Sooo… this has been bubbling for a while now. Junior Doctors have striked for 2 days this week against changes to their contracts being bulldozed through by the Government – and more power to them. I believe their Action is important for more reasons than one. But I also have a growing concern about an indirect consequence of the anger this dispute has generated.
The JDs dispute is all Jeremy Hunt’s fault. Everyone knows that, right? So what’s the answer? Force him to resign!
And the contemptible proposals to cut disability benefits in order to fund tax breaks for the better-off – that was all Iain Duncan Smith’s fault – and now he’s resigned – hooray!
David Cameron and his family are among those who have benefitted directly from our country’s tax laws that are biased in favour of those with lots of money and corporate entities. We’re jealous of people who have that opportunity. So what’s the answer? Demand his resignation – right?
None of these policies are the work of individuals. Picking off members of the Cabinet by hounding them out of office (or trying to) one by one is not Democracy in action, and nor is it effective. It’s simply a distraction. This is not Politics, people! This is Showbiz!
Each time we, the electorate, personalise our rejection of a policy on an individual, we weaken our political impact. If Jeremy Hunt resigns tomorrow, we still have the same government, with the same policies. Even if the government backs down on something high-profile, they are still the party they are, with their policies unchanged. They will still find a way to implement those policies, and will be delighted if we’re looking the other way whilst that happens.
I’d put good money on it, if I had any to spare, that the MPs we are encouraged by the media to vilify are rarely, if ever, the authors of the policies we abhor. Behind each minister is a workforce of salaried civil servants whose job it is to dream this stuff up and make it happen. I know. I’ve been on the edges of that world.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m very short on sympathy for the MPs, but getting rid of them one by one will NOT make the policies go away. We elected this government, and (gulp) they are doing what we elected them for – even if we didn’t realise that’s what we voted for.
I’ll say that again. They are doing what we elected them for.
Which brings me to the larger point. The media (for reasons I can’t begin to speculate about) influences the electorate – us. One of the most powerful ways in which that is achieved is by personalising politics. Instead of paying attention to the policies, or intentions, of the parties standing for election, we are encouraged to pay attention to the personalities of figureheads. After all, policies are boring, and it’s so much more entertaining to throw mud at the candidates.
Our last general election was fought pretty much solely on personality: Nigel Farage a contemptible charicature; Nick Clegg an invisible drip; Ed Milliband a bumbling buffoon. Oh dear, well at least Mr Cameron can speak confidently and looks nice in his suit. And so we elect a party whose policies do nothing whatever for the vast majority of us, because its figurehead is the only one apparently capable of standing on his hind legs and looking presentable.
Never mind the consequences of his party’s policies. At least he looks the part.
The same forces are at work when politicians snipe at each other with personal comments and the press joins in. So what if Jeremy Corbyn has a cheap suit? Why do we think it matters? It’s his party’s policies that matter – anyone know what those are?
Further, the media would have us believe that it’s not a good thing for political parties to debate policy. They allege that this party or that “doesn’t know what it’s doing”.
But the whole basis of democracy is debate. And the basis of debate is information.
One thing we’re short on in the “information age” is, ironically, information. We are fed opinion and entertainment, because actual facts are a bit dull and god forbid we should actually think about anything to form our own opinion. Our exam-focused education system perpetuates this: we’ve swallowed a myth somewhere along the line that remembering stuff is education. Our kids are not helped to think; they are taught to swallow whole, opinions and biased reporting. (Though encouragingly, there are some who manage to see through all that and retain their clear-sightedness long enough to make a real difference. Witness Mairhi Black of the SNP).
Lastly throughout this piece I’ve referred to “we”. Because it really doesn’t matter at this stage who I voted for in the last election – what happened, happened. What matters is that I, we, see what’s happening, and call what’s happening. Because I am part of that “we” who elected the Conservatives. Each of us is. If you didn’t vote, or if, like me, you fell for personality politics, you also did your part.
My responsibility now is to see through the politics of personality, and to shout about its impact – to do my best to wake up those around me, and to demand that we think about what we want; and show an interest in our representatives’ policies, not just their suits.
…was a wholly appalling hit record of 1959, that got played a lot during my mid-1960s childhood on Junior Choice and Family Favourites. How times have changed! It’s my modern ears that find it appalling (check it out, judge for yourself) but as a little girl I thought it was just the thing, though I was aware of parental toes curling as I sang along.
40+ years later the song is still with me, for entirely different reasons, as part of my inner exploration. Last year, inspired by a short piece by Elizabeth Gilbert, I began to identify, get to know and work with my inner girls, the inward expressions of early programming who, left undisturbed, can play havoc in my life with their quarrels and acting out.
