Mental health

Much is talked and written today about mental health; it’s all over the TV as high (and not so high) profile names tell us about their mental health problems. It’s on the agenda in corporate board rooms; it’s big in social media. Hardly a day goes by when I’m encouraged to “share” something on social media telling others how much I understand and empathise with their mental and emotional turmoil. It’s yet another ribbon or wristband to wear, virtue-signalling, telling you how much I care.

I have been through a long period of admittedly slight, but nevertheless significant, mental ill-health. But I never so much as took a day off work. It is possible to continue leading a normal life whilst ill. Every day, people continue to go to work suffering from heavy colds, or in chronic and severe pains, or with serious disabilities, and they get by. There are others who do not bother; they don’t even try. I have worked with able-bodied, fit and healthy people a good deal younger than I, who were in the habit of taking 15-20 days a year off “sick”. I confess I have no patience with such people.

I did consider seeing the doctor, and in fact I would have done so much earlier. What prevented me from doing so was the fact that in modern England it takes three weeks to get an appointment to see a GP, unless you face a life-threatening emergency. For some, mental ill-health is of course a life-threatening emergency, but for me, it was merely life-changing. Eventually I did see the GP for anxiety. More of that later.

I don’t really know where it all started. At one point during 2016 my wife turned to me and said “it’s been a couple of years now” meaning the length of time I had seemed “down in the dumps” and not myself. I guess that sometime in 2015, things started to take a dive. What was the cause? Who knows? As engineers, as safety professionals, we are taught to look for causation: What happened? Why did it happen? What went wrong? And most importantly, how do we stop it from happening again?

Sometimes, in the complexity of the real world, these questions are unanswerable. It is fair to say that changes at work may have causal factors. A man might catch pneumonia and become gravely ill: the immediate cause, of course, is infection by bacteria or virus. But working too hard, or giving a long speech outside on a rainy November day, could easily act as the starting point or “causal factor” as the safety professionals say. Of such work-related causal factors we will write no more, as these matters have still to run their full course.

Certainly though, looking back, I wonder how I kept my job. I know, of course, full well. I kept it by the grace of God. Both through my prayers and through the skills he has given me. The worst time was from November 2016 through to June 2018. Changes in the workplace in the early summer of last year heralded a time of recovery. At the present time I consider myself convalescent, and would guard carefully against the risk of relapse.

These years have been studded with bereavement. In November 2015, after years of decline, my wife’s mother passed away. We were not close – but this was my wife’s mother, not just anyone, and obviously my wife was deeply affected. In March 2016, one of my Scouters died of cancer after years of heroic struggle – just a young man of only 27. The following winter, my wife’s beloved Aunt Josie went into hospital in early January, and we buried her in early April 2017. Last summer, my son’s girlfriend took her own life in the days before his graduation. That summer, on the day of the funeral, I learnt of the suicide on her 18th birthday of the only daughter of one of my former Scouters.

These years have been a time of growth and spreading of wings for our kids, as they all have “flown the coop” and found their way in the wide world. At least their welfare has not been a grave concern to us; all three of them proving to be healthy, upright citizens well able and willing to earn a living.

In this very difficult time, I have found strength in three very different activities. One of them, has been running. I’d started running earlier, back in 2012, and running continues to be a source of strength and comfort to me. In the very worst times at work, I sought for activity that did not involve deep thinking, activity which some might refer to as “right-brain”. Like running, neither were innovation: I’ve always been a writer, and I’ve played guitar off and on (perhaps mostly off) since childhood. I found great refreshment and renewal in playing guitar, and my journal-keeping or writing has taken what I would very much consider a high priority in my life. I have beside me as I write, paper diaries back to the end of 2016 with upwards of 160,000 words written: I could have written a novel in a six-month if I chose to do that rather than to journal. But, that journalism, if not saving my life (that would be inappropriate hyperbole and crass exaggeration, both of which I find deplorable), has certainly contributed to recovery of my mental health, and in any case – writing is never wasted.

