Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Why Conservatives Aren’t Funny

February 16, 2022

Have you heard about the right wing comedy revival? Well, there’s big news: they have thought of a second joke.

Conservatives aren’t funny. We don’t know why. Maybe they are too smart, so their jokes go over our heads. Maybe they have all been cancelled. Conservatives were certainly funny once – literature is full of great satirists like H L Mencken and Saki. But whatever the reason, modern conservativism falls short. The political right isn’t funny, and the death of P J O’Rourke has left it unfunnier still.

In popular culture he represented something very twentieth century Republican, the world of after-dinner remarks and country-club speeches and things jotted on napkins, his books typically found in hotels and B&Bs and in the homes of people who don’t, typically, read for pleasure – between the volumes of Len Deighton and Golfing Nightmares.

But O’Rourke represented something else, as well – the last of a certain kind of Republican, the kind of Republican who was flexible on detail and secure in their beliefs, the kind of Republican that could handle losing a free election, the kind of Republican that could laugh at themselves. 

One critic – I can’t find who – described O’Rourke as ‘a prose comedian’. That is PJ, and it always struck me how careful his prose was for such a supposedly light writer. The many fantastic lines – ‘Hilary, mind your own business. Bill, keep your hands to yourself’, ‘No one has ever had a sexual fantasy about anyone dressed as a liberal’, ‘We’re against gun control. You can shoot us’ – only really make sense in the context of the articles. With PJ there was always a second joke, then a third, and then more.

I also respect PJ because he never followed his fellow conservatives down the road of ruin that led to the Trump administration. He was relaxed about immigration and, in 2016, endorsed Hillary Clinton: ‘Hillary is wrong about everything. She is to politics and statecraft what Pope Urban VIII and the Inquisition were to Galileo. She thinks the sun revolves around herself. But Trump Earth™ is flat. We’ll sail over the edge. Here be monsters.’ It’s hardly a glowing recommendation but if the establishment Republicans had the balls to do likewise, we might have been spared the whole circus. 

If much of PJ’s stuff was about life in general – cars, hunting, family, dogs, etc – that was because he had a life beyond politics, because he had lived. As a young man he threw himself into the counterculture and as a journalist he travelled to what Christopher Hitchens called ‘dangerous and difficult places’ for many years. I think all this experience gave him a sense of perspective other conservatives lack.

To revisit the old joke with which I began this piece. Modern conservatives aren’t funny. Satirists on Spiked, Andrew Doyle, Unherd – they’re not funny. They have too much invested in the culture war, too much to lose, and it shows. Their stuff is embittered and overwrought, and it fails as polemic and as humour. 

The article that most resonates with me was a piece PJ wrote about his childhood – ‘Why I’m Not Afraid of the Dark’: 

My father had died when I was nine, and my mother, a kindly but not very sensible woman, had remarried to a drunken oaf. He was a pestering, bullying sort of man whose favorite subject of derision was my fondness for books.

Young PJ confronted his fear of the darkness when his home environment became so nasty and fraught (‘my stepfather was bellowing threats and the dog was barking and the television was blaring in the background of it all — a scene I still envision whenever I hear the phrase ‘hell on earth”) that he physically had to leave the house, if only to sit for a while in a local park:

I decided darkness must symbolize something more general for me. Evil, I decided. That’s why I imagined monsters in the dark. Monsters are evil because they do evil things, which is what makes them monstrous. But I recognized that as circular reasoning. No, I had to consider what evil really was. Evil was harm and destruction. Murdering people, that was evil, or burning their houses down. These were the sorts of things evil forces might do, the kind of forces that darkness symbolized for me. Such forces might rage into a home like my own and murder one of my sisters or both of my sisters or even my mother and tear the house to pieces, breaking it into little bits and then blowing the ruins to smithereens with nitroglycerin and setting fire to what was left, and then take my stepfather and break both his arms and slice off his feet and poke his eyes out with red-hot staves, disembowel him, skin him alive. And then they’d attack the rest of the neighborhood and the police force and the school and burn and bomb and steal and break everything in that part of Ohio, from the filthy oil refineries on the east side of town all the way to the moldy, boring cottage we rented every summer at the lake. And who knew what such evil forces might do after that? I didn’t. But I sat on the swing set considering suggestions for a very long time. And I have never been afraid of the dark since.

Update: O’Rourke’s friend and colleague Matt Labash has a marvellous long tribute.

The Two Musicians

May 8, 2021

I really must say a few words about Kirstin Innes’s fabulous second novel, Scabby Queen, which I have just got round to reading. It’s about an idealistic Scottish singer who has one big hit – a protest song about the poll tax called ‘Rise Up’ – then spends the rest of her life in activism and low key experimental music. Her first big tour is of Highland towns – ‘Thirty dates, none of them in cities. That’s what makes it revolutionary’ – Oban, Ullapool, Fort William, the kind of towns no London Brexit columnist would be seen dead in.

Clio Campbell is considered D list as a celebrity, but she makes a strong impression on everyone she meets, and her story is told through the perspectives of the people who knew her best – her parents, people who grew up with her, the men she married, the artists she inspired, the activists who shared her squat in Brixton in the 1990s. Innes has a gift for mimicry and epistolary detail, and I particularly liked the op-ed clippings from the right wing newspapers and the music press about her. The very names – ‘John Biddie’ – ‘Pete Moss’ – are a delight. 

