70. Reporting soap shortages, before they get serious.


A poster reminding people, in several ways, that they are too old.


The techno-thriller genre gave readers a thirst for irrelevant information. It wasn’t enough to say someone travelled on a Boeing 707. You had to hear about who made the engines, how the landing gear was inspected by a man with a set of tuning forks and how the pilot’s socks were monogrammed in alpaca by a silent order of nuns in Seattle.

The behind-the-scenes stuff became obligatory for thriller writers – quite a feat before the days of google. Presumably, Forsyth and Clancy spent huge amounts of time visiting airports, submarines and arms factories, asking people, ‘what does that yellow handle do?’

The most obvious spin-off has been the increased number of adjectives we find in grocery products. It’s not enough to say Oven Chips. You need to give them a bit of character development:  Maris Piper, thrice-fried, goose-fat oven chips, at the very least. And even then, you’ve said very little about the goose. People want detail nowadays.

Another consequence of the increased audience for background information is the ‘Troublehooter’ style of TV series, started by John Harvey Jones and continued by the likes of Gerry Robinson and Digby Jones.

A man in a striped shirt and hard hat wanders round a huge factory, shaking his head slightly, asking every now and then: what’s that thing for? As a TV show, it’s a tired formula. But, as a metaphor for personal growth, it’s got potential. The striped shirt man is a therapist of sorts. He’s an independent expert, but he’s neutral and polite. He’s robust and challenging, but he’s kind and might even hug you, though you’re still getting fired. Like a certain type of clinical psychologist, he’ll make you a flow chart, showing you which arrow is missing, such as the one between Theakston’s Old Peculiar and poverty.

It could be helpful to get someone to troubleshoot your life. But what about businesses – can an outsider really understand them? Does expertise in the field really matter?

Troubleshooter appeals to people who like to look behind the scenes and are disappointed that Arthur Hailey died before he could write ‘NCP Car Park’. Ironically, the Troubleshooter himself is not the slightest bit concerned about forged composites or digital motors. He’s looking at the system as a whole. He’s drawing Venn diagrams and talking about Synchronicity, just as though it wasn’t the worst Police album.

Gerry Robinson wants the NHS to have more centralised reporting systems, like the food industry:

‘Imagine a McDonald’s in Leicester, say, where things are going wrong. Perhaps the wrong number of chicken nuggets are being handed out, or the washrooms aren’t supplied with soap. These problems would show up immediately via a weekly reporting system which compared its performance against every other McDonald’s in the country, and you’d have a senior manager down in days to sort out the problems’.

Gerry’s background is in catering, so he’s comfortable with that model.

But, senior managers never visit NHS units, partly for fear of infectious disease, but largely because it would never occur to them to do so. Boards and Hospitals are different planets, with different atmospheres and gravitational fields.

Whereas the coffee available to senior managers comes out of a capsule machine, the coffee provided to wards comes out of industrial size tins labelled Maxwell House. It’s Maxwell House, Jim, but not as we know it.

Whereas NHS management premises are carefully protected behind air-locked entry systems and fierce receptionists, anyone can walk, unchallenged, into most hospital departments, including intensive care units and even operating theatres. This fact is portrayed in countless thrillers, where assassins get a second chance to finish someone off by stealing a white coat and strolling in.

As further evidence that NHS Boards and Hospitals are separate worlds, consider the fact that boards comprise upwards of 12 members, only one of whom is a practicing clinician. Does Gerry not think this is a bit odd? Does he not realise that Boards and Clinicians, like matter and antimatter, must never come into contact with each other and if they do, the universe will be annihilated?

I am not a management guru. But even I can spot the key differences between Macdonald’s and the NHS, such as Product Range. Which leads me to ask: who troubleshoots the troubleshooters?  It suits managers to propagate the notion that it doesn’t matter much what the company does or makes, that you can move between Catering, Television, NHS and it’s all the same. But often, the detail is what matters most. John Harvey Jones forecast the demise of Morgan for instance – he just couldn’t understand how cars could be made of wood. It’s not a mistake Tom Clancy would have made. He’d have known all about the aerospace properties of ash.

Whereas thriller writers regard craftsmanship in awe, managers regard it in contempt. In a techno-thriller, the emperor’s new clothes would be made of kevlar. And the boss would know what the yellow handle did.

To be fair to John Harvey Jones he did tell the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire that his strategic plan was ‘a load of bloody cobblers’. This comment pretty much ended their foray into footwear repairs.



62. Displaying the pottery fish, with pride.


My alarm clock rings to tell me it’s behavioural activation time, also known as Nike Therapy, which means just do something and think about it later, if ever.

