Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Scary Things #1 - Members of my own species

I ought to be getting out and about now I am doing better, but the prospect terrifies me. Last time I went out in my wheelchair was sometime around the end of August, perhaps the beginning of September and it wasn’t fun. I managed to skid into the road twice. I am nervous because my energy patterns are still wavering so I may suddenly feel extremely tired in the centre of town.

However, the big thing is that I am just scared of the people. This is very hard to explain without sounding seriously nuts. And it really isn’t very serious. Nuts it may be.

People are quite terrifying. They are full of expectations. They demand interaction. Yeah, I realise this is me who complained about unsociable Londoners, but when you are genuinely out of practice, you forget all this and it comes as an almighty shock to the system.

I do love people. I love to watch them and listen to their conversations, to snippets of their lives. This is part of the reason I love the blogsphere so much; whatever people write and to whatever standard, they reveal a little bit of themselves, a little bit of their story.

When I go out, I suppose I expect to remain invisible. I am invisible most of the time. I look out the window and watch people, but nobody sees me. I talk on the phone but I don’t have to actually smile and nod when someone is boring me. I read books and browse the Internet but nobody knows that I am even reading their words, let alone how I am reacting to them.

And it used to be that I could stay invisible, or at least be translucent. I can have a very ordinary appearance if I choose; I am neither pretty nor ugly, neither fat nor thin. I am pale but not at all interesting and my hair is naturally the colour of dried mud. If I chose the right clothes, I can disappear completely out of sight. Poof! Vanished.

But the wheelchair. The wheelchair means that the moment I get out the front door, someone in the sky turns a spotlight on me and lights my way around town. Everybody notices the expression on my face and my posture. Everybody listens very carefully to the tone of my voice and my exact choice of words. Everybody notices the slightest mistake I make in the control of my wheelchair. Everybody notices what I buy in shops.

At least so goes my delusion. I know it is a delusion.

Most people pay me no more attention than they would anyone else. I think my presence registers with people such that they recognise me and are more like to say hello to me than to someone less memorable. I am not at all ungrateful for this fact; I know that if I did run into serious trouble, then I would have people who know me close at hand.

I have met my share of weirdos of course, but personally I find I get only as many in the chair as on my feet, only perhaps with a slightly different emphasis. And in Whitby, I know roughly who is who; I think I have been personally introduced to most of the local weirdos, and know which of them have issues with alcohol and which with heroin; the two require a slightly different tact as heroin remains, if just barely, the more expensive intoxicant.

It is just this sense of being the centre of attention and scrutiny that frightens me. People catch my eye and I don’t know how to react; whether to smile or look away. I end up smiling until my face aches – and even then I worry because I can tell a false smile when I see one and presume that others are not only as good at this as me but that it actually matters.

Which is the ultimate delusion of the sociophobe; that any of this actually matters, as if any impression I give to anybody has a profound and lasting effect on the course of our lives. As if anyone would be more than briefly offended if I went about with a scowl on my face, largely ignoring the people around me.

All this will pass. Unfortunately I know it won't pass the first time I go out - my anticipation is not the irrational bit. Previously I haven't expected these feelings after a relapse and I have had to turn back half way down the road when suddenly it hits me. Turning back is always a big mistake; facing something you have previously run away from is even harder than facing the unknown.

But if I do make it out this week and do the same next week and manage it again the following week, by that point I will have much more confidence. And I have to build myself up now before the spring and the tourist crowds return to Whitby.

I started writing this before the weather closed in on us; currently we are having a thunderstorm with really very heavy snow, although frankly I can barely make it out through the fog. The world has turned white! How can you have fog in a thunderstorm? I am sure there’s something quite wrong about that. Anyway, a jolly good excuse to stay in today.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Being good isn't always easy, no matter how hard I try

I spoke to Sister Mary yesterday. It was great to hear her voice again, and I felt guilty about the somewhat sardonic tone I have taken towards the nun thing. I didn’t realise how much I had missed her. She is by no means my closest friend, but is certainly my oldest friend. She has also always been a very faithful friend and I have no idea what she sees in me. I am a most unsuitable friend for a novice and I was an even less suitable friend for the sort of teenage girl who would one day become one. I have always had my foot in my mouth around Mary, much as I love her.

Anyway, she is extremely happy. Great thing about being in love with Christ is that He is perfect and never squeezes the toothpaste in the middle. Her passion is a joy to listen to, but I can’t help sensing that she feels desperately sorry for me because I don’t have God in my Life. And I don’t know what to say when she hints at this. I try to say everything is fantastic. I don't think she believes me.

And Mary did mention healing, which she never has before. Her mother has a similar condition to my own, but the lady offers up her suffering to get time off in purgatory (so I understand). Mary was at pains to point out that we all have things we need healing in our bodies and in our souls and the things we need healing in our bodies and in our souls are in no way connected to one another. Glad she cleared that one up.

See, look, there’s my sardonic tone again! I desperately don’t want to be cynical about this. It is all completely true to Mary, not only true but really great news for her. I really have no excuses. Do I feel insecure about my own beliefs? No, I don’t think I am at all. Do I feel jealous of her happiness? No, I am comparably happy myself much of the time.

What I am perhaps just a touch envious of is her ability to express her total euphoria at having found her vocation. She is without shame or inhibition in her happiness. That, I would like to be able to do.

As for the healing, I’ll do as God suggested to Moses and keep taking the tablets. For now at least.

Talking of spreading the word, March 8th is International Women's Day and Vegankid has set up Blog Against Sexism Day. Go on, sign up, it is only one day where you have to say something against sexism. Like, “Oi! Stop Sexism!” – that would do, I’m sure.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Above and Beyond: Butch's Diary

Disclaimer: This was inspired by this post by Lady Bracknell, but is not related to the programme she mentions, which I never saw, not even a moment of it. I wouldn't want to offend anybody, especially those who conscientiously took part in that programme; this is pure silliness.

Butch's Diary, to accompany the ground-breaking reality TV show Above and Beyond.

