I hate sharing personal information. I feel deeply uncomfortable doing so. But it is important. So here goes. I happen to be a writer. This is not by choice. I tried everything not to be a writer. In my early youth I tried a career in religion, which gives one access to lots and lots of books, which is very cool. It also gives one a room of one’s own, also cool (ask Virginia Woolf), an opportunity to meditate (which I like a lot), a very comfortable middle class existence (I’m from the middle classes), as well as a comprehensive training and educational background (I took full advantage of all available libraries). I was not good at attending college, but I did okay with exams. I was expected to be an academic. But I wanted to write, which is not the same thing. I found it difficult to fit into any one academic discipline. I would also like to lightly mention in passing that my brand of religiosity included my joining a monastery, running retreats and giving sermons and being generally incredibly busy with people, which was very difficult for me. I was an odd monk, I must confess. I didn’t like the costume (originally what is now a monks robe was originally the normal clothing of peasants – the hood being a sack for your stuff). I thought it rather elitist and divisive. Also on a general level both back then and now, one would never think it, but I wasn’t comfortable around people. I also found I could be too blunt for people. I offended folks by my excessive straightforwardness, which was taken the wrong way quite a lot. The other thing was I could not stop writing. Poems, articles, stories, essays – I couldn’t stop. Then after a few years I stopped believing in God, which was a devastating and deeply depressing experience. Christianity, at a certain point made no sense. It had its origins in older religions, which in turn had its origins in older myths. It was all clearly made up. I found my true calling was to atheism and publishing poor quality youthful short stories and poems. I quit being a monk. I tried academia but disliked both it and academics. I married, and then, to support my new marriage, I tried being a respectable civil servant with a good job and a house and a pension and serious prospects in the field of computer programming. Though I had hardly seen a computer before becoming a civil servant, I found I had a talent for programming them. I loved taking them apart and reassembling them. I had fun with technology. I used trawl thru computer junk, build a PC, and give them as gifts to friends and people who needed them or didn’t have a personal computer of their own. I also took full advantage of the company library and I learned a few programming languages and made a bit of money. The thing was I still longed to write. Actually at the time I was writing, particularly Sci-Fi, but it wasn’t enough. It was hunger inside me to do more and be more, and though I was naturally good with languages, though I could put ideas, even coded ideas, together easily and quickly, I simply could not take the soul crushing drudgery of working in a corporate setting. The dishonesty, the politics, the lack of challenge, and most of all having to deal with people on a day to day basis, which is by no means my strong suit, I began to drink heavily, and it was a miracle I wasn’t fired for being repeatedly drunk on the job. I remember coding multi-million pound systems while being drunk. I remember compiling reports for accountants, or even writing reports, again while being ‘compromised’, a euphemism one hears in US cop dramas for being under the influence. I was becoming addicted. I found a few brandies relaxed me sufficiently to focus on the task at hand without being unduly anxious while in the company of others, which I disliked. I was earing a lot of money, more than my boss at the time. A therapist I had at the time challenged me. She said if I continued drinking and coding, alcohol would destroy my mind. Those were her words. I realized my misery, my depression and hopelessness I was dulling with drink. I was also becoming very unhappy in my marriage. So I quit. I sold my house and made some money, bought another house, became a landlord, and, with no prospects I started writing novels. My wife at the time started publishing my own work and those of other writers. For the most part my books did modestly well. I had found who I was. I was a member of the tribe of writers. I think this is a crucial thing. Every person needs to find who they truly are, especially as an artist. And we are all artists, everyone. Its not a New Age blanket terms like, for instance, us all being ‘beautiful and unique snowflakes’ or ‘find the genius inside you’. No. We are all creative beings, potentially. Again my trouble being around people reared its head. I was swamped with people. Readings, writings, publications, trips to other countries doing launches and so on, began to take their toll on me. My marriage began to really crater. My wife at the time had her own troubles, deep troubles, and I found no matter what I did I could neither help her or myself. I suffered a major depressive episode and after three years and several disastrous misdiagnoses and horrible medications on the part of therapists and psychologists, I left my wife. Then she took her life just under a year after I left. The horror. As I said in her obituary, this is the single greatest loss of talent and potential the Irish publishing scene has suffered in a generation. It came as a devastating shock to me and to those who loved her, a sorrow of immeasurable proportions. I did not understand her condition. In the aftermath it has been explained to me. Now I understand. I have moved on. But I have not forgotten. Now I continue to write, because I am a writer. This is my story. Tell someone yours today, or even write it down. I find it horribly difficult, but its liberating.
