trying harder

It was like I’d suddenly announced a newly sprouted penis, such was my brother’s whooping theatrical incredulity at the news. On revealing the pregnancy to him and his wife at our childhood home, they seemed shocked and surprised and pleased. Their children, aged 11 and 8 and also in the near vicinity, understandably seemed more indifferent.  “Weird” was the verdict of my niece.

I sensed that although my brother and his wife had never probed and would never concede it, they had more or less assumed this was off the agenda for us. It would not happen. Perhaps it was wonder enough that I found someone with whom to share my life after so many barren years in my 20s, a period when they appeared to smirkingly speculate about my sexuality from time to time.

And now we appeared to have our modest lifestyle sorted: our dog, nice enough house and our relatively low income. It was clear I was not earning much money. My other half was doing ok in her steady job though and we were getting by. Surely we would not upset that with a new human being. That would be silly.

But this pregnancy news presents a whole other dimension.

Later on, after the initial shock had subsided, a mile or so into a long walk with the dogs and kids, my brother said, “well if you sat down with a spreadsheet it wouldn’t work, but…”  While this was eventually followed by a more positive spin and ways it could work out with the help of our parents, those words stuck with me. They rang around my head for days because I knew they held a cold bleak truth.

I still scrap by month to month, sniffing out the next few hundred quid, and the next few hundred quid. I work hard but continue to exist with horrible insecurity. My mental landscape is defined by my bank balance, how achievable the next bankable few hundred quid will be, when it will arrive in my account, how much I will have to politely chase for it, what the next job will be.

How sustainable is that when your wife has to go on an all too brief maternity leave, when you are looked upon to provide more, to ‘man up’, to try harder? It is not all that sustainable, admirable, manly or generally good.

Waves of sickening nausea are not currently hers alone. Profound worry now skewers me regularly, deep in the pit of my stomach. Guilt for my slightly indulgent lifestyle which I often feel when closing a book and finishing a coffee at lunchtime. Are you working hard enough? What more could you be doing? Are you just in essence a massively idle prick? Sometimes I voice this and am severely rebuked by my wife. ‘This is not helpful to you or me.’ Of course she is right, but it’s a program I have difficulty overwriting.

There was a meltdown of sorts while walking the dog alone a couple of days after telling my brother, back home. Leaning against a gate at a favourite spot, watching the sun set over the rolling green hills the bigness of it all came crashing in, the life-changingness, the responsibility, the finances, the money, the insufficient funds, the emasculating inadequacy, the potential being who will ultimately hate me for their boring empty scrimping frugal childhood. Panic and despair and frustration and stupidity and an almost out-of-body sensation. My red face and tears confused the dog. That was weird.

Should I look for other work and another reliable income stream? Easier said than done perhaps, but I suppose I should try. How I despise the idea of a boss, authority, judgement, tediously mind-numbing work. How will we manage with the dog? She could go and stay with my parents and their dog and that would be fine. I would hate it though. I would painfully miss the creature, the only thing that reliably makes me smile most days. And I would trade it for probable misery and money? Would I? Please no, don’t let it come to that.

Plenty of people do this though. They take on more work when faced with greater responsibility, arguably the ultimate domestic responsibility. They unthinkingly make sacrifices because they would do anything for their kids. I am no different and should accept it, buckle up.

Adaptability is something I have traditionally considered myself good at.  I have moved a few times across a central belt of Britain, had a number of very different jobs, experienced no small amount of change. A few years ago now, for around eighteen months I wrenched myself into a recruitment consultancy largely populated by idiots. It was awful but it was regular reasonable money.

This impending phase of work appears the most formidable: a biblical swell of digits which I will heroically surf upon or drown beneath or thrash through.  I cling with dumb hope to ideas: being miraculously saved by a huge job, a new professional relationship bearing spectacular fruit, an old one coming back around, offering something solid and dependable, some random opportunity. Wishful thinking.


when worry wains

Oh hello, how you doing? Good weekend? Mine?  Well yes actually, this May bank holiday weekend was excellent because we did very little indeed.  And I’m not just saying that because I don’t want to talk about my weekend because look, few hundred more words down there.

When a guy in the pool mentioned the upcoming bank holiday I was annoyed. Really? There’s another bank holiday? We only just had Easter. I was mainly annoyed because bank holidays and weekends don’t tend to mean as much to me as they might to those in regular employment. I still feel the press to work, to go and sit at my desk if I’m not out of the house working. And because the bank holiday would present yet another obstacle to me being paid by various clients.

Getting paid remains one of the most infuriating things about freelance life. A job is never over when you have delivered the work. The job is only ever over when you see the money in your bank account, and sometimes not even then. Between those two things there can be weeks and months, endless emails and phone calls politely prompting and reminding with appropriate levels of levity and seriousness. It is a battle to maintain tight-lipped professionalism when conducting a simple online transaction can be the simplest thing in the world, and when these are never monstrously large sums.  Naturally they matter to me though. I make very little money and every few pounds matters to me.

