Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Depression? What do I know?

I have just filed my first newspaper column in four weeks. I could not produce one for 18 December because I was too depressed to think, let alone write. Then 25 December was out, for obvious reasons, and on 1 January I was still pretty depressed (it’s enough to get anyone down, New Year) and fundamentally couldn’t be arsed.

I alluded to my depression in my last column of 11 December. I have suffered from it for more than 40 years and during that time I have tried pretty much every therapy available apart from electric shock treatment and a frontal lobotomy. I have seen psychiatrists, psychotherapists, cognitive behavioural therapists and counsellors; taken Prozac and at least two other anti-depressant drugs; read countless articles and books on the subject; and tried a wide range of self-help measures from teetotalism and a tightly controlled diet to binge eating and getting monumentally pissed. So I think I know a fair bit about depression by now.

And yet, every single time I write a word on the subject, up pops at least one angry letter to the editor asserting that I am not taking the subject seriously enough, and have no idea what I am talking about. 

To me, frankly, this is like some slurring bloke in a Cambridge pub telling Stephen Hawking that he knows fuck all about cosmology.

This time the letter to the paper came from a Newcastle city councillor, lumping together my column with something written a few days later by the self-styled poet Kate Fox: “Both writers I felt seriously under-estimated the impact that this condition has on the individual, their family, friends and employer. Eating a bar of chocolate is no solution to this devastating illness as Kate implies.”

Well, he’s right there. Eating a bar of chocolate won’t cure your depression, but it may well raise your spirits temporarily – as the trip to London I described on 11 December did for me, before the dark clouds descended once more.

On the whole I have found that a complete change of scene is one of the more effective specifics against depression. The difficulty is the complete unpredictability of the condition. There have been times when drinking a couple of pints of beer with a friend has lifted me out of the deepest pit of gloom; many more when I simply could not face drinking with anyone; and others when I have accepted the drink and the well-intentioned company and left the pub far more miserable than when I went in. And done nothing at all for the mood of the person or persons I was with.

I THINK, after all these years, that I discern some patterns. I am much more likely to succumb to depression in the winter months, when daylight and sunshine are in short supply. The prospect of events I loathe, like conferences and parties, always induces gloom (so the combination of winter and the festive season is invariably bad news).

I have also formulated the following simple self-help rules, which I have shared with others and know that they have proved positive for them, too:

1. Get up early. Don’t lie in bed feeling sorry for yourself. It only makes things worse.

2. Take exercise. The single most positive thing anyone can do to drive away depression is to take a long, brisk walk – ideally in the hills.

3. Don’t overeat. (Says the 16 stone porker with a lifetime’s supply of chocolates stacked up by the sofa at home.)

4. Don’t drink – though, as noted earlier, moderate tactical intakes of alcohol may help to shift a stubbornly low mood.

5. Read a good book: it’s got harder and harder to find the time, as we all become more and more addicted to social media, but getting really involved in a genuinely “unputdownable” book has proven itself time and again as a wonderful way to raise morale.

Now, I know all that from long and bitter experience, but it did not stop me from spending the best part of December lying around feeling miserable, unable to kick-start myself out of my torpor. As a fellow sufferer remarked to me over Christmas, it’s like walking in treacle. You can’t think straight, you can’t work, you don’t want to socialise, you know you’re going to be lousy company and it seems fairest all round to stay at home alone.

Getting out of the house for a walk seems like torture. The first half mile or so is almost unbearable. But persevere and I guarantee that you will start to feel better.

Similarly, going back to work is hell. I did it yesterday morning, and every single task I attempted took at least twice as long as it should have done, and left me convinced that I had made a complete hash of it. In the days when I worked as part of a team I would shout and scream at people on the slightest provocation on first days back like this, and reduce them or me (or both) to tears.

Yet the reality is that the quality of my written work does not suffer if I can just force myself to produce it. Bizarrely, I have come up with some of my best humorous material at times when I have been almost prostrate with depression.

And, as with the walking, perseverance brings its rewards. It is now the afternoon of Day 2 and I am feeling better, able to answer the phone without dread, engage in a spot of banter and work my way through many of the tasks that I have now been putting off for a month because I could not face them.

