Thursday, 24 November 2016

Is The World Really As Bad As We Think?

Everywhere I go at the moment the one phrase that I keep hearing over and over again is – the world has gone mad. It seems as if every day there’s some new horror for us as world citizens to deal with and it’s little wonder that anxiety levels are at an all time high.

Before we all retreat to a darkened room or start popping valium however, let’s consider how real our fears actually are. There have been lots of political changes this year what with Brexit and now Donald Trump. Changes, that according to lots of people mark the start of our decline into something unimaginably dark but haven’t we been here before? I for one can remember dark times in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher took us to war, whilst decimating industry and plunging millions into mass unemployment. We don’t really know what impact Brexit or Trump are going to have yet but whatever happens we’ve survived tough times before and so surely we can do it again.

For obvious reasons, war and terrorism are another source of fear and worry. We are bombarded with pictures of war torn Syria every day. Clearly we need to be reminded of what’s happening in the world but rather than fretting and feeling depressed, would it not be better to try and do something about it? How many people wringing their hands in sadness actually support charities such as The Red Cross, Save the Children or Oxfam who are on the front line trying to help? As a person who is prone to anxiety I know how being proactive can help us feel empowered in times of uncertainty.

As we all know, technology has made the world a smaller place and brought the drama of international tensions into our living rooms like never before. The problem with this is bad news is big business and so that’s all the media likes to focus on. We all get our daily fix of fear but what about the positive stories that are being played out the world over with hardly a mention? Does this imbalance of reporting lead to a disproportionate level of anxiety in response?

For young people one of the biggest courses of concern is reported to be terrorist attacks and we behave as though this is a new phenomenon. Without a doubt we need to be aware of what’s going on around us when we’re in highly populated areas like airports or busy train stations but again, haven’t we seen it all before with the IRA in the 80s? I remember all the posters warning us to watch out for suspicious looking bags and when London was like a ghost town following a spate of terrorism alerts. I’m in no way trying to diminish the seriousness of terrorism but simply trying to highlight that they are nothing new. We have lived through these times before.

I worry that if we all become entrenched in fear and worry, anticipating the fall of civilisation as we know it, we may inadvertently hasten its arrival. Fear often leads us to demonise the unknown, be that people, places or ideas. I vividly remember being terrified in the 80s when everyone was convinced the Russians were going to kill us all. I’ve never been a massive fan of Sting but hearing his song Russians where he hoped that “Russians love their children too” was a massive wake up call for me in understanding that even though it might sometimes seem as if we’re on opposite sides of the fence we’re all connected as human beings none the less.

Call me Pollyanna if you like but I’m not wasting my energy worrying about world affairs because I don’t think things are as hopeless as we fear. Most people are kind and decent and the more we get to know each other on a human level the more we realise we’re all the same. So stop fretting and start acting. You could join an anti-war campaign group, support charities that help people in war-torn countries or, if you want to be more hands on why not volunteer at your local food bank or charity shop. I promise you once you start playing your part in counteracting the poison of characters like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, you’ll feel a whole lot better about the world.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Don't Hide Your Light

Why is it so much easier to believe in other people than it is in ourselves? I can’t be the only person who is able to see the merits in other people’s achievements but crippled with doubt about my own?

This was really brought home to me this week when I was involved in a literary festival, both as a writer and a punter. A wonderful writing group invited me and a poet to be their guest speakers. Delighted as I was, I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d got me muddled up with someone else. In fact I checked but no, the invitation was most definitely for me.

I spent the weeks building up to the event fully expecting to be exposed as an imposter. When the day finally arrived, despite being surrounded by lovely, supportive people, I felt totally ridiculous speaking about my writing journey and reading an extract from one of my books. So much so the whole event passed in a blurry out of body experience.

Sharing a post event latte with the very talented and articulate poet, I swore off public engagements for life. However, I was somewhat reassured the following evening as I sat in an audience listening to The Undertones bassist, Michael Bradley, talk about his book. He was witty, engaging and the book sounded great but he was also self effacing, constantly apologising for “going on” or “being boring” despite the fact that he was categorically not guilty of either of those things.

