Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Half a life

I thought it might be time to take a look at how my novel, A Half Life of One is getting on as it drifts aimlessly around the blogosphere.

The site which hosts the novel currently gets around 8-10 visitors a day, the vast majority from Free Novels Online. Many of these visitors are from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. On average one to two visitors a month start reading the book. Pleasingly, the vast majority of those who start the book actually finish it.

If you remember when I started this blog - as a promotional vehicle for the book - I set myself a target of enticing 5 readers in total. So in a sense I have achieved everything I set out to achieve.

And yet still I'm not happy.

Obviously that original target was way too low (though still more ambitious than if the book languished unread in my desk drawer). Does it matter if anyone reads the book? Well, I'm not interested in money or fame or indeed any kind of public approbation. I simply want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to read my book because I think it has something interesting to say about the human condition. That being the case, I need to give some thought to ways to promote the book better.

I guess there are two main channels for doing this. Online and Traditional publishing. I'll look at both over the next few posts.

Monday, July 24, 2006

On being robbed

While I was away I discovered I had been robbed.

Someone had stolen my identity while I was in Prague a few weeks back. As a result they were able to access an online account for one of my credit cards. They knew my date of birth, my mother's maiden name, where I worked. They cracked my passwords. They diverted e-mails sent to me to their own address. They phoned the credit card company and attempted to obtain additional information about me. They started using my card.

This is pretty scary stuff believe me. Fortunately, the credit card company realised something was up. For a start, they didn't think I spoke in a foreign accent.

What worries me was how the thief had found out all that information about me. Had I revealed too much on this blog? I'm not sure. Maybe they got hold of my birth certificate. Most worryingly of all, perhaps they're still here, lurking silently in the depths of my computer, a cancerous virus pulsing malevolently, waiting to pounce once more.

As I've said before, it's a dangerous world out there.

When the plates come crashing down

While I was away I spent a lot of time thinking about Minx's advice to stop spreading myself too thinly and to concentrate on what I really want to do in life.

It's good advice, of course. In fact, I remembered that I tried it once before.

Back in the mid-eighties I sold the businesses I was then involved in and took time out to write full-time. My wife continued to work and I became a house-husband and took a greater role in looking after our two young kids.

My main fear was that I would fritter away my time and not do any writing. I needen't have worried. Fear tied me to the keyboard. Every day between 9 and 2.00pm I plugged away at my novel. It was about corruption in the oil industry and had a host of extraordinary characters, based on people I'd met in the industry.

By the time a year had passed I'd completed the first couple of drafts of the book. I was also climbing the wall. I was lonely, isolated and suffering from sensory deprivation. I realised I could never tolerate the solitary existence of being a writer. I got myself a job as a business advisor. Within the year I had started another business - one of the ones I still own now.

After a suitable interval I re-wrote the book and sent it off around the publishers. No-one wanted it. I re-read it recently. It is rubbish, totally lacking in any kind of merit whatsoever, not even worth filleting.

So that's why I'm a little apprehensive about becoming a full-time writer once again.

Sneaking back

Well, I've had a quick look round and it seems to me that JTA has left the Pundy House pretty neat and tidy after my week away.

Thanks, JTA. Maybe you should consider setting up a Bloggsitting Service. I enjoyed reading your posts - you'll be a hard act to follow. In the meantime I'll just lower myself into this old rocking chair you left me...

Saturday, July 22, 2006


Drove three hours up to Pennsylvania this morning, to pick up a rocker and ottoman we’d bought at the Renaissance Festival last year. The arms, frame and rockers are black walnut, and the back and seat are formed of six by four by two inch cherry blocks, all webbed together with white polypropylene rope, which you can’t see. The maker measured me for it, so it’s a big version of a big design. It didn’t look too bad at the Fair.

I started to realize how big it actually is when I had to get it off the truck by myself. At the woodshop Gerry and I just boosted it up, no prob. Alone, I could lift it but it was in peril. Finally settled on standing behind it in the truck bed and lowering it inchwise to the ground.

From there it was the mad waltz to the door, which, it was immediately apparent, had to come off. It didn’t miss by much, but certainly enough. No way.

Very well, off with the door, only the storm door, eight screws. Drag the ridiculous fucking monstrosity into the very house. Now, we live in a house built circa 1860, by Virginians, farmers who, strangely, didn’t seem to get enough protein in early life to reach full human stature. (Once they were deprived of their slaves, they disappeared entirely.) And they built to suit: ceilings upstairs were sixty inches until we raised the roof.

The headpiece of this…chair…is two thirds of the way to the ceiling. The thing looms in the corner like the seat of some vanished Saxon king. Sundown lights the cherry blocks gold.

I resolutely forbid myself the question “What did we do?” Instead, I set myself down in it, lean back. It’s like sitting on nothing. The blocks distribute your weight so evenly you only feel half, if that. Very soon, I’m drifting off, my arms falling perfectly to its wide, polished ones, and who cares how big it is.

I jump back from the edge of sleep, get up to look at it again. As it assembles its own collection of pillows, blankets, throws, etc etc , it will no doubt begin to look more familiar and inviting, but for now it sits there like a very well-dressed stranger talking business in the parlor. I almost feel like serving it coffee, offering it a drink.

