I’m the Screen: The Lives of Lee Miller

March 16, 2019

In May 1945, Lee Miller heard the news that Hitler was dead. She heard it from Hitler’s apartment in Munich. Miller and her colleague Dave Scherman had found the place with some US troops, undamaged enough to ride out the remainder of the war. Since 1942 Miller had been the war correspondent for Vogue. Her passion was photography. She took a whole series of shots in Hitler’s flat, but her most famous from that time is the one where she was the model – enjoying a long soak in the Führer’s bathtub. (The Guardian has a good gallery of Miller’s war shots, here.)

Miller hadn’t posed for a long time. She had been one of the most adored models in New York of the late 1920s. After two years, she tired of it and moved to Paris where she reinvented herself as a photographer. This is where Whitney Scharer’s novel of Miller comes in – when she is just another face in the city: ‘When she walks through Montparnasse, her new neighborhood, no one catches her eye, no one turns around to watch her pass. Instead, Lee seems to be just another pretty detail in a city where almost everything is artfully arranged.’

Miller meets the artist Man Ray when she is running out of money and half-crazy from loneliness in Paris. He offers her a job as his assistant. The two have passions in common and inevitably they fall in love, and The Age of Light charts their stormy relationship. There is a new trend in fiction for novels about real people – see Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott‘s stunning Swan Song, which tells the life of Truman Capote through his relationships with his woman friends.

The Age of Light did not work as well for me because Scharer shrinks the viewfinder of Miller’s life into the short years she spent with Man Ray. The problem with writing about relationships is that there’s only a certain number of scenarios that can play out (boy meets girl…) and you don’t have to know anything about Miller or Man Ray to see how the story will go. You know that Miller will begin to outdo Ray as an artist and that Ray won’t like it. You know this’ll end in tears.

Miller lived a long accomplished life after Man Ray. She ran a studio in New York. She saw Dachau. Her wartime experiences led to difficulties in later life with depression and (likely undiagnosed) PTSD. In The Bitter Taste of Victory, Lara Feigel’s history of the immediate aftermath of World War 2 in Europe, Feigel discusses Miller’s bathroom shot at 16 Prinzregentenplatz:

There is no simple message in Miller’s picture but by juxtaposing the clumsy brutality of her muddy boots with the pomp of the military leadership and the classical beauty both of the sculpture and of her own huddled and fragile naked figure, she was asking how these incongruous elements could have come together. The Nazi leadership had been famous for finding a place for art within the torture chamber and the battlefield. Already, there were frequent tales of the concentration camp commandants who went home from a day of gassing Jews to listen to Beethoven… By bringing the statue into the frame with Hitler, Miller was undermining the notion that art could be redemptive simply through its purity or detachment.

Scharer touches on this in her prologue, when Miller is living in the countryside in the 1960s. She loves cooking and hosts frequent dinner parties, but drinks so much in the kitchen that her banquets are often delayed until almost midnight. ‘She cannot stop the thoughts from coming,’ Scharer writes. ‘They lodge like bits of shrapnel in her brain and she never knows when something will bring one to the surface.’ It is a sympathetic portrait of a woman self medicating against mental distress. But this plus snatches of wartime memory is pretty much all we get of Miller after Ray: and I think that’s a shame.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh though. If you want a love story I’d totally recommend The Age of Light, and the scenery and people of Paris are beautifully rendered. There is also an increase in tempo towards the end of the book, and a growing sense of liberty. After completing an artwork, ‘Lee opens another bottle of wine and watches all four films, projected on the back wall of the studio, as she drinks straight from the bottle, the wine going down her throat in what feels like one uninterrupted swallow. When the last film slips loose of the reel at the end, Lee sits in the sudden hot bright light of the projector, listening to the tock tock tock tock as the film goes around the reel, and she feels overwhelmingly, drunkenly proud.’ Scharer’s novel is about sharing a life, but the lesson from it is what the poet Claude tells Miller, very early on: travel only at the prow of yourself.

2016 And All That

March 5, 2019

A curiosity of political writing is the panoply of small sites that have sprung up outside traditional UK media, offering regular blogs with a particular political slant and names you half recognise. This week we’re looking at ‘Unherd’ which examines current events from an angle of the communitarian left and right.

You might have heard on the grown up news that the Labour Party has (provisionally and reluctantly and at this very late stage) backed a second referendum on Brexit – and that has not gone down very well with the fellows at Unherd. Their always entertaining contributor Paul Embery has written a polemic against any such new referendum. Even among a political movement known for zealotry, Embery’s partisanship stands out.

Embery laments that ‘the post-referendum debate among Westminster politicians and the commentariat has missed the mark spectacularly by focusing almost exclusively on the dry, technical issues of Brexit: the Single Market and Customs Union, the Irish border backstop, and so on’ – you know, the boring, technocratic shit that keeps food on the supermarket shelves, and gunsmoke off the breeze. Embery is more of a Brexit purist, perhaps Brexit aesthete.

In 2015, five in six MPs voted to hold a referendum on membership of the EU. Then, a year later, in the biggest democratic exercise ever witnessed in our nation’s history, more than 33 million people went to the polls and a majority voted for secession. They didn’t vote to leave only with a divorce agreement that the EU was willing to approve. No, the question on the ballot paper was simple: remain or leave.