Our mission: To go to the local supermarket and shop for groceries by bus.

The team: A bunch of handicapped people, out to prove themselves truly handicapable.*

I am Butch and I am the exhibitionist leader. I spent fifteen long weeks in the Royal Marines and there's nothing I like better than stripping down to the waist and wrestling in the mud with the boys. That's right; totally able-bodied me, there isn’t so much as a crippled hair on my taut, sinewy body. No way - I wax.

But I do like to do my bit for those less fortunate than myself and last year when one of my very many girlfriends twisted her ankle in a tragic stiletto accident, I began to think about the disabled and what I could do for them. So, together with the producers of such hard-hitting documentaries as Who ate all the pies? and When Librarians Crack we sought to crush the old stereotypes about people with disabilities by taking a group of them on a trek to the supermarket. This is our incredible story.

The exhibitionism suffers an early set-back when two of the team cannot get out of bed in the morning. The producers are enthusiatic about the spectacle of these invalids being carried through the streets in their beds, but it is felt that we will not be able to fit the beds through the checkouts at our final destination. Damn shame. Would have made for great television.

The team comes across a car parked on the pavement and some of us simply can't get past. We have to backtrack two hundred yards down the road in order to find a lowered kerb where we can all cross safely. This results in missing the bus we were hoping to catch and some team-members are now in a great deal of pain. I am so damn proud of them all. Ground-breaking stuff.

There is a great sense of victory when we arrive at the bus-stop. There is a normal woman already waiting there, so I explain to her that there is no need to feel nervous; these people are with me and I am an experienced exhibitionist leader. There are no benches at the bus stop so we are having to work as a team to support one another in a standing position. This must be the pluckiest damn bunch of challenged individuals I have the privilege of working with.

When the bus arrives we realise that there is no way we can get the wheelchairs onto it. This means we’re going to have to lose the two most visibly disabled members of the team at this point, which is a real blow. I’m not so bothered about The One That Dribbles, but both the producers and myself are really sad to have to leave The Pretty One behind. She is so damn brave and, lets face it, so damn pretty. I could almost fancy her. When I say as much, the chick bursts into tears, resulting in a full five minutes footage of running mascara. This is great television.

The bus ride to the supermarket gives the team an opportunity to have an intimate chat. I am surprised to learn that some of our team members are quite experienced, making similar treks to the shops as often as once every week. A couple of the guys even joke that they usually drive there. Ha! I am humbled by their ability to laugh, despite the indignities of their daily existence.

The team begin to talk about something called the Social Model of Disability, but the producers and I are far more interested in talking about their various afflictions. I am rather disappointed by the number of Ones Who Look Perfectly Normal in our team – did nobody tell them this was television, as in vision as in, the public want to see your disabilities? They are letting both themselves and the team down if they are not even prepared to limp.

I turn to one of The Ones Who Look Perfectly Normal and ask what is wrong with him. He says he has clinical depression, so I tell him to pull his socks up; this exhibitionism is not for sissies who can’t take the strain without running home to Mummy. Another of The Ones Who Look Perfectly Normal tells me to “F**k Off”, which I identify as a symptom of Tourettes Syndrome – like that character in Ally MacBeal. Not that I watch Ally MacBeal; it being for chicks and I being a real man. I only hope this nutter doesn’t embarrass me in the supermarket.

I try to encourage the team to talk about sex, but they seem strangely reluctant to discuss the graphic details of their sex lives on public transport or national television. Perhaps there are just some subjects too damn painful to be spoken about? Still, this is ground-breaking stuff as it is.

We arrive at the supermarket. One of The Ones Who Look Perfectly Normal collapses on the pavement just outside the shop. We get some fantastic edgy footage of him lying on the ground as fellow shoppers hurry nervously past him. I think they must think he’s drunk. It really saddens me that he had to lie there for a full ten minutes with the cameras rolling before anyone came to his assistance. Damn tragic.

Inside the supermarket, the pressure is on. Many of our team members find this a hostile environment; the bright lights, the noise, having to make decisions amidst a total information overload. One of the Ones With A Stick is knocked over by some maniac rushing round with a trolley (not our own, literal maniacs, you understand, it's just a turn of phrase). Despite the vastness of the building, there is nowhere to sit down, let alone any quiet places where a person might take a moment to recover him or herself. Some of our team are really suffering now. It is truly humbling.

We're getting a lot of funny looks now. I do hope that members of the public can tell the difference between myself and the disabled team members.

The producers and I have decided this is all too easy for The Deaf One. Not being able to hear ought to be a serious handicap and yet she is getting along as if there is nothing at all wrong with her. To increase the challenge, we confiscate her hearing aid.

Ooh, now look who’s got a bee in their bonnet? Several of our team members object to our removing The Deaf One’s hearing aid and now they’re getting stroppy. I am appalled at the team’s ingratitude – don’t they know that I could be elsewhere, leading an elite squad of SAS paratroopers through the Food Hall in Marks & Spencer? Still, the argument that ensures makes for great television. Any minute now somebody is bound to pass out, have a fit or perhaps run amock with a stale baguette.

When we suggest that they will be be breach of contract if they take any medication, the whole bunch of the chippy bastards declare that they'll abandon the programme and make their own way home. Yeah right - I'd like to see them try! I tell them to hold it together; pain, nausea, breathlessness and so on is all a question of mind over matter. People want to see a little sweat and a few tears; if they wanted to see pill-popping and injections they could have watched Top Hundred Most Wretched Celebrities on the other channel. I know about suffering, I know about disability. And I know that the team is damn helpless without the production crew and myself. We’re not at the Daycentre now; this is the Urban Jungle.

The production crew and I head for the Coffee Shop to debrief after the team have abandoned us. We briefly hope that at least the One A Bit Like Forest Gump would have got lost and wandered in our direction, but it seems that he is perfectly capable of finding his way.

So what did we learn from today’s exhibitionism?