It is this worry and stress about getting paid and not getting paid which you live with, day to day, your mental climate dictated by what those numbers in your bank accounts say, how many digits long they are, how much they are likely to plummet with further outgoings, bills, monthly business expenses, mortgage payments. They impact your esteem and ego. Having recently calculated your annual income, it is pathetic, paltry, embarrassing. You are plainly not successful.

And yet here you are, existing actually quite nicely. How does that work? You like your lifestyle, your house, your wife, your dog, your walks. Outside of worrying about money and work, the car screwing up, scrimping a bit, never going on holiday, most other things are all pretty good thanks.

-But do I deserve this? Have I earned it?

Please shut that shit up right now brain, just for a moment, just for a weekend. Relax and enjoy what you have.

Nobody said that outside my brain. It was something that seeped in gradually as we sat there in our quite nice conservatory, reading our books and drinking tea, rain flecking the windows, clouds flying overhead, the dog grumbling and sighing on the floor. Simple pleasures. We could have been 10, 20, 40 years older. But we are certainly not young-young now.

Although that itself presented the topic of discussion which forever bubbles away under the surface. Children.

Do we want them? The selfish knee-jerk rationale for ‘certainly not now anyway’ is my perpetual floundering sense of worry about work and finances. Bringing anything else into that equation would probably send me spiralling towards nervous breakdown, or at least more consistent fear and self-loathing. Either way, it would not be good. Would it?

Although a flipside might be that it occupies me better and makes me feel like I do have a purpose and reason and I am not an entirely useless semi-unemployed piece of shit. (Unless I am entirely useless at it, which is possible). It could also be ok to flexibly work around. We could work it out. Could we?

But we are happyish now, with this, with us, our fur baby down there. This is ok. It would all be terrifying, and who knows if we even could have kids? 40 is now closer than 30. We are not exactly in the bloom of youth.

You live with a dark premonition of profound regret in later life. Isolation too, having no family and nobody around you. In later years you might see your extended family – niece, nephew, brother – maybe once or twice a year at best? So, no support, nobody who really gives a shit in a country with a massive ageing population and an NHS which could by then be fully disintegrated. And what if one of us dies much earlier than the other?

We had those discussions, as we do. They come and go at almost tidal intervals. Mostly though we enjoyed the house, the rain, the dog, our books, pockets of peaceful unoccupied space in our brains usually occupied by worry and stress, Mozart filtering through from the other room, still somehow feeling faintly fake (is this really our life now?) but fuckit, day bleeding slowly into night, just being there together and not doing much. The dog groaned loud and long, turned over. We both looked at her, the beautiful embodiment of calming therapy, then at each other, smiled. For a time it was peaceful and meditative, to be cherished.

Worry will come back, of course it will. Stress, anxiety, nerves, all that; you can’t keep them at bay indefinitely. But you can effectively keep it at arm’s length for a time. It turns out, surprisingly, in the right circumstances you actually can.

competitive nature

Mum wasn’t home during the week when I called, so I spoke to Dad for a little longer than normal.  I told him how my lower back had spasmed, like it now does every 15 months or so, causing acute pain.  In a style more regularly adopted by Mum, he took this as a cue to talk about his back problems – which he does nothing to help by continuing to run what to me seem like still pretty long distances for a guy in his mid-sixties.

A neighbour who is also a doctor not long ago stopped him in the road and severely reprimanded him for his selfishness, how it will impose on my Mum in the long term, how he basically does not look healthy and upright when he runs.  He looks ill.  She didn’t even know him or us very well, but it was all true.  It was a wake-up call he accepted he needed, but still he runs – now just slightly shorter distances.  No more half marathons.

He has to weigh it up against his mental health, he says.  Because not being able to run would affect that.  A recent convert of cognitive behavioural therapy, he had a few sessions and now believes himself cured of irrationally intense mood-swings, more able to handle his depression – for which he has taken medication for many years.  Therefore he runs for his mental health, and because he enjoys the company and camaraderie of his running clubs.  And to hell with his slowly crumbling spine.

I didn’t speak much of my own acute pain and how I’m a little hacked off to know I’ll probably have to suffer it for several weeks a year, and I’m half a lifetime younger than him.  He didn’t seem all that interested.  But he never seems all that interested in me, which still hurts a little.

Later on in the week my girlfriend changed her profile picture on her Facebook account.  My Dad was quick to click a Like.  This irked me because my Dad never ‘Likes’ anything I do on Facebook, and I do a lot on Facebook – mostly to promote a business interest.  While I realise it’s a relatively banal thing to be annoyed about, the irritation hung about and I began unpacking and possibly over-thinking it.

Dad had a terrible relationship with his father.  His old man was a bit of a depressive lunatic so he left home as soon as possible, aged 15.  An only child, my Dad is not a natural with kids – although my brother, who has a couple, says he is improving.

