Thursday, 22 May 2014

Day 17 : Finding inspiration

Kentish Town: 22.05.14

The vast majority of the street homeless who take up the services The Simon Community offer come to us as peaceful and thankful individuals. There is the odd moment of anger or frustration, but these instances are rare and isolated. And then there is a remarkable if small group of people with which we as a community engage who have the ability to truly humble.

They are the men and women who turn up with a smile, a joke and an open, caring disposition. They are the people who never fail to raise a smile in return, and who care genuinely about the service providers, and who make you realise that with almost nothing in the world it is still possible to maintain an unflinchingly positive attitude.

These people are rare, but resilient in ways that are difficult to comprehend when viewing their situation from afar.


Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Day 15: flowers

Kentish Town: 21.05.14

I've never been interested in gardening, and yet I found myself at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show yesterday evening nodding and smiling as we moved past various show garden at the pace of a slow march. At one of the exhibits I listened intently to Cleve West's (who was introduced as a 'superb plantsman') motivations and artistic inspirations, as he spoke about the history of gardens, and the deep meanings he hoped would be understood by those in that space. Cleve appeared to me to be trying to convince himself as much as anyone else as he spoke about the tree of life and the sunken octagonal space referencing the original Persian gardens.

It was certainly a lovely garden, but as I said, gardening is not one of my great interests, and I found the attempts to make the space in to a work of art a little lost as the majority of the Flower Show was really a chance for green-fingered professionals to showcase their wares for sale. Metal Robin Redbreasts; pianos made of rosebuds, pagodas, old and reclaimed cattle

But then West said something I thought was very interesting. Gardens are a hugely effective tool in rehabilitation, and he has worked closely with hospitals and recovery centres in the past. He spoke proudly about how his work had contributed to the well-being of those recovering from cancer at specialist units, and how men and women with serious spinal injuries often found time in the garden enormously precious. West also told us that the staff at these centres had reported back to their management that the green space to which they had access had allowed them to deal with the day to day hardships of their work more easily.

I've often heard my parents (both keen gardeners) talk about the therapeutic aspects of their green fingered endeavours.

And so, it got me wondering. The house in which I am living has a lovely garden space, and fairly large which is unusual and a gift in this part of the world. Having spoken at length with one of the Trustees yesterday morning I learnt about the importance of seeing the house as a therapeutic centre as much as a place to rest your head.

Perhaps I will soon be fetching my trowel.


A full interview with Cleve West can be found here from the Telegraph (

Monday, 19 May 2014

On the southbank

There is something hidden in this hall
For festival, for folk enthralled;
A place for free excitement (still!)
A public space, a given thrill
From the rich and good amongst our Lords
Who know what we want we can't afford;
Who see the sun but not the clouds
Who understand we make up those crowds
On weekends, evenings, holidays for banks
And for these gifts we all give thanks.
And yet sitting out the front and gazing on the water
Big Ben's spike forces its own slaughter
On the sky to thank itself with bells toll pure
Above the thoughts and deeds of Eton's cure
For this sad nation with such a glossy shine
This place we wish we could all call 'mine'.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Day 13: getting stuck in

Kentish Town - 18.05.14

The most important aspects of the work here are being available and being flexible. Since I moved in to the Simon Community not one day has been the same.

So far, I have been a provider of tea, a disher-out of food, a cook, an available ear to listen to problems, a sounding board for ideas, a maker of sandwiches, a removal man, a collector of donations, a sorter of clothes, a barrista, an organiser of daily activities, a lifter of heavy materials, a dishwasher, a sous-chef, a minute-taker, a 'business development' coordinator, an outreach worker, a personal shopper and much more besides. I've only been here for two weeks.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have previously had serious problems with mental health issues myself, and I am finding the variety of activities in which I have been involved a good way to keep myself grounded. What may appear to be mundane, day to day pieces of work actually elevate the position for me. Knowing that I will needed in some capacity at some point in the day, and that I don't exactly know what that will be, is (so far) quite a liberating mode of being.

Whether I am discussing my thoughts on how I think we could be best move our services forward, or if I'm taking a van load of wood and plasterboard to the tip, I feel already that I am a part of this Community. I know that being a new member of the group means that I will naturally bring an energy to the table that only someone in my position is able to do, and it is an important role. The work is hard, and the house (while not in any way a drag) is certainly intense.

But I am thoroughly enjoying myself - and I hope that those I am living and working with have enjoyed having me join them.


"it is not right that the rational and social good should be rivalled by...the praise of the many, or power, or wealth, or the enjoyment of pleasure. All these things may seem to suit for a little while, but they can suddenly take control and carry you away. So you, I repeat, must simply and freely choose the better and hold on to it." (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Day 10: charity and secular society

A good friend of mine last night tweeted the following link to me:

It was in response to the blog I had written that day in which I was discussing my relationship with the Church and some of my negative reactions. I stand by what I said and that things are not black and white as they may have appeared to my teenage self.

There are some interesting points raised in study about how charitable Americans are. As a Brit, I would be interested to know of any similar studies from the UK.

The most revealing part for me was centred around the perception and stereotype that says liberals are more generous in relation to giving than conservatives. This is certainly what I would have assumed coming from a more left-wing political upbringing. The opposite is actually the case in the US at least. (As the study indicates there are caveats that must be applied to any understanding of European habits due the nature of our welfare and tax systems.)

Also, there are clear links between those who go to Church then being more generous in their charitable activities, and not just in relation to those charities specifically linked with Church activities. (As an aside, I would say that this does fit in with my basic point that the individuals who go to Church are well-meaning on the whole, and the teachings they receive are grounded in good, yet some of the wider Church issues institutionally are questionable).

And so, my friend raised an interesting question:

'How can we get more secularists to be charitable? Lessons in ethics and morality at an early age?'

Is this really what we need? I would certainly like to think that those who have thought seriously about faith/religion and then rejected it do so from a position of personal understanding.

I think perhaps the more worrying aspect (as my friend's questions allude to) is that there are significant numbers of people for whom these questions are never raised at all.

I'm speculating of course, but it is something worth considering more deeply at another point, I think. Any links and info on the subject would be received gratefully.


Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Day 9: Churches

I'm not one for the Church. At a philosophical level the idea of organised mass religion does not sit well with me.

I say this as a man who was schooled in a Church of England primary, whose mother attends Church each week and bible studies just as regularly. My grandfather was a minister in the Methodist Church, and both of my grandmothers are and were very religious women.

As with many children in an increasingly secular society once I reached an age to question what I was being taught as fact, I received not one sensible or tangible answer, which led to me rejecting what was such an important part of my family's life.

This belief in non-believing became stronger throughout my teenage years (as is common again).

On my 19th birthday (all those many years ago!) I took a flight to Tanzania to work for a charity whose mission it was to teach sex education in the face of the onslaught of ukimwi (HIV/AIDS). What I saw there from the Roman Catholic Church saddened me, frustrated me and appalled me to the point of tears on numerous occasions. Science was made secondary to the will of an institution based in Rome which I felt cared not one bit for the plight of those it claimed to shelter.