What happens when you are wrongly diagnosed as bipolar or whatever: and what it means, if anything…
Have you ever been the patient of a really bad psychotherapist? Lets be honest, there are more than a few of them out there. I actually seriously toyed with the idea of becoming one at one stage of my life. Except I was somewhat drawn by the writing life, and that was that.
Two things separate the good therapist from the bad one, assuming they have been properly trained and have had sufficient therapy themselves to be relatively free of transference and projection and all the other things we do that affects our relationships. Firstly the capacity to objectively listen with out prejudice and secondly the capacity to apply knowledge coupled with experience to an individual patient. Most if not all of the many bad therapists I have had over the years failed on either or both of those fronts. One stand-out moment which typifies my negative therapeutic experiences happened during a session some years ago and it led me to discontinue the therapy. The therapist turned to me in a moment of obvious frustration, and asked me was I by any chance writing a book about him?
I beg your pardon, I said?
And he repeated the question.
Why, I asked?
Well, the therapist said, rather solemnly, these sessions we were engaging in were more like two therapists discussing the practise of psychotherapy, than a patient going to and talking with a therapist.
I was pretty appalled and very angry.
I said no, I wasn’t writing a book about this. I am in trouble, big trouble. That’s why I am here. I don’t need to do that kind of research to write.
I then went on to say by the way that was a bizarre question. One of the most I have ever been asked in therapy.
I mentioned I had completed a draft novel I wasn’t really happy with. I went on to say that the novel had a therapist as the central character. I offered him a look at a draft of it to satisfy himself I wasn’t using his rather dull unimaginative personality as a blueprint (and no, I wasn’t being unkind, he was a dreadful bore)
The therapist said that wasn’t necessary.
But I pressed the issue. I said that as the issue had been raised, it was hard to see how this could not become a central issue during the therapeutic encounter.
I wasn’t there for copy. I was there because I was in trouble. My marriage was in difficulty at the time. I was very anxious and depressed about family of origin issues. I felt trapped. Hopeless. this was the third therapist I had been to with no help. As I didn’t get the help from either that quack therapist I needed, or from other equally awful therapists, I got more depressed. And things went downhill. Feeling helpless and unsupported has something of a domino effect. Things cratered to such an extent that I had a major depressive episode. After that I went to a psychiatrist and was misdiagnosed as bipolar. I completely accepted the diagnosis. I told friends and colleagues. I did radio interviews about it. This went on for a few years. Then, by sheer luck I met a good therapist who told me I was no more bipolar as I was a professional safe-cracker or an astronaut. Not that her word was enough, by the way. I met a few others who said the same thing. I took the hint and stopped seeing Psychiatrists. It was such a good move.
Along with the indignity of being misdiagnosed as bipolar, I have been put on some of the most awful mind numbing medications. The medication had withdrawal symptomatology far worse than the condition they were supposed to treat. After a couple of attempts I got off the meds. Things have massively improved. Years have passed. No ill effects.
How does this kind of thing happen? How does a depressed writer get diagnosed with a pretty serious condition which he does not have? Well, it’s easy in one way to see how it might happen. I mean when I am working on something I feel fantastic. The ideas come fast and I have a lot of energy. Afterwards I am tired and lethargic. As any writer or indeed anyone creative will tell you, one goes to rather extreme emotionally and spiritually exhausting places to write books. One isn’t in it for the money. Believe me there are easier way to make money. One writes because its what one was born to do. To not do it, to settle for less, is very dangerous thing to do. So this is the creative cycle, not the manic depressive cycle. There is a substantial difference, and a good therapist sees this.
‘The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.’ (wikipedia) – or if you are a writer, you just might get lucky some day…
The Discreet Charm of being Labelled
But it doesn’t work out like that. Labels stick. Like the bad writer stuck in a rut that pays, once you write your best seller or get your government grant or run enough magazines or give courses, you are labelled. And once that happens, everyone expects more of the same. You get comfortable. You feed the crowds. Similarly once you got the label, it stays. After initial diagnosis, there is little re-visitation of ones symptoms. One is labelled and medicated and that’s that. Aftercare was a twilight zone experience for me. Our health system makes you go see a trainee psychiatrist who is under the care of a Chief Psychiatrist. One sees a different one for every appointment, for the most part. They don’t know you, usually never met you before, and usually never will again. They are polite, friendly, witty, personable, professionally distant, and usually very busy. They have a few minutes to read your file, and on this basis, they interview you. This little psychodrama happens once every month or two. The pubescent psychiatrist is usually a doctor on psych rotation, someone who gives you twenty minutes and then ends the session with a prescription. Not ideal, to say the least. I had to aggressively lobby for therapy, and for the most part I got it only by the skin of my teeth. This rather hands-off approach of out patient psychiatry is something that needs urgent attention in my view.