Growing up, my older brother had what appeared to be in-built self-belief.  He knew he was great and smarter than the rest of the kids and would succeed.  My parents’ only other kid, a couple of years younger, I didn’t.  I never felt encouraged, particularly by my Dad – which I think is a key job of a dad, I never had much belief.

Seeing my Dad like my girlfriend’s photo, knowing he encourages and supports other people in his running club, remembering his utter disinterest about my back pain, I think: what about me, Dad?

Maybe it comes down to his early conditioning that the father-son relationship is built on one-upmanship and competition.  But I don’t want to compete with him. I’m not great at competition.  I want him to be on my side, dammit.  He’s my Dad.  I want us to be mates.  I want him to back me, recognise me, endorse me, be proud of me, or at the very least pay some genuine fucking interest.  Not fall into the introspective world of self-interest which marks many a depressive.  I know he doesn’t live exclusively in that place because he’s more than happy to support others.

Would I ever talk to him about it?  My girlfriend asked this when I expressed this frustration.  I don’t know if there would be any point.  Is he really able to change?  It’s probably an unconscious thing.  Maybe he does envy me in a quite basic way – although fuck knows what I really have to envy.  Would it more likely cause upset and unrest at this stage of life, when it’s something that, perhaps at 32, I should just accept?

the hard stuff

This place has been neglected a little of late because.  I’ve been trying to build and developing an online presence for new business services, blending with my existing business services of the last four years.  It’s hard.

At 32 I am still massively uncertain about pretty much everything in a general life sense, where my efforts will take me, if they will take me anywhere at all other than back home to my Mum and Dad.  While I’m trying to be as aggressive and productive and proactive as possible without seeming like a needy prick, I’m also considering spectacular failure and what my options are in that case.

Although I don’t feel especially employable, I wonder about trying again with London.  A big city where there are more and better opportunities for regular jobs; where I might be able to compromise less than if I were to re-enter a regular workplace in these parts.  Most decent looking jobs in the provinces have a ridiculous number of over-qualified applicants and I rarely get a look in – and I imagine nepotism and internal favouritism may occasionally be instrumental.

My girlfriend is trying to hire an assistant on a low, entry-level 13 or 14k salary.  She’s getting applicants with Masters degrees and Doctorates.  But she doesn’t like the idea of London.

She is melting down regularly under pressures of her work and home-life, which is in turn having an effect on me.  I had to manage a number of extremely distressed and distressing telephone calls from her yesterday. Things are hard.  She has lots of ‘stuff’.  I have some stuff, but none of it on paper looks as serious and weighty as her stuff.  I try to be super patient, understanding and attentive and she is grateful; but at the weekend I couldn’t help a little childish, resentful “what about me and my stuff?” sulk.  We did recover from it soon enough.

It feels from various sources like right now is quite a fever-pitch time for general anxiety and nervousness, money worries and instability.  Broadly and anecdotally speaking, depression seems rife, suicide and suicidal thoughts aren’t uncommon.  In fact I can barely remember sensing worse than at any time since the recession started.  I wonder if the older and more comfortable groups of people just consider our generation over-angsting, oversensitive or going through something all generations go through.  But it feels like more than that.

In an email exchange, a civil servant friend proffered:

“maybe our generation will implode slightly from raised expectations / less money / fewer jobs / working until we’re 75?”

Maybe he has a point.  He also suggested middle of the road boringness is the way forward.  The jammy bastard could have a case there too.

Still.  Smile eh?  Chin up.  Post an inspirational quote on Twitter or something.  Everything will be fine.

counter culture

This blog contains much long-winded and possibly even tedious moaning about the heavy chains of obligation; usually in terms of having to earn money by doing boring things or working for idiots. A conversation this week provided a powerful dose of perspective.


“Are all pubs like the pub in Eastenders?” She asked.

“In the whole of Britain you mean? Erm.. no.”

“Do you have to have an alcoholic drink in them?”

“No, they do soft drinks. Coke, lemonade.”

“Do they?”

“Yep, even hot drinks if you want, most of them. Tea or coffee.”

“Really?! Wow. I’ve never been in one.”

She was 23, Islamic, had lived in the UK all her life; pretty, bright and alert yet nervously dizzy.  Also heartbreakingly repressed.

She swiped through the photographs on my tablet device, was surprised and complimentary about my work, then truly amazed by the beautifully artistic Vatican Museum ceilings in Rome.

“Are churches here like that?”

“Er, no. That’s quite special.”

Like her two younger sisters, she was answerable a 15 year old brother. ‘Where have you been? What have you been doing? Who with?’ This is because her father and mother did it and always had – a father and mother who had apparently never extended any physical affection, a hug or a kiss.  Girls have it considerably worse: the duty and obligation to serve.

She had never travelled; holidays were such stress, they nearly went to places but it never happened. Cinema was banned, although her and her sisters disobeyed on this one, taking occasional trips, most recently to see The Hobbit, which bored her.

