understand; and I hope that I can in that time pass on at least some insights that might help other people in the problem we all face every day – the problem of how we can happily live.

Happy 2018 n that.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

The ideology trap

I thought twice about posting this because, basically, I am not remotely interested in debating your political or ideological agenda. At all. Sorry.

I’m no more interested in doing that than I am in arguing with a stranger in the comments section of a YouTube video (why the baffling Jesus does anyone feel that’s a worthwhile use of their time on this earth? I mean to say, really, what?). Don’t get me wrong, under the right circs I don’t mind an intelligent political discussion at all – I have in my time both studied and taught political philosophy, I was a journalist and maintain a general interest in current affairs... but these past few years, well, man alive! I mean to say, what?

I am tired. Hang-dog tired and dispirited at being flung other people’s ideology constantly on social media and, if you admit it, I think you are too. I get it – we live in very “interesting times” and everyone is trying to make of it what they will and desperate to stand up for their concerns and position in the face of hostile and baffling forces that have been robustly rearing of late. I too have found myself repulsed, frustrated and confused by the turn of world events. But before we go on I should make one thing clear: I continue to resist throwing my lot in wholesale with any pre-packaged political ideology, and I happen to think when abstract ideology becomes more salient and important than the concrete, personal, pragmatic and every day, then ugliness inevitably follows.

For transparency’s sake, I always used to consider myself vaguely progressive, but not vehemently so, vaguely liberal, but with a small ‘l’ – you know, like before it became a dirty word and synonymous with snowflakery – but with a sprinkling of bleak, cynical and realist opinions on human nature and society thrown in that would probably upset many progressive liberals. But I have no idea what I am anymore... except tired – and right now I’m really not interested in hearing about your particular gawdelpus crusade, reader, so I am not going to talk about my personal political stance much here at all really.

Rather I am going to make a few observations in general on ideology of whatever stripe:

1: It’s a trap.

People say it’s great that everyone is engaged with politics now but y’know, I’m not so sure it unambiguously is, because... well, of the radicalisation of my mates. I don’t think that’s too strong a word – with everything going on the past few years I have seen a fair few previously fully-rounded individuals with their own original and considered thoughts creep ever further apart on either sides of the political spectrum, convinced that there is some kind of ideological war at hand that we must take up arms in – and start flinging regurgitated, rigid-as-rock and shouty-as-shit views straight out of someone else’s manifesto. Like any war-of-two-sides it’s self perpetuating, because it breeds grievance and opposition and frankly I think we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated into it. When caught up deep and wholesale in political agenda or ideology, you are not engaging with the world directly anymore, but through a rigid, simplified model, which colours all of your interactions. Please stop it.

2: I don't trust crusaders, utopians or people who have all the answers.

First of all the world is complex and ever changing and it’s impossible to be certain about pretty much anything (I’m certain about that) – so how can these people be so bloody certain their way is right? Seriously, I like to think I’m an intelligent, informed and reasonably experienced human being and I’ve been trying quite hard to figure everything out all my life now and I’m just not getting this “certainty” business at all. Secondly, I always get the feeling crusaders will act on ideology at the detriment to what they're actually doing to people. Thirdly, their single-minded certainty = no open minded reflection = no genuine critical judgement. Beware.

3: Beware loaded ideological words.

Free speech and democracy are not simple ideas, or simple to implement, no matter what anyone says, and we have never had them in an uncut pure form anyway. Yes, everyone likes the idea of them. No, they do not, always and forever in every circumstance no matter what, have unimpeachably pure and "morally good" outcomes. Yes, people use them when it suits them and are hypocritical about it. No, no one likes elites or entitlement or totalitarianism or mainstream media bias. Every side uses this shit. On a related point, freedom, power and oppression are related on a sliding scale, you know – freedom for the pike is death to the minnows and all that – but if you are in any confusion or doubt over if there is actual oppression happening (as opposed to words being flung around as ammunition in the ideology war) ask – A) is there a power imbalance involved here, and in whose favour? and B) are any actual individuals getting stomped on here and why? Never mind the ideology and ‘isms – that will give you your answer.

4: Resentment makes the world go around.

"My pain is worse than yours, you can never understand me and you need to realise this and make me reparations." Alternatively, "Someone somewhere is having an easier time or getting stuff they don't deserve and I do." It does seem that in the political sphere both of these positions are the starting point for any debate, whichever side you are on. Resentment comes before reason. It is upsetting because I always took calmness, fair-mindedness, balance, reasonableness, intelligence, multi-facetedness to be the winning hand, but apparently it’s not. Shrill, shouty, self-centred, accusatory bullying is, apparently.

5: Ideology does not make you more “awake”.

Not everyone is motivated by ideology or sees the world through that kind of lens. That doesn't mean they're "asleep" either; in fact they may be more awake to the subtleties, uncertainties and ambiguities of the world precisely because of that. We’ve all heard the “Wake up sheeple!” spiel, from people who appear to have allowed themselves to be convinced that an off-the-peg world view constructed by someone else is now the most important thing in the world to the extent they can’t see outside of it. This, I think, is called irony.

6: Ideology is anathema to empathy.