My eventual aim is to re-write the classic publication ‘365 things to make and do’ in an updated style to suit these post-ironic times. Also, I’d like to add a 366th project before 2016, which is the next leap year.

Today’s project is to shred a few copies of the NICE guidelines for Depression, mix them with PVA and turn them into hats.

As I shred, I realise that these guidelines do mention the term ‘behavioural activation’ but don’t explain how to do it. They say nothing about arts, crafts, music or hats. Which is surprising, given that there is a long tradition of arts and music therapy in mental health.

My hypothesis is that people need to do something with their hands to feel properly human. Manual work, crafts and organised sport have declined, leaving the hands as mere vestiges of devices that once could dig or sew or fire an arrow. Most people still prefer a mouse to a touch screen, when there is a choice. Many people still prefer a manual gearbox, even though automatics are now superior in all respects.

I have another project coming along which is more complicated. This involves taking photos of bits of stained glass windows, printing them in different sizes, using all the different, clichéd image filters in Pixelmator (such as the ‘ennui’ tool), tearing them up and sticking them onto a collage, which in itself looks like a stained glass window.

For some reason I’m having trouble (as though it was the printer’s fault rather than incompetence on my part) getting them printed at the right size, so they are coming out like postage stamps instead of A4.

If I had to give this activity an hourly rating for mood improvement, I’d have to rank it slightly below checking the lawn for cat faeces, collecting it on a special trowel and flinging it over the garden fence onto the railway line. But it might improve.

Either the picture is going to be postcard size, saving a lot of PVA, or I’m going to have to ask a teenager how to resize the images. Or perhaps find an art therapist, just to check whether this whole activity is artistic or not.

There are no art or music therapists in my local area and come to think of it, none in the hospital where I work. This demise of arts and crafts based therapies has been insidious and largely unreported. This seems like a pity, and I wonder who’s to blame.

Somewhere or other, the mental health establishment has got the idea that ‘therapy’ has to involve a bus journey across town to speak to a person in an office for about an hour once a week for about 20 weeks. True, these activities are evidence-based to an extent. It’s just that the evidence has been collected along narrow strands of enquiry, being derived mainly from a ‘clinic’ context.

No-one has bothered to see whether listening to good music or watching football or making rhubarb crumble can treat Depression effectively. And imagine the practical difficulties in conducting such studies.

Therapies where numerical ratings are intrinsic, such as computerised CBT, have the advantage in terms of generating evidence of improvement. They have largely taken over from other modalities, leaving a long queue of psychoanalysts at Jobcentre Plus.

There’s perhaps a lesson to be learned from Interpersonal Psychotherapy, (IPT). This therapy was invented by Klerman, Weissman and colleagues in the eighties. It’s a standardised approach with a proper instruction manual, which makes it amenable to testing. In particular, it was tested against drug therapy – in those days mainly tricyclic antidepressants.

Its designers were highly scientific individuals with an excellent grasp of the various different ‘models’ of Depression: biological, family, cognitive, psychoanalytic, feminist etc. They knew how to fund and conduct controlled trials and publish the evidence properly. And thus IPT is one of the two types of therapy that NICE bother to endorse.

Compare that approach with a study by Mike Crawford in 2012, purporting to show that weekly attendance at a group arts project had no benefit for patients. I quote:

‘Members of activities groups were offered activities that did not involve the use of art or craft materials’.

My italics, meaning ‘why on earth not?’ It’s not the full Blue Peter, not without the sticky-back plastic.

This is what the new version of ‘365 Things’ should try and achieve – a standardised arts and crafts therapy manual. So we can finally show that meaningful activity is good for people. Each task should be spelled out clearly, like in Marguerite Patten’s 1000 favourite recipes.

And include proper materials like policy documents, shredders, glue and paint. For a long time the surest way to upset an occupational therapist was to mention basket weaving. Now, I say it’s about time for a raffia revival. And it’s time to display the pottery fish, if you’re lucky enough to have one.



 Detail from Queen of Heaven, by M Healey, 1933, St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea

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.

8. The age of Sprocket Man.


Is the modern world inherently toxic to our bodily systems? Niall Ferguson included Work Ethic as a killer app for society. It is certainly a killer, but in a more literal sense.

The body uses countless timing devices to regulate itself. Obvious examples are the night and day cycle, the heartbeat and brain waves.

Systems theory teaches us that everything has a point of equilibrium or natural balance. Most things have a natural frequency at which they like to vibrate. Some cars like to cruise at 50 mph, some like to cruise at 90 mph. Generally, the more German the car, the faster it likes to go.