Internal Family Systems therapy, or IFS, is a therapeutic technique developed by Richard Schwarz in the late 20th Century. It aims to promote Self-Leadership by uncovering the sub-personalities within the subject, and exploring the positive intent of each, with a view to integration – or promoting the ability of the unified Self to lead day to day, rather than be led by conflicting emotions and reactions. This type of therapy has been shown to be safe and effective for many working alone, without a therapist. (There are circumstances in which this is not recommended, and for a summary of these check out “Self Therapy, a step-by-step guide to Creating Wholeness” by Jay Earley.)
So, my exploration is pretty low-key, but helpful to me nonetheless. Appropriately enough, there are 7 distinct sub-personalities at play (who I’ve met). Rachel and Lee have been the last to appear and took their time arriving. As the intervals lengthen between the appearance of distinct characters, I assume / hope there are fewer, or none, remaining unknown.
This blog post is primarily for me – a space in which to record my observations of the interplay of the characters that make up “me”, but since none of them are highly sensitive in content, they may be of interest to others undertaking similar exploration.
My name for Unified Self is Becky. The oddly undefined, whole, balanced, loving, compassionate, sensitive, unreasonable, demanding bitch that is all of me, the adult who wishes increasingly to lead my life. I write as Becky, and name her only when expression makes it confusing otherwise. I find it helpful to visualise the entire group of us on a journey in a minibus. Becky woke up some time ago in the back of the bus with these 7 girls taking turns (or squabbling over) driving. The bus’ erratic and occasionally risky course has been governed by who was dominant at the controls at any given time. My aim now is to reassure all 7 of their safety as passengers, to prevent hijack by any of them, and to drive the bus according to my preferences. It’s an interesting journey.
Broadly speaking, I’ve been aware of Becca for a while – my inner child. She’s quite intense for a little one – anxious to please and to be good. She feels responsible for the happiness of those around her even though she can do little to influence it, beyond “being good”. She worries all the time that “something is going wrong”. (Earliest recollection at a swimming class aged 4, most recently usually the car. Which is newish.) Her greatest insecurity is the fear of love being withdrawn; of what might happen to her if that occurs. Her objective of not being too much trouble and of being good, which includes being quiet and self-occupied, is intended to prevent the withdrawal of love.
I’ve known Rebecca pretty much as long as Becca. She’s my inner critic, a strict and critical teacher and an unavailable, perfectionist parent, rolled into one. Her driving force is to ensure that Becca, whom she protects, is good enough, and not too much trouble. The snag is that these criteria are at best, ill-defined, which means that just about everything is troublesome and/or not good enough in Rebecca’s harsh judgment. In earlier years, her judgments were turned outward as well as inward; nowadays, this tendency is curbed, though unfortunately sometimes with harsher self-criticism.
Rebekah fancies herself the tragic heroine of a melodramatic novel. She is convinced that the road to Good Enough is paved with suffering, self-sacrifice, injustice and disappointment. Just like Pollyanna and Katie Carr of What Katy Did, her script suggests that, through suffering brought on by her own stupidity, and compounded by strict though attentive carers, the heroine will attain saintly forbearance and be loved by all in the end. The strict carers will become kind, she will meet and marry a good and handsome (rich) man and be the serene and beautiful love of his life – and they all live happily ever after. Her negative side shows in passive aggression and a sense of martyrdom, which come out when she notices the tragic heroine strategy doesn’t work.
The angry teenager, Becks claims not to care about anything. Rebecca and Rebekah are plain stupid with their idiotic rules and stories and she doesn’t care if no one loves her. She’ll be OK on her own. Who cares if she’s fat and ugly, she doesn’t need to be like the other girls with their stupid dolls and make-up and shoes. She fancies herself a tomboy (conveniently forgetting she’s a complete wuss when it comes to climbing, noisy machinery and disharmony or disobedience of any sort). She is (genuinely) interested in alcohol, sex, heavy rock, cars, theoretical rebellion and mechanical practicality – all things she identifies boys as enjoying. She seeks to secure admiration and attention, if not love, through these instead of being good.
I found Mach sitting quietly scheming, shortly after the other girls made their distinct presences felt when I started this work. Mach is determined to get her own way as much of the time as possible, and devotes all her energy to control – most often through manipulation and subtle means – hence her handle, which is short for Machiavelli. Mach kicks into action the minute any challenge, difficulty or problem is perceived (ie every day, several times a day). When she has even a trivial thing planned (like what’s for tea) she can get really annoyed and unsettled if something else eventuates. She doesn’t always disclose her plans to others, or if she does, she spends a lot of energy working out how to present them to secure the reply “yes”. Her machinations have led in the past, by differing degrees, and not exclusively, to deceit, lying, selective deafness and muteness, coercion, passive aggression, visible sulking, hysteria and temper. On the plus-side, she has a good brain, she is clear-sighted and an exceptional planner. Set onto a real, complex task that has to be achieved, she will nail it with awesome ease. Her positive intent is self-evident. Her techniques need work.