Well, we certainly crushed the old stereotypes about disabled people, learning that disabled people are extremely brave and not altogether useless. They are also a damn plucky bunch who overcome the odds to smile through the tragedy of their injuries and disorders.

At the same time, disabled people are, remarkably, still human. In some respects, they are little better than ordinary members of the public who have no idea about the art of truly great television.

* handicapable comes to you courtesy of Melbamae - who didn't invent it, but told us of it.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Proverbs I wish to exterminate

Francis Bacon said that “The genius, wit and spirit of a nation are discovered in its proverbs.” It is therefore imperative to rid our language of the following proverbs and sayings which demonstrate neither genius, wit nor the spirit of our great nation:

You can’t have your cake and eat it

But you can! You can have your cake and eat it. You can’t eat your cake and then have the cake that you have just eaten. But if you do have a cake in your possession, the only sensible thing you can do with it is to eat it. Otherwise it will go stale.

This meaningless expression is most often used in situations where people really mean, You don’t deserve this as in “If a woman has a family, she cannot expect to have a career as well. You can’t have your cake and eat it.” or “If you want a job here, you’ll have to learn to stand up and pee with the boys. You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

Of course there are some choices in life which are mutually exclusive but since having cake and eating cake are not, we really need to ditch this one. While I’m on the subject of food…

You are what you eat.

No you’re not, neither literally nor metaphorically. If you eat terribly unhealthily, poor health is likely to eventually result and with some medical conditions, what you eat can have a dramatic effect on your prognosis. However, diet is just one small part of what determines a person’s health and well-being. Most people who are sick didn’t eat themselves into that position, nor may they eat themselves out of it.

It is so miserable that we should be made to feel guilty about food. Food should be a source of tremendous pleasure in life but is beginning to replace sex in the minefield of personal morality. This is not about how the food was produced, an area which might actually raise some moral questions. Instead we are made to feel guilty about the nutritional content of what we are eating, and most problematically, properties of food which are mere speculation; wheat is poisonous, carrots make you lethargic, eggs cause wrinkles etc.

I don’t advocate total abandon or gluttony, but in the absence of some established condition (as opposed to self-diagnosed cucumber-intolerance), food should be about sustenance and pleasure. We have a greater opportunity for both than most other people on the planet or in our own history.

A leopard can’t change its spots

Of course, a leopard really can’t change its spots. However, human beings can and do change, frequently for the better. There are valid reasons for not giving a person another chance to let you down, but these are usually quite subtle and complex; to assume that one mistake or one troubled period in a person’s life represents how they will continue to behave for the rest of their lives is inexpedient as well as deeply uncharitable. All criminal convictions would warrant life sentences.

A more useful proverb would illustrate the need to see evidence of a change. Some of us are very easily drawn back into relationships with people who hurt us, especially those with whom we share a few genes, when the offending persons have not even expressed the intention to change. On the subject of which…

Blood is thicker than water

Once again, this is literally true. However, the things which bind us to our families have very little to do with blood. Thousands of people may have contributed to the DNA of the individual sperm and egg which set you going, so why do we expect to resemble and get on with the group of contributors who happen to be alive at the same time as us?

Of course your parents do have a conditioning influence on you and your bond with them is likely to be much as Philip Larkin put it. However, this has far less to do with blood as the fact that it was these individuals or individual who dominated your most formative years and on whose ongoing investment (love? approval?) your survival was dependant.

Despite the fact that siblings will share many experiences with you growing up, psychometric tests show that non-identical twins have as little in common with one another as any two non-relatives from a similar cultural and socio-economic background. Some siblings bond and remain good friends, but it is not at all surprising when some siblings are like strangers to one another.

A fish worth its weight in gold

Ooh, I’m back already. I thought I was going to be stranded off-line until at least Tuesday, by which time I imagine you might have missed me, but due to the miracle of modern technology and the excellence service provided by Royal Mail, my popped router has now be replaced within thirty-six hours of its going pop.

In local news, Whitby has been shaken by the discovery of a rare haddock, worth its weight in gold. I thought the name of the chap they spoke to at the Sea Life Centre was appropriate, but I am still confused as to who is going to pay its weight in gold or equivalent currency. I sent roving reporter [...] out to Sandgate Seafoods to describe the scene.

"It was incredible," he said. That was it really.

Notice when an animal is described as a freak of nature it is considered to be of tremendous value.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Did you know that Charley was played by Kenny Everett?

I am odd I know, but I have been loving the BBC News website's Public Information Film Festival and today they had one about playing with matches starring Charley the cat. A work of genius.

Other highlights of the festival so far have included one from the Tufty Club, the emancipating Jobs for Young Girls and the frankly terrifying Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water.

I have to add that I am too young to remember any of these first hand but I'm sure that they showed us this one at school - I still have nightmares.

A candlelit shadow on the wall near the bed

There is a scene in my book that I keep going over and over and over and over. It is no good going away from it and coming back to it in a while, as I have been doing this on and off for the last six months. It is not an important scene in so far as you probably wouldn’t remember it after you'd read the whole book, but it is kind of crucial in establishing an important relationship – if I can’t get it right, you won’t understand why people behave as they do later on.

My protagonist receives an unexpected visit from an old friend. The last time she saw this friend, all sorts of bad things happened, but that was many years ago. So she feels very conflicted, like you do. On the one hand, there is all this unresolved tension and upset suddenly dragged to the surface after all these years. On the other hand, there is that thing you get with old friends where, no matter what, you have a closeness, an affinity, I dunno – clearly I am emotionally illiterate, which is why I’m having such difficulty.

Thus the resulting conversation seems impossible to write. These two characters seem determine to launch into Tennessee Williams style speeches – they'll adopt the accents if I’m not careful. But people can say things in plays which they can’t say in books and dear God, it is awful. At one point they both started crying and I had to slap their faces and demand they get a grip. It seems unlikely that either of them would attempt to confront the past head-on, not during a first meeting after all these years.

