Interesting Opportunities

2020 has been, undoubtedly, an interesting year. If you follow me on social media, what I’m about to share you may already know, but if you missed it, here’s this week’s news.

To start from the beginning, back in August, a friend contacted me about some photographs I’d posted on Instagram. I’d been messing about while on furlough, taking photographs and stitching them together in Insta’s layout app, to create images that looked like I was in the photo twice.

As I say, just a bit of fun (which I’ve previously referred to here), but it seemed to resonate, people found them quite striking. Then m’colleague Paula got in touch with me to say that I’d hit upon something that might make an interesting art project, and could open up some conversation on mental health and the experience of lockdown. And lo, The Split Project was born.

Then, things got even more fun. I got a message on Instagram from Monica from the How We Get By podcast. Monica is a remarkable young woman (and an absolute sweetheart) who in response to her own mental health issues and personal trauma, started a podcast from her bedroom in Scranton to talk to people about what they do to get by. Usually with people she knows, from her life, but she took saw The Split Project, was intrigued by the images and decided to reach out. She invited me onto her podcast and, given my two favourite subjects to talk about are (i) mental health and (ii) myself, I couldn’t resist saying yes.

The conversation was wide-ranging, very honest and, most importantly, a lot of fun. I’ve never thought of myself as any kind of MH advocate, so to be invited as a guest to talk about my experiences was incredibly gratifying. Monica’s podcast is very accessible, she’s a great interviewer, and a frank and honest woman. I’m a big a fan.

If you want to give it a listen, you can access the episode here (you can listen on Spotify, as well as a range of other podcast platforms).

As I said at the top, it’s been a bizarre year, but one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes the most interesting opportunities can arise out of adversity, and being open to these opportunities can turn out to be a lot of fun. Thanks Monica!

Trying to stay positive

Yesterday, my emotional reaction to my situation finally broke out. Ridiculously, I was in the garden looking at our tomatoes, and the realisation that it was the 1st September and none of our tomatoes had ripened made me suddenly feel as if I had failed at something. And in moments, everything else just came crashing over me and I started weeping, and couldn’t stop.

Having been on furlough for five months or so, and now being made redundant, it suddenly felt as if everything I’d been doing to keep focussed, stay positive and be productive was just me wasting time instead of facing my imminent unemployment and doing something about it. I felt as if I’d had my head in the sand, that I’d just been playing through my situation, treating it like a holiday. I felt stupid, and a fraud, and utterly useless. I felt, keenly, as if I had let my wife down. Everything that I’d been telling myself about our financial situation, and the time I had to resolve this issue, was just me avoiding the situation.

Now, I know that this is not the case. The truth is, we are financially in a position where we have a few months (at least until 2021) to work out where I, and we, go next. I have been applying for jobs. I have, critically, so far as my well-documented mental health history goes, got out of bed, got dressed and been productive every single day of the last five months. There’s been days, don’t get me wrong, where I’ve wanted nothing more than just to stay in bed and feel sorry for myself. But in five months, I’ve never given into that. And the fact that I’ve stayed on an even keel (mostly) is important, you could argue was my first priority. But the fact is that sooner or later, I was going to be swamped by these feelings. And yesterday was the day, it seems.

Perhaps not by chance, yesterday I also had a pre-arranged meeting with my vicar, just to catch up, and talk a bit about how I was doing having lost my job. So later that day, after the crash, I went up to church and saw him. We talked for about an hour and a half, about all sorts of things, my job, politics, theology, my mental health. I won’t go into details, but one of the things he advised when I told him of the crash I’d experienced that morning was to make a list of the things I had achieved over the summer. This should be encouraging, at least, but also help me focus on what’s worked for me, where I’ve found satisfaction, and therefore what I might want my life to look like in the future.

This is that list.

