74. You can’t face your fears with clogs on.


Its not fast but it can be furious.


Wise decision-making usually involves finding the Sweet Spot. On a golf club, the sweet spot is the area on the face that needs to come into contact with the ball. In life, the sweet spot refers to the best compromise between competing considerations. It might be a Ford Fiesta, it might be Bishops Stortford or it might be Jude Law. It depends on your parameters and your budget.

For travelling upward in buildings, the sweet spot is the escalator. Stairs are too tiring and elevators are claustrophobic, if you have a tendency that way.

How do you measure a fear of elevators? In metres of height, perhaps. Or storeys. How many flights of stairs will it take for you to opt for the little box – I nearly said coffin – instead of the stairs? For me, its about 8. To some extent that depends on the lift itself, how crowded it is, how likely is it to break down, and in the event of a breakdown, how long would it be before rescue? There’d be other factors too, such as whether you had your angina spray handy, your catheter in, what shoes you had on etc.

It pains me to set this down in writing, but I once had a pair of clogs; don’t ask why, it was the eighties. Entirely the wrong choice of footwear, it turned out, for a lift-phobic working in a multi (but less than eight) storey  hospital with slippery stone stairways. There’s almost no way of appearing nonchalant tumbling down a flight of stairs flinging X Rays and blood samples in all directions. Even House couldn’t have done it.

Will clogs ever return? I doubt it – the sweet spot for footwear is Airmax. Not WoodMax.

Or just possibly JesusMax, i.e sandals, if you’re in a hot country.

I just came back from India, which has put quite a few things in perspective. My problem with closed spaces for instance has been entirely sorted out after a few trips on the Delhi metro system.

There’s a theory going about, tested in Scandinavia, that if you removed all the road signs and traffic lights, the traffic would sort itself out quite safely, everyone edging forwards, slowly and gingerly, taking care to avoid other vehicles and pedestrians. The same unfettered system seems to work in Delhi, even though the Scandinavian model is played out on 32X fast forward, as though Benny Hill had become transport commissioner.

In Delhi, the auto-rickshaw hits the sweet spot for personal transportation. It’s cheap, it’s fast enough and if you stop for a moment there’ll be one next to you. There’s a nice breeze. It’s a thrill a minute, too. If I’d had cigarette papers I wouldn’t have been able to insert them into the gaps between the traffic (and I might have fallen foul of the new litter laws, too).

It was worth the trip though, to meet so many fascinating and lovely people, such as writer Murad Ali Baig.

Murad writes about motoring, Indian history, religion and many other subjects*. He’s putting the final touches to a book called ‘The Hijacking of God’, which is a brave enterprise now that there is such turmoil in the religious stock markets.

I found that Murad had been down a similar road to myself in assessing the cost effectiveness of whiskey. The good stuff is better than the ordinary, but not ten times better. I think its a version of the law of diminishing returns. The sweet spot for whiskey is towards the budget end of the market, though not quite Tesco blue stripe. Murad tells me that after 6 weeks of aging, the whiskey has matured. Sure, after 12 years it’s better. But not a hundred times better.

One of Murad’s themes is that religions started reasonably enough with excellent principles like peace and love, but soon fell victim to endless tiers of middle men like priests and mystics.

Soon it becomes clear to an outside observer that the religion is operating largely for the benefit of its own employees, who become relatively rich and powerful. The middle men create a false expertise, creating and interpreting myths and symbols, eventually leading to the Spanish Inquisition, TV evangelists and Robert Langdon.

Though one cannot entirely blame a religious ideology for the antics of its practitioners there are lots of parallels between the hi-jacking of religion and the misdirection of other worthy enterprises, such as charities and health services. Typically the primary goals of these organisations are to sustain themselves rather than achieve their stated aims.

Professions create a closed shop, hogging certain activities to themselves that were previously open to anyone.

I’m not sure where we would find the sweet spot for religion. We visited Jain and Baha’i temples, mosques and cathedrals and they all have plus and minus points. It doesn’t do to get too fussy about religion, but I can’t help thinking there’s a gap in the market. Something that does good weddings and funerals without too many food and clothing restrictions. Something that lasts about 40 minutes per week. Something non-violent, yet which permits hedge-cutting. Perhaps the Religion of Nike, where the only rule is ‘just do it’.

If Murad took a look at Psychology and Psychiatry he’d soon spot the mythology. True, there is no setting fire to lambs. True, there are no dietary restrictions, beyond the heavy use of Ristretto. The only vestments are tweed jackets.

But when it comes to Jargon, Gobbledegook or what UKIP would probably call ‘Mumbo Jumbo’, I feel we have now gone one ahead of the god-squad. There are sweet spots in psychotherapy, but such gems- such as REBT – are often shrouded in mystery.

For our ‘Agoraphobia’ we have ‘Graded Exposure in Vivo’, which means taking the elevator up one floor, or ‘Flooding’, which means getting on the Delhi Metro at Central Secretariat station at 9am on a Monday morning. Immersion in the train is a kind of baptism. Once you’re on there’s no turning back.

Though those trains are the most crowded spaces I have ever experienced, after a short while I felt surprisingly calm. I think it might have been the sudden announcement that the train had facilities for charging your laptop. I’d have given the Nokia a bit of free juice, that’s if I’d been able to move more than half an inch in any direction.

