38. Being nicer to donkeys by not talking their hind legs off.


 Two people having lunch without smartphones.

Instead of  CBT sessions, the local mental health team are just playing Reasons to Be Cheerful: Part 3, over and over again. The cuts are beginning to bite.

Whenever I hear this song, the dark side of my mind sings an alternative version called Reasons to be Gloomy. (Earthquake in Turkey, Murder in Hackney, KFC…). Actually sad songs are much more uplifting, e.g. Girlfriend In a Coma. I know, I know, its serious.

A kind of Quantitative Easing has increased the supply of words, above and beyond demand for them. With QE, money goes into the economy, but where does it come out? I suspect the answer is HSBC, either that or Poundland in Mexborough.

Something similar is happening with words. Far more of them are being written or spoken, recorded and published. What will be the effect? In the words of John Major, they are probably coming out as ‘froth and bubble’. My argument is that the surplus words are emerging in the form of Chat. There are some obvious examples, like the Chat Show and reality television. Smartphone sales are through the roof. The new media has turned people who were already chatty into right-old-turbo-gobs.

Mostly the message from mental health experts – and BT – has been that it is good to talk. Communication, communication and communication, as Tony Blair didn’t say. But what about the quality? Is everyone, everywhere, just talking too much? Words are everywhere, spoken and written. Metro. Evening Standard. You can’t sell them and you can’t even give them away. People are carrying words round in wheelbarrows. Words are the new hyperinflation. Words are the new carbon footprint. Wordiness is the new Obesity. When word inflation occurs, language loses its meaning and no-one can really say anything properly.

Until finally Ronan Keating says it best when he says nothing at all.

Is verbiage damaging to psychotherapy? If either the client or the therapist seem to be making small talk, we are taught that something has gone wrong. What I look for when people speak is the signal to noise ratio. Certain groups of people use a lot of words where one or two choice words would be enough. I’m thinking priests and politicians. Or Alan Carr, the famous Chatty Man.

The practice nurse went a bit chatty at my recent annual health check. She had much worse health problems than I did. But that’s not the point, is it? That’s something for her and her own health-check-with-the-nurse. Chatty therapists tend to make the mistake of ‘early disclosure’. This is when the therapist gives away a few personal details to get things going. No doubt this is an attempt to break the ice and appear genuine and empathic. Unfortunately another person’s experiences are never that similar to your own, and even if they are, their take on them is different from yours. Even if they have the same take on them, you were there first. It’s a difficult trade off between Empathy and Genuineness, and no-one quite gets it right. In the worse case scenario the therapist will have disclosed his forthcoming trial for manslaughter before the patient has even got his coat off.

OK, the health check revealed that my back is not that bad, compared to yours. I found this out for certain at B and Q when I played my Sick Role Card to request one of the staff to carry some massive bags of compost to the car. As the very obliging man – an early discloser it turned out – struggled with them, he began to tell me about his own back problems, the account growing increasingly horrendous as he shouldered the bags from the giant pile. He’d had several operations and long courses of Physio, dallied with the alternative sector, TENS, hot yoga etc. Sometimes his legs went numb and tingly. In this case he should have disclosed even earlier, and I would have carried the bags myself and counted myself lucky to do so. I’d have taken over his shift if he’d let me. It looks as though B and Q have taken the rule book on disability and turned it inside-out.

Some people are deluded that  the new Iphone collects all our fingerprints and stores them somewhere. Come to think of it, that’s not a delusion, its probably true. It probably knows where you went shopping and what salad dressing you chose. So what?  Finding any serious information in a sea of chatter must be nearly impossible. I feel sorry for the intelligence services trying to look through all this flotsam. A paranoid person perhaps supposes that some kind of task force is working night and day on every aspect of his life, sifting the bins and joining the shredded documents together with hired jigsaw experts. Almost disappointingly, there is no-one out there doing jigsaws with your Santander statement.

No doubt there is an evolutionary advantage offered by garnering, manipulating and disseminating information. Supposedly Tesco made money using the market research that came implicit with their Clubcard scheme. That seems quite a way from spying on people.  They are searching for wood but can see only trees.

Most people’s response to surveillance is that they don’t care. They are not bothered that Barack Obama knows which biscuits they bought. Preferably though he should not get to know that they bought The Ultimate Eighties Power Ballads CD. Barack, it was only £3, please don’t get all superior. Don’t forget you mixed George Osborne up with Jeff Osborne.

Instead of buying a car, I like to ‘build the car’ on the manufacturers websites. Usually the software is clunky, or there is something wrong with Quicktime or Flash, so the virtual car gets abandoned somewhere between the Milano Leather and Heated Support Tights options. Nevertheless, all the carmakers know, or think they know, what car I would specify if I had a better computer or attention span and some money. Is it realistic to think they care, or is such a notion mere grandiosity on my part? Do I expect them to ring any moment from Stuttgart – yes we now have the S class in purple, like you always wanted, should we send it round?

