I’d like to be the one to volunteer…

I’ve just got back from an evening stewarding at Norwich Playhouse, watching the excellent comedian Bridget Christie. Probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen her now, and she was great, as always.

She is just one of a long list of great comedians I’ve seen at the Playhouse which, as those of you familiar with it won’t be at all surprised to hear, was voted Best Comedy Venue for the Midlands & the East at this year’s Chortle Awards. In the near decade I’ve been stewarding there, the list of great acts I’ve seen there is huge – Stewart Lee, David O’Doherty, Robin Ince, Josie Long, Richard Herring, Jeremy Hardy, Sam Simmons, Romesh Ranganathan, Ellie Taylor, Katherine Ryan, Josh Widdicombe, Jon Richardson, Grainne Maguire, Vikki Stone, Seann Walsh, James Acaster, Miles Jupp, Jason Manford, Sara Pascoe… The list goes on and on.

But it’s not just a comedy venue. My first experience of opera was at the Playhouse. I’ve seen jazz, rock, contemporary dance, musicals, plays… I had my most astonishing theatrical experience of my life stewarding there, for the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s mindblowing Life And Times. That was part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival back in 2013, and five years on I’ve still not seen its equal on any stage. I’ve cried watching Camille O’Sullivan there on more than one occasion, and wept with laughter at Adam Buxton’s BUG shows. I’ve even enjoyed stewarding the high quality children’s shows we have like The Tiger Who Came To Tea, What The Ladybird Heard (Spoilers: it was some men) and my personal favourite The Snail And The Whale. Seeing, if you’ll forgive the stereotype, the joy and wonder of the faces of kids as they watch those shows… To be honest, despite being a volunteer, I still feel like I got far more out of it than I ever put in, despite my best efforts. It’s a special venue, and it’s no exaggeration to say it changed my life.

I first started stewarding there when I lost my job at the Council. I was, quite simply, looking for something to. To occupy my time, and to show potential employers that I wasn’t just sitting around during my joblessness. I’ve no doubt that my voluntary position there stood me in good stead when I applied for my first job at the Theatre Royal, and whilst I often credit working at the Theatre Royal as turning my life around, it all started with the Playhouse.

It’s a special place, both to me, and to the city. It forms part of the cultural backbone of our wonderful hometown, and deserves to be lauded for it.

I’ve recently undertaken a web-based course on Stress Control (I may have mentioned once or twice that I’m partial to a bit of the old anxiety and panic), and in the final session they gave five tips on improving your general wellbeing.

  1. Be active
  2. Keep learning
  3. Take notice and live in the present – be curious and reflect on your experiences
  4. Connect with others
  5. Give and Volunteer

By volunteering at the Playhouse, I actually feel that it’s ticked most if not all of those boxes, and I must never forget to be grateful for that.

This was, as it happens, my penultimate stewarding session. It has been a not far off a decade, and when I started I was unemployed, and I then had a part-time job for much of my time there, but since switching back to full-time work last year, the diary has got a little crowded, and so I’ve decided to take a break, at least for a while. In all honesty, I can’t see myself staying away forever (I’m already eyeing upcoming shows wistfully – Rachel Parris? Sofie Hagan?), but for now I think it’s a good time to step back.

But if you’ve ever thought about giving something back to your community, I can promise you, sometimes volunteering can change your life.

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Not coping – an example

It’s 8am. I’m sitting on my bed. We’re supposed to be going out tonight, and to aid our early evening plans, I’d aimed to be sitting down at my desk at work around now. But I’m not, as I said, I’m sitting on my bed. Afraid. A big, black, heavy, iron ball of fear sitting in my stomach. What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of standing up. The very idea of standing up fills me with dread. Also filling me with fear is the idea of staying sitting down. I have literally two courses of action immediately open to me, and both of them fill me with terror. Standing up. Or staying sitting down.

I’m paralysed by fear. Movement’s beyond me, and yet the idea of staying where I am is also terrifying. I, eventually, stand up. I go downstairs. I’m not dressed, as at this moment getting  vertical is taking all my strength, leaving the house and going to work is not remotely on my radar. I stare at the phone. If I don’t go in, I have to call in. But I can’t verbalise this, this makes no sense. And yet it’s my only alternative to getting dressed and leaving the house. And. I. Can’t. Do. That.

I’ve written before about my depression and anxiety, those of you who know me won’t be surprised by this. Sometimes it feels like it’s all I talk about. But it’s mental health awareness week, and it seems my brain wanted me to be aware of the state of my mental health. It’s been a rough year. I was feeling burnt out months ago, when we were desperate to get away on a badly needed holiday, to recharge our batteries, and when my wife fell and fractured her kneecap on the first day resulting in a week of constant stress and  repeatedly phoning our travel insurance company to see if we were going to get to be on our scheduled flight home. We spent two months living with my parents, for whose help and support I could not be more grateful, but it’s not like being at home. I’m still adjusting to full time work after seven years of being part time, and amongst a team of people with skills and experience in my new department, I’m still waiting to BE FOUND OUT. I’m tired all the time. And there are days when I’m thinking dark thoughts about myself and my future that are not helpful, which, even as public as I want to be about my struggles, I’m not going to go into here. I’m also still capable of going out, seeing people, enjoying things, laughing. It isn’t a endless field of bleak, it’s a moment-to-moment see-sawing between the normal and the unbearable. But in eight years of working at the Theatre, I’ve never once missed a day of work as a direct result of my mental health issues. That’s something I’m proud of.

