Monday, September 07, 2015

Two weeks in September...

An emotive photo showing a child victim of Syria’s civil war was accompanied by the plangent appeal: ‘Why has the West abandoned our little children?’
This could be a front-page this September, as the world reels in horror at the death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi - his lifeless body shown washed ashore at a Turkish tourist resort.

And yet this was Metro’s front-page two years ago this Wednesday, as refugee families fleeing terror attacks begged for British - and Western - help.

Back then, families forced from their homes and in their millions into neighbouring nations such as Lebanon and Jordan were in mortal fear of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Five-year-old Nour stared out, while father-of-six Adhma Al-Hamwi told Metro: ‘What have these children done to desrve to be abandoned like this?’
Two years on, not only does his brutal government pose an ongoing threat, but the militant forces of so-called Islamic State have emerged as even more bloodthirsty tormentors.
Save The Children - whose chief executive Justin Forsyth accompanied Metro two years ago - is now urging Britain to take in not only 10,000 Syrian refugees but 3,000 more of the many unaccompanied children being abandoned.
He told Metro: ‘The public here in Britain are ahead of the politicians.
‘The government deserve credit for what they’ve done to help refugees in the region and rescue operations in the Med.
‘But now we need to complement that and be more generous with taking our fair share of refugees - and what would also allow us to pressure the rest of the EU to provide a proper full-scale response.’
Britain is actually the second-largest unilateral donor in terms of aid efforts in Syria and its surroundings, allotting £900million since 2012.
And yet David Cameron’s government has come under mounting criticism for an apparent reluctance to offer refuge to those fleeing the conflict - and his latest promise to accommodate 20,000 comes with the caveat of covering the length of this five-year parliament.
While the help for those in refugee camps surrounding Syria is only to be praised, that need not necessarily mean, mind, turning a blind eye - as the prime minister risks doing - to those many already now Europe's problem.
Two years ago an impression from those in Lebanon was that their primary urge was about returning home. As if that were likely any time soon. Even less so now, it has become all to clear - hence the need for the West to better handle the burgeoning shift towards safer, more enticing havens.
A total 4,866 Syrians have been granted asylum in Britain since early 2011, according to the Home Office.
But the 7.030 applications to the UK during that period are in stark contrast with the 98,783 to Germany, the 64,685 to Sweden and the 49,446 to Serbia and Kosovo, UNHCR statistics show.
Two years ago families hiding in basements or sheltering under makeshift tents - sometimes advertising placards, improvised as cover - wondered whether military intervention would come to their aid.
Take these accounts from three 13-year-olds:
Majed, who saw his best friend shot down while attending a funeral for 15 victims of a massacre both had barely survived.
Mahmoud, forced to flee from Syria without both his parents following their abduction – and presumed murders – on the same stretch of road where he found a family of five’s tortured bodies.
And Ramy, whose family managed to flee as their village came under fire – only to somehow only later realise elder brother Bilal was lost along the chaotic way.
At the time US president Barack Obama and British prime minister David Cameron had mooted the idea of air attacks against Assad installations.
But both the US and the UK stepped back from such an option - having both given Assad notice to shift munitions elsewhere and given Syrian refugees hope of help only to feel disappointed.
Mr Forsyth was among those back then urging, at the very least, new sanctions including  improved access zones for humanitarian aid.
Despite many donations of both funds and supplies, many charities expressed concern that they were only permitted to provide for Assad-controlled areas - with many resources seized by the regime’s sympathisers.
He has since helped aid workers welcome arrivals off migrant boats in Sicily - many of them children, often unaccompanied - from turbulent states such as Syria and Libya.
Often these survivors tell harrowing stories of sexual abuse, slave labour and persecution ahead of enduring the hazardous Med journeys.
He said: ‘So many have been through so many unimaginable horrors before even getting on the boats.
‘Many girls have been sexually abused, boys and girls tell of being forced to work as slaves.
‘One boy said he was in a group of more than 120 who were locked up by a militia in Libya, brought out every day just to be hung upside-down and beaten.
‘If people knew more of these stories, they’d be even more generous.’
The British people have been, the British government too - albeit so far only up to a point, Lord Copper.

Baby, you've got what it takes...

Jerry Lee Lewis made sure to make a joke about it but hisfirst visit to Britain was the beginning of the end for his first rock’n’roll reign.

"That was the 'good old days'," he sardonically drawled - before adding: "... that we had to modulate and bring up to better days..."

Thankfully, what he claims – to Metro, no less – will be his last tour to these shores will doubtless turn out only the latest triumph of a relentless career.

As his 2006 LP's title put it: Last Man Standing.

("Can I play the piano standing up? Man, I can play it lying down...")

Okay, maybe Chuck Berry and Little Richard may disagree. Although for all their rumoured feuds, Chuck turned up in a five-minute video tribute before Jerry Lee eventually took the stage, this Sunday night at the London Palladium…

Others shown giving him his dues included long late past compadres such as Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Sun Records supremo Sam Phillips.

As Perkins put it: "It was all over, playing piano for everyone else, because that was Jerry Lee Lewis..."

He truly is a survivor, as surprisingly highlighted by a stage invasion at the end of this Palladium gig including the likes of Ringo Starr and Robert Plant, handing him over an over-sized cake while dutifully chorusing along with “Happy Birthday To You”.

For once, if only briefly, the Jerry Lee assurance seemed to slip.

Perhaps evidence will emerge to suggest otherwise but this looked some authentic spontaneity amid a bill tightly and impressively organised and controlled, for all the main man himself remains unpredictable.

Even if the between-songs banter, infectious as it seemed in the moment, may well have been pre-practised: "Yeah, one of them out-of-tune pianos again..."

Opening act, introduced by (in)famous DJ Mike Read, admittedly full of informed “banter”, was someone he said could be described as Lady-va or Ladyva.