Is there some kind of representation of Me out there in cyberspace, based on my failed online build-a-car projects and grocery purchases? If so it’s hardly a finely sketched personality profile, unless Rorschach testing has moved on a long way. The truth is there is very little use in collecting masses of trivia, whether you are a therapist, a supermarket, or the NSA. Lots of noise, hardly any signal. Experts call it the Alan Carr effect.

In this cacophony of trivial information, there are islands of confidentiality, such as Confession and Psychotherapy. But do any of us really have much that is worth being confidential about? They have heard it all before. People have been plotting revolutions, visiting sex workers and buying Keane albums since history began.

Being a bit of an introvert, I’m wary of the Chatty Person. I know colleagues who never reveal they are psychiatrists to people they meet on a train or plane, to the extent of building an alter ego. It’s difficult for Psychiatrists to build a credible cover story, since they seldom have any experience of other careers. I knew someone who pretended to be a hospital manager, thinking they would know just enough to get by, only to be floored by a question about Lean Sigma or some such jargon, by a busybody from KPMG.

I try to avoid taxis and hairdressers, where the chat can be relentless and searching. Never make the mistake of thinking your hairdresser is not listening to your story, or won’t remember it in detail. Trivial information is hard currency in the world of Chat. Hairdressers are not bound by any rule of confidentiality and will not be struck off any register for talking out of turn. Quite the contrary. Why don’t the security services simply use hairdressers as spies? They’ll get the info one way or another – hot tongs if necessary.

Campaigning for greater secrecy seems ridiculous. Campaigning for Plain English has already been done. Campaigning for real psychotherapy is probably too late, now that Reasons to be Cheerful seems similarly effective. What we need is better editing. This piece, for instance, its much too long.

I once worked for a consultant who never allowed anything to go out that took up more than one side of A4.  And that was even before the invention of bullet points. Along these lines, instead of all the above nonsense, let me summarize as follows:

  • A high signal to noise ratio is vital in effective communication.
  • Barack Obama knows you like James Blunt.
  • Tesco use jigsaw experts to read your mind.
  • Beware the chatty therapist.
  • Wanted for B and Q: strong silent type.

37. Rejecting the Domino’s Theory.


This creature’s camouflage is poorly suited to the urban jungle that is Hull.

My iron is warmed up and the fire extinguisher is ready, but my Ironing Coach is late today. Let’s hope we can stick with simple shapes again and not attempt anything complicated like pleated trousers. I was never that good at thinking in three dimensions, which is probably why I am not a surgeon.

One of my theories is that Specialisation has been very bad for us. I can understand how such a thing came about, following the industrial revolution, the invention of production lines, and the division of labour.

But every time a specialism is created, such as Pastry Chef, Tyre Fitter, or Middle-Third-of-the-Duodenum-Surgeon, a potentially useful activity has been taken away from the rest of us.

Not only are we all deskilled, but also we now have three very bored people, doing the same thing all day. Nowadays it is possible and probably lucrative to have one very finely honed skill, particularly if it is one that has been professionally colonized and denied to amateurs.

Professionals, and by this I mean the old professions like Law, Medicine and Accountancy – I nearly said Prostitution – were the first to stitch up areas of activity which would become highly rewarded and restricted to club members.

More recently we have seen Plumbers and Electricians get in on the act. Fair enough. These are occupations that need special skills and equipment and could represent a danger to people if done carelessly. But have we overdone it? Couldn’t the plumber do the electrics and vice versa?

Couldn’t someone more like a blacksmith – a person with a large shed and no backache – do tyre fitting, along with general welding and repairing? Why for instance is the person who mends shoes uniquely the person allowed to cut keys and change watch batteries?

Dominos seem to have developed an extremely narrow niche product. It’s for people with a motivational level just above the point for making phone calls but just below the point where they can put a frozen pizza in the oven for 13 minutes. A surprisingly large section of the population inhabit precisely this energy zone.

Ivan Illich was an influential writer in the seventies. I went to see him speak once in Leicester. I mainly remember that he refused to use a microphone, because he believed this invention had stolen the power of public speaking from the non-miked. However Ivan had an extremely loud speaking voice, so hardly needed any further amplification. He was easily able to drown out his opponents, which is the essential skill for a one-liner polemicist.  His message was to criticise doctors and teachers for stealing areas of expertise away from ordinary people.