Now we come to the dark horses, who I suspect wield influence way greater than their noisier companions. When depression arose recently I had to contemplate – whose voice is this? Who is at the wheel? I wondered at first if it was Rebekah, with her love of drama and suffering. Whilst she certainly enjoys Rachel’s driving, it was not her, as there is no narrative happy ending for Rachel. I think to an extent everyone on the bus is conscious of and protective of Rachel. She is Becks’ converse. For Rachel acknowledges that she cares very much if no one loves her, she cares deeply that she is fat an ugly, and finds herself deeply, irremediably unlovable. Everyone else on the bus, in one way or another, no matter how misguided, is positively intent on securing and keeping love. Rachel has despaired. I chose her name as the hidden or forgotten one. At birth I was Rachel Rebecca, but because my parents had heard that Rachel was becoming a popular name, they chose to call me by my second name, Rebecca, so there wouldn’t be lots in my class at school sharing my name. (Needless to say there were umpteen Rebeccas of my age, no Rachels to speak of). Rachel was abandoned. I tried several times during childhood to resurrect her, to no avail. And then at 40, I deed-polled her out of my name, though the NHS continue to insist she’s there. She is the forgotten child, who sees no point whatever in any efforts to attain love, or indeed to remain alive. The times when she grabs the wheel are dark and scary as she searches (mentally) for a surefire way to crash the bus and kill us all with the least pain and inconvenience. In self-preservation, I realise that sedation is essential and use prozac to keep her, drowsily pinned by her seatbelt as far away from the controls as possible. I hope one day maybe a different means might be found that will allow her greater, safer, kinder care.
Lee is (currently) the final passenger to be found and named. She is named for Lee Holloway, the lead character in “Secretary”, a 2002 film directed by Steven Shainberg and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. The film charts the discovery by a deeply (sexually and personally) submissive woman, Lee, of her inner power. I love the film, which is a gross-oversimplification of a perilously sensitive and complex topic, but which somehow speaks to me. For my Lee is every bit as submissive, her preference is to be utterly passive. She dislikes choice, especially when it affects those around her. She over-thinks the consequences of her choices, and ropes Mach in to helping her make decisions. She hates feeling she is responsible for keeping the show on the road (whereas Mach assumes responsibility unbidden). She yearns for life to be “done unto” her, but with kindness and care that relieves her of responsibility. She is sweet and loving and profoundly afraid. She hides in dark corners and behind the others. When she is behind the wheel, she stares and steers straight ahead following one road and heedless of any junctions where choices might be helpful. She cannot choose to whom she hands over control – they simply take the wheel. She just wants someone else to drive.
~ * ~
So here I am – driving these girls, most of the time. I notice more readily nowadays when one of them tries to shove me aside and wrest control, and I’m more alert to their various promptings. It’s still not an easy matter to quiet them lovingly, but over time it will get better as I win their trust. I’ve touched here on some of the dynamics between them, but need more time to observe and notice before I speak more of that.
It’s a gentle technique of self-exploration, and one which, unusually for me, is easy to exercise alone. It’s time we hit the road again.
I utilise inverted commas around “god” in the title here, because what I mean by god is more than likely nothing like what any reader means by god. My reasons for not capitalising the initial are similar… but complex, and not really the point of this post.
For a start, I’m not one of those “god-people” who insists everyone has to share my world-view to be “saved”. The only saving I’m interested in, loosely, is of the idea that spirituality, for want of a better word, has a place in modern life. For me, that’s a big, important place – a seat at the top table of my life. I’ve no desire to change where anyone else places it in their life. But people and connection are important to me and it’s one of the key points of connection or understanding, for me. So whether you agree or disagree with my outlook is not the point – it’s that discussion which helps me understand you, and to connect with you – even if we see the world entirely differently.
To nutshell a very long story, I was raised in a nominally christian family through Sunday School and Church, and my desire for connection drew me into christian fundamentalism with all the arrogance of a typical teen. That personal fundamentalism led to crippling self-condemnation and shame when I left my first husband, and complete disconnection from church and the community there. The desire for connection to my new partner (#2H) led me to complete divorce from christianity. He was a lapsed Catholic with all the mixed up guilt and anger that make a potent cocktail for rejection of faith. So I was disengaged from spirituality then for just about as long as I had been engaged with it before. When the relationship with #2H became creaky and leaky, I found a “god-shaped”hole in my life – but I wanted something very different from the religion I had experienced in my youth. And so I came (via a winding path) to Interfaith, and the position I describe in the previous paragraph. ie – my prime desire is for connection, and “spirituality” is a very coarse label for my preferred medium through which to do that – with any and everyone.
