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Saying no – when politeness fails

When someone won’t take no politely, what do you do? Earlier this year I had a conversation with a man on other business who said that he would like to hire me as a writer. That’s fine, I do that sort of thing, write things for people and help them express themselves. I’ve worked ghostwriting books and letters, edited emails, all sorts of things.

But this older man had an obsession, as I realised. He told me that he had been badly treated and, as he put it, wrongly accused of paedophilia, and had been beaten up by a social worker when he was at his lowest. It was a pretty shocking story, if it were true. And it had all happened, he told me, in Northern Ireland in the 1950s.

He wanted it written down for the world to see. At this point I became uneasy. I understand the terrible sense of grievance that can occur in someone when they don’t express themselves – but at the same time, what did he hope to achieve? Did he really think the world was interested in what happened to him when a young man? Did he really think he was going to go around accusing people in written form in order to feed a half-century-old grudge? And more importantly, did I want to be involved in this?

I worked to put him off at the time. I warned him that he would end up in the middle of libel actions if he published a book naming names without evidence. He seemed to accept that.

Then just today he came back to me. He had tried over the last few months to contact me, and I was so busy that he was not a priority. But today, I called him back. The conversation went along these lines:

“I’m sorry I haven’t replied to you earlier, but I have been very busy. But if it is something to do with writing your biography, it’s not something I’m interested in doing, thank you.”

“Well, it’s not to do with my biography. It’s on something different. Could we meet for lunch today?”

“I’m sorry, I’m really busy, that’s just not possible. If it’s a different job, maybe we could meet in the New Year.”

“You see, I’ve read your book. Some of it is very good…” (Ah, how well he knows how to woo an author’s ego.) “And I want someone who can write me a letter.”

“I see,” I said. “Go on.”

“I want to be able to put it into good English so that I can tell some people some home truths.”

“Ah, I’m sorry. But if you want to spread ill will in a world that is already full of it, please, don’t include me in it.”

“It’s nothing litigious. I just need a letter that will tell a few home truths to the people who did me wrong.”

“Look, I understand how unexpressed anger can make you feel a deep sense of grievance, and it can eat you up, but this is not something I’m interested in being part of.”

“No, you see, the head of the Salvation Army thought it was scandalous, the way I was treated…”

And so he pushed on. My real thought was, what did he hope to gain from this? If these people he was involved with are as hard-hearted as he says, a letter will do nothing. Indeed, it would quite easily start a cycle of anger that would just make things worse for him. The thing I’ve come to realise is there is no objective truth in these sorts of matters. Just motives and misunderstandings and self-preservation and exertions of power and ego. There is no higher court of appeal. The world is a bloody mess, and it’s only when events get momentous enough or criminal enough that an attempt at objectivity occurs. And that is usually woefully inadequate.

But how to explain that to this obessive man?

I have a three strike rule, and he had now had his three strikes. So, my tone hardened.

“Look,” I said. “I’ve tried to be polite to you, but that’s clearly not worked. I don’t want to be involved in your grievances and your grudges. Do you understand? I don’t want to get mixed up in your shit!”

There was silence for a moment. Then he said. “Yes.”

“Thank you. Goodbye!”

And there it is. Sometimes being polite just won’t cut it. I don’t know what it is with older people that won’t get the message, but I seem to encounter a lot of them. Remember. If you are asked to work for someone, be aware of whether you want the job. Don’t let them browbeat you. It’s your life after all.

Writing Edward King – the performances, 27th May 2017

Image courtesy of (c) Portsmouth Museum

Some time ago I volunteered to write a short story about local artist Edward King, who for the last 26 years of his life was a patient at St James’s Lunatic Asylum on Locksway Road, Milton.

It was part of a project run by Annie Kirby-Singh that has incorporated workshops, the publication of an Edward King website www.writingedwardking.com containing the contributions by writers and examples of his work.

His story is a fascinating one. Extolled by Van Gogh for his power and virility in his drawing, he was a member of the New English Art Club alongside Sickert, Singer Sergent, Nash and Augustus John. Yet after the death of his wife in 1924 and a prolonged breakdown, he ended the last years of his life at James’s. In his later years, he took to painting again, producing pictures of Milton Locks, and a series of paintings of the city after air raids during the Portsmouth Blitz.