As regards Medicine, there are pros and cons in his argument. It’s true that many areas of normal life have been falsely medicalised, such as insomnia, addictions and obesity. But it’s also true that high tech procedures such as coronary artery grafts have become massively more successful, providing the person carrying them out has done a large number of them, uses the right equipment and follows a strict protocol.

This week on the front pages of our newpapers we find a report about Depression supposedly commissioned by Nuffield Health. Whatever the report actually says, what has come through the press releases are some of our favourite chestnuts:

Depression affects one in four people.(Why not one in four hundred or everybody – it depends merely on where you draw the cut off point?)

GPs dish out antidepressants by the bucketful. (Who is this Willy Nilly and why can’t we stop him?)

Exercise would be just as useful as antidepressants.(As though obese people didn’t have to carry round an extremely heavy weight all day round their tummies.)

Not surprisingly, we find that Nuffield Health has taken over a lot of gyms recently. The more thoughtful papers go on to say that a Cochrane Review has shown that the value of exercise in Depression is doubtful to modest.

No-one much has a bad word to say about exercise, but lets inject a note of caution. Exercise might be an excellent pursuit, but very few people persevere with it. Much as they don’t persevere with Cognitive Therapy. Because they are hard work.

As opposed to swallowing a small tablet once a day, which is easy work. Our problem I think is in expecting either exercise or tablets to do miracles.

At the present time we have a situation where a professional person presides over getting hold of antidepressants, whereas we are still theoretically free to run upstairs or lift bags of potatoes.

However, the fitness lobby has made significant progress in colonising exercise-taking. Are we seeing the development of what could be called Big Exercise, where gym companies, sports gear and food manufacturers team up with coaches and personal trainers to create a new orthodoxy of fitness?

I predict that we will soon be able to buy antidepressants in Tesco, but if we want to take any exercise we will need expert supervision. Much like Ironing. It’s going Corgi-registered soon.

36. Selling out to musical theatre.


What to drive in London, without looking ostentatious

I really need to expand the EP audience beyond its current sophisticated and beautifully formed readership. Luckily I just had an utterly brilliant idea, that came to me in a dream.

Some ideas are so monumental, they will make the person who dreamed them up instantly famous. Such as genetic fingerprinting, or the Tetrapak, for instance.

Or the four foot eight and a half inch railway gauge and the gummed postage stamp, the two breakthrough concepts that made the British Empire so large and pink.

I just had such a brainwave, and I am writing it down as quickly as my trembling fingers will allow.

It’s an idea for a film / musical stage hit, starring singing superstar James Blunt. Readers will know that writing a hit musical is hitting the literary jackpot. Even Ben Elton sold out all his credentials, of every kind, to create the Queen and Rod Stewart musicals that everyone seems to hate, apart from the millions of people who pay huge amounts of money to see them.

Remember that James was a tank commander in a former career. This is the key to it, its an action thriller, but with music, and romance. It starts with James, looking the worse for wear, in his designer Mayfair pad, strumming a few chords miserably, looking for inspiration. There is a pile of unpaid bills on his kitchen table. The landlord calls in to remind James the rent is overdue.

His agent rings to say his Blackpool and Skegness gigs have had to be cancelled due to lack of ticket sales. Finally the agent says, wistfully, ‘ we just need another ‘You’re Beautiful’ James. That’ll get you back’.

Enter a man from the ministry of defence, or that’s what he says. Lets just call him The Colonel. James doesn’t want to let him in. Cue flashback memories of the Balkans, with helicopter effects.

‘We’ve got a proposition for you James’, says the colonel, ‘but you may not like it. The truth is we need you back’.

It turns out that the mission involves James’ former tank squadron, but this time behind enemy lines in North Korea, or possibly Iran, like Argo. It’s a mixture of concerts, spying and technical sabotage.

Initially James refuses, until the Colonel threatens to destroy Atlantic Records, and in the explosion, all trace of Moon Landing, the forthcoming album. Plus a sweetener: ‘you get your old tank back, the Challenger Two. This time to keep’.

James stares at the Colonel for a long moment. ‘I want cup holders this time though. And a proper stereo’.

The mission goes wrong half way through when James insists on rescuing a beautiful spy – played by Miley Cyrus – from a hellhole prison military base, during a concert interval, escaping in a top secret stealth tank, like Clint Eastwood in Firefox.

OK, I’m not giving any more of it away now. You can guess the title and closing musical number. I’ll just wait for the phone to ring itself off the hook, as we writers say.

The message here is when you wake up with a brilliant idea, write it down straight away but don’t tell your psychotherapist. He’ll try and steal it.

35. Winking at the Standby Light.


Coming to terms with existential despair is a tough task. I find it quite worrying that many of my domestic appliances, even some of the ones made in China, are going to outlive me.