Martin Amis writes in his Inside Story that ‘There used to be a sub-genre of long, plotless, digressive, and essayistic novels (fairly) indulgently known as ‘baggy monsters’… For self-interested reasons I like to think this sub-genre retains a viable pulse; but broadly speaking the baggy monster is dead.’ Surely Scabby Queen is a classic baggy monster novel, long and digressive but certainly not plotless: Innes manages to keep an array of characters, cities and timelines going without once losing our attention. It’s a fractured tale, and a great novel about uncertainty, and fractured lives.

Clio’s childhood in industrial Ayrshire is torn between her lazy, irresponsible father Malcolm and her respectable mother Eileen. Her contemporaries follow the rules, keep their heads down and train for jobs that, in the event, vaporise when the industrial base is destroyed in the 1980s. But Innes doesn’t romanticise the road Clio has taken, either. At a squat reunion in 2009, Clio’s old friend Sammi reappraises her activist peers of two decades back: ‘She saw them now, frayed, middle-aged and flustered, people who’d never held down a job, raised a kid, had managed to coast through to their forties and even their fifties on outrage and vim, untroubled by any real responsibility.’ Scabby Queen is not an advertisement for dropping out. 

Her own inspiration is Robert Burns, and I wonder if the whole story is set around this Burns poem, that we hear towards the end of the novel: ‘There was a lass and she was fair,/At kirk or market to be seen;/When a’ our fairest maids were met,/The fairest maid was bonnie Jean. And ay she wrought her Mammie’s wark,/And ay she sang sae merrilie;/The blythest bird upon the bush/Had ne’er a lighter heart than she.’

But the next verse takes a dark turn: ‘hawks will rob the tender joys/That bless the little lintwhite’s nest/And frost will blight the fairest flowers,/And love will break the soundest rest.’ Burns warns that the world breaks people who dare to rise above a certain level of mediocrity, and that’s more or less what happens to Clio. Her world is full of decent people but also hawks, circling the skies, waiting to strike. After her death, her story is rewritten, just as Burns is mainly read in golf clubs and Rotary dinners these days. Innes establishes the erasure of working class women’s stories with more deft and clarity than any contemporary academic discourse. 

Just before an Iraq war demo in 2003, Clio meets her father for the first time in many years. Malcolm is also a musician but not a songwriter: ‘If I’ve learned anything, it’s that people really only want to hear songs they’ve known before…. hear those songs that mean things to them… Och, what’s that word – nostalgia.’

Clio is subdued during this argument. She just says ‘It’s important. Make a big public stand.’ Malcolm, in full wind, goes on to say this:

You can’t stop these bastards from doing what they want to do and hang the ordinary people. It never changes, lass, believe your old father here. You know that. You’re hardly a wee girl now, are you? All the likes of you and me can hope to do is cheer them up with a couple of tunes. That’s why we were put on this earth. That’s our purpose, you and me. You’ve got a God-given gift in that throat of yours, lass – you use that rather than your feet. Sing a song for people and at least you give them some hope.

Clio wants art to be more than that. She wants change, not hope. Who is right in this argument? Should art move the world and change it? Clio’s friends don’t know where the talent and passion ends and the actual person begins. She’s a mystery, and in Scabby Queen there are big plot twists but also the nagging sense that you are not being told the whole story, that there is important stuff we’re not privy to. For how can anyone really know anyone else?

Lives of the Hollow Men

December 26, 2020

There’s an argument I used to have with women writers about how literary fiction is viewed by men and women. A woman can write a deeply profound, well realised novel about family and relationships, women writers would tell me, and it’s dismissed as chick lit or ‘domestic fiction’. But Philip Roth can turn out a dozen books about adultery and critics rave about them, each dashed-off novella is received like it’s the key to all mythologies – life, the universe and everything. This argument never convinced me – I would just say that woman writers can be just as narcissistic and self involved as their male counterparts and that anyway, I’m not interested in reading about family and relationships; I wasn’t really listening. 

Dolly Alderton’s Ghosts showed me just how ignorant I was. It’s a deep, phenomenal novel, that goes to the core of the self. The setup is ordinary. Food writer Nina Dean has changed her life. She has carefully extricated herself from a relationship that has lasted since university, and she has become successful enough at writing to make a real living from it. At thirty two she has everything worked out, but still feels the pressure to catch up.

Most of her friends from youth are now married with children, and moving out of the city. Alderton is great on how it feels when close friends make what seems from the outside like inexplicable overcommitments – marriage, kids, mortgage – and the change that comes over them: it’s like a light goes out of their eyes, they turn from Jack Kerouac’s ‘mad ones’ to hollow men of the suburbs, whispering quietly and meaninglessly about loft conversions and school fees. Nina’s one remaining single ally is the amazing Lola who is vivacious and beautiful enough to attract tons of men but none of them will commit. Lola is a veteran of the app dating world and encourages Nina to set up a profile.

This is where you start to appreciate the precision of Alderton’s prose and the thought she puts into it. Online dating has been written about so many times but Alderton writes it best because she understands the pressure on people to be original, or funny:

There were a number of effete subgenres of language employed by many of the men I spoke to. ‘Good evening to you, m’lady – doth thou pubbeth on this sunny Saturday?’ one asked. ‘If music be the food of love, play on, but if a food writing love both love and music – shall we go out dancing next week?’ another wrote in an incomprehensible riddle… It was a unique style of seduction that I hadn’t come across before – wistful and nostalgic, meaningless and strange. Humourless and impenetrable.

There were the hundreds of men who feigned indifference to being on Linx – some of whom said their friends made them do it and they had no idea why they were there, as if downloading a dating app, filling in a profile with copious personal information and uploading photos of yourself was as easy to do by accident as taking the wrong turning on a motorway. 

