Thursday, 17 May 2018

Mental Health forever

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week just now (until 20th May) and to be honest I find this a bit depressing (which seems both right and very, very wrong). It seems to me a little baffling that we are not, by this point, at full mental health awareness but still, apparently, we are not. How many more celebrity mental health exposés do we need at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, I wonder, before we finally get it – our minds are precious and they need care, attention and quite a lot of help. It’s more obvious in some of us than others of course but as the numbers of people with some kind of mental health problem/challenge rise, the divide between the mentally healthy and the rest gets smaller and smaller. I know maybe one person in my life who doesn’t have some kind of issues they could usefully work on in therapy. And no, you can’t have him, he’s mine.

At least that’s what I think on the one hand. On the other I think – what a load of nonsense, you fool, there is a long way to go to full mental health awareness. After all, I did very little to protect my own mind when it came to the crunch in my teens and twenties (quite the opposite). My Dad may have killed himself (various reasons/diagnoses available, depending who you spoke to in the family…) but I was going to be fine and no I absolutely did not need to talk about it (and pass the drug of choice, please). My Mum’s favoured cause for his 1973 suicide was stress of work/being trapped in someone else’s choice of career so she made sure none of us at the end of the line had those particular stresses – we were to do what we wanted, follow dreams etc. (not that she would ever say anything in that X Factor style but that was the gist of it). And I have tried… but of course there are stresses involved with dreams too (especially when they don’t materialise or succeed in any concrete way). It turns out straggling along in the wake of your failing dreams is not particularly good for the mental health either, and particularly so if it’s possible that quite a lot of the failing is down to laziness, distraction, weakness, possibly even genetic causes etc. But hey, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week! Let’s talk about it. Or not…

Maybe this old subject is also on my mind just now as there was a very public suicide here in Scotland recently (a musician/songwriter/singer/artist, much loved, so a lot of articles, songs posted etc.). One of my favourite pieces prompted by this death was written by Karine Polwart, but then it seems she is just a really good writer whatever the medium (I didn’t know Scott Hutchison’s work but I have been a fan of KP’s since her first solo album). For those of us with a suicide in our past (and that must be quite a lot of us by now) this death was in some ways (sorry for the honesty of this) just another suicide to add to the pile in our heads. Every time someone talks about it (Dawn French about her Dad, another comedian Aisling Bea wrote last year about hers…) I see them, somehow, a stack of frustrated, sad souls, the ones who just couldn’t bear living (not on that particular day anyway). My Mum also put my Dad’s suicide down to the medication prescribed to him (he had stopped taking them suddenly, she said, and crashed, she said it was ‘out of character’ or some such…). It’s impossible for me to know how much of this was accurate information, my Mum wasn’t a huge fan of psychiatric medication, called herself a ‘Freudian’ (though that seems a little old-school now…).

I do know that moving on from that life event was tricky. For a start we all talk about parents and family (or lack of them) a lot and we continually look at our lives through that filter (both in fiction and in the other place). Also our society is fairly obsessed with suicide (nothing that new, I suppose, ‘to be or not to be…’ and all that) and many of us are either drawn to it or terrified by it or a mixture of the two. Having had it as a kind of memory cloud for most of my life I am just tired of it (maybe even bored of it… I know that sounds harsh, inappropriate, childish even). But maybe that’s also influenced by the fact that I am approaching the age my Dad was when he killed himself so I am both thinking about it and really not wanting to think about it at all. A beloved uncle/father figure in my partner’s family just died and how different the feelings for that kind of death (he had a good life, he was loved, he enjoyed his life etc.). I managed to write a little poem for his family and it was so simple and clear (you were loved, we will remember you well). It might not make for a good mini series but how marvellous to just be able to say of someone ‘they lived well, they were a good person’ and not to need the ‘what if’s and the ‘what a shame’s. I did learn to cast off a lot of those thoughts around the picture of my Dad in my head (I think) but it took a while. I still very rarely (if ever) use the phrase ‘what a shame’ (for anything). I don’t like it, don’t really see what it achieves.