Because it treats people's irreducibly complex lived experience as an ideal political abstract. When political ideology becomes the driving force and focus, outstripping the personal and practical, it pretty much always ends in someone getting stomped on and brutalised as their experience, wants and needs are disregarded for the “greater good” of some overly utopian f***er’s fantasy “good vs evil” bullshit narrative. Militant ideology is like those awful mission statements that businesses and institutions have: at best a simplified dream that describes what you want to reach for (though decidedly not a really accurate representation of the full, complex, organic, dysfunctional reality of things); at worst just a bunch of pretentious hot air that sounds great and inspiring but should really be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

7. Politics is about compromise.

Of course it bloody is. The whole set up is there, because there are multiple groups in the world who want and need different things but have to live together; groups and individuals who have different opinions, lifestyles and beliefs and all want a slice of the available resources. That's why politics exists, that's what it is – an ongoing discussion and action to resolve or at least manage this state of affairs. Politics IS compromise. It is not an ideological war for absolute goals. Get over yourself.

8: A political position in negative.

“No one has ever convinced me they know what is best for everybody else. No one has ever convinced me they want what is best for everybody else.”

Please don’t leave any discussion in the comments. I’m tired.

Monday, 22 May 2017

All the single fellas

At the risk of sounding like a male Beyonce (a curse I must endure in life in general), I want to say something to all the single fellas and it’s this: There is a good possibility there is nothing wrong with you, it’s just that the world of dating sucks.

Why I’ve been moved to speak on this is that in recent months I’ve caught various friends and acquaintances (actually both male and female) bemoaning their singledom – often in that “I’m just bantering” way that doesn’t fool anyone. I hear them over-analysing the situation, as you do when you’ve been alone for years and are exasperated and just want some kind of explanation: Joking about what wrong-headed unknowables women/men are; joking about how you, yourself, must be a pathetic freak. Lol jokes. Kinda. Kinda not.

I am out of that dating bear pit, thank The Lord, and now comfortably well into something strong and stable (a relationship, not a Tory government) but when I hear the just-mentioned bemoaning from my own kind – the slightly introverted, slightly intense, slightly “sensitive” kind of chap – the empathy glands start pinging away, the bad memories start surfacing and I can end up getting upset on their behalf. Having spent the vast majority of my life single, these are my people, and I feel their frustration acutely. The dating game is simply not set up for a certain kind of dude who tends towards the introverted, intense and “sensitive” – for the reasons outlined below...

Not yet

But before we get into it, I want to make it clear I’m not offering “advice”. As a single man there was nothing that boiled my piss more than someone condescendingly tossing crumbs of “advice” from the safety of the comfortable relationship that they’d lucked out by clumsily fumbling their way into back when we were young and it was much easier to hook up.

And I need to say, there is nothing wrong with being on your own, other than your own desire not to be. Actually, for me, as I got older I made my peace with the prospect more and more, to the point I was quite happy in my own company and really appreciated the freedom of being a free agent when I was. You become self-sufficient. I'd see younger types freaking out about being single after mere months and just think: "Amateurs! Get a grip."

But it's hard not to internalise society's assertion that you are something of a deficient misfit if you are on your own past 30, which is ludicrous as vast droves of society are. This meant my own recent experience shocked me – my current partner and me were both veteran singletons, but getting a relationship going was actually relatively easy and natural and straightforward. I’m not trying to be smug at you ­– what I mean to say is, contrary to what our hind brains may have been whispering obscenely to us in the long, dark nights, there turned out to be nothing freakishly wrong with us, we were not broken, nor terminally “difficult” to be with, we were just normal people who had had some shitty luck in the past. And, it turns out, most of that “dating advice” other people give you is, I can assure you, either completely irrelevant or utter hokem.

Christopher Walken

I’m sure everyone could tell me why their pain and plight is so much worse than that of my hetero-male-privileged ass, as is apparently obligatory in these times, and I know in many cases they'd be right. But I can assure you the struggle for my type is real – the introverted, intense, “sensitive” male can do just fine in a relationship, but is at a sore disadvantage when it comes to actually getting into one in the first place, or even just a “hook up”.

I don't mean a bit of boo-hooing over how women are so mean and how it's so hard to find "The One": I mean periods of years and years without a sniff of anything at all other than rebuff and rejection; long swathes of time convinced there was something fundamentally wrong with me or that I was cursed; long stretches convinced I simply had no choice in the matter because it had come to seem unimaginable or impossible that any women would want to stay with me beyond a month or two before they went cold or got bored or freaked out and ran away; that is if I could even get past a second date; that is if I could even get a date.

I remember comparing notes on singledom with a female friend who astonished me by wishing it was as easy to get a good guy to stick around as it was to get sex. “Getting sex is easy”, she said, to my incredulity. OMG, the gulf in our experience, as outgoing female vs navel-gazing male! “No, no it isn’t,” I said. Sex for me at that point was an ultra-rare and poorly understood phenomenon that had occurred in the distant past a handful of times, which I had no idea how to make happen again. She didn’t seem to understand how things could be like that for someone, her experience being that men simply rocked up and asked for it, often as a nuisance, from her teens onwards.

Meanwhile, when my shacked-up friends cringed over the now-dwindling memory of their single years, I felt like Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter. In that film Walken and Robert De Niro have a shocking time of it as prisoners of war in Vietnam, but De Niro escapes and comes home, somewhat damaged, and slowly pieces his life back together and adjusts to being a civilian once more. Years later he goes back out to Saigon to track down Walken, only to find him still there playing Russian Roulette, like they were forced to do as POWs. All those years later and Walken never escaped that hell.

That’s me, I'd tell my couple-friends, that's what it's like to still be dealing with the dating scene in your 30s. "I'm still there, I've been there all along!"