Ah, anyway, shy as she seemed, her winsomely-trickskyboogie-woogie piano-playing went down well and impressively, marking her out as surely more than simply the Swiss, er, Jools Holland…

Then came plenty of patter from Peter “and Gordon” Asher, backed by legendary and legendarily versatile guitarist Albert “Country Boy” Lee: duetting together on the Everlys’ “Bye Bye Love” before the McCartney-penned 1963 P&G hit “World Without Love”.

Asher – Jane’s brother, you know – did also deliver a nice line, mind, about being part of the “British invasion” of the US as being “90 per cent The Beatles, ten per cent the rest of us”.

His dialogue lines might have been even more enthralling had he not been kitted up in burgundy-tartan top and trousers, but he seemed endearing enough. Even without somehow performing that ever-arch 1966 hit, “Lady Godiva”.

Albert Lee remained on-stage to welcome – indeed, too self-deprecatingly abase himself before – James Burton, a lead guitarist whose CV beats most: Ricky Nelson, the Wrecking Crew, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley for the final decade of his life (well, his life that we know of, pending whether he really did die…)

Burton, in motorbike acrylics and badges and backwards cap, eventually came into his own, riffing, when the venue and occasion’s natural bias towards a pounding piano eased off a bit.

And it was truly warming to hear and see Lee and Burton not simply tradin’ licks but tradin’ whippin’ licks, as they joyously rocked their way through "That’s Alright Mama" (“we’ve got to do an Elvis song”), "Hello MaryLou" and "Suzie Q" (whose riff Burton made/at least mastered when aged 14 or 15)…

So, anyway. Quite the warm-up acts, Jerry Lee’s own sister then following for a few.

Of course it was all adeptly managed, the interval proving even more of an appetiser – Buddy Holly heavily featured amid the muzak soundtrack – for the birthday boy’s eventual arrival.

Finally, there Jerry Lee was – half-tottering, half-sauntering towards his piano in the middle of the stage.

And, then … yes, we’re off. Except that the workaday blues he was singing, he wasn’t touching a key. Before starting the set itself, he’d plonked a few fingers on the piano, given a “huh!”, then sat down and … not bothered to play another note for the next few minutes.

Ah, and then – well, then, he started… and that curious choreography of white slippers playing footsie with the pedals when those fingers – no, actually, more those arms – go into a natural pattern that seems almost robotic while the head’s turned entirely way.

Whisper it, but the piano-playing, as virtuoso and emphatic as ever, is the highlight of the evening.

He may no longer quite hammer those keys with the same ferocity as, say, like on that Live At The Star Club 1964 LP - but nevertheless comes surprisingly close.

Jerry may have given himself a career renaissance in the late Sixties as a more purely country artist – his "Green Green Grass Of Home" only shows up even more than anything the hollering blundering naffness of Tom Jones.

And yet ballads no longer really seem to suit him. Not that he doesn’t still have that rich baritone, that sharply taunting timbre not necessarily warm and yet always self-assured – the audible raised eyebrow of his "What’d I Say", for example…

But, alas, tonight, for all his piano-playing remains on point, his singing doesn’t always sound quite on-pitch. If needing to pay too much attention, that is.

"Whole Lotta Shakin’" and "Great Balls Of Fire", on the other hand – both surging in after deliberately-misleading piano intros – are about as exhilarating as could be expected. Once, that is, he has demanded and received a drink. A bottle of Coke.

Walking, talking, running, singing – never mind the melodies, just rock along with the roll.

And, yes, he still rolls, rocks, much more than anyone could reasonably expect of such a survivor, even one appearing a little like Paul Whitehouse playing a character amalgam of Johnny Cash and Harry Grout.

The £10 commemorative – yeah, glossy but thin, but still – concert programme ends with a portrait of JLL and his present wife, emphasising how happy they are. Happy to hear it.

Turbulent past unmentioned. Poor ex-partners, no sign.

Yeah, this Killer’s instincts can’t but be ever got away with, somehow.

Pounding those pedals, letting that left hand instinctively simmer while the right one runs free with frills. Jerry Lee remains impeccably irresistibly blasé.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

'No one was talking about the benefits system in the UK' - Brits help out amid the chaos and squalor of Calais

British mercy-mission volunteers battling to help out in squalor-ridden refugee camps have condemned the Calais ‘chaos’ left too untended by European leaders.
Refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Iran were helped by a makeshift group of helpers prompted to cross the Channel after being moved by the migrants’ plight.
But the trip organiser told Metro he was shocked not only by the abject conditions faced by the 5,000 stranded in Calais but also the lack of organisation among those trying to assist.
Jamie Cutteridge, from Wandsworth in south-west London, organised the ad hoc visit, appealing on Facebook and Twitter for supplies.
He and a group of friends managed to cram five cars with donations including food, tents, clothes and sanitary products.
They found a dispiriting lack of organisation on the ground - yet widespread awareness among migrants that David Cameron had described them as ‘a swarm’.
Mr Cutteridge told Metro: ‘We’ve received a lot of support from people frustrated by the situation and frustrated how this has been seen too much as a political crisis rather than a humanitarian crisis.
‘It’s amazing how many people in the camp were aware of that “swarm” comment and tried to say they were anything but.
‘We too want to see them as people worth caring for.’
One of the main base-points was a makeshift church managed by two middle-aged volunteers, storing supplies but lacking much help to distribute them.
Tickets are handed out to camp residents, to be exchanged for donations, but Mr Cuttridge found fellow helpers were few and far between.
He said: ‘I was struck less than the physical needs of people than by the lack of logistics.’
He added: ‘It was a long day, setting off at 4am and getting back at midnight - and it felt very strange.
‘The camp feels so temporary, everything is ramshackle.
‘In some ways it looks like the last day of Glastonbury rather than somewhere people actually live, with people aiming to stay there only one or two nights only to find themselves stuck there.’
He befriended one Ethiopian giving the name David who arrived three months ago and tried every night to sneak his way through the Eurotunnel.
‘He was giving himself a night off ahead of the next attempt, when another 400 or 500 would be attempting the same,’
‘Too much of the response has been seeing this as a political crisis rather than a humanitarian crisis.'
Another grateful recipient was Mustapha, who had never been to England but spoke with a ‘broad Brummie accent’ after being visited by Midlands-based relatives.
Mr Cutteridge said: ‘No one was talking about the benefits system in the UK - they just want to get a job, and support family back home or be with family over here.
‘People have been very generous, as have plenty in Calais, but I’m now trying to think how might be the best way to support them logistically next time.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Labour? Intensive...