For Embery, democracy began in 2016. And that’s where it ends, apparently. For the second referendum in Brexit mythos is an establishment ruse to subvert popular sovereignty. Embery warns: ‘For as the gilet jaunes have shown across the Channel, if you chip away enough at people’s faith in the democratic process and their ability to hold their political leaders to account, then from behind that silence a mighty roar will eventually emerge.’ (The stirring Shelleyan rhetoric clashes badly with the example of the gilet jaunes: a couple of weeks ago the brave boys of Paris had to be restrained by police after bullying an elderly Jewish philosopher on one of their demos.)

Here is the problem. It has now been more than three years since the referendum. If Brexit were a government it’d be past the mid terms. It would have faced local and by elections. The action has become boring. (It is an irony of the Brexit vote that what was supposed to lead to one big decisive outcome instead gives us endless process.) Most people don’t have fixed and unchangeable views. Most people have moved on. And was 2016 such a huge moment? I don’t recall the street parties.

And think on the fundamental things that will not change. We are next to Europe. We had a relationship with Europe before the EU, we will always have that even if the EU falls over completely as it periodically threatens to do. If we are going to leave it is best to sort out some kind of trading relationship rather than go out on WTO rules. WTO rules may be survivable. Sure, we might run out of produce, and medical supplies, and god knows what else.

Let’s say no deal is survivable. It may not create the communitarian paradise that Unherd writers dream of. Polly Toynbee, speaking with postwar austerity historian David Kynaston, said that: ‘Even in a supposedly collectivist decade, people were strongly individualist… They welcomed the NHS as ‘good for me’, but reading mass observation archives, [Kynaston] detected no widespread New Jerusalem sentiment.’ Quite so. In times of privation people think to me and mine. As so often, the collective revolution leads to grasping selfish survivalism.

‘These things are important of course,’ Embery says, ‘but no-one in power has yet bothered to initiate a serious discussion about what drove so many of their fellow citizens to vote Leave in the first place – defining issues such as community, identity, democracy and belonging.’ The question here really is, what stopped you? Brexit for good or ill was an opportunity to find out what kind of country we wanted to be. We could have had a written constitution, a First Amendment, an elected senate by the year 2017. Instead it has been a comedy of lowered expectations and an epic of wasted time. And still, Embery and his Brexit purists stay in referendum day, fixed in amber, trapped in the golden moment and lost content.

The People’s Vote is still more of an idea than a reality. Embery is the latest of numerous commentators in political and journalist circles to warn against it. I’m not convinced about a second referendum but this to me seems a reasonable argument for having one.

Gonzo or Go Home

March 2, 2019

Standpoint magazine has an interesting little feature where the writers take political or cultural figures of great reputations and then knock them down. It’s fun to read although the cynical part of me says that the feature’s really there to generate clicks from outraged fanboys. This week Oliver Wiseman has taken on Hunter S Thompson, and as I’m very much an ageing HST fanboy, I will bite.

Wiseman’s critique gets a lot of things right. Thompson was a degenerate, a fabulist who often missed the story or plainly made stuff up, a talented man who was swallowed into his own narcissistic mythos. There were plenty better journalists of the day who were ignored. Joan Didion and Michael Kerr could probably tell you more about the crazy times of the American midcentury than HST.

But fanboys love the person, not the prose. As Wiseman writes:

‘Four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned-beef hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of keylime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert.’

All of which should be enjoyed alone, ‘outside in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked’.

To a certain man of a certain age — me in my late teens, to be specific — there was something heroic about the way Hunter S. Thompson liked to start the day.

Be careful who you pretend to be, said wise Kurt Vonnegut, and perhaps HST should have taken this advice to heart. Reading the correspondence I was surprised by how much time Thompson spent at home in Owl Farm. Alcoholic artists like to get hammered alone. Other people tend to get in the way of the visions. Perhaps HST shot himself because he knew he’d come to the end of his visions. No more fun, indeed.

And yet, and yet, the fanboy part of me keeps bobbing up and shouting…

Have a look at a broadsheet feature or op-ed. Notice how overmannered and overwritten and partisan and twee and insufferable the writing is. How obsessed the writers are with clicks and culture wars. It is near a trial to read. For all the respect I have for the British press, I know there are great British journalists out there, there are probably more than they have ever been but they are still in the minority.

Go from there to the Daily Beast, Longreads, or Deadspin, and you will find the experience like a warm bath and brandy after cutting your way through miles of brambles. It is just so refreshing to read journalists who write clearly and without fear. St Louis writer Sarah Kendzior, whose View From Flyover Country I’m currently enjoying, has the same quality.

I’m not saying that American journalism is better than British journalism. But, well, there’s a reason there’s a Mueller investigation in the States and no equivalent over here. There’s a reason Donald Trump hates and fears the press, while British politicians fear only their political rivals. The contrast holds even in my own interest of fiction and criticism. The biggest story in Anglo-American publishing this year, the Dan Mallory scandal, was broken by the New Yorker. It could not and would not have been published in a UK publication.

Americans don’t necessarily have a stronger tradition of newspapership than we do but they know how better to draw on it.

And part of that tradition includes degenerate assholes like HST.

On the ten year anniversary of the Beast, editor Noah Shachtman wrote:

The world is so dark so often that a staid recitation of the day’s horrors will cause audiences to turn the news off altogether. Journalism today has to paint in bright colors, have a sense of wit, and give up any attachments to the powerful. It’s gonzo or go home.

Go gonzo or go home. What an editor. What a sensibility.