I have been reading some books of essays recently (I’ve been fighting a bit with fiction on paper, hate poetry again, and so on). Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist (2014) is brilliant and Zadie Smith’s Feel Free (2018) likewise. This morning (at silly o’clock – a lot of loud dawn chorus round here) I found myself crying to Smith’s piece ‘The Bathroom’ in Feel Free. She writes about her Dad with a love that just hauls the tears out of my eyes (she writes about all her family with some love but the rest are still living and we write differently about the dead). Crying is good (within reason) so I don’t mind that and I definitely don’t mind the joy that experiencing good writing can bring. Another thing about growing up around the word ‘depression’, I think, is that you try to grab as much joy* as you can, whenever you can (see earlier paragraph for associated problems with that…). The issue is learning about a little thing called balance…

Anyway, this ramble has probably gone on as long as it needs to.  No poem today. And as the Jamie Lee Curtis character in Freaky Friday (2003) says ‘Make good choices!’ If you can.

* (added later) After writing this I finished reading Zadie Smith's Feel Free and so got to the final piece that is, suitably for this post, titled Joy. She calls joy a difficult emotion to manage” (though manage can have different meanings...and I'm not sure which she means, maybe both), declares it such a human madness and argues (I think) in favour of the more manageable pleasure. I'm not sure the line between the two is completely rigid (or even identifiable) but she is, without question, better with these word things than me so I thought I would add this for your consideration. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

How special are you?

Angus somewhere, April 2018

I've been listening to lots of radio programmes of late. Now we can choose specific programmes (using the BBC i-player mostly in my case) it is possible to fill your mind, if you need or want to, with a pretty much non-stop flow of ideas via sensible people talking about interesting things on the radio. Just today (no paid work having come knocking on my email door... ) I have listened to Chris Wood on music, church and bodily functions, nearly all the 5 parts of Benjamin Zephaniah's autobiography 'The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah' and a 'Point of View' by Tom Shakespeare on disabled sexuality. I've also read a great piece of writing by Zadie Smith in her book 'Feel Free' ('On Optimism and Despair - you can read it here) so it's been a quiet day on the one hand... but a full one too. And thank goodness for other people's ideas because I have been in a bit of a poetry rut of late too... a run of knock-backs and a decent helping of 'why am I still doing this at all?' Self-pity is always so attractive... let's say no more on that.

Anyway, the Tom Shakespeare 'Point of View' started off with a look at the use of the term 'special needs'. "Disabled people don't have special needs," he says, "we're not aliens, we have ordinary needs... We want education and employment and a place to live and access to healthcare and all the other taken for granted things of life." I like this clear kind of talking and thinking and it reminds me that some time ago I wrote a poem looking at special needs in a similar way (if from the opposite starting point... that in fact all our needs are special in some way or other... which does make them ordinary). If I remember rightly it was the now very out of favour Germaine Greer who, at least in part, prompted the writing of the poem (she was on Question Time, was asked about disability and said she considered people with no sense of humour the most disabled of all... or something like that...). I can't find the quote because all you can find about her online now is trans-related. I wonder if she still has a sense of humour... 

Anyway (again), here is the old poem (from 2007 or so - back in the days when I rhymed a lot more and was allergic to end-of-line punctuation). 

Pay heed to the special need

Personally I need a lot of help with moving
I need public transport, I need constant soothing
I need my hand holding and I need some quiet time
These needs are special and these needs are mine

You might need a teacher, you might need a school
You might need some help with obeying a rule
You might have a thing about folding and drawers
Those needs are special and those needs are yours

I can’t do sitting in well-behaved rows
Snobbery and claptrap get right up my nose
I’m not very good at just following a line
So many needs out there but these ones are mine

You might be allergic, you might be alone
You might need assistance from more than a phone
You might need a moment, a break, just a pause
Because all needs are special, especially yours