So without further ado, here is how things got like that, at least up to around my mid 30s, for this slightly introverted, slightly intense, slightly "sensitive" male:

1 Opportunity

This is probably the major factor – you simply don’t get to meet a wide variety of eligibles. You live in a small town, most of your friends are male and quite cliquey with it, you were never an outgoing party animal in the first place and now you’re getting older your friends go out less and stick to their own when they do. People will constantly tell you you need to get out more, do more things, but this in itself is a problem – because you don’t really enjoy being the social butterfly, you just want to be having pleasant nights at home or with the people you know and love like many others your age do. Forcing yourself into a constant round of new faces and activities begins to feel exhausting and desperate, but if you don’t do that, you might get to have a conversation socially with maybe one new eligible female about every six months. It’s just not enough. Thank god for internet dating, though that has its own soul-crushing problems.

2 “You don’t try your luck”

This one is a revelation for you, but it’s so true – if you are a “sensitive” type you probably sneer at those sleazey, cocky, alpha-male wankers who are always thinking with their dick, pulling "moves" and dropping cringeworthy lines. But then you wonder: “Why does my delightful dry wit always miss out to the meathead who isn’t afraid to put his hand on her knee?” You write it off as women being idiots and falling for the transparent tricks of Neanderthal nobs, until a female friend takes you aside and berates you: “You don’t try your luck!” What she means is, it isn’t about slick moves or swagger, plenty of women see through that – but the meathead is at least giving a green light, and you aren’t. You are hard work. It’s about letting women know you’re actually interested and worth a shot, giving them a clear sign, an easy way in, something exciting to respond to – but no, there you are, too noble and “sensitive” to do anything but act the distant chivalrous friend and wonder why she’s lost interest when you finally ask her out two months later.

3 The laser focus

In line with your intense and idealistic nature you are also simply quite narrow-minded in what you think you want, and hung up on that, even though you think you aren't. And you've spent far, far too much time pursuing and weeping over people who it was just never going to work with. It can’t be helped, because you go a bit mad when those chemicals bite, but SMH, the wasted time! You just couldn't broaden your focus and realise what a wide and wonderful world of other lovely, fun and sexy people was out there while you spent, for example, a fucking year mooning over some dickhead you had convinced yourself was your true love even though you’d never shared much actual intimacy, they didn’t particularly give a shit about you and it's questionable if you would actually even get on as a couple. Amazing what the heart will do.

4 Intense reactions

One of the problems with not being used to a relationship is that, initially, your reactions can be a little over-intense – partly because actually getting to dating is so rare that there's a vast amount at stake and it's nigh-on impossible to take it lightly; and partly because you're so inexperienced at being in a partnership that you take your cues from films, fiction and your own imagination as to how you should be acting – and that is often way too heavy and intense, way too soon. You have a tendency to write looong emotional essays to the unfortunate objects of your affection at the slightest hiccup, and it never, ever, helps anything. You also want to talk “deep and meaningful” pretty much all the time. One ex told you: “Women just want someone fun who is there for them – not a psychotherapist!” Another revelation. The shame of it is, that's not even your everyday self, which is actually pretty laid back and goofy  but your date will be out the door before she knows that.

5 Don't bother

You give up, you stop making an effort and worrying about it. This is part learned helplessness, part self-preservation as otherwise it risks defining you, becoming an obsession and having a bad effect on your mental health. And this is right  you are a world unto yourself, there is no reason why you have to be tied to someone else and there is plenty to enjoy about being single. Ironically, of course, being desperate to not be single makes you less attractive so not being bothered may be good strategy; in practice, though, the idea "It'll happen when you're not looking for it" is sadly not true because when you stop looking, as you do periodically for long periods of time, you basically don't meet anyone (see 1) or "try your luck" (see 2), so your singledom becomes entrenched.

Don't freak out

But perhaps I’m getting perilously close to offering “advice” here and I said I didn’t want to do that.

All I really want to say to all the single fellas (and ladies) who struggle for the above reasons is: Don’t sweat it. Don’t beat yourself up too much, don’t write off all members of the opposite (or same) sex as cruel and shallow shits, and don’t think it’s all your fault.

Being single is tough and modern dating often a ruthless and soul-destroying pursuit. People are just shitty to each other when it comes to being respectful and considerate of the feelings of their potential or discarded matches. And also, as is very clear these days, no one really knows how to do it and there isn’t a right way to do it anyway, because everyone is different – so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

For the long-term single who doesn't want to be, your only “problem” is finding the right circumstances to meet the right someone, and being able to successfully navigate though that early awkward bit of a relationship without one of you freaking out and running away. That and the Herculean task of maintaining your self esteem through the rejections and apathy and patronising comments of your couple-friends.

When people look at you like you’re someone to be pitied and open their cake holes to dispense “what you need to do” platitudes, please laugh a light laugh and tell them, with the air of a wizened Vietnam vet: “You don’t know what it’s like out there, man.”

And if they persist, tell them, politely, to fuck right off.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Maps and tropes

In a matter of weeks I will be 40 and, actually, it feels about time – so much so that I am writing this blog post early.

The shift in world view from late twenties to mid-thirties I documented here but it’s now clear that was only half way through a decade-long process of jettisoning and upgrading youthful ideas and attitudes – and actually, that process is ongoing and will likely continue, until I lose my mind or turn up my toes, whichever comes first.

