Slept all yesterday evening, all night long and all morning. Got up today with a spring in my step for the first time I can remember in a long while. It was a beautiful sunny day. I went down the supermarket and bought all kinds of stuff I keep forgetting: dental floss, dental Christmas trees (you know, those between-the-teeth cleaning thingies), black binbags. Oh yeah and greetings cards.
I’m not that fussy but I required a couple of cards with no words, and imagery that was not excessively humorous but not sombre either. Wow I’ve looked all over the place. Finally I found two OK-ish cards in Sainsburys, the supermarket.
Then I walked up the high road all the way to the pound shop. I’ve been vaping for years and I don’t know why but it’s so difficult to find good quality reasonably priced vaping bits, namely the pipe ends (“cartomisers,” I believe they call them) and the vape juice. The only places I know that sell them cheap are Poundland and Iceland (the frozen food supermarket). So I bought enough vape juice to last months plus loads of “cartomisers”… sorry “clearomisers”. That’s what they’re called. Clearomisers.
Anyway then I went farther up the road and by the time I came back I was so worn out and knackered I slumped on the sofa and slept for about four hours! (I must be getting old.)
It’s one in the morning and I’m sitting here watching 80s music videos on Youtube procrastinating writing a book, a fiction book. I feel lousy. Went out yesterday to check if the bank has returned my stolen money (that’s another story: criminals fishing my card out of a bank machine and going on a spree!!!) Just walking round the block made me feel out of breath. I feel like my health is failing. I feel like I’m right on the very edge of something and about to fall off. I’m starting to feel that none of my books is going to come out until after my death… if they ever come out at all.
I used to be convinced I was going to live past the age of 80, even though I didn’t want to live that long. Now I’m not so sure. I feel like I’m fading away… and if I do fade away, that’s probably the end.☹️
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WHOSE IDEA WAS IT to give NAMES to British storms which are mere non-tropical gales, nothing close to a hurricane (usually) in wind speed or rain levels. Imagine your name’s Samantha, you invest £30 million in businesses named after your wonderful self like Samantha’s Flowers, Samantha’s Salon, Samantha’s Bakery, Samantha’s Sauna, whatever. Then Storm Samantha strikes, killing a dozen people, shutting down power for millions and costing billions in property damage and disruption to business. It’s not going to do Samantha’s Flowers, Salon, Bakery and Sauna much good, is it??!?Poor Samantha could lose everything and end up £30 million in DEBT with the “Samantha” name tainted, and distraught customers staying away in their droves. And all because the scatty UK Meteorological Office decided to give HUMAN NAMES to the destructive powers of nature! What possible benefit can named storms bring anyone (except for possible short-term merching possibilities for vendors of teeshirts and coffee mugs “I survived Storm Samantha”, etc)? There’s no real upside and the downside is ENORMOUS in lost business to people named Samantha! Bring back old-fashioned NAMELESS STORMS and help poor Samantha keep her £30 million and earn an honest buck!!
PS 34 years ago a humungous gale hit Southern Britain and Northern France, the so-called “1987 Hurricane.” Although winds did reach hurricane speeds of 120-135mph in several places (category 4) rainfall levels were nothing near hurricane levels and most importantly there was no eye! So it wasn’t a hurricane!
I’ve been in a weird mood for days. I spend half my time feeling kind of almost down and quite bleurghkh and then an unexplained excitement comes upon me pushing me up until I feel like I have champagne fizzing in my veins instead of blood and everything’s SO EXCITING then this wears off (usually after less than a day) and I’m back to being bleurghkh, then sometimes that wears off and I think, “Oh good, I’m ‘normal’ now (when am I ever normal?) But no! The fizzing excitement comes back and I can’t sit still, instead I’m swaying side to side and high but also borderline-irritable, writing long and slightly argumentative comments on irrelevant websites. And then that wears off and I’m back to bleurghkh and I sleep at weird times until… oh what’s this? Back to champagne veins! Again!! And round and round and round. Where am I going? When will it end? WHAT’S HAPPENING TO ME?
I’m a big fan of the Merchant-Ivory film starring Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson as the Schlegel sisters living in turn of the (20th) century posh London. The arty Shlegel sisters get involved with the commercial Wilcoxes and the impoverished Basts. I’ve also seen the more recent TV adaptation and I’ve heard the BBC radio adaptation as well but neither of these adds anything in particular to the Merchant Ivory film, which to me is the best.
