Radio Z: Time, gentlemen, please!

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The most remarkable thing about post-apocalyptic Britain was that it was incredibly clean. While Romero, Boyle, et al, portray a zombie outbreak as a terribly messy affair, the undead are rather respectful about their surroundings.

Initially, the infestation did cause somewhat of a palaver – you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, after all – but the streets of Blighty had never been cleaner. Say what you will about the brain-eaters, but they did not leave a morsel when it came to devouring a corpse; not a single body part was wasted.

Yes, post-apocalyptic Britain was spick spock. You could eat your food off the floor, as the zombies did on a daily basis, chomping on your Great Aunt Nora or disemboweling your Year 8 geography teacher; for which, you probably owed them one.

The remaining survivors, of course, did not call them zombies. They were far too proper for that. Instead, the carnivorous creatures were referred to as ‘the visitors’. You might as well have called them the migrants – coming over here, stealing our wives and brains – because, even in the end of days, the British were still inherently xenophobic. For once, however, the proud yet ignorant Anglo-Saxon could not blame Europe, nor the so-called influx of insiders; their Royston Vasey attitude was not warranted as their downfall came closer to home.

There is probably some exceptionally clever, convoluted, and downright preposterous explanation to somehow rationalise how the harmless – no, that’s not quite true, is it? – the perfectly tedious British population transformed into monsters. The science does not matter, though. When one is faced with the prospect of an out-of-control creature chewing on your gonads as a hors d’oeuvre, one does not question the origins of the beast. Instead, the mind focuses on finding a blunt object to hasten its demise. The zenith of the fucker is irrelevant when you are attempting to cause its nadir.

Was it a case of scientific experimentation going too far? Or was it hydraulic fracturing? Or perhaps it was God punishing all of the homosexuals on BBC television? In truth, no one had a bloody clue what caused the zombie apocalypse. They were interested in the what, where, and when, and had very little interest in the how.

There were rumours, of course – fake news, Twitter, and cockroaches proved the strongest of survivors – that it all started in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. While lumberjacks, pretentious wankers, and a pure sexual infatuation for vinyl may have originated from there, they could not claim that they were zombies before it was cool.

London, much like their attitude to the rest of the United Kingdom, wiped their hands of the ordeal – well, until it started to reach Milton Keynes, and then they began to panic.

Speculation surrounding the East Lancashire town, Burnley, grew. Although it was rather easy to compare its nightclub dwellers to the brainless, it was sadly a red herring. But they were not far away.

No, it all began in another old mill town, in a place that time had forgot after its initial flirtation in the late 19th century: Acorn Town.

Acorn Town could not take much credit for anything: a talent show reject from a few years ago, maybe; a football club that once punched above its weight and won the First Division many moons ago; or a one-hit wonder rock star that vacated the town at the earliest opportunity.

It doesn’t have much chance to impact the world nowadays, so it questionably puffed out its chest by being responsible for the death of mankind.

Acorn Town, oddly enough, did not contain any acorns. There was no recorded evidence to state that it ever did. While history books take great pains to delve into bloodshed, power and industry, forestation is pretty low down in the priorities of chroniclers. Acorn Town may have contained acorns at some point in its chronology, but no one felt the urge to jot it down. In fact, there were not many trees left to grow the acorns. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, greenery had been swapped for machinery, hills for mills, and a perfect blue sky in God’s England for smoke and soot.

Much like their championship-winning football team, residents simply would not let anyone forget about their industrial past. However, Acorn Town suffered from second album syndrome. The town’s official motto, Labore et Sapientia, had become redundant.

It was a perfectly lovely town, but the soul had been torn out of it. It gave no clue of its fall from grace, with its charming Victorian architecture and quaint town centre, containing the usual town hall, post office and public house.

The town had not given up – how could it? It was just brick and mortar – but its people were defeated. The residents of Acorn Town were dead, long before the zombies arrived.

A visit to the Last Orders, the battered yet defiant stalwart guarding the edge of town, would allow you to be face-to-face with the undead preceding their rise from the grave.

There was Alun, the portly landlord, whose breath ponged of stale cigarettes and pork scratching. He reflected his choice of newspaper, the Daily Express, with his foul-mouthed rants about political correctness, the fuckin’ European Union, and – heaven forfend – Generation-cuntin’-Snowflake. He shed a quiet man-tear when Princess Diana was mentioned – “she was the People’s Princess!” – and achieved a semi-erection when he heard the national anthem; when the Union Jack was raised up the mast, he offered his own salute (and not with his hands).

And then there were the two old boys, Reg and Derek, who were as much as part of the furniture as the out-of-tune piano in the corner, the wobbly snooker table, and the permanently out-of-order condom machine in the gents’ bogs. Occasionally breaking from their prolonged and intense staring contested with their pints of bitter, the pair would offer a mono-syllabled conversation to one another – and to no one else.

“‘Ee.”

“Aye?”

“Nay.”

“Oh.”

“He?”

“Thou?”

“Yay.”

“Fie!”

“Aye!”

“Aye.”

And finally, in unison, they would produce a drawn-out “‘Eeeeeee”, as though their mouths were serving as an exhaust. This high-brow intellectual debate would conclude with a tut, and a thorough examination of the aesthetically pleasing half-empty pint of bitter (they were Lancastrian – it would never be half-full). They were simple men, and followed the philosophy of ‘one rule for all’: their cups of tea and pints were provided by Tetley’s.

The clientele of the Last Orders could not place an age on Reg and Derek, and behind their backs, there was a wager – totalling £63.46 over the years – on who will die first. Both Reg and Derek outlived the rest of the bastards when the outbreak occurred. The zombies chose not to target the elderly generation. Even though they were brain dead, zombie logic made the creatures play the long game. Why force yourself into the effort of recruiting the nearly dead to the undead? And Candice was probably a juicier bite than 85-year-old Agatha (we’ll return to Agatha a bit later on).

Tapping their feet on the sticky floor, one would hope was from spilt booze and not other substances, were the trendy individuals who were undoubtedly underage. Alun deplored them as much as he despised “puffs”; he never married, however, so – as our American cousins remark in their vulgar bastardisation of the English language – you do the math.

As Quentin Crisp once remarked, and shamefully misquoted here, the hypocrisy of youth is that they rebel from their parents, and conform with their peers. The group of three college students were so alike, it was nigh on impossible to differentiate between the trio. For now, they shall be called Teenager 1, Teenager 2, and Teenager 3. Although they were barely out of their nappies, and struggling to contain his simmering loathing for the group, Alun still relented and served the pimply-faced, hormonal Three Musketeers with their ridiculous requests for fruit cider – “poofs!” – and Jaggerbombs. Perhaps it was unfair for Alun to call them poofs, for the sole fact that he struggled to determine their gender. When he overheard their surreal conversations, he really wish he hadn’t bothered.

“Cows are the most dangerous animals in the world,” surmised Teenager 1.

“What?” interjected Teenager 2.

“Cows are the most dangerous animals in the world.”

“What the fuck are you going on about?”

“Hear me out. Y’know, when cows, like, y’know,” he/she blushed, “break wind…”

“Fart?” Teenager 3 suggested.

“Yes,” he/she/your guess is as good as mind muttered, turning crimson, “Y’know when cows fart, they produce methane. And methane is a dangerous gas.”

