13. Less is More, more or less.


Another shop you don’t need to go in.

A sunny, windy Saturday morning. A queue of cars waits to turn right into a muddy field, creating a hold up on the A60. Each car is full of junk. The people from the cars unload their junk onto trestle tables and tarpaulins. People exchange items of junk and money. This is not a film crew re-making ‘Grapes of Wrath’ on location. It is a car boot sale, and it’s a tragedy.

You have a car that is 99.9% working. The part that isn’t working is a warning light that comes on when it shouldn’t. Ironically, the warning light is a faulty alarm, giving warning only of its own falsehood, but it is enough to fail the MOT test and render the car worthless.

The car must be recycled, and it is not a tragedy. Gordon Brown used to pay people to dispose of cars, successfully stimulating the Korean economy. For a while cars could be handed in for a bounty, like coyote pelts.

In our town centres, piles of junk are decanted into vacant shops under the guise of charities and sold on for slightly more than you might pay at Primark, if only you weren’t phobic and dared go in.

No disrespect to charities. It is just a pity that they have been sucked into the landfill business.

One of the best things you can do to help yourself is to throw away half your stuff. So, lots of lifestyle gurus have latched on to ‘decluttering’.

However, as Tony Blair didn’t say, its not enough just to fight clutter – we have to fight the causes of clutter also, otherwise it will merely return in a new and terrible form.

Why do we have so much tat?

The economic answer is that our society values economic growth above all other measures of civilisation.

The evolutionary answer is that for most of human existence it has really paid to hoard stuff away. Our grandparents, who lived through wars, failed to adapt to the disposable society and proved unable to dispose of their empty yogurt pots and biscuit tins. Many of them were killed in hoarded item landslides.

The psychodynamic answer is that we invest emotion in objects, so that they acquire a sentimental value. Under this heading we include whatever defence mechanism is responsible for Collecting Things.

The cognitive answer is that we hate waste. In particular we hate to lose stuff that we already have.

I don’t doubt for a moment that already there are huge land fill sites, and that a lot of land fill should really be recycled, and that land fill is problematic from an environmental point of view.

It’s just that, judging by the state of many people’s houses and sheds, the land fill sites should be so much bigger. Somewhere around the size of Bedfordshire, as a rough estimate.

Borrowing a bit from Escape from New York, why not declare an area – such as Bedfordshire – an official landfill site and build a tall fence around it? Gradually, Bedfordshire would grow taller and mountainous and probably beautiful in due course – if you could find it.

I would like to see a huge re-cycling plant for vinyl records where they can be turned into food by a special fungus.

I’d like to see all the remaining cathode ray televisions collected, melted into a giant saucepan and made into comfy chairs .

And all the books – after digitising – can be made into a new Hadrian’s bookcase along the entire Scottish border.

All the coins and money could be melted down and made into the kind of shiny foil clothing people in the 1960s imagined we would all be wearing by now.

And most of all, I’d like to see all those cardboard crowns that litter the window sills in Burger King, collected, pulped and made back into trees.

Architect and designer Mies Van der Rohe is credited with the saying ‘Less is More’. He would have been a little disappointed to find so little evidence of minimalism or even room to swing cats in our houses today. Though modernists would probably have expected people to swing their cats in verdant communal parkland between the high rise blocks, or in high quality piazza spaces, rather than indoors.

Some architects have even gone as far as to question whether cats need to be swung at all.

Digitisation seems to give us the opportunity to miniaturise the storage of all our music, video, art and documents to a card the size of a postage stamp. Using ‘the cloud’, we do not even need the little card any more.

Sadly, one has the impression that the space vacated by digitising records, books and pictures will quickly be filled by gym equipment and antiques.

It is tempting to hold the media – particularly the Sunday Times – responsible for the clutter epidemic. For instance, yesterday, the paper carried an article about buying a Victorian bidet, allegedly haunted, for £325. ‘Its sad to part with it,’ the article concluded, ‘but I’m downsizing’. What, do without a bidet! However will you manage?

In truth the blame lies closer to home. Yes, psychiatrists are to blame for the landfill explosion and thus, soon, losing one of our treasured counties. This is the reason:

Some how or other, psychiatrists have convinced the world that tidy people have something wrong with them. Tidy people are called ‘anankastic’, which sounds suspiciously like ‘antichrist’.

The word ‘anankastic’ means something similar to obsessive.

Psychiatrists have not explained very well that the anankastic personality is not the same thing at all as obsessive compulsive disorder.

Implicit in OCD is the acceptance that the thinking and behaviour is silly. Whereas the anankastic person does not think there is anything wrong with what he regards as being extremely well organised.