14 writers produced stories inspired by his works, and I was lucky enough to be at one of a series of four performances that took place in the Minghella Studio of the New Theatre Royal on the 27th May 2017.

One of the things that constantly rocks me on my heels is the extraordinary level of writing talent in this relatively small town. The 90 minute show of which I was a part had works by local writers Christine Lawrence, me, Jacqui Pack, Charlotte Comley, Bernie Byers, Zella Compton and William Sutton. By the end of the session, after hearing stories and songs by these extraordinary writers I felt genuinely humbled.

From Christine’s dark tale of madness, through Jacqui’s account of depression, Charlotte’s story of Nora coming to terms with a troubled childhood, Bernie’s analysis of a painting of the laundry, through Zella’s viscerally real account of an air raid to William’s songs, both moving and funny, the session was a complete moment of exploration and discovery.

You may have missed the live session – but the stories are online for you to enjoy at The Writing Edward King website (link above). There is much there to enjoy… so… enjoy!

Review – Cirque de Glace, “Evolution”, King’s Theatre, Southsea, 8th May 2017

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for the circus, so when I saw Cirque de Glace were performing at the King’s Theatre, I couldn’t resist going. I LOVE CIRCUSES, and this was one with a difference. The whole thing was a circus on ice, with a real refrigerated floor for the performers to skate around on! How would they do it? I wondered, how would the circus motif be transformed with this added frisson, or freeze-on, of a potential slip-up at any moment?

From the start, I knew things were going to be different. Taking our seats, the theatre was already filled with theatrical smoke. The show started with lights across the audience and ponderous music. The scene was set. We were at the start of the universe itself, and stars were being formed, the booming narrative informed us. Planets coalesced, the rock that would become the Earth was struck by a gigantic meteorite, splitting the proto-planet into Earth and moon and suddenly – boom! crash! – we were in the world of the volcanoes, billions of years ago…

Next, the skaters appeared, making a circle around a rather small volcano in the middle of the stage and skated around it. The music boomed, the voice continued talking about magma and rocks and the formation of the planet and… I started to lose my focus.

There was some great skating, but the first 15 minutes of the show felt like an extended geography lesson for children with Attention Deficit Disorder. I think I was meant to feel a sense of awe and wonder, but actually, being told that rocks formed and that somehow that had something to do with people skating around the stage… I’ve got to say it didn’t quite hit the spot. It was Geology On Ice.

Nevertheless, I persevered. Perhaps a narrative would evolve that would hold my attention. Sure enough, next came the creation of the sea, then insects, and Gaia doing acrobatics on an earth-shaped ball. Everything the performers did was brilliant technically, and I marvelled at the aerial silk performers dangling from the Fly Loft… except that the smoke I’d mentioned earlier hadn’t cleared away, and with lights directed straight at the audience, it was actually quite difficult to see what they were doing. The special effects distracted, until the performance got lost in smoke and lighting.

The skaters were brilliant, but something about the concept of the show didn’t quite work. The booming recorded voice of the narrator at times took on a tone half way between environmental activist and children’s poet – and when the narration descended into terrible doggerel, it introduced a new level of struggle for my tiny brain, that had to decipher what was going on, as well as fight the blinding lighting and deafening, meaningless words.

At the same time, the performers didn’t seem to understand the grammar of applause. The action flowed from one scenario to another, not giving the audience the right cues to clap. I was waiting for that breathing space to show my appreciation for the extraordinary feats I was viewing, but there was no room to allow it. Sitting just a few seats away, a member of the crew tried to encourage clapping by doing so loudly herself. That worked for the first two or three times – but people just wanted to watch. The clapper seemed not to understand that applause should come at the release of dramatic tension. The simplest way to do that in trad circuses is to do a drum roll, have the performer do their trick, then stand with arms outstretched. Bang! There’s your cue to clap.

No such cues were given to the audience. The planted clapper distractingly picked the wrong moments to clap, pulling the audience’s appreciation too early, so that when the right moment came to clap there was silence because they were already “clapped out”.

I so wanted to really enjoy this show. Don’t get me wrong, I did think it was good. But watching the story of the world unfold, with trees being chopped down by men with chainsaws, and then the voice track telling us that we were reaping the whirlwind of our own destruction, it all felt that we were being hectored and accused for the faults and greed of people we can’t control. That the refrigerated floor must use up a hefty dose of carbon emissions was an irony not missed on me. The performers were brilliant. The production, like the clapper, was just a tad heavy handed. 6/10.