Some of the least affluent people in the world (Tanzania at the time was listed as the 5th poorest nation on earth, and the region in which I lived was among the poorest within that beautiful country) gave up some of their shillings each week as the collection bowl moved around within the one of the few properly constructed and the only luxurious building in the village. I felt that the Church was taking, not giving. I felt that the messages about the use of contraceptives were not just ill-judged but morally indefensible. In fact, on reflection I would go further still and accuse some of those for whom the Catholic Church acted as their moral guide of peddling lies: there was a video I saw sponsored by a Catholic organisation that claimed that condoms stopped sperm, but not the AIDS virus.

I was young, and it was the first time I had experienced such stark contrasts between what I believed to be true and what I felt so strongly to be wrong. I would get angry and tell people about this without any thought for those around me. That's what outrage does, I suppose: it makes you rage out. When I returned to the UK some 10 months later, I continued in this vein, shouting off my mouth and making comments which were sweeping, ill-thought through and, while ultimately well-meaning, offensive.

It has only been recently that I have perhaps mellowed on this subject.

I can see the good that institutions such as the Church do, although I still have problems morally with the idea of organised religion, especially one as bombastic as the Catholic Church.

But it is with the Church, and not the believers that my problem lies, and this is an important distinction which I had previously failed to appreciate. People have good intentions and good will when you look for it, and it is the failure of the institution (in my opinion) that clouds these. I realise that even saying this may prove offensive to some of my dearest friends, but it is as I see it.


"There are two main categories of homelessness: the temporary and the near-permanent...The temporary homeless are an indictment of this and every country which spends money on armaments, space research and vast development schemes before first respecting the dignity of man...The constantly homeless, be they individuals or families...are an indictment of all of us who - through ignorance, lack of interest or failure to be concerned - permit a welfare state to be structured round us like a soft cocoon cutting us off from the crying needs of our fellow man." (No Fixed Abode, Anton Wallich-Clifford)

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Day 8: rain

Kentish Town 13.05.14

Walking through the streets of central London in the evening is a chastening experience when you take your time looking for those who will be spending the night there. Whereas in my previous existence the area around the Strand, Covent Garden and Leicester Square was a playground, now it serves as my place of work, and it is an altogether different place.

It is colder without the blanket of alcohol or the shelter of short-term hospitality that the many bars, restaurants and hotels afford. Simply staying outside and looking to the corners, down the side-streets and in the doorways a new type of London emerges. It is a harsher place when viewed with this filter. Stacks of cardboard acting as mattresses are a sad sight, as are the hunched and crumpled figures that find refuge upon them. I heard three people last night complain about how cold they were, and you could see the upset in their eyes as they realised that the sky was about to open upon them. 'I just don't want to get wet again'.

It tore it down for a period yesterday evening and it would usually be something about which I would complain vigorously and over-exuberantly. No-one likes the cold and rain together, but being in it for a short period is really nothing to moan about. Sleeping beneath a shelter that only covers you from a single direction certainly is. Trying to find an air vent from a large building so the warm excesses of the system blow down on your shivering body is a blessing in the eyes of some.


"Who are the homeless?...Are 'the homeless' a breed you casually associate with Shelter-type advertisements and shock headlines in your daily paper? A hard fact of living today which (thanks to the press and TV) you can't escape, but which doesn't really affect you or your family?" (No Fixed Abode, Anton Wallich-Clifford)

Monday, 12 May 2014

Day 7: tea runs and big breakfasts

Kentish Town 12.02.14

It was an early start by my reckoning, especially for a Sunday. My alarm sounded at 6am, and after hitting the snooze button a couple of times out of my bed I fell.

Tea runs are what we do at this time of the day four times each week, providing hot drinks and sandwiches to those who sleep rough in the centre of London. Temple, Charing Cross and Covent Garden are the three stops and at each we are greeted by hungry looking eyes and tired seeming faces, who queue up patiently (on the whole) and show levels of gratitude (on the whole) that I have witnessed nowhere else.

Sleeping in the open air is a wonderful pleasure when it is of your own choosing, and is something I love to do when the weather is fine and especially when I'm by the sea or in the green hills of some national park or another. Doing the same thing through a lack of other options, in one of the world's busiest cities and throughout the year no matter the weather, must be an entirely different proposition, and one with which it is difficult to fully empathise.

I feel that the tea runs are among the most important services that the Community offers for this very reason. No-one should have to be sleeping on the streets of such a wealthy nation, but while there are those who find themselves in such a situation it is important that others are there to help them find the necessary nutrients and the warmth of coffee or tea.

While we were at our stop at Charing Cross, I saw for the first time this weekend something called 'The Big Breakfast'. A church in South East London provides a full fry-up for the rough sleepers of the area. They cook it there, and it is, as its name might suggest, BIG. Sausages, hash browns, bacon, beans, black pudding, toast, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes...I say bravo to those people. They come to the same place on the second Sunday of each month, and like a factory line the breakfast keep rolling off and in to the hands of those who wish to eat them.


Sunday, 11 May 2014

Day 6: on call

Kentish Town 11.05.14

Yesterday I was working although I was involved in no services. I spent the day instead just being in the house, sitting in the living room, engaging in conversation with whoever chose to join me. It was nice to be part of the place for that length of time and to see how everyone goes about their business. Unsurprisingly, it is not time that could be described as hectic, although a lot happens that I think may easily be missed.

A number of people came to the house throughout day time asking for cups of coffee or tea, or to have a sandwich, a chat, some sort of contact. I certainly did not realise the importance that this building has to some in that latter regard. It is a refuge of sorts for those who live within its walls, but it is also a sort of beacon, a rallying point for those with no where else to go.

I think it may be a while before I really understand the 'rhythm' of the house, if indeed there is one at all. I was expecting the weekend to be busy, but from talking to my housemates it appears that it is actually the quietest part of the week for Community.


Saturday, 10 May 2014

A conversation on twitter with a 'UKIPer'

I've just had a most peculiar experience. I decided to head to twitter to try to inform myself about UKIP.

My default setting has always been to rile against the far right, and the media through which i consume the news does a good job of that for me. I was always taught though that it is important to take in others' points of view, and so I do read papers whose columnists I cannot agree with. I've never really spent much time however trying to engage with those who vote for these parties for fear that I may become so angry that my head or heart may explode.

And so, I sent a quick question about the specifics of one UKIP policy. That is, I wanted to know what happens to UK workers who are currently based elsewhere in the EU if we decide to make our immigration more strict.

I did not get a response from Roger Helmer to whom the question was directed, but instead someone by the name of @hethers01. He explained that it would be a controlled immigration process and that it is something that would be negotiated at another time. Fine. That answered my question. I don't think it is a sensible way of doing things, but at least I got to know about what one of the supporters of the party believed to be the path most sensible to tread.

The conversation then moved on to immigration policy in general.

And to my surprise it was not anger I felt towards @hethers01 as he told me about the problem of 'gypsies on benefits n proud or 1 armed roofers plumbers etc'.

I felt sad.

I feel sad still some 30 minutes later as I write this.

I feel sad because of the level of ignorance involved in thinking that this is a genuine problem. The insular way of looking at the world from which this way of thinking emerges is genuinely astonishing to me. It's upsetting that so many people cannot open their eyes, their minds and their hearts to the reality that the fear they feel is so much greater than the reality of their perceived nightmares.

Following this part of the conversation I pushed back to say that none of the statistics I had seen indicated that this country has or will have an 'epidemic' in relation to these worries.

That's when I was blocked.

Thanks @hethers01. It was nice to know you, if only very briefly.