Psychiatrists have hinted that tidy people are repressed in some way. Something to do with anal retentiveness.

Tidy people will never be competent painters, jazz musicians or good at sex.

Look at how they are portrayed in movies and television. Radar, from Mash; Dwight, from The Office; Mr Gradgrind, from Hard Times.

Psychiatrists have been generating bad press for tidy people for over a century. There is no range of perfume called Anankast, not even in Superdrug.

There is no Anankastics charity shop in town, though by now  it would have been renamed Spick and Span, to reduce stigma.

In the Mr Men series – pretty much the bible when it comes to personality classification – Mr Neat and Mr Tidy are only minor characters in the book devoted to Mr Messy.

Looking back to the late 19th / early 20th century context, when the analysts were most active, perhaps this is more understandable.

Freud and his colleagues had no PIN numbers to remember, no car insurance to renew, no DVDs to take back to the library.

They did not have to use mobile phones to pay for parking. They did not even have land lines. They had no need to keep a range of spare batteries, chargers and light bulbs, or gas cartridges for their Braun Independent beard curlers.

They had no need to use their Tesco voucher within a specific 7 day window.

Freud never had to find a 13mm ring spanner or a 30 amp fuse.

He never had to worry that Jung had hacked his facebook page.

Today’s world is so different. The need for organisation is so acute some households should think about appointing their own executive boards, complete with Venn diagrams and Mission Statements.

As a psychiatrist I feel guilty about what we have done to besmirch tidy folk, and offer the following solution:

Since we have invested a lot of emotion in objects, we cannot simply dispose of them as the de-cluttering guru suggests.

No, each item really needs a decent send- off, with a few kind words and reprisal of happy memories. This way the grief can be channelled and worked through.

The actual process would be quite like Antiques Road Show, but featuring a conveyor belt and incinerator.

That way Bedfordshire can be saved.


12. Grappling with the wrong trousers.


What the well dressed tree is wearing this year.

A procession of girls moves jauntily down Oxford Street. Each girl carries an identical Gap carrier bag and wears brightly coloured skinny trousers. The legwear ranges through many colours and materials – there are 23 different types in the shop.

It took me a while to realise it was an advertising event. Initially I just assumed that ‘Jeggings’ had really taken London by storm, either that or Mayor Boris had passed a new bye-law banning big trousers.

How tempting was it to join that line? So called ‘modelling’ is one of the strongest determinants of human behaviour. But by the time I had got into those trousers the line would have reached Tottenham Court Road and disappeared.

Some animals are hard-wired to behave exactly the same as their neighbour, making possible formations like shoals of fish and flocks of starlings. Someone explained to me that starlings and fish do not need to be particularly clever to pull off this trick. All they need is the instruction ‘do the same as the one next to you’.

Humans like to create this effect too, in Busby Berkely movies for instance or the Red Arrows air display team.

We are used to seeing similarly clad people in other contexts, such as children in school uniform and North Koreans in boiler suits. We like to be wearing the right things.

A demonstration of modelling behaviour is one of many attractions to be found in the local shopping centre. Since social services closed all the day care facilities, shopping malls and libraries are the best places to hang out to keep warm.

Compared with the library, the shopping centre is quieter and more studious in atmosphere. Also there are more books to read.

This part is vital – before you visit the shopping centre – establish the goal. On this occasion the target is: 1.To experience the sensation of being out of place; 2. Not to respond to this sensation by buying something.

For your day out, start by re-framing the shopping centre as a kind of art gallery.

All the familiar shops / exhibits are there (not you Woolworths). There are lots of things you can do free: try out the mattresses in John Lewis, try on lots of jeggings, use the computers in PC world to look up reviews on the same model you are trying, so you can spurn the attentions of the salesperson, use the cameras to take pictures of other people testing cameras on you, try on tester perfumes and marvel at their interesting names.

Or go into Superdrug, and ask for a super drug, such as beta interferon. Ask why they call themselves Superdrug when the best drug they have is ibuprofen.

My hypothesis is that shopping behaviour is a sublimated form of hunting, or at least gathering. The important thing to remember is that all the fun is in the hunt, and once the quarry is cornered then the fun is over. It is all about the expectation of reward – pulling the trigger on a purchase is entirely unnecessary.

Buying something is like coming home from a day’s fishing with a small trout you could have bought in Morrison’s for £3. The trout’s dead eyes communicate to you: So what?

You should have thrown it back in.

Things are not always what they seem, and shopping malls allegedly have a purpose beyond amusement or art.

Shopping malls are meant to part people with their money, rather than act as a recreational facility for escaped psychiatrists. The architects and designers have put in some subtle influences to work on your mind.