  • I have got out of bed, dressed and been productive every day.
  • I’ve been gardening, much more than previous years. Our garden looks as good as it ever has, and I’ve engaged with it more, connected with it more.
  • I have started sketching, in an effort to see if I can improve my limited artistic skills.
  • I’ve taken on the bulk of all the cleaning, shopping, cooking and other chores at home. My wife is still working, so I’ve been in full support mode, and its meant that our weekends have been our own, and we’ve been able to get on with some other projects.
  • I’ve been writing.
  • I’ve submitted a finished manuscript to three publishers.
  • I’ve self-published, via Amazon’s KDP, the first of my sci-fi trilogy, having proofed and edited it properly.
  • I’ve begun properly editing the sequel.
  • I’ve taken a whimsical idea I was messing about with and, with the encouragement of a colleague, turned it into an ongoing online art project, dealing with mental health.
  • I’ve been approached, off the back of this, by a podcaster in the US who’s invited me to participate in her MH podcast.
  • I’ve maintained a good solid relationship with my wife, given the unusual circumstances of us being together practically 24/7 for five months.
  • We’ve taken steps to improve our mortgage situation.
  • I’ve shopped for our neighbour, and made myself available to do so for a number of vulnerable people around us.
  • I’ve reconnected with my niece.
  • I’ve taken the most technical and fiddly part of my job and passed it over, successfully and remotely, to a colleague.
  • I’ve reset my passwords for all my many and varied online accounts.
  • I’ve started reading more about Feminism.
  • I’ve become more politically engaged.
  • I’ve tried to educate myself by attending some of the Green Party’s online events.
  • I’ve kept up a video diary recording my experience of furlough, anxiety attacks, disappointment, fear, and all.
  • I’ve dabbled in stop-motion filming.
  • I’ve written my most-read blog.
  • I’ve overcome my scepticism at this process, as I’ve seen how long this list has actually become.
  • I’ve been there for my parents when they’ve needed me, for shopping or helping my dad with a shed.
  • I’ve helped my brother overcome an anxiety issue with wearing a mask for work.
  • I’ve continued meditating, including using it as part of my personal worship during the time that churches weren’t open.

I hope I remember to look at this the next time I feel like shit.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Things are not going well for Boris Johnson. As the Conservatives slump in the polls, previously-loyal supporters of the PM are openly talking about how difficult it is for rank-and-file Tory MPs to defend Government policy to their constituents in the face of growing u-turns in the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now I will say, this has been an incredibly difficult period to be in charge of anything, from small businesses to national government. The world hasn’t faced anything like this for over 100 years, it would be unreasonable to expect there to be no mistakes in handling it. Some things the government has got right, and some it hasn’t. Furthermore, some of the things it’s got wrong have been forgiveable, some have not. I wouldn’t want to be in Johnson’s shoes for a moment. But the fact is that over 41,000 people have died in the UK from this disease and one has to wonder how many of them might have been saved if, for example, Johnson hadn’t scrapped the Cabinet pandemic committee six months before this crisis to focus on his beloved Brexit.

Johnson looks troubled. When we see him, that is. While A-level students faced a crisis recently, Johnson was notably absent from the public eye, on yet another holiday. He is not, it has to be said, that impressive when on public display. Whether he’s hiding in a fridge to avoid Piers Morgan (okay, yes, wouldn’t we all), or haranguing MPs to return to Parliament at the height of the pandemic because he performs better with an audience, Johnson’s public appearances appear to be being limited, and strictly controlled, seemingly because he’s, well, not very good at it.

Having avoided the public eye during the A-levels fiasco, he did charge back to the nearest camera to make known his opinion about the largely-engineered non-story of the BBC supposedly dropping Land of Hope and Glory from the Proms because of Black Lives Matter, his opinion being that we should stop being ashamed of our slave-owning history, because Rule Britannia, Brexit, Spitfires, bulldogs etc etc. Because playing to the crowd in the Culture Wars is more his forte than serious political decision making. Or, for that matter, taking responsibility for things. He even made the Trump-esque move of saying that “they” didn’t want him saying this; the London based old Etonion Conservative millionaire Prime Minister setting himself up as the anti-establishment figure he so rightly should be recognised as.

But if there is one consolation (and I repeat, over 41k dead), one small piece of solace that I can draw from this situation is that Johnson, having spent his entire career, and arguably his entire life, maneuvering for this job, is clearly not enjoying it even remotely. He’s taken over, as noted above, just in time for the worst public health crisis in over a century. The pandemic has kicked the seemingly unconquerable Brexit into the long grass, which is a real shame, as that’s what Johnson would much rather be talking about. The climactic political move that landed him at number 10 is now utterly overshadowed by all these people dying everywhere, and it just isn’t fair. Much like his equivalent across the Atlantic, Johnson never expected to have to do this much work and, as a result, he’s doing everything he can to avoid doing any. For Trump’s golf, read Johnson’s holidays. But where I’m still undecided as to whether Trump was even aiming for a win in that first election, or whether it was just a bid to improve his standing at NBC, there’s no question that Johnson really wanted this job, and has been gunning for it his whole career. In the end, however, I firmly believe that both Trump and Johnson had an idea of leadership that revolved around power, prestige, money (at least in Trump’s case) and swanning about having people carry out their every whim. What neither expected, and what landed on them like a ton of bricks with the Covid-19 pandemic, was a requirement for actual work. And now both the UK and the US have leaders who’d much rather be getting out of the office and on the golf course/beach than sitting at a desk having to do stuff.