Earlier that week she received around 20 photographs of potential husbands, sent by her auntie.  The next day she had taken them into university and individually shredded each one.  As well as working in a supermarket, she studied for full degrees and dropped out to prolong her education: from English Literature to medical sciences.  She’d done so once or twice anyway, and she wasn’t getting along with the course.  Now at 23 she was getting old, marriage couldn’t be put off for much longer, especially as the eldest of 4 children.  Being educated had value not for getting a job or building a career – things not available to her, but to boost her profile as a bride.  An educated woman is more likely to be matched with a good man.

She didn’t have friends of the same religion and never had, even before moving across the country from Kent.  “But it’s not the religion,” she was clear to point out.  “It’s the culture.”  She had a degree of faith and considered that not everything in her religion was necessarily correct, but it’s the culture it breeds which is wrong, the levels of honour and pride.  Not the religion itself.  Mine wasn’t to question the hand of religion in creating the culture, whether those levels of honour and pride were the produce of fear.

It felt to me as if she didn’t speak this fluently or freely very often.  There was an air of the illicit about it, which I sense she enjoyed.  We’d known each other for over a year but had never spoken one-to-one in such depth.

What always struck me about her was her calm acceptance of everything.  That, in spite knowing these opportunities, this other world she was an active part of, there was no burning hunger.  There was no resentment or anger because, she said, she had never known different.  Those were things she simply could not have; that would be the way of her life; and that was that.

Such acceptance, borderline docility reminded me of the novel and later film, Never Let Me Go, and its dreamy, stifled world originally conjured by Kazuo Ishiguro.  In this place humans are bred with the primary purpose of donating their major organs aged 25 – 30.  They are told this as young children and never question that this is the way it must be.  They have relative freedom and readers and viewers wonder why they don’t simply run away, why they accept it.  They just do.

For her though, the threat of punishment for any dissent might have been greater and provide adequate disincentive.  So it is never questioned to argue, rebel, run away. The result of that it seems could never be good.  As well as ruining her younger sister’s lives and their prospects of good marriage, the stain on her family’s honour would mean she would always be looking over her shoulder, fearful of being found and having acid thrown in her face.

Today, 2013, a modern UK city. This happens.  You wonder about how such intense cultures can affect mental health.  There was a national news story just a few weeks ago which came from this same city about how a mother beat her child to death for failing to learn passages from the Qur’an.

Ethnic diversity is good and like most things it’s the questionable, difficult element which probably gets all the attention.  But hearing first-hand about ferociously strict cultures like this still surprised and shocked.  To me it sounded backwards and profoundly sad.

plumbing depths

I was waiting for her, not unusually.  She’d offered me a lift to the station but was still faffing with various things.  For something to do I embarked on washing up the breakfast things, filling the cafetiere with hot soapy water before casually tossing in some cutlery, new cutlery she’d given me as a birthday present the day before, stainless steel and heavy.  A knife punched its way clean through the base of the glass beaker, creating a neat hole in the corner.  I swore.

The day before had been one of my best birthdays as an adult.  The year before I’d visited Legoland with my nephew, his parents and both sets of grandparents.  We share a birthday and I was doing nothing else.  In previous years I had taken myself away somewhere, so as not to sit in a flat navelgazing about my stunted lonely life, but failing to avoid the thought patterns.  This year she was there.  She made breakfast and offered gifts and we went for a drive out of town towards the mountains, settling in a small town café bookshop.  Then we returned to the city and went to a local pub for dinner.

Smashing the cafetiere added to tension that had built up, a tension I couldn’t entirely free myself from even the day before.  This tension was because I was heading to London for an event which would also be attended by my main client, a colossal tit who I have come to demonise on these pages, but also a man whose medium-sized business had kept me solvent for the past three years.

The FuckThesePricks decision I thought I had made a couple of weeks ago; now it was time to follow through.  I had to do this.

My intention was simply to make him aware that I wasn’t scared to walk away from him and his business.  I was going to figuratively open a door and ask him if he wanted me Out, because being In wasn’t very comfortable or nice, and hadn’t been for a while.

Walking along the leaf thick pavements towards the venue I almost hoped he wouldn’t be there so I could win a reprieve and not have to go through with this.  Confrontation isn’t a natural strength of mine, particularly not face-to-face with a hugely deluded man of monstrous ego, a man many probably say negative things about, but rarely to.

So my heart sank upon entering the lobby and seeing that, amongst a sea of suits picking at a buffet, there was his distinctive bald pate, framed by those silver flecks.  It sank in the same way it sank whenever I saw his name in my inbox or on my phone.

Oh shit.  He was here.  I would have to do this.  My sphincter quivered slightly.  Stop it.  Man the fuck up.  It was going to be hard and scary but necessary.  In person would have more impact than an email or a phone call; it would be transparent.

I waited until the mid-afternoon break in proceedings before sidling up and integrating myself in his chat with a cool, good-looking young guy.  He said hello, slightly distractedly?  Offered one of his limp handshakes.  Then he barely offered me any eye-contact.  Was he slightly nervous, aware that his behaviour and that of his staff hadn’t been brilliant towards me of late?  The cool young guy excused himself to go for a cigarette and I heard a drum roll in my head.

