Sunday, 15 May 2016


The current tabloid hounding of actress Sheridan Smith has made me very uncomfortable. This year the British documentary 'Amy' won an Oscar and brutally showed how a talented young woman was celebrated and then eviscerated by the press, media and public. Graham Norton in that film is seen mocking Amy Winehouse on TV calling her "a mad person" - admittedly in a sequence of chat show hosts and comedians that the director, Asif Kapadia has said could have lasted 30 minutes. I'm sure Graham is aware of the sequence in the film, I wonder if he has seen it and what he thinks now. Of course hindsight is 20\20 but its not as if Amy Winehouse was a person coping well with fame , her relationships and her career who could just 'take it'. Her end when it came was tragic but hardly unexpected.

So I do wonder if he thought for a moment before he (and his scriptwriters) made a quip about Sheridan's recent well publicised problems whilst starring in 'Funny Girl' in the West End. Particularly as she was in the room at the time, which of course brings out the old cliché "well if you're in the public eye like that you have to expect these things" but do we? Would you say that to a normal member of the public, would you be so cruel to their face poking fun at their inability to cope in their workplace?

I would recommend listening to the Parish Counsel podcast hosted by Terrance Dackombe and Juliet Harris  in which they echo some of the same thoughts that I have on mental illness, the press etc. but put it far more eloquently than I ever could

Juliet discusses her own struggles with similar pressures in her life to succeed and plough on despite it damaging her well being and health. "(Wo)man up, knuckle down, pull yourself together etc". In the celebrity culture there are so many examples of people who just didn't know how to stop or thought that they couldn't.

Juliet also mentioned the actions she made to cope or deal with the pressure she as under and its this that I would like to throw around here.

Unless you have had to deal with anxiety conditions and depression you have no idea how tiring it all is, how many barriers you put up and different coping mechanisms you put in place to just get through a day.

While at University I often found it hard to walk the 500 yards from our student house to the local pub on my own. I used to take the back way so people couldn't see me taking forever to get there, turning around to walk back, hyperventilating then turning round again to get a bit further down the road. Looking back I am amazed that I didn't have a full mental breakdown at University. I did it all without the support and medication that keep me fairly level these days.

These are just a few of the coping mechanisms I have used over the years

- carrying plastic bags in case I was violently sick
- sitting on ends of aisles in cinemas, gigs for ease of escape
- sitting near the door in rooms/ meetings / lectures for the same reason.
- looking up location of local hospitals on satnav near to where I am working / staying or the event I am attending
- making excuses to avoid eating out and going without food all day before a stressful situation

But most of all lying, lying, lying - to my family, my friends, my employers and of course myself. Not maliciously or in way that they would notice or even care about but just in order to cope with life.
It becomes routine and "normal" after a while and once it's in place that habit is hard to break. It works, it feels safe, the endorphins are released when you run from a situation and the adrenaline tides you over. However your life becomes smaller and smaller until it is a single room with the TV as your window to life.

For me it came to a point where I couldn't use those well worn techniques anymore, they didn't work in the real world of work, responsibility and relationships like they had in the more lax and carefree student days. So therapy and residential care beckoned. I managed to stop before it got too far - I'm lucky I had both the money and support to do that.

You have to wonder sometimes what would have happened if people like Kurt Cobain and Ian Curtis felt that they could just stop for a while, take a break and decide how to make things better for themselves. Yet the press and public appear to see those in apparently privileged careers as stronger and more able to cope with pressure and personal tragedies that bring the rest of us to our knees. Sheridan is apparently taking a break and I hope she gains strength from it and perhaps a way of living that is better for her and perhaps let the bizness not dictate to her anymore.

Sometimes just coping isn't enough as the fork in the road leads to bad or good outcomes and it's hard to know which is best to take.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

That crazy avenue of trees I'm living there still

I understand that amongst Belle and Sebastian fans - the fey stripey topped guys n gals - that 'The Life Pursuit' LP is generally not well liked. Too rockist and mainstream etc with its glam rock leanings: Chicory Tip for 'White Collar Boy'/ Queen's 'Death On Two Legs: for the non-hit single 'Funny Little Frog' and T-Rex in general for 'The Blues Are Still Blue'.

