May: Now Only

Mural above shop in Stoke Newington, 12/05/2021

Aye up

I’m writing this intro last and, looking back over the topics discussed in this edition of the newsletter, realise that it may come off a bit bleak. Woops? In actuality, I’m sat in t-shirt and shorts, window open, basking in the good weather. Since the environmental conditions have improved I’ve had a whale of a time. The timing couldn’t have been better, since I turned 30 at the end of May, and so far I’ve lived this milestone as I did much of my twenties: at the pub!

This newsletter condenses down some of the thinking I’ve been doing this past month, but not all of it: I’ve also spent a lot of time chatting shit with friends, marathoning comedies (highly recommend the third, Linehan-less series of Motherland and the first of Three Busy Debras), reading comics and generally just revelling in being able to go outside again. Before the grey skies parted, though, I have to confess to a certain amount of introspection which, at times, bordered on too much fucking perspective. It’s almost troublingly basic that us complex human beings can have our mood altered so drastically by something as quotidian as the weather but, well, I’m not complaining. I am contemplating the benefits of living somewhere it isn’t raining 60% of the year, however…

I think I’ve linked to PE Moskowitz’s brilliant Mental Hellth newsletter on here before, but a recent edition particularly piqued my interest. A condensed interview with Khadijah Diskin, a PhD researcher in critical psychology, it gets into some really interesting stuff about how we conceptualise of mental health issues primarily through metaphor, and the limits of that thinking:

How I’ve come to think about the world is that people assume there are easy answers to these tough questions. And the fact of the matter is there aren’t easy answers. People don’t understand that psychology is all metaphor—there are no psychological truths.” Every time there’s a shift in methodology, things come out that completely contradict what previous methodologies have supposedly proven.

I teach my students that so many things we think we know about the brain—even the very idea that biology influences behaviour—are actually philosophical arguments, not arguments that have been proven scientifically. But psychology gives us the idea that we understand how the body works, specifically as it relates to behaviour and personality. But really we’re working through abstraction, through metaphor, through assumption, that’s often disproved as much as it’s proved. There are just as many people that SSRIs don’t help as they do help, there are just as many people not helped by particular types of therapy as are helped.

Just because you do something and it makes a certain part of a brain light up, that doesn’t actually mean anything. You can make a dead salmon’s brain light up, and neurologists have!

When you say, my neuroatypicality is causing me to do X, Y, and Z,’ or, Oh, sorry I can’t do this thing because the ADHD means the chemicals in my brain are this way,’ that’s just…not what’s happening. And no good, rigorous clinician, psychiatrist, psychologist would talk in the terms that we talk about these things. We don’t know what’s happening!”

Simplified metaphor overtaking the more slippery reality, when conceiving of mental health issues as external” objects or illnesses, can lead to a feeling of helplessness, frustration at the limits of treatment, or blaming behaviours and actions on this other”. I unfortunately have some experience with the latter. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of mental health which, to my mind, not only allows someone to elide responsibility for their actions but also sets back popular conceptions of mental health issues: this person is nuts, they’re wholly defined by their condition and thus dehumanised to an extent. It’s also pretty much how my own conceptualisation of mental health looked, formed (as a worrying amount of my personality was) by social media discourse on Twitter and Tumblr.

Said discourse mostly took the form of reacting against the then-prevalent ignorance surrounding mental health. I realise things still aren’t perfect but, well, conversations about depression, anxiety, et al have certainly become more mainstream since then, if not necessarily more nuanced. That reaction was, as such reactions often are, extreme to the extent of validating the more destructive impulses of mental health crises: not only is it okay to stay in bed all day, eat garbage, avoid difficult situations, etc, but if anyone tries to help you or you make an effort to clamber out of that hole, that’s as toxic as people denying depression even exists. It’s an insidious approach which has sadly taken hold, it seems. This is of course part of the wider black-and-white moral framework that social media has perpetuated through its systemisation of social interaction:

We have this need to not only categorize, but crudely binarize things. It’s either good or bad, you’re a good person or a bad person. You’re sick or not sick. Your brain is neurotypical or atypical. These are logical traps and entrapments that white supremacist ways of discourse force us into. We now can only view ourselves as inherently valuable if we engage in this process of categorization.”

