Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

Scuttle ye not

Posted: July 3, 2015 in Personal
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I’m currently on edge. Overly tense and alert, despite attempting to relax at home. There’s no rational reason for feeling like this, other than a small creature that invaded my peripheral vision and drew my attention, before scuttling into some unseen crevice around my computer before I could act.

A phobia is like having a psychosomatic disease. It can make you horribly ill for no physical reason, but your mind convinces you it is a real threat. I suffer from claustrophobia and social phobia, though I have conquered the worst of these in recent years, but I consider both of these rational. The one completely irrational fear I can’t control is another of the top ten reported UK fears: arachnophobia.

I believe it was passed on by my mother in childhood, as I have no recollection of that classic “trauma” moment that normally precedes a lifelong phobia. Coming into close contact with them causes anxiety and a need to kill or eject the intruder immediately.

My partner has a phobia of sharks. Not the practical fear when you see an approaching Great White swimming your way; she can’t even stand seeing pictures of any kinds of shark. I envy her phobia. How I wish my phobia was limited to something which couldn’t exist on land; let alone my living space. That’s the worst problem: spiders are like all-terrain vehicles. They can move upside down, on smooth or rough surfaces, and are small enough to clamber inside nooks and crevices to avoid detection easily. That’s when they’re small. When they grow larger is the problem, and they tend to only show themselves at this stage, as if to taunt me.

My paralysing palpitations correlate directly with the speed and size of the arachnid. The slow, lumbering harvest spiders and domestic ones that resemble water-boatmen make me uncomfortable rather than panic-stricken, but eventually they need to be moved. People who don’t suffer this affliction can mock, and I understand why. It might not make sense, but I would explain it the way you’d explain someone you were attracted to that I wasn’t: you can’t imagine picturing them in any other context.

So I spray strong scent around windows, leave conkers in corners of my room and avoid clutter, but still they emerge periodically. It’s not as if my room ever contains flies, why can’t the things get the message and stay out?


In the midst of a culture obsessed with acquiring and accumulating stuff, even we who shun the Temple of Consumption are sometimes suckered into a more subtle form of Idolatry of the Inanimate…

I’ve always wanted to learn things, and, whether it’s ultimately a result of my own failure of sustained focus or drive, or the prevailing culture of ‘McSelf-Help’ (give me the basics now and I’ll pick the rest up sort of thinking), I’ve often substituted relentless learning and sacrifice with a ‘teacher’, for buying a ‘how-to’ book I always intend to read, or even just buying the expensive instrument I want to learn, as a method for motivating myself to do it.

Now that I’ve moved house it’s moved this curious cult into sharp focus, and I’m finally making arrangements to sell my beautiful silver Les Paul studio electric guitar, which has reminded me what a failure I’ve tended to be!

So basically, this entry was intended to admonish both the culture of desirable-skills-as-cheap-commodity and my own weak resolve. From now on, I will do the hard yards BEFORE purchasing anything, and read all instructional books cover-to-cover before putting them on the shelf to gather dust indefinitely.

Ten years ago today I woke up to an unsettling series of noises. Sometimes one can be roused entirely discombobulated and take many seconds to acquaint themselves with realities like their day and location, but I almost felt like a spy woken from his refuge in the cargo hold of a particularly dodgy vessel by the sound of approaching enemy footsteps. Instinct immediately told me something was disastrously wrong, and I blundered out of my bedroom to confirm my worst fears.

Before my eyes, my mother was dying. Not in the fairytale ‘went to sleep and never woke up’, nor in the familiar heavily-tranquillised decline surrounded by tubes and machines in a hospital or care home bed. She was dying on her feet, in the kind of anguish I would have suffered any torture to avoid being inflicted upon her. Her eyes wore the dazed and haunted expression of a deer staggering away from being smashed into by a Land Rover. I was seized by blind panic. I knew what was coming, even if I didn’t want to accept it.

I don’t remember much else besides that last, horrible eye contact, until the ambulance arrived. Wishing beyond hope the emergency services could work some magic, I could see the ambulance shaking outside and understood the gravity of the situation. By the time we had followed the ambulance to its destination, the words you can’t ever imagining reacting to were uttered to me, and I remember not being able to control my emotions for a long time.

I remember reading a common quote from people who had lost their matriarch, comparing it to a light going out, and it’s strange how well that fits. It’s as if the previously dazzling sunshine is now perennially overcast. I remember being a little more fearless in my pursuits for at least a few months after the event, as I figured I had seen my worst nightmare and nothing could possibly feel worse, but then this alien future became the new cold, hostile present.