I may come across in print as being unsympathetic about depression, because I am quite unsympathetic to myself. Fundamentally, I know that I am a lazy sod who hates parties, so saying “I can’t go: I’m depressed” is almost too convenient an excuse. But like the bloke who set out to get himself repatriated from Colditz by pretending to be mad, and duly ended up in a British loony bin, the symptoms are no less real and painful for perhaps, to some extent at least, having wished them upon myself.

Why am I writing this? Because I do know about depression, and I thought it might be useful to set out why, and some of the lessons I have learned. If you are feeling as miserable today as I was a few weeks ago, try getting up and going for a walk. And if you really can’t face it, maybe think about trying it tomorrow.

The other reason is that far too many people are too embarrassed to acknowledge their condition. I used to be that way myself, blaming my absences from work on stomach upsets or flu (with the inevitable result that I would be stricken with a genuine stomach upset or flu shortly thereafter, and would be bereft of a convincing explanation). It is so much better to be honest and upfront. You’ll be amazed how many people respond by saying that they have suffered from depression themselves, or have first hand experience of it in their families.

At any rate, I have never encountered anything but sympathy and have somehow managed to hold down a reasonably pressured and well-rewarded job for 35 years despite my periodic bouts of misery. 

But then, as my wife likes to remind me at least once every day, I am a very lucky man.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

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Thursday, 10 October 2013

Like a bad penny

Since a couple of people have asked, in response to my last post: yes, my car has been returned.

This was obviously a bit of a blow to me personally, though its delivery proved a very exciting experience for two small boys.

So far it has made it the six miles to my nearest railway station and back, and successfully completed one 50 mile round trip to my office. I don't wish to jinx things by saying anything more positive than that. I did notice this morning that the rear windscreen washer no longer worked, but I can say with confidence that Hell will freeze over before I take it to my local Land Rover dealer to be looked at.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

You could not make it up

I have not seen my car for more than two weeks now. Unfortunately it hasn’t been stolen. It has been towed away for repair by the geniuses at Land Rover, whose technician pitched up at my house in the wilds of Northumberland on Saturday, 21 September, plugged in his little computer and immediately identified two faults: one relating to fuel pressure and the other suggesting a faulty sensor on the crankshaft. It was this, he thought, that was sending messages to try and stall the engine. Occasionally it was succeeding in doing so, which is why I had spent the previous fortnight lurching and jerking around the roads of northern England, and periodically gliding to a halt. Never a pleasant experience if one happens to be cruising in the fast lane of a motorway at the time.

On the one hand I was pretty furious with Hunters Land Rover of Chester for having failed to diagnose and fix these faults when I took the vehicle in for repair the previous Tuesday. All the more so because they had not only permitted me to drive away in a clearly unsafe car, but had now caused me to waste pretty much an entire Saturday, and to miss the friends’ wedding that was my sole reason for making the 240 mile drive to the North East in the first place. But, on the other hand, I was relieved that someone had finally agreed with me that there was a problem, and that steps were going to be taken to put it right. I was also glad to have my car temporarily replaced with one that actually worked, though Land Rover’s insistence on providing me with an identical Discovery 4 was probably misplaced, as by that stage I would have felt more comfortable behind the wheel of almost any other vehicle, with the possible exception of a steamroller.

So time wore on. I had a vague idea where my car had ended up when the AA man towed it away, because someone from Land Rover had rung me up to say that they couldn’t take it to my nearest dealer, Stratstone in Newcastle, because they were “too busy”. So, if it was all right with me, they were going to dump it outside a closed Land Rover service centre on the Team Valley Trading Estate in Gateshead, and post its keys through the letter box. I explained in no uncertain terms why this did not strike me as a great idea, and they rang back with a Plan C: delivering it to Stratstone in Houghton-le-Spring, wherever that is. I concurred.

There followed several days of silence, so I thought perhaps I should ring Land Rover and check on progress. But they could not help; they had no record of where my car had been taken, and I would need to ring the dealer direct if I wanted to know more. In the circumstances, it was quite handy that I at least knew where it was supposed to be.