Attempts to get through this have included giving my protagonist a cat. Honestly, I attempted intergrating this stupid cat into the entire plot just for the benefit of this one scene. My protagonist could remain cold and aloof, but the cat sat on her old friend’s lap and purred, symbolising her unspoken affection and… oh well you get the picture and it was even worse than it sounds.

I was about to explain other ways in which I have tried to get over this, but they were all so bad it would be embarrassing to even try to write it down. Whatever happens, I have to rewrite the current disaster which includes the line of dialogue:

“Last time we touched, you broke my collarbone.”

I’m now going to lie in a darkened room and consider alternative careers for a severely disabled twenty-five year old with no qualifications or work experience.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Road To Nowhere

One of my low-energy activities involves looking at the pictures in books about Art and Photography without doing any actual reading. I also like looking at maps. I am positively enchanted with Google Earth and I must warn you that if I know your postcode, I have probably been spying on you from above. I have looking at any places anyone has mentioned, such as Sefton Park Library, which happened to be photographed on a day that Lady Bracknell paid a visit (well there’s a nearby dot which I have decided is Lady Bracknell and I challenge anyone to prove otherwise).

And then there’s the ordinary Atlas. All this is very childish, but I am not, as they say, a well man. I like to look at somewhere on the map and imagine what it is like, some little village somewhere I have never been to, especially if it has a comical name like Thwing, Pity Me or Six Mile Bottom. And I also like to plan fantasy journeys. Only sometimes these things get out of hand and lately, well I have begun to think, maybe, possibly…

I want to go visiting my netty friends. I have done this before, but really it is crazy even to think and talk about it given my current limitations. I haven’t even been out in my electric wheelchair since last August for cripe’s sake. But I did manage the journey to and from Suffolk all right – we were only delayed by one day because of me, and I am much better now than I was then.

I really ought to put the thing away. Yesterday I was looking at Underground routes across London and timetables! The Tube is completely inaccessible to me, even if my mobility was a bit better, I have only been on it twice since I got sick. And I don’t much like London. It is way too big and smells funny. Paris is very nice. You can sit outside the Les Deux Magots and talk to people about the meaning of life; “Je te plumerai le bec, je te plumerai la tĂȘte” I would say and everyone would be stunned into an awed silence. Dublin also seemed to be full of existentialists, musicians and people who could string words together in a random order and call it a tribute to James Joyce.

Glasgow smells a little bit funny, but I was there less than twenty-four hours and two complete strangers told me that I was beautiful. One of them was a rather camp waiter who thought I was romantically attached to the friend I was staying with, even though I was eighteen and she was forty something. My friend was extremely embarrassed and apologetic, but I kept thinking I could be whoever I liked in this place. The other person who told me I was beautiful was a drunk we met in the lift on the way up to her twenty-sixth floor flat. My friend had to translate his every word due to his inebriated state and extreme accent. And there were lots of seagulls. Seagulls are a good thing. I have been to London very many times and never seen any seagulls.

Naturally I have spent most of my time in London wandering round the City, which always seemed like a terribly exciting place to be.
So many people, all packed close together. So many different people in pinstripe suits and so many important looking buildings, embassies and banking organisations, so much power. And then there's the West End, which once held all sorts of extraordinary fantasies for me. I'm sure my appreciation of the Barbican was blighted by an RSC performance of Romeo & Juliet; the worst dramatic production of any play I have ever seen in the whole world ever. But these places are all very exciting, that can't be denied.

But of course nobody talks to you in London, even to tell you that you are beautiful (unless perhaps if you are). There is the occasional homeless person who might engage you in conversation and in places like the National Gallery an uninhibited European tourist may invite your opinion on the nature of someone’s expression in The Umbrellas. But the worst thing is that if you smile at a native, they sneer back and after a few visits to London you begin to suspect that they don’t mean to be unpleasant, only they’ve been so long in that place that they’ve lost the use of the necessary muscles to do otherwise.

There, that’ll get me hate-mail. I am sure it is a lovely place really and indeed I know many very pleasant Londoners, but it is like being in a completely different culture and I don’t know the rules. Like in some parts of the world where it is rude to make eye contact or eat with your left hand. And since clearly my judgement might have been swayed the compliments of camp waiters and drunks, my opinion is not to be taken too seriously.

But why I am looking at Tube maps I don’t know. Why I have plotted out a three week itinerary of my journey around the country when I have neither the health nor the financial resources to achieve such a thing, I don't know.

I need wings. I shall start collecting feathers.

Friday, February 17, 2006

When you were young and your heart was an open book

My theory of life, the universe and everything for a Thursday:

The more choice you give people, the more insecure they become about their decisions. The more insecure they are, they more defensive they become and the more eager they are to point out error in the choices of others. This is why there are so many miserable people about.

However, you still have to give people choice. Or else we’d never make any progress.

But it does irritate me that people try to tell others how to live, or at least how they ought to live. When it comes up that I don’t want children, I am often met by terrific defensiveness on the part of those that want or already have them; it is natural, they say, an instinct and anyway, someone has to sacrifice their resources and freedom in order to raise the next generation and care for us all in our old age.

The funny thing is that people who have made the same choice as us can be just as bad; we are the altruistic ones, the environmentally-conscious. People who have children make a selfish lifestyle choice, they get all sorts of employment privileges and state benefits and it’s all terribly unfair.

There is a similar divide between some single people and those in relationships; single people are miserable, nobody really chooses that – or they are promiscuous, no sticking power, they haven’t quite grown up yet. Similarly, marriage is a farce, people just pretend to be happy, but really it is just pride and a misplaced sense of duty holding them together. And so it goes on through every lifestyle choice there is; from home-ownership to holiday destinations. Of course it is quite natural to appreciate the benefits of one’s choices and to comment on those who we feel are making a mistake, but why can’t we also appreciate the fact that we could do things differently?

In the past they had much stronger concepts of social acceptability and of course older generations can pretend that there were really no choices at all. My Grandmother insists that having sex outside marriage was inconceivable in her day and yet I know that both her sisters had their first children within six months of their marriages. My parents claim that it would have been impossible for them to live together before they were married in 1974 and yet I know my Mum’s best friend cohabited with both her eventual husband and another boyfriend (though not simultaneously) for a good few years.