So what’s the point of this piece, did I just sit down to slate Johnson? Well no, as easy as that would be (and it would be so, so, so easy), it’s not really on if that’s all I want to do. The point that I’m trying to make is about our motives for doing things. I’m still naive enough to believe that most politicians, of any persuasion, started their career out of a belief that they had something to give. Public office should be about duty, and about service. I’d defy even the most die-hard Trump supporter to claim, with a straight face, that Trump stood for election out of a desire to serve others. There is nothing about the man that suggests he has ever had a moment’s consideration for anyone else. And there is certainly a core of top, publicly-schooled, MPs who went into politics either out of a desire for power or, and maybe this is worse, because it seemed like a favourable alternative to getting a job.  But for most, on both sides of the aisle, I believe it was a case of looking at the world, wanting it to be better, and having an idea of how they could help achieve that. And Johnson’s all-too-apparent dissatisfaction with where he finds himself is a marked sign that that wasn’t in his thinking when he aimed for the top seat. Do things for the wrong reason, take on a role about serving others with the prime intention of serving yourself, and it’s not going to work out the way you want it to.

This is a lesson for all of us. As easy as it would be to point and laugh at this beleaguered, artfully-disheveled buffoon (so, so easy), we should be careful, because the lesson here is for all of us. We achieve more, and derive more satisfaction, when we do things for the right reason. There is happiness to be found in doing things for others, and one doesn’t have to watch Boris Johnson or Donald Trump for long to see the result of a life lived purely for oneself.

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

On September 23rd 2011, I sent an email. This email was to a lovely lady called Penny, thanking her for her letter and confirming that on the 4th October I would report for duty at my new job as a Box Office Assistant at Norwich Theatre Royal. This marked the opening of what has been undoubtedly the happiest chapter of my working life.

In fact, that chapter had a prologue, it should be said. In August the previous year, I’d sent another email. This one was to a lovely lady called Vikki, confirming my attendance at an induction session to be a volunteer steward at Norwich Playhouse. I remain convinced that, in addition to my outstanding performance at my interview, this experience at the Playhouse was a major contributory factor to me getting the Box Office job.

The volunteering came about because I was on the skids after crashing out of my previous job at the Council (long story, told before). I thought the voluntary work would boost my self-esteem as well as looking, altogether now, “good on my CV”. Ten years of stewarding later… but I digress.

Back to Sept 2011, and my new job. This would turn out to be the turning point in what had been a sticky few years. Losing a job just as you’re buying a house is… a challenge. Yet it turned out, unbeknownst to me at the time, it wasn’t just a new job I’d landed, it was a new outlook, a fresh start, a cultural awakening, a new home and a new family. All in all, quite the package.

The friends I’ve made in the Box Office, and in the rest of the Theatre, have made this like no other work environment. Hannah, who started on the same day as me and was my training buddy, is still one of my closest friends, though she moved on from the Theatre years ago. I was with Nathan the night that Macaulay Culkin  was the most unexpected surprise guest at an Adam Green show at the Waterfront. I’ve rediscovered a love of table tennis thanks to Tim, and enjoyed a host of new boardgames with Cutlerrrr. Shared a love of Lego with Bear, comedians with Jason, books with Jane, films with Lisa (Lisa Lisa)… Chatted absolute shite with Chris…

When I got married, it was my Box Office brethren who tied balloons to my chair and gave us the most thoughtful wedding gift of a lovely, wooden Monopoly set, knowing my love of boardgames (compare that to the fountain pen my previous employers presented me with as a leaving gift). Nearly 1 in 5 of my Facebook friends are work friends (and it might even get to 1 in five if Andrew ever accepts my request…) And without throwing my lot in with this crowd, I would never have ended up going to Cardiff with Caz and Vikki to go on TV’s hardest quiz Only Connect. From Box Office, via a brief stint of admin in the exec office, to my current position in Marketing, I have been surrounded by good people. Lovely, caring, fun people who share a love of the Arts, and who have held me up and kept me going when my mental health problems have gotten hold of me. I’ve been managed by warm sympathetic managers, Penny, Kath, Jo, Mark, who have encouraged and nurtured me. I’ve felt safer, and happier, and more motivated in this environment than anywhere else I’ve worked, by far.

And aside from the people, to work in the Arts… To get to see world class opera and dance, often for free. To have seen productions from Matthew Bourne, Glyndebourne, the National Theatre, the ENO, Northern Ballet, Rambert, Richard Alston, Carlos Acosta… To have developed a love for ballet and opera I wouldn’t have thought was within me. This education, this flourishing of my soul, is a gift. A gift, furthermore, that I was paid to be part of. I should never have thought I could be so lucky.

