94. The road to Hull is paved with good intentions.

mona lisa lego

It’s surprising how people you’d think would know better let their electronic stuff get covered in grime.

Although no-one got a Nobel Prize for inventing the microfibre cleaning cloth, one of these, plus a bit of solvent, is the answer.

Luckily Isopropyl alcohol can still be obtained legally in the UK. It’s an excellent way of cleaning computers, smartphones, spectacles etc

Or so I thought, until today, when I handed a pair of broken spectacles to the assistant manager of Specsavers. I mentioned they just fell apart while I was cleaning them. He asked me what I was cleaning them with and I replied, a little proudly, ‘isopropyl alchohol’.
‘That’s what killed them’, he fired back. ‘I’m afraid it’s smack on wrist time’. Specsavers haven’t been to the breaking bad news gently workshop.

Isopropyl alcohol should not be used on certain types of plastic, it turns out. When doctors make mistakes they are called ‘blunders’ in the press. But I’d prefer to call this one just an ‘adverse effect’. No-one is saying those spectacles weren’t clean.

There are probably other friends and relatives remembering that I cleaned their macbooks, wristwatches, phones etc and, come to think of it, they were never quite right ever again.

Isopropyl alcohol might just turn out to be everyone’s perfect scapegoat. ‘The first side of Scary Monsters never sounded quite right after you cleaned it’, people will shout at me. In the years to come the Brexit vote will probably be blamed on accidental exposure to cleaning fluid, rather than the usual ‘death wish’ theory.

To be honest, I cannot really explain my choice of solvent, except that it used to come in a tiny phial, with a cotton bud, for cleaning the heads on cassette tape machines. It seemed somehow so precious. But it was probably why cassettes never sounded very good, not even the ones called ‘metal’.

Like many interventions, from insulin coma therapy to prostate surgery, alcohol cleansing might do more harm than good. I thought that cleaning was improving the world just a little, sublimated baptism perhaps. Instead it was simply vandalism.

Such contributions are part of what I like to call the ‘behaving admirably agenda’, which I see as The Way Forward.

To be honest, I got the idea of behaving admirably from my cousin who lives in Australia. He is fantastically handy at fixing things, so that when he stays with someone, he likes to fix something as a kind of thank you note. For us, he sorted out the little wheels that guide the glass door on the shower. My cousin had taken the best aspects of the Random Acts of Kindness movement, and refined it into ‘specific and targeted acts of kindness’.

Combined with a few other thoughts I was having at the time I came to the conclusion that actions speak louder than words. Partly because Word Inflation has reached record levels. More words are being created and written down than ever before. So that the value of each written word is virtually zero. Take this blog for instance…

There are so many words about that people have taken to rendering them into cloud diagrams, so that words most frequently used get written larger and more often. Our leader, for instance, would just have the words Strong and Stable written over and over again in a very strong and stable font like Roboto Mono.

Our leader can’t even talk a good game. Which brings me to my point, which is that behaving admirably is far more difficult than initially meets the eye.

My idea of behaving admirably, while probably the same as yours, may not be the same as the lady up the road who keeps 14 cats in her bedroom, or the guy in the deerstalker hat who drives his disability scooter at 10mph round Tesco.  

That is perhaps why we have little aphorisms like, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. And phrases like ‘unintended consequences’. (A lot of aphorisms about this year – maybe the warm winter?)

While it is undoubtedly virtuous to pick up empty beer cans from the street corner and put them in the recycling, and indisputably evil to hang little bags of dog poo from tree branches, in between there are huge grey areas of ethical ambiguity. Many behaviours that are taken to be virtuous at face value, such as mindfulness exercises or prayer, could be seen as horribly self indulgent or even narcissistic, compared say with crown-green bowling or topiary.

One good intention that comes to mind is the current campaign to champion the cause of ‘mental health’. Lots of people have been piling onto the mental health bus recently, from the Royals and Prime Minister downwards, toward the self-congratulatory metropolitans who lead our Royal College.  

If we constructed a ‘word cloud’ from the mental health media coverage this year, what would it look like? The phrases ‘examination stress’ and ‘school mindfulness first aid’ would be in 96 font, whereas the words ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘psychosis’ would be written in size 8 Ubuntu Condensed. And you would need an electron microscope to reveal words like ‘Section’ or ‘ECT’.

Whilst accepting that the mental health discourse is a lot broader than that perceived through the half-moon spectacles of traditional psychiatry (smashed, as they are, by alcohol misuse) it looks as though the notion of severe illness has been drowned out of the conversation. Who would think that mental illness tends to affect older people, that it doesn’t always respond to talking a lot and sometimes disables people for years or decades?  

You could get the impression the government was piling money into mental health services, instead of shutting down all the day facilities, closing wards and sacking community support workers.

The mental health movement is well intentioned but it is all based on words. In particular the notion that the more a person speaks, the more his problems will be solved. Instead of talking, people should try behaving differently, or even admirably. Instead of shouting at your IAPT low intensity worker, why not clean the rubber bits around the washing machine door and the top of the fridge? I have just the solution for you.

Words are just clouding the picture, like the view you get through contact lenses cleaned with alcohol and cotton buds.

Sorry about that.

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