One of these is the so-called ‘Gruen Transfer’. This is a place, within the centre, that is designed to disorientate people, by using a combination of unusual shapes and textures and lighting, often accompanied by Muzak.

Apparently the effect is similar to a unit of alcohol or other anxiolytic. People slow down through the Transfer, and co-incidentally this is where the higher priced items are located.

I am not convinced that there is a strong evidence base for the Gruen Transfer, or other devices perpetrated by the advertising industry. Certain low budget shops seem to generate the same emotional disruption.

The oddly named B and M store, sometimes sub-headed ‘Bargain Madness’ can induce such profound despair that it could probably be used as a testing lab for possible new antidepressant compounds. Here the store has been less discreet about its use of disorientation – the clue perhaps is in the word ‘madness’.

Agoraphobics, who tend to have panic attacks in shops, seem to dislike places where there is no clear sightline to the exit. The entrapment induces a sense of doom. Though Morrison’s have an excellent range of vegetables, the way they are laid out can set a person on edge.

Individually, fruit and veg items are not threatening, but when they gang up like this, piled high on all sides, it creates a kind of jungle effect reminiscent of Apocalypse Now.

Another piece of (probably bogus) psychology I have read, relating to supermarkets, is that people have an ‘innate tendency’ to gravitate anti – clockwise. This led to supermarkets placing their main entrances on the right hand side of the shop.

If it was on the left, people would just drift further leftwards into the vegetables section and beach themselves in the courgettes.

Staff would come out to spin customers into the next section, like fairground attendants on a waltzer.

I wonder if it is different in the southern hemisphere, or for the left handed?

It is perhaps a little frightening to think that someone has manipulated the environment in such a way that you have unwittingly bought yourself an expensive, weirdly named perfume.

I am not just referring to ‘Obsession’. What about ‘Hypnotic Poison’, ‘Crazy in Love’ and ‘Thallium’? The internet tells me there is a perfume called M-75, which is the name of the rocket Hamas fires into Israel.

Perfumes, like the Gruen transfer, and the clockwise supermarket, are designed to create an altered state, but what exactly is the state of mind called? In the case of perfume, if it isn’t the name, it is probably solvent intoxication.

Or perhaps it is the feeling of being out of one’s element, or out of step with others. A warning that you are on unfamiliar territory.

Behaviourally, it is supposed to trigger a purchase decision.

The purchase decision is a learned behaviour that creates comfort, possibly by stimulating the ‘anticipation of reward’ section of the mind. The unsettled feeling is briefly quelled, only to be replaced by regret that you have suddenly become poorer and the shop richer.

How comforting is it to be in a herd of people all dressed appropriately and behaving in the same way? Enough people must love formations of soldiers to make it worthwhile dressing thousands of people this way and arranging them in large city parks. Everyone seemed to love the Olympic opening ceremonies.

Lots of people like to be in queues, and will probably join the end of any queue if they find one. If other people are after something, instinct says there is probably something there to have.

There is often not much to be found at the end of a motorway queue, which is formed by the pulsatile dynamics of traffic flow rather than obstacles, but the queuing instinct has evolved over the lengthy period of human history before tarmac and has not yet abated.

The instinct to behave like the person to the left of you is deeply rooted and possibly imprinted at an early age. Experiencing the feeling of being in the wrong place or in the wrong outfit is deeply discomforting.

Many people hate the moment in a restaurant when they have to set out to find the toilets. The fear is not that they will never find the toilet, but rather they will make them-self look foolish to others by dithering round the restaurant.

That is why I think it is a very tall order for CBT to try and get people to fight the idea that it matters a lot what other people think of you.

In the golden era of CBT, pioneers tried to attack this set of cognitions using grand behavioural tasks.

Albert Ellis, pioneer of CBT and our hero, in his list of the top 12 Irrational Ideas, included this as number one:

‘the idea that it is a dire necessity for an adult human being to be loved or approved by virtually every significant other person in his community’

Loved? Maybe not. Approved? Maybe not? But thought to be wearing the wrong trousers? I’m afraid it’s a deal breaker.

Maybe it shouldn’t matter. Maybe not as much. Certainly try and test how much it matters. Certainly try and get it back into proportion.

But it just does.

That leaves us with a burning question. If it is so important to blend in with everyone, why do certain people do everything they can to attract attention to themselves? For instance by dying their hair a florescent colour?

This is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, since these people are relatively few in number, especially in professional groups like accountants or dentists.

Several answers to this – you choose the one you like best:

So that they are visible in traffic?

Reaction to feeling left out or insecure?

Mating ritual?

Group or gang identity?

Genuine lack of insight about how they look?

They are doing a CBT assignment to reduce the irrational cognition that it matters what people think about them?

