Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Mental health update

I've had my worst day in some time, since my time off work last year. After returning to work on progressive hours to get me back into the flow, I was finding full time too much; the energy it takes to get through the work, of focusing and the performance of dealing with clients and colleagues, of worrying whether I am up to doing this or should even be trying, was just leaving utterly drained. Outside of work I hardly had the energy or inclination to do anything at all.

So, I requested reduced hours, backed by my manager. After initially trying to fob me off with half-hour shorter days, that would have been no help at all, I've gone to a four-day week of normal shifts. I'm only a month and a half in, but I can tell it's helping; the three day break gives me time to recuperate, so it doesn't just feel like a downward spiral from which I'll never recover. I'm beginning to gain the energy to do things out of work, although it takes a hell of a lot of effort.

There are still some really hard days, of course. It's not unusual to have a workday where I feel like I'm struggling early on, where I'm having trouble drowning out the thoughts that I just can't do this and You're fighting an uphill battle that you're going to lose anyway, so why not save the effort? but I push through this and it tends to settle down and I actually end with something of a sense of achievement.

Monday was one of these. Right from the start I knew it was going to be tough; I was having problems focusing and felt outside myself and wanted to give up, but stuck with it until these feeling subsided, and it was a good day. On Tuesday I was fine, hammering away at the coalface and getting lots done. In retrospect, perhaps I was having a little trouble concentrating at times, but that might be entirely post hoc. Suddenly, right after a phone call with a client - which was lovely, no issues at all - it was like being hit by a freight train. The volume level in the office had risen suddenly, as it sometimes does, but it seemed so loud I could hardly breathe. Everyone seemed to be shouting into their phones or across the office to each other. I was having trouble writing up my notes, the world spinning around me. I actually thought I was going to throw up.

I managed to finish my notes and practically sprinted away from my desk. I just needed to be somewhere away, somewhere quiet. I locked myself away in one of the disabled toilets - a room instead of cubicles, and there's nobody in our organisation that would be more inconvenienced by me blocking this than any other loo.

And I couldn't leave. I just had to sit there, on the floor, trying to gather myself. Not even gather my thoughts; when this hits it feels like a tornado in my head, everything whirling around so much that I am aware that thoughts are there but they just flash past like snowflakes, barely visible as individual things, never mind graspable.

I must have been there for 45 minutes, by which time it was lunch so I walked around in the fresh air and winter sun for half an hour, went into Waterstones, although I have no idea what I looked at.

Back at my desk, I was aware I was away from the phones for the rest of the afternoon - admin and casework I could do at my own pace, but I found myself just staring at the screen. I couldn't make sense of anything. Not like I imagine severe dyslexia or alexia is - I could read the words, but just couldn't hold any meaning in my head. What was I meant to be doing?

Even though the office had quieted and it had been almost two hours since I left my desk, I knew I really couldn't do this. The inner voice was right. My manger was away from his desk and the deputy manager seemed in high demand elsewhere - besides, he didn't know about it and I felt suddenly so embarrassed, and didn't feel it was worth troubling him. I just wanted to slip quietly out, but some part of me knew I couldn't so I sent a quick email to the boss - I'm sorry, I'm really struggling today I can't do this. I need to go. I'm sorry - turned off my PC and left.

I jumped on my bike and took a circuitous route home to try to clear my head. I curled up in bed for awhile, in the warm womb-like comfort of the duvet. It was a nice afternoon and I'd thought to go for a run, the rhythm and exertion and serotonin release of running is one of the was I keep going, but I was so tired I could hardly move. I felt drained, probably not more drained than I ever have but that bone-deep weariness which, like severe pain or cold, is difficult to comprehend if you've never felt it or to remember accurately when you have.

This morning I slept through my alarm (although I'd only slept fitfully during the night, I vaguely remember rising enough from slumber to silence my phone) and woke again after 8.30. I'm not sure whether I'd planned on not going in, but that sealed it, so I texted my manager an apology and curled back up, trying to ignore the light of day. Tomorrow would be the last day of my working week, I guess I'll just have to take it as it comes.

Review: Dirk Gently season 1

I’ve just watched the first series of Netflix’s Dirk Gently, and I enjoyed it a great deal.


But I have many problems with it. Let’s start with the positives. Some good performances, nice script (way better than the Will smith movie Bright, that Max Landis also wrote), along with lots of wackiness and a good plot, which reflect the source material, along with a violence and darkness that doesn’t necessarily, but was well handled. I really loved Bart the Holistic Assassin, superbly portrayed by Fiona Dourif.

And, I confess, most of my problems are in other ways that the series diverges from the Douglas Adams books on which it is loosely based, so can be viewed as purist ire which I am not denying.

