In Which I am Slowly Transformed into a Superhero ~ Armouring & the Whole Problem of Being Vulnerable.

In Which I am Slowly Transformed into a Superhero ~ Armouring & the Whole Problem of Being Vulnerable.

Life has been interesting this year. That’s putting it mildly, really. I’ve begun my transformation into a superhero. I’m not sure when my special powers are arriving but I’m getting the outfit, bit by bit.

If you ever watched that wonderful series Xena Warrior Princess (Yes, I know how ridiculous and silly a lot of it was) then you may recall that the opening credits feature snippets of Xena putting on and adjusting her armour, starting with her warrior boots, her wrist braces and so on, before showing her using various of her weapons and fighting techniques. With modifications, that’s me these days. One of my greatest regrets in life was deciding I couldn’t afford the leather body armour I tried on once at a Re-Enactors Fair some years back. One day I will go back and get it.

I’ve now got much of my kit: wrist braces, inserts for shoes to ease problems with gait that in turn were causing hip and knee problems, various splints for fingers, and soon I will also get elbow and knee supports. As I go on, what works and what doesn’t work means there’s adjustments to be made, and retraining.

But all this “body armour” to support wonky joints and minimise damage has been making me think about other sorts of armour. The kind you can’t see. The kind that creates barriers between people, the kind that we all use to protect ourselves from being hurt and harmed emotionally and spiritually. Some folks use sarcasm; it works initially as a kind of instant stinger, that repels the advances of others, and then becomes habitual to ward off intimacy. Others just keep their tenderest emotions shut behind walls inside their souls and never let anyone through.

And there’s good reasons to do this. Be open and you become vulnerable.

Perhaps not as vulnerable as you may think, though.

My friend Kate and I were talking the other week and we were talking about the problem of being non-combatants in a war zone. I’m not talking about real, all-out modern warfare but a symbolic one. Call it a thought experiment. Non-combatants are there for all sorts of reasons: rescue workers, stretcher bearers, chaplains and so on. Within this scenario, a non-combatant is there to try and mitigate the effects of battle on those who are fighting; they’re there to patch up the injured, take away the wounded and the dead and minister to the spiritual needs of the fighters. They’re there by choice, not because they have been forced to be there. It’s usually because of a calling, a feeling that cannot be ignored that says that pretending it’s not happening is no longer an option. They’re almost always former fighters, who’ve come to understand that they cannot and will not engage in further battle but who cannot walk away and leave others to their fate.

Initially it’s very hard for them to lay down arms. Surely they will need to protect themselves, and if they have no weapons how can they be sure they will have their status as a non-combatant respected? There are no guarantees of safety. Laying down arms is a huge risk. But it’s that or go back to fighting. Then comes the removal of the armour. There’s the risk that they will be targeted by a sniper, or be struck entirely accidentally by flying debris of shrapnel. But the armour slows them down, tires them, and makes moving sensitively harder, so sooner or later that too is laid down too.

And there they are, unarmoured, unarmed and vulnerable. These are the saints, the bodhisattvas , the great souls whose lives have transformed the world.

But first they had to lay down arms and armour. 

Does celebrity involvement help or hurt the quest to de-stigmatise mental illness?

Does celebrity involvement help or hurt the quest to de-stigmatise mental illness?

I’ve been thinking about this one for sometime, possibly since the release of Dandelions and Bad Hair Days on World Mental Health Day (October 10th 2012). The issue has resurfaced today when Bill Oddie, wild-life presenter for the BBC, commented that he felt that he was far from sure that prominent celebrities who have ‘come out’ as suffering from mental health problems actually helped to remove the stigma. While he mentioned Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax by name his comments were far from attacks on them as Wax suggested in her own rebuttal of his opinions. Reading his comments, I suspect that he included himself in the category of celebrity bi-polar sufferers whose involvement may not be helpful at all.

What do we mean by celebrity? It’s an odd term but for me it means a person who is in the public eye and has somehow captured public consciousness. They are celebrated in some way. They are lauded or loathed. Their thoughts are seen as carrying more weight than those of an ordinary person. It’s why it might have helped if a celebrity had decided to aid promoting Dandelions and Bad Hair Days. 