11. Tackling hooligans with a simple checklist.


Your quiet reflections while driving to work are rudely interrupted by an idiot screaming past you in a small hatchback, overtaking the whole line of traffic, narrowly squeezing back in, missing a Portuguese pig lorry by inches.


Your colleague interrupts his outpatient clinic with a brief diversion onto the internet only to suddenly find he has bought a 1995 Harley Davidson Fat Boy on ebay.


Such events interrupt our attempts to look at the world as a sensible and logical place that only needs a few tweaks to make it perfect. The mind tends to create a fantasy world to live in more comfortably, and this explains dogs, fluffy toys, scented candles and soap on a rope.

Plenty of people will help us build the world of our dreams, not least the media.

Imagine the mind as a daily newspaper. Though the mind probably does not have an editor in chief, it has an editorial committee made up of opinionated people like taxi drivers and Irish nuns.

Yours may be different.

Plenty of space is devoted to current events, but even more is devoted to gossip and scandal. Quite a bit is devoted to food, clothes and the pursuit of food and clothes. The sports and health pages are also mainly about food and clothes.

Depending on the make – up of the committee, the mind can create very different sorts of world view. The Daily Mail mind for instance is quite suspicious. The Guardian mind feels it is being exploited. And the Sun mind is interested in sex and crime.

Since the concept of Depression as an illness calls for a change in a person’s usual world view, we have to imagine an editorial committee whose usual members – Fiona Bruce, Jeremy Vine and Hugh Grant – have been replaced by Leonard Cohen, Salvador Dali and Rev Ian Paisley.

Suddenly the world is transformed; distinctly darker, and quite unbalanced. Instead of Animal Hospital, as a change to a our usual programs, we now have live cockfighting from Wolverhampton.

CBT is an attempt to create a new committee instead of doom-mongers. The idea is to cut out the stuff about war and pestilence and put in more restaurant reviews.

It is tempting to think that resetting the mind’s information filtering system can bring about a more positive outlook, and this in turn could brighten the mood.

An old fashioned CBT technique, I think it was called Mastery of Pleasure, (or was that a sex manual?) involved creating a written timetable of your whole week, giving each activity a score between 1 and 10 depending on how much enjoyment it generated.

For example, watching Manchester City would score 6, while loading the dishwasher would score 7. This created a clear overview of the week, both in terms of quantity and quality of time.

Then, by substituting more dishwasher loading for football watching, your week would be improved, and more importantly, you would have disproved the notion that you had no control over how you felt.

It’s lucky that Mastery of Pleasure (or was it a postgraduate degree?) was not widely disseminated, as I suspect it is a technique that could easily turn our world upside down.

Imagine, calibrating everything, and finding, as we would, that 90% of our time is wasted on completely unnecessary items.

Luckily, Mastery of Pleasure (or was it a porn novel?) teaches people to rate their activities for pleasurableness rather than usefulness or necessity. Nevertheless, it calls upon them to re-evaluate what they find pleasurable, and if possible, substitute more pleasurable activities into the schedule, so that the whole average pleasure rating starts to increase.

There is some very interesting psychology involved in how people summarise pleasurable experiences, but one example is the case of the CD with a scratch on it about a minute before the end.

Has the scratch ruined the whole experience? What about the previous 49 minutes of pristine music?

Pleasure does not work like kilowatt hours, where we simply multiply power and time to sum up the energy used. Pleasure does not total up like the area under a curve on a graph, because the rating is given retrospectively from memory.

We also know that the beginning and the end of experiences carry more weight than the middle bits, which is why brevity is the soul of wit and why ‘The Archers,’ even at 12 minutes long, can get away with an absence of dramatic content between minutes 2 and 11.

What are the implications of moving the calibration system for pleasure from the automatic to the reflective mind? The danger is that certain activities may face a downgraded credit rating.

Some activities are probably best left to the automatic part of the mind. We could include sex, jazz and the tennis serve, which can all be affected by performance anxiety.

Once you start to rate pleasure, you may risk killing it.

I have already commented on the illusory joy of pets. But what about clothes and the pursuit of clothes, the activity called shopping? What about old stalwarts, like watercolour painting, banjo playing or golf?

What about photography, now that it is all digital? Techniques like solarisation and bas relief, that in the old days needed hours of darkroom work, involved getting contact dermatitis from putting your hands in developer, ruined your carpets etc, now can be achieved by moving a slider on a computer screen.

It so easy to make absolutely beautiful artwork using Photoshop or similar, that, suddenly, it loses its appeal totally. Such is art. It appears to need ingredients of toil and hardship to make it valid.

The notion of suffering being necessary to bring any value to an experience is borrowed a bit from religion, and also from the series Fame. Work is the price you pay. No pain no gain etc.