“So are your farts!” added Teenager 2, giggling like a school-girl, which they may very well have been. The joint puffed ten minutes earlier probably did not help, betrayed by the excessive consumption of crisps. They would no doubt order a kebab during their stumble home, or a KFC rip-off that tries to avoid any copyright issues by calling itself the Kolonel’s Fried Chicken.

“Fuck off,” blurted Teenager 1, “Well, methane contributes to the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect hastens global warming. And global warming will eventually fuck us up the arse!”

A silence passed over the group, as they sat back in awe at this Nostradamus-esque prediction.

“And, like, cows produce milk. Well, milk is used in yoghurts and chocolate. Chocolate causes obesity. Obesity causes heart attacks. Heart attacks cause death.”

Teenager 2 gasped, “Fuck.”

Teenager 3 gasped, “Fuck.”

Alun reached up behind the bar, with the strain lifting his already tight t-shirt and exposing his gut to the unlucky punters, and rang the rusty bell (not a euphemism).

“Time, gentlemen, please!” he bellowed.

Last orders were called at the Last Orders, as the zombies prepared to strike.

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Mr Manic: I am, apparently, going to Hell

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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

I am, apparently, going to Hell.

That is the prophetic warning given to me by a random gentleman in the city centre of Manchester. His small talk, while troubling, is certainly memorable, but I am rather affronted by this suggestion. What makes this mortifying is that I was not the sole audience of this revelation. Passers-by were privy to our exchange, as his voice travelled as far as the projectiles of spit, courtesy of a microphone and amplifier.

“If you drink,” he continues, “you have sealed your place in Hell.”

It would seem eternal damnation is more flexible than the purgatory created by letting agents. My futile attempt to move flats may, after all, be in vain, despite the hostage demands by the agency: we need this letter, and this signature, and this application form, and this history, and the blood of a virgin, tear of a unicorn, and the Ark of the Covenant. However, with my place in Hell booked and confirmed, I ought to look at getting my deposit back; and perhaps spend it on the demon drink that has sealed my fate.

I resist the urge to inform the preacher that I have visited Burnley on a number of occasions, and therefore feel adequately prepared for whatever Lucifer throws my way. It is also moments after the encounter that I recall Mark Twain’s thoughts on the hereafter: he praises heaven for its climate, but prefers hell for its company.

A single touch of alcohol upon my lips has gained me a place in the University of Satan, and I did not even have to apply through clearing. “Hang on,” I later surmise, “does that mean I will join Jesus Christ down there? The Messiah (one of many at the time) was known for supping the odd glass of wine.”

The French calls this process – coming up with something witty after the moment has passed – l’esprit de l’escalier – literally the ‘wit of the staircase’. I offer the Anglo-Saxon equivalent, when suddenly realising I had the perfect reply too late: Bollocks.

I experienced a very different situation when I first set foot on the Island of Manhattan. As soon as I exited Penn Station, I was greeted by a somewhat overweight African-American lady who sincerely declared: “Jesus loves you.” My introduction to New York City began with salvation; an ordinary day in Blighty concludes with damnation. I would actually argue that New York is heaven on Earth, but the sheer debauchery and delight it radiates suggests the beige Judeo-Christians would believe otherwise.

My afterlife will be spent in the company of demons, rather than angels, due to my penchant for Magners and Cointreau; separately, not combined – I am a sinner, not a monster. It seems like such a trivial sin to be condemned for. I feel like I ought to justify my presence among the fallen with a higher degree of wanton behaviour.

At last, I can covet my neighbour’s wife, and engage in all sorts of deviance and adultery! The lead connecting the microphone to the amplifier could be used as a makeshift noose, and Mr Preacher can join my, quite frankly, worryingly large hypothetical list of people whom I would murder! You ain’t heard blasphemy yet, until you are witness to the vulgarities leaving my wicked tongue; the very same tongue that would have been on previously unspeakable places belonging to –

Ah. Unless the preacher meant that drinking makes you feel like hell, for which I cannot disagree with. But the pros outweigh the cons, and I am reminded of that wise quote from those great Australian philosophers, Scott and Young: Hell ain’t a bad place to be.

Mental Health Awareness Week: We are the champions of our condition

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As Mental Health Awareness Week comes to an end, with this year’s theme focussing on ‘Surviving or Thriving’, Daniel J. McLaughlin examines the language of mental health, and his own experiences with bipolar disorder.

I will probably spend more time searching for an image to accompany this piece than the actual time it takes to write it.

A picture supposedly represents a thousands words, and a thousand words barely scratches the surface on this subject. The cliche is to use a photograph of a silhouetted man with his head in his hands. In my professional life, as a journalist for Perspecs News (#3sides #shamelessplug), I have resorted to using this image to capture the complex and sensitive topic of mental health. I have never felt entirely happy by relenting and choosing the image, but a fast approaching deadline is a scary enough incentive.

Time to Change advises journalists and publications to use alternative images to depict mental health. The mental health organisation, whose aim is to end mental health discrimination, argues that images used in stories can be “just as damaging as the words or the headlines”. As part of their ‘Get the Picture’ campaign, they offer a few of their own stock photographs. However, I find they are not particularly successful, either. Some involve a model staring enigmatically out of a window, as though they were appearing in a 1990s television series.

Courtesy of Time to Change

Mental health cannot be portrayed in a single picture. If they were offered an infinite canvas, artists with flair and creativity to rival Van Gogh would struggle. Mental health is like a Michael Bay movie: there are too many, and no-one really asked for them in the first place.

Depression is a smorgasbord of bipolar, severe, seasonal affective, post-natal, et al. Bipolar has more spinoffs than CSI: I, II, cyclothymia.

It has been described as many things: Winston Churchill called his depression the “black dog”, while Stephen Fry likens it to the weather.

Perhaps a word cannot encompass the spectrum of mental illness; maybe a punctuation mark is more suitable? Yes, you have just seen it there: the question mark. Or even, my favourite punctuation mark, after discovering its name on QI, the interrobang (?!).

I spend a lot of time thinking about mental health. I am quite open about my condition, and I have put pen to paper (and digit to keyboard) on a number of occasions.

READ: I am depressed…

After finding out that my low moods were not the result of attending a Catholic school or supporting Blackburn Rovers, I was diagnosed with depression – and given happy pills to exorcise the demons. A little while later, when the pills were ineffective, I found that depression came in many flavours; and at the age of 18, my flavour was given a name: bipolar disorder, or manic depression (bipolar being the Starburst to manic’s Opal Fruits). I was later told that my manic depression was cyclothymia, which the Americans call (of course they would) ‘diet bipolar’.

When my condition comes up in conversation – you needn’t worry, my small talk does not consist of “Good evening, my name is Dan and I am a certified nutter” – with lexis aplenty in my arsenal, I struggle to choose the appropriate verb. I do not, even thought it can be particularly unpleasant, feel that I “suffer” from bipolar; nor do I remark that I “have” bipolar, as though it is a possession or an accessory. Instead, I have opted for “I am bipolar/I am a manic depressive”. In the same way I am undoubtedly white (possibly pale blue), right-handed, a Hobbit, and – sobs – have a receding hairline, my manic depression is very much a matter of fact.