The first is actually fairly minor, in the annoyance level anyway. The character of Dirk Gently is played wonderfully by Samuel Bennett as an wide-eyed innocent, socially inept almost to the level of autism (although the innocence part is slightly punctured at the very end). This is so very at odds with the character as written I found it to be quite jarring - a problem I recognise someone not coming to the show via the books wouldn’t have. Adams’ books have Dirk as an amoral, conniving - if charming - huckster - saved by the fact that his madcap theories of Holistic Detection actually work out (mostly), but who is nonetheless entirely in it for the money and seems to take pleasure in conning people. I can see why here they went for the safer option, but it does take away from the depth somewhat.Some of this amorallity was transferred to the sidekick - but, even then, only as something in his past which became a rather sick-making and obvious moment of character growth, completely with strings in the background music.

Another divergence is to make Gently’s powers, well, almost like a superpower while In the books (I am sorry, I know I shouldn’t compare different media) it is a talent he has that he can more-or-less stumble onto the right thing. I know that sounds like a minor change, but the way this is presented in this TV show makes it much grander, and also emphasis a kind of intractable fate while Adams, an arch-skeptic, makes it quite clear that it is NOT fate, merely chance, that ties everything together. Dirk just ‘has the knack’ of being in the position where these chances combine. Added to this, the ‘secret government organisation’ to which Gently is connected was so very out of place as to be pointless.

There was an adaptation a few years ago on the BBC, with the Stephen Mangan playing Dirk Gently as brilliantly as he does everything, which was utterly pitch-perfect. As well as being underfunded and hidden away on BBC2 at some ungodly hour so hardly anyone was aware of it, never mind watched it, comparing the two shows the potential strengths and weaknesses of the sort UK and longer US series formats. In the UK everything has to be tight and to the point and serving story and character, but the viewer barely has time to get into it (especially when it is cancelled so soon), while the longer series allows development and exploration of the world and the characters, but can lead to unnecessary padding and extraneous levels of plot that can sometimes take away the focus.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the series and will be watching season 2 - possible in just a couple of sittings - but I reserve the right to hold an original book and BBC adaptation purist grudge.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Does how you spend your money matter?

Every pound or euro or dollar we spend is a vote on how we want the world around us to be.

This is not, of course, my original thought but it is one that requires regular restatement  against the constant counter narrative that is simply seen as normal.

It is easy to buy from Amazon. We all do it; it is easy and fast and cheap, so why not? Well, just think about what money is, and where it goes. Amazon are cheap partly due to the economies of scale and low overheads, but more so because of the power that they wield in the marketplace.. For instance, with books the standard agreement is that they sell at a 60% discount, and the publisher does not allow other retailers to undercut that price. Of course, that cut doesn't come from Amazon's profits, but from those of the publishers and authors, which is largely the reason that the average UK-based writer makes around £11, 000 per year from their work.

So the vast amount of your spend with Amazon goes to the company, not to those who produce the products it sells - and, of course, we all know how little Amazon pays in tax or staff wages.

Big chain stores are a little better. While they generally have a similar profile in terms of passing costs on to producers (see the various reports on how the major supermarket chains screw over farmers) , and often in paying taxes, but at least they provide jobs in the community in which they are based.

Best of all is the old mantra: buy local, as much as is possible. Spending £100 in a chain store mostly goes to the overpaid CEO (by definition, executives are grossly overpaid in the modern economy, with few exceptions) and shareholders, but £100 at a local hardware shop goes to the family that own it buying food and supplies, ideally in other local shops, strengthening the local economy in a virtuous circle. Maybe paying local craftspeople, or for repairs from local tradespeople.

Sometimes these decisions are fairly easy. I'm lucky enough to live in a city with many, many fantastic small - often family-run - restaurants, cafes, takeaways and sandwich shops, so I've not been to a chain eatery in years. I made the choice not to - but, let's face it, the places I frequent serve far better food than KFC or Nando's or Zizzi, and are often cheaper. If you're going to a local butcher or greengrocer, you're probably paying more than you would at Tesco or Aldi, but the quality is probably higher. But many of the groceries - the dry goods, the cleaning products, the toilet paper - are almost certainly going to be a damned sight more expensive at your local corner shop, and they'll have a poorer selection. And you might not even have the choice.

These and many other factors make it easier to shop online or at big supermarkets. While the greengrocer and butcher are closed by 6 pm (if you're lucky) the supermarket is likely open until at least 10, and the internet never shuts. But it is worth making the effort, rather than slipping into the most convenient way of doing things, because it's better for everyone in the long term. And it isn't all or nothing. I've fallen back to doing most of my shopping at one supermarket or other (Aldi is just so cheap and convenient...), mostly through working hours and a lack of planning. But I haven't given up.