William Blake’s headstone, Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, 13/05/2021

A couple of weeks ago I woke up thinking of my terrible undergrad lecturers. Apparently the older you get, the more prone you are to retrospection? Not necessarily trusting the much angstier young man who formed those opinions at age 18-21, I decided to look them up on Rate Your Lecturer. I was pleased to find my memories of Colin Dyter, a man who regularly sent us away for one of the three hours of our seminars with him to work on things” and once called a friend’s work hideously contrived” before giving it a B grade, appears to be bang on.

I then looked up Carl Tighe, who in some ways epitomised my (largely negative!) experiences in higher education in general: clearly very intelligent, absolutely not engaged by the occupation of teaching, his lectures following the format of a long-pre-written script where the discussion” sections were just him trying to have the class guess what his next point would be, rather than genuinely opening the floor for suggestions. Our third year module with him, Writing and Responsibility,” consisted of him reading out his book of the same name — which he insisted we buy a copy of, natch. Each week we were supposed to read each of the transgressive” books he had written case studies on. The only session I remember was the one on Crash, where he somehow expected a room full of people born between 1989 and 1991 to be aware of the crucial context that, when Ballard was writing, car crashes were on the rise thanks to the first 1,000 miles of motorway having just been built.

Once again, my opinion was proven to be fairly well-founded. That said, my assessment of Carl was somewhat different to that of Colin. The latter struck me as a complete chancer, a former journalist now coasting in an easy gig with seemingly no oversight. In Carl’s case, while I was frustrated by his approach to teaching and antipathy to his students, I never doubted his intelligence; I checked out his first book of short stories from the university library, and thought they were brilliant. Opening another tab, I went in search of further information on his writing career — and how it reached its terminus at the University of Derby — and found that he died of COVID-19 almost exactly a year ago.

I didn’t, and still don’t, really know what to do with that information. I didn’t rate the guy much as a lecturer, begrudgingly respected his writing (and, in fact, learning more about him from the obituaries I read made me respect the other aspects of his life, almost entirely obscured behind the context we encountered him in and the myopia of youth, all the more), had thought mostly ill of him if I thought of him at all, and now he’s dead. Did I feel a strange sense of guilt? Emotional whiplash? A reemergence of a cognitive dissonance that I’d never, and can never, really solve? I’m still not sure. Adulthood, eh.

Wot I’ve done this month

  • My occult-mystery-serial, Farina Berrow, Astral Detective in: The Empty Palm is half-written! I bashed out most of the first draft since pubs reopened and I had somewhere out of the house to go and work, with the majority of it done in my local. I’m having a lot of fun with it, and the serial format means I write an instalment at a time, often leaving on a cliffhanger; designed to keep the reader hooked, but also, it means I’m excited to tackle the next bit every time I sit down to write!
  • The day job(s) trundle on, with my position at CIPFA now salaried (rather than being employed through a temp agency, as I was initially) and with a little more direction, which is nice!
  • The Stoke Newington Bookshop newsletter has shifted to a fortnightly format now they’re open again properly, which allows them to be more selective with the new titles they highlight, and I’ve been sneaking some more jokes in, which has been fun
  • As mentioned up top, it was my birthday last Tuesday, so I’ve mostly spent the past week having large meals and/or many drinks and now I am so very tired

Did you see the teaser for Peter Jackson’s Get Back? If you have any affection at all for The Beatles, it’ll brighten your day immensely. It’s an interesting project culturally — Jackson has, I think, more or less come out and said that it’s intended as a riposte to the Let It Be film which depicted the sessions for that record as being acrimonious and bitter which, at the time, had its own cultural worth as helping the Beatles be seen as complex human beings and not solely icons — but also, it’s just a lot of fun seeing them dick about in the studio and wear colourful clothes. It also sent me on a spiral of listening to The Beatles a lot for about a week, which then lead onto…something else.