It got me thinking about whether my own lack of confidence is in fact representative of how most people feel. Are some people simply better at hiding their insecurities than others or are there actually people out there chomping at the bit to share and basking in the glow of their accomplishments? I’ve no idea, having only my own crippling self-doubt reference point to go by.

It’s not hard to see why so many of us might be wary of self- promotion, particularly in the UK where being confident goes hand in hand with arrogance and big headedness. I think as Brits we are hardwired to cringe in discomfort the second anyone starts to talk about themselves in a positive way. It’s much easier to deal with people who laugh off their achievements as nothing special.

I was brought up to the refrain, “Nobody likes a big head.” In keeping with this philosophy my mother was happy to extol the virtues of other people’s children whilst focusing on the ordinariness of her own. Any flashes of grandeur in my family were met with ridicule and mirth. I was the kid at school who never put their hand up and dreaded the thought of being called upon to “share”. Looking back there were always kids desperate to read out their work and ironically they were usually the ones who would have perhaps been wiser to keep quiet. They no doubt grew up into people happy to audition for shows like the X factor, despite being tone deaf with two left feet.

Interestingly the poet and I discussed this and he relayed how he finds British publications to be the most cruel and dismissive of anywhere in the world. He has been published worldwide and noted that only Brits find it necessary to reject work in a savagely critical rather than supportive style. Is self-doubt a cultural thing then, a natural result of our so called wit that sees us happy to pull others to shreds? Who knows?

I studied at university in Texas and one of the biggest culture shocks for me was how much value was placed on the ability to speak engagingly. In the UK it would have been possible for me to survive my entire educational life without once opening my mouth. Suddenly though I was thrust into a world of presentations where sharing your ideas and work was the norm. To be fair I was probably no less inarticulate when I graduated but it made me see the merit of teaching public speaking skills.

I could be generalising here but I think Americans are much better at valuing themselves and their achievements and this possibly comes from an education system where sharing ideas and work orally is respected just as much as written work. Most of my friends hate public speaking as much as I do. In fact some have even declined promotions at work as to accept would mean addressing large audiences. For me public speaking and the ability to promote yourself go hand in hand and the trouble is, while many of us shy away from the glare of attention, there’s always someone else ready to snatch the limelight. The reality is no one cares that you may be hiding your light under a bushel they just assume you have nothing to offer.

What can we do then to reverse this debilitating lack of self-confidence? I think there should be more emphasis on performing and group work in schools from a young age. Sadly as exams increasingly take precedence over everything else, schools have once again become places where written work is all that matters and this does not reflect real life. In our modern world most jobs demand the ability to be a good communicator and so our young people are going to be at as big a disadvantage as me and all the other public speaking haters out there.

It sounds clichéd and I’ll admit it makes me feel slightly nauseous but pick up any self improvement book and somewhere you’ll find the old adage that you have to love yourself. I think the real message behind this is that we need to treat ourselves with the same kindness that we treat others. As I said at the beginning, I am always happy to admire the quality of other people’s achievements so maybe it’s time to stop focussing on the shortcomings of my own.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

A Bad Week To Be A Woman

My anger has been steadily brewing all week and now it’s at boiling point. It’s not been a good week for women and, regardless of your gender, you should be steaming mad too. The week started with Donald Trump justifying groping women as basically a bit of fun and ended with a professional footballer having his conviction for rape overturned.

Now before I continue let me confess I know nothing about the said footballer. I wasn’t there on the night of the alleged incident nor was I privy to the evidence that was revealed in court. What has pushed me over into full-blown Hulk mode however is the rhetoric surrounding the case and the way in which his legal team were allowed to use the victim’s sexual history as evidence against her and potentially undo any progress that has been made in prosecuting sex crimes.

Despite having zero interest in the game I remember clearly when the rape allegation was first levelled at the footballer and he was suspended from his club, which happened to be in my home town. It’s seared in my memory as I was working in a school and shocked to the core by the attitudes of many boys and some girls towards the allegation. Words like ‘bitch’ and ‘slag’ were bandied about with venom and the general consensus seemed to be that football was more important than an intoxicated, vulnerable young woman who may or may not have been raped.