So it was with some trepidation that I spent one of my Audible tokens on an unabridged reading of the book performed by Edward Penderbridge. Wow! It’s as if the story bursts out fully alive and in 3D!
Many classic novels can be rather boring because instead of fleshing out a story they give such detail on every smudge and every coal-stain in the characters’ chintzy parlours and every curl of a visiting gentleman’s moustache that the whole thing is rendered flabby and obese. But EM Forster is not like this. His writing has a rare brilliance. He wrote a book called Aspects of the Novel and it’s clear he’s a master novelist.
The book is set in London and at Howards End, a country house somewhere in Hertfordshire or Cambridgeshire in the years before World War I. Forster cuts right into his characters and analyses them down to their core instead of being content with mere superficial observations.
One warning I must give: the text is heavy on the kind of horse-clopping carriages and tea-and-visiting cards and the whole milieu of London before the First World War and makes quite a few sweeping statements about social class and nationality ― and deliberately so. The book is an analysis of class boundaries and class prejudice. But if you’re not in the mood for it, this could really grate on you. So beware!
I’m on chapter 6 of 44 and so far it’s really good!
I had been looking for a good book for ages when I heard Lady Colin Campbell talking on Youtube about marrying into the English aristocracy. Lady C, as she’s widely known, married the second son of the Duke of Argyll. One book she mentioned was The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt, an American who married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895.
Born in 1877 into the richest and most famous family in North America, Consuelo Vanderbilt was pushed into a loveless arranged marriage with Charles Spencer-Churchill (the 9th Duke of Marlborough) from the grandest English family. She got to live in Blenheim Palace, possibly the only private house in England that can outdo Chatsworth (the Derbyshire stately home of the Duke of Devonshire and one of the grandest houses in England. I went there a lot in my early childhood; I blogged about it here.)
Everybody knew that the Duke married Miss Vanderbilt for the immense dowry she brought to the marriage ― well over $70 million in today’s money. The Duke needed a huge sum of money just to keep Blenheim Palace going); Consuelo, meanwhile, was pushed into the marriage for the social boost it gave to the Vanderbilt family.
The book really brings to life the Gilded Age of fin de siècle decadence, of new world wealth and old world splendour, an era of Cartier fountain pens and crested visiting cards, of horse-drawn landaus, of parlour maids, footmen and butlers and French governesses. (Consuelo Vanderbilt actually grew up with three governesses, one English, one French and one German. Long before the advent of radio and cinema, she was amusing herself with the classics of European literature ― read in the original languages, of course.) Oh, those were the days. The entire book is written in such a ladylike voice! Here’s an extract from early in the story:
Now firmly established as a social leader, my mother, wishing still further to dominate her world, assumed the prerogatives of an arbiter elegantiarum, instructing her contemporaries both in the fine arts and the art of living. Ransacking the antique shops of Europe, she returned with pictures and furniture to adorn the mansions it became her passion to build. She thus set a fashion for period houses, which at that date were little known in the United States. Once she was successfully installed in the three homes she had built, her restless energy must, I imagine, have turned to other projects. It was perhaps then that plans for my future were born.
This is how Consuelo describes her fearsome mother’s formidable personality and dominating style:
My father had a generous and unselfish nature; his pleasure was to see people happy and he enjoyed the company of his children and friends, but my mother ― for reasons I can but ascribe to a towering ambition ― opposed these carefree views with all the force of her strong personality. Her combative nature rejoiced in conquests. She loved a fight. A born dictator, she dominated events about her as thoroughly as she eventually dominated her husband and her children. If she admitted another point of view she never conceded it; we were pawns in her game to be moved as her wishes decreed. I remember once objecting to her taste in the clothes she selected for me. With a harshness hardly warranted by so innocent an observation, she informed me that I had no taste and that my opinions were not worth listening to. She brooked no contradiction, and when once I replied, ‘I thought I was doing right,’ she stated, ‘I don’t ask you to think, I do the thinking, you do as you are told,’ which reduced me to imbecility.
Vanderbilt Balsan, Consuelo. The Glitter and the Gold. London, Hodder, 1953. Both extracts are from Chapter 1 “The World of My Youth”.