The Beast has also drawn from English traditions as well, the name is of course from Waugh’s Scoop, a satire of the days when it was easier to make living as a newspaperman. These days it is not so easy. I agree with the plaintive appeals to support British journalism, I agree with paywalls, I want journalists to have good incomes and job security and I understand that all this costs.

But readers can’t do everything. Writers have to write better.

And writing better requires you to read, to enjoy, and to draw on tradition. Fanboyism rarely makes for great writing. But it can provide the spark that leads eventually to great writing. We get older, we put away childish things: we do not burn them.

And wouldn’t it be fun to see Hunter Thompson back from the dead and covering the Trump administration?

Now that would bring in subscriptions.

Guest House Inferno

February 19, 2019

If the world is going to end, the best place to be is in a Swiss hotel. That is the impression you get from Hanna Jameson’s The Last. American historian Jon Keller is staying in L’Hôtel Sixième when nuclear attacks hit Washington, New York, and other cities across the world. Apocalypse novels can be strangely coy about the causes and impact of the apocalypse. Safe in the hotel and surrounded by forests, the world-altering events of the outside world are at first limited to headlines and the strange new shades of the sunsets. It’s a while before anyone thinks to go outside to scout for food, let alone try to locate other survivors.

Which is not to say The Last doesn’t compel. Jon is trapped with a couple of dozen people with whom he has little in common, they are running out of food, and afraid to drink the water. Jameson captures the feeling of claustrophobia and panic. Guests lose themselves in drink and drugs and random hookups. A man takes a deliberate overdose. With only one doctor in the crew and little practical skills, it seems like the Sixième guests won’t last long. And then Jon finds the body of a child – murdered, perhaps before the apocalypse.

Jon is the novel’s big weakness. He comes off as a vacillating milquetoast. He hews to sociological platitudes but his willingness to take part in executions makes you wonder how deep his liberal principles really go. The more we find out about him, the less you like, and the more you wonder what else he’s not telling us. It’s a surprise that Jameson chose to tell her story through such a bore. But his desolation and anguish are very real, as is his fear for his wife and children, way back in the US. And Jameson captures also the feeling that the world is heading somewhere wrong:

Now I felt it, the crushing existential weight of the loss. Commutes, and calling your representatives over something you saw on TV, reading news articles online, all of them getting progressively worse, going to march after march amid the creeping sensation that nothing was changing, that governments weren’t scared and people were nowhere near as scared as it should be, spending day after day at work talking about politicians we hated and battles we were losing, worrying about our future and whether your children would have one, and then it was all gone.

At least Jon gets to meet more interesting people – Peter the dyspeptic German child psychologist, Adam the young boozehound and Tomi, Jon’s on and off girlfriend – Tomi is a fellow American but is everything Jon is not, clear headed, plain spoken and stylish. There’s a bone of contention between the guests as to who voted for the disaster president who began the nuclear war and it makes you think of how much of the nuclear winter will be spent bickering over the ruins.

Jameson deepens the sense of claustrophobic horror by giving the hotel a spooky backstory and the guests elements of dark mysteries in their own lives. The hotel’s mystery builds to an unexpected conclusion but for me it’s the endpapers and the last passage of Jon’s narration that gives this novel its payoff. The Swiss landscape of chalet and forest suddenly feels like an impassible tundra in Jameson’s hands.

Lantern Season

February 16, 2019

This story appears in issue 3 of the very fine Guttural journal.

Also, over at Shiny, I’ve reviewed Sue Prideaux’s phenomenal biography of Friedrich Nietzsche.

A Brush With Evil

February 9, 2019

I never realised ‘Cat Person’ was a story. It went round the internet and I assumed it would be an outtake or gif or a confessional Medium piece. Kristen Roupenian had no previous print publications, just stories published in online zines. In a later New Yorker piece she wrote about her unexpected fame.

I remember the e-mails coming and coming—first, fan letters from people who’d discovered my story and liked it, then anti-fan letters, from people who’d discovered my story and didn’t. I received many in-depth descriptions, from men, of sexual encounters they’d had, because they thought I’d ‘just like to know.’ I got e-mails from people I hadn’t talked to in years who wondered if I’d noticed that my story had gone viral. And, as the days went on, I got e-mails requesting interviews from outlets all over the globe: the U.S., Canada, England, Australia.

The short form is like a half-mythical beast. It lies dormant for years. It sleeps in its cave. People start thinking it’s dead. And then there’s a creak of leathern wings, the cave walls light up, and there’s a dragon arcing across the sky.

You Know You Want This is a collection about dysfunctional relationships. A woman has a compulsion to bite people that dominates her life. A marriage is almost destroyed by a mysterious skin disorder. A single man is taken in by a happy couple who then become obsessed with him. I can’t summarise more than that because I don’t want to spoil the stories. You really just have to sit down and read them. If I went through the collection again no doubt I’ll find things to criticise, but it would take some doing. Roupenian is so good.

There is a tendency in criticism to subgenre authors like Roupenian as millennial romance – the new chick lit, and just as transitory in its success. But I think that You Know You Want This is more in the tradition of American horror. Roupenian’s world is a forest of potential danger. Margot in ‘Cat Person’ might fear misogynists and white-knighters like Robert and Ted, but she faces almost as much threat from her fellow women as portrayed across Roupenian’s stories – they are unruly, cliquish schoolgirls, embittered middle-aged married women and unpredictable selfish singletons. Tilly’s mother, in ‘Sardines’, asks about her birthday wish, and Tilly says: ‘I wished for something mean.’