On Saturday night, twenty four hours after he had been exonerated by an appeals court, I foolishly clicked on the footballer’s name as he trended on Twitter. The level of abuse aimed at women made me feel physically sick. Anyone who questioned the legalities of what had taken place was called (and you can take your pick here) – feminist lesbian/ ugly cunt/ slag/ bitch/ whore. Given that the defence team used not only the woman’s sexual history but the idea that the footballer was so in demand by women that he didn’t have to rape one seems to suggest that rape is only a crime when committed against particularly attractive virgins.

The damage this has done to women I believe is inestimable. Already many rape victims don’t come forward for fear of being blamed, not believed or being put on trial themselves. What kind of message then do these legal proceedings send? I read an article this week about a man who was running an assertiveness course for women and how shocked he had been to learn that every woman in the class had suffered some degree of sexual abuse. He may have been shocked but I’m not.

I don’t know any woman in my own circle of friends who hasn’t been touched in some way by sexual abuse. My sister and I were always urged to be wary of men by our mother who at the age of fourteen had been groped by her much older brother-in-law. She told her mother who didn’t believe her and warned her not to make trouble. My mother’s solution was to never be alone with him again and to make sure neither my sister nor I ever were either. That early awareness that people weren’t always what they appear to be didn’t always keep us safe though.

My first encounter with the thorny issue of tell/don’t tell came in primary school aged about eight. I was chosen along with two other girls to be a biscuit monitor at play time and as we were getting the biscuits from the stockroom one of the girls revealed that her grandfather was abusing her. Conscious only of the gravity of the situation we all went hand in hand to tell the teacher who listened carefully and sent us on our way. Before the day was up we were all called into the headmaster’s office and given the scolding of our lives for telling ‘nasty lies’. I for one never spoke of it again and I have no idea what became of the other two girls.

Later on in my teens we all knew who the ‘pervy’ dads were, the ones you had to avoid being left on your own with. A couple of friends who weren’t quick enough on their feet found themselves fending off unwanted touches but despite it being openly discussed none of us did anything about it. Likewise with ‘handjob gennel’ so named because of the local boy who would trap lone girls in the gennel and only let them pass once they’d performed a handjob.

The astonishing fact that the boy got away with this for years can only be explained in the context of the level of fear he struck into every teenager’s heart. He was a vicious thug, eventually expelled from school and dispatched to a ‘special’ school for almost beating a boy to death. Trapped in that gennel I and I’m sure every other girl on my estate, felt in genuine fear for our lives.

Once you mature into adulthood it becomes easier to avoid unwanted attention but even then I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been grabbed, slapped and slobbered on all in the name of friendly fun. Your intellect screams that you should be speaking out but some ingrained fear of causing a scene or rocking the boat makes you keep quiet and simply warn your friends to avoid the ‘lech’.

I had hoped that for young women the sexual minefield had perhaps become easier to navigate but it appears not. There are always going to be men who take advantage and now it seems the legal system is collaborating in making sure that women still won’t feel able to speak out.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016


Did you know there are hardly any female serial killers? It’s true, I’ve read it. Nobody ever thinks it could be a woman which means I’m completely off the radar. Especially given that I’m middle-aged, law abiding with no connections to the police at all. Except for those times I complained but they don’t really count because the useless young idiots who turned up didn’t even bother to write anything down.

That’s how I knew they weren’t going to do anything. They were just humouring a fussy old woman, I could see it in the way they didn’t even have the common courtesy to make eye contact when I was telling them about the goings on. They could barely contain their impatience to get gone. Probably chomping at the bit to be off fighting ‘real crime’, no doubt tasering someone or giving them a good kicking. Oh I read the newspapers and these two weren’t fooling me. I don’t know who these louts think pay their wages, I pay my council tax and the rates on my shop are astronomical.

That’s what gets my goat the most - here I am a small business woman trying to bring something to the area and all I get for my trouble is disgusting drunken men urinating down my door, students who should know better vomiting everywhere and worst of all I once found a used condom on my doorstep. I swear to all that’s holy this country has gone to hell. I’m just glad my dear old mum’s not here to see it. She always used to say, if you haven’t got standards then you are nothing.