Trying to explain what feels different over these past four or five years is hard to pin down (there are hints of it here and here) though a lot is in line with the expected 'life begins' trope: I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have; I know myself better than I ever have; I have learned to value and enjoy the little things more; I give fewer shits about appearance, ego and cool; I have less patience with fluff, bluster and bullshit; I am much more inclined to view things pragmatically and with a calm scepticism than idealistically and emotionally; I have less faith in prevailing wisdom and the judgment of powerful people, because I have seen well-qualified authority figures make demonstrably bad decisions a few too many times; and I have discovered jazz, dressing with a colour palette and the joys of interesting architectural design.

But there's more, something more I'm still struggling to pin down...

The slow process of disillusionment

I started this blog in my early 30s and the tag line “Life: Or ‘the slow process of disillusionment’ as I call it” has been floating around on it for most of that time, supposed to be humorously downbeat but also heartfelt ­– it did feel like virtually everything I thought was true, good, exciting, reliable or even attainable in my youth was in the process of turning out to be more complicated, ambiguous, problematic or simply more mundane as adulthood progressed. Your childhood maps and expectations of the world slowly prove to be flawed and insufficient and you have to update them with amendments in untidy, ugly scrawl or chuck them away completely. How sad, I thought, but them's the breaks.

Then I thought that was a sad thing. Now I thinkThank God for that. If there’s one major thing I would like to point out about my 40-turning feeling it’s this – because if I hadn't got rid of those quaint old maps I'd have been stuck with them.

Because I have been noticing more and more and more in the past half decade how it’s not just me – everyone has these maps of what the world is supposed to be, ranging from basic childhood values to the received horse-sense of adult society – and all of it is a little cock-eyed, riddled with misleading myths and assumptions.

And in tandem with this I have been noticing more and more and more: The world is not how you think it is. Everything is more complicated than you are led to believe. Your maps and expectations are all wrong. Not just mine, not just yours – all of them.


I still don't feel like I'm making myself clear enough. So: Let's talk about tropes. By which I mean recurring devices and themes in things like art and literature, especially salient today in film and television.

What happens when a car goes off the edge of a cliff in a film? It explodes. What happens when someone is dangling over an abyss but instead of climbing up to safety they try to reach for that golden amulet on the nearby ledge? They plummet to their death, the greedy nobs. What happens when an authoritarian society creates a 'game' for public entertainment, where people are forced to run or fight to the death? The participants band together and spark revolution, of course!

These recurring ideas and motifs can be anything from a common type of scene (the heroes peep over the edge of that rocky outcrop/hidden balcony to conveniently observe an evil ritual below that reveals the full horror of what is going on!); a basic pairing of things that always go together (aliens = ancient Egyptian imagery, right?); to a full-blown complex narrative (Google 'The Hero’s Journey').

These things are outlined in exhaustive and mind-boggling depth at the wonderful TV Tropes website, which says: “A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes may be brand new but seem trite and hackneyed; they may be thousands of years old but seem fresh and new. They are not bad, they are not good; tropes are tools that the creator of a work of art uses to express their ideas to the audience. In fiction, it can even be impossible to create a tropeless tale.”

In life also it can also be impossible to create a tropeless tale about how you think the world works. Because this stuff doesn’t just happen in entertainment, this is how we think in general ­– in our social interactions, our politics, our culture, our everyday expectations and judgements. Our lives are full of stereotyping, narratives we have invented or absorbed from the world around us, and unexamined 'zeitgeist' assumptions. Some are fairly overt and obvious, but others go unrecognised for what they are – nothing more than shortcuts and habits of thinking that may actually not reflect reality all that well. Because actually, in reality, the car most often doesn’t blow up; it just crunches and comes apart and that’s it.

Here be dragons

These tropes, of course, combine into maps of what the world should be like, whether dealing with politics, romance, religious belief, social shiz or even work or business. Of course these maps are useful, usually contain at least some identifiable truth, and we have to have them to get by and get around. But while some are better than others, not a single one of them is complete or sufficient (no matter what all those self help and 'get rich, happy, healthy and successful' guides may try to tell you) – how could they be? Because the world out there is more bizarre, diverse and complex than any guide-map can convey.

Treating these maps like they are complete and sufficient is often the source of endless trouble and grief. The SatNav is never the territory – yet often people seem to prefer gluing their eyes to that rather than looking at the damn road and learning to take it as it comes. I see people everywhere, all the time, sticking to their maps and coming at life full of some certain 'faith' that it is this way or that, that this will happen or that must happen... as the SatNav drives them off the edge of a metaphorical cliff.

It’s not just that this attitude sets you up for disappointment, it sets you up for crisis – because when what you thought 'needed' to happen doesn’t, it’s a disaster – the entire world is cast as a dreadful hell because you can not even contemplate an alternative. All you have is what's on the map and “Here be dragons”. So when your map proves to be wrong – OMG, DRAGONS.

But the world is not a dreadful hell, it just is. Disappointment is a bummer, but if you think one scuppered plan ruins everything, you’re not looking properly. So it turns out life is not arranged around you having fun, or being successful and fulfilled all the time as your entitled destiny, after all. Boo hoo. That doesn’t mean you can never have fun or be fulfilled or successful, just that sometimes you will, sometimes you won’t, these things never last forever and you probably have to keep working at it. And no one is immune from bad things repeatedly happening that you have to soldier though – that's not the end of a fulfilling life, it's grist to the mill of it.

The biggest misunderstanding of the field of cognitive psychology is the idea that it's all about positive thinking and telling yourself to be awesome and happy. Yes, we should regularly remind ourselves of the good things – but simply running away from reality and telling ourselves 'positive' fairy tales is not a great strategy for sustained and robust mental health. Getting a more flexible and up-gradable map, learning to read it properly and using it more in conjunction with the actual, real, road is a better one.