All good things come to an end though. I haven’t worked since the end of March this year, for Pandemic-related reasons. Furloughed, and in limbo, we have now, alas, reached the end of that journey. The arts bailout that was so long in being announced, and has been even longer in actually materialising, has come too late for us. The furlough scheme is being wound up (for everyone at the same time, making no allowances for the yawning gulf between those companies who have been able to resume business and those that are still potentially months from being able to function normally again), and the Theatre can no longer keep over 50% of its staff sitting around doing nothing while there’s no income coming in.

That wonderful, restorative, life-affirming and life-changing journey that started back in September 2011 ends tomorrow with redundancy. These wonderful people who I hope I will still see again, though in all reality many of whom I may not, will no longer be my colleagues, though they will still be my friends. I don’t want to talk about the prospect of unemployment, as serious as that is for all of us, because this post isn’t intended to be about the loss of a job. It is about so much more than that. For me, at least, it’s the loss of a home, and the loss of a family. I never expected to find this once, so I would certainly be surprised if I was lucky enough to find it twice.

But I am eternally grateful that I did find it, and that I got to experience it for nearly nine years. You’ve changed me, for the better. And for that I thank each and every one of you for the part you’ve played in making this experience so wonderful. I wish all of you, those staying and those moving on, the very best for the future. I shall always look back on the time we shared together as one of the best I’ve ever had.

Cheers.

#teamntr4life

Black Art Matters

Over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about race. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, just as I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering what my role is here. Be aware of my privilege, sure. I’m a white, hetero, middle-class man – I’m aware I tick all the boxes of life’s lottery, just as I’m aware that the fact that I experience hardships of my own doesn’t invalidate that privilege. I can listen, which seems super important, especially when white Americans tell me that their nationality means I should listen to them on this issue, even when what they’re saying doesn’t exactly chime with what I hear about the same issues from black Americans. I get the white saviour thing, I get the not filling up the Black Lives Matter hashtag with well-meaning black boxes that swamp actual needed information.

I do get slightly confused when I see some people saying that I should talk to black people about how I should react, and other people just as strongly saying I shouldn’t be relying on black people to tell me what to do. But that’s because expecting ‘black people’ to be some kind of homogeneous, single, agreeing entity is one thing I shouldn’t be doing.

Fact is, I’m a white middle-aged man from Norfolk, one of the least racially diverse places in England. It’s reasonable to expect that I can only deal with this badly wherever I step. So I figured, be me about it. What’s a thing that I do anyway, that I could do and make relevant to this?

A few weeks ago, as part of the relentless drive to find something to do to fill the long hours of lockdown, I posted a series of paintings on Facebook. One a day, in the style of those ‘I nominate…’ challenges, with a bit about why it was it important to me, where I’d seen it etc. Talking about the arts is a me thing. I work in a Theatre, I love museums, galleries, books… That’s my home turf. And it occured to me this week, looking back at the ten paintings I chose, there is a kind of a running theme, in so far as it seems like I really like art by white guys.

I don’t know much about black artists, or indeed any artists of colour. I could say that the conversation around art tends to stick to a known selection of (white) names, but then I’m ignorant enough to not even know if that’s true, really. It’s certainly not an excuse. It’s uncomfortable to realise that I would struggle to name more than a handful of artists of colour. Basquiat is one.

basquiat

And then there’s… Shit. This is not good.

I don’t know anything about, for example, Robert S. Duncanson, the 19th Century landscape painter.

duncanson

Son of a carpenter, grandson of a slave, Duncanson moved to Cincinnati to pursue a career in the fine arts, though he spent time in Canada and the UK during the civil war. His work gained international recognition, and he was the most successful  of the very small number of 19th Century black American landscape artists.

I know nothing about Amrita Sher-Gil, one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th Century.

Sher-Gil

Referred to sometimes as the Indian Frida Kahlo (I know who she is!), Sher-Gil’s work has been classified as National Art Treasures by the Indian government. Born in Hungary, before moving to India, she then traveled to Paris to study art at the age of 16. She tragically died, aged 28, just days before the opening of her first major solo show in Lahore, in 1941.

I know nothing about Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose mother was born a slave and escaped to the North via the Underground Railway…

tanner

… or the sculptor Edmonia Lewis, who in 1877 was taking commissions from people such as President Grant, but who by 1901 was living in London, out of favour and who disappeared from history…

lewis

… or about the photographer James Van Der Zee, leading figure of the Harlem Rennaissance…

van der zee

… or Faith Ringgold,the painter, writer, mixed media sculptor, performance artist and activist…

ringgold

… or Kara Walker, the painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker…

Walker

… or the Abstract Expressionist Norman Lewis

lewis

… I could go on.