Nothing! These people are nothing, they don’t count, and they’ve brought everything on themselves. I watch them walking past, young women with all their flesh hanging out – big fat things most of them. I don’t know what it is about young people and food. Emily, the girl who works for me, is no better. Lovely girl, even though she’s a bit dim. She’s a university student as well although it’s not like it used to be, they’ll let anybody in these days. I’ve tried to talk to her about standards but she’s too busy eating cake. She’s obsessed with cake! It’s like mum used to say, one thousand calories is all the body needs. These young ones though they don’t listen, they just let it all hang out. Disgusting creatures most of them if you ask me.

That’s the trouble though they never ask me. I could sort this country out in no time at all. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I’ve had to be, what do they call it – pro-active? I knew the police weren’t going to help, total waste of time they were so I took matters into my own hands. It all started with a young hoodlum, you know the type I mean – trousers practically around his knees and all his under garments on show. I’ve lost all hope for this country, I really have. Anyway I was sorting though my stock so the shop was closed and I watched him relieve himself against my door, bold as brass he was.

How could I let that go? Absolutely no standards at all. I don’t really know what came over me but without realising it I slipped the knife I’d been using for slitting the boxes into my pocket and quietly stepped out into the darkness. I followed him for ages and he never even noticed it was like I was invisible. I didn’t plan anything, not that time, but when he veered off down a shortcut between two shops I quickened my pace and stuck the knife in his back. Right between his shoulder blades.

He screamed so loudly I felt sure everyone must have heard and I admit I did panic. I pulled the knife out and plunged it into his throat, mainly just to shut him up. I think it was a bit of a shock to both of us how much blood sprayed out. I was covered in it. I had to take my cardi off and carry it back to the shop. It was completely ruined. Nobody noticed though and that’s when I realised how easy it was.

I don’t bother with the police now, I sort out my own problems and it’s much quicker and more effective. There’s no warnings, no second chances. My mum always used to say, give people an inch and they’ll take a mile and she was right. In fact sometimes I’m doing these people a favour. Take the homeless man for instance who had the cheek to bed down in my doorway. What life has he got? I did feel some compassion, I mean I’m not heartless and they do say these things can befall any of us. I might even have looked the other way if he hadn’t left all his dirty litter behind like an animal. No, he had zero standards, no good to himself or anyone else; it was like putting a dog out of its misery.

It took a while for the police to start to notice, I told you they’re a waste of time, total dimwits the lot of them. They’re warning people now though not to be out at night by themselves. I just hope people listen and start behaving like decent human beings. It’s not like I enjoy doing all this extra work on top of running a business. Some days I’m exhausted from it all but somebody's got to have standards or we might as well be savages. 

Monday, 28 March 2016

How Real is Your Mid-Life Crisis?

Does the term mid-life crisis strike you as a bit of a cliché? You know the perfect excuse for men old enough to know better to shoehorn their beer guts into tight jeans and race around in flash cars. Or what about the middle-aged women who suddenly take up with the neighbour’s son? We’ve all heard the stories and, up until fairly recently, I might have been inclined to scoff along with you.

But that was before I was blindsided by my own existential angst. These days all those middle-aged twits don’t seem quite so funny. If someone had told me before I turned 50 that I would spend the subsequent three years feeling like an alien had taken up residence in my body, I would have laughed in their face. Nowadays I don’t have the energy as I’m too busy being battered by menopausal hormones and held to ransom by the tag team of insomnia and anxiety.

Believe me, I have plenty of time to dwell on this issue and let me tell you the mid-life crisis is alive and well. If it hasn’t seized hold of you yet then batten down the hatches and hope like hell that this particular hurricane passes you by. So what is it that actually triggers this abomination? Well, in my completely non-expert opinion, it’s a combination of a few things.

For women, the most obvious catalyst is the monster that is the menopause. Before I was a woman of a ‘certain age’, I envisaged the worst that could happen was a few hot flushes and how bad could that be, right? What a poor naive fool I was! Nobody told me that these hot flushes make you feel like you’re going to spontaneously combust and leave you feeling nauseas and dizzy whilst the night time sweats keep you awake night after night. Come to think of it they never mentioned the more or less permanent headaches either. Now before I’m accused of being a scaremonger, it is alleged that 80% of women slide through the menopause with nary a ladylike glow but for a significant number of us the menopause is hell.