Thing is though, it’s not a fixed position. My early experience of faith (and god) was about adopting a fixed position that I was taught, and any sense of movement came from adapting my life to fit that model. The consequence of that, for me, was a constant sense of failure, inadequacy – sin. My latter experience has been much more organic, a journey of exploration of what is true for me; what is the impact of this or that idea, and whether that is something I want in my life. It’s a lived experiment which sometimes demands rigorous and rather painful explorations of what lies deep within me, programmed into my subconscious.
I never again want to glibly trot out other people’s received wisdom – which is why I talk a lot in the first person. I can’t speak for anyone else. I can’t determine what’s right for anyone else. I can only be responsible for me and how I behave, how I am in the world. So if a belief leads me to be in a way that I dislike, it’s up to me to change it. I have chosen a spiritual path that demands I fully acknowledge my accountability – I don’t get to blame it on god, a faith, a community or a holy book. And I like it that way.
So when it comes to talking to god, all kinds of questions appear. “Who is this god person anyway?” “What is faith?”.
I’ve come to realise that my childish view of god as a kind of moral vending machine (good behaviour in, answered prayers out) doesn’t work – not because I’m not good enough – but because one thing god definitely isn’t is a kind of moral vending machine! The bitter experience of trying countless ways to coerce, dupe, wheedle or otherwise induce the almighty to do my bidding, has forced me to this. And, honestly, which of us who was so “good” that our prayers were always answered, would not be petrified? What a lofty pinnacle from which to fall!
For years I tied myself in intellectual, emotional (and spiritual) knots trying to solve the conundrum. It took me a long time and many many disappointments to realise every angle was simply another attempt to win god’s favour by being good enough.
My prayers were silenced by the inner voice which queried whether I was asking for “the right thing” – a kind of Gordian knot in which I needed to know god’s will in order to ask for it, in order to have my prayers answered – making the not knowing the “not good enough” ingredient that explained why they were not. Others were silenced by perspective. I’m well aware that the earth is big, the galaxy bigger and the universe beyond my comprehension. So how can the fleeting whim of one speck of dust amongst gazillions, possibly matter. What, cosmically speaking, is the point of prayer?
What, practically speaking, is the point of prayer?
So there is a new idea emerging, a kinder idea, that comforts me. And it’s this.
I do believe in god. What or who that is is impossible for me to encapsulate in words. And that is as it should be. I’m not sure a god small enough to fit in my head, whose workings I understood, would be worth believing in. Let’s face it, my car is bigger than that.
So not seeing the point of a thing doesn’t render it pointless.
And faith, I think currently, is about holding on to an idea, for example the existence of god, for some other reason than its intellectual or scientific provenance. I do believe in god. I have faith that in some ineffable way, god is interested in this particular fleeting speck of dust. I have faith that, maybe even because of my infinitesimal fleetingness, that I am good enough for god – I don’t need to prove anything to god. That’s what is pointless.
I find when I pray in times of need, or compassion, or anxiety and so on, that the prayers which come, are in words, and the words are those of the very small me that received its earliest programming. And because I believe in god, and have faith, and am good enough, it’s OK to use those crude, unsophisticated words to give expression to my wishes. If nothing else, that expression comforts me – much as a small child is comforted by burbling unimportant nonsense to its carer.
And for now, until the next step, that feels good.
WARNING: This is pretty frank, and just for today there is no happy ending. Other days there will be. I just want to say it aloud.
Days like today are so… disappointing.
When you’ve had the feeling for a couple of days that the sap may be rising, and the dark days gone, at least for a while. And then you wake up one morning and realise that the treacherous notion that it is all – everything – completely pointless, is closer than you suspected and once again looming over you, its stale breath falling on your face making you want to resist the very life-giving act of inhalation.
Having a shower is too effortful, so you take a flannel wash and hate yourself for being slovenly. You’ll stink before the day is out. So what.
What gives comfort? You trot through the usual round of ideas hoping one of them may hit home today. You’re supposed to have faith – to believe in the Maker of All Things. Well, yes, but in my vernacular, from earliest days, that just made how I’m feeling wrong – sinful, ungrateful, faithless. I was never good enough for that god: never quite sincere enough, never quite sorry enough not to do it again (whatever it was), never truly repentant enough to be swept up by spirit to a level of ecstasy beyond my power to imagine. My mind firmly anchored in reality, despite my emotions’ wish to soar away. Never good enough to deserve redemption, to deserve acceptance by the ones whose approval I yearned for so earnestly.
And nowadays gradually coming to the idea that god wants and needs nothing of me – a microscopic grain of matter on a very slightly less microscopic grain, whose existence lasts but a cosmic twinkling. For a start, I have enough sense of perspective to see that. And also if I don’t want to believe in a needy, irascible, passive-aggressive god (and I don’t) then why would I need to win his favour by efforts? Which should be comforting, right? But it’s not. Because if I’m not here to get better, if god doesn’t mind how I conduct myself, then what’s the point in doing anything?
Seriously. What’s the point?