By owning my condition, I am admitting to its chronic nature. It is not a fashionable illness for one to “man up” to, contrary to the unwise words (none more so than usual) of Piers Morgan. It is as chronic as diabetes and asthma; and you would not tell someone with low blood sugar to get over it, or a choking asthmatic that “everyone gets out of breath, at times”.

The next point may make you shift uncomfortably in your seat (presuming you are sat down), and will no doubt cause a concerned phone call from a worrying mother: bipolar disorder, and other depressions, can be a terminal illness.

Suicidal thoughts, and tragically actions, are a symptom of the condition. It is a bigger killer than cancer and heart disease for men; it is a silent epidemic that takes so many lives, but its lethality is not respected.

I treat my manic depression the same way the late, great and sorely missed Christopher Hitchens (what on Earth would he think of President Trump?) calmly and maturely observed about his cancer: in all likelihood, it will not be the tumour that will kill him; he died of complications from cancer, rather than the cancer itself.

If, heaven forbid, my life is claimed, I will not die from manic depression, but complications from it. That may be suicide; that may be addiction; or it may be from old age; or getting hit by a bus. I am rather hoping that life gets to me before bipolar disorder does.

A final note on suicide (no pun intended, even with my gallows humour): when I and many others plummet to the depths of these dark thoughts, we are not obsessing over whether or not we want to die. Sometimes, we simply do not want to live. In the depths, I look forward to sleep and when I awaken, I greet the morning with a resigned, “Oh, you again.”

By offering a frank account of the ups, downs, and inbetweens of bipolar disorder, I understand that I run the risk of looking as miserable as Morrissey. As a journalist, my news head dictates and we do tend to have Spidey senses for the macabre. The dark experiences are more interesting than the stable Dan, eating Pringles and watching Netflix. As much as I am a narcissist, I do not think for one minute that you will be enthralled by my adventures to the local shop, or by my enjoyment of Paul Jones, Clare Teal and Jools Holland on BBC Radio 2.

And when I am manic, well, I am far too busy thinking that I am the next step of human evolution, kissing all the wrong girls, and singing to myself (and other unfortunate souls) on a motorway bridge.

I agree with the former England cricketer, Andrew Flintoff, that we should not refer to mental health as a “stigma”. While he chose “struggle” to describe it, and as I have previously voiced my opposition to those type of words, there needs to be a word that reflects the sheer bravery and determination of my fellow nutters.

I have been heartened by many of my friends coming out of the mental health closet and openly discussing their illness. It takes a helluva lot of balls to be honest, especially in front of family and friends. Thank you, and KBO (keep buggering on).

We are not strugglers, we are not sufferers – we are champions. No need to burst out into song, I’ve got that covered when Mr Manic calls.

A commonly used statistic often quoted in awareness weeks such as this is: one in four people have a mental health problem. While I appreciate it is there to tell people they are not alone, I feel it takes away the dogginess and individuality of the fighters. We challenge the mundanities of everyday life – the rent, the mortgage, the 9-to-5 – as well as duelling with something that is not at all mundane: our conditions. One in four, of course, fight, but every unique person is special and significant.

Our dearly departed hero, in both the Star Wars movies and the mental health fight, Carrie Fisher wrote in her 2008 memoir, Wishful Drinking:

“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder.

“In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside).

“At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of. They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.”

I have just come up with an image for this article: a bruised and battered soldier ready to take on yet another charging army. The soldier has a wry smile. Trying to find a copyright free image of this will be a bit of a bugger, and I possess no artistic talent.

Mental health is a gladiator battle, and whatever we face in the arena – we are the champions.

 

Irene Fielding eulogy: The Rock of the Family

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Mum. Mam. Nan. Irene. Renee. Mrs Fielding. Miss Daisy.

Blimey, she went by quite a few names! When you mention Irene Fielding, her name becomes a synonym of kindness, warmth and generosity. She touched the hearts of many, brightening innumerable lives; and the world will sorely miss her. But what she leaves behind – her legacy, her family – will continue to shine the torch in her memory.

Irene Fielding was born at the Royal Blackburn Infirmary on the 31st March 1931 – the thirty first of the third, thirty one. You had no excuse to forget her birthday! The oldest of her siblings, June, whom we sadly lost last year, and Jim, from the very start of her life, she displayed that caring nature; looking after Jim when he had polio as a child. That nurturing side of Nan never stopped, and even at the beginning, her love of family – the importance of family – was evident.

In later life, she cared for her mum and dad, my Great Grandad and Grandma Byrne whom I sadly never met. Nan would regale me of tales about her father who used to go mad at people wearing hats indoors or wearing no shoes – Nan herself carrying on this etiquette in the household.

She was the mother of Ann and Graham, showing indeterminable strength and bravery when dealing with what no mother should ever face: the loss of a child. She leaves behind her daughters Yvonne and Pauline, both of them a reflection of the best of Nan whom she was rightfully proud. I see in you what I saw in her: extraordinary kindness, brimming with love even in the most difficult of times.

She supported her family through sheer hard work and determination. Working until the very last day of retirement, she had jobs in the mills, Kenyons, Gerrards, Forboys, the local chippy, Blackburn Market, and she worked as an auxillary nurse at Southlands.

She spoilt her family rotten, perhaps none more so than her grandsons, Colin, Graham, Ciaran and myself. Whether it was cooking tea when we got home from school – she almost had this Sixth Sense where as soon as you walked in, the tea was miraculously ready on the tray, regardless of what time you set foot through the door – or stocking up the sweet tin.

I once turned round to Nan, and bear in mind she did have great-grandchildren much younger than me, and said, “Nan, I’m 22 – and you still stock up the sweet tin for me!” And in her typical quick-witted and honest fashion, she replied, “‘Ee, well it’s better than drugs, love.” There was never any malice in her humour, just sharp Lancastrian fun.

She also kept biscuits for any visitors, with Oreos for my father Pat – or should I say his mate Ron? I think I can say it now, Dad. Ron was an abbreviation of ‘Later On’. As we got older, the

pop turned into shandy, and the shandy turned into beer. Her fridge, and her sweet and biscuit tin were never empty for her guests – and what an exemplary host she was!

Her door was always open for a friendly chat over a cup of tea. And boy, what wonderful brew she used to make! Although my Dad was a wee bit disappointed on his first visit when he was offered a ‘drink’. As a squaddie, a drink was something a bit harder than a brew! And the toast, for some reason her toast was the best in the land, and we haven’t the faintest idea how.

In times of trouble, Nan could always be called upon. She took Colin under her wing, when he was aged 12-years-old, and lived with her for five years. Me, Ciaran and Colin were chatting about this the other day: every afternoon, without fail, Countdown would be on the TV. That programme taught the grandchildren our letters and numbers; Nan would be quicker with the conundrum, but we would work out the numbers. Colin wouldn’t go out with his mates until he watched Countdown with his mates. “Sorry, lads! It’ll have be after teatime!” Mainly because you couldn’t miss Nan having a go at Richard Whiteley, shouting at the screen ‘get on with it!’.