So, if you're going for coffee look around from the Costa and find that little independent place around the corner, which is probably cosier and friendlier - and definitely has better coffee. Seek out that local Italian restaurant and get that warm welcome feeling when they recognise you on your second visit. And maybe, on the Saturday drive to the supermarket see if you can drop by some local shops or the town market and enrich your shopping experience.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Are immigrants making miners work til they are 75? Response to a Facebook post.

I meant to write this a few weeks ago when someone - a family member, actually - shared on Facebook a meme showing two pictures. One was a group of smiling white men wearing overalls and mining helmets and the second a photo of a large-ish family of brown-skinned, possibly muslim, people. The text suggested that the first group were being forced to work to 75 because the second group were sponging off the state.

I’m hardly on Facebook, and don’t think this person makes a habit of sharing this kind of thing, so was ‘lucky’ it was posted just as I popped on for five minutes. I commented with an exasperated “what utter bollocks!” and left it at that. I probably should have been a bit more constructive, but it was such a ridiculous argument (for want of a better word) I was just annoyed. The poster did quickly respond, asking if he wasn’t entitled to his opinion. I replied that of course he was, but that there was a difference between things which are opinions and things which were verifiably true or false, and this was both the latter and false. Again, I should probably have offered an explanation, so here it is.

I will leave aside the miners - of whom there are precious little left in the UK, and who are certainly not required to work to 75. I will assume they were simply being used to represent the “ordinary working Brit”, although that does bring into question why a group of white men was used but, again, I shall leave that aside.

More important are the false implications and assumptions of the brown, muslim-looking family. There are many, and I doubt I’ll cover all of them.

The points I’ll be making are about the value of immigrants, and are all based on hard fact. Not feelings, not ‘fake news’, not massaged statistics, but well-documented, consistent, incontrovertible facts.

Immigrants claim a lower proportion of benefits than any other segment of the population. These are people who have had the wherewithal to travel hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles. They have already worked hard are certainly not expecting an easy life. When allowed to, they work. As a group, they work hard. They set up far more businesses as a proportion than do native born people. There is a reason the ‘Indian corner shop’ is a cliche.

Linked to this, immigrants pay taxes.So, not only do they not drain the national resources, they actually add to the pot of money from which these resources come.

“Ah!” (I hear someone say) “But that is because they take jobs from honest, British workers!” Well, person who I have heard say that, no; you fundamentally misunderstand how economies work. Most of our economy is based on the consumption of goods and services. Whether it is using utilities (paying for gas, electricity, broadband, etc), buying cars or furniture or groceries or a bagel and coffee from the sandwich shop down the road, this puts money into the economy and is how other people’s wages are paid - gas engineers and call centre staff car mechanics and sandwich makers. Look at Germany, which has brought in more than a MILLION asylum seekers in recent years (on top of the immigration already happening), and has the lowest unemployment since East and West reunified - when, practically overnight, West Germany had to integrate 16.5 million poor East Germans and spend billions of marks changing 45 years of separation.

Then there is the demographic ‘time-bomb’. The largest population spurt we have ever seen are the baby boomers, that generation born after the second world war who benefited so much from the newly created Welfare State (and created so much wealth in return) and have been gradually retiring over the last two decades. Birth rates have been dropping, which means a smaller than ever working population are supporting a larger than ever retired population. Bt most immigrants are in their 20s and - as i said above - more than happy to work and pay taxes.

And, here’s another thing about that, it’s a damned sight cheaper to bring in immigrants than raise our own population to working age. How much do you think it costs - the state, and parents - to raise a child, to pay for 17, 18, 24, years of healthcare and education? Any cost in language skills or integration or even a few months of benefits is literally insignificant next to that.

There are people (mentioning no daily newspapers) that also suggest there is a crime problem associated with immigration, but this is also simply wrong. Immigrant populations, wherever they are from, consistently commit FAR less crime than native born populations. Seriously, a fraction as much.

Lastly, and on a different tack, why assume a brown family are immigrants in any case? I’ve known lots of people of Asian and African descent who were not only ‘born here’ but whose families have been here for generations. My own family are largely of Welsh and Irish descent within the last four generations or so, so are also immigrants. As is everybody else on this island. Yes, there are people who have traced their line back centuries (often to the Normans, who were of course immigrants who didn’t want to mix with the locals and learn the language) but that is only one branch of the family. It is clear that one of the main legions who held Britain for the Romans was the Africanus legion so (despite Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ill-educated protestations) black people have been in these isles for at least two thousand years.

