Tuesday, 15 March 2011

State of Mind

Tuesday 8th March 2011

Just over a week ago, on a gloomy Monday, I felt as fragile as a glass bauble hanging too close to the end of a Christmas tree branch. My heart felt swollen and about to explode and every aspect of my life was overwhelming me. My spirit and will to go on was as low as in the worst days of my depression and the only constructive thing I could do was sob uncontrollably. Today could not be more different. It is a stunning day outside: the sun is out, the garden filled with light and shadow and the air is alive with birdsong. Three chickens, two pheasants and a squirrel are going about their business on the lawn. The atmosphere is one of hope and joy. I have just come off the phone to my parents and learnt the glad news that my father does not apparently have the myeloma that a recent blood test and prolonged lower back problems had possibly suggested and there was a whole new lightness in his voice after weeks of introspection. He is 83 this year. I realise all over again the comfort that my parents bring. We do not see eachother often, they being down the southern end of the country - a fact that bothers me greatly now they are in their later years and given we have the only grandchildren; but when I learned that my mother is going to a meeting about doing the Easter flowers in church this afternoon and that she has been out weeding the rockery, and when my father signed off saying they were about to have their cup of coffee, I was infused with a sense of wellbeing. They were continuing their lives, busying themselves with inconsequential domestic and community tasks. Is this not really what it is all about?

Last Monday, a grey damp lifeless day, that sense of wellbeing was utterly absent. It is the surest sign of depression when you feel like that - not fleetingly, no, but when the feeling simply will not go away, whatever the weather is doing, whatever you are doing and when you can find nothing that will bring even small crumbs of comfort. When you are well, you can find comfort in a cup of tea and a biscuit, a chat with a friend, in cooking supper or sometimes, gasp, in doing the laundry. It is about feeling on top of things, feeling there is a point and a purpose to it all; feeling you have a future and there are things in it to look forward to.

State of mind is a curious thing. Is it a subtle set of chemical balances in the human brain or is it the state of your soul? The truth has to be a mixture of the two as, surely, they are inextricably linked. I know that when I was so severely depressed over so many years, it was due to exhaustion and defeat: the seratonin (the 'feel good' chemical) in my brain had reached such low levels that my own body was no longer able to reproduce it. The way I always describe this is to use the petrol tank analogy from a motor bike: you have the main tank and a reserve tank. If the main tank is dry, you switch to reserve. But if you let that run dry then the machine stops functioning. Your body cannot then reproduce seratonin by itself - and that is when you have to have it artificially replenished with drugs. There should be no shame in this. It is a simple fact.

But I will not go on with this today as we will begin to wade through dark waters and it is too beautiful a day to do that, and my mood is too good for me to want to destroy it. I will go out into my garden and join with the forces of nature. I will listen to the birdsong and see the new shoots of life emerging. I will smell the soil and the air and revel in the continuing cycle of life in all its emerging beauty.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Chapel, Venice of the High Peak

It was on this day, March 3rd, last year that I wrote this piece but never published it. I thought I would give it an airing now, but please do not judge me by it. I love where I live and I would never seek to bad-mouth it. These are just observations of ennui in two places of extraordinary difference yet managing to engender similar feelings.

Chapel, Venice of the High Peak

Chapel-en-le-frith and Venice are the same: spend too much time in either of them and you go a bit peculiar. But that's probably where the comparisons should end. While Chapel may lay claim to being the 'Capital of the Peak' and 'Home of Ferodo brake linings' (the smell of burning rubber suffuses the town), I think it fair to say that Venice has bigger things to shout about (food, architecture, art, music and culture to mention just a few). Having said that, I did notice The Chapel Playhouse for the first time today after six years of driving past it and not. It's a reasonably imposing stone building (though clearly not that imposing if it's taken me over half a decade to spot it), but it hardly matches the Baroque splendour of Il Teatro La Fenice, home of Italian opera in Venice. But beggars cannot be choosers.