Instead, I settle back in to see if I wasn’t imagining things before. I’m going to have to check this thing out very carefully.


Friday, July 21, 2006


I found a bunny head on the back porch this morning, neatly severed at the atlas, next to a perfect drumstick and thigh. There was a smear of blood, but a surprisingly small one. That was all. The eye was clear and brighter than I liked. Claire, our cat, moseyed out and looked away.

“Nice,” I said. I was carrying the newspaper, so I used the plastic to gather up the pieces. Claire watched. “Very nice.” I did realize it was a gift, but I really didn’t care. “Beautiful.”

“Well, I’m a predator, dumbass.” I think I may still have been sleeping.

“You’re a ridiculously overindulged housecat.”

“A ridiculously overindulged predator. Schmuck.”

This was really too much. “I’m really getting tired”—winding up—“of the names, okay? And how many times have I told you that if you do manage to kill some hapless little crippled creature you are not to drag it onto the porch? I don’t like it. I don’t appreciate it.”

Claire straightened herself up and seemed to make an effort to look suitably impressed. “Tell me about it.”

“I know you do it as a gesture of submission, because you love us. But we really—“

“I do it because it’s my nature to do it, not because I love you. I don’t even like you, particularly.”

“Tell me that while you sit in my lap getting your neck massage.”

I swear she shrugged. “You’re warm. You’re softer than the floor. And you have the smelliest urine.”

“My epitaph.”

“Don’t get morbid.” She stretched, managed to convey exactly how tiresome it had all become.

“You have to stop killing these animals. Bells. Do I have to say more? Or else we feed you till you can’t move.”

“Did you say something? Are you trying to break my heart? I could probably deal with that, actually.”

“You could?”

“What’s the downside? Give it your best shot. The tuna’s passable.”

“So.” This was too easy. “Do we have a deal?”



“Sure…” She closed her eyes.


Thursday, July 20, 2006


I missed a very important appointment today, one I really didn’t want to miss. An old friend was passing through town for two days, and we were supposed to get together in the afternoon/evening, just to talk, and then end up at the airport. She lives in Seattle, half a world away. We’re in sporadic touch, but we don’t get a chance to see each other. Both of us considered this to be a precious opportunity.

We should have known better. First I got a call—last-breath changes to a book I’d edited, which had to be done, now, for well-known mad-dog Magna Authoresse, whose radiant smile looks like a row of urinals decorated with shreds of raw meat. Can’t miss her. She also pays well. Of course, you have to pay well to get people to work on books that use exclamation points for bullets.

So we did the miracle. As the afternoon crawled by we jerry-rigged the whole slumgullion into something that would contain her very latest nuggets and still fit into the already spec’d wrappers. And all the while my friend, full of grace, waited patiently for a call that never came.

A call that died twenty times. Simply died, no voice mail, no caller ID, no—proof.

And of course the traffic was a gothic horror. Everybody going to the airport.

She left a note at her hotel desk: “Sorry it didn’t work out. Next time, OK?”

Yeah. Okay.


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Juju, Please

I’m sitting in my workshop/shed/studio, watching my monitor fade in and out as demand for electricity grows. The air conditioner chugs along gamely, conditioning precious little. It’s 101.3F outside, give or take. Watered extra this morning, the basil has ceased screaming for mercy and begun to cringe. The garden sends up scattered puffs of dust. Even the birds are wilted.

Power has gone out twice today, which presumably will culminate in a more serious, more protracted outage later.

Still, it’s better than the floods. Less messy.

Breathing the air is like breathing tweed.

The heat pump, sounding like a fifty pound cicada, hasn’t shut down all day. It’s nice in the house. Cool, even cold, if you sit around long. The good computer’s inside, cool, edge, while out here there’s just this old ’98 machine, a pretty good typewriter/dictionary. The reason I’m out here enduring the elements is simple: out here I can smoke while I type.

This isn’t simple perversity. I can’t seem to find the keys I need unless I’m squinting through a ribbon of blue Virginia smoke. With it, I’m dead accurate. But it’s more than a question of dexterity. Smoke has become part of the psychic space I need to inhabit as I approach writing, part of a chain of conditioning that leads to the fingertips on the keys. At times I’ve given it up, and things didn’t work quite correctly, even after a year. I always felt about three degrees off. Now I limit it to parties and studio time. Bad, I know.

But I’ll bet everyone does something, some little indispensable juju, to get the jujuices moving. I, for one,, could stand to find something workable, so if you’d care to share…


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Yard Sale

There was a yard-sale in town a couple of years ago, early spring. The usual stuff. We bought some books, and spent a little time at the "Growed and Goed" table looking for cheap and disposable toys for Zelly, the then brand-new granddaughter. Maybe a funny hat, or some cool sunglasses. We were about to leave when I saw it, a beat-up black beauty.

I had no idea I wanted, or would ever want, a compound hunting bow, but now I did. I picked it up, an old friend. Drew it. "Don't dry-fire it," the man said. "Bad for the lam'nations."

"Right." I eased the string back to neutral. It had a ranging sight, with six steps. I couldn't believe my luck. "How much?" I asked him. I'd never held a serious bow.