When filming is not all right.

For many people, filming or recording a talk has become the simple way to keep notes, rather than do that laborious and oh-so-hard exercise of lifting up a pen. But it is not all right, and I will tell you why.

Last night I gave a talk as part of Portsmouth’s Bookfest 2017 with crime fiction author and doctor of criminology, Diana Bretherick. The hour long talk had been devised between us to look at two fascinating characters from the Victorian era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Cesare Lombroso – both scientists, and both of them devout Spiritualists.

The evening started well enough, although I did notice one guy, who had arrived early, and who had been sitting and holding his mobile phone at that perpendicular angle that implies he might be filming. Then, half way through the talk, I realised I felt uncomfortable, I looked across at him and found he had a handheld camera – not just a phone, pointed at me.

I was annoyed. I stopped the talk and addressed him directly:

“Excuse me, would you stop filming, please? You didn’t ask me if it was all right to film me, and I certainly haven’t given you my permission.”

Then I stood and waited.

He relented, and sat and sulked for the rest of the evening. That was fine by me, I immediately found that I was talking freely again.

Was this just me being a bit picky and self-conscious? Well, yes and no.

The fact is that the talk Diana and I were giving was the first run-through. It’s one that we intend to give again in sharpened form. We were doing it for free as part of Bookfest, and I certainly didn’t want our first presentation to be recorded and potentially made available online.

More importantly, that talk was born from hundreds of hours of research on both my and Diana’s part. The experience of finding out about these two fascinating people, of my building a knowledge of local literature (Conan Doyle invented Sherlock Holmes while living in Portsmouth, and also got into Spiritualism while living here) and Diana studying crime and writing about Lombroso were what led to that talk. That has value. Although Diana and I were giving the talk for free that night, I had no idea where that recording might end up. That work is my work, and I certainly have no intention of allowing it out there, with my name attached to it when it is an early incarnation of the talk we will finally give to other venues.

It was rude, it was off-putting, and frankly, cheeky for someone to turn up and simply try to record it without asking.

Writers and public speakers – be aware of this. Your hard work is your property and potentially your livelihood.

I wanted to ask this gentleman afterwards why he thought it was okay to record this talk and what he thought he was going to do with it. But at the end, he left quickly.

We are in an age in which it is very easy to record everything, and so, writers and speakers, I have learned a lesson and in future will be sure to announce that bootlegging is not allowed, and bootleggers will be asked to leave.

And oh, my goodness! Bootleggers?!? Do we all have to factor in considerations that used to be the reserve of rock bands, now, in our multimedia age?!?!

The Fall, Cruiser’s Creek – fresh because it’s so yesterday.

I love this. The cinematography is so crude and amateurish, the behaviour in front of camera so unstudied that it reminds me of the early experiments in film with Dada Movement, or early silent movies. It is both guileless and wonderful. As if walking in front of a camera is enough in itself to be interesting. That’s anarchic, and really refreshing in an age of such self consciousness in front of the camera.

Power to Persuade: the techniques used by Paul McKenna for Brexit.

paul“Whoever is orchestrating the Leave campaign, I have to admit, they’re brilliant,” I said to a friend a few days before the referendum vote. “They understand exactly the rules of persuasion.”

On the side I favoured, the Remain camp was floundering in very much the way the same crew had floundered in the final days of the Scottish Independence referendum before that final intervention – The Vow. They had fallen into the same mistakes: relying on warnings, and apparently plucking apocalyptic figures out of the air.

The Leave camp was also making unfounded promises, lying and misrepresenting the facts. But there was something qualitatively different between the two campaigns, and that was in the structure of the information they imparted.

“The Leave campaign,” I said to my friend, “is in a different league.”

Years before, I had studied persuasion while attending trainings with hypnotist Paul McKenna and his mentor, Dr Richard Bandler, in a widely misunderstood field called NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

NLP is a fascinating subject. It studies the structures of human thinking, in order to guide the flow of behavioural responses. It does this through linguistic and non-linguistic communication which may be delivered at an unconscious or semi-conscious level. It therefore bypasses reason.