She used to enjoy watching her TV and films. Under the stairs at Lonsdale Street was crammed with video tapes of Tom and Jerry, Pingu, Laurel and Hardy, the Carry Ons, Tommy Cooper, and Norman Wisdom – many of which had been taped off the tele by either Auntie Pauline or Uncle G. She used to crack up at Norman Wisdom in films like On The Beat and Trouble in Store. The hours we used to spend laughing at Margaret Rutherford as the elderly shoplifter, or during ‘Don’t Laugh At Me ‘Cos I’m A Fool’ with the lady at the café so immersed in the action, she fills her coffee cup with so many sugar cubes, it would sink the Titanic!

Now, we couldn’t talk about Nan without mentioning her beloved Blackpool. Either trotting off on the train by herself, or taking the family, she adored Blackpool. Throughout the year, she would save up all of her shrapnel, her coppers, for the amusements at Mr B’s, weighing down her handbag on the journey there; her favourite being the OXO machine, which I could never master. She used to visit the Tower, playing a Strictly Come Dancing judge in the ballroom, criticising the show-offs and taking great amusement from when they messed up and had a strop; perhaps harking back to the days spent in the dance halls in Blackburn.

She would love watching the world go by, sitting on the seafront or closer to home at the Bubble Factory, Oswaldtwistle Mills. We used to feed the ducks with bread purchased from Mo’s corner shop on Lonsdale Street. The poor, malnourished creatures would be lucky to get a slice as my dear brother Ciaran would pinch them for himself; thus earning the nickname Quack from Nan.

Whether it was playing bingo both at bingo halls or at Merlin Court or perusing the carboot sales; visiting Scotland where she loved hearing the pipers or down to London; or even further afield to Germany and Majorca – Nan got to see the world, and the world got to see her, and the world was better for it.

Although she held many jobs in her life, her vocation was her family. As a sister, a mother, an auntie, as something Les Dawson never had – a fantastic mother-in-law to Pat, Graham, Jim and Angela, and as a Nan, she was the rock of the family. There was nothing that made her happier than when we got together as a family. We were fortunate to spend one last Christmas Day with her, her favourite time of year, and I will never forget the beam of joy on her face, watching us opening our presents. She relished our card nights, our meals out, our get togethers, where she didn’t say a lot – and as she told Auntie Pauline, she loved listening and watching us, taking it all in.

She had a fantastic memory, so you had to be careful what you said! Woe betide anyone uttering a swear word! She didn’t need to say a lot, her looks and mannerisms did all the talking: that stare, the infamous wagging finger. And I tell you something, you never did it again!

We all have our stories of Nan, our own precious memories we shall treasure forever. And those special times make her immortal. It will be an honour to hear all of stories later on at the Britannia pub, after the service, friends and family together as she always loved.

Irene Fielding had a certain dignity and elegance, without losing her warmth and friendliness. A composed lady, whilst still being down to earth. She was selfless, caring and embodied what it means to be a truly remarkable human being. What we do now, we do in memory of Irene Fielding. We don’t let that light go out, we don’t let the world go darker in her absence; we continue to shine the torch in her memory, and in her name.

She was the rock of the family, and we shall miss her so, so much. Love you, Nan.

Grief: trying to muzzle the great, black dog

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When I write a blog post, the process usually involves putting pen to paper first, and then using the time to type as a second chance to edit. A bit old-fashioned, a bit cumbersome, but it tends to iron out the mistakes, and helps me avoid repetition.

On this occasion, I have decided against using this method. What you see now is exactly what was jotted down in Playfoots Cafe in Monton on Sunday afternoon. Writing this was cathartic for now, and I feel like I will do myself – and you, the dear reader – a disservice by tampering with the stream of consciousness. There will be errors and repetition. It will not be the most eloquent piece of writing you have ever read – but I can promise you this: it will be honest. The words in front of you will be what was running through my mind, at high speed, at the time.

I try to separate the personal from the professional, and I worry that I am perhaps being too open. In the same way I have always been open about my experiences with bipolar disorder, I should apply that to grief. This is my experience that I had to chronicle; mainly for self-indulgent reasons.

“How are you?”

A seemingly innocuous question. It is the ultimate fallback of small talk. When one has nothing interesting to say, or are perhaps too shy to say it, they reduce themselves to the welfare of others. It is not a loaded question, we do not expect a life story – like the sex life of the average Brit, we expect the response to be short and sweet.

If three syllables seems somewhat overt, you can opt for the simple “Alright?”. Amusingly, this phrase drew the ire of a cast member during Kevin Spacey’s Richard III world tour – in the documentary about the Anglo-American production – who deemed it almost aggressive. “What do you mean if I am alright? Is there something not to be alright about?!”

Not the only enquiry to cause confusion among our international guests. During my time as a student, I befriended many visitors to Great Britain (and Greatest Lancashire). The kind-hearted offer of “want owt from shop?” was met with creased foreheads and startled looks; lacking from linguistic textbooks or tutorage of professors with Mid-Atlantic and received pronunciation accents.

Our colonial cousins’ confusion is only matched with our perplexity towards their niceties. Upon entering a store in the US, I have been accosted with “Hello, sir! How are you? Have a nice day!” I found from my experiences across the water that you must never, ever respond to this vacuous crap and ask how they are in return. Resembling a rabbit in headlights, they do not know the appropriate; it was a statement, not a question.

The Englishman is a selfish, inward race, only caring about their own needs. The American, whom I have grown to adore irrespective of their electoral choices, is outward facing, far too willing to please. The Englishman is very rarely willing to call anyone “sir”, because it highlights their inferiority. The American, thankfully, is not as tedious or petty in maintaining a complex class system, and therefore offer the vocative address in abundance.

I am digressing, of course.

This is because I am not willing to answer the original question.

I could reply with the typically Lancastrian “not too bad, ta”; our pessimism not allowing us to admit to anything being good – if it is, we can only use the phrase “alreight”.

But I am not a liar. From the age of 18, I decided never to lie; which has, no doubt, ended relationships and friendships prematurely.

In truth, I am not okay. I am not okay, whatsoever.

My dear Nan, the living embodiment of selflessness, loyalty and love, has died. My inspiration, my best friend, my joie de vivre has been taken away from me, aged 85. I am heartbroken, devastated, angry, aggressive, depressed and forlorn – and undoubtedly, selfish.

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Grief is a selfish process. I will never see her again. am in so much pain. Though I equip lexis, pretentiously, in my arsenal, I cannot arm myself with any to describe this suffocating and debilitating experience that – that pronoun again – have to endure. Not once have I considered Nan will not see her family, Nan will not spend another day on Earth – or more importantly, Nan is now free of pain.

In times of deep sadness, in the absolute worst of times, I have found that it shows people at their best. Shrouded in darkness, I am grateful that I have not been totally eclipsed in blackness. There have been flickers of light from the immeasurable kindness of family, friends and even strangers. When wars are declared, and people flee from the terror, there are always those running in its direction willing to offer aid and generosity.

I have to confess, I do not usually know how to react when people send their ‘thoughts and prayers’. When a crises hits, a much too regular occurrence, Twitter feeds are filled with pointless hashtags #PrayForX. This wills on inaction, an armchair thought instead of an on-the-feet response. If positive thinking worked, I would have a six-pack, be a millionaire, and be married to Jenna-Louise Coleman. This armchair positive thinking is what fuels the so-called happiness industry, which can be dangerous with its false promises of the universe looking after you. If you do not reap the rewards you lust for, you do not have enough faith. Sickening.