"Done." It came with an archer's glove, four 385 grain aluminum deer arrows tipped by murderous razors, and a T-shaped trigger thingy that grabbed the string and allowed a perfectly smooth release. There was simply no excuse for not buying this.

I hied me to the greenwood at the first opportunity, carefully laced on the glove, and started trying to murder a nearby maple. No danger there. Nothing touched that tree that day, nor the next and--well, you get it. I spent more time searching for arrows than improving my aim. An intuitive sort, I immediately surmised that this was probably going to take a bit of practice.

But practice didn't help. I'd been careful not to move the range steps, but the sight seemed to bear no relation to any target I might pick. Finally, reasoning that I couldn't possibly do any worse using only my own, flawed judgment, I took it off. I found a target with my own two eyes, a stump, about 18" across, about 35 or 40 yards out. I stared at it until my eyes burned, then drew the bow. When I could see through the stump, I let one go.



Monday, July 17, 2006

The R Word

What do you do with them, the long-awaited, always neatly printed messages that arrive at last in our own familiar envelopes, to turn our hopes to ashes at a glance? I doubt you throw them away. If you're like me, you put them somewhere out of the way, to languish in the dark with others of their spotty kind. A friend of mine once papered a guest lav with rejections from the New Yorker, patiently varnishing them up one at a time. It was quite impressive when done, and it didn't take that long. Probably raised the property value, too. By the time the upstairs was papered he'd almost succeeded in drinking himself to death, but he got it done. Both.

One certainty: no matter what you do with them, nothing will make them hurt less. And that's the question I'm asking here. How do people handle that pain, administered with less than numbing frequency but repeatedly, predictably, with no quarter earned by prior success? Even the most successful writers face it all the time.


Do we begin to think of the rest of the world as a parade of idiots who wouldn't recognize quality if it stepped on them at the beach? Or do we begin to think of ourselves as idiots, and go back and tear our lovingly crafted work to bits, trying to reassemble the shards into something that might approximate "what they want?"

I myself simply withdrew from the market. I didn't stop writing, excepting short periods, but I didn't send anything out. The poems of mine that Pundy put up were the only things I'd sent anywhere for almost twenty years. Now granted, poems are different than fiction. Poets have no real prospects to begin with. And we like it like that, strangely. But for others abandoning the market is a non-starter. So, what do you do?

C'mon. 'Fess up.


Sunday, July 16, 2006


Went down to the Shenandoah one morning, early, expecting just the river and maybe some birds. The sun hadn't been up an hour. I saw a speck upstream out in the middle, coming around a bow, a flash of color. An umbrella. Then I saw that it was a person, a very fat person, wearing a red straw sunhat, in red and white striped bermuda shorts, riding an inner tube that must have been from a tractor, to which were tethered a brace of white styrofoam coolers, which floated along behind, loyal retainers. If he didn't weight four hundred, he weighed nothing.

He was reading the paper. The Washington Post. There is simply nothing to be said about an incident like this. You think, as I did, watching him float pharaonically by, that words--any words--would categorically fail. And you'd be right.

You'd still, however, have words themselves.

But now George W. Bush, surely a dude who knows which end of the bong to drink from, has just given a press conference with Mr. Putin.

Words, once the pretty tokens we used to transmit meaning, are now totally useless, having lost any relation to any antecedent reality.

Heaven help us. There is nothing more to say.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Changing the subject

I hate to change the subject, so I won't. Depression, wasn't it? We've taken a look at it over the past few days, and discovered it's well-nigh universal, seemingly a fact of human life, or at least of writerly human life. It takes us all down different paths through the same shadowy forest. It comes and goes. It's reliable, if not exactly predictable. All well and good.

But we seem to have taken it for granted that there's nothing to be done about it, nothing much good. Waiting it out--a non-answer--looks like the best answer. The pills make us someone we hardly recognize and don't particularly enjoy, the shocks make us forget too much, or make us unsure what, if anything, we are forgetting. The talking cure just yammers on and on. The remedies are as bad as the disease.

So how do we cope with it? All of us have strategems, I'm sure. If you've found a way to snap yourself out of it, even temporarily, please share.

The one thing I've found that always helps me is a large jolt of adrenaline. Hate to be crass, but getting the living crap scared out of you does wonders for depression. It works. I hate the way it feels, but as the stimulation clears, the depression does too. Immediately the minutes cease to be a burden, and reveal themselves to be the precious, irreplaceable, one-time-only gifts they actually are. - JTA

Friday, July 14, 2006

Walking the dog on a chain

My bout of serious depression gave me the first draft of my novel "A Half Life of One". I consider that to be a very fair bargain indeed.

It wasn't a perfect exchange. I've said before that I consider the main failing of the book to be its lack of colour: it's all shades of grey. That's how I saw the world at the time, and even now the landscape sometimes seems a little bleached. I've re-written the book many times (I guess around twenty) but I've never been able to add the tones I wanted, the different hues, to give it added depth. No matter. The book is finished now and I'm happy with it.

I read once, long ago, on the blurb of a Scott Fitzgerald novel something to the effect that "he writes of despair but his style sings of hope". That's exactly the effect I wanted to achieve - I wanted to be up there with Fitzgerald. But I'll never be as good a stylist as him - I'm just not that talented. There is no hint of redemption in my book. But my book is okay because out of my despair I got the chance to create something unique. How lucky is that?