There is so much I don’t know, and my ignorance isn’t confined to artists of colour. But I want to know more. There is, for me, few joys greater than finding a new artist whose work I can fall in love with. And let’s be honest, this rarely happens with a google image search. I want to see work in exhibitions, to get up close and appreciate the art on the scale at which it was intended.  Or at the very least, to see it on television, explained and put into context. Because it would be foolish to take the line that one shouldn’t see the colour of the artist, just as it’s foolish to say “I don’t see colour” in any discussion on race. All of us, black, white, man, woman, gay, straight, are shaped by who we are and where we’ve come from. Art is a product of who the artist is, the way they interpret life, the experiences they’ve had. And whilst those experiences continue to be informed by the colour of an artist’s skin, so will their art. So my wish would be for more of these names to be the names that get talked about, the work that people get excited about.

I don’t know much, so my role is to change that, at least. Celebrate, and value, the people of colour who contribute to the areas of life, the cultural areas I’m naturally interested in, to open myself up to a wider world. Because by enhancing and enriching my own experiences, I’ll naturally come to a place where the fact that I’m better informed, and better engaged, will make me a better ally. I’ll make clumsy mistakes along the way – this blog might be one of them. But I can’t ever give up.

World Theatre Day

Tha’s been a rum ol’ week, h’int’t.

It’s not ideal to be ‘celebrating’ World Theatre Day without a Theatre, but this week The Situation finally overtook us completely. Not only is our stage empty, but now so is our building. Those of us still working are doing it from home, in a variety of situations, navigating borrowed kit, new video-calling software and that damned Outlook web interface. And all the while facing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and outraged customers who (entirely understandably) want their money back for shows they’re not seeing, against a background of fear over their own prospects and employment during this time of national and global shutdown. Though to be fair, there are heartening messages of compassion and support from other customers, the understanding and love extended to us lifting us up from the gloom.

One of my colleagues remarked this week that one of the things she kept telling herself was that whatever we were facing, at least we weren’t on the frontlines of this. We’re not health workers, risking exposure to save lives where they can. We’re not supplying food to the housebound, or keeping an essential service going – today I leaned out of my window to thank both my milkman and my postman for their continued service, then went back to my laptop in my PJs. When it comes down to it, we only sell tickets to shows, yeah?

Well, yes and no. The show of support the nation has given the NHS and its staff this past week has been overwhelmingly necessary and deserved. They are truly making sacrifices the rest of us should be on our knees to thank them for (or maybe via the ballot box next GE…)

But to those of my colleagues tempted to wonder whether what we do even matters at a time like this, I would say this. There is an apocryphal tale about Churchill, criticised for spending money protecting the artworks of the capital during wartime, responding “Then what are we fighting for?”

Whilst this is almost certainly untrue, I do find inspiration in the idea. We are, as a species, storytellers. It’s how we define ourselves, how we explain ourselves, and question ourselves. It’s how we hold ourselves to account, and how we ease the burdens we carry. And those of us who work in the Arts may not be a vital part of the mechanism struggling to preserve our society, but we are a vital part of the society others are struggling to preserve. And when the sun rises, when the ghostlight is extinguished and once again we take the stage, that’s when it will be our turn to give what we can to enhance the lives of others. And meanwhile, the work we’re doing now is what will make that possible. So have at it, my friends and colleagues, because I believe, now more than ever, that the work we have to do, IS work that needs to be done.

Realism in art

I write this the day after the 2020 Oscars, where I’m delighted to see that the Best Picture Oscar did not go to 1917. Not that that film doesn’t haven’t have merit, and isn’t a masterpiece of technique. But I’ve seen four films at the cinema in 2020, and 1917 doesn’t even make my Top 3.

I’m not sure what the main driving force behind Mendes’ decision to simulate a single take was, but I’d lay money that the conversation would revolve around immersing the viewer in the story, making them feel as if they’re there. Chasing some notion of authenticity, or realism. But for me the film fails precisely because of that. It looks beautiful, no doubt – those night-time scenes in the town look astounding – and it is certainly an impressive technical achievement. But in terms of immersing the viewer in the story? Not at all. I spent most of the film (when I wasn’t battling motion sickness) being constantly aware of the technique, I was so aware of the Director as a presence that any hope of getting carried away in the story was lost. If you compare that to The Lighthouse (the best film I’ve seen this year), there you have a film that’s so much more gripping and immersive, despite being in black-and-white, and shot so stylistically it borders on the absurd. Because the style serves the narrative, it doesn’t detract from it. To grip your audience, you need to remember that cinema is a storytelling medium. Every year I cry at It’s A Wonderful Life, made nearly 80 years ago, and starring James Stewart, aged 38 at the time, playing a character who at one point is shown “going off to college”. And none of that matters because the film is magical, and connects.