It has its critics, which divide roughly into two camps. There are those who say it is manipulative and unethical, and the others who say it doesn’t work and is snake oil. As Dr Bandler often points out in interview, both cannot be true. NLP is not unethical in itself, but like any tool, it can be used unethically.

Central to the training we received was the observation that decisions, thoughts and behaviour are dependent on emotional state. Hence, if you are angry with someone, it is very difficult to remember that you love them. If you are in love with someone, it is easier to forgive them; if you like someone, you are more likely to be relaxed with them and trust them, and so on. Reasoning is continually influenced by emotions; not to recognise that is to lay yourself open to all sorts of errors of judgement through other people’s influence.

Understanding how emotion works enables you to get different outcomes from your interactions. For example, after an argument, it is probably a mistake to immediately seek forgiveness. The rage is still too high in the person from whom you are seeking forgiveness. First you must change their state, or wait for their state to change. Then you can get a better result from your appeal.

Understanding the structure of emotions and how they are inter-related is central to one of the key uses of NLP: persuasion. That is why in the hands of a skilled practitioner, NLP is an extremely effective tool when it comes to sales.

This should not come as a surprise. Dr Richard Bandler, the inventor of the term NLP spent years studying and modelling the ways that persuasive salespeople operate. He didn’t invent good sales techniques – he codified them. Through his observations, he came to understand that a salesperson first of all builds a rapport with his audience so they in some way identify with the saleperson. This makes the customer less critical and more trusting of what the salesperson says.

That’s step 1: the gaining of trust through rapport.

Next comes the creation of a “propulsion system” – meaning a way to get someone to take an action, or to change their thinking.

In Richard’s terms, propulsion systems operate quite simply. Firstly you generate a picture or idea of the current situation that’s so awful the subject wants to move away from it. Having built up an emotion of revulsion or disgust, you then simply create its antithesis, a scenario or situation that the subject wants to move towards. Moving towards this happier scenario or idea relieves the revulsion previously built up. It therefore feels like it’s the answer to the problem presented.

This technique can be used for all sorts of things, not just sales. For example, Richard observed that those who kicked an addiction often reported that life had to get so bad for them that they were desperate to change. There it is again: moving away from – moving towards.

Recreating this pattern of thinking deliberately for his clients, Richard laid out the negatives of current behaviour and the extraordinary positives of a new behaviour. Crucially, this was not done as an intellectual exercise. It required the firing up of the emotions to make the change, because psychologists have long known that the will is the least effective part of the psyche to employ if you want to make a change.

In many cases, it works. Bandler found that addicts then committed themselves to new behaviours willingly and with their whole being, rather than making an intellectual decision which they easily broke when they were overwhelmed by an emotion.

Exactly this model was used by the Leave camp. First rapport building, then creating, or describing or presenting a bad situation that was apparently unsolvable was followed by what appeared to be the only solution that would alleviate the bad feeling: leaving the EU. It was, in NLP terms, technically brilliant.

I looked on, thinking that surely our side, the Remain side, must have their own advisers. Cameron, having been involved in political strategy for years, must also have someone who understood the structure of persuasion in the way the Leavers did.

Quite the opposite appeared to be the case.

The Remain camp appeared to have no concept of rapport building. They wheeled out economists and experts who essentially spoke down to the public, alienating those who were of a different class or background.

Then there was Eddie Izzard. If anyone could have been better chosen to alienate conservative-minded voters concerned at the way society had changed over the last few decades, a man in a dress with a pink beret could not have been better chosen. For Leave voters, he represented exactly the sort of moral decay that a friend’s Aunt Beryl summed up in her reasons for leaving: “I just want Britain to be like it was.”

The timbre of the Remain discussion was also very limited, and boiled down to basically half a persuasion strategy.

They repeatedly told people how bad things would be in the future outside of the EU – a good moving away from strategy. But they didn’t tie it together directly with a positive message. Like, for example, the fact that the economy was doing very well and we were about to overtake Germany and become the largest economy in the bloc in the next few years. Those different sides were mentioned, but were not tied together in a persuasive whole. The simple message of wanting to move away from one dark future towards another brighter one was not explicitly presented. Instead, only the down side was emphasised.

The problem with repeating the same strategy over and over again is that it begins to wear thin. Nor is it good enough to say, “to avoid that awful future, you must accept a continuation of this dull present.” It just doesn’t work that way, especially when the other side is offering jam tomorrow, if only you will be brave enough to make that change.