Emotionally I guess I'm back on a pretty even keel these days. Okay, occasionally a bit manic, a bit over the top, but in a drab, scary world, so what? We have a little fun don't we, and if there's a price to pay, well, there's always a price to pay. I consider it worth it. The low level stuff I can deal with. Even the stress. Without stress there is no life. I'm enjoying the challenge of trying to become a normal human being. And hey, I think I'm winning.

When I was at my lowest in life I read a book which, rather surprisingly, gave me hope for the future. The book was the autobiography of Phil Silvers - the man who played Sergeant Bilko. In his middle age Silvers suffered terribly from depression. It nearly killed him. He could find no cure, no relief. I think, from memory, this period lasted seven years or so. He was at his wits end, close to giving up. And then one day he woke up and the black dog had vanished. It never came back.

So there is hope, isn't there? There's always hope.

I'd like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who left their Comments on the various depression-related posts over the last few days. I know how hard it is - and emotionally draining - to pluck up the courage to bear one's soul on this topic. Thank you.

I'm going to be away for a few days - I need to recuperate after all this confessional stuff, apart from anything else.

John Ahearn - the poet guy - has kindly agreed to look after the Pundy House in my absence. I've given him the keys even though he's a complete neophyte at blogging, he's extremely sensitive and thin-skinned and what he writes doesn't always make much sense. But please, don't give him any less consideration than the zero tolerance you afford me.

He's American so hopefully he'll tell you all about hominy grits, and good ole boys and his buddy George Bush and how to brand animals and make moonshine and guacamole and all that good stuff.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Long Tail

There's a really excellent review in yesterday's Financial Times of "The Long Tail" by Chris Anderson. Mr Anderson reckons that the internet is creating endless choice which in turn is stimulating endless demand. That's probably not quite true but what is certain is that the internet is changing the nature of the market place. Nowhere more so than in the publishing and selling of books.

For example, whereas WalMart stocks 4,500 titles in its average store, Amazon carries 800,000.

But the really interesting statistic is that in the US in 2004, books selling more than 250,000 copies sold 53m copies in total. Those selling under 1,000 copies totalled 84m. That's a very long tail indeed. Small print runs are where the real money is. That has to be good news for any aspiring author.

The Hounds of Hell

This is my last post on depression per se, although tomorrow I'll round off my thoughts by describing the many positive aspects of the illness and why, in the end, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Clinical depression, though, is no joke. You can guess the symptoms easily enough. In my case the main ones I remember were total inability to sleep; my mind was on fire 24/7; endless suicidal thoughts; abject, black despair; total inability to concentrate; weight loss; hair turning grey virtually overnight, etc etc etc. Of course, the real victims were the people around me; my wife and two kids. The physical symptoms persisted for about two years, the mental ones for another three. The aftermath a lifetime.

Once again, the cause of my depression was my business. I did something really stupid in that I took on a load of debt just as the price of oil was going through the floor. The odd thing is I knew I was making a mistake but it seemed easier to go ahead with things than it was to pull out. In a way too I felt I was fated to fail, this was to be my big penance for past sins, the sins of the world. I went ahead with the borrowing. A big mistake.

There was something exquisitely cruel about the British bankruptcy laws at the time. To borrow so much money I gave personal guarantees to the bank and put my house up as security. As the price of oil dropped work in the oilfields dried up and suddenly we were losing money. Big money. Cash flow turned negative with terrifying rapidity. And there was no way out. You can't shift a machine shop. I faced losing the house and paying off my debts for the rest of my life. The bank would also take a large share of my wife's salary for ever after. She never wanted wealth and somehow I had saddled her with debts she would never be able to repay. I felt, quite rightly, a terrible sense of guilt. To find out what it's like to be in that situation go read A Half Life of One which I started during this period.

I spent my days and nights endlessly constructing scenarios that would enable me to survive. I could concentrate on nothing else. I entered another world, a kind of purgatory in which every terrible day felt like a lifetime. Yet no matter how hard I looked I could find no answers except one. Suicide. That was all I could think about. I'd worn my brain out. I'd become a hollow man. It was like I was sitting in the audience watching a play. I could see myself going through the motions but I wasn't really there. I was watching a living ghost.

But I couldn't commit suicide either. I couldn't bequeath all my unsolved problems to my wife and children. That would be wrong, unspeakably cruel, the ultimate betrayal. And because they blocked my exit I began to blame them inwardly. I had done it all for them, tried to make a better life for them and now they had betrayed me. I was trapped. I didn't tell them any of this of course. Even today I never discuss business with my wife. I'd made my own private hell and I had to live in it.

If I was an idiot to get myself into this situation I was a genius to survive it. I've analysed what happened many times, the way I ducked and dived, the tactics I employed to keep the business afloat, the ruthless way I put survival above everything else. Because the business did survive. I don't know how. I did the impossible. Even today I don't understand how I managed it. That phase of my life lasted about two years. I couldn't do it again, my body wouldn't stand it, my mind certainly wouldn't.

Mentally I remained a basket case for another three years or so. That was a dangerous time. The temptation to tidy up the loose ends and take the easy way out was always there. Today, the mental scars remain but the business is in rude good health. Every time the price of oil goes up our profits rise.