'Another Sunny Day ' however remains one of my favourite pop songs from its jingle jangly 60s guitar intro to its name checking of The Shangri-Las 'Past, Present, Future'. Covering the arc of a love affair from steamy windows to crumbling in the dark it has so much to recommend. The liberal use of the 'F-word' is a feature of the album and in the case of ASD the phrase 'the referee gives us fuck all' is e hoed sweetly. A less contentious word - herbaceous makes a rare appearance in popular song as does 'peninsula'. 

I love the richness of the language in B&S songs - 'your dark mascara bids me to historical deeds' 'There's something in my eye, a little midge so beguiling / Sacrificed his life to bring us both eye to eye' that you don't get outside the average Morrissey lyric sheet. The dreams of romantic love during those first hot flushes of a relationship "babies, rings and fools kneeling \ And words of pledging trust and lifetimes stretching forever" fade away. Its a reflective and sad little gem this song. When I last saw them live they played it and my heart leapt

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

My heart still turns over when I look in your eyes

I was lucky enough to attend Kathryn Williams (yes, her again) International Songdriting Retreat down in Stroud recently. Guests included Marry Waterston,  Tom McRae, David Ford, Romeo Stodart, Graham Fellows aka John Shuttleworth aka Jilted John (yes, I did take my copy of the JJ True Love Stories LP complete with snakes and ladders board with me to get signed, No, I didn't have the bottle to ask him), Michele Stodart, Teddy Thompson, Sam Parton of the Be Good Tanyas and others including Kath's support for the tour and piano wrangler for her set, Astrid Williamson.

Over the years I've seen Kathryn play she has consistently had opening acts and collaborators that impress and make me want to see them play full sets - in the past this has included Clayhill with the much missed Gavin Clarke and Michele Stodart whose new album 'Pieces' promises to be a belter as evidenced in one of the songs she played at the retreats end of week concert.

You know you always hear those stories of someone going to a small club , a singer getting up to play a new song and it being something that will go on to be a world shagging standard? Well, Astrid sang 'Scattered' and I thought it already was. I remember thinking "is this a Joni Mitchell track that's not on 'Blue'?" as that's about all the Joni I feel I need not being too much of a beatnik jazzer. It's also reminiscent of Carole King but I'm pretty down with her oeuvre. 

It was, I suppose, quite rude of me to think that Astrid was playing a cover on a night dedicated to fresh writing but I hope she doesn't hold it against me. Yet in a night of great performances and tunes, 'Scattered' just floored me and made me weep.

From the opening "I wish I was braver" which is a constant prayer in my head I was mesmerised by the way the song ebbed and flowed like the protagonists will to break free from a bad relationship. Lyrics so insightful and cutting to the heart, soaring in the chorus 'when your heart shatters and scatters like glass / it spreads into the future as well as the past" - it hits something deep inside, the truths we dare not tell. 

There is such a mixture of longing, strength and vulnerability in Astrid voice,  yes I know that doesn't make sense but let me try and verbalise these feelings. She inhabits the song, as if it were a dramatic piece. That's how she draws you in, by convincing you that what up ate hearing is honest and "real". No not "authentic" or "genuine" but a simple beauty.

Astrid hopes to tour later in the year with a band to showcase other songs from 'We Go To Dream' which have varied and inventive electronic and edgy arrangements. But I hope she keeps 'Scattered' as a solo piano number as it packs a hell of an emotional punch to the senses.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

It beats....I am I am I am I am

On her recent tour, Kathryn Williams described the song 'Beating Heart' as the "underdog of the album - which is why I like it so much" encapsulating the British cliché of supporting the less lauded participant - in this case of her 2015 album 'Hypoxia' based on characters in Sylvia Plath's novel 'The Bell Jar.

Personally I don't see the song as the weakest or less important on the record - it is perhaps the quiet, eye of the hurricane that is the main protagonist Esther's mental state. Ed Harcourt's inspired production of the album contains subtle and effective atmospheric touches which frame the songs perfectly and 'Beating Heart' is no exception. Kathryn's own ghostly backing vocals and the echoes at the song's coda along with the eerie childlike piano is delightfully dreamy. It's stealth and stillness is it's steely strength. Kathryn's central vocal is perfectly judged in it's loving understatement as if the lyric is a shameful secret or admittance of weakness and brings to mind Kurt Cobain's spine-chilling performance on 'Something In The Way'.