So I Googled [remember other search engines are available] Stratstone in Houghton-le-Spring and spoke to a nice man called Paul who explained that Land Rover had only just authorised him to replace the vehicle’s high pressure fuel pump: a part which needed to be specially ordered and which would be a major job to fit. He promised to keep me updated and was as good as his word: he rang a couple of days later to report that the work had been done and to ask my permission for one of his colleagues, who lived a good 25 miles away, to take the vehicle home with him to give it a proper test run and ensure that this had fixed my problem.

I was delighted, and noted the contrast with his Chester counterparts, who when asked if they had taken the vehicle for a test drive before pronouncing that they “couldn’t find a fault” assured me that they had. And I might have believed them but for the fact that I noted my car’s mileage on delivery to them as 31,999, and on collection as 32,000.

A few more days drifted by, and on Thursday Paul rang me again and asked me to call him back. I tried to do so, but found myself in the midst of an almost unbelievably strict interrogation about why I was ringing.

“Is your car in the garage?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m calling.”

“But is your car in for repair?”

“It was. I don’t know whether it still is. I imagine that’s why Paul rang me.”

“What exactly was the nature of the problem with your car?”

“Look, I don’t want to be rude, but exactly what part of ‘He rang me and asked me to call him back’ are you struggling to understand?”

“Can you tell me …”

“Oh, fuck off.”

On Friday afternoon Paul rang again, during the 15 minutes while I was away from my desk having lunch, and left another message asking me to call him back. In the circumstances I asked Mrs H, who has infinitely greater reserves of patience than I do, to try and ring Paul for me and just leave a message asking him to call me again. Mrs H always suspects that I exaggerate grossly, so it was a relief to me when she confirmed that the process of getting through was every bit as difficult as I had described. Apparently the dealership uses a call centre that is incentivised according to the number of service appointments they book, hence the relentless focus on interrogating callers’ motives rather than on anything that might pass, in a sane world, for customer service. The man Mrs H spoke to admitted that even members of his own team who were out on the road could not get through to colleagues back at base except through resort to stratagems like claiming “I’m his boyfriend and it’s an urgent personal matter.”

Eventually Paul rang me again and told me how lucky it was that I had permitted his colleague to take my car for a decent test drive, because it had broken down en route. And the problem lay in the faulty crankshaft sensor that had been highlighted by the computer two weeks ago, but which Land Rover had told him not to bother replacing because it was a false result that would be cured by renewing the high pressure fuel pump. The good news was that they had now belatedly agreed that the sensor should be replaced, too. The bad news was that what would have been a 15 minute job while they were replacing the fuel pump would now be the best part of a day’s work as they took the car to bits again to put it right.

All of which tends to confirm my suspicion that Paul and Stratstone Houghton-le-Spring are rare good guys in an organisation where total idiocy seems to be the norm. I don’t actually care too much about how long my car is away. I wouldn’t mind if I never saw it again and I shall certainly be saying a cheery Tata to Land Rover as soon as it is practically and financially possible for me to do so.

I can only assume that the likes of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, who seemed to be competing during the conference season to heap praise on Jaguar Land Rover as the epitome of British (Indian-owned) industrial excellence, have never actually forked out any of their own cash to buy one of its shit awful products. But then you would expect politicians to be dim and disingenuous. What surprises me rather more is the attitude of the thieving community.

One of the incidental annoyances of the last few weeks has been the repeated phone calls from Cobra vehicle tracking whenever my car has had its battery disconnected or been loaded on a trailer. I had one of their trackers installed at the insistence of my insurance company because it was their standard requirement for all vehicles valued at more than £50,000. The other day I pointed out that this could only have been the case for about ten minutes after delivery, before depreciation kicked in, and it must be worth vastly less than that now.

Their answer was that I must keep the tracker because my car is still a high theft risk and very attractive to the vehicle stealing community. Well, all I can say is that they have no discernment whatsoever. So here is my advice to the criminals of Britain: think German or Japanese, boys. After all, if you need to make a quick getaway from the police, it will help to be behind the wheel of something that won’t come shuddering to a halt when you put your foot down.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Blogging: for and against

What could possibly be sadder than life as a blogger? Some poor, lonely soul who cannot find a spouse, a friend or a publisher. The sort of person who cannot persuade even the parish newsletter – which frankly prints pretty much anything – to give him a few column inches to air his woes. (Or her, for that matter; no sexual discrimination intended.)