In the story ‘Look At Your Game, Girl’, twelve year old Jessica is approached by an older boy at the skate park. Not really a boy, to be honest – ‘She thought he was one of the skateboarders. He was about their height, with the same thin, slippery build, but his hair was longer, down past his shoulders, and as he moved to the side, so that he was no longer silhouetted against the late-afternoon sun, she realised that he was in his twenties at least – a young but full-grown man.’ This guy is obsessed with Charlie Manson. He gives Jessica a tape of Manson’s music, and raves about the killer’s legacy – ‘Charlie was a singer and he could have been a star. All the girls worshipped him. They loved him even more than you loved Axl, and he loved them back the same. They followed him everywhere, Mary and Susan and Linda and the rest.’

Again – I don’t want to ruin this. I can say that Jessica survived this encounter with a bad and dangerous man, but she came to see the encounter as a ‘brush with evil… a tiny pinprick of light, nearly imperceptible against a backdrop of whirling constellations made up of other, brighter stars.’ The world is full of violence and evil, Roupenian warns us. Her stories contain some true unearthly monsters as well as the two-legged variety, and there is even a story, ‘The Mirror, The Bucket, And The Old Thigh Bone’ set in a medieval kingdom of a fantasy world. It’s a break from Roupenian’s bleak urban America but feels just as deadly in its way.

It’s a jungle out there. It’s the forest that awaited Young Goodman Brown. Roupenian’s flagship story made an impact because she drills down so deep into the physicality of Margot and Robert as their bad date reaches its messy conclusion. And it is when the characters in her stories confront and fight and fuck each other (as they so frequently do) that she taps into the animality of human interaction. And it’s scary.  You hear the rip of flesh, hair pulled from its roots, and smell the blood. Red in tooth and claw!

And Roupenian drills down into the inner life, as well: the thought processes, the repetition and artifice of thought, awash in cortisol and testosterone. It’s so visceral, this stuff, but there’s not a sense that she’s exaggerating these characters or laughing at them as other writers might do. Think of Ted, dying on a gurney, remembering the mistakes he made in his relationships with women. The story is called ‘The Good Guy’ and the spoiler is, obviously, that Ted isn’t a good guy at all. He conceals his desires, manipulates others, and nurtures bitterness. Because he refuses to admit mistakes, he’s a slave to past selves. The results are awful, for people around him, and for himself as well. Roupenian is expert at nailing down the neuroses of generations of people taught to be passive, yet also that they are entitled to certain things from life, and that it’s important to demonstrate’s one superiority at all times. And what you often get from this is people who lead terrible, wasted lives.

We get other people wrong. We get ourselves wrong. We don’t know what we want, and when we do, we’re often dishonest about it. We lie, lie about the lies, and we repeat the same patterns of behaviour and the same mistakes, over and over. We blunder into things we’re not ready for and keep ourselves away from what we really do need. We’re all heading towards the same place but this truth doesn’t encourage solidarity. There is a line through the forest, but as Paul Scott says in the Raj Quartet, it is not the line, but the forest, that’s our history.

Roupenian chronicles all this with mordant wit but also a depth and humanity. You Know You Want This is a collection for anyone who ever looked at the stars – and wished for something mean.

Let’s Talk About SSRIs

February 3, 2019

‘Let’s address the elephant in the room,’ the neuroscientist Dean Burnett wrote last year, reviewing Lost Connections.

Johann Hari does not have a flawless reputation. He has been absent from the spotlight for many years following a plagiarism scandal, compounded by less-than-dignified behaviour towards his critics. Admittedly, he has since shown remorse and contrition over the whole affair, but even a cursory glance online reveals he’s a long way from universal forgiveness. Logically, someone with a reputation for making false claims should be the last person making high-profile, controversial, sweeping statements about something as sensitive as mental health. And yet, here we are.

I was astounded by the scandal. I didn’t see it coming. I loved Hari’s writing. You will find pages in this blog where I quote him approvingly and rave about his work. I met him once at a panel event in Manchester. I shook his hand and gushed like a helpless fanboy.

These days I’m older and more cynical, I was certainly sceptical about Lost Connections when it was first published last year. The book was an international bestseller. The paperback edition has four pages of praise, including from Emma Thompson, Brian Eno and Alastair Campbell. I was sceptical about the marketing and extracts from the book. People have gone through Lost Connections and stress tested Hari’s claims. I am not going to drill down here, you can follow the links in Burnett’s article for that kind of critique. Nor do I want to go over Hari’s past misbehaviour, this is well documented, some people have forgiven and forgotten, others have not, I respect their feelings in both cases. I think that whatever else he lied about, Hari told the truth about his own clinical depression. The demons that haunt him are real. So when I saw the paperback edition of Lost Connections on the supermarket rack I picked it up, out of curiosity, and from a desire to give him a fair hearing, as a brother in recovery.

Lost Connections is a book about mental health. In it Hari makes several carefully crafted assertions.