Friday, 9 May 2014

Day 4: positive reactions

Kentish Town: 08.05.14

Conflict is not something that comes easily to me, and I will try my best for it not to happen at all. If there is something I can do, personally, to be more accommodating; if there is a situation in which it requires me to take a step back, to be the 'bigger' person then this seems to me to be the simplest way. I do not think I am an awkward person in this sense, and indeed I have before been told that it has been to my detriment.

However, in the past year I have noticed a change in myself.

And so this does not mean that conflict is something of which I am afraid. Rather, it is a part of existence that seems to me inevitable, if sad, but one which lingers with me for longer than I wish it would. However, when conflict arises it is surely something to be embraced, and upon reflection, must become the basis from which a lesson is learnt.

How would I approach such a situation had I known it would arise? How would I have altered my behaviour? How could I have anticipated that such a situation was emerging? How does the outcome suit me and the person with whom the conflict arose?

No conflict has arisen I must hasten to add, but this topic is something I have been thinking about in my quest for self-improvement!


Day 5: walking

Kentish Town - 09.05.14

One of the joys of having very little is finding pleasure in that which costs nothing. Today I spent my time walking through London. I started in Russell Square and headed south, dropping in to museums and art galleries. I ate lunch (from the excellent Fernando's in Leicester Square) sat on the steps of St Martin in the Fields watching tourist after tourist amble along the pavement, looking up and around and stumbling in to one another. From Trafalgar Square I walked across the river at Embankment and hung out around the Southbank, before making my way along the river to London Bridge.

London is fabulous when the weather is nice, and I feel as though I have begun the process of getting to re-know the city. It is impossible to know this place entirely, and it could be a life's endeavour. And one upon which it would be worth embarking.


"Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But i have seen the the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own - not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition." (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Day 3: days off

Kentish Town: 08.05.14

Days off are important here. I've been told by nearly everyone to ensure I get away from the house when I am not working. Yesterday, I had my first day to myself and spent it doing dull things like visiting the bank near to the house.

I rarely came this far north the last time I lived in London, but now Camden is just on my doorstep.

I decided to stay in the area for the day, and went for a long walk between Gospel Oak, Kentish Town and I ate lunch at the lock in Camden. I find Camden to be such a peculiar place. It is certainly interesting, but each time I visit it becomes slightly less alternative, and I become slightly more cynical of the many tacky market stalls.

In the evening, once it had become dark, I thought I would head up to Hampstead Heath for the first time. It was extremely dark, and I needed to use the torch on my phone at points. The imagined sounds of muggers hid amongst the undergrowth and swung about in the branches of the trees. After walking in a loop for roughly an hour I found myself at the top of Parliament Hill and ahead of me was the full London skyline, alight, zig-zagging its way in to the sky on the horizon.

As I walked the very short distance back to the house I had a strong sense that it is a time to return to the most simple of pleasures.


"Make sure that you take a step back and observe. Don't rush in to things. It's important that you realise that you will be able to make a contribution to the well-being of the people who live in this house, but do not force yourself on to anyone. It is a slow process, but an important one."

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Day 2: community

Kentish Town, 7th May 2014

What does community mean?

The physical structure of the house is normal, but inside, the human fabric of the place is anything but. A terraced house with a good garden, a kitchen, an office, living room, basement and enough space to sleep 10 comfortably, the inhabitants are currently 4 full-time residents and 4 full-time volunteers. Decisions are made communally as to the best way forward for the house, and look to include all those living here.

Also though, the 'community' is something wider. It includes those who work for the charity. And those who have previously been residents. It could also include those who have lived in the house as volunteers. It must really include the trustees, too. And what about the community in which we are based. Kentish Town and Gospel Oak are very much 'the community' it seems on first glance, as a walk down Queen's Crescent yesterday seemed to indicate to me as there was a recognition on the faces of the shop workers as to who we were.

I think my understanding of this will grow and morph as time goes on. There appear to be some differing and very strong opinions already formed here, and as an initial impression it must be positive and healthy to be able to share and debate these differences.


"Try not to use the word 'mate' when greeting people. No one here is your mate yet. That's not to say that you can't be friendly, but instead that to become friends requires a certain level of trust that does not yet exist. To build trust in a community environment requires action, and it must be consistent and positive."

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Day 1: why I'm here

Kentish Town, 6th May 2014

I've decided I want to keep a basic online record as I spend the next 12 months living and working for The Simon Community in Kentish Town.

The Simon Community ( is a homelessness charity that has been in existence for 50 years serving the needs of some of the most vulnerable individuals in London. The house in which I now live has been used by the community for that same length of time, and is inhabited by a mixture of former homeless individuals and full-time volunteers. Alongside this the house is generally alive with the sound of others (former members of the house/users of the service/members of the community) who drop in throughout the day.

Now, I don't want to keep a simple diary of the day to day happenings of the house for a few reasons.

1. it won't be great to read
2. there are confidentiality issues that I'm not prepared to breach
3. there is a well of more interesting topics on which I will be able hopefully to talk

Instead, I want this blog to be used to chart my thoughts throughout my time here. I think it may be interesting to see how my perspective alters, and to see how positive an experience it will be.

To start though, it is probably worth noting my background, why I am living here and what I hope I will be able to gain from this experience.

I have had mental health problems since I was teenager. I did not recognise them as such until I was in my early 20s, and did not fully tackle them until I was 28. I'm now 30, and having been through two of the most traumatic yet cathartic years of my life I am finally ready to live on my own terms. Through a mixture of talking to friends, family, GPs, therapists and counsellors, as well as being on anti-depressants, I was able to finally locate what my underlying issues were. I'm not sure of the value of going through them all online in this space, but central to the overwhelming malaise of depression, anxiety and OCD was a feeling that I was not doing anything worthwhile.

The job I was doing was focussed entirely on one thing, and I was (from day 1 in that career) told to focus purely on the pursuit of it. Money.

This is not enough. 

It is nothing in itself, and personally led me down paths of recklessness which grew eventually in to self-loathing. This manifested itself in all sorts of ways, but most fervently in the development of those underlying mental health issues.

Just over 12 months ago, I took the decision to leave that world for my own well-being. I worked in a pub for the majority of that time, and got in to voluntary work with homelessness organisations in my home town, Leicester. It was such an inspiring experience that it is now something I want to continue with as a career.

And so, I am now with the Simon Community, and I am extremely excited about what will hopefully be not simply a new job, but a new start.


"home is not necessarily an idea that has a meaning tied to a house. it is purely subjective. is 'homeless' a useful way of describing those without a house?"