If you’re a history-lover looking for a real-life version of Downton Abbey with a splosh of Edith Wharton and a drizzling of The Crown for good measure (the Prince of Wales, future King Edward VII, gets several mentions) then this book is certainly for you. It’s most thoroughly to be recommended!
“The story of the ‘real’ Lady Grantham of Downton Abbey” ― Goodreads
I set up this blog intending to write about stuff that interested me and obviously that I hoped interested others. But for the past few weeks, basically since setting this thing up I’ve felt basically so bleurghkh. I spend whole days in exhaustion or catching up on sleep that feels long-lost and dearly recaptured. I don’t know why. And the dreaded Craving is coming back, the craving for all things stodgy and sweet.
I have bags and bags of rubbish I’ve bought to try and interest myself in something… Mostly CDs and DVDs. I long ago gave up on books after filling shelves with stuff I want to want to read, but don’t actually want to read. I do love books, just not the kind of books I had been buying… yeah, yeah. Doesn’t make sense, I know. It’s the same with the DVDs, they’re films I might like to watch on telly… or I might have wanted to watch in some times past… but not now. Not any more. I don’t subscribe to mega-multichannel television, but all television is digital and multichannel these days. So I get way more than 100 channels. And still there hardly ever seems to be anything worth watching!
A lot of it comes down to “mood,” I suppose… mood, the predominance of a person’s feeling over a particular time. I’ve had bad moods, extreme moods, going back years.
I actually prefer writing to reading nowadays by a long way. A few years ago I had a breakdown that left me in smithereens. The good thing about being broken to bits is that you can take those countless little pieces and reform yourself into anything you desire, at least that’s what I tried to do. I have always had the ambition to be a writer. Note I didn’t say I’ve always wanted to write a book: just about everyone who’s literate has wanted to write a book at some point in their life. No: with me, I have always wanted to be a writer my whole life through. There were times when a lot of other stuff got in the way. (And a lot of that stuff you could categorize as illness ― and illness can shade off into excuse-making, pure and simple… How are you supposed to know how ill you are when you feel crappy pretty much all the time?) So instead of looking at things that way, I turned them on their head. If you’re feeling none too brilliant, that can be a great time to put the fabulous worlds you have created on paper. So that’s what I decided to do.
And I did have those fantastic worlds, and it was fantastic worlds I wished to write. Instead of writing about myself, I took to writing children’s books, children’s adventure novels set in the world of animals. One thing that did weird me out about writing for children ― and I’m talking about older children here ― is that the general intellectual level of a children’s book is pretty much the same as adult popular fiction. Which is kind of scary, when you think about it ― how un-grown-up most adults actually are…!
Writing gave my life a form and meaningfulness it had never had before. In fact writing my first ever proper completed decent novel marked the first time in my life that I had set a goal and actually realized it more fully and completely than I had planned to. I got totally swept away by the whole process of writing. It wasn’t (unfortunately) as if writing somehow healed the rest of my life and made me better. It actually made me more single-minded than before which is not necessarily a good thing. But I am really glad I created things I actually consider to have value ― more value than me, in a way.
So the next stage is actually getting this stuff out into print. And I don’t know what to do!
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This is a follow-up to my last post when I asked, “Is my depression real (clinical) depression?” If I sound like a big whining hypochondriac I should explain I’ve been dogged by depression on and off and to a greater and lesser extent since childhood. When I left home and went to university aged 19 I went really downhill and my life turned into a real mess. Although I was seeing a doctor, a counsellor and a psychiatrist (usually two out of three at any one time) and although I was being prescribed horrible-sounding horrible-feeling early 90s British versions of psychiatric drugs including old-style antidepressants with names like Gamanil and Prothiaden, I got precious little “pastoral” support from the actual university and ended up in in such a mess, I felt the only thing I could do was drop out.
This was after a semester and a half of me basically not turning up for half the course and not engaging with the other half of it that I did attend. I was in no state to be wading through degree-level textbooks or literature written in foreign languages, literature that was presumably written to entertain or enlighten its readers, not torture them. And nobody from the academic staff ever really tried to help me. They did ask what was wrong a couple of times. I remember my course tutor writing an accusatory letter about me to some other academic saying she had checked with the student counselling centre and despite my claims to the contrary there was no record of my ever having gone for counselling. That’s because I got my counselling down the medical centre, not the student centre. Dur.