RF 2007

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Music and gods

A little while ago I told you about an old friend and musician (Ana Laan) who was crowdfunding her new project. The funding was a success and the music for that project (an EP called 'Camino del Agua') is now available. You can buy it here and I have seen it on the other site as well (the big one... that many of us use.... even if we maybe shouldn't... the Coca Cola of shopping sites...). If you want an actual CD to hold in your hand you can contact Ana at to arrange that (she is based in Spain so postage costs from there I imagine). The artwork (by Jesús Placencia) on the CD is lovely and the music... my favourite track changes all the time but at the moment it is 'Dionysus' (and funnily enough there was a documentary about Bacchus/Dionysus on the BBC just recently... and an interview with the historian on my favourite radio show). Being whatever the opposite of a classicist is I have to look up the names of Greek/Roman gods over and over again (they refuse to stay in my brain). I might manage to remember this one now though! 

Sunday, 1 April 2018


Garden sun, last week

Poems are often a big part of special occasions and, as I am sure most of us know, they are a popular choice for weddings and funerals in particular. I had a message just last week about someone wanting to use one of my poems for their wedding and this happens quite a lot (interestingly, for someone who is not a big marriage or weddings fan, I am 'recommended poet' on a weddings website or two...). It's nice to get messages like that though - I'm all for love and if that's the way people choose to celebrate love then hooray for that and for them. Today's poem, however, is probably more funeral than wedding (but also about love...).


Now you’re gone for good, 
Nobody anybody knows.
And we won’t see your face
In the papers, on TV,
For who knows your name
To say it but me?

You were fort and fire,
Arms for comfort, eyes for warmth,
So much strength in every sense,
Not the usual push and pull.
Now all the rooms are empty
Even when they’re full.

Poems pour down hard,
Sinks are blocked, dust wins.
Simply nothing adds up
Now your time is done.
My days are lost completely
To a dying sun.

RF 2018

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Waiting rooms

Sentinel by Steph Masterson

In the last post I said I would write something about the documentary film Unrest (2017) so…

Unrest was made by Jennifer Brea about the illness ME (also sometimes known as CFS). One of my closest friends has had ME for over 16 years so I was very interested to see this film (it is available now in various ways – showing at some cinemas but also available on most streaming services). There have been various programmes and features about ME on TV and radio over the years but this one is different for several reasons – it was directed by someone with the illness, it is a feature film (and a quality piece of work) and it really does seem to be making some waves about its subject. I found it really compelling (and emotional) and would totally recommend it as a fascinating, moving, very stirring piece of art and life. It tackles many of the myths about ME (as every piece about ME seems to have to do) but it does a lot of its work by just showing the everyday lives and challenges of Brea and a selection of other people who suffer from ME (and the suffering comes over loud and clear in this film). In fact one of the reasons many people don’t like the use of CFS, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, as a name for the illness is its implication that fatigue is the main problem for people with ME, when sufferers will tell you it is pain (relentless, extreme pain), amongst other things, that is a much bigger issue. The film does have medical content (experts and so on – not that there are many ME experts – and the film looks at that issue too) but what it has, almost most of all, is enough anger and determination to present its evidence in a way that makes it hard for viewers to look away. Unrest is part (a big part) of a growing campaign to get more research into ME, to try to finally offer people with the illness some hopes for cure and recovery (you might have heard recovery stories already but there are many more people who are not recovering and who are getting virtually no solutions from medical sources). It is hard for many people with ME (and their carers and friends and family) to be involved in campaigning because of the nature of the illness but Unrest is a big step on their behalf. A related campaign is MillionsMissing (part of ME Action, one of several ME-related groups) – the ‘millions’ referring to the number of people who have the illness (worldwide cases can only be estimated at this stage but all the ones I found online started with figures like 17 million and, within that, 4 times as many women as men).