And there is the next part of the NLP persuasion strategy. Reframing objections. The Leavers cleverly reframed the notion of recklessness to bravery. Hence, Leavers weren’t foolhardy, they were intrepid. Once again, a negative was replaced with a positive. In contrast, Remainers were craven cowards afraid to “Take Back Control”. This slogan was thus attached to a positive self image, and became a simple way to encapsulate that feelgood factor in one simple slogan.

In NLP training, you are taught that the unconscious vibrates to such messages and feels better about itself again. This emotional orientation feeds on itself. Unconsciously, you have accepted that this course of action is right. It feels right, after all. Your unconscious can’t help itself. It wants to move towards a happier self image (at least in most cases) and a future associated with good feelings.

The power of the reframe was not understood by the Remain camp. The best David Cameron could do was to present his message in negative terms, saying, “I don’t believe we are quitters.” Really? Well, if you don’t believe that’s what we are, what do you think we actually are? People don’t like being called names. They like to have their egos massaged. Once again, only half the persuasion strategy was employed. No wonder the Leavers started to make real changes in people’s attitudes – not through reason, but through feeling.

Another strategy in persuasion techniques is that of inoculation. This is a technique which pre-empts objections to an argument, and seeks to neutralise it beforehand. This is exactly what happened whenever the Remain camp delivered their warnings for the future. For an NLP-savvy debater, this is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Tie a negative connotation to this warning behaviour and you invalidate it, especially if you have followers already keen to hear your argument, and already beginning to be sold on it.

Hence the repeated use of the terms “Project Fear” (borrowed from the Scottish referendum) and “scaremongering”. Soon, everything the Remainers said was scaremongering. The word was repeated by the Leavers over and over again, until it became anchored in the minds of its audience. It was brilliant. They played on emotions superbly. And even when they themselves stated stupid observations, like the one that said 80 million Turks would be able to move to the UK, the Leavers managed to drown out the counterargument from the Remainers that this too was scaremongering. They’d got there first with that one.

Much has been made of Michael Gove’s dismissive comment that we’ve all heard enough from experts. This, too, was brilliant inoculation and rapport building at the same time. It made Gove look as if he, too, were someone with no respect for education and was a common man. If you think about it, it is quite an extraordinary claim from a man who had been trying for years (by his own definition) to bring value back to education as Education Secretary. It was an extraordinarily dishonest line to take. Yet it worked. It spoke to the masses. “If he says we can ignore experts, well, we bloody well can!”

This is why this debate was so extraordinarily light on facts. The Leave campaign’s manifesto ran to a mere 1293 words, which is less than this article. Leave didn’t need facts. They needed anger and hope harnessed together to make the changes they needed.
So, it was brilliant NLP. I watched the campaign through the gaps in my fingers over my eyes. It was a slowmo car crash. I could see mistake on mistake being made by Remain, and no-one seemed to understand what was going wrong.

After the stomach churning result was delivered, it began to make sense. After the dust settled it became clear that at least one seriously heavy duty NLPer was on the Leave side. Paul McKenna, the Guardian reveals, is a friend of Arron Banks, who bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign. How far he was involved in the campaign is uncertain, though Paul will have at least cast his eye over the campaign material and advised on giving it tweaks.

Some people will complain that the Leave campaign was dishonest by doing this. There is no doubt at all that they were dishonest in many of their claims, but I suspect it wasn’t their specific claims where Paul’s real power came through.

What Leave wanted, and what they achieved, was an emotionally charged debate within which they could covertly make changes in attitudes in some of those who were undecided. As a supreme technician, this is Paul McKenna’s genius. He is just very, very good at what he does.

Whether it was ethical for the Leave camp to employ such tactics over a matter so vital to the future of the country, as opposed to selling someone a pair of shoes, is another matter. I know what I think about it, but this is not a discussion on that aspect of Paul’s brilliance.

The reality of the situation is, however, that the Remain side were out of date. They were using reason against emotion, the equivalent of using old field Howitzers against a side armed with cruise missiles.

And that is why we lost. We were outclassed at every move. Whoever made the decision not to take advice from people who understood the language and structure of persuasion was, in the end, the cause of our downfall.

I suspect that was Cameron, judging by his poor grasp of strategy.