Looking back I feel I was let down by the university, although at the time I just thought it was all my fault. It wasn’t till decades later that I saw something on TV about students and depression and thought “well I never got treated that well!” That depressive episode lasted somewhere between 18 months and 3 to 4 years, depending what you want to count as “depressed”.
Later in the 1990s I remember reading Listening to Prozac (published 1993) an extremely popular book of the era. (Prozac/fluoxetine was of course one of the many medications they gave me over the years). The book’s author, a psychiatrist named Peter D Kramer, talks at some length of “cosmetic pharmacology,” (to achieve the desirable-sounding state of being “better than well”. He explains a then under-recognized condition called dysthymia (dys– as in disordered; thymia meaning mood). Dysthymic disorder is a long and lingering state of depression, often without any dramatic or telling symptoms. A lot of people experience dysthymia as a constant low-grade misery. In 2013 the DSM-5 renamed the condition persistent depressive disorder (PDD). Because millions more suffer from dysthymia than full-blown major depression this has been a boon for the medication manufacturers and it’s mostly to treat this condition that pills like Prozac, Paxil (Seroxat), Zoloft (Lustral) and the like have been dished out in their billions over the years.
What I remember best from Listening to Prozac was a condition the author called double depression where dysthymia worsens into a state of true major depression. Or major depression lifts but doesn’t totally go away, leaving this “dysthymic” state. For years I never wanted to admit this had happened to me, but looking back, maybe I did have this double depression. Yuck.
I’m really hoping all my depressive crap really did end last week. There’s another clue in one of the embedded tweets where I claimed the situation had been going on for several weeks, not just one week, which is too short to be clinically depressed, at least by the official diagnostic criteria.
Another weird thing that happened, though I didn’t particularly notice at the time: my insane craving for sweets and biscuits. Usually I avoid sweet foods because they’re not that good for you ― but I was going through a packet at a time, then wanting even more. Why is that? Oversleeping and carbs craving ― and by this I mean massive oversleeping for hours and hours and massive carbs craving. I know I’m not unique in this; I know it happens to other people. But why should that be? I even heard somewhere that sugar has some sort of morphine-like effect on the brain. I saw a video on it on Youtube somewhere. The doctor who made the video said that most drug addicts are also addicted to sweets and this is why their teeth are so bad… is that true?
Okay I’m going to have to wind this up here. So the depression disappeared about a week ago. I don’t feel so good today. I’m hoping it’s just an off-day and not yet another down-swing, but who knows? I wish this depression would just disappear and never ever come back!
Aha! Stop press 04:12 hours Sunday,19th September. I think I’ve found the video I mentioned, it’s by Dr Tracey Marks who is probably the best Youtube psychiatrist out there. If you’re interested in increasing your mental wellbeing (or understanding mental unwellness) her channel is well worth following:
Back in the day I used to read a famous mental health blog called The Secret Diary of a Manic-Depressive by Seaneen Molloy who’s actually so famous now she has her own Wikipedia page! In one of her many mental health and mental illness-oriented rants and ramblings Seaneen (pronounced “shuh-neen“) expressed the view that despite all her years of mental illness, she thought that she had probably never been clinically depressed in her whole life.
This is someone who spent years going in and out of hospital while living on sickness benefits and diagnosed with type one bipolar disorder at one time and borderline personality disorder at another ― and she’s saying she thinks she’s never been clinically depressed. She’s not saying she’s never felt depressed or severely depressed, she’s not claiming never to have felt paranoid and suicidal, all she was saying that she had never been depressed for long enough for her symptoms to warrant validation by American psychiatrists as “major depressive episode” under the DSM’s hallowed diagnostic scheme. I know how she feels, because depression can be the most deceptive of conditions.
Depression can fill you with guilt. It can turn mental suffering into physical pain (pain so real that some depressed patients are convinced their problem is physical…) The more maximized it becomes, the more it minimizes itself, convincing you that feelings don’t count, that you don’t count… everything is hopeless, everything pointless… nothing counts anymore…
I felt lousy all last week. And I don’t know if I was clinically depressed, either. For years, my own depressions have tended to take a seven-day formation. Sometimes this means a depressive attack comes out of the blue, lasts exactly one week and fades as fast as it appeared, vanishing forever, never to return.