Raw, strange and crackling

For me, at 40, it seems life is bigger, more complex and crackling with mystery and possibility than I ever imagined in my earlier adulthood. It's huge, raw, strange and unknowable. It may be stable and calm enough to map out in the steady spots, but it strikes me as unimaginably varied and extreme at the edges. The very nastiest, bleakest stuff does happen. So does the most beautiful and sublime. A lot of the time neither makes its presence felt. But time and again, I've found, whatever you think things are like, they are not necessarily like that.

I honestly don’t know how to communicate this, and will have to keep on trying because I don’t think I’ve done it here at all. I look at younger people and despair to think: “My God, you have so much to go through, so much to do, to endure, to have happen before you can see this," which sounds utterly pretentious, I know. Maybe that’s how my parents look at me still.

Whatever, I’m now so much more wary of over-reliance on maps and tropes, especially those that other people have decided everyone else should adopt – I do not trust the judgement of those who are navigating life from an off-the-peg ideology or overly-embellished narrative, set in stone.

For me, at 40, there is no grand plan. My life’s work is now just to navigate through whatever happens, seeking out the enriching things while trying to avoid the awful stuff, dealing with what comes at me and pushing to keep the good things good or make the bad things a little better, step by step. And most importantly trying to understand it better and deeper as I go – because that is the one project that makes sense of it all to me, though a project that will never be complete, until I... stop. At which point, I 'spose, it stops with me. But let's see how far we get.

That's how I'm seeing things right now. I have no idea what is in store any more – and I really, really like that. To fall back on a hackneyed old trope: 'Life begins', indeed.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Thomas does a book review

Is it tragically romantic or are these people just mentally ill? That, for me, is the central question of Wuthering Heights, as my cynical and pragmatic near-40-year-old self wrestled with the yearning teenage goth I once was.

Don’t worry, I don’t plan to make a habit of literary musings on this blog and only thought this worthwhile ‘cos the Emily Bronte novel is such a well-known part of popular culture – and to my own surprise, what started as a whim of idle curiosity ended up with the novel engaging me in a way a book hasn’t for some time. And it’s all down to the psychology.

Fascinating is the word. It starts with a lurking sense of f***ed-up-ness, drawing you in with morbid curiosity in the manner of a HP Lovecraft short ­– with the discovery of an oddball pseudo-family who all hate each other, a ghost, and a gruff hard-man who cries. In fact the first three chapters of Wuthering Heights are more like an MR James ghost story than anything, and it goes on to be as much stomach-clenching gothic thriller as romance.

It’s a Godawful family affair

The novel has a rep ­– it’s that one about the breathless, swoonsome, turbulent love-that-cannot-be between the fierce but flakey Cathy and the rugged-as-granite Heathcliff, on the spooky, windswept Yorkshire moors, isn’t it? A kind of dark and dour Romeo and Juliet?

That’s not the half it. Literally, the latter half the story is usually skimmed over by the films of it, and the deeply strange non-romance of Heathcliff and Cathy is only part of the slow-burning horror of Heathcliff’s revenge on everyone around him, which is what it’s really about.

The narration is split between the out-of-town gentleman Mr Lockwood, who stumbles upon the godawful family situation, and the life-long housekeeper Nelly, who fills in the history to him. Both are kind, sympathetic, intelligent and perceptive and both find the Heathcliff and Cathy business exasperating, frightening, sad and downright unhealthy – and it is clear this is to some extent also the author’s take. But it’s also clear Bronte has some empathy with the ferocity of the doomed pair's feelings, as they're so vividly drawn and explored. There is something seductive, alluring, even sweet, about their bond, which leaves you questioning what you actually feel about it – is it the one admirable saving grace of the awful pair? Or is it just bullshit?

My mother, who read The Heights in school, put it this way: You read it when you’re young and it’s so tragic and romantic; you read it when you’re older and you just want to shake everyone for being so daft, ugly and selfish. I think this puzzling contrast is precisely why I enjoyed it so much, because I can see both coming to it now, as a man whose world view has migrated very far from my teen and twenty-something self – I was that intense, sullen loner who listened to Nine Inch Nails and struck the tragic romantic martyr pose. The strength of the book is that it is ambiguous and multi-faceted enough to encourage such questioning, and I suspect that’s exactly how it was intended – not as an endorsement of any one take, but as an exploration of the baffling excesses of human nature.

Heathcliff and Cathy are never lovers

Of course a novel of this time is not going to have overt sexy sex in it; but beyond that Heathcliff and Cathy are simply not together, in a romantic way, at all as adults, despite the artistic licence of various film adaptations. I actually think this is utterly key to their strange relationship – they are more like siblings than they are lovers – at ease in each other’s company in a way they aren’t with other people, but also encouraged to cruel sniping and childishness – and their bond makes more sense seen with their early “terrible twins” relationship in mind. There is tenderness and kissing and hand-holding and bashful amorous looking in the book – but for the most part that's between other characters, not them, apart perhaps from their very final meeting when it’s all far too late.

No – what Heathcliff and Cathy are is two free-spirited adoptive siblings, set together against the world at an early age (and remember their “world” is only their family and servants). All their happy times together are as children, running away from the unhappy household, made bored and sad when forced apart from their playmate. This is why it makes sense that they hold onto this feeling that there is no one else in the world who could ever understand them like each other. But by the time they are in their mid teens, it’s like Hot Chocolate’s It Started With A Kiss – Cathy has already discovered other people (the Lintons) and that drives a wedge between them.