Apologies about this but here comes a confession, to being one of those infamous Labour leadership election "entryists".
Cynically ponying up the price of a cup of coffee, as a "registered supporter", solely to vote for that radical outsider ... Liz Kendall.
So-called "Corbynmania" may well be sweeping the nation (/north London/south-eastern England), and his coronation somehow appears now in the air, so apparent.
And yet, for all the supposed fervor he's (almost inadvertently, even embarrassedly) attracting, is this *really* a good thing?
Not just for the party (natch, Andy), but for the country (love it, Liz)?
Nigel Farage fills halls. Enoch Powell did so too - had his own processions as well. (Oof, an Enoch namecheck. Apologies. But still.)
And how many votes, in the grand scheme, on balance, did either one win for all that impressive sound and fury?
Corbyn seems a gentle and modest and decent man (some embraces of allies aside). Some of his shrill supporters, less so.
Dissent even a nuance from accepted-wisdom leftism and be forever condemned a f***ing Tory.
(My asterisks.)
Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham both appear to offer competent solidity. And yet both also flunked their better chance in 2010.
Cooper in allowing her husband, the even-less-electable Ed to stand instead. And Burnham in running such a lacklustrely polite Blairite campaign, ceding central ground to the even-less-oddball Miliband.
Kendall, meanwhile, even if only elected that year, does nevertheless care. Why, she used to be employed as a carer. And has made a point since of not only questioning just why do we attach so little attention to, well, caring for our ever-increasing proportion of older people, yet also at the other extreme so few nods to those so young.
So much for uni fees, and the never-met debts so many will theoretically rack up - how about helping merely more kids in their most formative most early months and years, as Kendall occasionally mentions - against the grain because these folk won't for a while, well, vote...?
Oh, and she also talks human(ly), at least when unrestrained by this robotic-making campaign. Willing to admit past Labour mistakes, strident in sticking up for welfare gains, eager to be agile enough to make a better fist of what power once won may enable.
Okay. Of course she won't win. Nor even come close. And not only because of that #Jezwecan momentum, even though that newly-newsworthy phenomenon has helped now cloud any other issues.
Corbyn wins, Labour's screwed and divided.
Corbyn somehow doesn't win, Labour's screwed and divided.
The nice-guy idealism is winning - 'entryism' pleas/complaints ignored - enthusiasm from many more than voted for Ed Miliband the other month, sure. But will any more than these, who've lately signed up, well, sign up? That is, er, actually vote?
Hope so. Do wonder so.
Nuneaton - not too long ago a safe Labour seat, somehow this year a crucial (lost) marginal may well differ from (the echo chamber of) Twitter.
Felt proud in 1997 to have voted for Gisela Stuart, against odds and xenophobic protests and pessimistic expectations, in a Birmingham Edgbaston seat that proved to be seen as a barometer for the emphatic Labour victory ahead. Things could only - well, you know the rest...
And now, the left left left ahead.
Some say the middle of the road is where anyone'll invariably end up run over.
Yet others could make it the place to be, put in power to either steer right for safety and cruise or veer left when available and cruise.
Or else, sheer another dire strait and straight into the hard shoulder.
At least knowing where we are - and, well, things can only get better? ... oh.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Who could ask for more...?"