In those dark years I sought the face of God – most often in one or two places in London – and I have been found by Him. I sought the face of God through prayer and fasting , and enjoyed a period of tremendous personal renewal and spiritual growth, at perhaps the lowest point on my journey.

I have become a District Commissioner for Scouts and at the same time, have largely lost interest in Scouting. What took up 20-25 hours a week of my time before October 2016, I will not permit to take half that time now. I continue as DC out of a sense of duty, an awareness that there is no-one to replace me, and an unwillingness to be known as a quitter.

What were the symptoms?

  • A sense of feeling “What’s the point?
  • A lack of interest, ambition and motivation – as the other ranks say in the Navy – “NAAFI – no ambition and fuck-all interest”
  • A lack of concern for my long-term welfare in my work and home life;
  • Easily irritated and angered – irrascible at times;
  • At times tired to the point of tears – not metaphorically, but literally;
  • An inability to concentrate or focus;
  • An inability to see things through to completion;
  • Anxiety attacks at all times of day but especially in the small hours
  • Insomnia – lying awake transfixed by fear and worry, at random times
  • Panic attacks and dread at what should be undaunting and straightforward tasks or decisions e.g. what shall we have for supper, what shall I buy my wife for her birthday?
  • Weight loss: this symptom alone has been to my advantage. The reasons for it are complex and not just related to mental health. In 2015 I was 17st 11lb; today (May 2019) I am 16st.

I do hope there’s hope: a review of The Rig, by Roger Levy

I cannot now recall who recommended this story by Roger Levy: possibly William Gibson, on Twitter, or possibly the recommendation came from having read Dave Eggers’ upsetting story “The Circle”.

Do we judge a book by it’s cover? Alas, we do, and the publishers are complicit in this, bringing us paperbacks for womenfolk that are broadly (but not always) in light, pastel colours, and paperbacks for men, that are either black or in dark hues. You won’t be reading an Iain M. Banks novel in a paperback copy that is anything other than dark in colour. “Dark have been my dreams of late”, said Theoden King, in the Lord of the Rings. And well they might have been if he’d read this book or indeed a lot of other modern science fiction.

I long for science fiction that is positive and hopeful. I started “The Rig” and after a struggle at the start, I got into it. So I tweeted to the author that I thought it was great. [That this is possible at all is a both a blessing and a curse of modern social media]. I wrote to him, “I do hope there is hope”

What we have in “The Rig” is a future where humankind has had to move to another “system” where there are a number of nominally habitable planets. Much is made of terraforming. Two planets are different – and one of them, Gehenna, a loosely Christian religious dictatorship, forms the background to the opening of the story. The story’s hero is, as some say, “on the spectrum“. Indeed, Alef is autistic to the point of being socially inadequate, but very, very clever. He – and his father before him – are the not exactly unwilling tools of an unpleasant gangster needing assistance with computers.

We’ve seen it all before. These gangsters and all their disgusting subordinate mercenaries, enforcers, mistresses and hangers-on all appear in the dark science fiction of such authors as Alistair Reynolds, Paul McAuley, Iain. M Banks and most particularly Richard Morgan. I grow tired of them. It displeases me that writers, publishers and indeed the reading public, seem have a fascination for them, all the sordid violence and mutilation, all the vengeance and torture. I agree with R.A Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long, who said in “Time enough for love”: “I’ve never understood the gangster mentality. I simply know what to do with gangsters“.

Notwithstanding all that, I found I could hardly put this book down, and I found that the plot drew me on. It was simple enough not to confuse me and yet refined and complex enough not to be completely see-through. You’ve got implicit discussion of the internet and what it all means; you’ve got old Earth clearly destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by some unexplained environmental catastrophe. You’ve got a dig at organised religion and for that matter, at Christianity. So far, so normal for “dark” sci-fi – all the right boxes are ticked. But, much more unusually, you’ve got an autistic main character whose feelings and thoughts the author has worked hard to portray.