I don’t think this is the full story however or where would that leave men in this not so pretty picture? After all mid-life crises like to distribute the madness equally amongst the sexes. My own preoccupation has become health and I find the more I talk about it the more prevalent this – okay let’s just call it what it is - hypochondria is. Friends who, as far as I know, never gave a second thought to their health are suddenly paranoid wrecks. Where once these people might have been knocking back G&Ts and dancing the night away, they are now googling symptoms both real and imagined and coming up with more lethal diseases than you could ever imagine were out there. Just this week for instance, I’ve self diagnosed a brain tumour, skin cancer, lupus and thrombosis.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this army of middle-aged neurotics were never away from the doctors and poster people for healthy living. Sadly that’s not how it works. Despite seeing my doctor two weeks ago I never mentioned any of my ailments – primarily because I didn’t want to look like a nutcase which I suppose suggests on a rational level I know that I’m being ridiculous. Likewise, I have friends who have self diagnosed heart problems, lung cancer, kidney failure, diabetes – you name it and it seems my friends have got it. However, not one of them has consulted a doctor, choosing instead to employ the ruse of eating and drinking to excess whilst behaving like geriatric teenagers in the hope of finding some respite from the fears circling their middle-aged brains like vultures.

The crux of the situation is that there comes a point in everyone’s life when the realisation hits that you’ve got less years in front of you than you’ve already had. The harsh truth is I can remember the 80s like they were yesterday and the intervening years seem to have passed in the blink of an eye and yet fast forward the same 30+ years and I’ll probably be dead. It’s not exactly a settling thought is it?

I’m sure there are some of you out there shaking your head Dali Lama style ready to meet your maker whenever she or he sees fit. I wish I had your courage, I really do. But instead I find myself taking some consolation in the fact that almost everyone I know of that ‘certain age’ is clinging onto life with a desperation that’s unseemly.

Although I wasn’t around during my mother’s midlife, I do remember laughing heartily at my grandma’s favourite past time of reading aloud from the obituaries. My sister and I would mimic her scanning the list of names, none of whom she knew, pausing only to offer a fitting, “74, that’s no age.” They all seemed ancient to us. In fact, I clearly remember aged 18 regarding the fuss surrounding John Lennon’s demise with wonder – 40 seemed like a ripe old age to me. What I don’t remember, however, is any generation before my own being so self-indulgently obsessed with ageing and mortality. It seems to me, my grandmother and mother’s generations just got on with it. So what’s changed?

I suppose some would say that we are the generation who, on the one hand never had it so good but have also been forced to cope with pressures unknown by our predecessors the so called baby boomers. We’re the first generation not born in the shadow of the war. One of the reasons my grandma probably didn’t have time for a mid-life crisis was the fact that in 1944 aged 45 she gave birth to her fourth child. This was during the war when as part of the war effort she drove a crane. Add to that the fact that she was widowed aged 50 and left to support four children single-handedly. My mother (the fourth child born in 1944) has no recollection of the war but her entire childhood was defined by it. There was post-war destruction and poverty, not to mention the gaping hole left by the loss of loved ones. In comparison, fretting about whether becoming an organic vegan will extend your life or if that mole really does look bigger seems ugly and superficial.

This life of Riley me and my 50-something friends have enjoyed has been offset by stressors not faced by our parents and grandparents. We have seen our lives transformed by technology and the workplaces we entered are unrecognisable now. We are ruled by data and targets unheard of in bygone days. We’re all accountable to the nth degree, competing with youngsters who seemingly came out of the womb IT savvy. There are no jobs for life anymore and the idea of the workplace as a community is likely to elicit derisive laughter from all those 30-somethings who wield the whip.

Add to this the reality that we are going to have to work longer and longer and the stress is likely to tip anyone over the edge. We all went into our working lives with the idea that we could retire, like our parents and grandparents before us, at sixty. As it stands now I will be working until I’m 68 but as we all know the goalposts are constantly changing. I pity the ones born after me who will no doubt be working until they drop – that is if they can secure a job in the first place.