For someone who dim and distantly mused chirpily about "doing the garden, digging the weeds" when turning 64, Paul McCartney still packs a pretty fab punch just weeks away from entering his 74th year.
For almost three hours solid on Saturday night he rocked the O2, not even pausing for a single sip of water - although at least a few stints in the piano gifted him the occasional useful sit-down.
And for all those still haunted/mocking his false start at the London Olympics' ceremony, his voice remains surprisingly strong - any occasional hoarseness only adding gravitas and resonance if anything.
Why, one of the encores - just after allowing eagerly-bopping guest guitarist Dave Grohl to join him for "I Saw Her Standing There" and harmonising on a single-mike like early Beatle George if looking like late Beatle George - Macca then larynx-shreddingly hollered out "Helter Skelter".
"When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide..."
Why, and some folk will insist a strict vegetarian diet must leave you feeling flakey, eh...
The man just keeps going. Long may he keep doing so. For all his continual vigour - hairdye and cragginess around the eyes and all, of course - a McCartney concert on these shores can feel like an occasion, not simply for the occasion, the show, itself, but also wondering just how much longer he can go?
His current "Out There" tour has been colonising the Americas for the past year or so, his last fully-fledged British gigs falling almost four years ago.
The intervening period has not only brought a couple of new albums, but the obligatory addition of a few "new" old curios to the set.
Saturday night's surprises included the 35-year-old hipster-rediscovered electronica of "Temporary Secretary", Yellow Submarine's "for the kids" "All Together Now" and jaunty if slightly spiteful 1965 film filler "Another Girl".
McCartney also took unaccustomed lead vocals on show opener "Eight Days A Week" and, later on, joyously-nightmarishly-swirling "Being For The Benefit Of Mister Kite".
That latter did come after tender tributes to the two too late and lamented Beatles, the fragile "Here Today" for John and a perky uke-y before turning-soaring "Something" for George.
Macca's patter can be cheesy, his anecdotes far more well-worn than his natty dressing, and his dedications "to Nance" ("My Valentine") and "for Linda" ("Maybe I'm Amazed") notably if understandably neglecting someone in between (what, no "Your Loving Flame" or, er, "Heather" for Heather?)
But if his bonhomie is merely put-on, then he is a far finer actor than his too-try-hard displays back in "A Hard Day's Night" or "Help!" suggested.
All is warmth, the crammed arena audience crossed several generations, and every song - even the occasional new'uns such as "Save Us", video-gamey "Hope For The Future" and, er, "New" - coursed crowd-pleasingly along.
Especially strong patches included a run starting with a glistening yet propulsive tour de force performance of Wings' "Let Me Roll It", a track Lennon loved and which could have adorned any Beatles LP. 
Hot on its heels followed an exhilarating "Paperback Writer", McCartney firing out the lead riff himself before hoisting aloft his guitar, the very one he used in Abbey Road's Studio 2 for it 50 years ago.
The guitar technicians were certainly kept on their toes, collecting and handing over an incessant selection of axes - well, as Macca himself confessed/boasted: "Well, we've got a lot of guitars - so we're gonna show 'em off..."
His acoustic odes included a few many present will have tried to master - okay, simply slowly play - when growing up and first finding to pluck to pluck: "Blackbird", "We Can Work It Out", "I've Just Seen A Face".
That last one was an album track on the "Help!" soundtrack, song number 12 nudging into a very lucky 13th: some little ditty originally called "Scrambled Eggs", later and for eternity to come known as "Yesterday".
Pre-announcements for this British tour made much of this month supposedly being precisely 50 years since McCartney wrote that ballad, based on a tune he dreamt and needed repeated persuasion he had not simply knocked it off from someone else.
Sure enough, a delicate version opened up his second encore, provoking many mobile phones held high across the venue as had, earlier, a reliable singalonga "Hey Jude" and a heartachingly plangent "Let It Be". In all hours of darkness, these songs are always lights that shine on ... we.
The most beauteous perhaps was left 'til last, however - the end being, of course, "The End", that closing Abbey Road medley, perhaps the most sumptuously gorgeous music suite set to record, and whose closing lines encapsulate how The Beatles' best essence should best feel:
"And in the end ... the love you take ... is equal to the love ... you make."

Boy, you're gonna carry that weight, carry that weight a long time...

("And in the middle of the celebrations, I break down...")

Perhaps only the queen and the pope, of anyone living today, can rival Sir Paul McCartney for global fame and recognition? Can anyone claim, however, to have provided more people with more pleasure, solace, empathy and enjoyment than his vast and prolific (sometimes too easily, instinctively so?) and astonishingly-eclectic repertoire?

A showman rather than a shaman, but a touchstone for so much.

"I wake up to the sound of music..." The Eurovision this Saturday in Vienna? Ah, it means nothing etc. No contest. The O2 was where the show was.

McCartney's closing words? "Tell you what - we'll see you next time..."
Any time, any day.
Ah, listen to what the man said.

Some people want to fill the world with "silly" love songs...

... and what's wrong with that?

Friday, May 15, 2015

With apologies to "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" / "When This Lousy War Is Over", an ode to Spurs' final 2014-2015 home game this Saturday and the season ticket renewal deadline this Monday...

When this lousy season's over
No more Tottenham-ing for me,
When we get this summer started
Oh, how happy I shall be... 

No more playing every Sunday,
No more dull Europa League - 
I shall tell that Daniel Levy: 
... Ah, who'm I kidding? "Ticket, please."

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"The evidence is clear, on every side, piled high and wide, about how..."

"... lately I've let things slide."

Mental Health Awareness Week, May 11-17 2015

No one, alas, was home when the police scoured then smashed their way through the front-door – perhaps both luckily and unluckily.

Only neighbours returning that moment to their next-door apartment, within a lobby of four facing flats, looked on bemused - doubtless embarrassed as well as alarmed for the surrounding plastering.

A stroke of luck, however, came when those poor PCs working a Sunday lunchtime shift shredded apart walls and floors to find, not a body, but instead a stack of business cards perched on a tumble dryer.

Oh, and a message scrawled on a stray A4 page which had been glimpsed from outside by well-meaning health visitors and presumed to be a suicide note – hence the call to Colindale cops to take over.

Bathetically, the sheet was merely a mundane set of requests to a cleaner due to turn up as scheduled two days later, rather than the final dying thoughts of the homeowner.

Who was, incidentally, at that very moment diligently if occasionally a little distractedly scrutinising newswires in an office across town – unhappy, sure, yet ignorant of the panic and police raid inadvertently initiated.

It was only when abruptly, confusedly taking a tentative phone call from those business card-reading cops, offering an explanation just short of an apology, that he learnt what had happened.

But it was on later arriving home, confronted by a chaotic mess both inside and outside, that the extent became clear of what had been brought about by ... merely seeking help.

And - having attempted to remain pragmatic enough during previous weeks of mounting despair, sudden sobs and suicidally grisly visions - that he now just hit the ripped-up floor and dissolved.

A career-long preference has been to avoid using, let alone over-using, the personal pronoun in articles – even if that might then necessitate awkward syntactic contortions.

And yet in this case perhaps that personal rule should come to an end, albeit briefly.

Apologies for the duration of this, honest. Because, dear reader, I was that (not-so-brave) soldier.

It was my private counsellor who instructed my GP, who referred me to Barnet NHS’s ‘Crisis’ service, who in turn called the police, who had the admittedly-unenviable role of turning up to discover a suspected suicide.

Apologies have followed, not just for the failure of health workers to call my mobile or any of the other friends’ and family numbers they were given before blundering in.

The ensuing days also brought more worry, with promised calls and visits delayed for hours, apparently cancelled without warning and once called off because the scheduled health worker ‘got lost’.

In retrospect, much of this seems understandable and fair enough, knowing just how pressurised such staff must be - how many other similar cases, and worse, must be met elsewhere.