I email my boss. I can’t phone, so I email. Even as I do it, I’m aware that this really isn’t accepted protocol for reporting absence, but I can’t phone, and not doing anything isn’t an option either. I can’t speak, my chest is tight, my breathing ragged, but I’m desperately trying to maintain some semblance of responsibility. I need to sleep it off, so I email, set an alarm for a few hours time and go to sleep. I go in a few hours later, and last roughly two hours before the lights, and the talking and my own weariness make me feel like I’m going to pass out, and then I go home again. I’m not sure I can count this as even partially making it in, so my eight year record is broken. It, this bastard knot of fear inside me, has finally won.

So I go to bed early, have a slight lie-in this morning, and I go into work as normal. Speak to people as normal. Do my job as normal. I’ve apologies to make, and I’ve also to try and convince people that the fact they gave me a couple of new things to do on Tuesday isn’t the reason I had a complete freak out on Wednesday and didn’t come in. That’s fun. But I’m honest, and I explain, and people understand. Because being open and honest about these things is how people understand, and how we don’t end up in an even worse spot. And hey, maybe I’m lucky to work in an environment where this is understood, and with people who understand and get this, and see that I try, and that mostly succeed in keeping this under control. And maybe tomorrow will be easier. And maybe next week will be harder. And maybe next month will be fine. And maybe next year is when it all finally comes crashing down around me. I don’t know. All I can do is go to bed each night, and do my best to get up each morning, as hard as that seems to be right now. And if talking about it helps me do that, or maybe helps someone else do that, then I should do that too.

It’s been a rough few months in my head.

As I believe I have mentioned on occasion, my head isn’t always the easiest place to live in. If you’ve not read one of my blogs on this subject before, to bring you up to speed, I suffer from clinical depression, diagnosed in my mid-twenties, but in all probability going back to my early teens. I’m also, in the past few years, growing increasingly prone to anxiety episodes, probably in part due to my low self-esteem and high levels of social anxiety, which in my youth I used to deal with with drink, which is no longer a coping mechanism I use. Primarily because it’s not a particularly successful one, long-term. It’s been a while since I’ve written about it, but the time has come to bring it up again, because we should never stop talking about it. But I warn you now, today’s offering comes with a smattering of politics, and God, and also contains a shameless plug for a thing coming up at work. You may consider that a disclaimer.

I’ve become increasingly aware of late that my issues are in part seasonal (a lot of caution in my self analysis, “probably”, “primarily”, “in part”). I do seem to suffer more in the winter months, be it lack of sunlight, or just normal feeling cold and miserable. And the last three months have been tough, and consistently so. It feels like a long time since I’ve had a low period of this length, and I’ve a number of factors that I wonder are part of this. The world, frankly, seems a harder and nastier place of late. A white-supremacist in the White House, feeding off a general rise in right-wing sentiments both in the US and Europe. An impossibly self-harming political decision at home with our decision to leave the EU, a process falling apart before it’s even properly begun, and against a growing consensus that this was a really, really, terrible idea – one again grown from an insidious and nasty brand of nationalism. We also seem to be learning more and more every day about the way men in power (by which I mean ‘men’) have routinely used that power to subjugate and abuse women – I’m not saying I was unaware of it, or that I’d rather not hear about it, it should be brought into the open and exposed, if we’re to hope of dealing with it. But there’s no escaping the fact that the world right now seems pretty bleak.

I’ve also, on a personal note, just started a new job, at about the same time my mood started declining. I’m not unhappy in my decision – I loved the Box Office, and have been at my happiest there, but the opportunity came up to try something new and interesting, and the time was also right for me to start making more of a financial contribution at home. But this is offset by the fact that for the first time in seven (?) years, I’ve gone back to working full-time, Monday-Friday, 9-5(ish). And I won’t lie, I’ve found it hard. I don’t say that looking for sympathy, I’m painfully aware that many, many people do more difficult work than me, under far worse conditions. However, other than a brief period in HR, I haven’t worked a regular, office hours, gig since I was at the County Council, and we know how that panned out (if you don’t, short version is, it was horrible and I had a terrible time of it). My new job is a world apart from that, but the truth is working part-time suited me very well, and having to get up every weekday, rain or shine, and drag myself out of bed at the crack of dawn to go and do a full day has… been a shift.

I also got a pretty hard-hitting virus in October, and I’ve had it suggested that post-viral depression is a thing, so there’s that.

Anyway, long and short, it’s been a rough ride. I’ve kept functioning, kept going into work, learned a new job, been told I’m doing okay at it, and Sarah’s not kicked me out of home, despite the fact it’s been pretty miserable here for a lot of the past couple of months. Holding it together, but only just, at times. I’ve sat down to write something on it a couple of times, and each time something’s happened that’s triggered an episode, resulting in me not being able to face the keyboard. So this is long overdue.

One incident that stands out from the past few weeks is nearly breaking down crying uncontrollably in Church (I warned you). Communion service, and we reached the point where we say (not in this form, but I can’t remember the form my new Church uses), “Lord, I’m not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed”. And I just went. I was sitting near the back, and can be a quiet crier when the need arises, so I think I got away with it. But I was helpless for a few moments. It hit home in a way I couldn’t deal with.