  1. Too many people are taking antidepressants. These are the only real option in mental health treatment.
  2. This is because the medical establishment thinks of depression as purely a neurological problem. In fact depression has mostly social and environmental causes. The biochemical causes for mental illness are hugely exaggerated. They might not even exist.
  3. Antidepressants provide some temporary relief for a minority of users. But they carry side effects and are likely to give only superficial benefits. They may even make you worse.
  4. Doctors only prescribe antidepressants because the medical establishment has been irredeemably compromised by big pharma. Big pharma companies set the terms of the debate and game chemical trails to make their products look more effective than they really are.
  5. A lot of anxiety and depression is caused by the impact of living in an urbanised neoliberal society where we are bombarded with advertisements that raise unrealistic expectations of how we should be living. People are conditioned to want more and more stuff and to look totally perfect and get rich and it’s the difficulty of living up to these expectations that makes us sick.
  6. The neoliberal model compounds this because it takes the meaning out of our work and makes us feel like we have no control over our own lives. Social media makes us more isolated because we are stuck behind screens rather than being part of real life, meaningful communities.
  7. There are loads of different treatments and ways of living that can cure anxiety and depression but the medical establishment won’t explore these because there’s not the money in these alternative treatments as there is in big pharma.

There is truth in some of these assertions. But in Hari’s book there is always the sense that you are not being told the whole truth. Disingenuousness sparkles across his pages like mica.

There are problems with prescribing. There is no doubt that drug companies have ruined lives. In America entire communities have been destroyed by overprescribing of opioid medications, that have been pushed onto clinics by aggressive marketing strategies. Opioids kill more people than AIDS in the 1980s. Thousands and thousands of people have died of overdose – mainly the young, and the white working class. It is a modern Vietnam. There are parts of Appalachia where people will cash in Gramps’s life insurance and the kids’ college fund to buy pills. There were clinics where the doctors carry guns. The problem is way beyond the scope of this blogpost. I would recommend Beth Macy‘s Dopesick and Chris McGreal‘s American Overdose, both outstanding works of longform journalism. Can’t happen here, right? Don’t be so sure. McGreal says that opioid related deaths have more than doubled in England and Wales since 2012.

But fine, let’s talk about SSRIs.

There are problems with treatment. The number one cause of death for working age people in the UK is suicide. Many sufferers in the UK have no access to effective mental health care at all. They will also be discriminated against in other areas of life – try getting insurance with a known mental health problem, for example. It is difficult to get in front of a psychiatrist in the UK because the state has little interest in training skilled professionals or supporting them on the frontline. It’s also hard to get inpatient treatment unless you’re completely off the reservation and even if you are admitted you might not be safe. That’s not anyone’s fault in particular, clinicians in the NHS work incredibly hard under very difficult conditions, but talented people can only do so much.

If you seek help the first thing that happens is triage. MH professionals will ask you to fill in the PHQ9 with priority being the question that asks how likely you are to kill yourself. If you’re particularly high risk the MH professional will then go through your protective factors. What is it keeping you alive? You say something like ‘I have these thoughts of ending my life but I would never go through with it because my wife and kids would be devastated.’ I understand why professionals focus on protective factors but I think this approach compounds the problem in many people because it adds a sense of guilt and obligation to what is already going to be a volatile mix of emotions. Throw too much into that mix in someone’s head and sooner or later the tornado’s going to descend. Some people don’t come out of the tornado.

But fine, let’s talk about SSRIs. This is where Hari’s assumptions begin to fall apart. Hari took antidepressants since his teenage years. He writes several times that he researched this book with a mindset that SSRIs work and that he only reluctantly changed his mind after talking to sceptical practitioners and people from different walks of life. I’m afraid I personally don’t believe him on that point, I think he wrote Lost Connections based on the assumptions I listed at the beginning of this post.

Here is Hari’s problem. Practitioners already know that a lot of people are anxious and depressed because they lead sad and difficult lives. A couple of months before his book came out, Financial Times reporter, Sarah O’Connor, visited Blackpool in the UK. Blackpool has some of the highest prescription rates in the country. O’Connor spoke to local GPs about the problem.

Doctors in places such as this have a private diagnosis for what ails some of their patients: ‘Shit Life Syndrome’. [Dr] Rajpura laughs when I mention it. ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that from GPs in Blackpool.’ The term isn’t meant to sound dismissive. People with SLS really do have mental or physical health problems, doctors say. But they believe the causes are a tangled mix of economic, social and emotional problems that they — with 10- to 15-minute slots per patient — feel powerless to fix.

As Burnett says:

Personally, I’d always assumed the role of life events was widely accepted, and has been for decades. In psychiatry/medicine/psychology, this is often known as the Biopsychosocial model, and any decent professional will be very aware of it. Far from being a revelation of Hari’s, it was mooted back in the 70s, and has been part of standard teaching for at least 20 years.

Hari even visits a GP practice in his part of London that has pioneered a ‘social prescribing’ approach where long term patients get together, get to know each other and work to improve the local environment. This stuff works, and Hari could have visited a dozen other GP practices with in house social prescribers who offer 60-minute appointments and can help with housing and financial issues. There is loads that can be done even in hard times but often you’re back to the ten minute triage consult with the GP trying to figure out – is this person going to kill himself and can I stop him? Medicine’s job is to keep you alive and functional. It’s not to unravel the trauma in your soul or give you the secret to eternal happiness – which doesn’t exist, for we’re wired for survival rather than contentment. The NHS struggles even to keep elderly people alive through a hard winter. Medicine’s job is to keep you upright and breathing air. Nothing loftier should be demanded of it.