So to mindfulness, and noticing what’s true right now. Takes a fair effort to apply my mind to this; and today it won’t stick. It simply slopes off into grumbling that it’s factually true – there is no point. I feel how I feel and it doesn’t matter – cosmically, existentially, practically. I know that I’ll keep getting up and functioning, not because all of the above is untrue, but because the one abiding motivation of my life is to avoid pain and discomfort. Trying to end my life or harming myself risks both. Neglecting myself leads inevitably to both. So plod on, chin up, stay on the tightrope.
What would Brendan do without me? How would he feel if I weren’t here? Well, frankly I think he’d be OK. I don’t even like to tell him how I’m feeling. It’s no help to either of us. It is not up to him to make me feel better, any more than it’s up to me to make him feel better. The voices in my mind can’t agree on whether it’s better to get these ideas out into words or keep them caged up inside. I can find received wisdom to support either case.
My thoughts keep returning to Judas Iscariot. Much like the fairytales of my childhood, which had a profound effect on my world view, the stories of Jesus which I’ve known for just as long, continue to influence me long after their factual accuracy has ceased to matter to me. Judas betrayed Jesus for a paltry sum. Is my repeated descent into depression somehow analogous? In what way do I betray my maker by repeatedly questioning the very point of my existence? Is this just a bad habit, picking at a sore and thereby prolonging the pain? Is it really true that this is, in some way, existentially speaking “wrong”? Or is that simply one of the chains with which an unbalanced brain anchors me to wrong-thinking?
I’m invited to think less, do more, distract myself. And I know that sooner or later this will happen. In a small way I began today by sorting and tidying my crafting materials; I have a host of potential projects to pick up. Each new project brings a surge of enthusiasm and a wave of acquisition of materials and ideas, a flurry of activity until either it’s done or I’m tired of it. Until next time. And this is what I call my muse, when I don’t call it my mood. There is so much within me to create, on the days when I can muster the enthusiasm.
Distraction from pointlessness often comes in the form of acquisition of one kind or another – for craft projects, or to fill some imagined or real practical need (we need a new sofa, a new car, a new…); to fix things, to make some complaint of mine or Brendan’s better. At the simplest and most routine level it’s eating and drinking (more than strictly necessary); cooking – bigger meals than needed, usually. Arranging trips away, holidays, activities – all distraction. I know when I get back that there will be a little voice inside me saying “well, that was a pointless waste of time, and money, and energy”.
I’ve been here a thousand times through my life, and deeper, darker places than this. They come and go. I recognise them more readily now, and can watch the thoughts cycling through with a degree of detachment, knowing they will roll away out of sight when they are good and ready. It seems helpful, possibly, to acknowledge this as depression. It offers in time to peel off a sticky layer of the guilt and self-loathing that coats the experience. I wish something could make it go away for good.
So now, I find myself having committed this to words, and wondering what the point of that was. I feel no better. No one is interested in me droning on and on about the pointlessness of everything. In Tove Janssen’s Moomin books, there was a character, might have been a muskrat. He was a philosopher whose thesis was “the uselessness of everything”. I thought he was a terrific bore – had no idea why he was even in the stories. Stupid.
Before I begin, let me clarify what I mean by “we”.
“We” is a broad-brush term I use to refer to the great, faceless mass of millions of whom I am a member. You and I, though elements of “we”, act as individuals. Our role is paradoxical. Without each individual there would be no “we”, and therefore you and I share some responsibility for the behaviour of We. But as ordinary individuals you and I cannot control We. You and I can only seek to influence ourselves and those immediately around us.
Some ten years ago, whilst at work I needed to speak to a contractor who was dealing with the fuse-board near our office. I found him seated on the top step of the stairs, on the phone to someone. Let’s call him Bill. The conversation went a bit like this:
Caller [more words, sounding emphatic]
Bill Ugh. Ng…uh.
Caller [words with voice raised sounding really quite cross]
Bill Ngh! Nuh! – Uh…
Caller (interrupting) [very excited and emphatic words]
Caller [monosyllable. Click]
Bill Huh. [Expletives under breath]
Since this was a qualified and employed man, I inferred rather flippantly that gradually, we are un-evolving. Neanderthal man might have communicated with a similar vocabulary. Of course this judgment of the contractor may be unfair – sometimes we don’t require much in the way of words to communicate over something familiar. But still, it was thought-provoking, because the power of language is greatly under-estimated.
Now that I’ve been alive long enough to observe this first-hand, it has fascinated me how idiomatic or colloquial use of language actually changes the accepted meanings of words and phrases. Rather than striving to articulate precisely using a fixed lexicon, we bend the lexicon to accommodate our (arguably lazy) habits of communication. Not so very long ago, a diva was a “celebrated female singer; a woman of outstanding talent in the world of opera”[i] . Nowadays through popular usage it has come to have less complimentary connotations of a woman who throws tantrums to get her excessive demands met. Similarly “gifts in store” once upon a time meant there would be presents at some point in the future, they were being saved up. Now it means new stock or offers are available in a shop.