For the rest of the book their “romance” is a fantasy in each other’s respective heads, fuelled by not being together – in reality when they do fleetingly meet they are often arguing, misunderstanding and hurting each other, yet both grip, like a comfort blanket, to the idea they are somehow linked by the soul and cannot be happy without each other, even while doing this.

It’s more Greek tragedy than Shakespearian

Much can be made of the star-crossed lovers thing, as Heathcliff is socially out-of-bounds for Cathy, being adopted, of uncertain race, and degraded to the role of a semi-literate servant by the time they are coming of age. But this is not Romeo and Juliet. The pair may be sympathetic as children, but as adults they heap suffering on themselves through their own character flaws. In Greek tragedy that was a big thing – the protagonist is always some frightful Gawd-‘elp-us, with extreme pride, obsession, ideology, stubbornness or anger issues that you can see leading to trouble a mile off, and half the appeal is the anticipation of their inevitable gory demise because of it. This is basically the template of The Heights.

Young Cathy is certainly free-spirited enough to ignore the judgement of her family and elope with Heathcliff – she isn’t coerced to marry Edgar Linton instead, she actually wants to because she fancies him and is enamoured with the idea of being the local lady of the manor. She wants to have her cake and eat it, somehow thinking Heathcliff can come with her and will be fine with this. We know this will go tits-up from the moment she says it.

Heathcliff for his part royally screws any chance of being reconciled with Cathy later because, just as things seem to have found an uneasy balance where everyone can see each other and get along, he deliberately exploits and elopes with Edgar’s sister Isabella because he’s so obsessed with getting his revenge on the Lintons – without a thought for how that will also hurt Cathy. So much for romance. From that point on he’s a happiness-sucking black-hole bogey-man who spreads a thick blanket of shit over everything he comes within 10 paces of. He lives in self-imposed exile from any chance of contentment due to his own pointless revenge obsession.

Catherine is silly, insensitive, selfish and full-of-herself; Heathcliff is cruel, obsessive, greedy and empathy-deficient. It’s not a case of whether Heathcliff and Cathy would have been happy if it wasn’t for society’s rules, man – they bring their misery on themselves, by being themselves.

There are unwitting descriptions of clear mental health issues

A shocking total of 11 characters ­– more than two thirds of the “cast” – die from "illness" during the roughly 30 years covered. And no wonder the death toll is like a 1980s slasher flick when their grip on medical matters is so sketchy – “consumption” is mentioned once, "fever" a couple of times but generally people just die of being "ill", which seems to cover everything from having a cold to childbirth, as well as being in low spirits or having been out in the rain.

But the psychological observations are rather more ahead of their time. Every character has a set of well-drawn and unique dispositions, drives and demons, and how characters can be transformed by what happens (or doesn’t happen) to them is a common theme. On top of that, Catherine and Heathcliff both exhibit clear mental health issues that are not so fanciful as they might first appear.

Cathy has "fits" that may or may not be for show, but are certainly self-induced, and goes out of her way to punish herself, lock herself away, disappear into reveries, self harm and refuse to eat. In the context of a 19th century romantic novel this might look melodramatic, until you realise that people actually do exhibit such behaviours when in crisis; and one wonders if Bronte had come across such rather than just making it up. In that light the standard response of "oh she's just after attention" or "she's just trying to get her way" looks shockingly inadequate.

Meanwhile Heathcliff shows cripplingly obsessive behaviour all round, not just in his feelings for Cathy. He gives his entire adult life over to the task of plotting to possess and ruin everything that belongs to the only two families he's ever known along with, of course, thinking 24/7 about Cathy – and continues both obsessions even 20 years after she, and later everyone who actually wronged him, is dead. No man was ever more in need of a distracting hobby. I mean sheesh, Heathcliff, whittle some wooden sheep or take up yodeling or something. This may seem like his character is superficially drawn, but it isn't, the book is very much interested in what is going on in the head of that strange fish.

And the guy also has suspiciously sociopathic tendencies, in that he just doesn’t seem to be able to empathise with anyone at all, treating everyone bar Cathy as an object to play with or despise. It never occurs to him that could be the source of his continued tortured misery, not the solution. With that in mind, while his occasional exhibitions of passion can stir the heart, I was just as tempted call "bullshit" on them – for example when he bangs on about Edgar being unable to feel like he does (so wild and deep and overwhelming is his love blah blah). How the shit would he know? What shred of real insight into other people’s emotions has he ever shown?

There is some cross-over with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

But the suffering isn't all caused by Heathcliff. The story is a parable about the cycle of abuse passed down through generations. The Earnshaw dad treats his kids pretty shoddily towards the end of his life, especially Hindley; Hindley becomes master of the Heights, then treats his adopted brother Heathcliff, and later his own son Hareton, awfully; Heathcliff becomes master of the Heights and treats everybody who comes under that roof awfully. Nobody is ever happy for long in that accursed house, but Heathcliff shows no awareness his own project of nastiness is less a rebuttal and more an endorsement of the nastiness dished out to him. He's a hypocrite in that sense, and just not that self-aware, for all his Machiavellian manipulations.

There is also some cross over with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre here – in that you realise all of this is only happening because the Earnshaw family is so cut off, with only each other and the Lintons to obsess over and no outside influence to tell them this isn't normal and there are alternative ways of being. In that sense it stands in a long line of gothic horror that riffs on decadent, incestuous, mutated things-going-wrong due to prolonged rural isolation.