ME is one of those subjects that a lot of people think they know something about but in reality very few do (both in the medical world and elsewhere). You may have a heard a scrap of a story about someone who was off work for a couple of months and ‘people said they had ME’ and ‘they didn’t seem ill to me’ but it’s most likely that these bits of stories are not about ME at all (and a lot of them are very old bits of stories and, often, told with malice for reasons I won't get into here...). This film, by concentrating on individuals who are far more typical of ME cases, draws attention to the pain and the suffering and the long-term problems that ME can and does cause. Thinking about it I kept coming back to the idea of waiting rooms. I think that lots of us feel like we spend too much time in waiting rooms (literally and figuratively). Sometimes it can feel like we are always waiting around for things to happen, either waiting to see a doctor of some kind (if that's what we need) or waiting for something or someone to fix things in other parts of our lives (and sometimes that person is us). We are dissatisfied so often and everything seems to take so long (and sometimes we are right to be dissatisfied, but other times much less so). But for people with ME (and those who love them), especially those who have had it for a very long time, they are both in a waiting room (this being a room in their home usually, for years and years in some cases) and yet, at the same time, they aren’t in a waiting room at all (because there just isn’t one – there is no doctor to see them in many cases, no cure, no hopes offered). These people are told, aloud and by actions (and inaction), that they are not important and that is a hard situation to deal with, whenever or however it occurs (and especially when you are in pretty constant pain). In some instances (see the Unrest section on Denmark) people with ME are even punished.

Other thoughts I had recently (partly to do with this film, partly to do with other things) were about strength and weakness. Around International Women’s Day last week I saw so many posts about ‘strong’ women and, whilst I understand the sentiment and the desire to stand up in the face of oppression, the repetition of this word ‘strong’ unsettled me a little (more and more every time I saw it...). I feel that if women (and I include here anyone who wants to use that word) become too fixated on the strong we are all too likely to repeat mistakes that have already been made by men (many, many men...). It would be so easy to end up taking ourselves down the cul-de-sac that some men find themselves in today, a place where ‘strength’ and ‘power’ are cages that don’t let anything else in or out (‘don’t show weakness’, ‘don’t admit defeat’). Unrest is something else entirely and I feel that by making this film Brea has shown both extreme strength and extreme weakness and that is another reason I found it so effective and impressive and whole. We can all be strong, yes, but we can be so much more besides.

Find Unrest here.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Writing about writing about writing

Messing about with art, Dundee

Last week I came second in a writing competition. It wasn't a huge affair (it was organised by the brilliant local theatre Dundee Rep as part of the promotion for their production of Deathtrap) but it was still nice to be able to say to myself 'maybe you aren't completely crap then'. The brief was to write a piece/story about writing (500 words max.) and it was my kind of competition in that you had to work quickly, you didn't have to pay to enter and they chose the winners pretty quickly too. You can see a photo of a few of us 'prize winners' here. My piece is more monologue than story and I will paste it below. It is fiction, for the most part. I'll be back in a couple of days to tell you how brilliant the film/documentary Unrest is (and if you haven't seen it, seek it out).


Someone on Twitter has won a prize. Well, that almost never happens.

Someone else on Twitter has won a prize. I’m thrilled for them both.

I eat a bag of Aldi crisps, switch to sweet (cooking chocolate), have a cup of tea.

I do some editing and while I’m doing it I notice links between some of the words in the piece that I’ve never noticed before. I think that maybe the words know what they are doing and this is a relief. Maybe they could just get an agent on their own and miss me out of the process altogether. Maybe that could be the plot of an independent film and I could write it. Or maybe that film already exists. It’s probably not my kind of thing.

I flick online to tread some time. Someone I once met at a festival has just been mentioned online by someone else who is quite famous. The someone I once met at a festival (a poet) might sell some books now so that is good for them and I am pleased. That someone was friendly and they work hard and deserve success. I think all this but I don’t really feel it. Only the dog knows the truth.

The dog looks at me with hungry eyes. Sometimes she wonders what is so special about the clicking machine but if I take her out for a walk she forgets about it soon enough. I take her out for a morning stretch and the great outdoors is full of inspiration and stories. I’m quite glad to get back home to be honest. It’s all a bit overwhelmingly real out there.
Someone on Instagram has also been outside. I see their photograph of the sunrise earlier today. It is amazing.

RF 2018