As far as my mental state was concerned I was lucky, of course. The reasons for my attack of severe depression were obvious and understandable. And soluble. As the price of oil rose and the business revived my depression gradually lifted. I survived. Other people are not so lucky. My mother suffered from severe depression for most of her life. There was no obvious cause and certainly no apparent cure. Although she made my life a misery, and the lives of all those around her, it wasn't her fault. I hated her but I also pitied her. No one deserves to suffer like that.

Anyway. That's enough depression for one day. Tomorrow, all the good things depression can bring. Honestly, for once I'm not joking.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Attacks of Mid Level Depression are usually triggered by some sort of external event, mostly to do with my work. For many years my job as a director and part-owner of several companies has completely taken over my life.

I think about work all the time - that's what I'm paid to do. Because I'm a thinker not a doer I've surrounded myself with people who are hands-on types. My job is to provide the platform to allow them to perform. Generally speaking I arrange the finance and provide the strategic input. I keep a loose hand on the tiller. They get out there and make the money. It's a good arrangement except that it leaves me with too much time to think.

Once a month - on or around the 15th - I suffer the agonies of a sort of management menstrual cycle. That the time when we get our management accounts, showing whether we have made a profit or loss. I usually have a pretty good idea in advance what the figures will show but it's still a time of extreme tension. Not just for me. In a small company everyone in management lives or dies by these figures.

If we make a loss - in any of the seven or eight companies I'm involved in - then I will be plunged into the deepest gloom and depression for at least a month. Feelings of dread, of hopelessness, the total destruction of my self-esteem will follow. I'll suffer sleepless nights, loss of appetite and sexual drive, my concentration will be shot. There'll be panic attacks, irregular heartbeats, headaches and sometimes dizziness. I'll drink more even though I know that alcohol is a major depressant for me. Everything tastes of dust.

But no-one will know what I'm suffering. I'll become someone else. It's an act I've perfected over the years.

I am the leader and one of my primary roles is to maintain morale. I always tell the guys that it doesn't matter if we make a loss - provided we know why it has happened. When we know why it has happened we can fix it. Generally, within a week or so I'll have analysed the figures, taken a closer look at the business and implemented the necessary corrective action. I'll feel a little better at this point but the tension will still be building while we wait for next month's figures. If they don't show an improvement the gloom will deepen. Three bad month's in a row and we're all suicidal. I'll have to work really hard to keep everyone motivated.

Actually, I think my reactions are entirely appropriate for someone running his own business. In some ways it is a matter of life and death. We are, after all, talking about peoples' livelihoods here. This isn't a game.

Whether anyone in their right mind would want to subject themselves to such a regime for so long is an entirely different matter. Maybe that's why I'm selling some of the businesses. I can't handle the stress of failure the way I once did. My nerves are increasingly ragged. I'm shell-shocked and war-weary.

Then there's the other problem, the one that exacerbates the situation. When I am that depressed and stressed out I simply can't concentrate long enough to write even one cogent sentence. I can't even face the challenge required to make a simple entry in my blog. I can't write at all. And that makes me more depressed. And so it goes.

Clearly the answer is to change my job. Maybe. When we're making profits (which with the price of oil is most of the time just now) I am euphoric. The figures validate my existence. I can walk on water. I can laugh and joke with the best of them. I can write all those witty entries in my blog that make me giggle out loud. I am the head of a happy team, a truly great bunch of people. I am loved and universally admired. I am as happy as anyone can be who suffers from persistent Low Level Depression.

Except that I am continually worrying that at any time something unforeseen could happen and at any moment it could all turn to ratshit.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Minx, this is for you

Hi Minx, I know you've been discussing your favourite music over on your blog.

Well, go visit YouTube, type in Joni Mitchell in the videos section, scroll down to "Amelia", pour yourself a whisky, press the play button and then tell me if this isn't the most beautiful thing you've ever heard.

Daddy Cool

You may have read in the Grumpy Old Bookman recently of a blog called Sound of Meat written by a guy called Daddy Radic.

Daddy R is a convicted felon who recently sold the church of which he was a pastor. Without, I understand, the agreement, or knowledge, of his flock. I presume he has also been unfrocked as a result. Oh, and he bought a BMW with the proceeds, so he does have some saving graces.

I've also heard from Daddy R a couple of times after he visited this blog. I replied to one of his e-mails and as a result I find I have been inducted into the Anti-Christian Christian Brotherhood and Social Club as an affiliate/unofficial member. I am, naturally, honoured.

Daddy R's blog is pretty off-the-wall and Daddy R himself is a little, er, unusual. But he is certainly entertaining and original. And he does know how to market himself.

Go visit his blog. But think twice before you invite him round for tea.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Yep, that's something else I suffer from. When the nights grow longer my mood darkens. But it doesn't have to be that way. Every season has its own sweet beauty.

Poetry is a great way to see how beautiful the world can be. So I'm going to cheer myself up by posting another poem from my favourite poet John Ahearn. Over the past few months John has sent me - at my behest - a whole bunch of poems. Most are pretty good. Some are works of pure genius. I've told him (as has the Minx) to get his own blog and post them up for everyone to enjoy but he won't do it. Well, I guess he has his reasons. Anyway, here's one I really like, the elegiac mood gives me hope for the future. Hell, I might even start to look forward to the Autumn.


by John Ahearn

How we longed for spring in those days.
Vigilant for any sign of thaw,
we thumbed a dated catalogue of grays,
but the carbide calendar was all we saw,
and we knew the dogged snow was here to stay.