Sometimes your worst fear happens and you just laugh. Thank you Mr Nike for keeping it simple. I just did it.



*Murad Ali Baig: ’80 questions to understand India’, Tara Press.



50. Taking Canadian Living more seriously.


First, cement each of the six guitar strings to the guitar. Then, cement the guitar to the James Blunt figure. Now, cement the James Blunt figure to the tank controls…

When I was about 7, I had a book called ‘365 Things to Make and Do in Nature and Science’. To be honest, many of the projects were frustrating, as it was difficult to obtain the necessary parts and materials, some of which were quite exotic. In our town it was very hard to obtain, say, an old altimeter from a WW2 German bomber, or a tin of gunpowder. There was also the obvious problem of leaving one day relatively unstructured during a leap year.

Until now, I have never questioned the idea that Doing Something is a worthy use of time, as compared with Reading Something, or Watching Something. But now, typing with a bandaged thumb from an unfortunate slip of the Stanley Knife, tennis elbow on both sides, from excessive screwdriver and spanner activities, and lower back pain from heavy lifting, I’m forced to ponder whether it’s time to say goodbye to B and Q and that new yellow brick road I was planning.

The Nike slogan, ‘Just do it’, is now 25 years old. People were tougher in the eighties – if coined now,  that slogan would come with a number of provisos and safety warnings, such as adding: ‘once you have checked with your cardiologist’ or  ‘providing you are Corgi Registered’.

Though Nike do not state this overtly, their motto asserts a behaviourist stance on life which I interpret as follows – you are what you do. There is a worthy theory underpinning this outlook, stemming from the psychology of self – perception. From what we find ourselves doing, we infer who we are and what we stand for. I am sitting at a computer, wiping blood off the spacebar, so I am a dedicated writer. If I had a Scotch, a full ashtray and a loaded revolver on the desk I’d be even more dedicated.

Last year, as further evidence of a shift from behaviourism toward ‘cognitivism’, Nike took the ‘just do it’ campaign in a new direction: Possibility.

With ‘Possibilities’ we’re taking ‘Just Do It’ to a whole new place, showing people a new way to set goals and think about their own athletic potential’

Thinking about our athletic potential is quite cognitive. If you are taking a penalty shot or serving at tennis, the last thing you want to do is think about possibilities. Probably the one time David Beckham thought about possibilities was the time he shot the ball twenty feet above the crossbar.

Apple’s campaign ‘Think Different’, invented in 1997,  also seemed to pursue a cognitive path. 29 famous ‘thinkers’, such as Albert Einstein, were included in the campaign posters. But if we look more closely at the list, we see that many if not most of the ‘thinkers’ were actually artists or musicians, i.e. people who held tools in their hands, made grooves in vinyl or canvas and left a legacy of artefacts and occasionally accidentally cut their fingers. In fact, none of those featured in the ads were Philosophers, unless you count Kermit the frog.

‘Here’s to the crazy ones’, ran the script,  ‘The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo’.

The script seems to owe something to Top Gun, where, rather lazily in terms of character development, the hero was named Maverick.

We probably know many such mavericks, but they have never become well known or achieved much, because they thought too much and didn’t do enough. In Britain they would mainly be described as harmless eccentrics. On the other hand, those who made it into the ranks of Think Different were prolific doers. Alfred Hitchcock made over 60 movies for instance; Bob Dylan made over 40 albums.

Maverick couldn’t wait to get catapulted off an aircraft carrier and frighten the MiGs.

I just collected a Depression Leaflet from the doctors while I had my finger looked at.

In the ‘what can be done?’ section there is a bit of practical advice as follows:

‘Vary your normal routine, get out and about if you can, keep occupied if possible, if you can’t sleep, try watching TV or listening to the radio.’

In search of useful things to do I turned to ‘Canadian Living’ magazine. I found an article called ‘Fifty good deeds for fifty days’, which borrows a little from the Random Acts of Kindness movement.

Like ‘365 things to make and do’ however, some of the materials are hard to find. For instance I have no ‘well behaved dog’ to take to visit elderly people, nor any fresh cut flowers to leave at a nursing home. If I happened to buy some pet food at the supermarket to take to the local animal hospital, I’d probably buy something they weren’t allowed, like cream buns.

I’ve come up with these ideas instead, which I’m hoping Canadian Living will publish:

  • Wearing a salvation army jacket and carrying a clipboard, feed parking meters that are about to expire – not for Audi drivers though
  • Get everything out of your food cupboard and throw away any packets with a sell by date before you were born, or 1963, whichever is more recent
  • At Tramshed, in Shoreditch, try and make a citizen’s arrest on Tony Blair.
  • Find a pothole in the road, chalk round it in yellow and report it to Fillthathole.org
  • Place a small whiteboard in your toilet, headed: ‘This toilet was last checked at…’ Then sign with a fictional name and date, such as Attila the Hun, 453 AD.
  • Install Windows 8.1, but first say goodbye to everything you have on your computer, it’ll be like new
  • Phone up Santander Bank at 5.30pm and ask them to answer a short feedback questionnaire, regarding your performance as a customer
  • Phone up the bursar at the University of Leicester and ask for a cash donation towards your holiday in the Bahamas

In other words, don’t just think different – do different. Or differently, if you prefer .