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Paxman v Brand

Watching Russell Brand on Newsnight last night I found myself stirred by his words. I found that I was incredibly sympathetic towards what he was saying about the vast inequalities in our society. He spoke quickly (as he always does), but eloquently and with a panache and wit that some people find off-putting, but which I must admit I find alluring and interesting. The comedian and actor seems now more than ever to have found a useful channel for his talents as he seeks to help give a voice to issues from which a platform such as his may add value.
No longer is Russell Brand a comedian and a sex-mad agent provocateur. Well actually, he is by all accounts, but he is no longer simply these things.
His work in the past few years surrounding drug and alcohol addiction has been sterling. He has brought forward to the public consciousness better than anyone has done previously the idea that these conditions constitute illness. Being able to engage with such a wide audience in both the UK and increasingly in the USA has enabled Brand to be taken seriously as the common sense he has spoken on this subject has been allowed to be heard. He has become a go-to person on these issues, speaking with authority and passion at every turn.
It is certainly understandable however that he will have his detractors, especially amongst those who find it hard to fathom that such a figure garners so much positive attention.
It is not unheard of that those who dislike the way in which Brand promotes himself, speaks, looks and behaves believe he is nothing more than a simple trickster. He is said to be a man who talks so fast as to be unintelligible; that he dresses as a peacock to distract; that behaves in a way that is unbecoming to proper debate. He is indeed all arms and legs and hair when he is interviewed, but it strikes me that he is not putting on some sort of distraction. This sort of behaviour is certainly not ‘put on’ as an act.
It was said in some quarters last night that Jeremy Paxman was sneering towards Brand. Re-watch the interview, I say. He seems to me to be nothing of the sort. There actually seems to be an overarching sense of genuine respect, and recognition that this is a man that speaks the truth (or at least the truth as he is able to see it). Paxman’s role has always been to act as the Devil’s Advocate in such situations, and while he is renowned for being a tough interviewer, his is a face that tells an enormous amount about what he feels inside as the interviewee is allowed to respond. Paxman has as expressive a set of face movements as anyone on our television sets in the UK, and the undercurrent that bubbled to that surface last night seemed to be to say ‘Go on, my son!’.
Some reactions from other commentators of course were less positive. Grace Dent quickly mentioned that Russell Brand lives in LA, in a sneering sort of a nod to the fact that Brand is a successful, wealthy man himself. How dare he speak on poverty? How dare he try to give a voice to those who feel let down by the current political system? Once you have made it in to the elite, you cannot possibly try to help others. It is the Bono problem, I suppose. You’re rich and famous, and so your voice no longer holds any weight when discussing how the poor and needy live. This existence is seen as hypocrisy, and hypocrisy turns people off in a way that nothing else can. I personally think the reaction is more telling; and it is closer to being a small-minded, cynical reaction to a noise you dislike.
Brand did not set out to talk about genuine alternatives to the current political system last night as far as I could see it. What he wanted to do was to raise the issue that the majority do not engage with the current system because they can not engage with the current system. When pushed by Paxman to come up with alternatives he backed down. Is this not the sensible thing to do? As much as Brand is an impassioned individual on the issues which he holds close, he is not a political theorist.
David Aaronovitch (surely the UK’s most angry and unfulfilled man) was on the very same Newsnight show as the interview in question. He called Brand ‘an anarchist version of the maddest kind of UKIP supporter’. This seems disingenuous in the extreme, even for Aaronovitch.
There must be a flicker of recognition at least in these critics that Russell is not doing this sort of thing to help promote his own ‘brand’, but because he believes he can indeed help to give a platform to those whose voice is almost entirely muted.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I have become intoxicated by a spell in those super-fast sentences. Maybe I have been seduced by the feathers on the peacock.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Job Seeking in UK is broken

Forcing people back in to work in order for them to gain their benefits is the latest cynical way this government feels it is able to attack the undeserving poor in the UK.
I have to admit that when I think about the benefits system in this country I flip-flop. I believe it is essential that those out of work are given the means and motivation to get back in to employment. I also believe that it is up to the state to provide incentives so that to be on benefits is not a better way to exist than to work. However, it is also vital that those who are on benefits through sickness or familial circumstances are not unduly punished.
My own experience of the benefits system was mercifully brief. I was on the dole for roughly three months as I tried to put myself back together following the onset of depression that led to me leaving my job. The circumstances as to how I left my role (officially) were that I resigned due to a lack of desire to remain within the career path set out for me by the business. In reality it was because I was sick. I feel now, six months on, that I am able to fully understand what happened to me – I was forced to leave because I was ill without me saying as much and without the firm having to deal with all that that entails. I was pressured in to making a snap decision as to whether I was to stay in the business or not once I had raised the mental health issues I was facing. I had no meeting with anyone from the HR department to discuss my situation, and while I was at my weakest was pressed in to agreeing to leave the firm. I was given four week’s gardening leave to see out my notice, but it still now fills my mouth with a bitter taste. If I had my time again I would not have fallen for the manipulation of my boss and her manager in making me leave without proper recourse to getting better. Shame on you both, although in your line of work I know there is very little shame - my boss once told me the best way to get a deal is to 'mind-fuck' the customer.
Anyway…(that felt good).
After a brief hiatus staying with my parents in recovery, and time spent in the worst stages of depression, I decided it was time for me to start working again. At that point, I went on to Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). My previous career had been in recruitment. You’d think that someone with my background would find the job market easy, even though I was trying to move in to an entirely new type of work. It was not simple at all. Trying to enter a new career at nearly thirty is not simple.
As those who are out of work at the moment, or have been recently, will know JSA is paid fortnightly and comes to the grand total of £141. For those of you who cannot divide by two that is £70.50/week. It was a good job I was living with my parents, and I will be forever grateful for their support as that is not a living wage under any measure that I can fathom.
Now, before I go too far, it is not the state’s obligation to pay those out of work huge amounts of money. I know this, and I agree with it. I do believe though that the jobcentre should be there to help individuals find work. I did not have this experience at all for the entire time that I was claiming JSA.
The jobcentre building I went to was in the centre of Leicester, a full hour’s round trip from where I was staying. I would go in to the jobcentre, hand over my papers to a security guard, who would put them in a box. I would then sit for between five and forty-five minutes and wait for one of the fifty or so advisors to call my name. Every single meeting was the same.
Advisor: So, how’s the week been?
Me: Fine thanks. I have sent my CV to x, y & z.
Advisor: OK. Please sign here and the money will be in your account on Tuesday.
I never spent more than two minutes with an advisor. I was trying to find work, genuinely was sending my CV to employers, and all the advisors did was tick a couple of boxes and send me on my way. It was a colossal waste of time. The advisors were not remotely skilled in enabling people to find work – their role was to check up on the naughty poor people who weren’t working and report back to their computer screens.
It was a joke.
If I had wanted to then I certainly could have cheated the system by making up applications and no one would have been any the wiser. None of what I said I did was ever checked.
There are some things that are hugely rotten in the employment system in the UK, and in my experience of speaking to others on the dole, it is not, on the whole, those seeking work. The system seems to be in place to enable the government to come up with data with which to beat the poor. If the jobcentre genuinely wanted me to find work, then why was I not at any point offered any means to help myself? I’m lucky that I was able to find work, through a friend, but it was no thanks whatsoever to the shambolic system put in place by the government.
For what it is worth, the announcements made by the coalition this week that the long term unemployed are to be made to earn their benefits strikes me as pandering to the right wing masses. Yes, there are people who cannot find work who would really welcome the chance to get in to employment and gain some work experience.
The work has to be meaningful though. I do not see how forcing people to work a full week for £70 in a dead end factory or warehouse role is of benefit to anyone other than an employer who gains a free worker. An old friend of mine made the point that it will “combat the 'scroungers' culture which I think is apparent in some places”. There definitely are people who will take advantage of the system in the way that she implied, but to suggest that there are entire communities like this buys in to the rhetoric of this right-wing, highly conservative mindset. ‘There are those who are deserving and those who are undeserving, and we shall be the ones to decide that.’
An increase to the minimum wage might actually be a start in encouraging people to work. Helping those who are unemployed might be a stride in the right direction. Not looking to blame victims of the system continually too…
These are difficult financial times for the majority of the country, but while the right wing press, government and their politics has such a strong voice and is able to demonise whole areas of our society then they will still be able to create an ‘us and them’ dichotomy that serves no-one, other than themselves. It is naïve or disingenuous to rationally think otherwise.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