But how can we include items like suffering and pain in our Mastery of Pleasure (or was it a pirate ship?) timetable? Would it do suffering justice to simply rate it as zero?

Religions are always having to try and explain why terrible things happen, and this must be a massive burden for religious professionals. Why did God allow David Bowie to make the Tin Machine albums for instance?

Along the same lines, and probably to answer the same questions – only about world war and genocide – Freud developed the notion that people had a kind of death instinct.

Possibly this inspired Michael Winner to make the Death Wish movies. Though Freud would probably have put more effort into developing the main character, Paul Kersey, played by Charles Bronson.

As well as being a vigilante, Kersey was an architect. His building designs are only shown briefly, but he appears to encourage clients to save a lot of money by using a cheap building method just a little embellished by post-modern decoration.

These short cuts mirrored the corner cutting he brought to the criminal justice system by acting as police, judge and executioner all at once. I do hope Death Wish gets re-made with a lot more architectural referencing (see Point Blank).

Kersey has to choose between a civilised, measured and incremental approach to justice, using proper channels, or facing his hooligans head on and shooting them.

It is difficult to accommodate a drive toward death and destruction within a model that attempts to micro-manage pleasure activities, unless we just accept it as an elephant in the room we have to work round, covering it with a floral throw and scatter cushions.

Unless we try and accommodate destructiveness as a more understandable behaviour.

Kersey, like many other movie heroes, became a hooligan himself, but the audiences tended to view him as a necessary evil. People seem to want to subvert the usual processes of justice every now and again by acting completely out of character and possibly violently.

Kersey’s violence was initially triggered by revenge, but turned into a social mechanism, like pest control.

Many acts of seemingly random violence, such as ‘Running Amok’, have been construed as social mechanisms that redress some long lasting injustice.

In updating the psychoanalytic model of the mind, the ‘object relations school’ coined a character called the ‘internal saboteur’.

As far as I can understand it, object relations concerns itself with the very primitive mind and its development in the first few months of infancy. This is before the time when a person knows that he is a separate person and can correctly assign his experiences to inside the self or outside it. Conflict can occur in processing the aggression / guilt feedback mechanism. The object relations school seemed to focus a lot on breasts, so their world view was somewhere between the Guardian and the Sun.

I have trouble understanding object relations theory (you can tell), but we need to somehow include in our model of the mind a person – like Dr Zachery Smith in Lost in Space – who works behind the scenes to sabotage the ship.

(Or, even more evil, the Ian Holm character, Ash, in Alien – why is it that internal saboteurs are found mainly on space ships?).

Up to a point self – destructiveness can be explained as an attempt to get back at others or redress the balance in a power relationship. Sometimes it may be better to explain it as a short cut in making changes happen quickly.

I am reminded of recent attempts to fix small electrical appliances such as toasters. There comes a point where the attempted repair turns into a post mortem, the turning point being recognition that the appliance was never designed to – and cannot – be disassembled.

Finally, pulling the two halves of toaster apart with bare hands or hitting it repeatedly with a rubber hammer bring about the desired outcome of an end to the toaster issue. A colleague tells me that this happens a lot with motorcycle repairs and is known as ‘the berserker phase’. Luckily, he is not a surgeon.

In fact people who harm themselves by cutting make the observation that the act focuses and resolves a moment of intense mental turmoil.

Not recommended and foolish, both for toasters and people.

Destroying motorcycles is probably a good idea though, in the wider scheme of things. In fact there is quite a lot of redundant junk and clutter in most people’s houses that is crying out for some rational hooliganism. If you have a cathode ray tube television for instance, you have probably wondered from time to time about throwing it out of the window. I worry about you if you haven’t.

Which brings us back to the problem of calibration of emotional states. It is very difficult to find the right frame of reference. If we subjected many activities to scrupulous measurement, we would have to categorise them as ridiculous and unnecessary, like carrot shaped trousers.

In using CBT to re-evaluate and re-schedule activities, we begin to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Why does everyone we know seem to spend all day looking at a computer screen? Aren’t they supposed to be an engineer / teacher /artist?

If they realised how they now spend their time, might they be tempted to destroy the computer with Greek fire?

And if we had to carry out a Mastery of Pleasure (or was it a Waddington’s board game?) exercise on, say, running a marathon, or digging the garden, or training a parrot to ride a unicycle, how would we measure the area under the curve?

When we encounter a hooligan in our mind there are several ways we can react:

Hug them (as recommended by the Prime Minister)

Shoot them immediately (as recommended by Michael Winner)

Run away

Using a wider frame of reference, attempt to understand the hooligan

Attempt to slowly reform the hooligan using metalwork and batique

Cover them with a floral throw and scatter cushions

Play them some Tin Machine

Depending on your editorial panel, you can choose any of the above options.