If anything it’s possible I laboured my points a little too hard and was at pains to say I disagreed, I found him unpredictable, his colleagues hard to work with, I didn’t want to work with a bunch of guys who thought I was a prick.  At that last point, a shadow of a smile passed over his face, as if acknowledging this was a truth but for the first time seeing it from my perspective. He generally seemed stunned and his replies were weak.  People started filtering back into the main room and we agreed to pick this up when I was going to visit them the following week.  Without a proper parting gesture we turned in separate directions.  My heart was beating fast and I downed two glasses of juice before re-entering the room.

Fuck shit fuck bollocks.  What had I done?

The following day around noon an email dropped into my inbox alongside his name, marked with High Importance, the subject line: our chat. It began  Further to my “talking to”  yesterday.. and went on to explain a planned change in relationship, the full details of which remain to be seen.  The upshot is that I now need to look elsewhere for the majority of my income and I have not the faintest clue what is going to happen.  A large part of me wants to run away and go travelling, like I did when I couldn’t get a job around my 25th birthday.

I was having a new shower fitted when the email arrived.  After reading it several times and sharing it with my girlfriend, I chatted with my plumber.  He’s a good, bold, loud, geezery guy who I get along well with.  Like me, he’s a one-man band, and like me he’s also been subjected to difficult clients.  We spoke about life and work and difficulties at length.  We talked of how people perceive you or might try to sully your name to others if you disagree with them.  How some can naturally be more passive and agreeable, and get riled less by such things.  It wasn’t a chat you’d usually expect to have with your plumber.

I thought too again about how I’ve generally failed to win people over, both professionally and up until very recently, personally.  How people could glance at all the stuff at my CV and quite legitimately question how and why I haven’t stayed anywhere for very long.  Is he hard to get on with?  He can’t be a team player?  Probably a bit of a risk.

It’s the fear and the nerves which are the most difficult to manage, as well as the tedious, endlessly disappointing necessity to earn money.  While it’s liberating to know I won’t have that man’s name constantly infecting my inbox and social feeds, there’s the fear of not finding anything else.  If, a few months from now, I have nothing sustainable, then it will look a brave but stupid act.

At semi-dramatic, unsettling times like this pop music can be powerful.  Selecting the right sort of light track with quirky lyrics on your iPod can offer a rejuvenating “it’s-all-bollocks-anyway” type of perspective.  You can smile to yourself in the street like a simpleton or slump to your knees in tears.

For now I’ll try the smiling thing.

And investing in platitudes like “I’m sure it’ll work itself out”, “something will come along”, etc.

And hoping.

Actually no, hold me.



in decision

Things have been unsteady on the work front recently.  I’ve been unsure what is happening with my main client, and remain so.  I’ve been a malleable bag of nerves.  I’ve been angry and glum and scared and bitter and resigned and hateful.

A couple of weeks ago I thought a decision had finally been made.  Fuck these pricks now, I eloquently decided, really.  They, and particularly he, had done it this time.  That was it.  I was better than this now, I told myself.  I like myself more than to keep putting myself through this, subjecting myself to him.  So I’d be taking a big risk, throwing huge caution to the proverbial wind if I burnt bridges and told him where to go – his medium sized business has sustained my solo operation for the best part of three years now.  It provides my financial backbone, but if he’s making me so miserable, why should I keep it going?

Because it’s money and I don’t know what else I’d do.  Jobs aren’t easy to come by, nor are clients as reliable (to date), and I don’t want to be poor or have to begin to make lifestyle compromises.

They had recently hired another freelance marketing communications person; a prettier, blonder, more female, cheaper, less jaded version of me.  (In all fairness she is a competent, well-written, perfectly pleasant young mum who speaks northern English better than me, and is hot).  They were delegating more and more work her way.  Less and less work my way.  Everything she provided was wonderful off the bat.  Everything I provided was attacked and ripped apart.  They had grown even more unpleasant and unreasonable and harder than ever to work with.

So I thought: Fuck These Pricks.  That’s it.  I would feel immensely liberated to know I would never see that one name in an inbox ever again.  Especially at 11.30pm on a Friday night, saying something ridiculous or totally pointless, which I am inexplicably unable to ignore.  (My brother recently said it sounds like I have the worst of both worlds, before prescribing some typical brotherly advice; advice which may work great if he is advising a duplicate version of himself).

Anyhow, that was a couple of weeks ago now and not much has changed – except my ever diminishing workload, more indicators of their confidence lost in me, and the confidence grown in my fellow freelancer.  She has the measure of me now, a couple more large bites and she’d swallow me altogether.

In the immediate aftermath of FuckThesePricks I did apply for real jobs, and luckily bagged a short stint of freelance back on a university campus.  It’s debatable whether that helped or hindered my current outlook.  I was doing interesting academic research copywriting which engaged me, educated me.  I was working around more pleasant folk with less bulbous egos, sentient beings, nicer people from the south of Britain with whom I could effectively communicate.  It served to highlight and exaggerate what a total raging man-child buffoon my main client is, how equally dense, slovenly and not terribly pleasant his staff are.  I briefly enjoyed my work.

