Friday, 28 October 2011

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I have to say my relationship with Twitter has not been a happy one.
I remember when I first started using it, within a couple of weeks Stephen Fry (who I know) had decided to quit Twitter after some random act of verbal violence by a thug. Stephen’s reaction was driven by his manic depression – I know because we talked about it – and he finally saw sense, felt the love of his vast following, and relented. The sadness he felt was that the chap who had delivered the insult wasn’t a particularly bad man and he was attacked mercilessly by Stephen’s followers until he had to leave Twitter – ironic really.
Manic depression (and please don’t tell me it’s not called that anymore – I’ve had too many total prats tell me “it’s called bipolar nowadays” – don’t you think I know that, I’ve lived with it for 30 years) does things to your mind that are cruel. It makes you believe everybody hates you just because one person may have said something unpleasant and reinforced your own self hatred. It makes you doubt your own abilities to the extent that any form of success is an utter surprise. And it accentuates your love for something into a feeling more akin to desperate reliance rather than the warm and lovely feeling normal mortals feel.
Well my MD (I’ll use this short cut for manic depression –you pedantic twats can read bipolar for it instead) does that; and here’s the thing about MD – it does different things to different people,  that is the pure beauty of mental illness. I do understand the main key identifiers and their commonality across the population, but just like any ‘treat’ in life, it’s the personalisation that really counts.
I am a successful individual, I have worked in ‘showbiz’ all my life and as a result know a lot of ‘famous’ people simply as friends. I get invited to fancy parties (I rarely go but the invites continue) I work in TV right now and will be recording an album of my songs sometime soon. Life should be good but, of course, it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, most of my life I have ridden the wave that is MD, and haven’t let it rule my life. Outwardly, so long as things don’t get too personal or emotional, I am stable, quite jolly at times and sociable. I am a little ‘cold’ as they say – I don’t emotionally connect – but that often comes across as a leadership quality and people do follow me (which I find quite amusing given how I feel inside) and have done all my life.
But here’s the thing. Ever since I joined Twitter I have struggled with my MD in ways that have never been there before. I like twitter, there is a community of individuals which quite suits my detached sociability system, you chat without knowing who you are chatting to. Strangely some people want to turn Twitter into a place where they can connect in real life with people – it doesn’t hold that attraction for me and I don’t really understand it, but whatever works. To me its remoteness (some of my best chums on Twitter don’t even have a photo of themselves up – and I am like that as well) is what makes it work. I don’t need to connect, I don’t need to be nice and I don’t need to justify anything I say. In simple terms if somebody sends back a mention I can ignore it.
So in theory Twitter should be an ideal place for me. Anonymity, no social contact, a place to publish my views. But Twitter has become a strange connector of people for me. Of course you cannot choose your followers on Twitter (well you can create a closed group but the point of that defeats me) and I seem to have collected a lot of very clever people. Smart folk with ‘posh’ accents (that’s how I see them) now follow this working class boy from Yorkshire and, to be frank, they intimidate me! Ironic isn’t it, that the people who like to connect with me are the reason why I struggle with the medium.
They are lovely people, that are appreciative of my opinions and interventions but they magnify my personal feelings of inadequacy and by doing so they magnify my MD. Don’t get me wrong, there are other things happening in my life – big things – that are also effecting me but I just don’t think Twitter helps!
So what to do? For the last few days I have just posted and not interacted. Maybe that will work. I doubt it though to be honest. Maybe I should simply not go onto Twitter anymore. I managed without it until 18 months ago and I’m sure I can get back to that, but do I want to?
A few days ago I was fiddling with my avatar and I changed it to a picture of my dog Izzy. I should say that I bought Izzy 5 years ago for purely selfish reasons. I was at a low point in my life (yeh another one) and was seriously considering suicide. But I have kids and I angered myself for even thinking of doing that to them; but still the feelings remained. The idea came to me to buy a dog. My kids have left home and their needs are not immediate, a dog would rely totally on me and I wouldn’t be able to consider leaving it alone. It worked and we are incredibly close.
So when I put the picture up on Twitter I did it as a proud dad and some folk hit me with what I’m sure they thought were clever and funny comments. Unfortunately, for me, they were the same as somebody making fun of your kids. So I took the picture down and left. I made a comment and funnily enough some of my followers asked who it was who had upset me; on a minor scale I suddenly saw the Stephen Fry parallel, I didn’t reply. I don’t need defending.
The question remains do I ‘need’ Twitter? Clearly I don’t but maybe I do. Let’s see how it goes with less Twitter and more real life – wow what a brave concept that is.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Funny Little Thing

In light of the rising frequency of human/grizzly bear encounters, the Montana Department of Fish and Game is advising hikers, backpackers, hunters, and fishermen to take extra precautions and keep alert for bears.