Oh and of course homosexuality didn’t exist at all before about 1983. People just hadn’t thought about that sort of thing before; it hadn’t even occurred to them before Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

What they mean is it would have been difficult, it would have meant stepping out of line. Now there are no longer nearly so many lines – or at least they are not nearly so rigid and yet folks seem to have the need to create and reinforce them.

And I really don’t get it. I am pretty insecure about a lot of things, but I hope I don’t ever suggest to people that a certain way of living is the best. I guess I have been critical when people talk in terms of obligation about things which are purely choice; we must buy a house, we must have a holiday, we need a shiny new car and we don’t have enough money.

But we really benefit from diversity, from what Mr Mill described as experiments in living. I'll try it my way, you try it yours and maybe we can share what we both learn?

We need values; we need not to fuck one another over, whatever else we do. But perhaps more than anything we have to realise that our lives are our own; they are no more and no less than what we chose to do with the cards we have been dealt. If we spent as much time working on that and less time making nervous sideways glances and snide remarks about those around us, we might have much less to feel insecure about.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

You're not the girl you think you are

We have been reorganising the bedroom, which has necessitated sorting through clothes, shoes, cosmetics and jewellery which appear to belong to a far more glamorous and interesting person who happens to be at least one dress size smaller than me.

I didn’t realise I had a shoe problem. I have a shoe problem. I am not one of these women who buy shoes for fun or feel they need different shoes for different outfits. I possess no shoes in brown, beige or any shade of blue, unless you count turquoise beaded flip-flops. I do have red glittery ones though (white stilettos, corrupted on the advice of Agent Fang). I also have two purple pairs; one pair of Mary-Janes one pair of high-heeled knee-high snake-skin boots. I also have a pair of fuchsia pink high-heeled espadrilles.

I actually managed to sell my black and white cow-print ankle-boots on eBay. I fear several other pairs are heading in the same direction. I can however blame eBay and the charity shops of Whitby for most of the original purchases. Or my mother, who likes to buy me sensible shoes. Both my Granny and my sister also made their contributions.

Similarly I find myself with an array of cosmetic products which I hardly ever use. It was six months on Monday since R & A’s wedding which was the last occasion I saw fit to wear any make-up. Clothes, I’m not too bad with really. There are only a handful things which I am waiting to shrink back into and although I am quietly demoralised by my immobility-induced lumpiness at times, it really isn’t much to complain about. It is mostly my arse, which I used to worry about being flat and shapeless anyway. Now… well, Kenny Everett did a sketch…

I don’t suppose any of this matters at all. There aren’t many things I get sentimental about, and when I need to clear space I can clear it. I think the thing that is making me nervous is the fact that once we’ve done the bedroom, we move onto the Boiler Room, which is an odd room which isn’t much use as anything but a storage room.

This contains such wonders as my photographic and developing equipment and chemicals, a half-painted army of Orc soldiers, a box full of cloth for clothes-making and repairs, several folders full of psychology notes and essays, plus textbooks, CD-Roms, even videos of psychological experiments, three boxes of audio-cassettes, oil paints, watercolour paints, watercolour paper, canvas board, wood, clays of more than one variety, paper of every conceivable variety and enough books to furnish a mobile library.

We all have this a bit, don’t we? I mean, we all have projects we started but never finished for one reason or another. Unfortunately my daft mind immediately looks at each item and says, “Alas! I can’t do this any more because I’m not well enough. Oh woe is me!”

Which isn’t quite true. Watercolour painting, for example, you can do almost anywhere, in any circumstance. I do other sorts of painting from under the duvet. Only am I completely rubbish at watercolours; that’s why I don’t do much of it. Similarly, I probably wouldn’t have fewer books if I was much better than I am; there aren't enough hours in a lifetime to read all the books one could possibly want to read.

Other things, well yes, it is all to do with my health, but why do I have to make it more painful to face things I have neglected because of ill health than things I have neglected because I have been too lazy or too busy doing other things?

But I do. It is almost like I need this, I need to feel sorry for myself. And I am particularly cross when I feel sorry for myself about things, things that really don’t matter and would probably trouble me far less if they all vanished overnight.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Goldfish Guide To Self-Discipline and Working at Home

Last time I was in the doctor’s waiting room I was eaves-dropping on a conversation between two young women, one of whom had a baby which, in their melodic Yorkshire accents, was referred to as t’ baybeh. One young lady, the one without t’ baybeh, was complaining about a mutual friend with an unhealthy obsession with work.

“I were going shopping in Scarborough, Friday last,” she said, “and Miss Goodie Two-Shoes refused to pull a sickie to go shopping with us.”

Before you rush to judgement, this poor young lady did have good reason to feel demoralised in her own work as she later stated,

“’Cause I’m still in trainin’ I only get seventy pound a week. And like, that’s a Friday night, i’n’t it?”

Now I’m still curious what she did with seventy pounds on a Friday night – I can only imagine she was an opera fan. Point is, this lady was illustrating an important truth: she could do whatever she liked with her time and money. There may be other important truths which will reveal themselves to her further down the line, but that is not our concern.

We all have such choices only some of us aren’t aware of them. I never played truant for a games lesson or lied about homework. If I am three minutes late for a doctor’s appointment because the swing bridge was open, I am embarrassed and apologise profusely to both receptionist and doctor. In my mind, any commitment made to another human being is as good as a promise and a promise is as good as… a compulsion.

This means I am a reliable and dutiful person in all things. However, the whole system depends on that other human being. Without them, I am about as organised and disciplined as a very disorganised and ill-disciplined person who has got themselves into a pickle and has done nothing all day. But since I had to complete my education at home on my own initiative and am now trying to work on a similar basis, I have had to get myself together a bit.