But more often than not, that seven-day pattern is more like a serration and part of a much larger pattern. Sometimes it’s as if I’ve had multiple seven-day depressions joined together like a wave going on and on. Other times I’ve gone into a kind of cycle where I spend one week very low and then another week not quite so low; the week after I’m very low… and so on, and so on… on and on it goes for weeks on end.
The bigger picture is something we’re not usually permitted to see when we’re right in the middle of it.
According to the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition, better known as the DSM-5, the American psychiatrists’ Bible, a depressive episode must last a minimum 14 days or it doesn’t “count”. Interestingly on the bipolar side of things the time limits are considerably shorter: to be officially “hypomanic” (mildly manic) you need to be elevated in mood (or else really angry and irritable) and hyped up for 4 days non-stop minimum to “officially” count as hypomanic. Full-blown mania requires a 7-day minimumunless you’re admitted to hospital, in which case there is no time limit. This isn’t to say that you can’t be hypomanic for 2 days or manic for 6; psychiatrists and their patients are well aware that the DSM doesn’t hold up a mirror to reality; in fact, many psychiatrists say the DSM authors are crazier than their patients. It’s quite possible to be depressed for 13 days, especially when your mood is cycling up and down and round and round and faster and faster and faster ― and I’m pretty sure this is what Seaneen was getting at when she said she’d never officially been depressed.
And it means that I could claim not to be depressed, because I only felt totally lousy for about a week. I feel much better today than I did yesterday. But where is the cut-off point? Because 2 weeks ago I wasn’t exactly feeling that brilliant. I haven’t been really okay for a long time… Oh and then there’s the trauma factor. Bereavement. In less than a year I lost my mother and my best friend. In fact, the three closest people to me are all gone now. So maybe I’m just “mourning”… except it doesn’t feel like mourning, it feels more like melancholia. I don’t know where things are going from here.
Until the middle 19th century all the squirrels in Europe were Eurasian red squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris). This changed when certain rich aristocrats took to importing eastern grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) from America to their vast country estates. Having grey squirrels on your land in the 19th century went along with the other exotic species the rich liked to keep as exotic pets and livestock: Egyptian geese, Chinese pheasants, Indian peacocks and so on.
Over time of course the grey squirrels moved on from the aristocrats’ stately woodlands and colonized almost the entire British mainland as well as vast swathes of Germany, France and other parts of Continental Europe.
When I was little we were told that grey squirrels out-competed the reds by grabbing all the food ― being slightly larger and more bold and daring ― qualities that endeared them to the 19th century aristocrats who kept them as exotic pets. But this doesn’t explain why red squirrels almost died out in Britain.
The real reason is that the greys carry squirrel pox, a disease to which they have a natural immunity but red squirrels don’t.
By the late 20th century the only places where red squirrels survived in Britain were the Welsh island of Anglesey and several Scottish pine forests. Grey squirrels can’t live in pinewoods, but reds can.
More recently, scientists have isolated the pine marten factor. A pine marten looks like a giant red squirrel from hell. Pine martens are omnivores with a distinct preference for squirrel meat. But whereas red squirrels are naturally wary of the malicious martens and adept at outmanoeuvring them, grey squirrels are not ― and in areas where the martens abound (thanks to bountiful reintroduction programmes) the less cautious grey squirrels get slaughtered in vast numbers while red squirrels thrive!
The marten-ridden pinewoods of Scotland are full day’s car ride from Southern England. So when a Londoner like me wants to see red squirrels it’s often easier to fly over to Germany to see them than to take a 12-hour+ drive up to the Scottish Highlands*!
(*There are red squirrels to be found in Lowland Scottish woodlands, but if I’m going to Scotland I’m stocking up on haggis and single malt and going to the highest of the Highlands on the Highland Chieftain (8-hour direct train ride London Kings Cross to Inverness!))
The Red Squirrel Project is a scheme for moving red squirrels across Scotland into new habitats where they could survive. (Documentary: 7 mins)
Grey squirrels don’t just spread the pox, they also steal toy aeroplanes like this one here…
German documentary “The Crazy World of Squirrels” (43 mins) English subtitles available