Other words too are evolving. “Democracy” appears to be used exchangeably with “freedom” and both are used near-synonymously with “capitalism”.
World events of late have left me wondering what “civilisation” currently may actually mean. One dictionary definition is “the stage of human social development and organisation which is considered most advanced”[ii]. Synonyms for “civilised” include “polite, courteous, well mannered, good mannered, civil, decorous, gentlemanly, ladylike, gracious”[iii] There appears to be growing evidence that the term is beginning to be used (in media reporting and by politicians) with partisan implications: that this or that state which does not embrace democracy and capitalism is, ergo, uncivilised. It tacitly gives license to the so-called “civilised” world by any means necessary to force the others to behave in ways that accord with our standard. As if blowing people limb from limb were any more civilised than beheading them. As if hounding a person for their non-christian beliefs were any more civilised than persecuting christians.
Ironically, disregard for articulate expression (or widespread sloppy use of language) has led not only to the dumbing-down of our news media and political discourse, but simultaneously to near-universal, uncritical acceptance of ideas expressed using words that impress us – not with their meaning, but with the emotion they convey. We allow ourselves to be distracted by “clever” or entertaining sniping among public figures, by ridicule and by emotive speculation, and we don’t notice the real issues at hand. We are in danger, as a society, of being mesmerised by emotive words and of losing our capacity for intelligent discernment.
Recent examples would be the British Prime Minister’s reference to “a swarm of migrants” which generated an overwhelming negative reaction to a supposed influx of immigrants that never eventuated. It led indirectly to the current lamentable “debate” over Britain’s EU membership, marked by a bewildering paucity of factual evidence and based almost entirely on personality and celebrity opinion. Overseas, at the end of last year, a candidate for the Republican nomination for the US Presidency, to his supporters’ approbation, was quoted: “…Now I just call them stupid. I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words, I have the best words. I have the best, but there is no better word than stupid. Right? There is none, there is none. There’s no, there’s no, there’s no word like that.”
Why are we taken in by all this emotional hot-air?
As I write, I’m struck repeatedly by the fact that I do not have “the best words”. More than once during the composition of this piece I’ve questioned why I would bother. My voice has no impact; my articulation of ideas is unsophisticated; my opinions are scantily researched. The volume and complexity of the evidence I might research to defend my position more robustly, is overwhelming. I could spend years studying to better support my assertions and still not reach a conclusive position. On more occasions than not, I have allowed such considerations to stop me in my tracks: I have chosen not to speak.
Instead I wince at the words of those, who with similar (or poorer) abilities and educational achievements, and the same tools at their disposal, choose nevertheless to speak. That’s the difference between me and the tabloid journalists or the politicians I affect to despise. It’s not very civilised of me. Not very democratic. When I choose silence I run the risk of discarding my freedom to speak.
Plato said “those who seek power are not worthy of that power”; Billy Connolly went further: “the desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever becoming one”. We all laughed. But he had a point.
I would submit that at this stage in the evolution of western civilisation, those whom we term our leaders, are not in fact leaders, but enforcers. We flatter ourselves that we have freedom and democracy, and claim the moral high ground on a host of issues. But our real leaders are the unelected ones who lead our opinions, and thence our actions, with emotive words and beguiling illusions. TV news and documentary long since ceased to provide facts, preferring instead to convey opinion and entertainment. We support personalities, not policies. We admire wealth and celebrity, and scorn public spiritedness. Yet we continue to be surprised by appalling policy based on tenuous evidence, knee-jerk reactions to the latest “story”. We are witnessing the victory of personality over policy, of words over actions, of entertainment over integrity, of money over ideals.
Politicians, fearful of losing their position, run along behind the media enacting legislation in an attempt to secure or maintain their patronage and our votes, placing power squarely in the hands of those we do not elect, the media moguls. The western world’s media is controlled by a mere handful of individuals, who, through investments, patronage, cultivation – and through reporting and aptly termed “programming”, influence the mood of half the world. Against background of austerity and fear, we are easily persuaded by those who control the words, to elect the very politicians most likely to exacerbate both, and thus tighten their grip on us.
I do not subscribe to conspiracy theory. That would imply a level of orchestration and co-operation unthinkable in such powerful men. Alpha males do not share their prey. But opting out of a life influenced by these oligarchs is at best, difficult, if not impossible. So the only democratic freedom you and I can truly exercise, is the choice to counter what is put about, with evidence, by expression of alternative opinion.
Our choice to inform our own opinion, and our choice to speak.
Musing today on the prospect of returning to work a week on Monday. I’ve been off 6 weeks, this time to have my toes straightened. This is now the third (and hopefully final) time I’ve had an extended period of sick-leave, and on each occasion my reaction to the enforced absence has differed.