'Mental Health Outfits'

Mental Health Outfits
Today saw a plethora of photographs make their way on to twitter of people in ordinary clothes, doing nothing more than smile or stand or drink a cup of tea. These photographs were then retweeted and favourited and congratulated. All of these people did nothing hugely important in any of these photographs. All of them were mental health patients of some description or other.
None of them had meat cleavers, axes, blood pouring from their mouths, splatters across their ripped straight-jackets, or even a sinister look in their eyes.
Tesco, Amazon and Asda have all had the latter (minus the eyes) advertised as some form of ‘Mental Health Patient’ on their respective websites in the last few days in the build up to Halloween. Tesco and Asda have withdrawn them from their sites, Amazon have not (at the time of writing).
Now, first, I respect any person’s right to dress as they please, especially at Halloween, that most exceptional time of the year when dressing inappropriately is part of the fun. Having folk turn up to a Halloween party who have not made the effort to be ghoulish, scary, terrifying and gory means you have not had a proper Halloween party. There are some classics such as Uncle Fester, Dracula, and Zombie who always turn up. There are usually some more inventive souls who take normal stories and make them horrible – Red Riding Hood carrying a wolf’s head for example. Then there are the show-offs, those who love to dress up, and have a talent for make-up. The best I saw last Halloween was a man with a face that unzipped to reveal blood everywhere beneath. Lovely.
There is also another section; the inappropriate. I have no problem with people taking this option whatsoever. If someone wants to turn up as a resurrected Harold Shipman, or a zombie terrorist, or even a deranged ‘mental’ case then fine. Bring it on.
It is not inappropriate to joke about such things; laughter and comedy are some of the best remedies in my personal experience. I have had mental health problems for a long time, and have only in the last two years had them properly diagnosed. Without the ability to laugh at myself, by myself, with others, and with the support of others then I would not be continuing to get better. I find myself funny at times because of the ridiculousness of what happens inside my head. Having spoken with other people who have suffered with mental health problems I know that others feel the same way. I call the antidepressants I take daily my ‘crazy pills’ when I’m with company so as to try and take away some of tension if the subject turns towards the depression, anxiety and OCD that had previously encompassed me.
In my own way I feel like I am able to remove some of the stigma attached to mental health problems through my own experience and ability to laugh and talk about them.
However, it is inappropriate for large supermarkets and online retailers to advertise costumes specifically calling them ‘Mental Health Outfits’ because they actively reinforce damaging stereotypes and that stigma. In the last ten years there have been amazing breakthroughs in the public understanding of what ‘mental health’ means. Mental Health charities have done a great job at trying to remove the barriers to discussion for the 1 in 4 affected and their loved ones.
Before I admitted to myself that I had problems that needed addressing I was scared of my own perceptions of what a ‘mental’ person was like. I assumed that most people thought the same way. I did not want my friends, family, and colleagues to think that I might one day bring a machete home, in to the pub or the office. ‘Mental Health’ covers many different conditions, and is a big thing to come to terms with initially.
Thoughtless, tactless and stupid ideas as to what a ‘mental health patient’ is are only perpetuated by crass mistakes from large, powerful and very public organisations like Asda, Tesco and Amazon.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Is Leicester really deserving of the UK City of Culture title?

I’ve been really proud of my home town in the last few days. Over the weekend, Leicester has had a city-wide festival to coincide with a fair for charities, and the annual sky-ride bike bonanza. The city was full, there were smiles everywhere, kids playing football, people able to tell others about what they are doing for their community, and an enormous sense of happiness. The sun was shining. The city is currently bidding to become the UK City of Culture. It was a great advert ahead of that decision.

Leicester is not always like this.

On most Sundays there are people around. If you go to the Salvation Army on a Sunday afternoon you will see people queuing up for food. Yesterday, as the party went on around the town, as streams of bikes flowed past the sites, while children laughed there was a line of people waiting to be fed as usual. ‘The Bridge’ is a meet, greet and eat type place. We provide a hot meal every Sunday afternoon, and on Thursdays we alternate between hot and cold food from 6pm onwards. The Salvation Army let us use their facilities to host. There are similar places across the city on every night of the week.

We have seen a steady increase in the number of people who attend in the past few months. Generally it fluctuates between 60 to 110. The clients are a mix of rough sleepers, the homeless staying in hostels, and council tenants without the means to adequately feed themselves.  These are some of the most vulnerable of Leicester’s residents. They are the people that the press and our government like to vilify as the ‘undeserving poor’ to use a Victorian turn of phrase.

There are a small group of volunteers who rotate helping out twice a week. There is a need for volunteers to keep coming, and for us (and other charities) to recruit others.

Central government is calling for cuts from councils up and down the land, and Leicester City Council is no exception. The Council have decided that there will be a cut to the housing budget of c 37%. This will equate to the loss of roughly 160 beds for those who need them in hostels. At the same time the Council has decided to spend c £4million on the creation of a garden in the city in place of a small car-park. Make of this what you will, but bear in mind that, as said before, Leicester is currently trying to ensure it will be the UK City of Culture.

As a Graduate in Creative Writing, and a genuine lover of the arts, this aspiration is something that resonates with me. It would be a great thing for the place, a chance to genuinely increase the footflow of people to an historic and multi-cultural centre. It would increase the visibility of the city, enabling the tourists to make the short journey to see what Nottingham’s near neighbour is like.

There are, however, more pressing issues that need addressing. Cuts to the homelessness budget at the same time as the bedroom tax coming in to play seems beyond bonkers. It is the creation of a wound, and the pouring of vinegar and salt all over it for good measure. The bedroom tax affects people on the cusp of these issues. It is anticipated that they will really start to hurt by the end of winter as the cost of living and meeting bills becomes unmanageable.

With this mindset I attended The Mass Sleep Out in Leicester on Saturday evening. The Mass Sleep Out was a nationwide effort to protest against the bedroom tax and the issues that it will cause. Two Councillors turned up and were excellent as they listened, answered and argued their points of view. It was local politics as it should be, as Wayne Naylor and Barbara Potter (both Lab.), engaged. There are fifty-two other councillors who were not able to attend.

Building on TMSO we stayed on for the festival, and we were lucky enough to be situated in an area of town that day that was visible to nearly everyone involved in the City Festival. We collected signatures throughout the day to petition against both the cuts to the homelessness budget and the bedroom tax. Many people stopped to talk and ask questions. A few wanted to know what they could do further to help. The majority cycled by – this was a day for the whole city and many families were there for the fun atmosphere.

A tiny few told us ‘f*** off’. What motivates someone to tell a campaigner for the homeless to ‘f*** off’? I find this a particularly difficult mindset with which to empathise.

One of the great successes of this Tory led coalition has been the creation of a wedge that drives thoughts on the homeless, the vulnerable and the unemployed. Those who have bought in to this rhetoric see these people as a collective mass of worthlessness. Those on the other side of the argument scream and shout in frustration at the lack of understanding at a human level. This seems to me to be the number one problem.