A final thought: one of the major elements taught by Paul and by Richard in their NLP trainings is that such powerful techniques must be applied ethically. There is a practical reason for this advice. An ethical strategy prevents buyer’s remorse. A buyer who genuinely has their needs met doesn’t look up a few months later and think: hey, I was duped!

Whether this applies to this decision over the coming months, remains to be seen. I’m sure there will be much reinforcement of the message going on right now. That, too, is an NLP technique.

So what is the lesson? In the past, ancient kings consulted stargazers and mystics before battle and had spells cast for them. The modern politician must learn to do the same, otherwise he will enter the field at a massive disadvantage. Because people reason on the back of feelings, it’s vital to get their emotions right first, so they are receptive to your message. Once the mood is right, then it is also vital that you understand exactly how you are going to structure and deliver your message. It’s not just a question of getting up and treating it like an amateur schoolboy at an Eton debating society.

The Arcane Arts, then, are back in fashion.

Real Writer’s Block – What it is, and what it is not.

DespairAdele Parks gave a great talk last night at Portsmouth Central Library as part of Portsmouth Bookfest 2016, talking about her writing life, and how she became one of the top sellers of chick lit over the last 16 years. From an effervescent and ebullient childhood in which her grandfather persuaded her to write comics for 10 pence each, through globe-trotting as an advertising executive, to her decision “not to go to my grave wishing I had written that book”, it was quite a journey, and heartening, too.

With her joyous smile, lightning-fast brain and keen intellect, Adele is one of those people one can’t help liking. Blessed with good quality hardware, you can’t help thinking she would have made it, whatever she did. I’ve seen the same in other writers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was similar – proud owner of a ferocious intellect coupled with a joyous imagination, he revelled in storytelling and much more besides. Like Doyle, Adele has energy. And lots of it.

Such traits make Adele supremely fitted to talk about the business of writing. But there is one thing she announced during that evening with which I disagreed profoundly, and it came when someone in the audience asked about writer’s block. This is one subject about which I have a brimful of firsthand experience. It is also something of which Adele clearly has none.

She started off this section by make a provocative point:

“There’s no such thing. You don’t get doctor’s block, or accountant’s block. So there’s no such thing as writer’s block.”

I’ve always wondered what people who dismiss writer’s block actually think it is. Today, at last, I heard it from someone at the top of her profession.

Adele equated writer’s block to lack of direction, or disorganisation. “If you sit down and you’re not able to write, it’s because you haven’t planned what you’re going to write,” she breezed. The solution was to plan your novel better, or perhaps have a change of scene. Go on holiday, go and write somewhere else. Meet new people. Go to an Elvis convention in Blackpool.

So there it was, writer’s block was a functional problem to do with not being properly directed. It was straightforward. It didn’t exist.

During a stay on the Isle of Arran in the 1990s, during Gulf War I, I spoke with the local female GP, an ex-military doctor, and mentioned PTSD to her. She furrowed her brow and said forcefully: “There is no such thing as PTSD”. She was adamant about it.

Everyone has a blindspot for something.

Here is what writer’s block is not. It is not sitting down to write one morning and finding that it takes 20 minutes to get in the mood. That is drinking a cup of tea. It is not worrying because your cat has taken ill and thus being put off for a day or two. That is anticipating a vet’s bill. It is not having a pile of papers that are out of order. That is bad filing.

How can I say this with such certainty? Because I lost the ability to write for thirteen years. Not being able to sit down and write during that period was not a matter of tea, cats or files. I had arranged my life so that I had all the time I needed. My despair, my utter, black despair came from something far deeper and far darker. If you’ve ever wondered what real writer’s block, is as opposed to feeling a bit uninspired or not quite knowing what to write about, let me tell you about my experience. Of course, others will have different experiences, but if you have no idea at all, perhaps this will shed a little bit of light – and explain to you why if you dismiss it out of hand you might get a furious response.

Writer’s block was the moment I realised the one thing I knew I could do really well had deserted me. It left me the day I had the final argument with a lover in which she criticised my work mercilessly, then walked out on me. Her criticism combined with that deeper emotional shock so that grief became the flavour of writing.

After her departure I limped on, writing scripts for The Bill. Her stinging criticisms came back as I wrestled plot lines, rang in my ears over and over again as I tried, stomach churning with panic, to string together stories and character motives. I criticised what I wrote, using her voice to do it. Not good enough, poor quality writing. Ugly writing. And so on.