But at a time of near-suicidal anxiety and disorientation, the extra stress hardly helped - and hardly provided much confidence in the very structuring and resources of those in such responsible roles.

Budgets for mental health services in England have been cut by eight per cent in real terms in the past five years, with the equivalent of 200 full-time staff lost since 2012 - despite demand rising by 20 per cent.

GPs will typically not only prescribe anti-depressants but refer patients to the NHS-run IAPT scheme - standing for Improving Access to Psychological Therapies.

Up to 16 sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy are recommended - and yet the burden of referrals is such that one in ten patients wait a year simply for assessment and one in six attempt suicide while on the list.

As many as one in five suffer depression at some point, one in 20 A&E cases are said to be due to mental health problems and failings in the system are estimated to cost the NHS £3billion per year.

And a stigma remains, preventing sufferers from seeking help and leading to misdiagnoses or misdirected assistance even when professionals are alerted.

Meanwhile, figures show 62 per cent of Disability Living Allowance and Employment Support Allowance claimants facing sanctions for not working are mental health patients, despite these making up just half of all applicants.

The newly-trounced Lib Dems may be little-mourned by many but their pledge to increase spending by £3.5bn on mental healthcare may be missed far more.

Nick Clegg and new leadership contender Norman Lamb also pushed mightily, while in government, for mental health treatment to be subject to the same focus and targets as physical healthcare.

Of course NHS services of all kinds are overwhelmed. Yet mental health bears an even heavier, if less visible, burden.

This was not (honestly) meant to be the over-written, over-wrought whine of a privileged person shocked by a rare confrontation with such services needed by so many thousands, millions, far less fortunate.

Although ‘over-written’ and ‘over-wrought’, guilty as ever as charged...

Depression had long been a humdrum background, well, hum in my life, from first seeking help as a self-harming student struggling with low self-esteem, anxious ambitions and stifling shyness.

Later came years of alternating between different antidepressant treatments with sporadically more damaging slumps and, in recent years, promises of GP contact towards NHS talking-therapies.

These failed to come, but as a functioning and accepting individual, that seemed fair and fine enough – anti-depressants, for all that some see their use or (over?)-prescription as harmful, felt harmlessly stabilising here.

Better just keep on keeping on, with their help, while waiting for anything further.

Crisis point - and Crisis referral - came after weeks, maybe months, of deterioration in mood, spasms of sobbing, increasing listlessness at home and at work, plus growing preoccupation with past and present failures and how to avoid the future.

On friends' advice, and having been kept waiting for a year for referral to talking therapies, I began seeing a private counsellor based locally - in sessions that swiftly become less about tackling long-term self-esteem issues than coping with current collapsing.

Friends and family and colleagues had expressed worries already about moods seeming bleaker than those usual long-held depressive tendencies.

And, in fact, although wary of admitting this to anyone, even loved ones, I was beginning to admit alarm to myself at how often and easily I would break down in tears not only alone at night, or alone at my desk, but in company.

Not only suicidal ideas but plans occupied my mind, prompting searches for diagrams as to the best and most effective knots for a noose – several of which I tried at home with dressing-gown cords which, once finally satisfied, got kept to hand at all times.

Not just knots – the research took in scrutiny of angles, weights, timings.

Displacement activity, I would tell myself when mildly blither moods settled – better to focus on a goal while knowing it will remain unfulfilled, than simply drift into oblivion in which anything could happen.

And yet, and yet ... The knowledge I would be better off dead, and wish to make it so, would usually clash against the awareness of how others might react – that is, close comrades, especially those who, alive to potential dangers, made emotively clear their potential horror.

And thus, I not only felt hatred of myself and a desire for death, but also immediate guilt at the thought of what that might involve – not for me, but for others. And guilt that they should feel so concerned about and prospectively affected by someone so unworthy.

In dreary sleepless nights, whether struggling to doze off due to swirling emotions or else the body refusing to do anything but cliché-like twist and turn, at times an instinct to recklessly swish across myself with a blade felt tempting.

Several times I did succumb to what felt most like curiosity, searing a razor across arms that for many years had settled into mere griddles of white lines but now became newly-scarred with fat and angry red welts.

Just as much to explore whether, well, doing so did anything. Could this provide some relief – some self-expression – some punishment?

For all that family and friends have offered well-meaning rejoinders, one response that sticks in the mind from someone once close is that I indulged too readily in self-pity.

And yet that too, equally - albeit differently - to compliments, felt jarring and unwanted.

Rather, not self-pity, inviting sympathy, but instead self-fury, expressing scorn.

And yet the self-harm, even if it still occasionally feels appealing, nevertheless came across as unsatisfying.

Not that it actually really hurts when swiping – the main pain follows in the days ahead, each scar however well-tended tending to sting to every touch.

But the familiar old necessary rigmarole, of cleansing, dressing and clearing up, barely felt a fulfilling use of an evening.

Then there came the same old sense of abashment the next day, with potentially ahead the awkwardness whenever exposing arms, say, in changing-rooms or to a new partner's curious scrutiny.

Once finally put in touch with the right people, at the right time, and with no sledgehammers in hand, some tentative progress began to be made last autumn.

A month of very useful sessions with a Crisis team psychotherapist provided clear goals, techniques, patterns of thinking and behaviour - supported by extremely sympathetic and supportive employers and colleagues.

A recent survey by AXA PPP suggested seven out of ten bosses do not believe mental illness merits time off work.

Yet everyone at Metro and its parent company have gone beyond the call, setting up medical help, allowing time off and offering plenty of sympathy and understanding throughout.

Deaths in the family and other difficulties have led to lapses over the months in between initial alarm and the current tentative efforts at recovery and returning to something like normality.

But since that confused initial response from the authorities, individuals have gradually been better co-ordinated - and there was even a recent end to a dragging wait for the next, post-Crisis stage of IAPT assistance.