Now, the sentiment behind my reaction needs unpacking a bit. As recipient of a Catholic schooling, I’m all too aware of some folks’ distrust of any religion that constantly tells people how unworthy they are, and I’m not unsympathetic to that distrust. But when I hear those words, my focus isn’t on the bit that says I’m not worthy, my focus is on the bit that makes it abundantly clear that my worthiness or otherwise isn’t an issue.

There’s also the fact that I’ve been a practising Christian my whole life, or at least as much of it as I could be said to be operating under my own steam, and clearly I’m still having a rough time of it, so you might argue it’s clearly not as easy as that makes it sound.

But my reading of that, why that hit home so much on that day, is because I heard something that, even removed from its Christian context, I believe is still an important thing that I think everyone suffering mental health problems could do with hearing. Depression is not a meritocracy. You may not think you deserve help. No two people experience these things the same way, but let’s face it, it’s quite likely that you don’t think you deserve help, but whether or not you (think you) deserve it is irrelevant. Whether or not you think there’s anything that can help you, there almost certainly is, if you look for it. Whether or not you think anyone will listen, or will understand, or will want to help, there’s almost certainly someone who will, if you ask them. Just reach out. Just talk to someone. Stop holding it inside as your burden to carry, and yours alone. Because it isn’t. The healing won’t be instantaneous (and to be fair, that part of the communion service doesn’t say it will be). But that first moment of relief, when you reach out to someone and they reach back, is in itself a gift. And whilst there are no quick answers, or easy fixes, one thing is for sure, all processes have to start somewhere. And there’s no question that that applies to you as much as to anyone, whether you believe it or not.

Quick plug, then. One of the new initiatives the Theatre Royal Norwich has put into place recently is Creative Matters, a series of seasons where the Theatre puts on a number of events around a certain topic, and in January 2018, Creative Matters will be looking at the issue of men’s mental health. The series comprises talks, films, performances and workshops, and in a county where middle-aged men are statistically very unlikely to seek help, and suicide rates are above the national average, I’m personally delighted that the organisation I work for has decided this is something they want to address. You can find out more here.

That’s it then. My wisdom may seem a bit disjointed today, but like I said, it’s taken me a long time to get round to writing this, because of how low I’ve been and for how long. The fact I have written it now is, I believe, a sign that I am starting to make some progress again. But we’re waiting til the New Year to see how I’m doing, and there’s a chance it might be time for me to start getting some of that help for myself. We’ll see. But in the meantime, Christmas approaches, and as full of joy as the time is, let’s remember that for some people it can just add to the stress, so let’s take care of each other out there, yeah?

Openly partisan response to the Vettel/Hamilton ‘incident’ in Baku

I’ve a couple of responses to Vettel’s red-mist incident in Baku, but if I’m to address the subject honestly, I should declare my interests first. I’m a fan of Sebastian Vettel, have been ever since his highly impressive debut in F1. And, as great a driver as I openly accept he is, I don’t like Lewis Hamilton. So yes, my response is partisan, but given some of the nonsense I’ve seen spewed out online since Sunday by Brit fans who remain convinced that every Brit driver is a saint and every foreign (or “German”) driver is the devil himself, I don’t feel too bad about evening the scales somewhat.

Firstly, Seb’s an idiot. Brake-tested or not (and it appears very clearly ‘not’), there’s no defending his driving into Hamilton. I won’t even try, and wouldn’t even want to. He did something stupid, and deserved everything he got. Had he been punished more severely, I’m not sure I’d have argued against that either, but he got what he got, and that should be an end to it. So rest assured, there’s no sense of me defending his actions in what I’m about to say. But I am intrigued by some of the responses.

“Deliberately driving into a driver and coming away scot-free is a disgrace.”

Lewis Hamilton’s own words, to which the only response is, Didn’t happen. No sense in which he got away scot-free. A ten second stop/go penalty is one of the punishments available for dangerous driving, and Seb was given that, and served it. So he didn’t get away scot-free. In any sense.

I can see the felt injustice, Lewis gets hit by the driver behind, and that driver ends up finishing the race in front of him. Where’s the punishment? But had Seb not been penalised, he would have been sitting in first place when Lewis came in for his unrelated headrest issue (unrelated – no chance a tyre-to-tyre bump at low speed is causing the headrest issue, end of). Now with Seb in first, and Lewis in fifth (where the headrest pitstop put him), Seb extends his lead by 15 points. Mercedes might have been more willing, under those circumstances, to hold Bottas back to let Lewis gain a place, so if Lewis finishes fourth to Seb’s first , Seb moves another 13 points ahead. Bottas only caught Stroll right on the line, so with Lewis further back, could he have done the same? I don’t know, but okay, say Lewis finishes third, then Seb’s a further 10 points ahead. Even if Lewis overhauls Ricciardo to second, which with the time he had left there’s no sign he would have, that’s still an extra 7 points for Seb. Actual end result? A mere 2 point lead extension for Seb. If the season comes down to a close finish, there’s plenty to rue for Seb with his behaviour here, so the idea that he got off scot-free is demonstrably false.