Many systems have a feedback mechanism of some kind that puts them back to their default setting. On the road system, large potholes have been left like landmines to deter overenthusiastic driving.  Inspired by the ‘safety car’ concept in Formula 1, our government has paid an army of older gentlemen to drive at a constant 42mph all over the country, to keep speeds down. As a uniform, they wear trilby hats. These are only worn when actually driving at 42 and never outside the car.

Farmers have received grants from the EU to bring their otherwise redundant farm machinery out onto the major highways at peak times, similarly to check undue haste.

In our neighbourhood we have learned to beware a vehicle we call ‘the Stealth Renault’. Painted black, this innocuous 1980s model is driven by an extremely old person (or a person disguised that way), in second gear at a constant 30 mph. His trick is to give you the impression that he will stop or is stopping at your pedestrian crossing.

He never stops though. Like Sandra Bullock in Speed, he maybe believes a bomb will go off if he drops to 29.

He is a road safety bogey man. He never ratified the green cross code. He is there to teach children never completely to trust traffic lights. He may in fact be a dummy, the car actually being driven by remote control from a university psychology lab, as part of a learned helplessness experiment. Or maybe by the authorities, to keep us a little on our toes.

After all, we may be getting a bit complacent. Such close encounters with terrorists like Stealth Renault are relatively rare nowadays. It is surprising how routine most activities have become. The post office queue stands patiently, First Capital Connect arrives on time, the Sky box records your favourite programs. I appreciate that other societies and parts of the world are different, but the UK, with the possible exception of Doncaster, has adopted a ‘no drama’ policy.

Isaac Newton taught us that every action is met by an equal and opposite reaction. Every time I turn the heating control down another person will come and turn it up to a point slightly higher than it started originally. The body has a similar system in the hypothalamus, which can be used if thermal underwear is not available.

In larger systems, such as the NHS, an attempt to make a change will be resisted with significant force. Employees in large organisations tend to work like small cogs in a gearing system. If the small cog gets out of line the whole gearing system will crush it back into place, a few splines missing, but still turning.

A lot of ‘choice architecture’ is set up this way, large systems with high moment of inertia. Franchised models and low variance operating schedules ensure you will find the same shops and restaurants in every town.

Why not put the Hugo Chavez T shirt away and just coast along with things? People are living longer after all, and the television screens are getting bigger, sharper and cheaper all the time.

Why is it then that so many people seem to be unhappy? A recent survey by Unicef suggested that children in the UK are among the unhappiest people anywhere.

‘Pressured and commercially vulnerable, our kids are the most miserable in the industrialised world’ spoke the Guardian. People have blamed a mixture of possible causes, from inequality to the demise of the nuclear family.

Blur titled an album ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ and I find myself quoting that to people whenever there is a spectacular system failure, such as getting stuck in a 20 mile traffic queue, or trying to pay for parking using a mobile phone.

Another line I find myself saying is ‘everything is relative’. There are many compensations in modern life.
It is the best time ever for ease of communication. Even Captain Kirk did not have a smartphone.

Food is at once the best and the worst it has ever been, depending on whether and how you choose your ingredients. I went to the Turkish part of London yesterday and had an amazing breakfast for £5.

A car made in 2013 is undoubtedly, objectively and measurably superior to a car made in any earlier period. It is faster, stronger, safer and more economical than before, and it is never mustard or beige coloured.

This is probably not the best period for music composing, which peaked in the classical period. But it is the best time for listening to Beethoven or Mozart, or any other music, because we have fabulous sound quality in concert halls and from hi-fi systems.

The best novels ever were probably written in the nineteenth century. But we can read them all free now on a device that weighs half a pound.

The renaissance period gets the prizes for painting and sculpture. But they did not have antibiotics or dentistry.

Teaching was probably better 50 years ago than it is now. And, as we know, History ended in 1989.

Different systems peak at different times. It s hardly likely that all systems will peak at the same time. That’s having your cake and eating it; or finding the M25 is completely clear all the way round.

If you happen to be lucky your system suits your natural frequency, and you will run smoothly. Your system will mesh with other systems and you will spin freely on your bearings.

If you are unlucky, like most UK children apparently, you are not in tune with your system.

For instance we know that children function better if they start school at 10 or 11 am, but our local school makes them start at 8am. The problem for children is that their system runs subordinately to every other system, so that they are made to fit in with adults rather than the other way round. The more your system is subordinated to others the less chance you will be in your own element.

The advancement of the system devoted to economic productivity has marginalised children, along with the old and sick, to the bus replacement services of life.

Children cannot vote, after all. They are just lucky that they don’t have to sweep chimneys any more. Worse than chimneys though, we have breakfast club and afternoon club, not to mention the dreaded school bit in between the clubs.