But it was only ever going to be a short term thing, and now everything has quietened again.

I sought counsel from business associates and occasional partners who I do rate and like.  Their basic advice was that by being small you are also nimble, you have no overheads or children or major responsibilities, so sit tight and don’t seek full-time job again.  You don’t know how you might react to that after having such independence for so long; you might regret it.

Having faith and needing to have faith that “things will be ok” can be a struggle, particularly if you are naturally risk averse.  Blindly trusting that stuff will somehow work out produces nerves.  It’s impossible not to ask “but what if it doesn’t?” and sigh like you sigh in the face of any lazy platitude.

I find some kind of solace in knowing professional paths are rarely simple; much is down to chance / nepotism / accident, we all hit troughs and, maybe not quite “peaks” as such, but still fairly steady inclines too, and that’s all ok. We’d probably get even more bored otherwise. It could be that our caveman brains are wired to only cope with straighter paths, and that’s is why hilly unpredictable tracks can feel so tough.

rambling on Speed

On Sunday afternoon I took a pleasant hike up to the highest peak of the Brecon Beacons, with podcasts and a camera as company.  Clear weather had encouraged me to take the hour’s drive north into the mountains.  Sky Sports’ Super Sunday didn’t look all that super: Swansea City-Aston Villa and Liverpool-Man City.  I’d record them and watch them when I returned.

Having had enough of podcasts and interviews during my walk, I opted for newly discovered mellow music on the drive home, Lia Ices and Agnes Obel.  It proved a beautiful, almost too lulling soundtrack for the twilight, pink-hazed drive back between the mountain valleys and along the A470 back to the capital.  My mind was still simmering well enough to keep my concentration on the winding rural roads though.  I pondered again about the underappreciated medium of podcasts, how public figures can be thoroughly engaging interviewees even if you’re indifferent to their work.  I wondered too about that peaceable rambler culture which makes everyone cheerily greet each other on the hillside, but immediately ignore each other when back in the car park.

So I was feeling relaxed enough upon returning home, flicking on my digibox, hot mug of tea in hand, and beginning to fast-forward through the Swansea-Aston Villa pre-match build-up.  The presenter looked strangely ashen face but Gary Neville looked like he always does, as did Graeme Souness. Then the fast moving pictures whizzed through a still black and white image with a date: an image of the kind used in obituaries.  Who’s died then? I thought, interest piqued, rewinding back to before the image.  Some old, vaguely heard about footballer?

No.  Gary Speed.

Wait.  Hang on. 

Gary Speed?

Graeme Souness went on to burble emptily about not knowing him very well.  Gary Neville too had no direct dealings.  Both were fittingly respecting.  Speed had been found hanged at his family home earlier that morning.  There were no “suspicious circumstances”.  I was brain-dead.

Speed was an inauspicious character whose omnipresence in football most football fans almost took for granted.  Could you ever remember an interesting quote he’d given?  Anything he’d said?  Any act of petulance or remarkable emotion on or off the pitch?  Not really.  And yet you almost didn’t need to acknowledge how impressive he was.  He was solid, firm, reliable, dependable, measured; simply always there.  His consistency, fitness and record-breaking number of Premiership appearances helped cement him as a permanent fixture in the world of professional football, part of the furniture.  His growing stature as an international manager delighted many but surprised few.

Like many, I was numbed by the news.  I watched Neville and Souness and failed to fully compute what they were talking about.  Football would massively grieve the loss of somebody so prominent, possibly more than usual because the man, for such a public figure, felt so unknown.  Why?  This would be the question on everyone’s lips, for how long nobody could know.  Maybe forever.

To me, and possibly to most football fans, you felt like you knew Speed without ever knowing him.  This was because he seemed to give away very little character on or off the pitch; or even standing on the sidelines as an increasingly successful manager of the Wales national team: never overly animated or emotional.  Unknowable, impenetrable, professional almost to a fault.  Mario Balotelli he was not.

Those who know him – team-mates, colleagues and friends – they say what you would expect to hear in giving tributes, of course.  In an interview Robbie Savage listed all the things he had going for him, others said he had everything ahead of him, the world in his hands..  On top of everything he was a strikingly good looking man.  One who, conversely, usually scored ugly goals, arriving late into the box to leap high and score scruffy headers from a few yards out.  You could script the responses because people click into a subconsciously known type of script when such sudden, shocking things happen.

Mental health is a dark beast.  People wear convincing alternative masks in public, in front of other people and in front of those they love.  They hide away the darker sides so as not to hurt others or damage their own reputation.  But there was something different with Speed’s pokerface.  It would have been extraordinary, though not impossible, to be so constantly public and active, for so long and around so many people  – his players and staff at the FAW, to give a long BBC interview just hours before he hanged himself; and to apparently leak nothing at all.