The stewards can’t decide Seb’s punishment according to what else befalls the injured party during the race. It might seem an injustice that he finished ahead of Lewis, but that’s an injustice on the part of the universe, not the race stewards. They can’t just see where Lewis finishes and then penalise Seb in a way so as to put him behind Lewis. That’s not how it works. Now whether or not in absolute terms the punishment was a fair one for the act, I’m no expert, I’m unfamiliar with the rulebook. But it is a penalty that can be applied for dangerous driving, so it comes down to how dangerous the driving was, I guess, and it was, let’s not forget, a tyre to tyre sidebump at low speeds. Very unlikely to cause damage. And Seb lost potentially up to 13 championship points because of it. Scot-free?

“Luckily we were going slow. If we were going fast it could have been a lot worse.”

Luckily? Umm, no. He was angry because he thought (again, wrongly) that he’d been brake-tested behind the safety car. It wasn’t mere good fortune that it happened at a slow part of the track, the entire circumstances that resulted in the act were because of the slow conditions. Put simply, if they’d been going at full speed, it would not have happened. So the slow conditions are neither coincidental, nor fortuitous. They are the specific, relevant circumstances under which this occurred.

I’ve seen people online say the punishment should have been more serious because of how much more dangerous it would be at high speeds. But you can’t punish a guy for X when he does Y, just because “imagine if he had done X!” He didn’t do X, he did Y. So you punish him for Y. When he does X, then you punish him for X. There have been fans saying “do  we have to wait until he does it at 200mph to punish him properly?” To which one can only reply, “If by ‘properly’, you mean punish him as if they had been driving at 200 mph, then yes, you do actually have to wait until he does that before you punish him for it.”

And my point is?

It’s not about saying it’s no big deal, Seb was just blowing off steam, we should let him off… He made himself look stupid, and did something he totally deserved punishment for. I really can’t stress this enough, because I’d firmly wager that if I get any response to this, it will be someone trying to make out that I’m excusing Seb’s behaviour. Which I am not. But let’s not pretend that’s all that’s going here with the reaction to it.

Psychological games are all part of F1. Not the ‘psychological games’ where Seb drove into Lewis, that’s not a psychological game, it’s a stupid heat of the moment act (again, that deserved punishment). No, I mean the type of psychological games where Lewis comes out and pulls his kittenish “woe is me” injured face. He knows Seb didn’t get off scot-free, and he knows it wasn’t luck that they were going slow at the time. But he’s a smart cookie, ever on the look out for an advantage, so if he can get more fans behind him, maybe pressure the FIA, then perhaps Seb will end up facing tougher censure. Don’t believe he’s calculating? Think about the fact that at the end of May, Lewis was full of how Ferrari had made Vettel their number one, and how he didn’t see any reason why Mercedes should do the same. That’s all about the subtle implication that Seb needs more help than he does. And then contrast that to how quickly he was on the radio to the team to beg them to pull Bottas back in Baku to help him fight Seb, when Valtteri was driving his own amazing comeback to an astonishing second place. Lewis knows what he’s about.

I don’t criticise him unduly for it either. No driver ever became a multiple world champion without looking for every advantage (although if I’m honest I find it a bit sickening how much he seems to need the fans’ love as much as success on the track – but that’s just a personal thing), and in that regard Lewis is no different to his competitors. I’ve no desire for this to look like a furious anti-Lewis tirade. But Hamilton’s no saint, and Vettel no devil, so let’s try and be a bit circumspect about Lewis’ attempt to shock us all with how disgusting and disgraceful his championship rival is.

I guess ultimately I’m just disappointed to have the old Englishman vs German pantomime played out yet again in F1, because I do wonder, were the shoe on the other foot, if the British fans, and desperately partisan British journalists like the BBC’s Andrew Benson, would suddenly find all sorts of reasons why behaviour they despise in foreign sportsmen is excusable, or understandable, in Brits…

I finally did something I always wanted to.

I’ve harboured a desire to be a ‘writer’ since I was in primary school. I loved writing stories then, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to be serious about since. And yet here at the age of 42, I can count the number of things I’ve written on the fingers of one hand. How come?

Laziness is one answer. Perfectionism is another, related, more complex answer. But a lot of it comes down to deep-seated issues I have with self-doubt. For a long time, I couldn’t start anything without wanting to tear it up and punch myself a few pages in. As much as I know that writing is like anything else – you can’t expect to be good at anything straight off the bat, you need to try to do a thing before you can do a thing – for me, if I don’t feel what I’ve done is good enough, I feel like I’m not good enough. I’d rather not do a thing than do it badly. If I don’t put myself out there, I can’t be criticised for doing a bad job. Anyone who knows me will recognise this in me, I’m sure.

But, last year, I set myself a project. I would write a sci-fi novella, and the trick was, I would force myself not to care if it was any good. The only standard by which I would hold myself accountable was whether or not I started what I finished. So when I came off social media for Lent, I used that time to force this thing out of me. And six weeks later, I had a complete novella.

And you know what? It’s not good. Infodumps, weak characterisation, bad science, and, on rereading, at least one horrendous continuity error. But it existed! Soup to nuts, beginning, middle and end. It had a lead character, who did things, and to whom things happened, and who had something he wanted to achieve and then at the end… well, it had an end. And as bad as it was, I actually felt a genuine glowing sense of achievement. For once, I had started something, and I hadn’t let my own negative self-image prevent me from completing it.