Having often been struck confronted by the barely-believable stoicism of those forced into refugee camps, Aids clinics and famine-stricken subsistence in other parts of the world, I know all too well how blessed I have been.

Lucky in the love of family and friends, the sympathy and support beyond all measure of bosses and colleagues at work, in a way other employers may have not been so accepting nor encouraging.

And lucky in, for all the glitches glimpsed in these over-crammed and under-resourced National Health Service systems, the eventual assistance and sensitivity of friendly folk doing their bit, doing their best.

And yet, and yet...

Looking at the numbers involved, whether for funding or patient demand, cannot help but fuel fears for so many more who neither get the proper timely help in the first place, nor the right sort of fought-for follow-ups.

And so either stay silent or silenced.

I feel fortunate to be here, grateful for all support.

Guilt at being here, burdensome to be accessing such support.

And fearful for all those missing out much more – and for whom that over-emphatic police knock on the door might follow an alarm not false but too true, and tragically too late.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

One Show's Alex Jones helps seal Comic Relief salvation for 'Africa's worst clinic'

A rat-infested, under-staffed and over-crowded clinic struggling to serve a village in the middle of nowhere might seem an unlikely preoccupation for a newly-engaged celebrity who dould otherwise be imagining honeymoon destinations.
And yet The One Show presenter Alex Jones is keen to get back to the eastern Ugandan village of Iyolwa after a quick-fit Comic Relief-aided overhaul of a life-saving local asset.
For the past few weeks teams of both specialists and untrained village volunteers have been working day and night to build a new hospital on the site of the dilapidated husk prevoiosly just about standing.
Comic Relief visitors - including celebs such as Alex and charity co-founder Lenny Henry - were initially dismayed by babies delivered on grubby concrete, rodents scurrying around and nurses working 24-hour shifts.
The clinic lacked electricity as well as running water and frequently had to turn away families desperate for urgent treatment, with staff describing it as 'the worst clinic in Africa'.
And yet, after an intense effort on the ground and generous backing from British viewers, Operation Health looks like proving a triumph.
That is, a mission - revealed in Metro last month - to construct a far better-equipped newhospital in little more than two months and has now hit its target of Red NoseDay this Friday.
In this, Comic Relief's 30th year, the Iyolwa project is unprecedented both in its short-term, target-led timing but also the high-profile effort to demonstrate just how directly donors' contributions can be spent.
Lenny found one nurse, Dorothy, who delivered eight babies in one day before returning home in the middle of the night and giving birth to her own.
Alex encountered very similar heroism at a nearby hospital where staff are trying desperately to cope with the overspill from Iyolwa - and where another nurse, Angela, brought nine newborns into the world during one 24-hour shift.
Medics remain on duty all day and all night at the few healthcare bases there are in the region, snatching brief naps in corridors only as and when they can.
Yet the Iyolwa clinic is not only a maternity unit but also meant to be the healthcare hub for 20,000 living nearby, whatever their ailments, injuries and associated needs.
Alex said: 'The clinic is central to the community - everyone here has had dealings with it.
'But there have been women wanting to give birth there only to find they couldn't, or parents bringing in children for treatment only to find the place just too dirty.
'Now everyone is in it together, though - welcoming the Comic Relief backing and pitching in to make sure this job gets done.'
It's heartbreaking to see how bad conditions were but it's brilliant to see something really positive taking shape now - and a fantastic example to other places across Uganda and Africa.'
She visited the village in late-January and has since featured individual stories and fund-raising appeals on The One Show, already attracting hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations.
'It gives you an idea of how bad the clinic was, that even those who were used to it and were in desperate need were saying it had become just too dirty and under-staffed.' she recalled.
'But everyone in the area has been working like Trojans since then and the progress has been phenomenal.
'It makes you wonder what the builders we have over here in Britain are doing with themselves.
'And everyone I met was utterly grateful to the generosity of the British public, always so impressive year after year.
'I've spoken to the teams working on the project out there and they've been blown away with how much it just seems to have captured the imagination.'
Following her six-day visit earlier this year, Alex - who announced her engagement to insurance broker Charlie Thomson last month on-air - added: 'I would love to go back to Iyolwa.'
You only realise just how fantastic these are when you're out there up close.'
Last year for Sport Relief she climbed Utah’s 1,200ft Moonlight Buttress and is looking forward to any further missions for either Sport or Comic Relief, vowing: 'I'm happy to pitch in in any way I can.
'Every year the total raised goes higher and higher - and Iyolwa is tangible and inspiring proof of that money being put to great use.'

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Holy Bible II: this time it's (even) more personal...