By March we took the weather for the world,
thought the windowpanes had always been
that craquelure through which the frozen pearls
of vain and repetitious sun went thin,
the eyes of languishing Rossetti girls.

So we were always taken by surprise
at the first turning day, almost afraid
to trust the rumors of renewal in the skies,
snow whitening, slinking into shade,
the first distant, migratory cries.

But we couldn’t doubt the orgy of increase
enacted everywhere in the ardent light,
and something in our blood that hated peace
responded to a world arrayed in appetite,
drummed in our winter vessels for release.

And when the warm rains came we danced,
mindless, barefoot, pagan and profane;
washed in the rush and babble of deliverance,
we missed the admonitory strain
nested in the trees’ incessant sibilance.

Within weeks we were praying for an end
to the chain of salamander afternoons,
furnace days we were condemned to spend
imprisoned in refrigerated rooms,
competing for recirculated oxygen.

But then came the first September chill,
a blissful, desiccated shiver of relief,
a harvest note that shook the trees until
we autumn creatures gloried in the brief
catastrophe of blood and chlorophyll.

Though soon enough we grew accustomed to the show,
checked our watches, knuckled back yawns
at the maples’ summer-stock fortissimo,
ambled home to rake our stricken lawns,
longing for the first enchantments of the snow.

Now, doesn't that make you feel good?

Below the radar

In many ways Low Level Depression is the most corrosive mental state of all. Because it is there all the time you learn to live with it. You accommodate it. You accept it. You come to believe that this is the way the world is. You give up the fight.

I often justify my submission to the condition by quoting the old story that anyone who can see the world for what it is really like is bound to be depressed. I have a morbid interest in famine and floods, massacres in Darfur, petty crime and vandalism, terrorism, oh, you name it and I'll claim its iniquity to myself. It's all part of my original sin. The bloody history of the world is the monkey on my back, the price I have to pay for being a human being.

But when I think about it, maybe I've got this the wrong way round. Maybe it's because I am depressed that I'm interested in these things, forever seeking stark confirmation that this world is not a place I want to inhabit.

There are things I can do to alleviate the condition. Writing for sure. Writing anything. This blog, for example, has been a Godsend. Although, as ever, it is a double-edged sword. If I'm in low spirits virtually any task appears impossible. Writing a post that people will find interesting can be a terrifying challenge. On days like that nothing seems worthwhile. What is the point of it all? is the recurring, unanswerable question that raises its ugly head when I'm presented with even the most trivial task. And writing a blog isn't trivial. Fortunately, that's when the Comments section often comes to my rescue. Visitors to this blog are generally nice, warm human beings. They say nice things. Sometimes it feels safe to reply. Visiting other blogs too can help a lot. You realise you're not alone. You find the courage to write again.

Other things help. Exercise for sure. Walking, almost obsessively, over the hills, walking miles, many miles, writing novels in my head, an incessant dialogue with myself, trying to figure it all out. Music too, yes that has its place.

Oh, and then there's the humour. It is undoubtedly a defence mechanism. Not just my protective carapace but a shield I present to people around me, to arm them against my desolation. The humour can get a bit manic for sure. And repetitive. Tiresome too I expect. But making people laugh - in small doses, I can't perform for long before I'm exhausted - gives me real pleasure. Fleeting pleasure maybe - everything is fleeting - but deep and worthwhile pleasure nonetheless. Getting a joke down on the page is a source of genuine satisfaction, something worth doing. As I've said in another post, there will be lots of humour in my next book whatever my mood while I'm writing it.

Unfortunately, as well as being corrosive, Low Level Depression is clever too. It causes me to shun anything that might give me pleasure or happiness. You may have noticed that I don't always reply to Comments. There's a devil inside me stopping me. Too much humanity isn't good for me. Don't get too close. Don't seek the comfort of strangers. So forgive my silence on these occasions. Something is biting my tongue. On other occasions I'll deliberately stop writing even when I have something interesting to say. It's a sort of psychological self-harm.

Other examples of self-denial include, at various times, giving up coffee, fishing, sailing, reading, and golf. A newly-retired friend of mine recently said to me at a party that he and I would now have plenty of time to play golf together. My wife looked at him askance. "If it will give Bill pleasure, don't expect him to do it," she responded. Her reply really shook me. She was right. I hadn't realised it but I wear an invisible hair shirt. It's like I'm doing penance for something but I don't know what it is.

When I'm feeling a bit lower than normal I sometimes sit back and ask myself what do I really want in life. And sometimes the answer is nothing. That's when I know I've moved on to the next level of depression, which I'll talk about tomorrow.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Who let the dogs out?

In an earlier post I mentioned several subjects I would be covering in this blog. To no-one's surprise I guess, "Depression" provoked easily the biggest response. So, finally, I'd like to take a look at some of the ways depression has informed and shaped me as a writer. Hopefully, as fellow writers, we'll be able to share your experiences and maybe later we'll look at the way other writers have developed strategies to cope with the illness.