Even a decade on, having accomplished a lot more in this period than at any point while she was here, the world still has a gloom that won’t lift. High points still don’t mean as much or last as long. Wondering how that person would react to your triumphs, or see you through your disasters torments you. Meeting other people’s mothers makes you a little resentful.

There are a few positives, if I could call them positive. I’m glad she didn’t see what the world is descending into, or lose her marbles or worse.

There is a school of thought that suggests that time heals all wounds, and when somebody brings up your parents and you mention one is deceased, they are sombre but not nearly as apologetic as if it had happened the day before. In my experience, there is a raw grieving process which means that you are an entirely different person between the day after to a year after the event, but to my mind the further you then get away in time, the worse it gets. Worse because people forget the details. Worse because new characters that aren’t that person attempt to fill the void. Worse because life does continue ceaselessly without respect.

Life doesn’t really feel better a decade on, it just feels different.

By Nelson Mandela, I really mean any freedom fighter, but it seems fitting to apply it to the great man in his passing.

Mandela taught me that the bravest feat of all is standing up for what you know is right when the Establishment, and its forces, and seemingly most of the population, think differently, and are prepared to take away your freedom and even life to prevent you spreading your message.

It’s easy to portray Mandela as ‘beyond human’, and ironically this is exactly what the Establishment wants, for it allows us to believe that none of us could possibly hope to lead a life as meaningful as his, nor inspire great change as he did.

Mandela’s message to me is to stand up for what is right not when it’s convenient and safe, but always. Every time you find yourself in a room full of racists and stay silent to keep the peace, you’ve let yourself down. If you think the con-artist down the road scamming benefits is justification for forcing sick and disabled people into penury, you’re on the wrong side of the argument. Every time you witness someone being bullied and walk by hoping to stay out of it, you’ve let cowardice override your principles. This is what Mandela reinforced: that to stand up for what is right, sometimes you need to take a beating. It’s not nice and it’s not desirable, but it sometimes can’t be avoided. Getting assaulted or thrown in jail might hurt in the short term, but in the long term you will look at yourself in the mirror with pride.

Sometimes it seems as if going along with the powerful can be the only way to go. It’s safer and quieter, after all. Except, in the long run, it may come back to hurt worse than you could imagine, Scarface style. Your big bad friends or the government that has protected you may see your worth to them diminish, and then it will really hurt. The truly principled not only inspire more loyalty from people around them, they rest easy with themselves.

Or, as Audioslave put it: “If you’re free, you’ll never see the walls”.

I am a fan of words. It’s not a love that blossomed when I first read Shakespeare, as far as I know. I didn’t rhapsodise over Dr Seuss as a young kid and immediately tell myself I must gorge on books in order to fulfil the craving for a new and exciting word or two. I didn’t really know what I liked about reading and writing, other than it thrilled me in a strange way. I assumed it was being able to create and manipulate new territories and scenarios, fantastical villains and invincible heroes, to picture their travails and conquests in my mind as they progressed: to live vicariously through them. Of course, that was the obvious rapture, but not the whole story.

It became more evident when I absorbed great poetry. It wasn’t primarily the narrative action, but the effect of the words on the page that I derived pleasure from. On a base level, I enjoyed the phonetic aesthetics of how the words sounded to me read aloud; I relished the manipulation of tongue and teeth as you shaped your mouth like a musical instrument, but also the evocative nature of said words; their rich symbolism and inferences. How each word reacted to the words around them was also important, as if they were atoms crashing against each other with varying levels of force. Sometimes the sentences would become liquids, or gaseous, or rigidly solid, and sometimes something in between: a righteous hybrid like the T-1000 or something.

In this spirit, I thought I’d share with you a few of my favourite words, in no particular order which I like to deploy, or hurl, or roll around my mouth and spit furiously:

Disingenuous                  Sacrosanct
Idiolect                             Cavalcade
Paraquat                           Skullduggery
Polyglot                            Mountebank
Eviscerate                        Racketeering
Brackish                            Truculent
Ephemeral                       Recalcitrant
Invective                         Festoon
Pusillanimous                Cursory
Syntax                               Archipelago
Haberdashery                Sinew
Tontine                             Gristle
Phalanx                             Balustrade
Inexorable                       Bull
Synecdoche                     Moribund
Parapraxis                       Enraptured
Genuflect                          Timbre
Scabrous                           Venerable
Expunge                            Beleaguered
Dismantle                         Paroxysm

Perhaps I might attempt a short story incorporating all of these nuggets now.