Then there is a deeper issue at work here. It leads me to the notion of how in our cognitive processes, belief tends more often than not to precede evidence. Evidence should always precede belief. Otherwise one is guilty of cognitive bias. I displayed symptoms of bipolarity. But I was not bipolar. I had creative cycles. I was depressed due to life circumstances. I needed help. I needed the good therapy I had been looking for, not a cheap and easy diagnosis. I needed a good therapist. Not years of medication.
Then there are examples and studies. I found a really interesting one in my reading. In the early 1970’s, much to the huge outrage of the psychiatric community a psychiatrist called David Rosenhan conducted a case study which led to some rather fascinating results. He persuaded seven friends, none of whom had any case history of any kind of mental illness, to enter various mental hospitals to see if they could persuade members of the mental health care community that they were mentally ill. This was between 1969 and 1972. What did these sane folks do to convince the doctors they were sick? Well they all claimed to hear the words “thud, and “empty” and “hollow” and they all got admitted. Every one of them. And they were all diagnosed as having some form of mental illness, mostly schizophrenia. They were given a total of 2100 pills (they had been taught to ‘cheek’ their meds before going in), only two of which were ever actually swallowed. Other than lying about their names and lying about hearing the words, they were told to be completely honest. After Rosenthan had gotten his diagnosis, staff began to read into his actions. For instance, his study required him to make notes. This was described as ‘writing behaviour’. One of the other impostor patients was and artist and drew these fantastic line drawings of the hospital they were in, they too were described as indulging in ‘drawing/painting behaviour’. Finally Rosenthan couldn’t get out of the hospital. The only way he could actually get out of the hospital was to tell the doctors that they were completely correct in their views, that he Rosenthan was insane, and that he was getting better bit by bit.
This is not dissimilar to the experience of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who suffered a very real and very debilitating breakdown and was admitted to a mental hospital, a hospital which he simply could not get out of. His method was to tell the doctors that he was feeling better incrementally. He would every day tell staff that things were getting better for him; that he was feeling just a little bit better than yesterday, till they let him go. Check out his second book Lila for a description of this process.
The point of all this is the question of belief. These professionals couldn’t distinguish between sick and well folks. My therapists couldn’t do that either. If you are seen as a patient and not as a person, your views of reality-no matter how valid – are somehow seen as secondary. This is because the belief that the doctor imposes on the patient presupposes disbelief of the patient’s valid world-view. I can even report that this is how exactly I experienced my treatment. I accepted the doctors word for what was ‘wrong’ with me. I accepted it and trusted them, despite the fact that the more I read about my condition, and the more I discussed my condition, the more doubts I had about whether or not I actually had Bipolar Disorder.
No, Really – I Engage in Writing Activity
But back to Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum told the doctors repeatedly that he was actually a professor of psychology. They asked him did he often feel he was a professor of psychology. I told my doctors I was a writer, that I had written novels and plays, poetry and articles. They didn’t believe me. They had to ask asked my wife (now deceased sadly) and my doctor, who assured them that yes I was indeed a writer. It’s what Rosenbaun refers to as the ‘stickiness of psycho diagnostic labels’ – prejudicial thinking, the imposition of an unscientific mindset on presenting symptomatology.
It would be somewhat facile to suggest that there is an easy way through what I see as a complex and rather perennial difficulty. What is sanity? In a world deeply troubled, what is a sane mind? Obviously we are all grasping at an answer to this question. Suffice to say that though there is no absolute answer to this question, we live in a world of consensus based on an ever expanding pool of knowledge and research and clinical experience to draw from. The people who diagnosed me were most definitely trying to help a person who was in a lot of pain. Sadly, though they did help, they left me in something of a mess for quite a while until I figured out what they had gotten wrong, and thanks to the brilliant help of a few really gifted therapists, I did. I wonder if there are more creative people out there who have similar experiences. Those who are of a more creative bent, who pursue the extremities of human experience, are naturally inclined to suffer trauma, and at times to become unwell. Its unfortunate that the labelling of a creative person can also lead to the labelling of their work, indeed the tenor of their entire lives. This reflects badly on our culture and on our society. Though it is true that some creative folk most definitely do suffer throughout their lives from various flavours of psychiatric disorders, many others I am sure, like myself, were subject to misdiagnosis based on a consensus misunderstanding of creativity. I live in the hope that my and many others experience will form a teachable moment and shift our cultural understanding of the needs of the creative person.
