52. Finding yourself and more importantly, your keys.


A picture with a mental health sort of vibe, suitable for a leaflet, no sensible offer refused.

Two girls walk slowly to school alongside each other, both talking into mobile phones, possibly to each other.

A man in the public library, reading the newspaper, who moves his finger along the lines of print and whispers the words out loud.

An electrician, talking to his assistant, explains what he is doing as he puts in a new fuse box. He deliberately gives himself little electric shocks at times, explaining that this is something you should never do.

A man clutching a can of Special Brew, talking loudly, seemingly to no-one, as he staggers down the high street.

A kid, pretending to be CIA, talks into his sleeve at quiet moments during a history lesson.

I’ve been observing people talking out loud, and – heresy! – I’m just wondering if there shouldn’t be more of it.

Here’s another unpopular view – I always preferred the original release of Blade Runner to the subsequent versions, simply because of the Marlowe style spoken narrative. We’ve had ‘the final cut’, but I hope there will be more versions, for instance, a musical, with tap-dancing robots.

All this stems from the realisation that we are all several people in one. The idea that we are ‘an individual’ is handy for practical purposes, such as issuing passports and driving licences, but manifestly an oversimplification. Discarding for a moment oddities like multiple personality disorder, we spend a lot of our time in different modes of operation.

Dreaming, day-dreaming, fantasising, imagining for instance. Set on autopilot as we drive to work, often not remembering all the mini roundabouts and small mammals we drove over. Or reverting to chimp mode when there is a perceived threat.

In people who suffer from psychosis, this potential for multi mode operation has been called ‘double bookkeeping’. The ancient example is a patient who is deluded that he is the King, but is content to mop the hospital floor as a day job. Real life examples are frequent enough. One of my customers thinks he is the most senior officer in the British Army, but he is happy to work in the snack bar on a voluntary basis.

There is no need to be psychotic to indulge in double bookkeeping. The phrase ‘creative accountancy’ goes back a long way. Look, for instance, at the target culture of the modern regulated public sector, where information is routinely falsified. I even had trouble typing that word, falsified. I wanted to type ‘spun’ or ‘distorted’ or ‘laundered’, such is our reluctance to attribute malicious motivation. To call someone a liar is a serious insult and perjury can carry a jail sentence. Are all these managers and civil servants who cook the books consciously aware that they are lying, or are they using a series of mental mechanisms to justify themselves?

My hypothesis here is that it is easier to lie in a diagram or a document than it is to lie out loud. Speaking out loud seems to engage bits of mental functioning that are more careful and scrutinising. If you lose your keys, if you speak out loud the word ‘keys’, you are more likely to find them. Hearing yourself out loud seems to kick the awareness level one layer higher.

Apparently negotiations go better if you speak in the first person and include some ‘feeling’ words. If you happen to citizen’s arrest a former prime minister, be sure to mention you are disappointed with some of his bombing decisions and surprised that he thinks he can walk freely around Shoreditch, amidst Hipsters.

If you appear in court, and you hear yourself swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you probably will. Talking to yourself is the new talking to someone else.

And that brings us to new technologies, like Siri and Google Now. If you hear yourself say, ‘is there a good japanese noodle bar round here?’ you will immediately realise that you are being silly. You don’t like noodles and you’re in Rotherham. You don’t need the latest phone, or any phone at all, you just speak into your sleeve.

That’s got implications for psychotherapy, and for the church, which has never successfully marketed its Confession product. If the magic ingredient is simply speaking out loud then you don’t really need the therapist or priest. You could dial 111 and explain your problems over the phone – just unplug it first.


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.