I deplore those who slavishly bleat “but everything happens for a reason”. What a lazy line of thinking, taking absolutely no responsibility for your actions. If everything is predetermined, I would hate to meet this omnipotent petulant child. The working class have religion whilst the middle class have spirituality. The impoverished and less affluent need to believe in a higher power that looks over them because they are truly alone; the self-important, and I daresay delusional, middle class need to believe they are the centre of the universe and everything revolves around their humdrum, dull and insignificant little lives. And don’t get me started with karma (again, slothful redistribution of blame) or those patronising, smug Facebook memes with their so-called inspirational messages; although the person who posts them has achieved bugger all and wastes away to insignificance.

Courtesy of DJBenz on Imgur (http://imgur.com/gallery/MlQR4)

Courtesy of DJBenz on Imgur (http://imgur.com/gallery/MlQR4)

I am being rude. I am lashing out. I am not sorry.

There is no guide how to grieve properly, no etiquette to respect the dead. We are not willing to address our own mortality, therefore we do not plan the necessary decorum.

A person has “passed away”, we have “lost” our Nan (in the supermarket?!), she is “on the other side”. Our sugar-coating becomes a bizarre variation of Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch: he is an ex-parrot, he has ceased to be.

Death is a violent act. Not necessarily the cause of the demise, but to the mourners. We are suddenly bereft of a mother, an auntie, grandmother and great-grandmother. She has been suddenly removed from our lives without consultation. Our constant, our rock, has vanished.

I wanted to ring my Nan the other day, as I often did throughout the week. The conversation was always the same, but it was always comforting. Not even being able to say hello broke my heart in two, as I tried to contain my anguish whilst travelling on the bus. I was not successful.

And so, we rely on our memories. I remember Nan on Christmas Day, beaming with joy at the family opening their gifts. And then, she was gone.

She was not well over Christmas, a fact made clear when I returned home for the holidays. One of the most beautiful pieces of television ever created – and one of the rare things to make me cry (alongside the film Pride) – Royle Family’s Queen of Sheba was broadcast on BBC. This episode mirrored everything we were going through, and reduced me to a hopeless mess. On Christmas Eve, the family watched Nativity 2 on DVD. Admittedly not one of the finest films ever made, but as the twins were born and the sparring brothers (also twins) reunited, my mother and I sobbed uncontrollably (both of us twins, but sadly my brother Anthony not making it past birth), exhausted at what we were facing.

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Throughout this festive period, I have been an exposed nerve, with even a faint breeze of wind causing sorrow and pain.

I got to say goodbye to Nan, and as she closed her eyes for the last time, she was surrounded by her family. As she let go, my body reacted in shock. In a complete incomprehension on how to deal with the enormity of grief, I simply stopped functioning. If my father was not behind me, I would have crumpled to the floor. Every eon of me wanted to scream. Inside, I was on fire, Outside, I was cold. Something guttural needed to shriek in despair, but when reaching my vocal chords, it whimpered through a cracked voice. I could not function, I did not want to function.

Grief is not just one emotion, it is a multitude, all attacking you for different positions. My head pounds, my very insides twist and twist and twist. I am at my most primal. I have been reduced to a wounded animal.

And like most wounded animals, I lash out. I am not an angry person: grumpy, yes; passionate, indeed. The red mist, however, I do not tend to experience. This alien emotion has crept up on me.

I am, undoubtedly, a coward. When given a choice of fight or flight, I have already booked an all-inclusive package holiday to Majorca. I will drink a lovely Sangria at the Blue Bar, Palma Nova situated just on the beach front. As the news hit, much to my shame I explored the possibilities of escapes to Europe; the key word being “escapes”.

Instead, I am feeling terribly tense and hyped up. I have not slept properly. One night, after giving up, I went downstairs to the kitchen table to write my Nan’s eulogy for her funeral. This was 1.30am. I did not return to bed until three hours later.

I am a lover, not a fighter. Okay, a lover is being too generous. But right now, if Conor McGregor offered a chance for a spur, I don’t think I would turn him down. Much like my schooldays, I would be beaten to a pulp; unlikely my schooldays, I would most likely attempt to fight back.

Grief is selfish, and grief is irrational.

This antagonistic behaviour is further exasperated by my current aesthetics. I did not leave the house for a week after my Nan’s death. I was unshaven, with unruly hair, and appalling baggy clothes. To those who know me, I am a man who prides himself on his appearance; and for a week, I let myself go. After she lost her husband Albert, Queen Victoria wore black. Although interpreted as a sign of respect, I understand her logic: it is the equivalent of telling people to fuck off. Even with my pitiful attempt at facial hair, it meant, at least, I was separated from humanity even with just a few millimetres.

And then, I remember.

Every time I visited my Nan, even after one day of not shaving, she would inspect my face checking for stubble and say, “Ew, tufty”. My brother Ciaran with a full beard would never get this treatment – in fact, she rather liked his beard – but if I was not clean-shaven, there would always be a comment.

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I have learnt a great deal about presentation from my Nan. She might not leave the house, but she would always look impeccable. You might never know what guests to expect – one year, my Nan was visited by the carnival queen desperate for the loo during the parade. She dressed for the occasion each and every day.

So, I have left the house. Gillette rejoices at their prodigal son and my barber is happy for the custom. The unmistakable pain is still ever so present, haunting me like the great, black dog of depression.

But I will not be hounded without a fight. Returning to a routine thanks to a simple, silly memory, I have found a muzzle.

It’s still here, this unfathomable bottomless grief and by gosh it hurts, but I need to train the great, black dog. Small steps. Let’s start with “give us a paw”.

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The Piper’s Debt: Chapter One – Mr Speaker

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There was no quiet before the storm: just mundanity.

In Shakespeare’s retelling of Richard III, the cripple king is haunted by those slain by the hands “sent before their time” the night before he falls in battle.

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

Swish. Chop. Finito.

In truth, he probably had a sleepless night staring at the ceiling, before hobbling from his bed to urinate, eat breakfast and then riding in a field to die.

Boring. Ordinary. Mundane.

Swiftly followed by a cataclysmic event that will change the world.

For a transformation to take place, there needs to be a disturbance to the equilibrium. The equilibrium involves dull processes such as making coffee, ignoring fellow dwellers on the bus (specifically named the X41, nicknamed purgatory), listening to a smug presenter on BBC Radio 2, masturbation.

What did the 9/11 terrorists do the night before the attack? Watch crap television whilst nervously glancing at their watches – waiting for the hand to pass twelve, transforming a normal day in September into a date synonymous with death and destruction?

Did Tony Blair and George W Bush really pray together before agreeing to declare war on Iraq? An everyday practice preceding a decision that would result in mortis ad nauseam. Concluding with the oft-chanted, simplistic “Amen”, funeral directors would see a big boom in business; and a literal boom in their neighbourhoods.

Amen.

“So be it”.

Mundanity before the storm.

What Mr Speaker was doing before committing a truly awful act was sipping a lovely cup of tea. As all authentic Englishmen know, tea is not just an art form; it is a ritual. The bona fide Anglo-Saxon is a master alchemist in the brew. Rapport – never respect, the Englishman never respects you – is only guaranteed if you answer the following question correctly: what comes first – the water or the milk?