Then I sat on it for a year. Went back and did a bit more on something I was more serious about (and which I honestly think has potential to be actually halfway decent). But then, in another bold step for me, this year I decided to take another leap into the unknown, and signed up to a website that lets people share stories, and I made it available online. Where people can see it. And probably hate it. But more importantly, see it.

A lot of writers will tell you that if you’re a writer, you just write, it’s a habit that just comes naturally – you only feel yourself at a keyboard, or with a pen in your hand. And I’ve always found this troubling, because I found it too easy to let my lack of faith in myself stop me from doing that. And so often, I let myself think “Well, if a writer just is writing all the time, clearly I’m not a writer.” And that in turn stopped me again. So I’m sharing this today to say that you know what? Sometimes you can not do a thing for as long as thirty years, and then one day find a way to do that thing. Just because you doubt your ability, or you don’t conform to a pattern that people you think know more than you say you should conform to, or are chronically lazy, doesn’t mean you can’t find a way around those obstacles. Because if I can overcome those obstacles, believe me, I have absolute faith that you can too.

James Acaster: Represent

Not only have I been lucky enough to see all three of Acaster’s recent shows at the Playhouse, Recognise, Represent and Reset, but I’ve also seen him perform Represent before in Norwich, and I have to say, with every time I see him, I’m becoming a bigger and bigger fan.

Represent is the second of his three shows he’s performing at each venue in his ‘Trelogy’ tour, although we ended up seeing  it last as the original date had to be rescheduled due to a bout of food poisoning. In a way, I’m glad we did end up seeing this last – not only because my familiarity with the set made it feel like an encore, which seemed appropriate, but also because I think it might be one of the greatest hours of stand-up I’ve ever seen.

A nonsense narrative about an experience of jury duty, aspects of which may be familiar to anyone who saw his BBC pilot on the same subject, woven in with routines about dentists, being in a gang, massages and Christingles, it is on the surface just a collection of random tomfoolery. However, it’s one of the most meticulously crafted shows I think I’ve ever seen. It genuinely feels like it was woven, rather than written. Repeated callbacks, jokes piled upon jokes, and routines that don’t follow each other sequentially but circle round each other and loop around themselves, to the point where a punchline can get a huge laugh even when the set-up was done in another routine half an hour previously, and the slightest gesture can wring a second unrelated laugh out of a joke. There’s not a wasted line or facial expression, the whole thing is paced perfectly, builds beautifully and is delivered flawlessly.

And remarkably, for all that the narrative is a whimsical device, it’s a show with real heart, about the myth of ‘adulthood’, how no-one knows what they’re doing, how all of us inside suffer crises where we feel we don’t know our worth, or where we’re going, and how  sometimes even people we resent for having it together are more like us than we think. And all this is conveyed more elegantly and succinctly than 90% of comics I’ve seen could do by tackling the subject head-on.

What’s even more remarkable is that all of these three shows deliver, and it makes me excited to see what Acaster comes up with next.

A black weekend

Another chapter in the ongoing saga of how difficult I find it to live my largely unchallenging life…

I’ve written before about the fact that I have issues with depression and anxiety. It’s something I make no secret of, and I’m not ashamed of it (other than of course self-esteem issues also mean I’m deeply ashamed of it – such is the delightful enigma of mental health).

It started with what might be seen as a minor victory. I don’t necessarily feel that my cycles of depression are seasonal, but this winter has been hard. Christmas wasn’t a glowing success, and January and February have, so far, been characterised by a marked desire for isolation. Going out has been hard, even motivating myself to leave the house for work has been difficult some days. My ongoing shoulder complaint has also been bringing me down. But I’ve been soldiering on. Saturday, however, by the time I got home from the gym, I was feeling particularly low. My wife had already had to chase me up out of a chair when she came into the lounge to just find me staring at the floor, unable to verbalise what was bothering me but just feeling overwhelmed. I then went to the supermarket, and on the way home, a tire on my car made an alarming noise and then instantly deflated.

Now, I’m not a handy man. My skills with any kind of DIY or car maintenance rarely extend further than phoning my dad. But I pulled over, found the spare and the jack, jacked the car up and changed the tire. Even had the wherewithal to get the rubber-headed mallet and WD40 I keep in the car, to deal with a reluctant wheelnut. Slung the deflated wheel in the boot and drove home, feeling like a proper man for once.

Phoned the garage, then run the car down there to get a new wheel and have them check it over. Explanation was forthcoming for the incident, blah, blah, more needed than just new wheel due to what caused the deflation, big bill, these details become more mundane and uninteresting, but long story short, walked home from the garage in an increasing state of disarray, which when home rendered me incapable of a) immediate sensible resolution of our problem and b) rational discussion of our problem with my wife.

Now, my wife is a saint. I would say 49 times out of 50 she is an absolute rock when I’m experiencing anxiety issues. But there’s undoubtedly some perfectly understandable frustration on her part that her husband can’t always face these things like a normal grown up man, exacerbated by his inability to talk to her appropriately when he’s in crisis. I snapped, she snapped, and she asked me to go sit in another room until I’d calmed down. Only I didn’t stop at the front room, I went on out the front door and left. Turned up at my parents’ house an hour and a half later, soaked in sweat and just broke down crying.