It’s the ghostly elements that validate the "romance" of it

Ultimately, it's the supernatural elements that provide the book's sucker punch (as well as making a lot more sense of some Kate Bush lyrics). Sure, Bronte leaves any ghostly goings-on ambiguous, pooh-poohed by the narrators as just dreams, superstitious imaginings, sickly hallucinations – but she wouldn't have included them if you weren't supposed to consider “but what if...”

And just as you've written off the whole sorry "love" affair as the delusional and destructive BS of a couple of dickheads, you realise their souls were in fact united after death; their love was such a juggernaut it survived the flesh; and they both chose to shun heaven to be forever tormented together on the desolate moors – and that Nine Inch Nails-listening goth kid in me resurfaces and swoons "Oh!"

For a few seconds. Then you recall they were both such silly, nasty gits that, well, good riddance to them and maybe they could have just f***ed off together in the first place and saved everyone else the grief. I know love can be thus, but their "romance" is just too tunnel-visioned, strangely joyless and downright odd to really be held up as an example for anyone to want to emulate in the final account, I think.

The real romance is not Catherine and Heathcliff

Now the real romance of the story is that between the younger Cathy (Catherine and Edgar's daughter) and Hareton. Because it happens against the odds by a mutual effort of forgiveness and understanding – and blissfully succeeds in finally dissipating the storm clouds of decades, transforming years of cyclical abuse into something happy and healthy (that is, ignoring the fact that they are close cousins, beggars can’t be choosers y'know)... but I've already gone on too long, so read it yourself.

Monday, 28 November 2016


"Without music, life would be a mistake" - Friedrich Nietzsche.

You’d think by now it would have ceased to surprise me, but if anything it just baffles me more these days: Why does music work? And, since I agree with Friedrich up there, why the hell does messing about with sound even matter, let alone matter so much to me? It’s as if its very presence in modern life is a constant reminder that the human world is not fundamentally based on rationality, but strange half-understood emotional impulses and ritualised behaviour. I mean it makes no sense does it? Why should the manipulation of tonal vibrations and rhythms be so powerful and beloved, to point its everywhere in society and the people who make it can be so prized and idolised?

That said, I know for many it’s really never much more than wallpaper to hum or dance to. I even struggle to explain it to people in my life, who hear me noodling around, once again, with this or that instrument or piece of machinery for no apparent end; or listen uncomprehendingly to maybe a minute from one of the dozens of hours of odd and jarringly disparate constructions I have spent so many days crafting... and say “that’s nice dear” or shrug “s’alright I 'spose”. I’ve accepted I have to say it’s a hobby, as if it simply occupies a place in my life like rollerblading or playing Pokemon Go. Of course, it is a hobby, it is, but...

I am nearly 40, long past the teenage tribalism of music-as-fashion-identity, long past any desire to get up on stage and strut my stuff, long past any dream of turning it into a career ­– all of this is virtually irrelevant now. Many of my contemporaries, even those who were seriously into their music, have to some extent left it partially behind by this stage, putting away the proverbial toys in the proverbial attic, while their listening has not gone much beyond what they loved when they were 25.

And yet, now, at the start of middle age, dicking about with noise and finding stuff to listen to is as utterly vital to me as ever, if not in resurgence. So what is this all about, if not an early midlife crisis?


One of the reasons I value music so much now, as opposed to when I was 17, is for its therapeutic quality. That's more important now, with the stresses and strains of "adulting", than it was back then, when I was basically just dreaming of being a rock star. I seriously cannot recommend enough what a wonderful thing it is to be able to play an instrument, what a balm it is in the face of world-closing-in stress and black-fug-of-the-soul gloom.

Of course, on the one hand it is an expressive release to channel your feelings through your fingers and have it feedback into your ears – and songwriting has in the past acted as a very precise way of articulating what I was feeling and why, all wrapped up in a finely honed and quite pretty package, like spewing your thoughts out in a letter and analysing and refining them until you’re satisfied. It is satisfying and very cathartic, and you have a little proud gem of a creation to show for your troubles, to keep (and perhaps later cringe at) for all eternity.

But on another level just playing for just yourself is a kind of mindfulness, to use the parlance of our times. I love the fact that picking up an instrument and playing, for no particular end other than to enjoy it, puts you in a state of concentration that has nothing to do with work or practical worries, the pressures of the world, the current state of your bank balance or relationships, or whatever. For half an hour or so you are only concerned with producing a pleasing or interesting sound, and nothing outside of that matters. It’s the act of being-through-playing – it’s damn Zen, dammit, and I constantly forget just how much it clears my head and makes me feel better, bringing at least some degree of calm and content for a moment, along with the thankful knowledge that there is more to life than my current anxious obsessions – there is this too.

And if anyone is any doubt of how deeply playing an instrument can impact on your mental state, take a look at this shizz; or this.

For these reasons I would encourage anyone thinking of taking up an instrument to do it just for themselves – don’t worry about how good you are or how much you need to practice, just dabble in a meditative way on a regular basis and you will slowly find you can do more and more. Approach it not as work, but as exploring and playing.


Without a doubt one of the central elements to my relationship with music is play – it’s not lost on me that getting a new piece of kit to play about with is about the only thing that gives me the same feeling as an adult as getting Lego when I was kid. Pieces of musical gear are big boys toys, yes, and I’m completely unrepentant about that. Again this works on lots of levels.