David Cameron said today that he wanted to place himself on the side ‘of hard working people who want to get on in life’.

What about those people who yearn for a life of recreation and entertainment? Shouldn’t all those machines and mechanised systems have made it possible not to work so much?

A big category of mental health diagnoses is the so called Adjustment Disorders. These come in various forms, including depression and anxiety. They are usually mild and transitory and reflect what many people loosely refer to as stress.

They can be seen as a wrench caused by a change of system, much like ‘frozen points at Guildford’ delayed Reggie Perrin by 11 minutes each morning. If frozen points cause a complete derailment, then the Adjustment Disorder is upgraded to a more serious diagnosis like Depressive Episode. A lot of depressive episodes also seem to follow adverse, or even positive, life events, which have caused a crunching in the gears.

The concept of mental health problems being stress related is attractive and easy to understand. But it only tells a part of the story. Most people are robust when it comes to negotiating changes.

Perhaps they have a wider tolerance to a range of operating conditions, so they are more often in their comfort zone.

A comfort zone is supposed to be a behavioural state where we are happy and confident and working reasonably well.

Some people work on their comfort zone more actively than others. Attributed to golfer Gary Player is the phrase: ‘the harder I practice the luckier I get’. Specifically referring to shots played out of sand, Player mastered the shot to the extent that he was equally comfortable in the bunker as on the grass.

Round about the time Player made that quote, in the sixties, psychologists developed the theory of Learned Helplessness.

Psychology nowadays keeps a bit quiet about these sorts of experiments -suffice it to mention the words electric shocks and dogs.

Later on, with the move from behaviourism to ‘cognitivism’, the negative effects of helplessness turned out to be more to do with a person’s pessimistic explanatory style than the actual experience of not being in control. This led to the idea of hopelessness, and the relationship of that state to suicidal thinking.

The issue is not so much whether we really have control over what happens to us, but more whether we think we do.

Studies in Ireland have shown that patients with Depression like their therapist to take an upbeat and optimistic stance with regard to whether and how much recovery will take place.

I remember a moment when, as junior doctors, we observed the arrival of a very senior colleague, in a severely dilapidated Ford Escort. It was trendy at the time for the psychotherapy – orientated type of psychiatrist to drive ‘crap cars’, such as this one or the Austin Maxi (mustard colour). As we watched, another SHO colleague put this scenario to me:

‘Imagine you’re in the depths of despair. You have been tried on every type of antidepressant. You’ve tried counselling and psychotherapy. You’ve had herbal medicines and homeopathy and transcendental meditation. The GP finally arranges a visit from the leading specialist at the teaching hospital. You watch through the window, and you see in the distance the Professor arrive in his Escort, which has large furry dice dangling from the mirror. Is that not the moment when suicide seems inevitable?’

Harsh perhaps. Equally, people might like to see someone eminent arrive in a non pompous vehicle like a 2CV covered in stickers or an original Beetle with vase. I can’t remember any specific training on what vehicle to drive, although an older colleague insisted that consultants should only ever have Michelin tyres, ‘never Goodyear my boy’.

To return to the point, the feeling of having a choice matters a lot, even if in the wider scheme of things, the biggest choice we really get is between Diet Pepsi and Pepsi.

The comfort zone is largely a place where we choose what happens to us. A lot of people want to move us out of our comfort zone.

It’s true that we will be more productive if we are challenged just a little. Coaches know that a mixture of support and challenge can bring about superior achievement. The same approach can work well in therapy, for instance treating a phobia. If the comfort zone has got too narrow then it needs to be carefully increased.

Unfortunately, in most organisations, the challenge is greater than the support. The pressure is always on to squeeze a little more out of the system. Supermarkets want to get the milk off the farmer for a few pennies less. The farmer turns the cows up to 11, giving them more food, or playing them some Led Zeppelin at milking time.

The effect of the larger and more dominant system on your system is felt as disharmony, or being slightly behind the beat, or as a little ping in the ears. Your system might be different.

Interestingly, this is exactly the kind of disorientated feeling that makes us purchase something – retail therapy – or consume some alcohol – drug therapy. The work ethic is all about ‘must’ ‘should’ and ‘ought to’.

It all depends whether we want to make superior achievements or just be happy with what we have. It’s not a choice we seem to get very often. Even the illusion of choice is worth a lot though. Turkish breakfast. Mozart. Thomas Hardy. And, today I think, Diet Pepsi.

The comfort zone is equivalent to driving at 50mph.

It’s better than 42. It might even be better than 52.


PS: It looks a bit like this one.