“Come and walk down memory lane...”
So cosily nostalgic an offer may sound inviting yet jarring enough to hear it from the Manic Street Preachers, let alone from their infamously forbidding The Holy Bible LP, let alone from a song about the Holocaust, let alone one named for good measure “Mausoleum”.
And yet, to adapt the chorus of a track two songs along said album: “I close my eyes - and this is yesterday...”
Ah, almost - or else, if only. The jagged and harrowing edge of the former, and deceptively gentle wistfulness of the latter, were among the many highlights of Monday evening’s first London leg of the band’s 20th anniversary Holy Bible tour.
The whole of that almost-literally-blistering LP is being played live in full each night this bleak midwinter, to rave reviews and ecstatic audiences that may have felt inconceivable when the album first landed amid Britpop’s first dawn 20 long summers ago. Let alone at a set-trashing Astoria performance in December 1994 which has gone down in Manic fans’ folklore, not least for it being Richey Edwards’ last live concert.
His “presence” here at the Roundhouse - video setting for “A Design For Life”, the group’s traumatised yet defiant comeback single as a threepiece in 1996 - amount to several awe-ful while knockabout namechecks and a spotlight empty space to singer James Dean Bradfield’s right. That is, when the frontman was not Tiggerishly bounding too far astray from his own centre-spot.
Bug-ridden James may have brought a certain hoarseness to the album’s existing, ominous sparseness, frequently apologising for his condition while lavishing the singalonga audience with praise and thanks.
Initially it seemed some of the lines he opted not to voice might have some inner significance - in eviscerating opener “Yes”, he managed “Can’t shout, can’t scream” but not “I hurt myself to get pain out”.
Similarly, perhaps intriguingly, he then followed up with “Just an ambulance, at the bottom” but left out the “of a cliff” - emotional resonance, considering speculation about what ultimately became of bandmate Richey? 
Then again, also missing was the album’s very last line, from crunchily powerpoppy “PCP”: “Pass the Prozac - designer amnesia-a-a-a-a-a-ac...”
Such sardonic comfort could suitably remain unspoken from the stage, mind - and not just because a raucous 3,300-strong audience was hollering along to every densely-crammed word anyway.
Much modern relevance still resounds - leaps out, even - from these 20-year-old tracks, whether the political correctness/corporate homegeneity exasperation of “PCP” or the racial tensions of “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruth..." (“vital stats, how white was his skin - unimportant, just another inner-city drive-by thing”) or just how lethally clay-footed world leaders/dictators remain while yet remaining blithely untouched (“Who’s responsible? You f***ing are...”)
Yet for its formidably ferocious reputation, the splintered edges, the splenetic calls to shredded arms and the unforgiving self-loathing/self-knowing, The Holy Bible is still such a bleakly beautiful - if beautifully bleak - work of art, work of wall-scrawling poetry and aggressively passive (im)passion.
Those tightly-packed lyrics do not only cast interminably-jaundiced eyes over but also confront, mourn and protest many of the 20th century’s most gruesome atrocities, whether committed by famous-name autocrats or infamous-name serial killer criminals.
Such un/healthy preoccupations with, say, concentration camps, gulags and by implication future inexorable nightmares never seem to cheapen the victims of all such allusions, while also defending against potential allegations of such self-indulgence elsewhere.
“Self-disgust is self-obsession, honey, and I do as I please,” James boasts Rotten-ly on “Faster” - “such beautiful dignity in self-abuse” his defiant anorexic narrator pleads in “4st 7lb”.
Such defiance in the embrace of defeat - and yet sardonic knowingness nudges in, as well, in that offhand (self-)laceration, of “Of Walking Abortion”, of: “Fucked-up, don’t know why - you poor little boy...”
The personal is political, the political is personal, and behind it all the personal is invariably, excruciatingly even more personal. Whoever that person is. However hail-worthy many of Richey’s heartfelt lyrics come across, there are some that hit their mark smudgingly - their specific references and meaning clearest only to him, in that moment, while powerful regardless.
And yet this vast crowd - some in 1994-vintage camouflage costumes, or sailor suits, or leopard-print tops, or glittery tiaras, others merely in jeans and paisley shirts, office M&S or weather-related Christmas jumpers - deliriously croons to some of the unlikeliest community chorales.
“Scratch my leg with a rusty nail, sadly it heals” - “Wherever you go I will be carcass, whatever you see will be rotting flesh” - “Six million screaming souls - maybe misery, maybe nothing at all...”
Party. On.
Well, this is after all a band who - a few years on from their biblical epic - would somehow take to number one in the singles chart a song daring to be about the Spanish Civil War and bearing the name of “If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next”. And this in summer (1998), an’ all, succeeding the Spice Girls and Boyzone at the summit.
Acknowledging the, er, difficult of some of this evening’s refrains, Nicky Wire made the most of his non-singalongable microphone to introduce “Mausoleum” as “the singalong song of the winter” - before ostentatiously counting in, “1-2-3-4”, each under-lifting chorus of: “No birds, no birds - the sky is swollen black - no birds, no birds - holy mass of dead insects...”
The Manics do have a sense of humour, after all, it seems - why, many of Nicky’s most contentious remarks in the past seem borne more from mischief than bad taste for bad taste’s sake. And this mind dimly recalls first becoming more aware of them through a feature in a video games magazine, touting their second album while rhapsodising about the Sega Master System.
Another misconception back then, if not necessarily since, is that they could barely play their instruments - even slightly harsh on the Stuart Sutcliffe-ish Richey, but now demolished every time James breaks out another effortless arpeggio or discordant yet crystalline lick, Sean Moore boulders between militaristic pounding and ironic chugalug, Nicky gracefully yet propulsively as his 6ft 7in frame sends another McCartney-ish creative bassline juddering from stomach towards larynx.
At times at the Roundhouse the overall sound might have missed a certain something of the original LP’s caustic claustrophobia, an arena echo kicking in instead and even his cold not entirely explaining while the older-now James can’t always shriek the highest notes quite like way back when.
Yet the pathos passing much understanding endures - and envelops. Some of the bitterest lyrics ever committed to record by a major-league band get raucously called back and beyond by an army of thousands. While the inkling of a feeling hits that for many here such wound-stretchingly honest words not only connect to, say, student or teenage memories of admiring an album but feeling a connection and emotions too often felt unexpressed elsewhere, instead merely left festering within.
The insightful anorexic of “4st 7in”, the provocatively petulant “architect”/”butcher” of “Faster”, the sarcastic self-loather of “Of Walking Abortion” or the sickly failed lover/political student of “Revol” - all might find even the vaguest, while fulfilling, fellow-feeler.
Recent sad(sack) sentiments may have placed this listener among those to whom tears already spring a little too readily from crinkling, sprinkling eyes, while catching half-breaths and wondering just why, yet simultaneously finding fingers curling instinctively around long-fading yet remaining scarred arms.
One lesson from the Manics’ The Holy Bible, at least, is however not necessarily to celebrate yet at least recognise what depth of human emotions can and do flood both conscious and subconscious, well, living. Of sorts.
Between fleeting megalomania and floundering misery, many drab and dramatic moments come and go - whatever the surface, all feeling. And for all the pity or pain, the intensity remains something to cherish - on record, on stage or in life.
Some 20 sad and strange and sadder years on from such a notoriously cold and forbidding and personal LP, The Holy Bible on nights such as this reveals itself to have somehow become more or less warm and enduring and communal to an audience as well.
Every crowd, united in the occasion, comprising a multitude of potentially lonely souls, trying to stay a fixed ideal. And hopefully finding at least one of Richey’s lyrics does not quite ring true.
“Nothing turns out like you want it to”?
Yes. Definitely maybe, to quote an LP jarringly released the very same day.
Except, briefly, on an otherwise-bleak midwinter London evening two short decades along.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Oh, oh, oh, what a(n un)lovely war...