I’d make a plea, as a Christian, for positive, hopeful and uplifting stories. I’ll admit the publisher may say “it won’t sell”, but you know – I think it will. Something that defies the rather H.P Lovecraftian view taken by nearly all modern science-fiction. In all my life of reading I can think of only a handful of authors writing such material. I was impressed by Maria Dona Russell’s “The Sparrow” – reviewed here, then we’re back to Stephen Lawhead, whose works The Search for Fierra/The Siege of Dome and Dream Thief I read thirty years ago. Or even C.S Lewis’ classics like “Out of the Silent Planet”, “Perelandraand “That Hideous Strength”.

Extraordinary complexity

We live in times of extraordinary complexity. Perhaps it was ever thus: were there ever truly simple and straightforward times? Yet, our willingness and our ability to discern complexity is under attack as never before. It is under attack from social media; it is under attack from the rise in sentimentality we’ve seen over this last twenty years or so, and it is under attack because of the fashion for hyperbole and over-statement.

The deplorable rise of “spin” – the use of language to conceal, obscure or divert people from the facts – has much to answer for.  The use of carefully chosen, politically charged, and nuanced phrasing, has, paradoxically, eroded our capability to discern nuance.

We look back at events like the Great War, and perhaps see simple causes, straightforward effects, obvious and clear protagonists and antagonists.  We view such events through the simple lens of modern thinking.  Cliches such as “senseless slaughter” come to our lips; we take off our hats, and rightly, spend a moment in silence to remember the fallen. 

But it was never that simple: that war was no simple struggle between good and evil, nor even a titanic battle between two great empires, the British and the Austro-Hungarian.  Britain, even the British Empire, was part of an alliance, and not even the senior partner at that.   

And then, consider what else was happening at the same time as the Great War.  The struggle for female emancipation and women’s suffrage.  The Easter Rising and the struggle for independence in Ireland.  The Russian revolution.  The technical innovation happening as a result of the war; the changing relationship between the New World and the Old.  

All of it points to a time of complexity to which we don’t do justice by over-simplifying what happened. It is not less true today.  I’m minded to reflect on our shortening attention span.  My boss wants 3-5 bullet points, size 21 font, one slide in Microsoft PowerPoint – just the salient facts to present to the Board.  In the second war,  Churchill reputedly turned to his underlings and asked them to provide for him a “report on the current state of the Royal Navy – on one side of a sheet of paper”.  As writers we do have a duty to keep things simple, to use short words, sentences and paragraphs, and to cut out unnecessary waffle. There is a case for simplicity – but we have made the case for simplicity our idol. 

How are we going to comment meaningfully and profitably on the hideous complexity through which we are now living? Three bullet points won’t cover Brexit nor explain the reasons for and against it.  One side of a sheet of paper may not cover the reasons for our changing culture.  A few photographs will not explain the balance of power between the West, China and Russia.  The job of the commentator is made doubly difficult by the fact that everyday folk have lost interest in complexity.  Today we have Twitter and Instagram – but think of the walls of text in a Victorian newspaper.  Today we want to see things reduced to three bullet points, the sound bite, the black and white. We want to see the spectacle of wrong and right, of bread and circuses.  Who needs a judge and jury when you’ve got Facebook?

Great future inventions

I was minded to write about some of the great inventions we may yet see, and to look at the rich imaginations of some of our great sci-fi writers.

1. The diamond flechette gun in Alistair Reynold’s “Chasm City”.  A small and easily concealed hand weapon, made out of diamond and exotic forms of Carbon – because there is no metal in it, of course, it can be carried with impunity through airport scanners and other such devices.  It is clockwork and as well as being made of diamond, fires bits of diamond as projectiles. It might be clockwork but I don’t think the users wind it up. It is, as characters describe, a thing of ‘intense, evil beauty’.  “Chasm City” is set in the 27th century.