Whilst Americans have to recite the Oath of Allegiance, Blighty’s National Citizenship test is porcelain, not patriotism.

And Mr Speaker was the epitome of the true Englishman.

He was certainly not British; an amusing collective noun lumping the vastly different English, Scottish and Welsh into one sweeping category (not forgetting the diverse regions of these countries – never confuse a Mancunian with a Liverpudlian). To be British is to be loud and brash; to drink cans of Stella whilst spouting casual racism; to be a Brexit voter; to holiday in Magaluf, and only eat fish and chips.

Mr Speaker was a quiet, learned man. Instead of sporting the native football jersey one size too small, he was dressed in an immaculate grey suit – tailored, of course – with a crisp white shirt and creases down the trousers. His thick black hair, alive with volume but undoubtedly sensible, did not betray Mr Speaker’s age, but his eyes did. Hidden behind horn-rimmed glasses from yesteryear were his deep brown eyes, weary. One would never too long into his gaze of his Medusa-like qualities emitted from his cold, hard stare.

The Brit – though, an irritant – is harmless. This Englishman was not.

Mr Speaker was exceptionally cruel.

But this was not noticeable, as he took a sip from the exquisitely designed china produced – funnily enough – in America; albeit from a Chinese-American gentleman called something unpronounceable to Mr Speaker’s hushed, dulcet tones. He would never rid himself of the regional accent he so detested – although he was considered well-spoken and educated; which was hardly difficult with the inhabitants of his hometown. Lancastrian, perhaps? A twang of further north of the border? A hint of West Country? His tongue had become so diluted over the years, only he was fully aware of his origins. There was no doubt his accent was attached to a community, but no-one knew which one. Mr Speaker had disowned the sanctum sanctorum of his childhood, replacing it with a smorgasbord of voices, and has since been of no fixed abode.


He was currently in Cambridge, his alma mater. Pembroke College is one of the smaller campuses at the University, but this compact piece of history felt less alien and more charming as a result. Its grandiose stone walls still stood intimidatingly over its occupants, as though they were judging those within. Unashamedly traditional, Pembroke is a thing of make-believe: the stereotype of pretty young things engaging in fantasy before experiencing life outside of the cocoon – bleak disappointment and underachievement. They became no butterflies as promised; they were moths-in-the-making. But for now, they were Harry Potter at Hogwarts leading glorious lives of promiscuous sex and excessive alcohol consumption.

Mr Speaker was sat behind the tall, aged desk of English literature professor, James Dawson. Books, with their spines as creased as professors’ foreheads, were scattered indiscriminately across the room. Volumes were sitting lazily in an oak bookcase, dusty collections were towered precariously on the desk, the floor and even blocking the sunlight from the window sill. Mr Speaker felt quite comfortable in the professor’s battered leather chair, reclining backwards taking another sip.

Aah. The optimum temperature.

A scratched vinyl span on the surprisingly modern record player, situated in the corner of the office – the only sanctuary from the infestation of books. Whilst the sale of razors suffers tremendously in this hipster age, the vinyl has made a revival. The record player, however retro, was the youngest item in the room.

Nigel Kennedy was performing a beautiful rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, currently in the midst of the Spring concerto. The triumphant, optimistic – almost cheeky – movement was contrapuntal to what was to happen next.

Mr Speaker was indeed quite comfortable – comfortable in the knowledge that he will not be disturbed in the literature scholar’s office. Professor Dawson was tied to a chair in the cellar below. He had been there for two days.

The flowing movement of Kennedy’s bow was disturbed by a loud gong echoing from outside. The deep boom bellowed from the Victorian neo-gothic clock tower, standing erect and aloof on the college’s library.

Mr Speaker gently placed down the now-empty tea vessel atop a well-thumbed copy of Mr Dicken’s Great Expectations.

The mundanity was over. This disruption was going to be something particularly nasty, indeed.

What it means to teach, and why I support the NUT on their strike

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Fear, I am happy to report, is not an emotion I experience on a regular basis.

Fear, I have been led to believe my Doctor Who’s Listen, is a superpower that makes me stronger and faster; and the most dangerous man in the room.

At this moment in time, at the start of a school term, I am perspiring profusely, my voice has raised a semi-tone, and the evolutionary part of my brain flitting between fight or flight has mentally opted for booking a first class one way ticket to Barbados.

Because, standing before me, is a classroom full of 14-year-old boys vying for the kill.

Like my saintly namesake, I have been thrown into the lion’s den. However, since I am not a godly man, I am dressed as a wildebeest and I am wrapped in bacon.

For one year, I was fortunate enough to teach the extra curricular class at a school. I would arrive on a Wednesday afternoon for an hour-a-week, armed with a PowerPoint presentation and a vast amount of naivete.

This would be my first and last teaching job.

I remain grateful for the invaluable experience gained during my time there. This truly was a baptism of fire and one of the most challenging jobs I have faced.

The students were difficult. But so was I at their age. What I was failed to be told is that students can be quick-witted and hilarious; and unfortunately at your own expense.

The lessons became less reliant on PowerPoints. In fact, one of my most successful days there was giving in to their demands to watch the World Cup coverage – but only if they viewed it from a media perspective. Much like the cartoons of my youth, I could see the light bulbs flicking on above their heads.

Instead of shouting over their voices, I learnt to listen to what they had to say. Problems at home, bullying, loneliness, substance abuse: they were difficult kids because they led difficult lives.

Teaching was one of the most difficult yet rewarding jobs I have undertaken. Did I think I was any good at it? Probably not. But my respect for the profession rose to astronomical highs, and I began to ask: what makes a good teacher? And it would seem, like the difficult kids leading difficult lives, good teachers are faced with a difficult workplace.


On the same day my own union, the University and College Union (UCU) went on strike for higher pay, decreasing the gender pay gap and against the casualisation of contracts, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) took industrial action.

UCU Poster

Schools are facing the worst cuts in funding since the 1970s, resulting in class sizes increasing, resources being reduced, and subjects – predominantly in the arts – being removed from the curriculum. The NUT claims that 1 in 12 members of staff will be made redundant in the next few years; the remaining staff will have an increased workload on pay that does not align to the sheer amount of hours teachers put in.

Sadly, instead of supporting the pioneers in our children’s development, there has been criticism aimed towards the rightfully striking teachers. Education secretary Nicky Morgan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “teachers were putting children’s education at risk”, which actually seems to be her mantra by, according to forecasts from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, an 8% cut in funding in real terms over the next few years.

Focus was pinned on the “major disruption for parents”, but once again there has been too much on the micro (one single day of action), ignoring the macro (the ideological cuts).

The NUT’s acting general secretary Kevin Courtney “wholeheartedly apologised” for the disruption but noted that teachers do not take strike action lightly.

No-one takes strike action lightly: it means that you do not get paid and you usually freeze your balls off at the picket. Nicky Morgan, and indeed University hierarchy, almost make striking seem like the easy option. I like my wage. It pays for my rent and buys me cider. I will be going without, because something needs to be done. Instead of adopting Morgan’s aggressive approach, my University decided to go for the passive-aggressive “we’re not angry, just disappointed” method via e-mail.

Courtney added: “The problems facing education, however, are too great to be ignored and we know many parents share our concerns.

“Schools are facing the worst cuts in funding since the 1970s. The decisions which head teachers have to make are damaging to our children and young people’s education.”