Four legs good, two legs bad

Posted: October 31, 2012 in Personal
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We lost the family pet just over a week ago, a loveable mutt I had known all of my adult life. He was crumbling with age: his heart, legs, teeth and throat were all sickly, and so he was put to sleep.

When I was half my age I had a pet cat that I had known all my childhood. Eventually, his time also came and he was put to sleep. I was distraught, and I couldn’t express how the death of an animal had cut me so deep. Now that I’m older and a little wiser, I think I can try to articulate why some will mourn the death of a pet more than some other relatives.

Pets are completely dependent on us for food and shelter, and in return are loyalty personified. They follow you around, are hostile to intruders and try to sleep on you or in your sleeping quarters. They whine when you are away and always happy to see you come home.

Pets are subordinate to humans, and yet are not servants. We do not expect them to toil all day for our benefit; on the contrary we spend time and money to ensure their health and comfort.

Most of all, pets are how we wish humans could be sometimes. Uncomplicated and unconditionally devoted.

Pets are a perennial background of our lives for long periods. They do not betray us. They do not get drunk and humiliate us in public. They don’t leave us for a better-looking or exciting owner. They don’t put us down or slap us around. They don’t step on us to beat us to a promotion. They don’t talk down to us, mock us or deride our beliefs. They don’t care what job we have, or if we even have one. They don’t care about our hairstyle, hygiene, weight or height. They pine over our absence and fret over our sickness. They defend us blindly. They are oblivious to the concept of death.

In short, pets do not share any of the shortcomings of people. They merely reciprocate devotion. This is why it never surprises me to see people sometimes more apparently cut up over the death of a pet than a family member. They have my empathy.

I miss you Montague.

I wasn’t present at that momentous time when Death slipped into the room and stole my grandmother’s breath. I was fortunate enough to have had time to speak whatever words I could coherently form, whether she had the strength and resources to hear them or not.

You have a lifetime to speak a million words to someone, but when the final moments arrive, your search for some profound maxim; some statement to convey your utter joy for having known them and grief at their passing; proves futile. No Shakespearean tongue lends itself, no Keats or Byron possesses you in these most significant of hours; you are left with meagre sentences to attempt to articulate a galaxy of feelings and memories.

You want to communicate your loved one’s importance and legacy to you, to surrender your pride and expose your true feelings when there is no chance of awkwardness or humiliation. Is this a weakness within our culture? That people’s pride prevents them from letting someone know exactly how special and influential they are until the sands of time run short? Do we have a sense of shame at revealing too much of ourselves? I feel like I’m guilty of this.

Despite spending many hours beside family members in a vigil around my grandmother’s deathbed, I was not present when she drew her terminal breath, but I was not remorseful. Although I would have felt honoured to have been holding her hand as she slipped into the great beyond, it seemed too important a moment to bestow on myself. I had let her know how grateful and privileged I was to have had her as a grandmother, and had wished her a peaceful passing. I somehow knew that it would be a phone call, rather than the moment, that would draw me in.

Her death was mercifully rapid and predominantly pain-free, though jaundice and organ failure had ravaged and left her as a travesty of the fully functioning person she was mere days earlier. She had clung on two more days than anyone expected, with her courageous heart battling on in the face of organ surrenders all around it. She had recently undergone a successful hip operation on the NHS, only to immediately lose her appetite. When this went on uncomfortably long, a scan revealed cancer in the liver which had spread: her body had started to turn on itself. It is a measure of her benevolent character that her only pragmatic complaint was the money she felt she had wasted allowing the National Health Service to provide her surgery before the discovery.

In the minutes following her departure from this existential plain, the church bells continued to chime. The clouds rushed across the sky obliviously and televisions still flashed in the surrounding windows. In short, life continued regardless. For this is death. Profound perhaps; tragic certainly; but a biological certainty, just as the continuation of adjacent lives will be.

Whether my grandmother is heading for the majesty of Heaven or the infinite tranquillity of nothingness, she has seized her own stake on immortality through the legacy she created being passed down generations, for this is the most preferable, nay the only way, that man (or woman) should seek to live forever.

Ada May Bliss


Rest in everlasting peace.

Ada May Bliss 1924-2010