There’s arguments on both sides of the issue. Someone famous has the public ear (and eye) already. They have connections. They probably know people in television and in the book world. They may well have wealth that means they can fund themselves to attend events, donate to charities in significant sums. Their name is valued, believed, endorsed. They’re not just a man off the street. Celebrity gives gilding to even the most mundane of statements.

But there’s another side to it. High functioning mental health sufferers who are in the public eye can unwittingly distort the public perception of whatever illness they suffer with. This is why there are accusations of certain celebrities making particular disorders (bi-polar especially) somehow fashionable. People can also perceive that if celebrity X suffers from this disorder and still manages to turn up on stage or on set every day, there can’t be actually that much wrong. It can make them look sidelong at relatives, friends and work associates who suffer with the same disorder; when their ordinary friend finds they cannot leave their flat for three weeks, or who cannot bring themselves to shave in case they cut themselves, there is judgement. There is a sense of, “Well, if X who works in such a high stress industry can just get on with it, why can’t you?” When a celebrity has a meltdown, like when Stephen Fry absconded from his stage play Cell Mates and vanished, people are full of the sympathy they would perhaps not extend to a work colleague who took a week off just at the worst possible moment for the rest of the people working there.

As a sufferer myself, there is another issue. A celebrity patient has resources in life most of us do not have and probably never will have. We cannot check ourselves into a special clinic when we sense that a crisis is coming. The fees alone prohibit that. The mental health provision across the UK is, whatever anyone may say to the contrary, patchy. What you have access to in one part of the country may well not be open to you in another. My own experience of NHS authorities across England attests to this. It is not uniform. One area may have very different policies in practice than they do on paper.

While celebrities coping well and effectively with their illness shows us all it can be done (and even making allowances for their status and success bringing them the benefits of better treatment), a celebrity melting down brings another subliminal message. When something like that hits the newspapers, I am sure I am not the only one who feels a sense of dismay. After the initial burst of empathy comes despair. It says, “If X, with all the money, fame, resources and support, cannot maintain equilibrium, what hope is there for me?”

One of our problems is that we put too much on the shoulders of our modern gods, the famous (and the infamous) celebrities. We subconsciously assign far too much importance to their utterings, purely because they are famous. When Dandelions was put together, the foreword was written by the Chief Executive of SANE, Marjorie Wallace. She’s not famous. She’s an expert in her field though. Yet it carries less weight for most than had there been a foreword written by Stephen Fry or Ruby Wax. The book is composed of essays which are by pretty ordinary folks, by and large. They are moving and well written and powerful. Therapists and psychologists have been deeply impressed by the book, but the numbers speak for themselves: people buy books by famous people.

I am still not certain whether the involvement of celebrities has helped or hindered the vital process of removing stigma from mental distress and illness. It has perhaps made it more public, and that alone gives me hope. For keeping silent about conditions that ruin lives is akin to the mentality that locked the mad folks up in Bedlam and never let them out.

Half Light, Half Life


Half light, half life

Nothing complete,

Nothing finished,


Limbo-land lady

Stuck between

This place

And another.

Neither one thing

Nor the other.

A traveller stalled


Map lost

Memory gone,

Plans forgotten


Moths, Mistakes and Other Miscellaneous Matters


Moths, Mistakes and Other Miscellaneous Matters

This is almost a kind of Dear Diary sort of blog post, a catching up of news and recent events. There’s been a lot going on, though most of it is internal and not really ready for public consumption.

First piece of news, if you were one of those who has been waiting for The Moth’s Kiss to appear in paperback, then the wait is over. It’s now available for purchase and there will be a cyber-party on my Facebook page on Sunday. I’ve been very pleased with the way Createspace works and how much easier the dashboard is to use than the one Lulu provides. I’ve gone right off Lulu when I discovered they’d made a deal with AuthorHouse, whose reputation may be discovered by looking them up on Preditors and Editors. But even before then I felt their customer services left a lot to be desired and I’m glad I only have a couple of books out with them. I intend to re-publish those via Createspace and withdraw them from sale via Lulu.