Kevin Courtney, Acting General Secretary of the NUT

“No parent wants this for their children. No teacher wants this for their school or pupils.”

Nicky Morgan, in a letter to the NUT, asked teachers not “to play politics with children’s futures”, but with the thankfully defeated forced academisation (yet encroaching privatisation), the IFS’ predicted 8% funding cut and ill thought out reforms to the school curriculum, the Education secretary is playing a dangerous game where teachers and children lose.

After the tripling of the tuition fees, I gloomily called my age group a “potential lost generation”. With these ideological Tory cuts, my prediction was a bit on the low side.

I went to a Catholic school – they didn’t teach me optimism. I got top marks in self-loathing and guilt, though!


Dan’s top teachers

During my high school years, I was either known as Danny McLaughlin or Danny Mac. If I hear this vocative address now, my first instinct is to run; although running itself invokes traumatic memories of cross country, chronicled in my Year 9 music composition ‘PE Blues’. After stumbling across an old student planner, even though I do not remember Mount Carmel that fondly, I was blessed with a good smattering of friends and teachers without whom I would not be doing what I am today.

Mrs Phillips (Form Tutor, Years 8-11): 

The aforementioned student planner was saturated in doodles and cheesy jokes of the week, most likely as a result of my short attention span. This creativity was encouraged by Mrs Phillips. She marvelled in her role as form tutor, becoming the somewhat clichéd ‘second mother’. Aiding me through grief, rejection (a certain head boy selection introducing me to the murky world of politics) and what I would discover to be manic depression, we engaged in theological, philosophical and downright fascinating conversations. She was a great aid in my intellectual and worldly development.

Mr Seddon (English, Years 10 and 11):

Reading in itself is a pleasure. Talking about what you have read is a further joy. Unlike television and to an extent film, where interpretation is usually firmly fixed, you can view literature from different perspectives. When I lost the joy of reading, I decided to stop studying literature; rekindling my bibliophilia at University when on a journalism degree. Whilst we would discuss Othello or Pride and Prejudice in the classroom, my favourite moments were discussing Jack Higgins and Tom Clancy when the lesson had finished. Much of my library is there due to recommendations from Mr Seddon.

Mr Sweeney (Religious Education, Years 10 and 11):

After RE had ended, we would both give an analysis of performances from Blackburn Rovers – usually resulting in the lack of punctuality for the following lesson. Probably not helpful for my theological journey, but he was a bloody decent bloke who was always happy to have a chat.

Ms McNulty (Film Studies, Years 12 and 13):

Without a seemingly obvious question – “what do you want to study?” – I would not have studied and now by working at MediaCityUK. Ta very much.

Mr Lamb (Medieval History, Years 12 and 13):

To deliver tales on medieval feudalism and monasticism with such passion and character is a rare gift. An incredibly funny man who made the Norman Conquest and the Crusades accessible to bored college students from Blackburn. I still purchase books on the subject to this day. He would offer sound and impartial advice on professional development in the ‘Lair of the Lamb’ (his office). And the fact that he was a Whovian was always going to put him in my good books.

Honorary mention: Mrs Anderson (Music, Years 7-11)

I am not totally sure if she was aware, but I think she was, that I would skip certain classes when I was bored on the pretence of a music lesson and hide in the piano room, practising on the ivories. Thank you for not grassing up on me.


Main image: Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 1640

I am depressed…

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Mental Health Awareness Week begins today, with this year’s theme being “relationships”. Dan McLaughlin joins the open and frank discussion about mental health with his account of facing depression.

I am depressed.

Not by the recent news announced by universities minister Jo Johnson whereby academic institutions will now be able to raise tuition fees from the already staggeringly high and class dividing £9,000-a-year – ridding this lost generation of “thinkers” and replacing them with soulless “customers”.

Nor am I depressed because of the childish penis-measuring contest they call the EU Referendum where one side compares the European Union to Nazi Germany and the other tries to scaremonger the apathetic, to whom they are responsible for creating in the first place.

Or even reflecting on yet another mediocre season for Blackburn Rovers with a departing manager and incompetent owners who are beleaguering my childhood club. We were the Leicester City of the 1990s. We are now the Lib Dems of the 2010s.

I am depressed, because…well, your guess is as good as mine.

In 2012, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (the artist formerly known as manic depression). Bipolarity means that I experience an extreme in moods: manic highs where I think that I am the next step in human evolution, and crippling lows where I wish natural selection will do its job and add me to the list containing dinosaurs, dodos and Katie Hopkins’ common decency.

Since last Wednesday, I have been experiencing the southside of bipolar.

Lethargy, contempt, sheer dislike of human beings (with myself claiming top prize).

Like Marley in A Christmas Carol, I feel like I am burdened with weights and chains – lowering me to a pitiful and cowering stupor. I am in a disgraceful yet loyal compliance to a mood much like the Judeo-Christian Old Testament god: punishing, petty, resentful, sulking like a pubescent teenage boy.  

From Wednesday until this mood lifts, I will not look in a mirror.

I fear that it will reflect a Dorian Gray-esque magnification of my hideous traits.

I am overweight. I have horrible teeth. I am 5′ 6”. The bastardisation of East Lancashire and the occasional Derry has created a mudblood accent, where the creeping stutter and lisp will return as the sequel nobody ordered; a bit like Transformers 2.

A black and white vignette of an old memory plays out from an old, dusty cinema projector in my limbic system.

I am in a classroom at my old high school, aged 14. Two girls, whose names and faces fail me or they have simply been deleted for something much more useful in my storage, gossip and cackle about boys they fancy – as though they are selecting poor souls from a menu, whom they will devour like their spirit animal: the black widow spider.

They scour the classroom, ticking off this checklist of crushes.

“Athletic sports guys with perfect hair and an inferiority complex?”

“Yeah, he’s cute.”

“Boy destined for renowned institutions, such as Strangeways?”

“He’s fit.”

“The Class C**t?”

“Phwoar.”

“What about Danny Mac?”

The tape is trapped in the cogs, playing their hysterical hyena laughs on loop.

And today, they are right to laugh.

As a man who usually takes great pride in his appearance, this begins to decline with the mood. The suits are replaced with baggy t-shirts, the shoes with trainers.

I have even grown a beard.

This lax attitude to aesthetics is not some vain attempt to join the lumberjack clone race they call hipsters; although I do already own a pair of stupid spectacles.

It is simply because I do not care.

The beard is almost a defence mechanism: with more inches on my face, that means people will be more inches further apart.

As Stephen Fry gravely remarked in the documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive: it’s not that I want to die, it’s just that I don’t necessarily want to live.

But I can honestly say, with my hand on my heart, that Stephen Fry saved my life, and continues to save it today.

No, he did not heroically save me from drowning or some other form of misadventure.

He made me aware of my illness.

There are many ways I can attempt to combat bipolar disorder.

I could temporarily release endorphins to make me happy through exercise, sex and chocolate (or if I am feeling particularly adventurous, all three at once).

Or I could swallow happy pills prescribed from a general practitioner. I have, admittedly, tried this between the years of 2012 and 2013 and whilst I do not refute it helps others cope, I have developed my own method:

Educate, not medicate.