There was a hollow, sinister chill about this which, for me, didn’t ring of mental health issues.  His agent has claimed that Speed was not suffering from depression, and his family have denied it too.  Although you can argue that nobody can ever truly know.  Yet I had an immediately harrowing gut feel that  it wasn’t mental health, a feeling the recent rumours are doing nothing to quell.  They remain rumours and it’s possible the truth may never be publicly known but if true – and there’s a sizable football community of people who are likely to know one way or the other, then it’s evidence of another social stigma which football has always failed to address.  One which has cost life before and could easily do so again.  Just like mental health.

I remained numb, watching the football matches and reading the reports.  Wilting with sadness, I went to bed early and read a book.  Late at night and failing to sleep, Speed and the events of the day – events I felt weirdly guilty for not knowing until so late – still swirled around my head.  I turned to Twitter and saw that sickening rumour.  I wished it wasn’t so believable.  It was possible nobody would ever know, or that the one or two who do would take a secret with them to their own graves.

loose connections

Another long and warbly blog-as-shrink post about the dysfunctional relationship I have with my parents. 

In the car with Dad, travelling the hour and a half cross-country to a football match.  We were both trying hard to talk in a way we don’t usually: deeper business things than we’d speak of around Mum, shared self-employment workflow gripes.  It had surprised me, his level of conversational effort.  Then we spoke about sport, we led into our shared physical attributes, many of which I’ve inherited from him and most of which I’m grateful for – build, metabolism – if not the hair, or increasing lack of it.  He could have kept that.

Then he said: “speaking of the things we share, do you ever think you might have problems with depression?”

That came out of the blue and I sort of froze.

“Um, dunno.  Maybe?” I said, and looked out of the window to my left, away from him, scared of eye-contact.  We’d spoken of such things before, but not for a couple of years.

In that moment I saw myself through his lens.  It wasn’t easy viewing.  Had my parents finally considered my lifestyle – although it’s been roughly the same for over two years – and recognised that I might not always be happy, that my sluggish silence around them might indicate more than an overly protracted teenage phase?

How bad did I get?  I was ok really, wasn’t I?  It was something I’d pondered from time to time.  Sure I get down-days like everyone, perhaps a little more frequently given my general lack of contact with humans, but it never got that bad, did it?

I’ve read around the subject a little, for a number of reasons including general personal interest.  My gloominess is never as all-consuming and paralysing as I’ve seen it described.  I shake myself out of it eventually; I do something or am lightened by something, I see a great goal, take a walk, watch a gorgeous sunset, drive into the mountains, absently stare at a ludicrously beautiful female in the street.  There’s usually something which jolts me out and forces perspective.  It’s never been the case that I can’t get out of bed or leave the flat, can’t move or function.

No, I’m well enough acclimatised to coping with sporadic unhappiness and able to ride it without pills, thanks.

He went on to advertise antidepressants, which he’s now taken for twenty years or more, and how they help him.  Apparently he experimented with coming off them recently and his mood rapidly plummeted so he resumed again; only low dosages but enough.  They really help, he underlined.  And it’s important too, because your moods affect the people close to you.

“Well I’m alright.  There’s no-one close to me.”

It was intended it as blackly comic but he didn’t laugh.  I can never predict when he’ll laugh.  A primary tactic of mine in breaking down barriers and getting closer to people is light teasing.  I’ve never felt comfortable doing this with Dad, so sensitive and serious is he about always being in the right.  His anger is formidable and he often seems to emit a general sense of obfuscation, a glaring inability to say ‘I don’t know’ about things he clearly doesn’t know.  He has a tendency to try and smugly predict gameshow answers out loud, to generate a fillip of superior righteousness, however small.  Not always successfully.  It’s always mildly amusing when he’s wrong.

Perhaps he wanted me to take antidepressants so I’ll be happier and more upbeat on my visits home and Mum won’t worry about me.  Yet I still can’t imagine ever being chatty around them.

Maybe there’s an extent to which we all tend to regress around our parents, presenting earlier versions of ourselves which accurately reflect their experience of us.  When you reach the stage of bringing home a partner you begin to present a combination of two sides: the old you who your parents know, together with the current you who is liked or maybe even loved by your partner – and who you probably like better as a result; a more developed and happier side of you.  Without that you still keep showing the old you.  If you never had a brilliantly open relationship with your parents to start with, the upshot is that you’ll likely slump into a self-fulfilling despondency.

Little impels me to disclose much detail to my family; I am that infamous “dark horse” and “closed book”.  I’d happily disclose more to a complete stranger; to you, than to them.  There’s a natural reticence with them that shames me.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t occasionally feel like snapping.


Is it because they essentially bore the tits off me?  The endless commentary of minutiae and tales of village life which I find it impossible to feign an interest in.  You’re not allowed to say that though, because it’s cruel.  Family is The One Big Thing we must universally cherish above everything else.