I’ve always been someone who identifies through work. I am comfortable in my professional “hat”. Work is the place where it’s easiest to emerge from the introvert’s shell, and the setting in which I most usually try new behaviours for size and fit. It is also the setting which has provided me over the years with most of the grist for my personal development mill, enabling me to delve deeply into my inner world, and to excavate my hidden programming.
The inevitable consequence of this is that without my work outside the home, I can languish and drift. Conversely, if things are difficult at work, I often experience this as disproportionately painful. So the periods of sickness a couple of years back were met with profound relief as respite from a disappointing new job that was presenting me with great emotional discomfort.
The reverse is true on this occasion. Although I experienced a shaky start at Exeter 12 months ago (the result I guess of the physical and emotional upheaval of the preceding year), by the time my boss left in December, I felt I was just hitting my stride. And then my surgery date came through for January. So at the very moment of feeling I had “arrived” in my own right in this team, I was to be away. At first I had hoped my absence would last no more than 4 weeks, but after the surgery it became apparent that was hopelessly optimistic.
At that stage I was floored with boredom and disappointment. I had recently owned that depression is a regular feature of my life, and the last thing I needed was to be sitting aimlessly at home. But on the other hand, the extension of my expected leave presented opportunities for experimenting with drawing and blogging; for nurturing a couple of new on-line friendships, and for time spent in person or on the phone with friends whom I see too little of. On balance, and with a little support and application, it’s been an enjoyable interval.
But as I sit here enjoying the scent of the spring flowering bulbs sent to me from work, and as the last of Caroline’s tulips curl and fade, I find I’m relishing the prospect of routine, of workplace stimulation, and of meeting demands without the need to dream them up and impose them on myself. Happy to be going back.
One of my FB friends suggested I post some pictures of my latest crafty-fad, woodcarving. This follows on the heels of me enquiring about a workshop on another medium, gelee printing (don’t ask me, I haven’t been yet, but it looks fun!)
I was joking that by poor BB will be tearing his hair at me starting yet another crafty project. It looks to him – quite understandably – as if I start a bunch of things which I never see through and just clutter up the house with them. It’s fair to say that he clutters up the house as well, but usually with things that he has done or continues to do. So he could be excused for looking askance at my staying power.
I’m discovering however that this is how my muse works. I have a relatively short attention span – by which I mean I can focus a great deal of energy on accomplishing a thing, once it takes hold of me, but doing it or anything like it repeatedly quickly bores me. With the possible exception of writing – but that’s maybe a different post.
Inspiration seems to come for me from the media themselves and their potential to help me get what’s in my head out into form. Colour excites me, and I look for ways of incorporating it in a lot of my creations (that’s one of the attractions of the gelee printing). It’s also fascinating and exciting how, when a piece “works” there comes a point where the physical likeness matters less, and the spirit of the creature matters more. I’ll try to explain.
When first playing with papier mache, I chose to make dogs. I get more enjoyment from creating instinctively than trying to copy exactly. I know what shape a dog is (more or less) and so I was able to feel into these figures. And one by one, some of them began to portray “dogness”. These lurchers playing are a case in point:
Anatomically they are miles out. But on my hearth they convey more about dogs playing than about the shape of a dog. I have no idea how I achieve this. What I do know is that the more I try for it, the more elusive it becomes: witness the ostrichness of the ostrich, and the woeful lack of giraffeness. If I’d stuck with the giraffe, he may have come to life, but I got bored and gave up.
Ostrich 2013 – feathers kindly donated by Kenilworth ducks
I’ve discovered over about the last 5 years that creating with my hands allows me greater freedom of expression than I’ve previously found in painting or drawing. I think this is owing to my dad’s talent and exacting expectations as both an artist and a slightly autistic engineer. All his early work in watercolour is photographic in style and always devoid of people, except for his anatomical drawings which are terrifyingly accurate. Later after he retired and began his journey into dementia, he was able to let go a bit and created some extraordinary prints and oils, featuring people rather than scenery. It’s indicative of my early training by him of what was “good” that I liked (and still like) his watercolours way more than the later, more challenging work which earned him an invitation to exhibit at the Royal Academy (which sadly he declined).
Lew Jones, circa 2000 with one of his oils and a trophy awarded by the local Art Society
My dear dad, pictured for the local rag shortly after being invited to exhibit at the Royal Academy
Since allowing myself to experiment with papier mache, I’ve begun to allow myself to be much “worse” (my judgment) at media I have less natural ability in, and my willingness to draw and paint has increased. Alongside the greater freedom afforded this way, I think I’ve improved. Or maybe my judgment has decreased!