As one of those charming atheist creatures, I value nothing more than my rationality. What I find utterly frustrating about my decline in mood is that it is so irrational.

Why should I be unhappy? I have a caring family whom support me in whatever endeavour I partake. I am in a job I love, surrounded by people I respect and whose company I enjoy. I have my own place in a city I have grown fond of. I have a Netflix subscription. You selfish, selfish man.

There’s certainly no grievance from my early years: my childhood memories are of that of sunny days, Pear Drops and Blackpool.

I have absolutely no reason to be sad.

But neither does an asthmatic to have breathing problems; or a diabetic to require insulin; or for someone to have a severe reaction against a very specific type of nut.

Depression is illogical, but it’s not selfish – it just is.

(And an excellent argument against the intelligent design theory)

Instead of hopelessly shouting in the wind, I try to check the weather report beforehand. Being aware of bipolar disorder, being aware of the symptoms wins you half the battle. If I know what’s coming, at least I am prepared to tackle it.

To carry on the weather analogy, I cannot prevent the rain from coming – but I can wear a coat or bring an umbrella.

And like the rain, as Mr Fry observes, I know that this depression will, at some point, stop.

Mental Health Awareness Week runs between Monday, May 16 and Sunday, May 22. You can find more information about the campaign here.

 

Photo credit: PDPics.com via Wikimedia Commons

The Timewaster Diaries: “time worth spent indeed”

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ONE of my favourite parts of MediaCityUK is the word that illuminates on the roof of Dock House.

Each year, BBC Radio 4’s Front Row asks a person, who has contributed to the arts, to choose a word for its neon artwork project.

The current word is “words” chosen by Liverpudlian playwright Willy Russell. Previously, it has seen contributions from Danny Boyle (“wonder”), John Wilson (“listen”) and my favourite – and sadly poignant – Victoria Wood (“happy”).

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I was once asked by a friend what my word would be. The temptation for me was to suggest a crude selection, but instead I opted for:

Mischief.

And I could not think of a better word to describe Robin Cooper’s The Timewaster Diaries.

You can tell that the book is 12 years old by the simple fact Cooper is embarking on the dated method of letter writing.

If his tongue-in-cheek correspondence to the interesting people of the Freshwater Biological Society or the National Federation of Fish Friers Limited was sent via e-mail, they could have very well been ignored.

But the fact that there are responses jotted in ink on paper makes this collection of pranks très amusant.

You would be forgiven to assume that the correspondence was fake, written as sort some of parody of nimbyism Middle England. Whilst Cooper is indeed a character, the responses are written by real human beings, beleaguered and treating this epistolarian with a reluctant British tolerance; as though their reply has been penned with a sigh.

It’s the little flourishes that makes the mischief managed. Although I am appreciative of the grander prank, it’s the minute asides that provide the chucklesome moments.

When writing to the Royal Festival Hall enquiring about the possibility of Cooper and his wife performing there, he begins:

“We all love music (particularly my wife and I – even with her bad ankle!)”

The response:

“I do hope you find a venue that is suited to you and your wife’s show. Please send our best wishes for a speedy recovery for her bad ankle.”

Even when faced with a surreal request from Cooper, the victim remains laughably polite and sympathetic. You detect an ounce of pity from many of his new pen pals – but being in on the joke further extends the hilarity.

Big companies such as Debenhams are brought down to their knees through Cooper’s epistolary escapades. Five letters are exchanged on the pressing matter that Mr Cooper has lost his shoelace in an Oxford Street store and would like to launch a search party.

Through the giggling at such a surreal scenario, you really do have to admire the customer service from Debenhams who search the store at least two times.

The letters are surreal but subtle, naughty but not noticeable, tongue firmly placed in cheek without protruding through the side.

The Timewaster Diaries is an addictive book where time can pass without much attempt on work and housekeeping – but it certainly does not do one thing: waste time.

Robin Cooper’s mischief is time worth spent indeed.

Lion Heart: “a clumsy combination of genres”

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HAVE you read anything so bad, you just want to keep on reading until the end?

You are enjoying the time and consideration it took to make this novel so inherently awful, you just have to finish it.

Justin Cartwright’s Lion Heart is literature’s equivalent of Blackpool: it’s so bad, it’s good.

Perhaps Cartwright is feeling fatigued. This is his 15th novel, after all.

Richard Cathar, son of hippy historian Alaric (with a name like that, how could he not be?), has just finished a relationship with creative writing student, Emily, following an argument about Richard III.

As you do.

When you usually go on the rebound, it involves copious amounts of alcohol, tissues (for crying and fierce masturbation), and getting off with that girl called Stacey from Preston.

Richard is not a normal guy. Instead, he has a staring contest with a fox whilst cooking sausages and embarks on a journey to Jerusalem to find the True Cross.

Obviously.

Dan Brown is an influence. Whilst the Robert Langdon series hardly feature the most eloquent use of etymology, it is entertaining and thrilling.

E L James is a terrible writer. GCSE English examiners deal with bards, compared to her Twilight spin-off porn-fest. But it caters to sexually frustrated housewives.

And Game of Thrones does contain deviance ad nauseam, but it is cleverly crafted.

The problem with Lion Heart – well, one of the many problems – is that it has not quite decided what it wants to be yet.

At times, it is a romance novel. Richie is smitten with the jack-of-all-trades Noor. He goes into great detail about her breasts and buttocks.

I needed a cold shower after Chapter 5.

And then it turns into a spy thriller, with covert meetings with secret agents and aliases (a certain Mr. MacDonald).

Suddenly, we are immersed – or at least, attempted to be – in a historical thriller. We travel back in time to the Third Crusade where King Richard I is launching war on Saladin in the name of God.

Richard Cathar is obsessed with sex. He has awkward sex with his ex-girlfriend. He has a nervous breakdown and ends up having sex with his doctor. He meets a French widow, and guess what? They are duvet dancing before you can say, “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer”. If there is a film adaptation of this novel, I wonder if Lars Von Trier would be available.

And then he meets Noor.

A Canadian-Arab Christian journalist-cum-relief worker-cum-spy. After he has sex with her, involving dripping orange juice on her naked Canadian-Arab Christian journalist-cum-relief worker-cum-spy body, she gets kidnapped.

It’s terribly exciting.

Richard is so overcome with grief, he goes back to England and continues to look for the True Cross that tormented his medieval regal namesake. Whilst having sex with other women.

Thankfully, there are likeable characters along the way.

Noor’s guardian, her Auntie Haneen, feels like a Lancastrian Nan, inviting Richie in for a brew and a good old yarn. Yes, she is Palestinian, but it’s not hard to imagine she keeps the Gaza Strip’s version of a whippet in her backyard.

Although in today’s current state of affairs there probably wouldn’t be much of a whippet left…or a back yard.

There’s also the drunken, probably UKIP voting, yet still endearing Lord Huntingdon to whom Richie is employed as a speechwriter for a pointless but charming interlude. He serves absolutely no purpose to the story whatsoever; perhaps that’s why he is quite entertaining.

No matter how great the violinists were on the Titanic as it sank, you are always going to remember that’s there a bloomin’ big iceberg in the side of the ship. The double trills and excellent execution of pizzicato might distract you for a brief moment, but there is still no escaping the clumsy combination of genres and the obnoxiousness of the protagonists whom you are supposed to invest in.