Dad will offer help if asked and if it doesn’t clash with any other plans he’s made, but he won’t go out of his way.  He regularly visits the city where I live on business.  He never tells me.  We never go for a coffee or a pint.  It’d probably feel awkward if he did.  He never visited me in my three years in London.  He’s not that bothered.

Maybe I speak so little because I know my words would  go in one ear and out the other, they’d be distracted by thinking about what they want to say next about themselves, or by nothing in particular – which would be easier than listening, then asking a related question and.. you know, having a conversation.  My experience of trying to do this is so often disappointing that I stopped trying.  Now I try to listen, often on cruise-control, and ask questions in the gaps.

They seem to ignore that I’m perfectly chatty and outgoing with my brother, his wife and children, where it’s possible to have adult conversations, to be stupid and muck about with the kids.  And equally mixing with new people at extended family functions.  Their gaze or attention makes me feel artificial, like I’m alienating them by not behaving as they expect.  Perhaps they view it as an act.

Despite all this, Dad’s question wasn’t without a cause.  I probably look miserable and am uncommunicative around them, with little other stimuli than books, the internet and the dog.  But I feel I’ve somehow developed strength in being a loner for such a time.  You develop a pattern of habits which protect you; an appetite for newness, places and experience, an acceptance and fearlessness about being alone for the vast majority of time.  While it’s far from ideal, it means you don’t malinger as much as you might.

It’s a difficult notion for my parents, or possibly most people to empathise with though, because loners are an unorthodox minority group: misunderstood, untrusted, usually responsible for serial killings and massacres.

why my father scares me

It was at a rare away game a couple of years ago that we first spoke about it properly.  In a pub beforehand, roughly equidistant between Birmingham New Street station and Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s ground.  A rough and ready sort of venue with no furnishings that would take more than a few minutes to clean.

“It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain,” Dad vehemently explained mental health, depression.  He’s taken medication for years, but is still prone to slumps like today.  Days where his face looks like it might spontaneously fold in on itself.  Days when he’s paralysed by it and Mum bitches about him more than usual.  “He’s done absolutely nothing today, sat there and dozed most of the afternoon.  Then he’ll moan about not sleeping tonight. Could be because he hasn’t been able to exercise, but, you know…?”  I never know.

It could also be because we have an extended family gathering tomorrow.  Not only is Dad crap with children, he also struggles in groups like this.  Which I find strange.  He says he can’t do professional networking, yet he affects an extrovert’s cloak of sociability each Friday night at the small local pub amongst fellow villagers.  He can take the attention then, enjoys it, bathes in it even; he’s done auctioneering and revels in any kind of public speaking.

I cannot fathom why the family scenarios challenge him – still because of his own tricky upbringing, which he left aged fifteen?  Is that still a viable excuse?

So, he could well be nervous, despite the veneer.

During Match Of The Day this evening, Gary Lineker mentioned the mental anguish of a player – Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar screaming at his goalkeeper for unnecessarily kicking a ball long and conceding possession.

This is probably entirely coincidental, but I glanced over to my father and saw him wiping an eye.  He’d looked fragile and on the verge of tears all evening, which isn’t uncommon when he’s like this.  The gesture of hand to eye, whether meaningful or not, added to mopey face: some might want to slap (my mother, brother), but to me it twanged something.  Perhaps because I sense his genes more closely than I’d like.

This physically reflected sagginess of his is never as explicit when there’s company outside us immediate three: my parents and I.  When my brother and his family are here, the carte blanche to wallow is rescinded and he tries harder to banish these external signs.  He looks like the saddest person in the world.  “Just feeling a bit run down,” is all I get on asking him directly if he’s ok.  Mum’s sympathy has long run out, and I can’t blame her.  She just perceives the laziness.

It terrifies me from a selfish point of view too, because I can feel or sense the instability sometimes, the crushing disappointment in self.  Perhaps not to the extent he does.  Hopefully not.  Though perhaps more; I struggle to envisage myself achieving what he’s achieved personally or professionally.

I never want to take medication to regulate emotion – though I’m also aware that this isn’t as uncommon as you might think: I know of several young girls who have; my ex did (pre-me, I might add).

But at not infrequent low, self absorbed ebbs when dark thoughts rise to the top, I feel those infected genes of his fizzing around my neurons like predators, just waiting.  We’ll come, they tease.  Just you wait.

“I get it too sometimes,” I admitted to Dad in that dodgy Brummy pub.  He kept claiming that it’s a chemical imbalance, scientifically proven, like he was almost proud, or at pains to state that he wasn’t some totally freakish fuckup.  We then discussed my brother’s typically effortless scepticism, his shrugging outlook: life is easy, just get on with it.  Which he has and does infuriatingly well.

It’s like a neverending, clawing rugby challenge which tries to haul you down.  Sometimes you feel its gravity harder than others and it takes more effort to carry on, keep going. Other times you’re barely aware that it’s there and breeze through.  But always you live in the nervous fear that it might one day manifest itself in a new and extreme way, succeed in dragging you to the floor and pinning you there.