When I was last in therapy in 2016 my psychologist told me that there are two ways to undergo psychotherapy. You can take a quick fix, fine-tune your mind a little bit and then leave. Or you can deep dive into yourself and find out what it is that’s at the heart of your sickness. There is absolutely no shame, the psychologist told me, in taking option one. Bear in mind that if you’re in front of a therapist you will likely have been triaged and you’re likely at absolute rock bottom. It might have been an epic struggle just to leave the house to get to the appointment. There is no disgrace in taking the easy option of a few sessions to get you functional and working again. It’s okay not to open some doors.

What I want to say is that there are limits to the social model as well as the biochemical model. Imagine you go to the doctor’s again, except instead of GPs, the practice is run by a team of social scientists. If you’re poor and unemployed the social scientist might say: ‘Oh dear, it looks like you have mental illness caused by being a victim of capitalist individualism. Nothing to be done, I’m afraid, we’re stuck with it.’ If you’re an investment banker, the social scientist might say: ‘Oh dear, it looks like you have mental illness caused by becoming too successful in our neoliberal world and therefore you’ve cut yourself off from meaningful experience. No amount of worldly riches will heal your compromised soul. Try zumba classes or something.’

I’m simplifying, but I do feel there are limitations to exploring the social and environmental model of mental distress. It can make you feel helpless, and there is a darker current to thinking of problems in terms of entrenched and powerful systems, as the Trump and Brexit movements have proved. Hari concentrates on diseases of affluence such as obesity and social media burnout but I think in the near future these will give way to the more traditional diseases of want. I think the overavailability of SSRIs is going to be the least of our worries. If you liked neoliberalism, you’ll love nativism.

The very heavy focus on social issues leads Hari into some strange places. He interviews a woman in Arizona who lost her baby during labour. Hari says that the DSM has something called a ‘grief exception’ in which patients can show all the symptoms of depression but not be diagnosed. Then he says the grief exception was dropped in the DSM 2015 version. ‘So now if your baby dies and you go to the doctor the next day and you’re in extreme distress, ‘you can be diagnosed immediately,’ Joanne explained to me.’

Er, I’m not sure. There is always a sense in this book that Hari has not really thought through what he’s saying or really challenged himself with it. He discusses a study at the University of Essex that ‘tracked the mental health of people of more than five thousand households over three years. They wanted to look at two types of household in particular – people who moved from a leafy green rural area to a city, and people who moved from a city to a leafy green rural area.’ And, quelle surprise: ‘the people who moved to green areas saw a big reduction in depression, and the people who moved away from green areas saw a big increase in depression.’ We get depressed when we are cut off from nature.

No doubt that’s true, and well worth mentioning. But you can look at it from another angle. Young people who grow up in the rural leafy green area may be depressed because they don’t fit in to what could be a conservative small community. They will only get better if they move to a cosmopolitan city or somewhere where they feel they can be themselves. Lost Connections has loads of things like this. A month after publication of Hari’s book, the Lancet released a study that claimed that antidepressants were effective in treating major disorders. I don’t know if Hari discussed this on his website or social media at the time but a paperback afterword would have been the ideal opportunity to hit back against his critics and catch up with his interviewees. There’s no afterword. It is a curious omission.

I should declare an interest in all this. I have no clinical or scientific background. I have been fighting mental illness for fifteen years and been on SSRIs for at least ten of those. I’ve been in the tornado. I’ve been sectioned. I am technically disabled under the Equality Act (at least according to an occupational health report I once had). I get anxiety attacks that place significant limitations on what I can do. I can’t get in a moving vehicle. I can’t travel. I walk down to my local cafe bar, a place I’ve been a thousand times, and I’m sitting there with a pot of tea and the newspapers and suddenly I can’t breathe. Why?

I can’t complain though, I do not have ‘shit life syndrome’, I am privileged really, but I’m still getting these attacks. One of the reasons I was curious about Hari’s book was that I’m of the same generation as him and it was interesting to compare our different journeys through life and how we dealt with these significant problems. Hari’s book contains many inspiring moments and genuine psychological insight, and I’ve often thought that despite everything he would have made a good therapist. His chapters on the Berlin rent strike and the Baltimore bike co op are worth reading. So despite everything, I would recommend Lost Connections – with caution, and due diligence, and a small bucket of salt – but first I would recommend other mental health writers, like Emily Reynolds, and Bryony Gordon, and Sara Benincasa, and Elizabeth Wurtzel, and William Styron. I would also strongly advise to think long and hard, and consult a doctor, if you are thinking about stopping your meds.

One thing my therapist suggested to me was to imagine myself with a team of bodyguards who could talk me down from panic attacks. She advised me to make a list of five or six people. They could be people from real life, or fictional characters, or celebrities. The first bodyguard I thought of was Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. It sounds ridiculous when I write it down, but often now when I’m crossing a busy road and feel an attack coming on, I imagine Mike Ehrmantraut standing next to me, and he says: ‘Relax, kid. You’re on the home stretch.’

A Government of Fantasy and Fictions

January 27, 2019

Volker Weidermann’s history of the Bavarian revolution can be read like a novel. Events lead to further events with the seamlessness of great storytelling, and the personalities of the time stand out with a vivid spectral life. When the Writers Took Power begins at the end of a costly and unwinnable war. Soldiers abandoned their barracks, tore off their insignia and marched with professional activists and civilians caught in the rush of the moment. They took the Residence, the military prison, the army HQ, government ministries. A revolutionary council doled out ammunition and sent the mutineers to occupy public buildings. The royal family waited until dusk and fled the city.