(Or was it a steam locomotive?)

10. Insuring the uninsurable.

ImagePendleton’s headquarters.

Might you get depressed one day?

If you answer yes to any of the following questions, this is quite likely:

Do you tend to play a Party App on your computer rather than attending a real party? Do you support a perennially unsuccessful football team? Has everyone in your extended family been treated for depression? Do you regard your pet snake as the best friend you have ever had?  Have you been depressed every single day of your life so far?

Depression is likely to affect a sizable minority of us at some point. I’m skeptical of surveys that tend to show practically everyone in some areas (Slough?) is suffering from depression, but suffice it to say it is a major common condition on a par with blood pressure or diabetes. So, is it worth insuring yourself against getting depressed? There are several reasons why not, at least in terms of popping into Swinton or calling Direct Line.

When we consider insurance we are embarking on what is now grandly termed Risk Management. By this is meant that we need to look into the possible future and explore some hypothetical events, such as burglary or fire. Whether we might get ill or not is rather hard to predict. And also it is something we are most reluctant to think about. Some people do take out health insurance, but most of us do not.  Perhaps the main barrier is thinking that it will never happen to us.

And people are right to be skeptical about the insurance industry. Everyday someone texts me to urge me to claim back mis-sold PPI. Please can we go back to Nigerian banking scams? I have never seen a specific Mental Health Insurance Policy, though some aspects of mental health may be included within a wider health policy. Why?

First – insurers tend to specialize in more concrete types of illness like cancer or heart disease. They like to know you have not had previous episodes of the same illness. They like to be able to say categorically whether the illness has happened or not, whereas a diagnosis of depression often falls within a grey area.

Second – depression is so common that the premiums would likely be very high and riddled with snags and get out clauses.

And third – it’s not as though you can really buy a guaranteed effective treatment with your payout. The treatment of depression is as much a lottery as selecting an appropriate insurance policy.

A policy might pay out to protect your income if you cannot work due to depression. But this can lead to a horrible situation where a person is locked in an insurance- perpetuated sick role, much like the benefits trap, where it makes sense financially to continue to act like a depressed person.

But there are other ways of insuring against depression, without troubling the man from the Pru, or his modern day equivalent, lurking in the dark recesses of a Sunderland call centre. (Just redressing the north south balance, having mentioned Slough earlier on.)

Be Prepared, as Baden Powell advised. I am sure he meant this in a specific and practical way, such as keeping a spare credit card in your sock. Preparing for very unlikely events, such as a Harlem Shake breaking out in the library, or the invention of punk rock, is beyond the scope of ordinary scouting.

Can we prepare for Depression? I am referring to getting the roof of the house in order before the rain comes, as David Cameron would probably put it.

When depression hits, the mental functioning is decreased in certain key areas such as reduced concentration and energy levels. That means, if you are stretched to function properly even when you are well, then when you get depressed you may go under. That will lead to a vicious circle of more stress caused by failing to keep up, leading to worsening depression. Finally comes a crunch point where things officially go to Hell and High Wycombe.

That means if you are well at present you should be operating with spare capacity. What does that mean? I’m not your mum, but ideally:

You should keep at least a million pounds in your current account.

OK, that’s stupid, but: You should have a system for organizing and dealing with any paperwork including financial stuff. You should know where everything important is, like your birth certificate and passport. In particular some way of keeping the electronic passwords you need for online banking etc. You will never remember them if you get depressed, and you won’t even remember where you put the bit of paper you wrote them on. Then you will worry that you have lost the bit of paper or worse, someone has got the bit of paper and has taken your money. Morbid thoughts about poverty and ruin are common in Depression, and  suspicious ideas about others can occur.

So, strategy one is the tin box. Ideally take the biscuits out first and eat them.

Strategy two is more complicated, and involves working out your attitude to certain key issues. What is my policy on taking medication? What is my threshold for making an appointment with the doctor?

Strategy three is making sure none of the library books and dvds are overdue. Think how those fines could mount up.

It is clear that Risk Management is something of a myth when it comes to individuals. Actuaries – experts in statistics – work with very large sample sizes, for instance in predicting how long people will live. That makes it possible to run pension schemes and predict how much money will be paid out in future years.

When the sample size gets smaller, the effects of chance become much more significant. We have a similar problem when it comes to predicting the behavior of individuals. In particular we have been carried away with the idea that we can predict violence and self harm. We could probably predict a homicide rate for the whole population, but for smaller samples or individuals we might just as  well throw dice or read the tealeaves.