These mandalas are from 2014, my first foray into drawing after the papier mache. I suddenly remembered how, at 8 years old with a newly purchased compasses and protractor, and felt-pens, I had started a craze in my class for creating these which our teacher actually allowed us to do whilst listening, as it focused our attention and reduced fidgeting and whispering. Shortly afterwards Altair Design colouring books became all the rage. As I was making these later ones, I noticed how when using colour on paper I tend to make my work rather small and cramped as I strive for exactness. The mandalas benefit from this, but since noticing that I’ve sought to relax this hold on myself to allow more expansive experimentation.
Meanwhile in an effort to become more adventurous and think bigger, I embarked on a life-sized dog, whose initial armature was chicken wire and electrical ducting, with an eclectic assortment of materials covering him, including, but by no means restricted to, papier mache. I think that Clive, as he’s known, has been my guide-dog to freedom, since like his smaller cousins, he’s not physically “correct” nor is he purebred in terms of materials, but he does have character and I’m very attached to him.
Initial armature covered with sheet-strips and cotton wool as a key for the papier mache layers
First layer, kitchen roll papier mache
Further layers included brown paper
Clive has a nose-job
I experimented with polyfilla as a coating
Creating proper dog-ears. I drew round a friend’s lurcher’s ear to get a stencil eventually
Discovered that papier mache pulp is a more flexible medium and he’s here with top coat of that, painted with primer
A final coat of fleece makes him very fussable
Clive took more than a year to complete, owing to great chunks of time when he sat untouched in the hearth, waiting for the muse to strike me again. He’s a pretty sizable beast to have hanging around unfinished, so I have some sympathy with B’s frustration. Between times I was working on all kinds of other ideas, mainly for seasonal gifts, which I felt no obligation to make perfect, but had instead the pressure of time to impel my progress.
Once Christmas is passed, I always have difficulty finding a thread of inspiration to hang onto that is strong enough to draw me into a new project. With the imperative of time removed, tomorrow always feels like a better day to start. However this year, I had started woodcarving at a club in Exeter toward the end of the summer, and my Christmas makes had kept me away from there, so I felt I wanted to return before my next sabbatical to have my toes fixed.
Over the years from time to time all kinds of small DIY and creative projects have caused me to wish I knew what to do with wood. Dad seems to have been a competent joiner, but because the tools were sharp I was never allowed to play. B noticed that there was to be a Woodturning show in the neighbouring village, and knowing my interest in wood, suggested we go along. Exeter Woodcarvers were right next to the door, and I was immediately attracted by their extensive display and friendly, informative exhibitors. A couple of weeks later I went along to try my hand, and am enjoying learning the craft. Like my other projects, I work on this in fits and starts, but it’s a forgiving hobby that allows me to flex it in and out of the others. In typical style, I have 3 unfinished pieces, and one finished-enough, depicted below: the Exeter Woodcarvers’ standard primer – leaves carved in relief on a plaque; a simple whittled bird; the beginnings of a sitting dog; and the beginnings of a leaping hare.
The leaves are on lime, created using the club’s excellent chisels under the patient tutelage of long-time club member Keith. I’ve abandoned this piece as the leaves don’t excite me – I spend more energy worrying about whether they “look like what they’re of” than about feeling the carving out. The little bird was whittled using a flexcut knife under Joan’s supervision. Another long-time carver, Joan is a real modest artist who has created some very beautiful pieces; however I baulked at the sanding and polishing she does and have decided my pieces will be rustic or not at all. Stan is a founder-member of the club who happens to live in Budleigh, just along the road from me, and he kindly band-sawed most of the excess from the dog to create a template for me to work on. Again it’s lime, and I’m finding it rather hard-going, owing mainly to the ambitious form I’ve chosen to work with. I’m getting used to using my own set of whittling knives, courtesy of BB at Christmas, and ideally this piece will need some chisel work (at club) sooner or later. Finally the hare is a small hazel log found when some felling was happening at work. I lifted a bit as I wanted to try greenwood carving – then proceeded to leave it to dry out. It is splitting unfortunately, but no one seems to think that’s a problem, because where there is glue there’s a way. This wood is so dense that it’s almost like plastic to the touch, and it rings like porcelain when tapped with the knife. It’s gorgeous to feel in the hands, and for this reason if no other, I suspect will get more of my attention than any of the rest over the coming months.
Lastly, whilst I’ve been off work convalescing my toe surgery, I’ve started drawing again with encouragement from a FB friend and her group where she provides monthly prompts. It’s fun to particpate when I feel like it, and I’ve most recently gone off-piste with a drawing of one of the chimps at Monkey-world, from a photo on their site. I don’t know if it was the after-effects of the anaesthetic, or whether I’ve reached a place of greater allowing, but I’ve found myself much better able to simply have a go and see what happens – with some pleasing results.
Ice cream sundae
So. Art for art’s sake? (Or is it art at all? – again for another post). In my case I feel as if there is great liberation in art for art’s sake – no need for it to meet a standard or be judged, even by me. So maybe it’s art for discovery’s sake, art for unraveling’s sake right now.