But Nina strikes gold on the app. She meets Max who appears to be the perfect gentleman – handsome, outdoorsy, solvent and kind. The two fall for each other headlong into a passionate relationship that lasts for months – until, one day, Max just stops calling. There is a chapter, painful to read, which consists entirely of DMs – Nina sending texts that grow increasingly abject and desperate while Max responds with noncommittal one liners or no response at all. He has ghosted her and the story carries on without him. A heartbroken Nina gets swept up in other lives – her best friend Katherine is having a new baby and her ex Joe is marrying another woman. And the real tragedy of Nina’s life is that her brilliant, erudite, funny father is slowly but surely losing his mind. 

Alderton is a master of pressure and tension. There are scenes where everything on the surface looks fine, but there is that crackle of difficulty between the characters so that you keep expecting something awful to happen. Joe wants Nina to be heavily involved in the wedding for some reason that doesn’t feel healthy. Nina and Lola have to get through the wedding itself plus the hen night – rigorously organised merriment, brittle with social cohesion and careful budgeting. Katherine is so overwhelmed with her toddler plus new baby that she thinks the whole world revolves around herself and her family. At one point, Nina loses her temper with this:

You couldn’t even come to my book launch when I had no family there. You’re my best and oldest friend and not only did you not want to be there, you didn’t even feel a sense of obligation to pretend to want to be there… So you thought you’d go to a party where you could talk about babies and weddings and houses all night. Because not everyone wants to talk about babies and weddings and houses at a book launch.

There is even tension in the scenes with Max – as considerate and engaged as he is, you begin to realise that it’s a curated image: when Nina takes the conversation into places he doesn’t want it to go, the man just shuts down… and you can see that in his head he’s planning his next move. Near the end of the novel, Lola finally gets what looks like a committed boyfriend – Jethro the magician, a brilliantly drawn character, charismatic and entertaining, but it’s another curated image. There is a terrific scene where Nina confronts Jethro at his flat: ‘which was filled with the essential props of a try-hard renaissance man. The exposed-brick wall and original tiles of someone interested in heritage, but only of the building he lived in. Framed Pink Floyd albums, a pasta-making machine…’ Nina asks Jethro hard questions, which he can’t answer (‘I’m just not ready to commit properly yet.’ ‘You’re thirty-six’) and it’s clear that he has no idea how to be around women.

Nina reflects that ‘These men would emerge at some point, full of all the love and care and confidence that had been bestowed upon them over the years, and they might commit to someone. Then, most certainly, another one. Then another one when that one got boring. Their greed would not be satisfied by one woman, by one life. They’d get to lead a great many lives. Life after life after life after life.’ Men like Jethro and Max aren’t just hollow men but almost vampires: they feed off people, move on, they age, but don’t grow. And plenty more of us blunder recklessly into other lives before we understand who we are or what we want. It’s a wonder any woman would give us the time of day. 

Because it’s hard to build a life for yourself, and hard to build a life with other people. The lesson of Alderton’s fine book is that both these things take time, and work, and are worth the effort.

Art Versus Illusions

November 24, 2020

The idea of poets going off to war is always counterintuitive, and of all poets the least warlike must have been E E Cummings. From an early age he possessed endless sympathy. In childhood (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) the sight of cattle led to the abattoir left a huge impact on him: ‘And gradually I realise they’re going ‘to the slaughterhouse’, are being driven to their deaths: I stand hushed, almost unbreathing, feeling the helplessness of a pity which is for some whole world.’ As an old man living on the family farm, he hated having to kill the porcupines that would strip his precious Porter apple trees. If only the porcupines could compromise by just eating the apples, he wrote, and not shredding the tree, it would save him from this evil duty (‘I inspected my victim:no,he was not dead;but terribly wounded,unable even to move’… ‘So far as I’m concerned,porcupines could eat apples forever’.)

Cummings enlisted as an ambulance man and left for Europe in April, 1917. He volunteered with numerous Harvard friends but became closest to a man named W Slater Brown. The twosome were near inseparable and carried their artistic temperaments into the warzone. J Alison Rosenblitt writes that ‘Cummings disliked the ‘typical’ and boorish Americans with whom he was posted, and he and Brown socialised mostly with the French… and they spent a portion of their free time at a cafe favoured by French soldiers, the poilus, where they traded gossip and songs.’ One time the French soldiers asked the two Americans to sing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’; although they only knew the chorus, Cummings simply made up the verses, and they rhymed. When the two men were thrown into military prison in Noyon, they were able to communicate by whistling Petrushka – ‘one of the avant-garde ballets which he and Brown had seen together in Paris… He returned the whistle, and then so did Brown, and so on for half an hour. It was an efficient signal.’ At times the book feels like the war diaries of Frasier and Niles Crane. 

Oh, what a lovely war, then? Not at all. For all the laughter and gallivanting around in Paris (Rosenblitt does her best to rescue Cummings’s formative lover, Marie Louise Lallemand, from the condescension of previous biographers) this story of Cummings and Brown is a bleak story in a bleak part of history. The Blackadder view of WW1 as a pointless slaughter is simplification. And yet. In 1916, Rosenblitt writes, ‘The German offensive at Verdun and the French counterattack lasted from February to November. The Germans sustained casualties of over 300,000 and cost the Allies the same. Meanwhile, on the British section of the front, the offensive at the Somme in the summer of 1916 led to more than 400,000 British casualties and more than 200,000 German casualties.’ 900,000 lives. 