The first step in achieving this is to consider oneself a valid authority. The fact of the matter, illustrated by our lass int' waiting room, is that you have been the principle authority all along. When you go to work, you may consider your loyalty to your employer, your colleagues, your clients, patients or pupils but at the end of the day it wasn't them dragging you from your bed, shoveling breakfast into your mouth and frogmarching you to the busstop; that was you.

Possibly I am stating the obvious, but this is a point I have struggled with; that I always was and always will be the be the boss of me. This having been established, there is no magical transition between giving hard-work and co-operation to a project involving other people and giving hard-work and co-operation to some individual endeavour, like writing a book.

I should say a word about the benefits of ritual and having a special place to work separate from your sofa or bed etc, but this stuff depends on the luxury of being able to work regular hours, sat on an upright chair and having enough space to do this away from the places you usually rest and relax.

The next step is to establish limitations.

Most people have some limitations to work within and mine are fairly significant. However, there always lies the dilemma of where they stand at any given time on any given day. Am I struggling to work because I am tired or because I don’t really want to? Cognitive dysfunction and bone-idleness are not mutually exclusive and pain, like any other distraction, can be become very much more distracting when you are not motivated to ignore it. At the same time, working oneself into an early grave can be counter-productive.

The only way to find this stuff out is to test it, every day. I am a person who finds it very hard to sit and do nothing – I think most people are. So I sit in front of the open Word document or an open notebook and do nothing else for half an hour. I do not check my e-mail after fifteen minutes and I already brewed up before I started. If half an hour passes and I haven’t written a single sentence then I pack up and try again later.

Now one basic principle of working with a limited supply of energy is, rather like money, the more you spread out your expenditure, the further it goes. There is a temptation when you get your first clear window in days to make the most of it, press on and if it’s gone within half an hour, it’s gone. However, my experience suggests that if you stop after ten minutes, rest ten minutes, work ten minutes, rest ten minute, then you may as much as double the half an hour you would be limited to if you worked flat out.

That having been said, there are some timeframes within nothing can be usually achieved - three lots of half an hour is better than one lot of one hour, but twenty-four lots of five minutes, whilst increasing your total worktime, is pretty damn useless. A little bit of descretion must be used. However, it is necessarily to decide before you start each session when you’re going to stop and for how long.

Taking rests is as much part of self-discipline as anything else. Even the healthiest people must rest. But we must consider the hierarchy of rests and breaks.

Proper resting involves doing nothing at all; I either lie on the sofa staring at the sky or the fish tank or if I am really well behaved, lie in bed with the curtains drawn and my eyes shut. All this happens in silence.

Unfortunately, this is so boring! I know it is good for me because I feel much better very soon, but there is only so much of this that can be achieved - unless I am so ill I don't have a choice.

So if you have to do something, the trick is to consider which parts of your body and brain you use when working and what activities use entirely different parts of your body and brain. Writing e-mail is not an effective rest from writing novels – occasionally if one is stumped with a particular sentence, writing a whole load of other, completely different sentences can help loosen the muscle, as it were. Generally doing anything on the computer is not restful when your work time is spent staring at a computer screen.

Moving into a completely different physical position and listening to music provides a good contrast, so long as the music is conducive to a restful state. The following advice about music comes from the magnificent Better Recovery Form Viral Illness by Dr Darrel Ho-Yen (the emboldenment is his own);

“All activities do not use the same amount of energy. The golden rule is to ask yourself if you are bored with the activity. If you are not bored, you are interested and the activity is likely to use up a lot of energy. So, it is best to listen to music that you don't like, you will not be as involved and less energy will be used.. Classical, operatic or ethnic music is better than songs with words and emotion [sic.].”

Fortunately the author did not take quite the same approach when he goes on to recommend optimal sexual positions for people with my condition or else we all might have lost the will to live.

Point is that when you are resting with a view to resuming work, there is no point listening to Led Zeppelin IV at full blast. There is no point reading a chapter of a novel or watching part of a movie which you are going to become absorbed in; a bit of sewing or painting, a crossword or similar puzzle which you can pick up and happily put to one side at the end of your break is much better.

However most of all, you must be strict that if you are going to rest for half an hour, you break for the full half-hour.

The last point to make about self-discipline is that you must always leave time and energy to do other things. Because my condition varies so massively, it would be foolish for me to have a rule about not working on certain days of the week; when it comes, it comes and I must seize the day. However, a person can only work to the exclusion of everything else for a short time and when you are ill and experiencing the highly variable moods associated with chronic fatigue, this is a very short time indeed.

Energy used keeping in touch with other people, maintaining my blog etc is almost as important as the energy expended on my work because this stuff facilitates my sanity and sense of perspective, without which I would not be able to write.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Life Pursuit

I thought I hadn't had much e-mail for a few days because nobody loves me, but I started fiddling with it this morning and something has gone seriously asquew - the first thing that downloaded was an e-mail from a friend sent on the 22nd July 2004...

However, as far as I know I don't owe anybody e-mail, so if you have written to me and not heard back, I didn't hear from you in the first place. And I have (apparently) fixed the problem, so if you would kindly resend any e-mail... that is if anyone actually sent me anything in the last little while, when probably they didn't because nobody loves me... Oh come on, at least someone must want to offer me some Viagra or something?

I was supposed to have a visitor this afternoon - first one in six months - but since my e-mail has buggered itself up I don't know if he's coming. I think I will have to resort to the use of... the telephone! Aaaagh!

Oh now post has arrived and there's lots of that. So someone loves me. Oxfam loves me, Tesco loves me, La Redoute loves me (all this strikes me as rather conditional love)... oh and Marmite Boy! Oh I'll be all right now as I have a nice CD to listen to.
Gracias mucho muchacho del Marmite.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Lessons I have learnt about writing novels: Writer's Block

With anything you work at over a sustained length of time, there are going to be times when it is more difficult to do for all kinds of subtle reasons. Writing is no different. Writer’s Block is no different from any other funk people come to in work which requires concentration, creativity and self-motivation and I believe the mythology around it to be dangerous on two counts.