Put flippantly, I’m forty years old and I ran away from home. But actually, this was something new for me. Something inside just flipped, and I strode off out through Thorpe, over the dual carriageway and along the back road from Postwick to Brundall. All the while, aware from a secluded vantage point deep inside my head that what I was doing was stupid (you don’t walk out on your spouse mid-argument), but entirely unable to stop myself. All the while, increasingly confused by my own behaviour, and scared of my wife’s reaction, but entirely unable  to stop myself. Just a mess of confusion, panic and fear. I knew all the time I should stop and go back, but I didn’t have the first idea how to make myself. The flight mechanism was overwhelming.

Often the first thing to happen after an anxiety episode is that I’ll need to sleep. Even without the physical exertion of actually going out and taking a six mile hike (not that six miles is a huge distance, but I’m in no great shape and unused to it), the stress and tension that builds up in me just causes me to collapse as I start to come down from it. So on this occasion, I went out pretty quickly, for an hour or so. Got up for a couple of hours and sat with my parents, wrapped in a blanket and a t-shirt of my dads while my mum washed my saturated clothes. Then went back to bed for twelve hours.

Dad ran me home in the morning after I went to church with them, barely unable to stand up I was still so exhausted, and no doubt visibly unwell. My wife, of course, was graciousness itself, though not to an indulgent degree. I spent a relaxing Sunday recuperating (okay, and crying a fair bit), in the evening we watched The Red Shoes, and I sank into my own bed Sunday night next to my wife drained but returning somewhat to a even keel.

Alas, this good work was somewhat undone by an incident this morning whereby I made myself late for work by half an hour for no reason other than my head was convinced my morning routine was proceeding as normal only to realise as I left the house that, being 9:30, this wasn’t the time I was supposed to be leaving, it was the time I was supposed to be arriving at work. On any other day, a ridiculous and amusing error, but after this weekend, another sign that my brain was not doing what it was supposed to be doing, but rather feeding me false information. I arrived at work out of sorts, and again in a state of high confusion and creeping panic.

This is the predominate feeling at the moment – confusion. Which then feeds rising panic. The world should feel normal, but my brain is seemingly having difficulty interpreting it as it should. I’m, in all probability, nothing other than run down, and in need of a break (we are holidaying soon). But there’s always the concern that something fundamental isn’t working properly.

So why am I sharing this? Firstly, for my own sanity, I find that writing these things down helps exorcise them. I have few creative skills, but I like to think I know my way round a sentence, so this is one weapon I have in confronting this thing that grips me from time to time (okay granted, didn’t really know my way round THAT sentence). Once HERE, it feels at least in part like there is less of it THERE, in my head.

But I also hope that by not shying away from it, not hiding it, it might help someone going through a similar thing feel less alone. Or help someone who knows someone going through something similar understand a bit more of how it can work in some heads. No two people experience these things the same way, of course, but it can’t hurt to see an example laid out.

One other thing I want to share. I made brief mention on Twitter Saturday night, in the gap between my post-hike kip and my twelve hour sleep, of the day’s events (again, I firmly believe in the value of being open about this). And some of my friends tweeted me with supportive messages. Among them, from someone whose entire relationship with me extends no further than following each other on Twitter and occasionally retweeting a thing, tweeted me saying “keep well and you know where we are on here mate”. The tiniest of things in one sense, and yet as a humane gesture from a relative stranger, in a moment of personal crisis, I can’t tell you what it meant to me. I sat in my parents’ guest bedroom and wept when I read it.

Never underestimate the power of simple kindness.

Shooting my mouth off: Why I am, and why it’s okay that I am.

So an American friend asked me today why I was commenting so much on his president, given that it is his president, and not my president, and why don’t I stick to commenting stuff on my own country, which isn’t so hot right now. And I naturally had a response to that, and it was the best response I’d ever made to anything, everyone said so. I’m having great responses to things.

Because: Climate Change.

Truth is, I’m not entirely insensitive to his argument. Being critical of others when we are experiencing our own difficulties may well seem a bit rich. Which is why I’ve predominantly being posting about Trump’s attitude to the environment. In a week when Trump’s being bigging up his environmental credentials to general disbelief, he’s also been stripping the White House’s websites of any mention of climate change, and gagging his own environmental agencies.

Now, I’m aware that man-made climate change is still held in some quarters to be a myth. But crucially even those folk have to acknowledge that this is a global issue. Key treaties and policy decisions on climate change are being made at international levels, so whether you believe man-made climate change to be the biggest challenge facing our generation (which I do) OR a hoax created up to cripple big business, the fact is that this isn’t something that just occurs at national level. Individual countries can make their own decisions, naturally, but the decisions they make, the attitude they strike, directly affect us all. When one of the biggest players on the global stage decides that this thing is no longer a thing, whether I have voting rights in that country or not makes no difference to whether or not it affects me. There is literally no-one who doesn’t have a dog in that particular fight, so to expect other people not to react to the US’s seismic policy shift is utterly unrealistic.

Because: Global village.

My American friend has pointed out on other occasions that as an American he’d been told to butt out of conversations about the EU referendum, the issue being of no concern to him. Now, I have no recollection of ever having said this myself (and indeed, this charge wasn’t levelled at me), but if I had, I would have been wrong.