One of the difficult things I have done in the last week is to finally re-edit Strangers and Pilgrims. It was the first book I had published but I had little to do with the production of it to start with. I don’t want to go into it in any detail, but last weekend was for me a process of catharsis and forgiveness. I’ve long been aware that there are more typos in the text than is reasonable but have been unable to do anything about it. Even when I had regained control of the book, the circumstances around it made me feel so desperately ill and upset that I have been unable to face the process of proofing it again. I’ve not even actually read it again until the weekend. Imagine you had a child stolen from you at a young and formative age and then returned some years later without having the ability to tell you what had or hadn’t happened to them; that’s what it felt like. I was very uncomfortable about the book because I no longer knew it. I have had some amazing reviews, and I have also had emails and messages from people who felt that the book had truly helped them heal from trauma and sorrows. But I’ve also had some scathing, negative reviews that have smarted and have actually made it harder to revisit my own text for fear of what I might find there. One four star review stated that had it not been for the typos it would have easily merited five stars.

I’m not sure I can explain why I was so terrified of getting down and weeding out the mistakes. It needed doing and not doing it was going to potentially damage my credibility as a serious author. It became the elephant in my room. Last weekend, though, the strength to tackle it came and it was only when I had finished did I realise that the date (the weekend of Halloween, All Hallows’ Day and All Souls’ Day) corresponded exactly with the times the final section of the book covered. Spooky. I’d not planned it or noticed it until the end.

I also noticed something else. The process of editing was one of also healing: healing the less-than-perfectly-cared-for manuscript and also a kind of healing for me. I began to see why, for the first time since I wrote it, people had found it such a powerful book, one which had eased their sorrows and given the food for thought. I’d begun to believe that because it was flawed with too many tiny errors and associated with a difficult time in my life, that it was a poor book.

I’ve completely changed my mind.

I think it’s the kind of book that will polarise people, though, and I am fine with that. A few negative carping reviews, the association of the book with betrayal of trust and broken friendship had all conspired to make me keep that book at emotional arm’s length.

And that’s interesting for many reasons. I’m the kind of person who feels my faults outweigh my virtues and I tend to negate my own good qualities. I’d been treating the book the same way, which is so wrong. I was able to read the book with much greater kindness and understanding than I’d ever imagined I could, and I was able to see that it needed only the specks and spots removing, rather than needing to be completely destroyed. In some of my darker days I have wanted to delete the book entirely for its connection to painful times and bad memories. I knew that wasn’t fair so I kept it at a distance. I think unconsciously I knew the time would come for it to be given a new chance. So the Kindle edition has been re-uploaded, with a new acknowledgements page, and while I hope I have cleared all the typos, I imagine a few might still be there. If there are, I apologise. But this brings me to the other aspect of this: true perfection is not about the absence of mistakes, but rather the ability to bring something to its potential and more often than not, this will include scars and flaws. Unlike some, who believe that a failure to wipe out every little mistake as if it had never happened is a moral failure, I’ve never believed that there is such a thing as a fatal flaw. I don’t believe that a t in the wrong place or (horror of horrors!) a misplaced apostrophe, constitute a degradation of a book. I know that the finding of a mistake in a text can for many lift them out of the story in a jarring way, but that said, I think it’s inevitable that some slip through even multiple readers.

As I said earlier, I intend to produce a new edition of the book, with Createspace, so if you were thinking of buying a paperback, better to hold off until then, or accept that the current edition may not be as perfect as it might be.

The last months of 2013 are on us, and I hope to release The Wild Hunt in paperback very shortly, and also The Bet. Then there are the other novels who have been waiting very patiently to see the light of day and reach new readers. I’m working on those now. I’m also working on producing a couple of small volumes of poetry, themed according to various ideas. One is running with the provisional title of “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” and the other, “Venus Squints”. I suspect these won’t be out before Christmas, though. I’m also working to collate essays from this blog for a book, but as that is a fairly massive undertaking, I think the likelihood is this will be a project for next year.

Chartreuse in a Glass

Chartreuse in a glass

There is beauty in this glass:

Cracking ice like tiny bergs

Transient crystal, voids within

The softening cubes expand,

Burst a little, melting

As spring green

Like liquid peridot

Shimmers as I pour.

Aroma of two hundred

Secret herbs, closely guarded,

Rises, sweet and fragrant

As a sunlit garden filled

With all the flowers

Of a long forgotten Eden.

Each sip a shifting of flavour

A kaleidoscope for the senses

Teasing the brain for recognition.

Elixir. Cordial. Magic.