The revolution coalesced around a diffident social democrat named Kurt Eisner – a theatre critic, of all things. The poet Oscar Maria Graf recalled that on the night of the takeover Eisner ‘was pale and his expression deadly serious; he didn’t speak a word. It almost looked as if the sudden turn of events had taken him by surprise. Now and then he would stare straight ahead, half fearful and half distracted.’ Eisner wanted a minimum wage, an end to the war, a welfare state and an eight-hour day and was prepared to fight for them.

But he resisted the ideologues far and away who wanted to turn the revolution into a more state-oriented affair along Soviet lines. The Bolsheviks in Weidermann’s account appear as remote and wary figures rather than brothers in solidarity. After Eisner was gone his successor Ernst Toller was in constant conflict with the KPD ideologue Eugen Leviné, who wanted a pure communist rule, complete with expropriations. When Toller raised concerns about the food supply, Leviné told him that ‘they will do what they did in Russia and force the peasants to provide corn and milk by sending troops out to punish those who refuse.’

Eisner was more of a diplomat. He announced to startled activists that he would leave the ministries operating as is, because ‘we do not want to make it harder than necessary for the civil servants, on whose joyful, perhaps relieved support we are relying’. As Weidermann says, the man who had overthrown the Bavarian state now apologised for the temporary inconvenience caused. ‘A prime minister for the people,’ he writes, ‘that’s [Eisner’s] vision, that’s his dream.’

Not to be. Eisner’s fledging programme of ‘permanent democracy’ began to unravel in a matter of weeks: the far left hated him, the far right (already working on its stab-in-the-back myth) hated him more, and the rural population simply did not care, no matter how many earnest delegations Eisner sent their way. (‘I’m sure you’ll do all manner of clever things… but out here no one gives a fig!’ a peasant shouted at Oscar Graf.) In the Landtag elections, Eisner’s party was bulldozed. He won three of a possible 180 seats. And then Eisner did something incredible. He resigned.

In the face of death threats, Eisner reassured a colleague: ‘You cannot avoid an assassination attempt for ever, and after all, I can only be shot dead once’. He refused guards on his journey to the Landtag, where he planned to give his resignation speech… and was shot twice, en route, by a madman named Count Arco. The assassin Count also killed the Prime Minister, and inside the Landtag, a devotee of Eisner shot the SPD’s Ernest Auer, believing him responsible for Eisner’s murder.

‘It is more pleasant not to govern,’ Weidermann writes. ‘These weeks see the arrival of dreamers, winter-sandal wearers, preachers, plant-whisperers, the liberated and the liberators, long-haired men, hypnotists and those who have been hypnotised, dreamers. Anyone coming to this luminous city is themselves illuminated.’ And what creatures emerged from the shadows in the wake of Eisner’s assassination!

As well as the historical celebrities you hope to meet in such accounts (Weidermann weaves into his narrative marvellous portraits of Rilke and Thomas Mann, and brilliant Third Reich diarist Victor Klemperer turns up to report on the revolution) there are more political characters I wasn’t previously aware of. The financial wizard Silvio Gesell, with his theory of ‘free money’, perhaps luxury and fully automated. The job of foreign secretary – People’s Delegate for Foreign Affairs – went to a Dr Lipp. Dr Lipp cut all the phone lines in his office due to a ‘phobia of bells’. He liked telegrams. He sent a lot of telegrams. At one point the telegraph office queried ‘another telegram for the Pope in which Dr Lipp complained that Hoffman, the head of government in exile, has taken the key to his ministry toilet with him to Bamberg, and that the republic is threatened by ‘Noske’s hairy gorilla hands.’ The telegram closes with the line: ‘We want peace for ever’.’

But the time for laughter was ending. Leviné overthrew Toller six days into his rule. ‘Enough of the ‘platitude-politics of the boy Toller’, as Leviné had intoned several days before. We are engaged in real struggles. We can no longer afford to have romantic, peace-loving aesthetes in charge.’ Perhaps to demonstrate such manliness, the new government shut down post and wire services, expropriated food from hotels and restaurants, and banned newspapers. It was not just the communists that wanted to rid Bavaria of its degeneracy. A man named Josef Karl crept into the old Wittelsbach palace during a Red Army parade and found it ‘A real Russian-Galician pigsty… there are a dozen Jews with their girl typists, the latter with their typical Russian hairstyles, cropped hair, voluptuous figures with low necklines and their ‘ankle-length’ skirts cut as short as possible, transparent silk stockings and ten-to fifteen-centimetre heels on their shoes… Yes, these are the people who are shamelessly selling off and sucking dry the poor state of Bavaria… Jewish foreigners with a real criminal aspect are the only ones at home here now.’

Karl’s sentiments – antisemitic, foul, perhaps envious – were not uncommon. Hitler appears in Dreamers, a pretentious young corporal left gas-blind by the war (Weidermann shares a creepy legend that Hitler’s blindness was actually psychosomatic and that he was cured by a psychiatrist who successfully hypnotised him… but forgot to wake him up, alas.) The count who killed Eisner was a member of the mystical far right Thule Society, a precursor to the NSDAP. ‘The Thule Society has no interest in re-establishing the monarchy,’ Weidermann writes. ‘Their goal is to create a German dictatorship and drive all the Jews out of Germany.’ Count Arco was kicked out of the Society when it was discovered he had a Jewish mother. The count wanted to ‘redeem himself’ by killing the Jew Eisner. He served a short sentence for the murder, then returned to a celebratory welcome in his home village: a newspaper reported that ‘Late at night, the young Arco was led into the castle amid cheering, flag-waving and music.’