There came a point at which I found myself unable to put one word after the other because I questioned if those two words worked together on the page. I couldn’t put together a satisfactory sentence, let alone a story. I wasn’t “feeling a bit uninspired of a morning”. I didn’t need to sit down and have a cup of tea to make it right. I had a central crisis of confidence in which I felt myself whirling into a blacker and blacker swirl of helplessness. I loved that woman. I wanted to impress her with my writing. She was gone. My writing was shit.

That was the sort of equation that was going on in my head. It usurped my emotions and took over my body. I wept at nights. month after month. The grief took control of my creative life. A deep, cold sense of bleakness. The blank page became unbearable. The stories I started to write and never finished were all tales of pain and suicide, of loss of faith in people, in God, in life itself. Sitting at my desk staring at the page, in the wordless spaces between each and every second, I sat and ruminated on how best I could die.

And still I was contracted to write 4 episodes of The Bill. A job that should have lasted six months took four grinding years to complete, until finally I was free of the show. Being trapped in a contract had compounded matters further. I was going through an existential crisis, whilst simultaneously being forced to turn out episodes of a cop show. I look back now, and that is darkly funny. At the time it was hell.

I eked out a living working in bars while the 6 months money I had been paid in advance dwindled out over 4 years, failing to fund my meagre existence. I began to associate poverty with writing. I hated myself, I hated the page, I hated everyone else – and most of all I hated the act of writing.

Sitting down to write meant pain. It meant loss of dignity. It meant humiliation. It meant having daily to inhabit that dark, lost spirit in the Hades of my soul who so wanted to come out into the light again but who was trapped.

I considered suicide.

In the end, I gave up trying to write, completely. I set up a series of businesses. I got into computer repairs, teaching English and bookdealing – the last of which gave me a steady income and such a rigid regime of work that for years I had no time to think about myself or my writing.

I did, eventually start to write again, but only after I got professional psychiatric help. I had a full thirteen years of writer’s block. Being told last night that, actually, that could have been solved with a trip to the local coffee bar (as if I didn’t try so many things) – that, I have to say, did not sit well in my soul.

The good news is that I did get out of that pit, and I want to tell you – if any of this seems remotely familiar – if you are another writer suffering in this way, and you’re sick of people who tell you to “buck yourself up” and “pull yourself together”, it’s okay to be sick of it. That person may be wise, they may be actually be bloody fantastic, but if that’s what they’re saying, then of the subject of writer’s block they know nothing.

Do know, however, that you are not alone and that there are ways back to the surface, to the sunlight. There are means of escape. There will come a time when you are no longer groping around in the dark and you will no longer feel destroyed. You will see yourself in a new way. You will be made afresh.

If you’ve got real writer’s block, most likely it won’t be a walk or a holiday that does it for you. If it does, then good luck to you. What you are feeling may be, in many ways, akin to PTSD. And just like with PTSD, seek help. There are professionals who understand the workings of the inside of your head.

Writer’s block is so much more than not feeling inspired. Writer’s block is feeling that your life is reaching its end because it is devoid of meaning. Be assured, however, it will go on. Writing, that little bright bird, she will fly back to you.

If you recognise any of this description and it makes sense to you, then seek help – and do it now. Don’t – like I did – take thirteen years to act. That’s thirteen years you won’t get back.

How the propaganda machine stole your vote

Recently I had someone comment that those who were unhappy with the election results “do the general public a disservice” by saying this. He went on to say:

“You assume that people must be misinformed or that they aren’t able to make decisions by themselves. Have you considered that the general public DO know what the Tories are offering and that is why they voted for them OR what they offer was still better than the other options? This wasn’t a squeak over the line but a clear majority. This wasn’t a vote by the rich alone, but by a whole nation.”

I wish that were true, that the people of the UK really engaged with what the parties offered and used their heads rather than their hearts. But that isn’t the case. If it were, The Sun wouldn’t have carried photographs of Miliband eating a bacon sandwich because he pulled a funny face, they would have focussed on policies. The main right wing newspapers and broadcasters wouldn’t have gone out of their ways to insult Miliband personally, they would have focussed on his policies. They wouldn’t have stirred anti-Scottish racist sentiment that will backfire in the long term because now the Scots genuinely (and rightly) feel they aren’t really part of the UK.