The hardest lesson I ever learned about being a writer was when I spent time on Bo Peeps farm. It was a long time ago (20 years at least) in another country (I’d rather not say), and most of the people involved are long dead now (so I’m given to believe). I arrived at the farm in a state of disarray, my life in considerable turmoil after my leaving the Church and religious life. I was very slightly known then as a writer, and, the owner of the farm, Ms Peep, who had several buildings available for rent, gave me somewhere to stay, with more than a gleam in her eye. She seemed excessively pleased on learning I wrote (not that I told her) and mentioned loudly she was planning a book on the subject of her historically significant home. I said I was a novice in the literary game. “A few poems, the odd story, nothing special,” I said. But she suggested I stay and at least consider the possibility. I said nothing beyond offering her free lessons. Yet despite such enthusiasms, Ms Peep had had previous experiences of members of the artistic community staying on her lush pastures and domicile of extensive cultural and historical significance, however they didn’t always come up with the rent and left suddenly, so I was questioned about my ability to pay. Offended, but suppressing my anger, I offered three months rent in advance. This was declined and I was shown to my place and introduced to the other members of the community, who disturbingly all had had difficult times in their lives and were down at the farm trying to get over troubled lives. But I was told the good news. I was apparently already writer in residence. Yes indeedy. And I thought- me – a writer in residence? I was a kid (no pun intended). I’m the startled looking lost sheep (2nd from left)
“I hear you are writing a book about the place,” my fellow lost sheep bleated. My ego was tickled at the thought, or even the rumour I might be doing something as cool as penning a book. Me -a real writer? I might even make money. “Er, yes,” I said, while remembering some loose discussion initially about writing, but mainly assisting Bo Peep in her literary endeavors. I initially began making notes for the book, to the delight of my shepherd, and also began not only researches into the place, but began to get to know the people who lived there. And the more I got to know them the less I wanted to write about the place. “Everyone here has a story, you know,” Ms Peep piped up. No shit Sherlock, I thought. Do they really? “And they all come here for a reason. I watch over them, you know.” “What type of book do you want?” I asked. Our shepherd and glorious leader, put aside her shepherd’s crook for a moment and looked intently at me. Off in the distance one could see heavy dragon shaped clouds. As I looked up she spoke,. Bo Peep knew exactly what she wanted. “A light table top novel. Humorous. Good holiday reading.” Dear Lord, I thought. I was now a holiday novelist. I was rather more ambitious than that. Also, I was developing a problem with this. I mean, I thought of the people living around the Big House. I wondered if they would consent to being so trivialized, lives reduced to summer reading, their stories distorted into fiction. Was that fair? I wondered, no matter how much I employed the fashionable Kevlar of fiction to insulate myself from potential lawsuits, was it right to use these peoples personal stories, even if they were all to consent to it, as fodder for some type of lame upwardly mobile bourgeois tennis club boast over afternoon cocktails? (I was reading Karl Marx at the time, you have to forgive my naive revolutionary zeal)
So I was a literary butler. I wrote on demand, And Ms. Peep though polite and superficially friendly, ruled her flock with a crook of iron. Well, maybe not iron, that’s heavy – something really rigid but light – you understand. But then I knew I might make some coin if I allowed myself to be pimped out like this. Bo Peep had influence. She had spent years climbing the society ladder, and already had close personal friends on all the top golf, tennis, and croquet clubs. I could be marginally less of a hopeless unknown. But then I said no to the whole project. I smoked some weed and grew a conscience, fool that I was all those years ago. I told Ms Peep that I couldn’t do it. And she was very angry indeed. She made life rather difficult for me among the very herd I was trying to protect (see fetching photo above.) Things got ugly. I was accused of not very nice things down on the farm. The other lost sheep seemed to draw away from me. They were disappointed their names were never going to be in print. Eventually the arguments, accusations of being rude, disrespectful and generally not being an obedient sheep and new member of the herd of lost sheep, became too much for this nervous woolly jumper. Even a sheep has a smidgin of dignity. I decided to go my own way, move out and find other pastures green. It was the best decision I made. Bo Peep went on minding sheep, and looking for other lost shepherdable sheep to mind – lost vulnerable ones needing pastures safe and fresh. I kept calm, started another book, and never looked back. A nasty experience.