One of the other talking points of films at the moment is the colourblind casting of The Personal History of David Copperfield, an amazingly joyful and entertaining film with a fantastic, multi-ethnic cast that though some usual suspects have made disparaging “Oh I didn’t realise David Copperfield was Indian…” type remarks, actually works for no other reason than Iannucci has cast brilliant actors. Dev Patel’s heritage and skin tone don’t matter in the slightest because he brings life to the role in the most delightful manner. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that his aunt is played by Tilda Swinton, because she too is excellent. It’s a delight of a film, which takes no effort on the audience to suspend their disbelief, because that’s what we do when we’re watching movies. Its when directors fall over themselves to ‘help’ us along that they usually stumble. Remember Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s facial prostheses in Looper? Supposedly because we wouldn’t buy him as a younger Bruce Willis, but resulting in most people watching the film with a voice in the back of their head constantly saying “What have they done to his face?” We know they’re actors, we know it’s a film, you don’t have to keep reminding us. Without the facework, most people would have spent half a second going “Oh, that’s that character when he’s young”, bought into it and never given it a second thought, because JGL is a great actor. Tellingly, in the seven years since Looper, it’s not a way of working that’s taken off.

There was a time in gaming journalism when it seemed like all anybody wanted to talk about was improvements in graphics, and how those improvements made games more immersive. But it’s nonsense, what makes a game immersive is gameplay. Every time. I could play MarioKart (the SNES version) for hours on end, totally immersed, and not because it looked real. And now if we’re not careful films could be making the same mistake. As technology improves, it’s natural people should want to play with it, and see what it can add to their filmmaking. But look at James Cameron’s Avatar. It was an amazing looking film, but also looked great in 2D, and watching it in 2D didn’t require wearing glasses that gave you a slight headache. But storywise? Oh, let’s just do Dances With Wolves in space, it’s the TECHNOLOGY that’s the selling point… And, ironically for a film that’s pushing the 3D envelope, it has one of the most two dimensional villains in movie history.

We’re a storytelling species, it’s how we relate to and pass on history, it’s what drives our art and our culture. Technique will never cover a deficit in content.

Art should pursue truth, but truth is not the same thing as realism. I’ve just finished watching the final episodes of Bojack Horseman, and what does it tell us that one of the most truthful shows about mental health and self-perception, not to mention one of the most emotionally hard-hitting and powerful pieces of tv ever made, is a cartoon about an alcoholic talking horse.

2019

Between falling out with one of my oldest friends, my wife’s ongoing health issues, and the worst six months of my own mental health since, it feels, I was at university, 2019 hasn’t been a vintage one. Factor in the rise of the Far Right at home and abroad, the shocking abandonment of ethics by our government and the continuing environmental catastrophe we wage upon ourselves, things are almost unbearable.

Remembering my blessings takes a conscious effort at the moment, but I am grateful. For my family, my friends, my wife. I’m grateful for my comforts – blessings that so many don’t have. I’m grateful for Yorgos Lanthimos, Olivia Colman, Robin Ince, Daniel Knox, Maren Morris, Rob Daviau, Matt Leacock, Greta Gerwig, Jodie Comer and so many others whose contributions to our cultural life I’ve enjoyed. I’m grateful for Greta Thunberg and the thousands upon thousands of school children she’s inspired. I’m grateful for the friendship of people I’ve never met, thanks to social media, and the old friendships rekindled. And if you’re reading this, I’m grateful for that. And for you.

It’d be a stretch to say I’m optimistic for the New Year, but I am hopeful. For better communication, nobler aims, and a disavowing of the pernicious culture of hate that threatens to permeate our society.

I hope you are well, I hope you’re with loved ones at the start of this New Year, and I hope the future for all of us is something we can make the best of. Be good. Love well.

International Men’s Day

Contrary to what certain disgraced former-tabloid editors would have you believe, International Men’s Day isn’t just a celebration of all things “manly”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. It’s aimed at least in part in tackling the stigma of mental health issues, which men especially find so hard to talk about, specifically because of toxic ideas of what being “manly” is supposed to mean.