2. The Turing Gate in Paul MacAuley’s “Cowboy Angels”.  In an alternative reality, Alan Turing is not hounded to death by the state for being gay, but emigrates to America where he goes onto invent a strange gate or means to move between dimensions and alternate realities.  The Americans of that reality (not ours) take it upon themselves to visit their particular brand of democracy on all other Americas in existence. All well and good until they visit the reality where President Nixon was elected.

3. The cortical stack, allowing Digital Human Storage, in Richard Morgan’s “Altered Carbon” and it’s two sequels.  This memory device is about the size of a cigarette butt.  The device is implanted in the spinal column soon after birth and records everything – sensations, memories, feelings. All can be backed up, everything can be uploaded into a computer as digital data.  Humanity is reduced to big data – both freed from death and enslaved by eternal life.

4. Douglas-Martin sun-power screens in R.A Heinlein’s “Let there be light”. Two inventors in the 1960’s perfect bioluminescent screens that can be used to convert electricity into light, or, if stuck in the sunshine, act as an effective solar panel, generating electricity.

5. The Bobble, in Vernor Vinge’s “Across realtime“.  A spherical and perfectly reflective indestructable minature cosmos, which can be created in any size from tiny up to tens of kilometres across.  They can last for moments – or for tens of millions of years.  Anything trapped inside endures NO duration at all, no matter how long they or it are stuck inside. They are effective one-way time machines.  Vinge has his characters use them as perfect (if someone inconveniently shaped) fridges, as remarkable air bags to protect aircraftmen in crashes, as restraints for madmen, as time machines, and as a means to contain political prisoners. Oddly he misses using micrometre sized bobbles as a building material.

6. The piece of paper as a computer in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age”. In the Diamond Age – late in this century – nanotech is all. An everyday piece of paper is many tens of thousands of molecules thick.  It’s a small matter to design the inside of it so that those many molecules can act as a kind of electro-mechanical microprocessor, churning through sums, doing calculations – doing computer stuff, in fact.

7. The genetically modified millipede used as sutures, in William Gibson’s “Count Zero“, set in the early 21st century but written in the 1980’s.  Our young hero is slashed across the back in a knife attack whilst on the run. The surgeon places a length of this millipede over the wound, ensures all the many legs are properly lined up on each side, and with a flourish, rips the spine from the brainless bio-artifact. It’s death spasm causes the legs to contract, neatly sewing a huge wound together in a split second.

8. Windows running on your clothes, and displaying in contact lenses, in Vernor Vinge’s “Rainbow’s End”.  Vinge can’t call it Windows of course, but calls it “Symphony”. Your clothes are embedded with threads acting as powerful microprocessors, and they are able to send information to contact lenses. Augmented reality – you want the low-down on this neighbourhood? Just google it and the info scrolls across the top right of your field of vision.  Communicate with your computer by sub-vocalising or just thinking what want to say,

9. The means to broadcast sound direct to your aural nerve – the “friend” device as seen in Stephen Baxter’s “Ark”.  Developed before 2020, the device renders earphones obsolete. A small instrument in your pocket, or your mobile phone, broadcasts sound in perfect hi-fi direct to your brain.  It’s a side issue in Baxter’s story which is about rising waters flooding the whole earth.

10.  The monomolecular spray-on hosiery in Iain M Banks’ “Against a dark background”. Others have said there are more ideas on one page of an Iain M. Banks novel than in whole books by other others. Here, he proposes a monomolecular covering for the female leg that looks great and feels great – spray on tights, in effect.

Dune, by Frank Herbert

It is quite odd, re-reading Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, to see his ideas  – written down in the early 1960’s and ahead of their time then – in relation to how we stand today in relation to Islam.