The policies of central government are filtering through to local politics. Despite the Leicester City Council being made of 52 Labour politicians we are still very much subject to a Tory, and increasingly conservative mindset.

Both Naylor and Potter emphasised the importance of people power. We need to speak up on these issues and make a noise so loud that it cannot simply be ignored by the short-termist, vote-seeking members of the Council.

If Leicester wants to make sure that we are considered worthy of the UK City of Culture title, we need to first make sure that some of these more important day to day cultural issues are properly addressed.


Thursday, 8 August 2013

Godfrey Bloom

Godfrey Bloom is a Member of the European Parliament for the UK Independence Party (UKIP). He made some of the most racist comments by someone in a public sphere that I can remember when addressing a group of supporters last month. Having lived and worked in Tanzania the comments shocked me, and made me ashamed that a man like this has a political voice (however outmoded) not just in this country, but on a European stage.

Tanzania is one of the truest examples of what Godfrey Bloom had in his mind when he described places in receipt of foreign aid from Britain as ‘bongo-bongo land’. She is a poor country, who suffered because of the colonial, imperial and brutal way in which she and her people were divided and lumped together upon the creation of various East African countries; Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Mozambique. Arbitrary lines on a map that took in to no account whatever already complex, localised political ways of being. This great continent was split up as a piece of land may be divided in to plots of an allotment.

Tanganyika and Zanzibar became Tanzania. The people were led from colonial rule by Julius Nyerere, the ‘Father of the Nation’. Before political unity, Tanzania was passed around by German and British masters as the spoils of war emerged in the 20th Century. Nyerere tried to implement a socialist way of doing things that he felt would be fairest to all Tanzanians. He was successful in the sense of forging a clear national identity, but the economics of the newly formed country plummeted. He is still a powerful figure in the minds of modern day Tanzanians, and is known as Mwalimu (Teacher).

Although it is a country rich on a million levels of heritage, it is also a desperately poor one. Not poor in the sense that people cannot afford to go on a summer and winter holiday. But poor because the basics of education and health are difficult, and out of reach for many.

Tanzania has natural resources and industry. But, on the whole, these are divided amongst either organisation from the nation’s previous political rulers, or are harvested by new political allies, such is the desperation to have such support.
It is with this as backdrop that Tanzania needs foreign aid.

This sort of story is not uncommon in Sub-Saharan Africa. Each nation is able to tell a tale about how it has had to try and recover from the wrong-doings of those who came, saw, conquered, divided, and stole. It is because of these histories that Bloom’s comments, and UKIP’s subsequent dismissals of wrong-doing are so offensive.

It is upsetting too to think that because of this storm he may well have garnered further support.

We should be giving more, not less aid, to countries in ‘bongo-bongo land’. This is one of the most basic tenets of how we as a former ‘ruling’ nation, as a people, as individual human beings, should act. The idea that Britain should horde its riches and wealth, which are primarily built upon the impoverishment of other nations, is at best ignorant and, more realistically, both shameful and greedy.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

We get poorer, we get happier?

I saw an article in the Metro discussing how year on year the British people have actually become happier as the financial crisis has deepened. It’s an interesting thing this, and sounds counter-intuitive. How can it be that as we as a society have less money in our pockets, we have more joy in our hearts?
This is definitely something I have experienced before. I have had the pleasure and luck to have been able to live, work and play in many and varied parts of the world.
I have been all over Europe on various trips; I spent a few months in South America; I have lived in Australia and campervanned up and down New Zealand; I have holidayed to America, and rugby toured to Canada.
In the UK, I have lived in many places too – I was born in London, moved to Leicester when I was five, attended university in Aberystwyth, spent a few months in Bristol, had a place in Nottingham for a couple of years, before moving back to London.
Travel, as the cliché goes, broadens the mind. I feel that I have a mind that has been stretched through experience and time spent abroad - and partially destroyed from a week in Ibiza.
I have fond (and in some cases hazy) memories of each.
The place I loved the most though was Tanzania. I lived in East Africa for close to a year, and have been back since. Why was it my favourite place? Simple: it was the happiest.
Is there something linked to the fact that it was quite easily the poorest too though?
Tanzania when I lived there was the 5th poorest nation in the world. Iringa region (where I lived) was one of the poorest within that country. My village (Lugarawa – look it up, it’s in the middle of nowhere) was remote within that area. Although there were a few shops, a primary and secondary school, and a small hospital, the majority of people who lived there and in the surrounding hills lived on the produce of subsistence farming.
There were terrible, real issues in Lugarawa. HIV/AIDS, malaria, and typhoid were there. Poverty was there. Tangible, heartbreaking poverty. Teenage pregnancy was a serious issue in the school. Beatings by the teachers were not uncommon, too.
These are big things. It feels quite contrite (and potentially offensive) for me to write this but the people I met and lived with (close to all of them) had a different way of viewing their existence from virtually everyone I have met elsewhere. They were happier. They had less, and were happier.
This was off-putting to me when I first went to Lugarawa. It is weird to a lot of people. Is that because we have been brought up and exist within a society that treasures things? Is it because we view as successful those who can amass wealth? Is it because we live in a place that demands we be greedy to be seen as doing well?
I’m not sure. I don’t think that is how most people consciously view the way they operate. But it is a truth that when you get rid of things from your life you become less burdened. I read about Leonardo Di Caprio living by a maxim that said he could own only 100 items. In total. Everything. It is meant to be a cleansing experience.
But this cannot be the root of it surely? There are people in the UK who have nothing and are desperately sad because of that. I work with the homeless, and those vulnerable enough to need support in their lives in Leicester. Very few of them are happy about the situation.
Or is it the gap between expectation and reality that drives happiness? Is this a ridiculous question to ask? Is it racist at some level? I’m not sure. There was certainly optimism, and ambition amongst the children I taught in Tanzania. There was definitely a desire to make things better amongst the (vast majority) of adults. But there was also a far greater weight placed on simpler things.
I worked in the City until recently. I walked the streets of the Square Mile, and spoke and worked with people daily on salaries that seem appalling when placed next to the poverty in Lugarawa. It costs $40USD per year to put a child through secondary school in Tanzania.
The City broadened my mind too. It showed me that the sort of work I was doing was not in the least bit important. I was essentially making money, so my boss could make money, so her boss could make money etc until you reach the shareholders. And the levels of unhappiness present in the office there (while tempered with a superb sense of humour) were definitely more obvious than anything I had seen in East Africa.
The pressure applied to people in these sorts of jobs was baffling when I look back less than 6 months since I quit.
Maybe this was just my view of it. While I was part of it, I had a good time. But the amount of discontent about the work was inordinate with the pleasure the rewards gave most of us.
The folk of Lugarawa had a greater understanding of what it is to live, I think. They spent their time with families with whom they lived. They had life long friends; deep, meaningful friendships on their doorsteps. They had enough food to feed one another.
This is not meant as a slight to the people with whom I worked in London. The majority of them (colleagues, clients, candidates) were awesome and I am still friends with many of them. However, it is difficult to reconcile the two different lives I feel I have lived.
Put more simply, and as the Metro article might indicate, at a certain base level, money can’t buy you happiness, I suppose.