Discussing my mental health problems is something these days I’m not afraid to do. It’s been a while since I last posted about them, but today did seem a good opportunity to update my thoughts.

It’s been a tough 18 months. With my appendicitis, Sarah’s ongoing health issues and the bitter breakdown of a close and longstanding friendship, not to mention the ongoing state of the world (rise of the far right, leaving the EU, corruption and dishonesty in politics etc), the additional strain on my already dysfunctional brain has left me, at times, quite addled. Anxiety attacks have been more frequent, I’m back on medication for the first time in well over a decade (with two increases in dosage over the past few months to try and rein it all in), and it’s really started to impact on my work.

But, I am extremely lucky. I work for an employer that takes a compassionate and forward thinking approach to dealing with these things. A caring HR department and an understanding boss have allowed me to continue working whilst we try and find some answers to the problem of getting me back on track. I’ve been to see an Occupational Health professional, and off the back of which I’m currently, for a brief time, working a lighter schedule. And all of this has happened with strong elements of communication, and the clear message that they want to help me. Yes, they want me back to work properly, and getting on with stuff. But because they value me, know what I can give, and want to see me right. I feel valued, and understood, and past experience makes me painfully aware that this is not a universal experience with employers, so I am very lucky to be in the situation I’m in.

And here’s where the International Men’s Day bit comes in, because what makes me a man, I feel, is the difference between how I approach these things now to how I would have done as a child. Being manly isn’t about chopping wood, lifting weights or knowing about soccer. Being manly is about responsibility. The responsibility I have to know when my personal situation is affecting those around me. The responsibility to be grateful for help, and to meet that help halfway – hence why I went to HR today to make sure they were happy with me talking about my reduced hours openly. Not that there’s any reason they shouldn’t, but because it’s an agreement between two parties, and it’s only fair to have that conversation before plastering that online. And hence also why, when they are offering me that help, that I do what I can to improve things for myself, to repay the faith they’ve shown in me. I’m getting professional help, and doing what they advise to help myself. I’m taking my medication, exploring the non-medicinal approaches my GP has also advised – mindfulness, meditation, practical things like no caffeine after 1pm, no phones/tablets after 8pm.

It’s not easy. The first day I left work early, I went home and cried, because as much as my rational brain told me that this was a short-term situation to give me room to breathe so I don’t burn out completely, it was impossible to not feel like this was a failure. It isn’t, and I need to focus on that. But what I know and what I feel aren’t always the same thing. However, feeling sorry for myself won’t repay the trust people have shown in me.

This situation is, I have to keep telling myself, not my fault. But it is my responsibility. It won’t be easy, and I dare say it won’t be 100% successful, but to keep trying, to keep working at it, even when I know how hard it will be and that I’ll probably never quite get there, that’s being a man. Holding myself accountable, and doing what I can to uphold my responsibilities to myself and those around me, that’s being a man.

When you get to the bottom you go back to the top…

And so the great Helter Skelter debate of 2019 rumbles on.

As part of an initiative entitled Seeing It Differently, Norwich Cathedral have, for two weeks (and please bear that timescale in mind) installed a Helter Skelter in the nave. The thinking behind it, which you can read about more fully here, is to bring visitors in and allow them to experience the building in a different way, that will perhaps open up a dialogue that may lead to faith.

If there’s one thing that I do agree with The Right Reverend Dr Gavin Ashenden on, it’s the unlikelihood of that happening. The Cathedral has seen immense crowds descend on it in the past two weeks, but I personally would be surprised if it opened the door to faith for many, if any, of them. Though, of course, I could be wrong. Where I struggle, though, is how that matters. And if Alexander Blackburn is right in his contention  that this will actively lead to fewer Christians, not more, than one has to wonder at the nature of the faith of those who could walk away from the Church over there being a slide at the back of the church for, again, two weeks in the summer holidays.

In all other ways, I couldn’t disagree with Dr Ashenden more. Talk of ‘poisoning the well’ is, to me, sheer lunacy. And the critical comments on the Cathedral’s Facebook page, the responses to their Twitter and Instagram accounts from people who think this is disgraceful, and inappropriate, to have such a thing in a place of worship I find utterly bewildering. I have, and forgive the anecdotal nature of this, seen one comment on Facebook from a gentleman who said both that Norwich Cathedral was one of his favourite church buildings in the country, and that he WOULD NEVER GO THERE AGAIN BECAUSE OF THIS. At the risk of repeating myself – two weeks.