“We advise outdoorsmen to wear noisy little bells on their clothing so that the bears are not startled unexpectedly by a human's presence. We also advise outdoorsmen to carry pepper spray with them in case of an encounter with a bear.
It is also a good idea to watch for fresh signs of bear activity. Outdoorsmen should recognize the difference between black bear poop and grizzly bear poop. Black bear poop is smaller and contains lots of berries and squirrel fur. Grizzly bear poop smells like pepper and has little bells in it.”

Friday, 14 October 2011

In search of the English - Part One

There is a strong case for agreeing with Winston Churchill that the Second World War was this country’s ‘finest hour’. He was talking about Britain and the British Empire, but the values of that Empire were the values that the English like to think they invented. To my mind the war and its aftermath are the last time when the English had a clear and positive sense of themselves. It was reflected back in films like In Which We Serve, Noel Coward’s fictionalised account of the sinking of HMS Kelly. It is an ordered, hierarchical sort of place in which the war is an inconvenience we put up with, a chaste, self-denying country in which women know their place and children go quietly to bed. ‘Don’t make a fuss’ the wives say to one another during an air raid ‘we’ll have a cup of tea in a minute’; as the Chief Petty Officer leaves home his mother asks when he’ll be ashore again.
‘All depends on Hitler’ he says
‘Well who does he think he is?’ responds the mother to which his cheery reply is ‘that’s the spirit’.
In Which We Serve was unashamedly propaganda for a people facing the possible extinction of their culture, which is the reason why it is so illuminating. It shows us how the English like to think of themselves. The picture we get from this and many other similar films is of a stoic, homely, quiet, disciplined, self-denying, kindly, honourable and dignified people who would much rather be tending their gardens than defending the world from fascist tyranny – but if they must well....let’s get on with it.
I’ve lived all my life in the England that emerged from the shadow of Hitler and am happy to confess an admiration for the place as it seemed to be then, despite its small mindedness, hypocrisy and prejudice. It fell into a war that it had repeatedly been promised would be avoided, because of the spinelessness of the French and their partners, and in so doing it found itself picking up the bill for the rescue operation whilst those it saved turned their back on it – it also advanced its fall from world eminence by decades.
The revisionists tell us that much of the British achievement in that war was not what it seemed or was reported at the time. Certainly the British have clung onto heroic illusions about the war, the favourite ones being the Little Ships at Dunkirk, the victory of the Few in the Battle of Britain and the courage of Londoners and other city dwellers in the Blitz. OK, the role of the Little Ships has been exaggerated, the Battle of Britain was lost by Hitler’s misjudgement as much as by the heroism of our fighter pilots. The Blitz was stopped by the courage and determination of Bomber Command whose ruthless retaliatory raids on Germany caused Hitler to lose the stomach for it. It is also demonstrably wrong that the British won the war alone, the Americans provided the leverage and the British ended up paying the bill for that until the mid 60’s; but the fact remains we did stand alone in the summer of 1940 and had we not done so we and the rest of Europe would still be in the grip of the Nazis today. Had we not had the great benefit of geography, perhaps like the rest of Europe this country would have found willing executioners to do the Nazi bidding. But geography matters; it makes people who they are.
There have been many attempts to explain what the Second World War did to Britain, what is undoubtedly true is that in that titanic struggle the English had the clearer idea of what they stood for and, therefore, who they were. It was nothing like Hitler’s pride in his Fatherland it was something smaller more personal and I think more quietly powerful.
Take David Lean’s 1945 tale of forbidden love, Brief Encounter. The couple meet in a railway station tearoom where she is waiting for a train (steam of course) home from a days shopping. A speck of coal dirt gets caught in her eye and, without a word of introduction the gallant local doctor steps forward and removes it. The following 80 minutes of this beautifully made film show their deepening love and the guilt each feels about it. Trevor Howard’s tall strong frame, fine nose, strong jaw, Celia Johnson’s retrouss√© nose and clear eyes seem to embody the English. They belong to the infinitely respectable middle class in which strangulated scheme of things ‘levly gels’ wish only to be ‘relly heppy’.