The world then has become a much more confusing place than it was for previous generations and confusion breeds fear. As we struggle to make sense of the world around us maybe we cling more desperately to the familiar. And what’s more familiar than ourselves? Except, as we face the natural physical changes that come with middle age, even that familiarity is stripped away. Or maybe I’m over analysing this and we are all a bunch of self obsessed, whiney hypochondriacs. Go on, you decide.

Friday, 26 February 2016

The Slide

“Come on Danny, be a good boy and take your meds. You know you always feel better when you do.” I spit something unintelligible at the matronly woman holding out a plastic pill dispenser. Turning towards the wall I feign resistance but we both know it’s a game.

She silently stands firm next to my bed. A few of my fellow inmates are watching, their blank faces making it hard to judge whether it’s out of curiosity or simply a reaction to her sympathetic but unyielding voice. A voice I’ve come to crave as it makes me feel safe, even though I know it’s all just a pathetic illusion. A 32-year-old man desperate to be called a boy so that he can feel like a boy; this solid, practical woman’s boy.

Rolling over I avoid her gaze, my eyes fixing instead on the navy blue uniform. Baby bird style I open my mouth, too ashamed to meet the kind eyes as she places the dispenser next to my lips, tipping the pills into my mouth. I swallow obediently, reaching for the water she offers me. “That’s a good boy,” she soothes before returning to the nurses’ station where the other one, the young one, watches our familiar dance with disinterest.

I’m not mad, I swear I’m not. Not like some of the others in here. Some of them are so far gone it’s hard to see anything human left. Maybe it was never there to begin with; maybe they’ve always been that way. Others, like me, are damaged maybe beyond repair but there are still remnants of what we once were. Not many and some days hardly anything at all but somewhere at the edges a ghost like flicker of what could have been.

I close my eyes, grateful for the dull calm that washes over me. I’m safe here without the questions and sharp edges. Somewhere far away I can hear Maxine’s low growl. It’s a deep guttural sound, part growl, part hum that comes from deep within her. Maxine is one of the ones who used to pass for normal. I’ve never heard her utter a sound other than the growl but her mother’s the type who thinks it’s okay to tell everyone her daughter’s story.

The mother comes every week but spends most of the time she’s here re-telling Maxine’s story to other visitors or the nurses. She’s the kind of woman who, even when she’s telling someone else’s story, it’s all about her. She doesn’t out and out say how Maxine’s decline into madness has become an unbearable burden but that’s the subtext. And Maxine stares into space, growling that low tuneless rumble as her mother sits centre stage.

You wouldn’t think it to look at her but Maxine used to be a looker. She’s obese now in that puffy, marshmallowy kind of way that’s part medication part junk food. Her hair is cropped short with bald patches that remind me of a badly kept lawn. She has lots of not so great habits like ripping out her own eyelashes and slashing her skin with anything that’s not safely locked away.

According to the mother, things went bad for Maxine when her dad was diagnosed with cancer. Seven years spent waiting for him to die with false hope after false hope pushed her over the edge along with him. Of course the mother finds it hard to understand how, at such crucial time when it should have been all hands on deck, Maxine crumpled in such a catastrophic way. Maybe, her mother wonders aloud every Saturday, she was always weak.

I like Maxine, even though I’ve never spoken to her. In fact I’ve never even been up close to her. The closest we’ve come is me watching her from my own bed as she sits on hers staring off into space. It’s a mixed ward you see, all us nutters lumped in together. I know the government have made noises about these old hospitals not being fit for purpose but, the truth is there’s no money, no beds and more people losing their marbles every day.

So how did I lose mine? Nothing as dramatic as Maxine’s story I’m embarrassed to confess. It was just a sort of relentless slide into the abyss. Then one day everything quickened up until the descent took my breath away. I’d been doing normal for 30 years before the trap door sprang open and these days no amount of trying will keep the damn thing shut. All the stuff that had been locked away came flooding out and now there’s no room left. My head is full and yet more stuff keeps on coming.

They’ll patch me up and send me home, like they do with all of us. We’re like pin balls though and we all bounce back here before too long. Most times it’s via Accident and Emergency after a suicide attempt. It feels like coming home for awhile; Nurse Brenda, she’s always here to greet us with her pill dispenser and calm, accepting face. Then they convince us we’re doing better and off we go. Round and round and round.