With the war at a deadly stalemate, authorities on both sides focused on civilian and military attitudes. If only soldiers had the right kind of fighting spirit, the belief went, all would be well. Rosenblitt writes that ‘insistence on the importance of morale became all the more attractive as a means of denying the new realities of artillery firepower and clinging to the belief that victory came out of – and therefore also proved – the moral superiority of a nation.’ In this context, Brown’s anarchic spirit proved critical. He was more impulsive and headstrong than Cummings and his letters home, in which he wrote of French atrocities in a wry and detached tone (‘The priest then pulled out 18 ears which he had in his pocket and proved it…. This incident only proves to what a state of bravery and self sacrifice war leads men’) led to his arrest. The unit commander saw an opportunity to get rid of two subversives for the price of one and implicated Cummings as well, so both Americans were packed off to the military prison complex. 

The descriptions of prison life at La Ferté-Macé are horrible even for a Great War history. The guards had been kept out of the war because of physical or mental invalidies; feeling the stigma of not fighting in hyper-patriotic France, they took out their feelings of inadequacies on the prisoners. Cummings recalled a guard, notorious for petty sadism, jumping out at a queue of female prisoners, on the daily slop-out: ‘And I saw once a little girl eleven years old scream in terror and drop her pail of slops,spilling most of it on her feet;and seize it in a clutch of frail child’s fingers,and stagger,sobbing and shaking,past the Fiend… never in my life before had I wanted to kill to thoroughly extinguish and to entirely murder.’

Cummings felt protective of this girl – ‘the helplessness of a pity which is for some whole world’ – but he was not a sentimentalist or a coward. He and Brown bore their imprisonment with fortitude, and seem to have been respected by other inmates. What impressed me also about Cummings was his practicality. After his own release from prison, he immediately set about securing the release of Brown, who had been moved on to a jail in Précigné. By this point Brown’s family in America had kicked off; relatives wrote to the State Department, enlisted the help of lawyers and senators, but Brown’s relatives did not find out the whole story of the case and their letters were muddled. Cummings – at this point an ex convict in Paris – went straight to the secretary of the US embassy in Paris, a man named Wiley, and argued that Brown’s subversive offences were on account of his youth and temperament and should be forgiven. It worked: Brown too was released. Cummings succeeded where the lawyers and senators had failed, because he knew the right person to go to, and what representations to make. Rosenblitt writes: ‘If it had not been for Cummings and Mr Wiley, Brown would clearly have remained in prison until the end of the war and could have died there.’

‘Still others did not find out until after the fighting had ceased that what they had taken for reality was illusion,’ Cummings wrote in his 1927 essay ‘Armistice’. He goes back to this: ‘war calls upon most human beings to sacrifice their happiness in exchange for the most temporary of illusions.’ Illusions. That’s what comes up so often in this history, this tangle of generals and diplomats and bureaucrats that the poets blundered into – the desire of authorities to shape public perception of the war, and strength of feeling about it. Rosenblitt makes the case for Cummings as a populist poet. It is his commitment to plain truth as well as beauty that makes him one.

Michael Mullan Cancer Fund

November 23, 2020

My story, ‘Aunt Krang’s House’, won the Michael Mullan Cancer Fund award earlier this month. (You can also listen to Mike Higgins’s reading of it on the vimeo award roll, about 15:40 minutes in.)

Michael himself is a brilliant young man from Kildare, who won a scholarship to Harvard Law. Michael was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at sixteen months old, was successfully treated but as a young adult developed renal cell cancer, requiring a partial nephrectomy carried out on his 22nd birthday. Four months after beginning his studies at Harvard, Michael developed mestastasised renal cell cancer. Despite being on chemotherapy, he graduated from Harvard Law in 2017.

In Michael’s own words:

At our first meeting with Dr Choueiri, days before my 24th birthday, I was told I had six months to live. At the age of 24, despite having had cancer twice before, I had never really thought about my mortality.

I was left wondering what I would do for the last six months of my life, should I stay in Boston and try fight the cancer or simply accept the fact that I had limited time and make the most of my last six months on earth?

I quickly decided that I would fight this cancer to the bitter end and not let it beat me. I had beaten it twice before, why not a third time?

My treatment has the potential of giving me the chance to have a somewhat normal life and allowing me to generate legal and social change through my academic work.

However, my doctors have advised me that I need to stay in the US in order to keep the cancer at bay. Sadly, there are no options for me in Ireland.

Medical costs in the US are extremely high. While my medical insurance covers part of the cost, there are still substantial fees not covered.

If there is one thing I have learned throughout my cancer experience it is that there should never be a price put on someone’s life, but for me that’s my reality.

My family, friends and community in Kildare are coming together to fundraise these much needed funds. I am forever grateful for all those who have supported me and continue to do so, in particular my girlfriend Mel.

Michael has gone through life experiences that would break most people. If you are able to donate towards his costs, please consider doing so

You can get updates on Michael Mullan’s treatment and fundraising on his Facebook page.

The Hungry Ghost Festival

May 24, 2020

‘My dislike of the city was almost violent, something I had never encountered elsewhere,’ writes Felicia Nay about Hong Kong. ‘If somebody had predicted that one day I would write a novel born out of nostalgia for it, I would have doubted the person’s sanity.’

Nay’s experiences seem remote from what would eventually become Red Affairs, White Affairs‘My room had no windows, the door was secured by an immense gate, the TV ads consisted of warnings against violent crime and HIV infections, and I had no bottled water.’ This is a way off her narrator Reini’s journey in the novel. Reini’s Hong Kong is about staggering views, sensual meals, long conversations, splendid ritual, tours of gorgeous landscapes – truly ‘Fragrant Harbour, Incense Port, Pearl of the South China Sea.’