In speaking openly about what is such an emotive subject I need to make it very clear at the outset that this post is not in any way a cry for help or sympathy. I'm very comfortable with where I am at with the illness and most of the time I believe I have it under control. The black dogs are usually safely in the kennel, even if they are continually straining at their leashes.

If the subject doesn't interest, or affect, you in any way, you may want to skip the next few posts and come back when the party at the Pundy House starts again. More than likely, the only people who will find the discussion remotely interesting will be anyone who has read my novel A Half Life of One and who wishes to gain an insight into the extraordinary mind of an author who can write such a bleak and depressing book.

Before I can begin to examine the ways depression has influenced my writing I will attempt to put the illness into some kind of context and also try and define the varying degrees to which I am, and have been, affected. You need to bear in mind that I am coming at this from an entirely amateur approach although I have read a lot about mental illness, anxiety and depression over the years, and even spent two years at university studying Psychology (not Psychiatry, but there is an overlap). What answers and insights I have gained are purely my own.

I must also confess that there is a lot I disagree with in modern psychiatry and having observed the science in action for many years at first hand I have become deeply sceptical about its efficacy. As a young man I was a big fan of H J Eysenck, whose views on the effectiveness of pyschiatric treatment were controversial to say the least. I still hold to many of his opinions.

Some background:

It is generally accepted that there is a genetic component to depression. I became aware of this at a young age and the knowledge gave rise to a great deal of worry. As far as I could tell, my father's side of the family were poor, but perfectly normal folk from the Sheffield coalfields. There did not appear to be any mental illness on that side of the family (although curiously my father died when he was 50 of congenital polycistic kidney disease - I have a 50% chance of inheriting the same, a fact which caused my personal insurance premiums to rocket). My mother, as I have alluded to in other posts, was a different story.

My mother's family came from Ireland, a tiny village in County Monaghan. As well as my own mother there is a long history of mental illness in the family. Her mother went "insane". A brother spent his entire adult life in a mental institution. I believe there was a suicide in the family. My mother's sister was hospitalised with depression and my mother herself was variously diagnosed as schizophrenic or manic depressive and spent most of her life in an institution. It was hard to trace the family history further back - they were all illiterate - but I already knew enough. The omens were not good. From a young age I have continuously monitired my mental condition. Later on I kept a very close eye indeed on the mental wellbeing of my two sons, both of whom, I am happy to report, appear to be in robust good mental health. They are fully aware of the family history.

As well as the genetic component that may, or may not, be present in depression, there is also the environmental factor. Having lived, at varying degrees of proximity, with my mother and my aunt for the best part of 55 years I can see where this too my have had an impact on my mental disposition. That's why the book I am working on now is called "Mummy's Boy."

Types of Depression

I believe I have suffered from four main types of depression at varying times in my life.

Low-level depression: This is my normal mental state. You would never guess I was in this condition.

Mid-level depression: Usually triggered by a specific event or a stressful situation. I struggle to function as a working human being but I get by. Quite common. If there is a significant gap in my blogging this is usually the reason why.

Clinical depression: Severly depressed. Difficult to function on any level. Impossible to think. Only been in this state once and it lasted for about five years. This was the period during which I wrote A Half Life of One, literally one painful word at a time.

Chemical depression. Very odd. Feels like my brain has been flooded by some sort of toxic chemical. Infrequent. Lasts about twenty-four hours. Impossible to combat or ameliorate. I don't believe anyone could possibly live for very long in this state.

There is a further twist to these four categories, namely that I am pretty sure I am a manic depressive too. At one point I thought of running a competition in the blog for readers to guess which bi-polar phase I was in at the time. I gave up on the idea. Far too easy.

I should add that I have never had any kind of medication or treatment for my depression, nor have I ever been hospitalised. This isn't a boast. The fact is that I believe I am tough enough to cope on my own.

There is another reason which I expect may invite ridicule but here goes. I have always wanted to be a writer. To write well I need to know what I am really like. As a consequence I wouldn't allow any drugs to alter my consciousness and thus my personality. If I did I would never be able to find the truth. Doesn't stop me getting pissed of course with a fair degree of regularity. Hm. I can see the inconsistency.

In the next post I'll try and look at what effect these various mental states have had on my writing.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Carrot and shtick

I love clever people.

Especially innovators, guys who eschew the old routines, always looking for new solutions to ancient problems. These people can pop up in the most surprising places.

I was watching a gardenining programme recently. Actually, to be truthful, I was reading the paper while the programme was on. They were visiting an allotment on the edge of a large city. You know, plots of land the council provides for people who don't have gardens of their own.

The tricky problem of the carrot root fly was raised. This little beast flys around gardens seeking out the scent of growing carrots. When it latches onto your carrots it homes in on them like an Exocet and lays its eggs and in pretty short order the little blighters are eating all your carrots, weeks before you do.

This problem has been around since man first started growing root crops. Modern solutions include erecting polythene barriers around the plants, covering the growing carrots with (expensive) fleece, companion planting with garlic to mask the scent, developing resistant varieties and finally drenching the soil with chemical controls like chlorpyrifos or diazinon.