So, why on earth was I thinking of Venice as I was going about my mundane business in Chapel this morning? It's not an obvious connection, I admit. All I can say is that, having spent a morning at the dentist (worse, hygienist), the chemist, the dry-cleaners, the one-horse vets, the lightless Londis, the humourless newsagents (paying paper bill), the kids exchange shop, Morrisons (and the horrors of the passport photo booth), the flower shop and the handy hardware shop (duck tape, bird seed, light bulbs, baskets and ribbon) I was pretty well ready to shoot myself. Ok, I exaggerate. But I had certainly been plunged into mental 'weird world'. I find it a little hard to explain this as, over the seven years since I moved up from the south, Chapel has slowly but surely become part of the fabric of my home - yet the same sort of feeling swept across me that I often got in Venice in the days when we lived just down the Brenta Canal and I was a frequent visitor to this most stunning and extraordinary of cities. Chapel is certainly extraordinary in terms of the number of pubs that line its High Street and has secured its place in history thanks to Oliver Cromwell paying a visit here in the 17th century - but I think most would agree that 'stunning' it is not. Good grief, I hear you ask, where is she going with this? I'm not sure I know myself, but maybe it's something about extremes...

Venice is at one extreme of civilisation - and Chapel at the other. The former dazzles with it's uniqueness and beauty, a place whose former prosperity was rooted in both the arts and its trading prowess; the latter hits you with its utter ordinariness and plainess, and the solidity of its grey granite and working roots. A quick trip into Venice made you heave heavy sighs of delight at every corner; a quick trip into Chapel makes you think 'it's not a bad place really'. But remain just a little too long and the impressions morph strangely into sighs of a different kind. In Venice I always found that the thrill soon turned to melancholy; in Chapel, the gentle pleasure of an unremarkable small local town, albeit surrounded by great natural beauty, turns swiftly to alarming feelings of mild depression. Especially on a dull, damp, murky day. I loved Venice in winter, without the crowds of tourists clogging the bridges and alleyways and swarming all over St Mark's Square as abundantly and oppressively as the pigeons. But before long the milky mists, the damp smells of the grey-green canal water seeped through your nostrils and began to leave a gloomy, suffocating impression on your brain. What is this splendid city? Who lives here? Is it real or is it a stage set? At a certain point you just want to run away, back to a familiar world of real streets and real shops and real people living real lives. Get back to a place like Chapel. Or maybe not. For stay too long in Chapel and I develop an equally urgent need to escape the solemn granite and functional shops - to return swiftly to my green and oh-so-pleasant haven: my village, my house, my garden, my view, my breathing space, my sanctuary. A place that seems worlds apart from the small grey town just down the lane. And both are a world away from Venice.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Masterchef - A Masterclass in Dumbing Down

Masterchef has effortlessly reached new heights of sentimentality and melodrama. Just a short series ago, all we had to endure was a mildly watery eye in the waiting room after an arduous task was completed, or a slightly dizzy phonecall to a partner to say they'd made it through (followed by the ubiquitous hysterical screaming down the line while the contestant stood looking dazed and confused or grinning like a mad thing while choking back tears).

In the new, re-vamped, over-worked series, our patience is being stretched to new limits. In the first programme we were subjected to a wholel new range of friends and relatives hugging, laughing, crying, high-fiving, back-slapping and generally expressing unrepressed, nay wanton, encouragement to their warrior cook. If there was any dignity left in the programme it is safe to say that it has been chucked out with the vegetable peelings and the old set.

Such was my weary exhaustion at the end of the viewing hour, I did not even bother to go back to it till tonight. Things have not improved. I missed the first 15 minutes getting children to bed, but it quickly became clear I had actually missed nothing at all (though I'm glad I did not miss the spectacle of Gregg Wallace in a grey tweed flat cap and green barbour trying to do 'country' up in the Scottish Highlands). The levels of camaraderie seem to have no limits now. At every excuse, they are all embracing - men as bad as women - and punching the air and jumping up and down and looking aghast and surprised and flaring eyes and nostrils while clasping hands to mouth. And let's not forget the mantras of disappointment (I'm just not ready to go home'), or of success ('I just don't want this to stop) together with the ever-more irritating breathy voice-over of India Fisher announcing that the contestants 'are about to face their toughest test yet'. You don't say. As if all this wasn't disturbing enough, John and Gregg have clearly been instructed to ham up their naturally hammy characters even more. We are now watching caricatures of caricatures with ever more face-pulling, frowning, head-shaking and raised eyebrows. And even they are now embracing in a way never seen before. Two have become inextricably one. Certainly when it comes to leering at one contestant's perfect skin and perfect cleavage. No wonder they put her through. Oh, and just in case one should be in any doubt as to the deity which can be achieved by becoming a Masterchef Champion, a 3-line whip was drawn up of previous winners, all now looking suitably smug and enjoying their new status of judge rather than contender.

By the end of it all I was left with a bad case of indigestion and a strong desire to scream, intelligence duly insulted. Masterchef has become the latest victim to the misery that is reality TV. Shame on the BBC.
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