39. Dropping hammers, more carefully, onto mobile devices.


Do you wake up sometimes, look into the middle distance through the dull overcast November weather- 10 degrees Celsius, wind speed 9mph, 50% chance of rain – and wish that things were just a bit more extreme?

On the one hand, political correctness limits what can be said or done on the traditional left and right of the political spectrum. On the other hand, some religious factions – you know who you are – have ‘gone off on one’ with terrible results. Single-issue campaigning represents a window of opportunity, but even the most popular campaigns, against badger culling and wind farms for instance, tend to lose traction.

Shouldn’t Brian May be more concerned about bringing out a brilliant solo album, people ask? Shouldn’t any form of electricity be gratefully received, taking form, as it can, as light, music and warmth?

As the day goes on, opportunities to do anything extreme are surprisingly limited. True, Ladbrokes seems to be open all hours, but some kind of pheromone operates to keep people out. There is no fragrance called Loser.

One of the easier outlets seems to be Sport. It’s not uncommon to see someone running several miles before breakfast. It’s not unusual to see a cyclist powering his way round the peak district. Most of us would be exhausted just putting on the Lycra. Let alone even consider proper extreme sports, like snowboard chess and water cribbage.

The psychological roots of extremism are probably highly varied. One likely culprit is the mechanism of Denial, where the mind tells Reality, quietly and firmly, to shove off. It’s the mentality that puts a cup cake display on the gym reception counter. (Yes you, Hilton by Doubletree, Chester.) It’s the approach that leads to dropping hammers on mobile phones to test their durability. As though Isaac Newton had never existed.

Most people with Depression or other mental health problems resort to extreme therapy at times. In fact there’s a massive history of ‘heroic remedies’ in medicine, mostly deriving from the (bogus) four humour system, which ran for nearly 2000 years, from Galen to BeyoncĂ©. Favourite approaches included purgatives, bleeding, cupping and cautery. I’m not sure what cupping was and I’m too squeamish to look it up. People still do ear-candling, which sounds similar, and this could lend itself to extreme versions, now that we have petrol.

The military have contributed enormously to extreme thinking. They have highly disciplined physical training programs, but also extravagant headwear, like the Busby. The military tend to suffer from PTSD, which is an extreme type of anxiety disorder, and they favour gung-ho treatment options, like eye movement desensitisation, instead of the gym and cupcake regime preferred by anxious civilians.

Treatments for mental health have of course taken extreme paths at times. Insulin coma and ECT are two obvious examples in terms of physical treatments. There are still psychiatrists who get fanatical with antidepressants. While most people with Depression struggle to get even adequate drug treatment, there is a small group who get battered with mega doses and multiple combinations that would leave the NICE guidelines in tattered shreds and probably smouldering.

Psychological treatments have also got extreme from time to time. For instance Primal Scream Therapy, which led to John Lennon’s worst album. And Flooding therapy, where phobias are treated by facing the feared item full on (one of the few occasions when tame spiders have found useful employment.)

More recently we had so-called ‘Assertive Outreach Teams’, who visited you whether you liked it or not. Like the doomed squad in The Wild Geese (ditto Clear and Present Danger), Assertive Outreach have been abandoned by HQ and stood down, with some still behind enemy lines.

Most people have a little voice in their ear that says, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you’. It’s enough to stop ordinary impulses, like pressing Amazon’s very frightening ‘buy with one click’ button, buying anyone’s second album, or biting a green chilli. It would be nice to have a health advisor along similar lines, possibly in the form of a mantra or an app. Luckily, there are warning labels everywhere, like the one that says not to put cigarette ends in your petrol tank.

CBT gives us a framework to collect our thoughts and examine them from different perspectives. CBT will tend to reduce extreme thoughts and move them back towards a sensible perspective. As such one criticism of CBT is that, if implemented on a massive scale, it could bring about a very bland society. Someone will say, not Tony Blair this time, that there are three basic values – moderation, moderation and moderation.

In which case how will resistant depression get treated? And who will seek out and follow up our reluctant service users? Above all, who will test our phones against the laws of physics?


27. Saying sorry, properly, to Desmond.


Everything is permitted.

One of the projects that Blue Peter never attempted was to set up your own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That’s a pity, because a TRC in your own home would be a lot more useful than, say, a separate dining room or garden shed.

Taking the example of South Africa, it looks as though we need three subcommittees: human rights violations, reparation / rehabilitation and amnesty. The first one looks at what went wrong, the second at what can be done to put things right, and the third invites further business from those who want to confess.

It’s worth making some space around the home for the proper infrastructure. Very few people, even catholics, go to confession in church nowadays, and the shortage of mobile priests has led to a decline in the domestic confessional box market. Modern architects wouldn’t even know how to design a priest hole. Most people consequently don’t get much opportunity to take a long look at their behaviour, with the help of a moral philosopher in antiquated neckwear.

Whereas the confession box requires a twin booth, soundproof module with a tiny curtained window – even Homebase seems to have stopped selling them – a TRC unit can be much more transparent and even Scandinavian-looking, in light wood.

The South African prototype required at least 18 people. The domestic version has to make do with a few co-opted members. Its unlikely you’ll get Desmond Tutu, but a distant relative from Canada, or another country with an impeccable human rights record, might be available. Failing that you can try a community psychiatric nurse, mobile hairdresser or peripatetic guitar teacher.

The agenda is to bring to light all the mistakes you have made and the transgressions you have committed; admit you would have done things differently if you had thought about it a bit more and hadn’t drunk so much; you’ll mend anything that you broke, once you get your giro and if there are replacement parts available; and you’ll accept a reasonable penance suggested by the committee.

Something similar has been developed by therapists, in particular so-called ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ or ACT. Instead of conducting a battle against negative thoughts, ACT helps people forgive themselves for their human frailties in return for a positive attitude toward the future. It looks like an attractive antidote to all the hypocrisy and  finger – pointing we are seeing nowadays.

It’s a bit like confession, but it has to be said, confession has several advantages. Firstly the church has a ‘walk in centre’ approach to confession, so there is no waiting list. Secondly, anonymity is preserved, unlike Therapy, where you will be shopped if there are public safety considerations. And thirdly, the penalties – typically two ‘Hail Marys’ – are really very minor in comparison with those a domestic TRC will hand out, such as taking everyone out to Prezzo.

In confession you are really pleading guilty to Original Sin, but with ACT it turns out your sins are entirely unoriginal.