At the most basic there is the actual moulding and finessing of raw sound. With something like a synthesiser you can approach it in two ways – as an instrument to play, yes, but also as a straight sound-manipulation machine. I tell you, getting your hands on a proper synthesiser is like being handed a fresh piece of shiny, glittery Play Doh which you can kneed and sculpt to your heart’s content until you’ve got something ace. You can tweak away until a boring off-the-peg noise turns into something huge, or achingly atmospheric, or one type of sound completely changes into another – and then save it out and start all over again. Something similar can be said of messing about with effects pedals or recording techniques. It’s great fun, fascinating and exciting.

Then you can take up the instrument as an instrument and just noodle around in the therapeutic way described above, testing and exploring what accents, chords, rhythms and melodies you can coax from it, and when you hit on something that sounds good, keep doing it – the next thing you know you have pretty passage or wonderful riff that you can develop further... and before you know it you’re on your way to writing something. And all the time, you’re learning, practising, improving.

Finally, you can take these sounds, these passages and put them together like ingredients in a pot and see how they cook, as it were – one of the most satisfying things for me is the moment when, having roughly planned out the structure of a song and tried a few different things together, you actually record a few elements layered over each other and then play it back – and, if it works, suddenly it’s more than the sum of its parts; you’ve created something bigger and with more emotional guts and punch than the simple handful of riffs and noises you started with. It's sheer joy.

At every stage you are exploring and playing, checking what you can do and what works, learning and then doing it all again – it keeps your “inner child” alive and it’s got to be good for the plasticity of the brain.

*A note of caution with this approach, though, is that it probably explains a lot as to why I never attempted a music-related career or became seriously good at any one instrument – I may wish I could play piano properly but I was always much more interested in messing about with studio gear, doing bonkers, non-linear things with instruments and putting together songs, than I ever was with learning to read music and practising scales in any systematic way. I never wanted it to be work.


The older I get the more fascinated and awed I am with the raw stuff of music. For my money it’s the most direct and immediately affecting of the arts, but also one of the most abstract – even though I now know a lot about the tricks, techniques and building blocks of the stuff, there is still so much to learn.

It still seems like utter alchemy how the simple pairing of two or three or four notes, or the contrast of one chord changing to another, or just a tiny shift up or down the scale against a droning root note, can have such an immediate and visceral effect on the emotions. You can evoke the whole range of responses, from sadness to joy to unease to warmth to rage to surprise to surging triumphalism, by a simple shift of the fingers, by changing tensions on groups of strings or the size of resonant chambers – and the effect it has is mind boggling, sheer magic. The same can be said of the sounds themselves, different textures, timbres and resonant frequencies, along with rhythms and tempos.

Why it is so utterly effective at mood manipulation is mysterious, but certainly has something to do with innate responses – such as the (probably) in-born discomfort and alarm at discordant or sudden sounds, related to danger or the crying of an infant, say... or the soothing effect of the mother’s heart beat in the womb, maybe. Certainly the preference for sonic harmony seems to be a universal trait.

Other responses are learnt, particularly the pairing of certain instrument sounds with the time and place they were most used (note everything with a Fender Rhodes electric piano in it immediately sounds like the 1970s) or the pairing of songs with what was happening in your life at the time (an otherwise cheesy ballad can attain deeply affecting grand pathos forevermore if it was on the radio when you split up with a childhood sweetheart or lost a beloved pet, for example).

What’s more, these relatively straightforward responses can then be played with and built upon in ever more complex ways, so you can find yourself enjoying uncomfortable discord if used in the right context, to evoke pleasingly empathetic anguish, righteous anger, or anarchic spirit; or re-imagining a familiar chord progression, melody, or band sound into something new and different, while still riffing on the emotions the original version provoked.

All of this combines to mean certain genres – instrument combinations, styles of playing, song structures, production techniques and other musical tropes and ticks – can be massively evocative of whole worlds. You can be transported to a baroque-period German cathedral, or an English seaside ballroom in the 1930s, or a San Francisco jazz club in the 1950s or a sticky-floored gig in Manchester in 1979, or downtown New York at the same time, or somewhere on a Polynesian island at an indeterminate time in the past, or even THE FUTURE, but how it looked in the 1980s. The sound tells a story, and an immersive one, and that’s a large part of its appeal.

It’s got to be said there is a degree of escapism about this, as there is with a lot of art – but also, as with a lot of art, it reminds you there is so much more to the human world and human history than your own time and place and everyday obsessions. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your bureaucracy.


It is a wonder that music (or art in general) exists at all and continues to hold such an unquenchable fascination and central place in human society, I suppose. On the surface it would seem there is little rational about it, no obvious practical purpose. But then again, through the abstract manipulation of sound we can represent the world in metaphor and powerfully communicate things we struggle to articulate in words alone.

We like to think our actions are motivated by reason and logic but that, to me, has always seemed like a laughable pretence; no, the world and people’s activity is made up of an impenetrably complex web of innate and learnt reactions and gut drives, constantly pinging off each other and feeding back again and again until it’s hard to see what is what. The rational is but a thin veneer on the top, like glib lyrics sung over a minor masterpiece.

Music is perhaps an abstract metaphor for all of this activity, the complexity of the world in microcosm: Endlessly adaptable, infinitely complex in its history and interplay, expressing and provoking the full spectrum of mood, and modes of being. Spanning all human history and culture, it is a mirror of us – and of life itself. I’m not sure what we would be if we took it away.