Still, the happiness of the city is tempered by Reini’s knowledge of its delineations. Her role as an aid worker is very well defined by the faith based charity that employs her. When Reini gives a talk at an upscale women’s function her listeners only want to know ‘So, do you have a maid?… Why don’t you want one?… My helper feeds seven persons in the Philippines with her salary. She puts her children through school with my money.’

Reini loses patience with this, and says:

You think you’re good employers? Maybe you are. Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. According to our surveys, seventy-five percent of domestic workers work fourteen hours day. And all of them have to play by the rules of the system…. A system where losing your job means losing your visa and losing your home. And these are the good moments. The post-colonial, no, the proto-colonial moments…. The moments when the air conditioning is turned on for the master’s dog but never the maid… In the bad moments—and I get to work with the bad moments, remember—it’s modern slavery…. It starts with withheld wages and confiscated passports, wrongful promises by employment agencies and employers.

Reini can’t help break the rules. The novel takes its title from a traditional delineation. ‘White is the colour of death. Red, on the other hand, is auspicious, the glaze of happiness, the hue of protection. Red affairs are weddings, that lucky joining of two individuals, two families.’ Reini (or ‘Kim’) blurs the divisions without meaning to. She has lost her previous post in Khartoum for an act of altruism that her employers found inappropriate. Her best friend in the city is Virginia, a lonely woman who teaches her Cantonese. She has inherited her family’s disappointment by remaining unmarried, and her passages are some of the saddest in the book. Reini sees how a rule bound life has let Virginia down. Assigned back to casework after her angry speech at the woman’s function, Reini befriends Ronda, one of Hong Kong’s unseen army of domestic workers, and tries to fix the two women up. The transgressions feel vague but they are there.

As Isabel Costello says, Reini is ‘intense company, occasionally at the expense of narrative drive’. Her feelings, drives, sensations dominate the novel, whenever she’s eating, exercising, or blushing, you feel it. Reini also has a habit of reading strange portents into everyday occurrences: she’s forever quoting Emily Dickinson (so much like Chinese dynastic poetry, now that I think of it, with its blunt sensuality) and while this is clunky sometimes, maybe it’s the sort of thing you’d have to know Hong Kong at that period to understand. (The time frame is another vague thing, there’s no mention of the civil unrest of 2019.)

The book also gives terrific insight into Cantonese views of life and death: dying unmarried and childless is a sin for women because there will be no one to look after them in the afterlife, when people die they can become ancestors, but that’s the best case scenario – those who die of accidents or suicide haunt the earth as ghosts. Virginia has a neighbour who keeps a live chicken in her flat. She theorises that the rooster is her ‘ghost husband… Maybe they were engaged and then he died.’

Red Affairs, White Affairs is a strange, sometimes maddening novel, but in its way it’s a masterwork of sense and sensuality. There’s not a story there in the linear way I understand it, but a vivid, seamless rush of impressions and images like the view from some fast-flowing river, in high current.

Mental Health in Lockdown

May 8, 2020

There is a tendency in political commentators to support, near uncritically, the government’s COVID-19 lockdown, to hit hard at the lockdown’s few dissenters, and to downplay adverse consequences of the lockdown. Oliver Kamm’s latest article for Cap-X isn’t coming from what I call ‘Gov.Uk Twitter’ but it shades into that sensibility at times. His bold claim is that ‘The critics of the lockdown in Britain typically stress not only the immense costs to the economy of current policies but also the psychological toll of keeping people isolated. That objection is wrong.’

When Kamm talks about mental illness he speaks with authority. He suffered from clinical depression, and was also targeted by political nuts online, who sought to intimidate and psychologically break him. So this para is not throat clearing: I have respect for Kamm but I believe (respectfully) that he is wrong in this case.

Kamm does acknowledge potential harms of the lockdown, and the questions of privilege that run through it: he concedes that ‘low mood is what you’d expect when we can’t visit our friends or loved ones, engage in normal recreation, or even just change the scenery by getting on a train. It will particularly affect those who live in cramped or substandard accommodation, without access to green spaces, and in dysfunctional or abusive domestic relationships.’

Keeping ourselves sane, however, ‘will require challenging two myths that are incompatible but that perversely give sustenance to each other.’ For his myths, Kamm picks two bad takes on mental health and society – the callous cod libertarianism of the dimwitted Spiked Online crew, and the argument of the 2010s left that capitalism fries our brains by keeping us poor, or by making us rich. These are indeed stupid takes that reading about mental health you will encounter.

Once the straw men have been bundled back into the haybarn, however (Kamm quotes a Laurie Penny column going back to 2015) what exactly is Kamm’s advice? It is Gov.UK Twitter advice: ‘Following the advice of PHE to stay in touch with people, to support others, to look after your physical wellbeing and to take time to focus on the present will make our society as well as ourselves more resilient in dark times.’ Of course, Kamm concedes again, ‘while the habits recommended by PHE can make you more resilient against mental illness, resilience itself is not a remedy for those who have depressive disorders.’

For depression, Kamm recommends cognitive behavioural therapy: ‘A stressful event, such as bereavement or the breakup of an important relationship, can stimulate a self-reinforcing chain of negative thoughts and stress. CBT works to correct these disorders of thought. It is cheap for the health service to provide and has a record of success.’ The therapy is particularly useful in lockdown as you will be able to do it online.

But chances are, you know what CBT is – because it’s everywhere. Employers use it, jobcentres use it, it’s a tool that’s been proven useful so naturally organisations see it as the go to and cure all. But CBT is just that – one tool in the box – it’s not necessarily going to work on its own and it’s not going to work for everyone. Individuals are complex. Different tools and methods are needed.