Monday, 29 July 2013

My mum's Type 1 Diabetes

Yesterday, there was a gentle titter between a couple of friends at the Church, and a round of knowing smiles in our house. My mother came back from Church and told us that we were all to now view her as ‘terribly brave’.
We said, ‘why?’ in unison, and she told us about Theresa May.
The penny dropped when she talked about how some media outlets had described the Home Secretary as such, following her revelation that she has Type 1 Diabetes.
My mother has had it since she was pregnant with me. Type 1 Diabetes is a strange condition because we still don’t know why some people have it, and others don’t.
It is failure of the pancreas to produce insulin, which is what breaks down sugar in the body. Without insulin, sufferers are prone to ‘hyper’ episodes where there is too much sugar in the blood. Conversely, this doesn’t make the sufferer bounce around the room on a sugar high (remember the body has no access to the sugar without the insulin to break it down), but instead feel incredibly lethargic.
If my mother takes her insulin injection, but then doesn’t have enough sugar over the course of the morning or evening (it is almost always the morning) then she is more likely to go in to a ‘hypo’ episode. Ever since we were little kids (I’m the oldest, and have two siblings) we have known what to look for in case of a hypo.
When my mum has a hypo her blood sugar levels are so low that she is prone to collapsing. The worst case scenario is that she would end in a coma. It is not a difficult and painful thing to think about for us and for her, though. It is just part of her life, and something we have always been on the look out for, because it is so easily fixed if you know what you are looking for.
My mother never has the slightest recollection of being in that state, or the lead up to it if it gets bad.
Usually, she can recognise in herself that she is about to have a hypo and will take a Dextrosol (essentially a glucose tablet).
If she needs help from us, though, we usually get fruit juice first, as it is sugary, the easiest thing to get in her mouth, safe for us to assume that it is digested once there, and she won’t choke on it. If it is not caught that early sometimes her jaw locks. I cannot honestly remember the last time she passed out, but it has happened. This is why there should be some sugary gel (Hypostop) in the fridge at home. This goes straight on to her gums.
The change back is incredible. It doesn’t take long. It’s like a hypnotist snapping someone back in to the room, and my normal mum is with us again. Sugar coated magic.
Now that my father has retired these sorts of episodes are even less frequent. Not that they were particularly regular in the first place, but now he is with my mum for 24 hours each day it is incredibly unlikely anything serious would happen.
My mother laughed at the description in the papers of Theresa May as brave. ‘I don’t have a choice in the matter’ was her first response. She agreed that while raising awareness is great, and that May’s experience would definitely have been scary to start with, it really does not affect your life as you live it in a huge way. The thought of pricking yourself four times a day to check your sugar levels (a dab of blood is put on a special sugar measuring stick), and injecting yourself with a needle three times daily, sounds horrendous to a lot of people. It sounds horrible to me too – I don’t like needles.
But when you see a diabetic do exactly that for your entire life for their entire life you can see how it becomes mundane and simply part of a daily routine.
I do not in any way mean to demean any one who has Diabetes. Quite the opposite. I want to say that it is not a limiting disease in the way it may appear.
Of course, you have to watch yourself. You have to make sure that what you eat and drink is sensible. But to my mother it is more of an annoyance than anything else.
The way we talk about it in our house should give you an indication – my dad always says it’s my fault my mum’s like this because it came on when she was pregnant with me; we’ve always joked that she is a ‘junkie’ living amongst us; mum doesn’t have a hypo, she goes ‘weird’. We are able to talk about it like this because it is just part of our life. If it were any more serious we wouldn’t, I’m certain.

On the other hand though, there are severe longer term consequences in not looking after yourself. My mother has to have her eyes tested frequently – regular hypers (high sugar levels) have a serious impact on your sight (which can lead to blindness), can cause neuropathy (damage to peripheral nervous system), and kidney damage. Without it being managed properly there can be problems with your heart, and your arteries.
Without it being managed properly.
Day to day.
Justin Webb (whose son has Type 1 Diabetes) put it well in the Times today – you need to be disciplined.
Type 1 Diabetes is a crap thing to have, yes. And as it comes on in young people more regularly than it does in adults (it was once called Juvenile Diabetes) it can seem like a real life changer, and terribly sad, too. But the truth of it is that while we want awareness, and we want a cure, it need not be a huge deal, unless you make it so.
‘You just get on with it’ as my mum, Theresa May, Justin Webb and many others will be able to confirm.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Patriotism and Sport

I’ve found myself in the last twenty four hours holding wildly opposing views. The blanket coverage that has greeted us with the news that Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge had gone in to labour, and safely and healthily delivered a future King to our realm is not for me. I am not an ardent republican, but logically I cannot resolve to become excited about the continuation of the House of Windsor as our ruling masters. In fact, I wilfully try not to think about these matters, for fear that I might explode, such is the apparent stupidity of it.

I find myself screaming at the television at Nicholas Witchell and his gormless ‘Ian Beale has won a competition’ face. I anger at the irrational fervour with which any Royal news is reported. It makes no sense to me that people are able to find an affinity with these people with whom they share virtually nothing.

I hear myself say things like ‘I don’t care if Prince Harry has just visited Jamaica’, or ‘The Queen has not devoted herself to this country! She has led a life of almost unimaginable luck and advantage’. I sound like a part-time Mark Steel.

This sort of thing is not good for my health, so where I can, I avoid it. I realise that my anger is entirely pointless, and while venting is a good thing (as my therapist has told me) it is also wise not to get too upset about things of which you do not have as deep a knowledge as you could.

It is a happy occasion though, of course, for the family and friends. The arrival of a new child in to the world is a wonderful thing. But it is illogical to my mind that this should spring forth a feeling of patriotism towards our country. It makes no sense that we rally around and marvel at the birth of a child who will know only privilege, because he has been born in to a family of enormous wealth, who sit upon thrones and wear crowns and gowns.

I am not a believer in the idea of ‘Queen and Country’ especially in relation to the UK’s foreign policy. I don’t believe the world is ours to police, and I certainly don’t believe that young men should be sent to war under this Q&C ideal, when the reality (it seems clear to me) is far more driven by business and macro-economics.

I would say mine is more a world view. To my sensibilities, the idea that we should be proud because we were fatefully delivered within a geographical space makes me think that the wool is and has been pulled over our obedient and unquestioning eyes.

I am lucky enough to have lived in a number of places both within the United Kingdom and abroad. I have seen it everywhere. Each country fiercely defensive of its space, arbitrary divisions on a map.

I have lived in countries that have far less, and I have lived in areas of relative wealth.

And here is the contradiction that I find difficult to square with myself.

Wherever I go and with whoever I speak I always describe myself as a proud Midlander, Englishman, and Brit.

Where does this come from?

I also have a deep affinity with Leicestershire, the county in which I was raised. But I hate the disparity between the countryside and the City in this county. I hate that Leicester has some of the poorest postcodes in the UK, and some of the highest rates of homelessness. I hate more that despite these facts Leicestershire is famous for its fox-hunting history, and that there are some of the safest Tory seats in the UK here, one of which is where my parents call home.