One of the allotment holders had come up with his own solution. He grew prize carrots, flawless and unblemished. He didn't use any of these modern prophylactic methods.

"Geeze," said the presenter, himself an expert gardener, "What on earth is your secret?"

The allotment holder seemed surprised by the all the fuss. "I earth them up until the danger is past," he said, in a thick Birmingham accent.

I nearly fell off the settee, laughing with pleasure. The little guy was a genius, my all-time gardening hero.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Friday night

I dropped by to see if anyone was in the Pundy House tonight. The place is empty. The party has moved on. That's good. Faint echoes of laughter.

Have a few drinks on my own. Put on a Joan Baez cd; a few more drinks; a fatal exit into the past.

That woman has the voice of an angel. Everything I ever wanted in my youth is captured in that voice; everything unattainable; every dream I ever had; every sleepless night longing to be invited to that secret magical party. Such beautiful melancholy.

I have to smile. It hasn't been too bad when all is said and done.

Time to put the lights out. This house already has its ghosts. Beautiful ghosts. That's good. I love the place. When it echoes with laughter there's nowhere better. Next week we'll have a party.

Just like Gatsby. Everyone will come. We'll find whatever we are looking for. I guess.

Trouble and strife

While I was away camelling in the desert my wife was in Boston presenting a paper at a scientific conference.

Whe she returned to work there was a letter on her desk from the University authorities confirming her appointment as a Professor.

J., or Professor J as I am now honoured to call her, was naturally delighted. She's a truly remarkable woman and this is the culmination of a life spent dedicated to teaching and research. The fact that she achieved promotion as a non-clinician in a clinical department, and despite the accident of birth that makes her a woman, made the eventual recognition of her talents all the sweeter.

I don't know anyone who works harder than the Prof. Her work is truly a vocation. Her students adore her. So do I. To say I'm proud of her is a gross understatement.

She's a pretty good wife and mother too. She has a bright, sunny disposition. We never argue. She never complains about anything, eschews gossip. She doesn't have a bad bone in her body. Oh, and she laughs at my jokes. She's also a brilliant cook. She's better read than I am. She adores Jane Austen. Enjoys Trollope, the Brontes, anything modern that's well written. For relaxation she reads Ian Rankin, le Carre and Wodehouse.

She's a classic beauty. She has a wide circle of friends. Her children love her deeply.

Okay, I can hear the question forming in your minds. What the hell does she see in me? I've asked her that a few times. We met as students. It was, she says, chemistry. Sexual chemistry. I was handsome, charming and witty. I had a string of girlfriends. I had a reputation. When I met her that all ended. I've often thought that in many ways I conned her into marrying me. Exchanging gold for glitter. I definitely got the best of the bargain.

Of course, as I've said before, being married to a saint isn't easy. In A Half Life of One the hero complains about "being trapped in a happy marriage". Her perfection has robbed me of so many plotlines it's untrue. How selfish is that?

Still, this time I forgive her. And tonight I'll be raising a glass of champagne to celebrate her success. She deserves it and more. Much, much more.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Crash Landing

Arrived back safely to the Pundy House last night. Had a quick look round - to my surprise you guys hadn't wrecked the joint - Minx did her schoolmarm act and kept the Comments wing under control. Thankx, Minx.

Next thing I did was check out my favourite blogs to get myself up to speed on what's going on. Delighted to find that Minx is blogging up a storm with a lot of good writerly stuff. Impressive. Maxine writing fiction too - whatever next? Guess she's caught the bug. Skint still stirring the pot with his regular fervour. My impression is that these blogs are maturing nicely.

Gee, I'd go so far as to say I'm really proud to know you guys. And I missed you.

It's going to take a few days to pump my own blogging muscles back in shape. Need to find that elusive tone again. Right now my brain is mangled with cash flow and P&L projections, marketing reports, strategy meetings, competitor analysis (none - we've destroyed them, the giant service companies that used to dominate our market segment), performance reviews blah blah blah. Business in the middle east - and China, India and Kazakhstan - is going crazy. It's scary - very - but exciting. I can't deny it. If you've got to work for a living, you simply can't beat running your own business when the opportunities - and dangers - are virtually limitless.

Dubai itself I hate. The city is Disneyland on steroids. The world's biggest building site. Too hot to go outside during the day, too hot and humid to sit outside at night. You are forced to live in an air-conditioned, artificial expensive prison.

It wasn't all work. I spent Saturday afternoon watching England getting kicked out of the world cup in a suite up on the 23rd floor of the Burj Al Arab, the world's only seven star hotel, the one shaped like a dhow. I was there as a guest of one of our clients being served obscenely expensive food and drink by a queue of smiling waiters and butlers. I remember shaking my head in disbelief. How on earth had a poor boy from Essex ended up in a place like this?

You cannot defend the inequalities of wealth in Dubai. I'm not going to try either. Built on oil and virtual slave labour. Wealth isn't made there it's flaunted. I was there because that's where our business in places like Libya, Algeria, Kaz and Saudi is based. We're not rich either, not by a long way. We're there earning a living in a very tough industry, at the frontiers of capitalism. And yes, I know, big oil is destroying the planet. I don't sleep easy at night when I think about what I'm doing.

Not for the first time, I truly was glad to get back to the sanity of the Pundy House.