Say you have a recurring, intrusive thought – ‘I am going to die of the coronavirus.’ You lose sleep, have panic attacks, become low and afraid. A CBT practitioner will help you develop counterpoints to that bad thought, such as:

  • I am catastrophising – the worst thing doesn’t always happen
  • I practice social distancing – I am doing everything I should to avoid catching the virus
  • Even if I get the coronavirus – I probably won’t die

The problem is – in many people the more you engage with irrational intrusive thoughts the more these thoughts will dominate your mental landscape. You are wandering deeper into the woods, and looking inward rather than outside at the wider world. That’s a particular danger during the pandemic when we are encouraged to be agoraphobics in the home and OCD outside it.

The mind is amazing but most of the stuff it throws up is not relevant or even interesting. It’s best to take a step back from your own thought processes and treat the mind as a fast-flowing river that carries everything quickly downstream. Being in the present, and the wider world, is the way forward.

Of course – I am no clinician – CBT may work very well in the majority of people. But rolling out CBT barely made a dent in the mental illness epidemic under the austerity years of the 2010s. Most people supported austerity when it came in ten years ago, just as most people support lockdown today. But it is not easy to function under conditions of austerity. Weeks turn into months, and resilience ebbs.

In Life After Dark, social historian Dave Haslam wrote that ‘The bouyant demand for literary and other sorts of festivals and for live music suggest that face-to-face, primary experiences and social occasions have virtues the virtual world lack.’ Primary experience keeps us sane. Restricting it can only do psychological harm.

This is not the place for a critique of the lockdown. It may well be right and necessary. But I would like some acknowledgement that even if it is the best policy it will have adverse consequences. And one of those consequences will be an impact on mental health.

Captain Trips

March 12, 2020

Everyone wants you to be worried. And indeed there’s a lot to be worried about. I particularly feel for older people and people who have respiratory problems. A public health professional I chatted to on Twitter told me that for people in that situation, the idea of losing a breath is terrifying – of fighting, struggling for breath. I can’t imagine.

My point is only that being anxious is not the same as being careful. Anxiety is not a constructive condition. The redundancy and the harm of anxiety is compounded in this instance by the fact that there is only so much that you as an individual can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – beyond hand hygiene and consideration, which we should be doing anyway. The micromanagement of personal behaviour is finite.

So the question becomes what others should be doing. Government is throwing money at the virus – fair enough, we need more money for NHS response. Employers should let people work from home – sure, but our work culture of presenteeism makes that a hard sell. There are all kinds of tools like Skype to make public obligations like court hearings or occupational health interviews quicker and easier, but they’ve never been used – people are expected to travel halfway across the city for some mandatory training course or trek between counties to visit one of our few remaining public utilities. Maybe corona will help us overcome entrenched compulsory meeting culture, maybe it won’t. And it will also be a hard sell for the state to look after the gig economy workers who don’t get paid if they don’t show up – whatever the reason.

All this is a big ask for UK public sector. There are people who want the state to do yet more things. Dr Jenny Vaughan, law and policy lead for Doctors UK, discovered this when she called in to Love Sport talk radio. The presenters had been complaining about a news report saying that retired doctors would not be happy to come back to work in a crisis. Vaughan made the points that most of these doctors are completely burned out after many years in stressful frontline culture, that many bureaucratic and occupational hoops would need to be jumped through to get back to the frontline, and that as retired people tend to be old, the doctors would be more at risk. No dice. ‘Absolute nonsense!’ said the presenters. ‘Get rid of her.’

Then last night, Piers Morgan complained that ‘1000s of Atletico Madrid fans are in Liverpool – despite their own city being in virtual lockdown, INCLUDING their own matches, because Madrid’s been ravaged by Coronavirus (782 cases, 35 deaths). This is total madness. What the hell is the British Government doing????’ Piers is an easy target of course but he represents something sinister in the national corona worry – not just anxiety but the demand that Something Must Be Done: to be given stuff, or for the state to do stuff to other people.

I apologise for what will seem a flippant tone to this post. Do I come off as the lazy sceptic who assumes that nothing bad will ever happen? I’m not – I love my life and live partly in fear and vigilance that someone or something might try and take it from me. National events do worry me. My point is that it is not clear that China or Italy style lockdowns (or Trump’s travel ban that Piers Morgan is so fond of) has been effective in fighting the virus, or that such measures should be imported to England. I know I’m an uninformed layman, but come on, what happened to the good old British devil-may-care insouciance in the face of disaster?

The philosopher Kenan Malik saw all this coming, back in early February. He argued that state based cures can sometimes be worse than the disease:

In 2009, the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic caused up to 550,000 deaths and, like the coronavirus, was declared a global health emergency. In Mexico, where the virus was first detected, the government shut schools and businesses, banned public gatherings and imposed quarantines. These moves helped limit new cases of H1N1, but were abandoned after 18 days, partly because of the huge social and economic costs they imposed. Although between 4,000 and 12,000 died from the outbreak in Mexico, the cost of preventing it spreading further was seen as greater than the cost wreaked by the virus itself.

When some West African states imposed cordons sanitaires to seal off large areas during the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic, tens of thousands were left starving, leading to mass violence. Quarantines have their place in the medical toolkit, but demonstrating you’re in control may not be the best way of tackling an epidemic.