The first is that there is a point where you become incapacitated for work by emotional events, physical or mental health and this may kick in long before you lose the ability to hold a pen or type. Regarding your inability to write as some sort of metaphysical breakdown or a personal betrayal on the part of your muse, is likely to add to your suffering. If you are not well enough to write or life has taken over, you can but wait out the crisis.

The second problem with the concept of Writer’s Block is that, failing such an all-consuming crisis, creativity can be and must be stimulated. Any artist who expects inspiration to dance in through the window on a sunbeam to enable the masterpiece to be produced is never going to achieve anything. Any artist who is solely interested in the masterpiece is not really an artist at all.

Those people who have produced masterpieces along with others who have produced great inventions or revolutionary theories have almost always produced a great deal of other, not quite so fantastic work. That quote about the ratio between persperation and inspiration is very apt. The great thing about writing is that writers can claim to suffer for our art, whereas folks who have proper jobs have to make do with having an off-day.

In fact, it is not quite as simple as that, because writing does take more discipline that most nine-to-five jobs. You set your own hours and only have yourself to answer to if you don’t stick to them. At least before you become successful, you are either juggling writing with a proper job or else writing whilst unemployed. Most reasons a person is long-term unemployed besides hideous personal wealth present their own challenges; the stress of poverty, the pressing need to get a proper job and/ or the many and varied effects of ill health and disability.

Apart from this, you have a great deal of unanswerable questions about the work you are doing; is it any good? Will it get finished? When will it be finished? Will it be any good when it is finished? Will anyone want to read it? Will I get published? Will I get enough money to live on? All of the above call into question whether the entire exercise is worthwhile. To put such questions aside for the amount of time it takes to write a book requires bloody-mindedness tantamount to madness.

So well, it isn’t quite the same as a normal work…

I was going to include my Goldfish Guide To Self-Discipline here but that'll have to be another day.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Mini Meme

Gimpy Mumpy has tagged me with a meme! Okay…

Two jobs in my life:

Advertising Executive - I had to inflate and hand out helium balloons advertising Tesco’s latest range of breakfast cereal.

Vatican Official – I used to serve drinks and wash up for events put on for the local Catholic Women’s Guild. For money, obviously.

Two films that I could watch over and over:

Harold & Maude

Hedwig and The Angry Inch

Two places I have lived:

Ipswich – The birthplace of Justin R.

Whitby – The birthplace of English Literature.

Two TV series I like:


The Simpsons

Two places I’ve been on vacation:

Dublin, which rocked.

The Hatfield campus of the University of Hertfordshire – I bet no-one else has holidayed there (except for Vic who was there too).

Two foods I love:

Green & Black's Maya Gold Chocolate

Lasagne - meat or vegetable.

Two websites I visit daily:


eBay (well almost daily, but I sell more than I buy - honest!)

Two places I’d rather be right now:

Hmm… now there’s a revelation; just now there’s nowhere in the world I would rather be! If I had to be somewhere else... Oh I don't know, I really don't, sorry. Imagination failure.

Two bloggers who should play:

Uh... Marmite Boy and Pete

Although I should inform Lady Bracknell that she has been tagged on this elsewhere if she wasn't already aware.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

I believe in miracles

I sit and work on the sofa with my laptop. Behind me on the wall hang our three guitars, the bass, the BC Rich Warlock (which looks precisely like this on your left) and my darling acoustic guitar. Now currently I am very nervous about my computer because the CD drive is playing up and I haven’t been able to back up my work for the last couple of months.

I had been playing with aforementioned darling about ten minutes before this occurred. I then put the guitar back, put my headphones on and carry on working. Sometime during Let It Be there is a big thud behind me.

Darling acoustic has fallen; the bracket has taken a big chunk of plaster out of the wall, but miraculously it is sat on the top of the bookshelf, resting comfortably against the still suspended Warlock.

other angle would have resulted in at least the destruction of this treasured guitar which is older than I am, if not the guitar smashing into my laptop thus losing all the work I have done in the last few months, e-mails etc and causing hundreds of pounds of damage and knocking me very hard on the head on its way down. Naturally in my current traumatised state I imagine that I would be instantly killed by the weight of a full size guitar falling on my head (what a rock'n'roll way to go!), but when I calm down I’ll probably get a little perspective on this.

is looking out for me.

[...] came in and said, "Bugger, I'll have to patch that wall up now."

Poetry Corner: St. Valentine's Day Massacre

This makes two bad poems within the space of a few weeks – sorry! This poem was inspired by trawling though the contents of my Shopping inbox as accumulated in the last few weeks. I was thinking massacre as in a massacre of the English language. Is it my imagination or is this Valentine's Day lark even worse this year? Do people actually buy into this stuff?

The least depressing Valentine's themed mailing, on account of having all number of items it would have never have occurred to me to give for Valentne’s Day, was the fetish shop mailing. Ur, now I must explain… I got on the mailing list by buying an entirely innocent pair of stockings. Long-legged ladies will know that it is impossible to get ladies’ stockings which are quite long enough, so one must wear stockings designed for men. Marks & Spencer don’t stock seamed stockings designed for men. In fact, M&S don’t even stock stockings with seams!

By Jingo, my grandfathers did not fight a World War with smudged eye-liner down their legs so that future generations could wear seamless polyester tights with a cotton gusset. Unfortunately the only place that a chap can get a decent pair of seamed stockings is in a fetish shop and that’s how I got on their list. Okay? Glad to have cleared that one up.

It occurs to me that if you are skint, you could learn this poem (give it a different title like My Lovely Darling Squelchy Princess) and recite it to the object of your affection. I did attempt this myself, but was interrupted during the second line with “Are you going to tell me what you want for lunch today or what?"

St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Why tie a ribbon round my love,
Or cup my love in silk and lace?
Why smother it in chocolate
Which spoils me for my love’s own taste?

Why wrap pink paper round my love
Red hearts my love to represent?
Why bottle it with rich perfumes
Which mask love’s own distinctive scent?