I’ve only covered the main points, but these are usually the ones made (or snidely hinted at) by racist memes and the EDF and the Daily Mail. All of them are facts and, I think, also make sense when given a moment’s thought. I hope everyone reading this will bear them in mind when responding to knee-jerk emotive posts.

Please, think about what a post is saying before hitting share.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Book Review: Voices (Annals of the Western Shore 2) by Ursula K le Guin

Le Guin is rightly famed for her novels of the late 1960s and the 1970s such as the Earthsea books, The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, but she has never let up and has been a force in science fiction, fantasy and indeed literature for almost 60 years now. This, the middle volume of the Annals of the Western Shore, shows just why; she writes prose as lucid and powerful as almost any writer I can think of, characters that walk the line between tale-tellers archetype and fully three dimensional human beings, and infuses the whole with a humanity and relevance that is breathtaking. She writes great stories that are made epic by the inclusion of a meaning that is apparent but never heavy handed, that never overwhelms the tale but lifts it.

Voices finds a great, ancient city of learning that has been subjugated for seventeen years by a foreign power whose singular god considers any other deities to be demons and any books or writing blasphemy, and a girl - child of a violation during the invasion - who has grown up tending the remains of a secret library and is witness to, and instrumental in, a great change.

As wonderful as the first volume, Gifts, leaving me a little sad that there is only one book remaining.

Book Review: The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

I started off rather enjoying this, but it frankly became a something of a slog. The setting is a present-day Britain where, within the government, there exists a shadowy organisation known as the Checquy. It has existed for many centuries and is made up of ‘talented’ individuals, usually recruited as infants and raised to serve and protect the British Isles. Think X-Men meets Charles Stross’ Laundry Files meets Harry Potter.

We start with Myfanwy Thomas coming to with no memory, surrounded by bodies, in a London park. At least, the letter in her pocket tells her that’s who she is - or, rather, that is the identity of the body she inhabits. This missive and the trail of information she follows are written by the ‘real’ Thomas, a highly placed administrator at the organisation, who has received several telling prophecies that she is to die and her body is to be re-inhabited by another. What’s more, it is another member of the Checquy ruling elite who is responsible.

This is an intriguing idea, a nice fantastical twist on the venerable DOA motif; the crime has already been committed, and the first person narrator is trying to find the perpetrator. And it starts well enough, building the new Myfanwy’s character, with all it’s unmoored uncertainty as she struggles to fit into this life at the same time as investigating the ongoing crime - because, of course, her predecessor’s obliteration is part of a grander scheme.

This was one of the first sour notes. Once she begins to interact with the other members of the organisation, with all their strange powers and arcane knowledge, people  barely bat an eye at her sudden change of character. These are people who know there are individuals and organisations with powers exotic and powerful and multifarious, but don’t consider that this highly-placed officer might have been replaced by an imposter? However, I reinforced my willing suspension of disbelief and rejoined the ride.

Unfortunately, my perseverance wasn’t rewarded. While there are many excellent ideas embedded within the story, it needed more thought and, quite honestly, a good deal more editing. Increasingly problematic are the notes left by the original Rook Thomas for the replacement; the original purpose of these is to guide her substitute with the information she has managed to glean prior to her own ‘murder’. As this seems to be building toward something the reader can’t help but think “why not just skip ahead and find out what’s going on?” but then the author begins to pad these epistles out with stories of Thomas background which, while arguably interesting backstory, are entirely inappropriate and act as massive info dumps, a terrible example of the writer feeling the need to show their working.

I confess that I started skim reading, also encouraged by a tonal monotony and the fact that the writing just wasn’t executed well enough to carry the whole thing off. When a big action scene and reveal  left me yawning I knew I wasn’t going to continue with the series. There’s definitely potential here, but the whole needed tightening up.

Originally posted on Goodreads

Sunday, 4 June 2017


I've always fought against fear, fear of failure and pain. Fighting to try and overcome the knowledge that failure is inevitable and that any success or happiness is just putting off the time when things will come crashing down, and make the crash all the worse.

I try. I try to be positive and try to work hard and try, most importantly, to be a good person but that just ends up throwing into starker relief that I can't do these things. I thought it was getting easier - or, at least, less phenomenally, impossibly difficult. There was always the fear hanging over my of slipping back to the time when surviving each day didn't feel like any sort of victory, but just left me with the crushing weight that I'd have to try to do it again and again, pushing the rock up the hill only to have it roll to the bottom again,knowing that one day I'd not be strong enough and the rock would squash me.

Perhaps it should be relief of sorts to be back there. one less thing to be afraid of. But it isn't.