The authorities want to transmit other messages, too. There is no medical reason for Australia to quarantine its nationals returning from Wuhan on Christmas Island, 2,000 miles from the mainland. But it is making a point. For years, Canberra has incarcerated undocumented migrants in ‘offshore’ camps. ‘You will not sully Australian soil’ is the message. It’s the same message about those who might be infected with the coronavirus.

For all that we should take care, and be aware of the seriousness of the pandemic, it doesn’t hurt to learn from the history of such things.

Update: Mind have useful guidance on corona and mental health, plus links to NHS advice.

Caroline Flack and The Conversation

February 21, 2020

One of the best essays on mental health in recent years was from the Guardian journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson. Parkinson has been through the psychological mill, and has the scars to prove it. In 2018, she summed up a contemporary commonplace on the subject.

In recent years the discussion around mental health has hit the mainstream. I call it the Conversation. The Conversation is dominated by positivity and the memeification of a battle won. It isn’t a bad thing that we are all talking more about mental health; it would be silly to argue otherwise. But this does not mean it is not infuriating to come home from a secure hospital, suicidal, to a bunch of celebrity awareness-raising selfies and thousands of people saying that all you need to do is ask for help – when you’ve been asking for help and not getting it. There is a poster in my local pharmacy that exclaims, ‘Mental health can be complex – getting help doesn’t have to be!’ Each time I see it, I want to scream.

Parkinson’s point was that attitudes have changed for the better while the practical reality of treatment – appointments, clinics, beds, medications – has got worse.

When the news came last weekend that Caroline Flack had killed herself I expected the reactions to be sophisticated. I was drinking red wine and reading Robert Caro on LBJ – on a Saturday night, rock and roll, yeah? – and between chapters I would glance at my social media to keep up with the conversation.

And I am afraid that what I saw was one of the biggest piles of horseshit that I have witnessed in liberal left discourse.

These are a few examples.

I had no idea who Caroline Flack was until she died and read the about the hounding she got in #TheScum. Can we create #CarolinesLaw to stop the press abuse of people who have done no harm to anyone? Maybe call it #AmysLaw? Before it’s too late for Meghan.

The press hounded Princess Diana. After her death, we said it would never happen again. Then others. They splashed Amy Winehouse’s suffering across front pages. Meghan has been so attacked she had to leave. Our society hunts women down for kicks and can’t seem to stop.

Faceless keyboard warriors hounded her to her death – I know about this stuff after 8 years of abuse whilst trying to do my job & the devastating impact it has on your mental health. Life is precious & we are here too short a short time to waste it hating

You will think I’m being harsh – but consider. These aren’t just Twitter randos. They have large followings. And they wrote these takes on Saturday. No time to reflect or digest the news. No thought. I have not linked to them because I don’t want to embarrass the tweeters – but the takes are real.

And subsequent days have not matured the conversation. We have had press boycotts, calls for Leveson part two, further regulation of journalists, lectures against the evils of social media. The Society of Editors protested that ‘it is wrong to blame the media for [Flack’s] decision without knowing the facts. Indeed, the Samaritans guidance on reporting suicides makes clear that speculation over causes or presumptuous explanations often oversimplify the complex reasons behind an individual’s decision to end their life.’ Too late. Flack had already been enlisted in the service of a number of ailing liberal left culture war industries, from the Hacked Off brand to the Big Tech temperance movement. (On a lighter note, bookshops gave away copies of Matt Haig’s memoir to anyone who asked – because the Kübler-Ross model of woke grief is basically ‘shock… outrage… virtue signalling… Matt Haig’.)

Jim Waterson pointed out that ‘for all the public’s anger at celebrity news outlets whom many are blaming for hounding a woman to her death, privately people are flocking to tabloid sites to read every possible detail about her.’ It’s an irony that feeds into the creepy mythos that sometimes surrounds celebrity deaths, particularly of women. It’s not enough to say the paparazzi killed Diana, or Facebook killed Caroline. It’s the idea that we killed Caroline and Diana, that it’s our sins and prurience that killed them. It’s a horrible, reducing myth, that turns human beings into martyrs. And it is more misogynistic than the tabloids could ever get away with being.

The dead deserve better than this. So do the living. Philip Roth’s words have never been more true. ‘All that we don’t know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing.’

Caroline Flack, 1979-2020. (Image: BBC)

The Horse and the Man

February 2, 2020

There’s an episode of South Park where the town is shocked to hear that rival cartoon Family Guy are planning to show an image of the prophet Mohammed in their next episode. Cartman sets off to the studio to get the show shut down – not because he respects Islam or fears terror attacks, but simply because he dislikes the programme’s writing style. In an angry tirade he declares:

Do you have any idea what it’s like? Everywhere I go, ‘Hey Cartman, you must like Family Guy, right?’ ‘Hey, your sense of humor reminds me of Family Guy, Cartman.’ I am NOTHING like Family Guy! When I make jokes, they are inherent to a story! Deep, situational and emotional jokes based on what is relevant and has a POINT! Not just one interchangeable joke after another!

When al-Qaeda threaten retaliation, their spokesman criticises Family Guy in much the same tones that Cartman does. ‘Family Guy isn’t even that well written,’ says a scary-looking terror boss. ‘The jokes are interchangeable and usually irrelevant to the plot.’

Both these criticisms was South Park’s way of saying that the animation genre was running out of steam. We all remember watching Simpsons on BBC2 in the evenings but now this type of thing doesn’t have the same impact – although I still get belly laughs from Archer, King of the Hill and South Park.

Yet something different is happening with Bojack Horseman. It’s about a lazy, irresponsible Hollywood celebrity who drinks too much and just doesn’t care, the first few episodes are clever and funny but predictable, but around halfway through season one you start noticing things.