Why bind my love in chains of gold,
Weighed down with jewels of wondrous size?
Why gild my love so to conceal
Love's naked beauty from my eyes?

Why muddle love with clumsy words,
Or flowers that quickly wilt and fade?
Why fill the room with violins,
And drown out love’s own serenade?

No fluffy handcuffs for my love
No bubbles, corked and left on ice.
Why tangle love in satin sheets?
My love’s own texture will suffice.

Why do I write these awful poems
In the middle of the night?
For in the morning I awake,
And read them – and I get a fright!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Taking off his turban, they said, is this man a Jew?

This week my normally liberal stance on things has been rather tested. First by the furore over some cartoons published in the Danish Newspaper, Jyllands-Posten and then by the trial of Nick Griffin and Mark Collett (nice French name that – so much for the indigenous people of the British Isles).

Of course I wouldn’t have banned those cartoons, but they were horrible. Well, not all of them, but a few were pretty nasty and the fact they appeared in series, as The Mohammed Series makes it clear to me that their sole intention was to shock people in general and insult Muslims in particular. The fact the cartoons depicted the Prophet Mohammed is of dubious relevance – nobody deserves their religion mocked in such a vicious manner.

At the same time, I have the strong suspicion that most of the people burning flags and issuing death-threats didn’t even see the thing, but what do we learn from this?

You have a big group of people who already feel persecuted. In some countries, they have been subject to violence en masse for reasons which could appear to be related to their faith. In other countries, they are subject to suspicion, increased police interest and various forms of abuse because of the supposed association between Al Queda and the Muslim faith.

So what’s about the worst thing a media organisation can do; criticise the culture and governments of Muslim countries? Criticise Muslim community leaders? Criticise faith schools and other forms of segregation? Discuss social problems faced by Muslim communities? No; all this stuff happens all the time. What is about the worst thing you can do to a person who feels isolated and hated, verging on paranoia?

Well, you take the piss out of them. Like that.

So whilst I’m disturbed by the ferocity of the reaction to a set of cartoons – which are at the end of the day, well, a set of cartoons - this was a big mistake.

As for Nick Griffin et. al., my logical mind says that he and the BNP should be allowed to say whatever they like, so long as nobody is subjected to it and so long as they don’t incite a criminal offence. But their words disturb me very much. That people can grow up in my country and say such things makes me ashamed to be British. However, that people can talk such utter cock and not fear violence or summary imprisonment is, perhaps, something we can be proud of.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Lessons I have learnt about writing novels - Characters #1

When I first started, I thought the most important thing about characters was that the reader never caught sight of the strings. Late I learnt that it is possible to create characters who don’t need strings. Unfortunately, this involves nothing so simply as a Blue Fairy.

Most of us understand the concept of writer as God and the idea that God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. Both writers and theologians are likely to struggle with the concept of omnipotence, since if someone else is all-powerful, how can human beings have free will and be truly responsible for their actions? But hey, that’s not our problem.

Omnipresence is the thing. You cannot merely see everything that goes on from the outside; you have to see inside every character who is of any significance to the plot. Not just inside their heads, but looking out at the world from behind their eyes.

This may sound obvious, but it wasn’t to me. Initially I thought that as long as I knew my protagonist inside out, and had a reasonable understanding of what made the other characters tick, I would be okay. After all, if I was writing a true account of some adventure or other, I would only have to record what others said and did.

But I wasn’t writing about events that had actually happened. It became very easy to make continuity mistakes because I was only following one thread out of the several I was writing about – of course other threads will disappear out of view to a reader, but the writer must keep sight of all those threads all the way along. I also found I was struggling with the words of other characters.

It doesn’t help that our culture’s primary medium of story-telling is now films and television. Some films and television dramas are truly excellent, but a hell of a lot of them take short cuts. For example, there are literally dozens of films about an American policeman who is barely holding onto his job due to his maverick behaviour, facing an enemy whose megalomania can only be explained by the fact that he does a really bad European accent. Some of these films are entirely watchable, a few even entertaining, but we only have to buy into it for ninety minutes, we already know the rules and there are so many explosions, car-chases and fight sequences that we don’t have time to think twice about it.

It is possible to write books like this I suppose, but it seems very dishonest. It plays upon a psychological defence mechanism that has us think the world is made up of good people and bad people. The good people can be flawed, even complicated, but bad people do bad things for no particular reason. We read stories about bad behaviour in the news and think monsters; they are not like us or anybody we know. People even speak this way about those who commit adultery, fiddle taxes, park in disabled spaces, speed or even smoke.

A lot of post-modern literature tries to resolve this false dichotomy by making everyone bad – not necessarily criminal, but selfish and cheating. But cynicism is just as unrealistic, and far less enjoyable to read than the worst excesses of romanticism – you grow to hate all the characters, so lose interest in their experiences.

Another solution often attempted particularly in crime fiction is to give less savoury characters mental illness. This person does a bad thing because they’re nuts and that explains whatever they get up to – whether they are a compulsive liar or a serial killer. This may seem to give a lazy writer complete licence over whatever weird or wacky behaviour their character indulges in, but it’s all bollocks. People, regardless of mental health, sometimes behave irrationally, but there is always also some (warped) rationale behind it. Even the most naive reader is going to struggle with an evil genius who travels the world performing a range of massively complex but gruesome murders on clowns, only to have it crop up that as a tiny child he was violently sick after eating a Happy Meal.

If you need characters to behave in extreme ways, think of a really good reason for them to do it – consider what circumstances might lead you to do such a thing. Most of us are capable of unkindness; most of us make decisions about whether we are nasty or nice on a regular basis, whether we act with compassion or exploit weakness. Most of us have promiscuous thoughts and even wish that some people would experience the misfortune we feel they deserve. I think most people can envisage dramatic scenarios where there would be at least some temptation for us to do something really very bad.

Your own inner demons are of far more use than anything from our cultural fairytales, because they already exist in a real person. Similarly your capacity to do good and be strong, although this seems far more easy to write about. Probably because it is far more flattering.