In fact a rather cynical movement has broken out within mental health work, which goes as follows: We are scientists of a kind, and we know that it is impossible to predict violence or suicide in individuals with an accuracy that could affect our practice.

Recognizing however that we work in a political context, we know that the standard on which we are judged will not be: Did a Homicide / Suicide occur? but rather: Was everything done, that should reasonably have been done, as judged by the man on the 7.15, to have prevented the tragic event?

Luckily, medical services tend not to give written guarantees, acknowledging that we are hardly in control of all the variables that predict how illnesses will affect people. Even Dixons, perhaps especially Dixons, do not guarantee that things will not go wrong. They only guarantee to fix or replace the  eg Beko if it eg explodes.

Patients cannot therefore expect infallibility, but only ‘reasonable care’.

Aware of the political context, clinicians have created an ingenious analogue of what looks like reasonable care, just in case something goes wrong. Take for instance the so called HCR20 scale, which purports to predict risk of violence.

It has a series of numerical scores, which must not be added up to make a sum total. The main function of the scale is that it shows you have considered the proposed risk factors and given some thought as to what might happen in a range of future scenarios.

Calling it ‘arse – covering’, as I heard an angry service user describe it this week, is inaccurate, as such a process is just as likely to create unexpected new buttocks.

Very few health managers and even fewer politicians are experts in statistics. It would be nice to see more actuaries in parliament. I can’t help thinking that actuaries need better PR compared with lawyers, such as a hit TV show. There was never a show called ‘Sun Life: Miami’, for instance. Or even ‘Canada Life: Canada’.

Based quite a bit on ‘Minority Report’ a theme could be a panel of (maverick) actuaries who have learned to predict actual events – sudden deaths – in individuals, rather than just rates in large populations.

Using the dark arts of prediction – going against the fuddy-duddy regime at the Institute Of Actuaries – they would race round to the person’s house just in time to stop the victim poking metal forks in the toaster, or mistaking the Paraquat for Green Chartreuse.

The hero would be called Pendleton I think, and he would drive a lightweight trail bike or use parkour to beat the inevitable traffic jams.

In the first episode Pendleton would skim a CD copy of Microsoft Excel disdainfully into the river.

Each episode would end with a party at Pendleton’s cool loft apartment, and include a minor accident he had foolishly failed to predict, such as a champagne cork hitting someone on the forehead, or someone breaking a tooth on an olive.  ‘I never saw that one coming’, Pendleton would chuckle.

Health managers and Inquiry panels would announce, ‘what we need here is a Pendleton’.

Preparation is not the same thing as insurance.

Both depend on subjective assessment of risks and putting documents in a tin box, but for insurance you need to haggle with another person and give them money.

Its quite likely that subjective risk assessment is impossible beyond simple and likely events in the very near future. Beyond that we might as well use random number tables or a horoscope (which are the same thing).

By the way, there’s a free copy of Excel floating in the river.  And is that a trail bike I can hear in the distance?

9. The Optional Illusion.


Facing my inquiry panel.

It is bank holiday weekend and I am waiting for the news to show the usual rioting in Brighton, as rival gangs of philosophers – down from ‘the smoke’ – fight each other with motorcycle chains. The battle between Positivists and Constructivists continues more ferociously than ever.

It’s all to do with the way you like to see Reality. The R word is an issue for mental health specialists, since mental disorders are loosely defined as a breakdown in reality testing. Positivists like to measure reality with a ruler, whereas Constructivists like to feel it through their sensory experiences.

Positivists are quite certain you have a dining room table made of wood, whereas Constructivists aren’t even certain they are in your house at all.

Having watched the Matrix, there has to be a chance that we are all just brains in buckets being fed information via the higher number Sky channels.

There are times when Positivism is essential, like measuring the dose of insulin and checking the blood sugar level, or flying a jumbo jet. When it comes to appreciating a restaurant or a book, it is probably better to judge the overall experience than rate it with a star scale.

Consider this experience: a car goes past you. There is a large dog sitting in the passenger seat, facing forwards. The dog has the window slightly open and a serious look on its face.

Why is that funny?

The humour is at the expense of the dog. It thinks its a human. It probably thinks it is driving the car. Sadly, the dog probably does not possess ‘theory of mind’. It is happily oblivious to its station in life, which is having no rights whatsoever and certainly no vote, not even for the European parliament.

Pets are big business in the UK. How much of the supermarket is devoted to pet food? How much greenhouse gas is produced by pet related activity?

What are pets actually for, if we exclude working sheepdogs and guide dogs?

OK, horses are arguably a form of transport. And I believe ferrets play a vital role in carrying cables through underground pipes. I think there are mites that play a role in cheese production, oh yes, and the little worm that goes in Tequila, though I’m not sure what it does.