One aspect critics picked up on was the show’s eerie prescience. The 2017 Oscars farce when Faye Dunaway read off the wrong name mirrored a previous episode in which Bojack’s friend Mr Peanutbutter the celebrity dog is supposed to host the Oscars but he loses the list of winners and simply makes them up, getting several wrong. And the episode ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ underscored America’s acclimatisation to horrific gun violence to the extent that the phrase – perfunctorily reiterated by J K Simmons’s weathered film exec Lenny Turtletaub whenever a shooting occurred – has become shorthand for ineffective symbolic gestures in the face of preventable atrocities. (The line is even used in Don Winslow’s The Border when the bad guys are planning out the aftermath of a targeted assassination.)

There’s plenty more subtle stuff going on in the background. Bojack’s Hollywood is a city of man and beast, but the animals aren’t just humanised animals. They act like real animals. A woodpecker drills through his restaurant table, debutante horses dressage through a tony ballroom, and Bojack even helps a male seahorse give birth (‘yes, it’s a thing!’) Guest characters from one episode recur and recur through the series, glimpsed on sets and at parties: Lisa Hanawalt’s deft busy scenes ensure that we care about the little people in Bojack’s life even though Bojack never does.

Upfront is Bojack’s psychodrama and it doesn’t take long for the show to uncover his own formative demons. Bojack’s father was an narcissist, alcoholic and failed author, who like all narcissists rejects his son because he will never provide the true reflecting pool of himself that the narcissist craves. (The dad Butterscotch has a brilliant toxic masculine death – he’s killed in a duel with a book reviewer who criticised Butterscotch’s only published novel.) With no positive male influence to lean on, the boy Bojack becomes a huge fan of Secretariat – in this world, another hybrid celebrity horse. There is a moving scene, written from different angles over two episodes, where Secretariat in a chat show appearance reads out a letter from then nine year old Bojack and gives some advice on how Bojack can make his way in the world. But Bojack never hears of what Secretariat has to say because his parents start one of their predictable arguments and drown out the TV with yelling. Secretariat himself commits suicide soon afterward.

Bojack has come a long way since childhood – he has got rich from silly 1990s sitcom ‘Horsin’ Around’, he has a luxury home in the hills, while he doesn’t have a wife or family he can find sex and companionship any time he wants it. As Mr Peanutbutter says – in a rare moment of fury – ‘What more do you want? What else could the universe possibly owe you?’ In the first episode Bojack starts having panic attacks, and a doctor tells him to take it easy. To Bojack’s agent Princess Carolyn this advice is meaningless – Bojack does nothing but take it easy. So what’s causing the attacks? Bojack is in his fifties but doesn’t seem to fear old age or death, it’s not that he’s ashamed of the stupid commercial hit that made his name, in fact he’s proud of it, he feels that he delivered a great escapist comedy that would make people laugh and forget their aches and cares for a while. It often seems that Bojack is looking for that uncomplicated and predictable happiness of a half-hour’s good television.

Midway through the show develops its central theme of masculinity and its consequences. Bojack does a film tribute to his male role model Secretariat then moves on to a hardboiled cop show written – in a brilliant sendup of the auteur showrunner – by the obnoxious and self obsessed Flip McVicker. As Bojack goes on he accumulates more and more ghosts: the people he’s let down start to haunt his present, from the Horsin’ Around mentor who died of cancer to the ex colleague Sarah Lynn who overdosed on heroin under his care. Bojack is masculine but not toxic, even when he’s an asshole he’s warm and entertaining to be around, but as the show incorporated the real life MeToo events you’re constantly on edge for Bojack’s own reckoning.

One thing creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg empathised in the show was the importance of personal responsibility. At the end of season three Bojack’s sidekick Todd – voiced by Aaron ‘Pinkman’ Paul – finally tires of Bojack’s selfishness and rants:

You can’t keep doing this! You can’t keep doing shitty things and then feel bad about yourself as if that makes it okay! You need to be better!

No! No, BoJack, just… Stop. You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol, or the drugs, or any of the shitty things that happened to you in your career or when you were a kid. It’s you. Alright? It’s you.

Neither of them speak for a moment, and we’re taking in the trashed apartment, the words that can’t be taken back, and Todd adds: ‘Fuck, man…What else is there to say?’ Credits roll on a scene just as powerful as Paul ever did with Bryan Cranston, if not more.

All this is heavy going for a cartoon, and there’s times you think you’re in a graphic novel written by John Cheever, even F Scott Fitzgerald. The novel has abandoned this whole subject of life and death and happiness and responsibility, but apparently we still want to see it on TV, in particular a TV show about a talking horse.

Numerous episodes take the form of hallucinations experienced by characters in the throes of a drug binge or mental degeneration, and there is one – screening this weekend, if you’ve seen it you’ll know – that happens in purgatory. The cold tragedy of these moments can be a hard watch. Perhaps better than other artists, the comic animator has the skill to portray the finality of things broken that won’t be fixed, things done and said that can’t be undone or taken back, and the terrifying separation between human beings.

As against that there’s a warmth and essential goodness to the show, expressed in the wonderful set piece episodes: the comic funeral eulogy of ‘Free Churro,’ the quiz battle ‘Let’s Find Out,’ the multiple Halloween narratives of ‘Mr Peanutbutter’s Boos’ and the underwater odyssey of ‘Fish Out of Water’. All of it makes this a programme its hapless hero would love to have created – something that makes us laugh and forget our cares, even as it tells us how hard it is to be a horse, and a man.