The doctor begins his seduction with the classic English gambit of commenting on the weather, a few moments later he mentions music; ‘my husband’s not musical’, she says ‘Good for him’ says the doctor. Good for him? Why is it good for him? Makes it sound like he’s done something really brave admitting his lack of musicality; it is Good for him of course because it recognises a God ordained right to be a philistine and the rectitude of people who please themselves in their own home – a very English trait indeed. As Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto comes and goes in the background their love unfolds measured out in cups of tea. Celia Johnson’s husband is the kind of man who calls his wife old girl, at one point she muses ‘ I believe we’d all be different if we lived in a sunny climate, then we shouldn’t be so withdrawn and shy and difficult’. Being English she feels no animosity towards her husband who she sees as ‘kindly and emotional’. Trevor Howard is also trapped in a dry marriage but doesn’t express any animosity towards his wife and children. The two of them are in the force of passions they can barely control; ‘we must be sensible’ is heard several times ‘if we control ourselves there is still time’.
In the end despite all the protestations of undying love the romance can never be. He does the decent thing and sets off for a job in South Africa while she returns to her decent but dull husband. The end.
So what does this incredibly popular English film tell us about the English? First ‘we are not put on this earth to enjoy ourselves’, second the importance of a sense of duty: wearing a uniform had been a fact of life for most of the adult population – Trevor Howard had been a Lieutenant in the Royal Corp of Signals, Celia Johnson an auxiliary policewoman – they both knew about sacrificing their careers and lives for the greater good as both had been ‘stars’ before the war and simply faded into being ordinary to help the cause. Most of all the message from the film is that emotions are there to be controlled. It was 1945 but it could just as easily have been 1955 or 1965; the fashions might have changed but the weather would still be damp and the policemen avuncular. It would, despite the post war Welfare State, be a country where everyone knew their place. Delivery carts (driven by men in uniform) still brought milk and bread to the front door. There were things that were done and things that were not done.
One could assume about these people that they were decent, and as industrious as was necessary to meet pretty modest ambitions. They were accustomed to seeing themselves as aggressed against, steady under fire, defiant against an enemy. The image is of British troops at Waterloo withstanding all out assault by the French, or the dome of St Pauls emerging from the smoke and flame of German bombs. They had a deeply held sense of their own rights, yet would proudly say they were ‘not much bothered’ about politics. The abject failure of both far right and far left in General Elections testifies to the profound scepticism of the English to anybody offering a promised land. They were, it’s true, reserved and prone to melancholy. But they were not in any meaningful sense religious, the Church of England being a political invention which had elevated being a ‘good chap’  to something close to canonisation! On those occasions when the state would require them to admit their allegiance they would write ‘C of E’ knowing that this religion would never badger them into regular attendance or try to get them to give all their money to the poor.
In 1951 the People newspaper organised a survey of its readers. For three years Geoffrey Gorer pored over the 11,000 responses and, at the end, concluded that not a lot had changed over the past 150 years. Clearly a vast lawless population had been turned into a law abiding society, a country which had enjoyed dog fights, bear baiting and public hanging was now humanitarian and squeamish but.. “what seems to have remained constant is a great resentment at being overlooked or controlled, a love of freedom; fortitude; a low interest in sexual activity compared with most neighbouring societies; a strong belief in the value of education for the formation of character; consideration and delicacy for the feelings of other people; and a very strong attachment to marriage and the institution of the family.....The English are a truly unified people, more unified I would hazard, than at any previous period in their history. When I was reading with extreme care, the first batch of questionnaires, I found I was constantly making the same notes: ‘What dull lives most of these people lead’ but also ‘what good people these are!’ I should still make the same judgement”
The reason for this unity was obvious enough – the country had just come through a terrible war which had required shared sacrifice. The population of England was still relatively homogeneous, used to accepting the inconvenience of discipline and unaffected by mass immigration. It was still insular, not merely in a physical sense but because the mass media had yet to create the global village.
It is the last time when it was possible to define the English, the nation whose discipline and resolve won the Second World War, that nation who for the last time was asked to organise the world to end the disgusting German and Japanese models of the future and in doing so it let itself slip away.
Now we stand on the edge of another disaster in Europe, this one created by greed and arrogance, but this time the English no longer exist as a breed who can take the lead. Again the Europeans would rather we stayed out and simply gave them our money and perhaps we will, but this will be a pivotal time for the English (not the British) and I hope we make the right decisions, whatever they might be.
I am proud to be English and hope that we do still exist as a breed. I will post other articles as I find the English and I’ll be happy to accept any help in finding this very special and powerful nation of people that the world unwisely turned its back on.