But they did do that. Why? Because they know how to tug the emotional strings of a populace they have already frightened with outright lies, of which there were so many that unless you took the time to dismantle how each lie sat on top of the next, you would simply not have a clue how much distortion had gone on.

Most people also don’t vote on abstract concepts. They didn’t vote to save the NHS because on the surface it still appears fine, although major independent groups are warning that it is being rotted away inside. Just one example.

Most people don’t vote on what doesn’t directly affect them, such as the extraordinary high fees in education which entrenches levels of class entitlement and privilege that we haven’t seen since before the war, because most people aren’t students.

Most people vote for a simple thing: an ideal, an emotion – they don’t have degrees in economics which enable them to really take the figures apart. They don’t have degrees in media studies which enable them to dismantle the semantics of media broadcasts. They vote on a gut feeling. On what is essentially a faith.

And that is what this result is. A victory for ignorance and fear over justice and hope.

And if you voted for that, knowing the facts, well… I hope you sleep well at nights.

News: Nicola Sturgeon is leader of ISIS.

Ms Stirfry as a 1980s Kung Fu star.
Ms Stirfry as a 1980s Kung Fu star.

In a fascinating new twist, the Daily Telegraph has revealed that Nicola Sturgeon wants ISIS to take over Britain.

In a made-up memo quoting the Ambassador for Jupiter, Monsieur Figuement de l’Imagination, Ms Smorgisbord undoubtedly supposedly said:

“If only ISIS would behead the government and instate itself in power. That way we’d scotch two very real issues – Etonian biscuit-game-players bossing everyone around, and self determination for Scots. Remember, ISIS stands for Independent Scotland Independent Scotland, just in case you didn’t hear me the first time.”

Mr David Camomile said of these latest stunning revelations:

“I have long been seeking to portray Miss Sputum as a psychotic Claymore-wielding hobbit, but now she has truly been hoist by her own sporran. You really couldn’t make it up, but that’s because you are working class and stupid and work so many hours for no money that you don’t have time to make things up. Nor do you understand cynical media ploys, which are the reserve of the privileged few. Oh, and by the way, it was probably one of my friends at the Telecrap who actually did make it up.”

Leader of the Labia Party, Mr Ed Lilliput said:

“I was desperate for something to revive my flagging hopes in Poundland. This invented quote completely discredits Ms Sputum and the whole unjust, unfair Independent Caliphate of Scotland movement.”

Growing increasingly adenoidal, Mr Gastricband said:

“Do we really want a political system in which people who perform well in debates and don’t struggle to control their lips cheat at fair fights by being better at talking and thinking?”

Looking like a bullied schoolboy, he added:

“Really, it’s actually unfair.”

Mr Labia then cried and threatened everyone with his brother.

“Roll on independence,” he added. “We can all thank the Torycrap for that, at least.”

Order Portsmouth Fairy Tales in time for Christmas!

A fascinating book of Portsmouth stories
A fun book of Portsmouth stories

25 Stories, 11 writers, 1 city.

[wp_cart_button name=”Portsmouth Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups + postage” price=”8.99″ shipping=”2.50″] £8.99 + £2.50 p&p

or

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This collection of fairy tales for grown-ups contains dark moral tales, historical fiction, sci-fi, comedy, fantasy, crime, memoir and surreal fiction.

All the stories have been freshly-written and all are set in and around the UK’s only island city. No chocolate box visions or soppy princesses in sight, the writers have used this magical genre to explore grown-up dilemmas, such as money problems, fear of rivalry in a relationship, floods, memories and changing bodies.

Find out why the real Guildhall clock is buried in an underground city to save time. Hear about the man who wished himself onto a ship in a whisky bottle. Discover why a Victorian detective joined forces with the circus to fight Spice Island’s criminals. Embrace your bank statement or the ghost ship will get you.

Some stories delve into the city’s rich island geography, others focus on rural Hampshire, its cow pats, mushrooms and breweries. Some have taken their favourite urban location and woven it into fantastical narratives that stretch back to Victorian times, or forward to a dystopian future.

Raw, mischievous, dark and yet familiar, these tales showcase a city bubbling with literary minds.

Price: £8.99, plus £2.50 for postage and packing worldwide.

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