Well, for a start, it’s not as sad as being the sort of embittered, lonely sod who fills his (or her) days posting negative comments at the foot of other people’s work on news websites or blogs. Blogging is at least creative, rather than wilfully destructive.

Then there are those few who, like the lottery winners we all dream of becoming when we buy a ticket (though we know we won’t be). have managed to use their blogs as a platform to secure publishing deals.

And then again there are those like me, whose lives have been utterly transformed by blogging, in completely unexpected ways. Like this:

And this:

And this:

The contribution played by this blog in securing the first outcome is most concisely described here. The others just followed somehow, by processes that must remain a happy mystery unless we wish to start lowering the intellectual tone.

When I started this blog, it was a handy way of filling the time, a useful aide memoire on the importance of sticking to my diet, and a piece of ephemera that might just outlive me for a short while. Ironically, I rarely have time to add to it these days because I am too busy earning money to support the offspring that it made possible. But if anyone tells you that blogging is a waste of time and effort …

 … I rest my case.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Now there's a thing

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Friday, 31 May 2013

The undersea world of my wine cellar

16st 4lb, 6.5 units. I shall always look back fondly on the English summer of 2013. Both days of it, last weekend. We were able to eat no fewer than three family meals al fresco, at the lovely new hardwood garden table we bought last year.

We used it for lunch on the one and only day of summer 2012, then it blew over in a minor hurricane that smashed one of its legs. Amazingly, the handyman who took it away several months ago to try and fashion a replacement returned it just before the sun finally came out on Saturday. In celebration, I cracked open a bottle from the case of the cheeky little rosé I recently bought in uncharacteristically optimistic anticipation of some decent weather. Though I could have saved my money, because our cellar flooded during the torrential rains of a couple of weeks ago and in the course of sorting out the resulting mess I came across a case of the cheeky little rosé I had forgotten buying in spring 2012, and which had naturally survived the whole year completely untouched.

The low point of the weekend for me was somehow dropping my camera into the pool of water on the cellar floor while I was looking for the wine. Luckily the camera was in its case. Unluckily the case wasn’t waterproof. But then luckily again the camera wasn’t powered up at the time it got saturated. It was unfortunate, in the circumstances, that I did not bother to read the Googled advice on “What to do if your digital camera falls into water” until AFTER I had given it a cursory wipe and tried to turn it on. Dear me, no. I should have placed it in bowl of silica gel or dry white rice in a warm place and left it there for a week or so before attempting anything so rash. I have taken that advice now, but strongly suspect that it has been a waste of time and that my camera is comprehensively f***ed. On the plus side, it’s my birthday on Monday and Mrs H had, until this point, been completely stumped as to what she could buy the man who already has absolutely everything.

We went house hunting on both Saturday and Sunday before we settled down in the garden, and were lucky enough to find both the perfect house AND the perfect location. It was just unfortunate that we did not see them in the same place at the same time. Mrs H agreed with me that the 1990s detached house we saw on Saturday ticked almost every box, but it was located close to a main road from which there came a steady hum of traffic. Having lived in my time under the Heathrow flight path in Barnes and on the A4 in central London, I feel fairly confident that I could get used to anything. Indeed, I had a friend who lived sandwiched between the North Circular Road and a curious freight-only railway line on which long trains of wagons filled with rusty nails trundled back and forth all night, stopping only when the first low-flying aircraft took over to maintain the high background noise level in the morning, and he was blissfully happy. Except for the fact that he was nowhere near a shipping lane, which would have completed his set.

Mrs H did not share my confidence.

The house in the perfect location, a short stroll from The Boy’s new school, was a 1950s semi built as workers’ accommodation by the water board, whose adjacent pumping station is now run and remotely monitored by computers instead of human beings. It was a lovely, peaceful spot. But I strongly suspect that water board employees in the 1950s were not expected to have my taste for collecting books and other assorted junk for which a certain amount of space is required.

If only someone would sell us a perfectly proportioned three storey Georgian house in a manageable garden at 1980s prices, we would be laughing. But that, sadly, looks an even longer shot than enjoying an old-fashioned summer in England any time soon.