Some while back I caught the beady eye of my old Toshiba television. The little red standby light, the same one that had ruined the climate, seemed to be indicating: I’ll be here after you’ve gone. I took it to the Sense shop for recycling and I happen to know it went to a good home. They wouldn’t sell me any Sense though.

Similarly the Ivy all around my house waits patiently to make its big push. It can wait a hundred years or a million. In the meantime, Ivy has one great weakness, which is failing to armour plate its giant arterial stems. Possibly an even greater weakness has been its failure to develop a political wing. No-one is out campaigning to save the Ivy. Unlike its colleagues, Holly and Mistletoe, Ivy has refused to cash in on the Christmas market. I’ve a feeling it will never sell out.

For as long as I can remember, people have told me that the Psychiatric profession is about to go out of business. Psychiatry is a creation of the 20th Century and has probably been dying since the closure of the large asylums. Many reasons are put forward for this. On the one hand it is expected that Neuroscience will eventually explain what goes wrong with the brain when mental illness happens, so that problems like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia – the meat and drink of general psychiatry – will properly belong to the neurologist, along with dementia. The rest of it can be left to social workers and psychologists, if their time machine ever gets back from the seventies.

Another factor has been the massive reduction in the psychiatrist’s favourite habitat, hospital inpatient units (I nearly said hedgerows). And a third influence has been the rise of general practice based mental health care. So on the one hand more and more people are being diagnosed with mental health problems, yet on the other hand, very few of those people will ever see a psychiatrist.

I’ve tended to believe that these prophecies of doom have been overly pessimistic. After all the same has been said about the Liberal Democrat party, which is now part of the government. And similar predictions were made about some of the High Street chains, like WH Smith, which still seems to be doing very nicely, having occupied all the stations and airports.

So maybe I have become a little over-complacent. Woolworths’s demise should perhaps have sent us a wake-up call. And now the Royal Mail sell off is sending a message that nothing is sacred. And what about the public library? Are you a bit uneasy about the coffee machines and internet terminals, and the reduced number of books? When all books are e-books (next year?), why will we need a physical library building?

Uncannily, just after I wrote that sentence, we’re in Stephen King territory here, Look North just reported that 33 libraries are going to close in the county of Lincolnshire. I’m worrying that everything I write might come true. No-one likes I told you so.

Then there was MFI. Everyone joked that their sale had been going on since 1976. Until suddenly, like Marvin Gaye, it wasn’t going on any more.

Psychiatry is perhaps no more precarious than other venerable institutions. Recruitment has been very poor for many years – we have gone from being the Cinderella profession to the Ugly Sisters (no sexist remark is intended here). We are not yet in post-apocalyptic mode, like Mr Spock, or Dr Who, whose planets were destroyed, but it may be time to start wearing big leather maxi coats and stashing shotguns.

On so many occasions I’ve thought; this place is going out of business soon. This has occurred to me in pubs, restaurants, churches, shops of various kinds, launderettes, art galleries, zoos, theatres, even cinemas. In fact, especially cinemas. People said cinemas would close when TV became affordable. Many of them did, but more recently multiplex cinemas have opened in many new locations. They seem to operate with only one member of staff, the guy with night vision goggles who stops people filming the films and guards access to the Pullman seats.

So perhaps mental health will go the same way, returning in a new form, with VIP seating. In fact, premium products have done well in retail. Even Lidl have brought out a luxury range. Premium car brands like Audi and BMW seem to be gaining market share. Royal Mail will still be called Royal, which sounds better than Royal Yodel or Royal DHL.

What would a premium quality mental health service be like? Despite protestations by NHS Trusts and Private Hospitals that they offer such a thing, mental health services are often blue stripe basic. This is perhaps because the impact of mental health problems is often to reduce patients’ earning potential. In other words, most of our patients are skint. But if we can’t do premium, we can do Primark.

Along these lines, proper psychiatrists know that older mental health medications, which are incredibly inexpensive, are probably better in many ways than the expensive new ones. This is not something that GPs have discovered yet.

I have seen so many Psychiatric units close down. Including some that I saw open, with great fanfare and optimism. I remember one that even had its own carpet designer. Some fine new ones have opened recently, although nothing to compare with Victorian asylums, which had ballrooms, cricket pitches and farms.

Predicting their longevity is like a long range weather forecast. The main climatic system is social attitude. It feels like we are just starting a closing down sale. But I’m not certain yet that Everything Must Go. The outlook is probably somewhere between Royal Mail and FM radio. It’s still going but don’t bet your (Primark) shirt on it. Psychiatry is a bit like Toshiba, but it’s not all Tosh.

Everything Must Go was a Steely Dan album. Did they do another one? Like psychiatric medication, their earlier stuff was better.