But I love that I support Leicester City. I was so proud them when they were in the Premier League, when they were winning cups, and were able to mix it with far bigger clubs when Martin O’Neill was in charge. I loved it when Matty Fryatt scored goal after goal after goal in our promotion season from League One. Even after last season, and despite the humiliation we suffered at Watford, I love them. I am big rugby fan too, and feel huge pride knowing that our Tigers are still the best in the land (and have been, pretty much, throughout my life). In the centre of Leicester there is a statue to the city’s powerful sporting history (we punch above our weight) and with this I feel warmth, satisfaction and a genuine pleasure.

I also love sport in relation to the nation. I loved the Olympics, and not least because Team GB did so well. I love it when England play football despite the yo-yoing of emotions that is inevitable every two summers. When England play cricket I revert to a more base version of myself, looking to mock whosoever we play. The same happens with rugby. And cycling. And badminton. And lawn bowls. Et cetera.

My patriotism comes from sport. But it is at that point at which is it limited. Sport as distraction, sport as entertainment, sport as collective pride.

Life has many levels of illogicality and this one reaches in to the heart of me.

I cannot wait for the new season to start. And not just because by then the newsreels will have stopped reporting on how Kate and William’s little boy is doing.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013


Walking’s not for everyone, some men prefer to stand
You can wait and stare and smile until the umpire’s raised his hand.
Or you can whinge like poms of old, or those from present day Australia
That DRS is nothing more faulty paraphernalia.
But you miss the point in what Broad did – it’s nothing new or wrong
It’s something invented by your lot and now we just play along.
So stop your whining, look at yourselves and why you keep on losing
Perhaps it’s cause your team enjoy fighting while you’re out in brummy boozing?
You say to Stuart ‘You cheat! You liar! You clearly knew you’d hit it!’
But this is just to hide your faults, and absence of team spirit.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Realising a good friend is nothing of the sort

I’m a half-crushed can that’s empty now and’s kicked along the street.
I rattle through gutters, take kicks and stamps from my very own drinker’s feet.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Football's Suicide Secret

Clarke Carlisle’s programme on BBC3 last night was astonishing. Football’s Suicide Secret was a look at the battles with depression that some footballers (including the presenter himself) have been brave enough to discuss in the open. Some of these have been well documented, some not, but for anyone who has previously or is currently battling the disease it was a fantastic, if difficult, watch.

I asked my grandmother to watch it with me. It’s only in the last 18 months that I have realised that I have been fighting depression, and only in the last 6 months come to the realisation that I have been dealing with it since I was about 18. So much of the show last night was relevant to my story and I found myself nodding and crying in recognition throughout. At the end of the show my gran stood up and said to me ‘That meant a lot to you didn’t it?’ and gave me as tight a hug as a tiny Welsh lady is able.

Carlisle was very open about his own route through understanding. He talked about how he had reached low ebbs that are difficult to comprehend and are almost baffling upon realisation. He has been a professional footballer his entire adult life; he is a bright bloke; he has a seemingly great family, young kids.

The area that struck me most was when he spoke with young academy footballers near to the start of the show. He was asking them about their plans for a life away from playing soccer in case they didn’t make it as professionals. As you’d expect none of them had even contemplated doing anything else. It is no surprise to hear this. Football is the most competitive of sports in our country in which to become a professional. From the age dot we are brought up in a society that both reveres and hates the players of our national game. We all want to be footballers as little boys running around the playground, but even exceptional talents are not always picked up.

I remember playing with a kid at secondary school who was streaks ahead of the rest of us in terms of his footballing ability. He had a stone dead first touch, an eye for a pass that the rest could not see, and the ability to execute it. However, he was only 5’5 and never made it beyond the academies of two of the local teams.

You always hear the top professionals say that they never considered anything else. This sort of attitude, coupled with natural ability, is almost required to make it.

I wanted to be a rugby player. I played at a high level for school and club before being picked up to play for an academy. I played representative and international rugby at every stage until I was 18. At that age though I broke my leg badly, and other than a failed attempt to continue playing at that same level, I have shunned the idea of stepping on to the pitch. I am now 29. I don’t regret not playing, but until recently I don’t think I’d realised that the shock of being released was behind that decision.

Having been through therapy, counselling and endless doctor’s appointments I was diagnosed with depression. Having looked through my past with these various medical practitioners my release at the age of 18 was a significant point in my life and one at which the problems I have now began. At the time I didn’t see it that way – I was locked in to a way of thinking about my school work, and the prospect of university took over. I had been in a relationship with a girl for the first time in my life. I had distractions and a safety net in to which I was able to fall, and these things hid what were very raw emotions.

Thinking back to the conversation I had with my academy director and coaches when I was released I cannot really remember any of it. I had to ask my father for the details. I think I must have removed them from my mind as a coping mechanism. I can remember crying my eyes out knowing that I would not play for my local club, the team I had idolised since that very first trip to their ground aged 9. Speaking to my ex recently about the problems I have been having she could recall me having panic attacks as a teenager, something I don’t remember. The mind is clearly a clever defensive operator.

Watching those lads on the show last night talk about how they had no plan made me feel genuinely sad, but also very grateful for the support structures that had been there for me. I am lucky enough to come from a family where education has always been the most important thing. Both my parents are MAs in History, and my mother is actually today receiving an MPhil in the same subject. I always scored well in school exams, and one of the key differentiators between rugby and football is that the majority of those going through academies attend university at the same time.

Rugby, in England at least, is a very different sport to football in this regard and for a number of reasons. The majority of professional rugby players from my age group came from fee-paying schools for a start. The norm is that you go to university from there whereas it is very rare for professional footballers to emerge from that same demographic.

The number of well paid professional contracts in rugby is smaller too, and the need to have a fall-back option should an injury occur (and they do with alarming regularity at all levels of rugby) is well drummed in to young players. Footballers start much earlier too. It is unusual but not unheard of for a footballer to be playing in the Premier League at 16. You would have to be a bit of a freak to be playing professional rugby at as young an age as 18, and such are the demands on the body that any appearances at such an age would be carefully limited.

Still though, the mental knockback I took at 18 lived with me for a long time, and it is only in the last 6 months or so that I have fully reconciled it with myself. I can remember hearing myself say to people with great regularity when watching young players make debuts in the rugby premiership ‘I used to play with him’, ‘I was his roommate once’, ‘you should see what that guy is able to lift in the gym’ etc etc.

Even now, I do the same. There are two of the 2013 vintage of the Lions squad with whom I have played, and I always mention it to people.

I think now though it is said with much more pride than before; previously, if I’m honest it was a jealous nod to those guys who had been lucky enough to become professionals. It was a sign that I hadn’t fully moved on from the fact that I was not going to be able to do what I had always dreamt of doing.

The thing that struck me most about watching Football’s Suicide Secret though was that it was abundantly clear that those kids on the screen did not have a safety net in to which they could fall should they not succeed.

This is the biggest challenge facing the FA, and Clarke Carlisle has done a great thing in getting us talking about it so openly. Now it is time for those in power to act.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

panic attack

I walk through an alley with shallow, quick breath


Looking around me to see what’s behind,               

                                           for snipers of my own inventing

The sun’s out in town and everyone’s happy, but I’ve managed to turn everything grey
I look like I’m busy as I try to stay calm

I can’t keep my eyes

                                                                                                                            in one place
                                                                                            for too long,


                                                            and nipping about

                                                                                                                            STARING. ONE. MOMENT.

                                                    b.l.i.n.k.i.n.g. t.o.o. m.u.c.h.

then nothing, nothing,

                                                                                            BLACK OUT