One of my key reasons for voting Remain in the referendum was something I referred to as the Star Trek principle. Not having faith in my ability as a financial forecaster, I would admit to not knowing definitively whether the move from the EU would be a good or bad thing for our economy (although I sensed ‘bad’, and I don’t see any reason to change my mind now). But I did know that what I wanted for future generations was a country with closer ties to our neighbours, not an isolationist Britain. Because how we act does affect those around us. Now we have decided to leave the EU, for example, we need to redefine our position on the world stage, and that means having a vested interest in everything going on everywhere, because how else do we move forward with our relationship with other countries?

There’s been a bill put forward in the US seeking to end their membership of the UN – as that link says, one that’s actually been out forward every year for the past two decades, but it’s made the news now because, well, we don’t know what this guy has planned, and all  the rhetoric has been US for the US, so wow, maybe they might look to close themselves off from the rest of the world. Who knows. But realistically, it’s not going to happen, and in a world where our contact with other countries  is more immediate all the time, don’t we have more of an interest in what’s going on there? Isn’t the very fact that me and my American friend were discussing this in real time also the answer to his question?

Because.

Opinions are like things that everyone has: everyone has one. If I’m able to express myself in a cordial manner, should I not be allowed to have, and therefore express, an opinion on pretty much anything? Outside the realm of the extremely personal, naturally. But this fellow is President of the USA, in terms of a being a subject appropriate for general discourse, it’s cut and dried, surely?

So indeed.

Usually the third argument is the clincher, but I’m going to hang my hat on the second. The USA is a nation that prides itself on its importance, and the fact is, though my countrymen affect a disdainful air when talking about ‘ our American cousins’ out of a misguided belief in Britain’s significance not being merely a thing of history, that low-brow land of guns, Adam Sandler and “cheese” is a big-hitter on the world stage. Your culture, through its movies, pop music and television, pervades everywhere. Your armed forces seek to protect your interests on all continents. And therefore what you do is of undeniable significance to all of us. So, expect comment.

Why it took me twenty four hours and a second viewing to pinpoint my emotional reaction to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

I mean, it’s brilliant, isn’t it? That should be evident from the start. And I watched it knowing I was watching a really good movie. It’s dramatic, it’s emotional, the performances are great, it looks wonderful, and the nods to the original films are perfectly judged. Blue milk! C’mon!

And yet there was something niggling. Something that I couldn’t shake. Something was slightly off…

The fact is Gareth Edwards has made a great movie,and has utterly fulfilled his brief. It’s the first movie set in the Star Wars to step outside of the main narrative (albeit not all that far out of it), a stand-alone piece that supports, but isn’t of, the Star Wars Saga. Of the universe, but its own beast. And it truly is that. It’s gritty, taking that used-Universe ethos beloved of the original trilogy (and sorely missed in the prequels) and pushing it even further. That street skirmish in Jedha, with its robed natives taking on its body-armoured occupying forces, more than looked real, it felt real, it felt like something from our world thinly painted over in sci-fi colours. They even had actual weather – other than the brief snowstorm at the beginning of Empire, and Dagobah’s atmosphere of mystery, I can’t think of a single daytime scene in any of the first six movies that didn’t take place in bright sunshine. But Rogue One has actual weather, and even more striking than the lashing rain on Eadu is the scene where we first see Krennic confront Erso, on a windy, overcast day the likes of which we’ve not seen in the Star Wars universe before. The Empire Strikes Back has always been held up as the ‘dark film’ of the series, but it still had the sense of wonder and magic that was intact even up to The Force Awakens. It was still chapter in essentially a fairytale. It’s myth, whereas Rogue One never feels like that. I don’t claim any great insight when I point out that the Star Wars series was always more of a fantasy saga in a sci-fi setting, I think that’s well recognised. And it’s this that Rogue One really steps away from.

This really feels like the Adult Star Wars film that adult Star Wars fans have said they wanted. And I want to embrace that, I don’t want to criticise it. But something’s trying to stop me.

I was born in 1975, two years before A New Hope came out. You read interviews with directors who say seeing A New Hope in movie theatres was a transformative experience, kids who were eight, nine or ten when that movie came out, for whom it was a defining moment of change. But I never had that. I can’t remember the first time I saw Star Wars, it was always there. And yet unlike those who came after, I did see Empire and Jedi at the cinema. Give me a child until the age of seven, and I will give you the man, I believe Aristotle said. Well, the release period of the original trilogy covers my childhood from the ages of 2-8, and as a result, it didn’t just play a huge part of my childhood, it WAS my childhood.

I don’t want to overstretch a special claim to kinship for those films, or specialist knowledge, but I wonder if some of the narrative we’re sold about the kiddification of Jedi (the Ewoks!) for example, comes from people who were eight or nine when they saw A New Hope, and so were 14 or 15 when Jedi came out. Seems to me if you saw A New Hope at the cinema when it first came out, you were unlikely to be playing Star Wars in the playground when Jedi was released. But I LOVED Jedi, and whilst I can see why it might seem to a 14 year old that that film he loved six years ago was starting to feel a bit kiddy in its new incarnation, to me I never felt that. And those who came after, I don’t doubt they love those films, but they had their own things too, their own formative experiences on the big screen that weren’t Star Wars. But I’ve always felt like my childhood, being at that exact moment, was forged in the crucible of Star Wars, in a way that only those of us who were born in the early to mid seventies experienced.