‘They were entirely unprepared for it all,’ Weidermann writes, ‘after 900 years of the Wittelsbach dynasty, after losing an unloseable war. There were no historical precedents for them to draw on. Direct, permanent democracy; everyone having a say in everything. A government of fantasy and fictions. They wanted the best and created horrors.’ That last line could be the epitaph for so many revolutions: Soviet Russia, Mao’s China and the Venezuela currently imploding under Maduro. And yet… was the German revolution really so bad? For it led to the Weimar Republic, those years of liberty and brotherhood, before the Nazis smashed it (the squabbling German leftists could not even forget their differences to resist Hitler: Luxemburg’s murder cast a long shadow). It’s in human nature to strive for something better especially when you see the poverty and casual cruelty in capitalist societies these days. We are all dreamers, Weidermann says. But reading his book the lure of revolution is more visceral. Reading Weidermann you can smell the cordite and hear the night’s swift footsteps.

Books Do Furnish A Room

January 19, 2019

Marie Kondo says you should only have 30 books at home. I literally have no idea who Marie Kondo is. I know Marie Kondo’s name because she has been quoted all over social media, often by people who don’t understand the full context of her words, saying that you should only have 30 books at home. I can’t really be bothered to watch the Marie Kondo show or read whatever interview where she says you should only have 30 books at home, and I understand that this makes me one of the people who bang on (without understanding the context) about Marie Kondo saying you should only have 30 books at home.

My friend Scout had the best take on this. Scout mocked the sometimes hysterical reactions to Marie Kondo’s point: how can Marie Kondo have only 30 books? Who is this unlettered philistine Marie Kondo? I should simply die if I did not have a house stacked on every available surface with books: Marie Kondo makes me want to drown in a bathtub of books! Scout’s point made me laugh because it touched on the odd fetishism that British intelligentsia has for the physical book.

I remember in the early 2010s people flapped about the impact of e books, and worried that kindles would kill the physical book. That didn’t happen because readers love the physical book. Publishers often (quite reasonably) market books as physical artefacts rather than stories and ideas. In Lena Dunham’s Girls Hannah Horvath is on contract to write an e book. Another publisher offers her a deal to write a physical book. Hannah is a product of the digital age. Yet she accepts the second offer with much more enthusiasm. Why? Because the physical book has authority.

So I can’t really laugh at the twee bourgeois lit world, its cooing and fluttering over the physical book, because I share that fetishism for books as objects and artefacts. My home is full of books. It just happened. My gf says, in jest of course: ‘You have filled our home with books! I feel like they’re closing in on me.’

‘Books do furnish a room,’ I’d say back.

On occasion, when I’m at work, and my gf working from home, she will send me a text with a picture of a box or package that has come in the mail, and ask: ‘Max! Have you been buying BOOKS!?!’

‘Books do furnish a room,’ I text back.

I do try. Sometimes – given energy enough and time – I’ll rearrange the books. I’ll even give books away. I can be stern with myself. I’ll happily give away duplicates, or books that have been discredited, or books that are just plain bad. But then it’s like: if I’ve got two or three of the same book, which edition do I give away? I have a copy of John Cheever’s Falconer which I accidentally ordered in French. I can’t read French so that one should probably go. Still, it’s not a bad looking edition. Also, some books can’t be donated (ask your local charity bookseller how much worthless crap his shop gets in every day). Also, a bad book is as special as a good book. I may need to refer to the bad book in passing at some point, in some customary throwaway witticism. You can see the bind I’m in.

Christopher Hitchens wrote about this, of course much more elegantly than I can, in his short piece ‘Prisoner of Shelves’. He found that despite living ‘in a fairly spacious apartment in Washington, D.C…. for some reason, the available shelf space, which is considerable, continues to be outrun by the appearance of new books. It used to be such a pleasure to get one of those padded envelopes in the mail, containing a brand-new book with the publisher’s compliments. Now, as I collect my daily heap of these packages from my building’s concierge, I receive a pitying look.’

It wasn’t always like this. I’ve lived in my current home longer than I ever lived anywhere since I left my mother’s house (which is, since I come from a family of readers, filled with books). As an adult I mainly lived in rented accommodation, sometimes moving several times a year. I didn’t care much about the physical book then. I remembered Robert Heinlein’s maxim – that you only truly own what you can carry on your back when you’re running from an angry mob. That was my credo then. Still is now to some extent. There’s a feeling when life is well that you’re gonna be hit by catastrophe at any moment. The sound of a plane somewhere, on a summer’s day. You prepare yourself mentally for homelessness and disaster. You’re packing the go-bag in your mind. Or is that just me?

You only own what you can carry on your back, running. You never really own anything. You can’t take it with you, and the world’s a volatile place: for all of us, sooner or later, the great comedy of ownership will end. So it’s kind of ridiculous to fill your house with books. But I don’t care. Why? Because life is impermanent, but clutter is human.

Northern Noir

December 19, 2018

Amazed and delighted to be among ten winners of Bradford Literature Festival’s crime writing competition. It’s only today been announced I think and I’m looking forward to the judges’ feedback, but it’s a fine thing to win and I am very happy to be honoured.