For starters, Norwich Cathedral hosts a number of, shall we say, extra-curricular events throughout the year. They have a close relationship with the Norwich Science Festival, and the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, for one thing. I’ve seen Talvin Singh perform there, and whilst that performance came from a very spiritual place, it could hardly be described as a Christian event. A variety of musicians and other types of performers have used it as a venue. A lot of classical music is sacred music, or has its roots in sacred themes, but that’s by no means true of all classical music, so the many classical concerts that take place in this incredible venue cannot be said to be exclusively Christian events. Art exhibitions, photography exhibitions, book-binding courses, the Cathedral’s own Hostry Festival…The Cathedral has worked hard to take its wonderful building and use it to enhance the cultural, and by no means specifically Christian, life of this city. It is an incredible space – the light quality of its French sandstone alone makes it, for me, one of the most beautiful Cathedrals in the country, if not the most beautiful. The accoustics inside offer a musical experience like no other venue in Norwich. And none of these events have garnered a fraction of the media coverage, or criticism, than this brief school summer holiday activity. The vitriol aimed at the Cathedral and its clergy is nothing short of insane.

Cathedrals and churches have long been central to the communities they are found in. For some communities, the church provides the only communal space. My former church in Brundall had a Friends scheme specifically set up to be a non-Christian group to raise funds for the building, as opposed to any of the Christian activity that took place in it, and villagers who weren’t members of the Church had the opportunity to attend concerts and talks within the worship space, because that space was also theirs. Not only is the Church as community space a historical normality (the people who believe these things go against tradition have no idea what tradition is), I would argue further than these buildings are a huge part of our cultural and historical legacy as a society, and that therefore as custodians of them, we have an active responsibility to make them accessible and available to the community at large, and not to fence them off exclusively for our own use. So long as the activity doesn’t stand in direct opposition to our faith (and to return to our current example, IT’S A SLIDE), I see no reason why we should deem it inappropriate. Their function as a worship space IS central, and should almost be foremost. But it is not exclusive.

Norwich Cathedral have undertaken an ambitious and contentious project in order to welcome people into their church. This is a wonderful thing, and the idea that they should have better weighed the chances of converting people beforehand is abhorrent. The idea that we, as Christians, should only do things for non-Christians if there’s a soul in it for us stands in direct opposition to everything I was ever taught of Christ. Obviously, when there’s an opportunity to open that door for someone, we should do so. But our arms should be open to everyone, all the time, regardless of what we may or may not get out of it. When we as Christians go on social media, or television, to say how wrong this Helter Skelter is, how it trivialises the space, we are essentially saying that not everyone is welcome here. People shouldn’t come in unless they’re here to do what we already do. We don’t want “those sorts” coming in here, with their laughter, and their loud children. We don’t want people to enjoy themselves here, this is a Christian space. You may come in, but on our terms, to partake of our activities, and everything else is forbidden.

I, for one, cannot accept this way of thinking.

And what else that says to me, is that for these critics, the world is divided up into Christian things and non Christian things. Christian time and non Christian time. Christian spaces and non Christian spaces. This I find very disheartening. I don’t imagine for one minute that these people live a life devoid of fun and laughter (well, perhaps…), so it strikes me that for them there is a firm, unassailable barrier between the things in their own life that are of Christ, and then the things they do the rest of the time. The fun things are okay outside of church (I’ve yet to see someone explicitly state they are against slides per se, although I don’t doubt that may still come out), but in church it’s about silence, singing old songs, being quiet, eating small bits of bread, and more silence.

I can’t divide my life like that. I’m not a model Christian by any standard. But I do consider a Christian to be what I am, not just something I do. It’s not something I take up when I go to church of a Sunday, and then put aside when I get home again. I’m a Christian when I sing those old songs and eat that bread, but I’m also a Christian when I watch tv. I’m a Christian when I annihilate my wife at Risk, I’m a Christian when I watch a wrestling match, or buy my comics. I’m a Christian when I watch that sci-fi movie. I’m a Christian when I’m having an anxiety attack. I’m a Christian when I’m moaning about work, and I’m a Christian when I cry at a funeral, or laugh at a party. I’m even a Christian when I laugh at that party because I’ve had one too many G and T’s. It’s not an identity I ringfence for those times and spaces where I’m doing Christian things. I’m a Christian at prayer, and a Christian when I’m sliding down a Helter Skelter (which I did, and it was BRILLIANT). The line between that part of my life which is Christian, and that part that isn’t, for me just doesn’t register. So if slides and fun are not anti-Christian in and of themselves, then how is Norwich Cathedral’s invitation in any way anti-Christian?

And I’m not sure if I mentioned this, because the outrage would certainly suggest that some people think it’s a permanent installation, and people are having to slide down it to get to the communion rail, but it’s only there for two weeks. In the summer holidays.