Everyone’s personal relationship to those films is valid, of course, and I’m clearly romanticising my link to them virtually to breaking point there. But I think that’s the stumbling block I had with Rogue One. The fact that that small boy in me finally, after 40 years, realised his childhood was properly over. I finally got an Adult Star Wars film, and somehow I’m not 100% sure I wanted one.

Yet, truth is, I don’t want to seem ungrateful. I don’t want to be one of those internet guys, harping on about how that movie guy didn’t make the movie I wanted, so therefore claiming movie guy did something wrong. He didn’t. Edwards made a great movie, and one which I’m happy to say I enjoyed a lot more second time around, once I put that small boy to bed, and sat down to watch it as an adult. It is, I think, a better movie than The Force Awakens, but I’m still not sure I enjoyed it as much. And I wonder, weirdly, blasphemously, if it isn’t, well… too good for Star Wars?

Trump Election: Three thoughts

So there’s been a lot said over the past few days about that guy and that thing he won, and I’m not even sure I want to add anything to the maelstrom of of despair and vitriol that’s been created around this election, but I have some thoughts I wanted to try and get out in a calm, non-hysterical and non-aggressive way before I put these thoughts to bed and go back to thinking about Strictly, Star Wars and comic books.

The Whole Racism/Sexism thing

A lot of Trump supporters have been adamant that this, for them, wasn’t about enforcing a racist, sexist, prejudiced agenda. For them, this was about economic anxiety, doubts over Clinton’s suitability, or a belief that this was about issuing a wake-up call to the establishment (more on that below).

Now, one of the severe reservations I have about Trump as a human being, let alone a president of a country that, though not mine, has a lot of world influence (to put it mildly), is his inability to get through the average sentence without saying something that bears no resemblance to the truth. So I have to accept that maybe that means he’s not the racist, sexist character he portrays on tv. So he’s not a racist, and you’re not a racist for voting for him, fine. But it’s undeniable that he’s deliberately fostered a culture of intolerance to win votes. He’s called Mexicans immigrants rapists, he’s called for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the US, he’s responded to allegations of sexual abuse by pointing out that the individuals involved wouldn’t be his “first choice”, not to mention the whole “grab ’em by the p***y” thing (not even going to link to that, you’ve seen it). He thinks women who have abortions should be punished (okay, sort of, clearly he had to be pushed to that). His views on the LGBT community are admittedly less clear (more flip-floppy depending on audience?), but clearly people are worried about what a full house of Republican control in US government will mean for Gay Rights.

Now whether or not you support this kind of dialogue on ethnic minorities and women, whether you believe he supports it, or was just mouthing off like he tends to do to play the crowd, you have to accept that to a section of his support, these views are held very seriously. The President, more so than the Senate or Congress, is the public face of the US, and the election of a President reflects the culture of the country, the image of the country in front of the world. And the face this election presents is an ugly one. And if your argument is that this aspect of Trump is not why you voted for him, that you’re not a racist, not a misogynist, you nevertheless have to accept that you have tacitly endorsed those views. It may well be that you honestly don’t want that culture to be your culture, but you’ve essentially said that, for the things you DO want, the things you DID vote for, this is an acceptable price to pay. You’re saying I didn’t vote for Trump because of my hatred for the black, latino, female or LGBT community, I actually don’t hate those communities, but I am willing to accept their oppression as a price worth paying for the other things I want my country to achieve. (As a Christian, I am particularly dismayed, if not surprised, by Church endorsements for this divisive, oppressive candidate).

And that means, when it comes to your own friends and relations who do fall in to those categories, you owe more of an explanation for that decision than just a flat denial of prejudice. Because that oppression is on the table now, and it’s part and parcel of the decision you as a country have just made.

The Whole This-is-the fault-of-the-Liberal-Elite thing

There’s also lot of talk going around about whose ‘fault’ this was. The Democrats put forward the wrong candidate, this is what happens when you just scream “RACIST!” at anyone who doesn’t hold your views, the left didn’t fight hard enough, the left never fight hard enough, they’re not willing to get their hands dirty, this is what happens when you force political correctness on people.

It is certainly true that things could have been done differently, things always could. All of us could do better, all the time. And all those arguments above hold water. BUT firstly putting the blame for this on the Left implicitly suggests in its own indirect way that the situation isn’t great. If you really believed in your candidate, why is it a question of apportioning blame? Shouldn’t you just be happy your guy won instead of saying “Look, this is what we’ll do if you don’t play along with us” like this was some kind of openly-admitted self-destructive response to for not having things your way all along.

Secondly, the bottom line is, 59,135,740 people voted FOR Trump. Let’s not deny THEIR agency, let’s not sidestep THEIR role in this. As MKupperman said, “Where will I find the time to read all the pieces about how the people who voted against Donald Trump are to blame for him being elected?

The Whole Expression Of Frustration At The Establishment Thing

If you listen to the likes of Nigel F****e , this election has reflected the vote for Britain’s exit from the EU, being an expression of the ordinary man’s frustration with and antipathy towards the political elite. People don’t want career politicians in charge any more, they don’t want experts, they want people they like off of the telly running things, and the US election has been a huge slap in the face to the establishment.

Put bluntly, if your idea of a slap in the face to the establishment is to vote for the richest old white guy on the ballot, who’s also the official candidate of one of the main two parties, next time slap harder.