“I said we’ll both be home in a week or two,
Me and Albert and Lord Kitchener’ll teach the Hun a thing or two…
I’m sure to return –
After me, do not yearn
And we will waltz together all our lives through…”
So falls in chords the attempt at an uplifting farewell salute - before a subtly affecting lift in still-funereal cadences. So ends not a real-life tale (technically) but Ralph McTell’s plangent “Maginot Waltz”, released on an album even a few years after his defining/occluding “Streets Of London” hit a poptastic number two.

And yet, while the words and accompaniment feel heartaching, so much more so are so many letters to be found in newspaper archives, daily sent home from the First World War front from willing and unwilling troops struggling to make sense of their localised place in a world going to newly-globalised war.
Whether they went out at first with unfounded optimism or otherwise.
Letters returned, bringing stoic survival updates or brutal condolences.

Packages were sent out. Some lives were saved - even one "charmed life" from North London protected by a parcel. 

Yet so many many more were either ended or grievously damaged.

Just around the corner from home here in Woodside Park is Lodge Lane, where John Parr lived before somehow going off to fight aged 15 - and becoming the first British soldier killed in the First World War, just 17 days in, even if his family remained unaware for another ten months.
And only a little further away is Mill Hill East, three stations along on the Northern Line yet probably just as swift to run rather than depend on the occasional branch-line shuttle.

Rather more distant, mind, remain such experiences as those endured by Pte Parr, a Pte Boyd and other members of the Mill Hill-based Middlesex Regiment veteran - including, ex-Tottenham Hotspur footballer Walter Tull who would prove not only the first black player in top-flight English football but also a garlanded English soldier who died in action in France in March 1918.

Pte Boyd himself was described as enjoying that "charmed life” by a write-up in the Finchley Press on January 22 1915, though such “stuff” as luck back then was both relative and random…
The gift box sent by Princess Mary to Private Boyd, of the 4th Batt. Middlesex Regiment, has proved more than ordinarily acceptable. It saved Private Boyd’s life. A bullet went clean through it, but Private Boyd remained unhurt.
He has sent home the riddled gift box to his wife, who lives at 20 Elmfield-road, East Finchley.
Private Boyd is not seeing active service for the first time. He was in the 2nd Batt. Of the Middlesex Regiment through the South African War.
He was mentioned in dispatches, and received the Distinguished Medal for Spion Kop.
At the time, it was stated that his coolness under fire gave the impression that he bore a charmed life.
“Which,” says his wife happily, “appears to hold good in this instance.”
Private Boyd, though he had finished his time in the Army, being a man of fifty or so, as soon as the call for men came on the outbreak of war, rejoined at Mill Hill.
For a time he was passing from one station to another in England. This did not satisfy him. He had not joined for this.
He petitioned to be sent to the front, and his petition was acceded to.
He has been busy in the trenches ever since. His last home communication came in the shape of the box that saved his life.
The bullet passed through the box diagonally at one corner. He had it in the pocket of his tunic at the time, and it gives the impression that the shot was fired from the hip, as has been stated to be the custom among the Germans. It is a clean-drilled hole through the tin.
In the Transvaal Private Boyd was wounded on one occasion by a shell, a fragment of which he brought home – in his leg.
Though actively engaged during the whole time he has been out, Private Boyd has not only escaped injury, but has maintained – or had until his last communication – the best of health, which goes to show that a man is not too old at fifty for active service if he has the “stuff” in him.
The war declared today 100 years ago ended not only with an estimated 9million dead – including a sadly-baffling 2,738 on the final morning, killed needlessly in the hours between a truce being agreed and its PR-timed announcement at 11:11 on 11/11 – but also nation states and empires fragmented.
The previously-imperious Austro-Hungarian dominion would end splintered, so many constituent parts of a once-mighty Mitteleuropa nowadays barely capturing wider attention but for occasional football finals appearances or summer flash-floods.
Iraq and Palestine as independent-ish entities have had [irony ahead] a fair few struggles since, while the Balkan ex-/im-plosions partly triggered by, well, Gavrilo Princip’s temperamental finger are only tentatively easing at least a little these days.
Scant comfort, and lessons, from such dim, distant conscription might be the reminder that – for all many people's many complaints about coalitions, oppositions and the way we live here now, Britain remains in a blessed place compared to so many others.
The trenches, the degradation, the deaths and the life-altering injuries are not quite entirely history – why, the hundreds upon thousands afflicted so in Iraq and Afghanistan are reminders that donkeys can still overweeningly lead prides of lions.
But the sickening scenes in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and too, too many others horrify while reminding how lucky such as us over here now are.
Why, like Pte Boyd - there but for fortune
Michael Gove may be no fan but many minds might still feel inclined to sympathise with the sardonic - while caustically-jaunty - sentiments of Joan Littlewood's Oh! What A Lovely War.
That crushing closing sequence still stands alone as a gorgeous, poignant, subtly and disgustedly acerbic requiem for lives laid to waste amid such illusory poppy fields.
Plus ca change, eh?
Some lessons from the misleadingly-labelled Great War have been learnt. Many others, not so much.
Not while war remains so seemingly needless, and yet still so inexorably inevitable.