Dune, at one level, is a sweeping space opera, an adventure where two noble families battle for supremacy in an imperial setting – but set in a strange and far future.  Imperial politics are what they usually are – but are also subtly controlled by a shadowy and all-powerful female priesthood, the Bene Gesserit.  Interstellar space travel is controlled exclusively by the Guild of Navigators – and they accomplish it only by use of a difficult to obtain mind-altering drug.  This drug is made from a strange spice available in one place only in all the universe – the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune.  The novel is the story of two families fighting for control of the spice.

But at another level, Dune explores the culture of desert Arabs, and draws heavily on Islamic ideas such as jihad or holy war.  I don’t think a publisher would touch it if it was written today.  Indeed, even writing such a work would put you at risk from those who see Islam as completely beyond or above discussion – much less actual criticism.

Whilst is is broadly sympathetic to Islam and to desert culture, we see parallels drawn between the rise of the prophet, and the rise of Frank Herbert’s central character Paul Muad’Dib, and the holy war or Jihad that Paul Muad’Dib is so keen to prevent.  He sees it in visions and dreams: war, suffering, warriors and fighting, spreading out unstoppable from Arrakis, across the known universe.  And it is the last thing he wants.

As a writer though, two things to note: firstly, Dune as pure story seems much less sophisticated than later science fiction, and second, there is some wonderful mixing of metaphor and adjective, which I record here.  The central character Paul – at this point just fifteen but the son of a Duke – and his mother are marooned in the desert after a plane crash, and “…he inhaled, sensed the softly contralto smell of sage climbing the night…it had brought a stillness to the basin so unuttered that the blue milk moonlight could almost be heard flowing across sentinel saguaro and spiked paint brush. There was a low humming of light…”

I was charmed by the idea that moonlight could be heard, or that the smell of sage could be contralto, or stillness, unuttered.

Spring

Spring appears just like that
Almost like the turning of a card
Maybe there are such cards
Four suits – Winter, Spring, Summer and
Autumn.
Perhaps the gods themselves have such a pack.
Maybe they play for keeps
At certain times of year,
And perhaps the seasons turn
On whoever wins the game.
What would be your favourite card?
Perhaps the Jack of Spring, all mischief:
Loki, or the great god Pan.
There’d be a terrible Queen of Winter
Black Maria, or maybe
Just Tilda Swinton in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”.
The Nine of Autumn,
Brown leaves and woodsmoke.
New England Fall would be the King of that suit.
Or the Two of Spring – the first snowdrops, daffodils.
The Queen of Spring,
Surely Bluebell woods.
The Ace of Summer,
The best is yet to come.
And maybe a Joker too…
Especially for the English. Musn’t grumble:
Snow on Buxton cricket ground in June, or
February sunshine, unlooked for.

Dark Voyage, by Alan Furst

Holiday reading? Yes: I’ve long enjoyed the writing of Alan Furst. He writes exquisite English, with nuanced characters, all having complex, ambiguous motives. He has deep sympathy for the fallen, human condition.

But for all that, Dark Voyage is different. It has the same male protagonist making his way through a world distorted by Nazi Germany, someone who is at root, a modern European in a world dominated by war splitting Europe asunder. It has the same cast of characters – the shadowy, morally bankrupt SIS agents, the Russian emigres, the fixers and shakers in smart suits. The women. He even manages to get in a dinner at Table 14 at Heinigers in Paris, though only in flashback.

Unusually for an Alan Furst hero, the main character speaks English. Also, most of the action takes place at sea, and here is the rub. I was, as a former seafarer myself, drawn to the book on that basis. At the same time – and I’m not entirely sure how the author would take this – Dark Voyage reads like a Douglas Reeman novel. Reeman’s naval stories are – like Furst’s books – quintessentially readable tales about the frailty of the human condition in time of war or impending war. Both writers suffuse their stories with the gentle light of compassion and understanding for their characters. Both -as the jacket of Dark Voyage attests – fundamentally humane writers. Wonderful, relaxing stuff. Reading does not have to be hard work.