I was already aware that The Black Album”, the mix CD Ethan Hawke gives to his onscreen son in the film Boyhood, is an actual thing that the actor made for his real-life daughter. His spiel about it from the film goes:

Whenever you listen to too much of the solo stuff it kind of becomes a drag, you know? But you put them next to each other, right, and they start to elevate each other. And then you can hear it: it’s the Beatles.”

So I gave it a try and uh yeah, it didn’t really work for me. However, it opened me up to the surprising cottage industry of people trying to force the Beatles’ respective solo careers into a more acceptable, band-shaped-mould! There’s a short story by Stephen Baxter called The Twelfth Album,” published in a 1998 edition of Interzone (the same sci-fi magazine that published a lot of Ballard), about a couple of employees of the Titanic Hotel discovering a missing crewmate’s copy of a final Beatles album apparently nabbed from an alternate dimension. Again, it’s mostly culled from the band’s respective solo careers — a sense of uncanniness in the story comes over the two protagonists, well versed in Beatle lore, upon realising the arrangements are similar-but-different to what they know — and works much better as a record than The Black Album” imho.

Then there’s the real-world (sort of) equivalent of the record from that story! Everyday Chemistry is an album that popped up online in 2009. It even comes with a sci-fi backstory, explaining that the pseudonymous uploader suffered an injury in the Californian desert, was rescued and nursed back to help by a visitor from another dimension, and half-inched the tape from him. In reality, it’s a pretty well-done mash-up of a load of solo tracks, with some added instrumentation. There is something slightly eerie about listening to something which by definition should not exist, as experienced by the characters in Baxter’s story, but as with most mash-ups (including The Grey Album, arguably the high watermark for that early-noughties blog-based genre”), the fingerprints of whoever put it together are all over it, which stops Everyday Chemistry from being totally credible. Besides it obviously being bollocks, I mean.

Bluebells in Waingroves Community Woodland, 23/05/2021

I did listen to a fair bit of non-Beatles-related music this month, too. The Phoenix song I came to thanks to the fantastic one-shot video they made for it; I recommend watching the whole thing, including the behind-the-scenes clips at the end which show how much work was put in to achieve the end result! We Are Scientists had a bit of a renaissance for me after my sister and I spent a half-drunk evening trying to remember and sing the entirety of their first album from memory, which is a birthday moment I’ll treasure for a good long while (well, as much as I can remember of it).

  1. LUMP - Animal”
  2. Sleater-Kinney - Worry With You”
  3. SAULT - Friends”
  4. Art Brut - Post Soothing Out”
  5. Jeff Parker and The New Breed - Soul Love (feat Ruby Parker)”
  6. Phoenix - Trying To Be Cool”
  7. We Are Scientists - After Hours”
  8. Sons of Kemet - To Never Forget The Source”
  9. Genesis Owusu - I Don’t Need You”
  10. Molly Nilsson - Inner Cities”
  11. Squid - Paddling”

Miscellaneous internet link round up

  • Chaoyang Traphouse is a fantastic newsletter about Chinese culture, and their most recent edition might be their best yet, with articles on a photography blog called Senior Fashion hub (“These combinations both puzzled and delighted me. I genuinely could not figure out if these seniors bought their clothes themselves or were just recycling whatever their family members threw away”) and a survey of the bizarre state of Wikipedia entries for Chinese counties/districts/towns
  • Harris Brewis, aka Hbomberguy, has a tremendous feature-length video debunking the anti-vaxx movement which doubles as a guide to good media literacy and how standard journalistic practice often runs counter to the scientific method
  • Wikipedia timesuck of the month: Pataphysics, a difficult-to-define philosophy”… intended to be a parody of science”

A lot of en dashes in this edition, huh? Much of my job consists of condensing, honing and sometimes entirely rewriting blocks of text so they get to the point quicker and offer the salient points with little waffle. Outside of copywriting, I love a baggy, recursive text — with plenty of asides, digressions, and sort of orbiting the central point in an essayistic manner. It’s more akin to how I think and speak outside the corporate world, and I hope that comes across, rather than it just being my mostly unedited rambling. If it is like that, don’t tell me, my self-esteem can’t take it. Look after yourselves! Goodbye forever!