'Beating Heart' deals with two of Esther's suicide attempts in the novel - one by drowning, one by sleeping pills and how despite her best efforts that her body, her spirit and her heart endure. The reverbing repeating "I Am I Am I Am, I Can, I Can I Can I Can" are flipped into self doubt "Am I? Am I? Am I? Can I? Can I? Can I? Can I?" as her heart and mind battles over her sense of reality.

The album and this song in particular have been a foothold in life for me recently which I guess is why I am sticking up for the underdog, the quiet moment, the silent prayer and the less trumpeted. I will explain why but must say two things (1) it's taken me about a dozen goes at writing this and it still might not be how I want it but I have to get this out of me and 2) this is to let you know where I have been NOT where I am heading.

So I had spent about a week just coasting zombielike through work, barely talking to anyone, just existing, driving miles without the radio or CDs to interrupt the constant negative self talk in my head. The antiseptic nature of social media had separated me from my friends where a "like" or "retweet" covers for any genuine effort at contact.

In my time off and because sleeping was becoming harder by the day I wrote letters to people. Full of things I wanted to say, things I wanted them to know that I couldn't say because people aren't open to such sentiments until a person dies. I always find it unfortunate that people only stand up to say good things about their friends at their funerals, rarely to them when they have the chance. There was a lot of regret but also love and thankfulness in those letters. Plus of course suggestions of how to deal with all the records - let's face it.

So I was pretty much set to go.

I'd decided just to act like it was a normal day, although a bit abnormal for me as I was commuting into London for work, not something I usually do or dread like those who have to do it 5 days a week, like, forever. I left home with notes and letters laid out where they could be easily found.

Standing on the station platform I had chosen the time when a non stopping Paddington bound train was due. I can't recall hearing or feeling anything as I stood near the edge, not close enough to arouse suspicion but ready. I was just numb.

It was still dark so I saw the lights of the train as it rounded the bend. The "this train does not stop here" announcement must have been made but all I could hear was my own blood pumping in my ears. It really was the oddest feeling. But there was something else as I looked down at my feet on the yellow line. I was scared.

All week I had felt a sense of relief and longing when I thought about not being here anymore - wanted to be free of the pain and agony in my head. Yet at this last moment I knew that I couldn't and wouldn't do it. Maybe I was caught up in a self pitying drama of my own making, I don't know. I did think of some of my friends and this added to my doubts.

So I stepped back and the train whizzed past.

The rest of the day was a bit of an autopilot daze but when I returned home I shredded the letters. Over the next week my depression withdrew and I started to look back in horror at what had nearly happened. The self doubt that had pushed me towards that end now punished me for thinking of it in the first place.

I've done some thinking and writing (both personal and to medical professionals) since then and have a much firmer grasp on what I should do if I feel myself sliding to dark places again. It's an on-going process but I need to get the balance right. I still have the same feelings of loneliness, lack of self worth and rejection but am trying to do what I can about the things I can change.

I'm sure any of my friends reading this will scold me for not reaching out to them for help but it's not a thing I can do easily. I'm naturally shy, inward looking and self isolating i.e. my own worst enemy. This is why the suicide rate is so high amongst men of my age because we can't say "help" without it sounding like failure. We only break when it all gets too much and often no-one can stop us taking a fatal step.

But that's not where I'm heading.

And I promise to all that have offered me support that I will get in touch if I feel I am unable to cope on my own. I won't feel good about doing so but I won't let it get that bad again

So although 'Hypoxia' isn't an album about metal health, it and particularly the song 'Beating Heart', for me, is a rallying call to you sense of self. That whatever life throws at you, your body, your spirit, your chi, your mojo, your life force will not let you throw away this improbably amazing gift that is your life.

Because a heart beats on its own
Plotting out the times to come
It knows it can
It beats
I Am, I Am, I Am, I Am, I Am