I ask just to get some comments from pet owners and tequila experts.

If the answer is ‘for company’ then I’m thinking do pet owners display the same kind of obliviousness as the dog in the passenger seat?

Treating dogs and cats as people is a strange distortion of what animals really are. But in a way, we are all like the dog in the passenger seat. We construct a view of the world, but the view has many blind spots, illusions and distortions.

If the world was presented to the senses in a completely clear and unfiltered stream, it would probably seem unbearably harsh. Nature can appear very cruel if we don’t give it a bit of positive PR, which is when it becomes all things bright and beautiful.

You would like more friends so you create an imaginary friend in the shape of a grey cat. It has a droopy moustache and its name is  Zorro.

How many movies, how much merchandising, has gone into ‘anthropomorphism’ – projecting human characteristics on to animals?

The brain seems to have a tendency to attribute human like characteristics to natural phenomena and even inanimate objects such as steam engines and curling tongs, so its not surprising that creatures with two eyes and four limbs are treated as though they had finer feelings.

How much are you really empathising with a dog if you regard it as your loyal friend?

By now you have guessed that I just don’t ‘get’ animals as pets, and not much really as food. Some time soon I hope the genetic engineers will be able to make fillet steak from cell culture on a giant loom in Milton Keynes, and our cows (and horses) can relax again.

Animals have a key role in the eco system and they are incredible in how they can look and behave. They are magnificent creatures. I nearly said they are magnificent pieces of machinery (they are). I love Disney films, and Tom and Jerry, but I think I have placed these firmly in the Fiction section.

I just don’t think Toads can really buy motor cars and get put in jail for dangerous driving. Not even in Hartlepool, where they allegedly hanged a monkey having mistaken it for a French spy.

Just to leave the pet lovers alone for a while, let us turn our attention to motorcycles. From a positivist perspective we find that these accelerate very fast in a straight line. They are very cold and noisy, don’t really go round corners as fast as cars, use more petrol and tyres than cars, and are quite dangerous.

That’s if you actually ride them outside their safe operating radius of one mile from Cafe Nero. As a form of transport they get only one star.

But to counteract this, using a constructivist method, we temper our initial experience of noise, cold and danger with a range of romanticised imagery borrowed from Marlon Brando, Bruce Springsteen and Ewan McGregor, that sets motorcycling into a grainy black and white arts movie with a working class hero.

So Pets. And Motorcycles. The fantasy does not match the reality. We use ‘sentimentalisation’ to reduce the discord between the ways things are and the way they really ought to be. War has probably been sentimentalised more than pets, and slightly more dangerously.

And luckily, there is an absolutely huge industry whose job it is to help us not see things correctly, spanning politics, advertising and business. Advertisers construct chains of feel good imagery and attach them to our perceptions. Yogurt and Skiing, for instance.

In the motor industry engineers try to reduce what they call ‘NVH’, noise vibration and harshness. Sentimentalism is a defence against NVH in the personal environment. It’s a cosy room with cats and cuddly toys, where Liberace plays Candle in the Wind.

Consider this statistic:

Of the 26.4 million households currently in the UK, 7.6 million – or 29% – are made up of only one person, with the growth in single occupant households owned by the middle aged creating extra demand for homes.

There are many reasons for this social trend, but it seems we are becoming increasingly intolerant of living with other people. This trend has also been termed ‘schizoid society’, where we all inhabit a little bubble, and our only contact with others is as spectators.

Such a process was well anticipated and described by Isaac Asimov, in his novels about the planet Solaria. People, in proximity, just cause too much NVH. People – most people – just wouldn’t fit in the yogurt commercial.

Some of the most attractive, well thought out and effective types of therapy have devoted themselves to seeing the world more carefully and sensibly. Some nice examples include rational emotive therapy, now called REBT; personal construct psychotherapy, and Karl Rogers’ person centred therapy.

Interestingly these were all developed in the 1960s and 70s. Sadly none of them are really available much now, not in a pure form at least, though they continue mainly through strands of CBT and counselling.

I don’t think anyone has invented an anti-sentimentality tablet. Nor can I find a sentimentality rating scale to measure its effects. The lifestyle advice is relatively simple however.

Avoid sending cards for anything apart from birthdays and Christmas. Better still, avoid sending cards at all. Avoid most of Steven Spielberg’s output, and anything with James Stewart in it. Rationalise your yogurt buying to the 1000g ‘Eridanous’ pots from Lidl.

Sentimentalism is a kind of emotional clutter. There is a lot written about ‘decluttering’ your house, most of it rather obvious. First order a skip, then rescue ten things you really need.

Not you Tiddles.