Getting Stuck – Writers Block
As life is pretty complex, as there is an infinity of time and space out there, as there are billions of events happening out there in time and space, as it is close to impossible to actually comprehend the sheer vastness of what is beyond the stratosphere of our small planet, as we are still learning and therefore continue to make determinations about the Earth, other planets, the stars and galaxies and about the universe, there is always, always, something to write about. The truth is every writer, no matter how great the talent that writer has, has to realize that, in the words of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden “you have to give up, you have to realize that one day you will die”. In other words it is impossible to express reality, it’s impossible to describe how it is. Why? Because information is infinite. And we are very finite. If I accept this, the question has to be asked. Why do writers get blocked? What happens when I sit down and find I have nothing to say? There are many reasons why this happens to a writer. Here are two:
1. A personal upheaval. Writing requires a certain rhythm and predictability of lifestyle in order for one to complete big projects. Huge emotional crises, though they might give grist to the mill of creativity down the line, take up vast amounts of emotional and psychic energy and can cause one to shut down for a while, mainly as a form of self-protection more than anything else. Probably one of the the greatest rookie mistakes is the young writer seeking what is loosely called ‘experience’ in order to write. In other words – going out to expose themselves to life’s vicissitudes for the purposes of being able to write something of substance before perhaps many of them are ready. This has the unfortunate effect of triggering the above mentioned upheaval and sometimes depressive episodes.
That being said in the great scheme of things, personal upheavals are impossible to avoid and sometimes not always for the worst in life. One thing is important. A writer has to carry on writing, even in the midst of a chaos he or she did not cause or did not expect. A journal or notebook might be the answer to these times. Keep talking to oneself. The big project might have to wait a while.
2. A death in one’s style. This is a serious crisis in the life of a writer. They become disenchanted with their own writing, and consequently cannot continue. It may lead to upheaval as in (1) or cause them to stop writing. Style is broadly speaking how a writer uses words. Specifically it is the manifestation of the writer’s worldview in words. In a writers style one hears his or her voice. A writers voice is that note of individuality that no one will find anywhere else. This is why for instance the same story is told over and over for millennia and it never gets old. There are a couple of reasons for this, all allied to style. Firstly that there is an infinity of perspectives and secondly every writer tells a story differently. For instance – Joyce’s Ulysses is basically a day in the life of an ordinary guy in Dublin. Yet as it comes from such a unique voice as Joyce, it is extraterrestrially brilliant. Joyce, because he never stopped experimenting and developing his style, he never became disenchanted with writing. In order to prevent the death of one’s style a writer must not (a) sell out – become that kind of literary butler who writes for a pay check (b) become lazy – churn out the same kind of book year after year simply because it is easy to do so or (c) become proud – think she is too gifted and accomplished for criticism. Ego is the destruction of more talents than one can shake a stick at.
3. It’s no longer fun. If the joy goes out of writing it’s time to stop and think about doing something else. Writing is too difficult an art and a craft to pursue without loving what one does. If a writer has a real powerful gift, that gift is its own reward. If one does it for the money, one will be disappointed. If one does it for the fame and adulation, one will be very disappointed. If one does it for the love of it, it never gets old and the fun never goes.
And Just for fun lets hear it for Tyler Durden
Ireland is replete with literary events and poetry readings. All literary events are literary, but not all of them are equal. O Bheal ( www.obheal.ie ) is a particularly good one, and it was a marvelously enjoyable evening for me.
1. Resistance is futile. You are made just so welcome. I am not a particularly nervous reader of my work (or indeed of anyone elses). That is, except about two minutes before I stand up. Then and only then do I generally get the most dreadful attack of nerves, which dissipates pretty quickly. Even if I were a sufferer from chronic stage fright, it wouldn’t matter. Paul Casey and his team of MC’s make one so welcome and comfortable. No need to be afraid.
2. Practice before. O Bheal, to my mind is an important reading. It had been over a year since I had given a reading, so, feeling rusty, I prepared, maybe too much on reflection. I should have had more of an edge on me. Less smooth. Though when I turned up for the reading (way too early as it happened and wandered around Cork City for an hour) I was glad I had. One is reading to a discerning and humorous audience. If they don’t like the poem, they don’t clap. They aren’t rude or unreceptive or snobbish. Its clear, all too clear one is dealing with an audience who are there because they love poetry. I was relieved. I chose my words had my stuff ready, and read acceptably. So, even if you read twice a week every week, prepare yourself.
3. Its Not Trying to be Cool or Clever, It Just Is. O Bheal is run by writers and artists for writers, artists, and lovers of good writing. Terrible readings generally are either (a) over formalized or (b) over controlled by tradition or (c) given to a reactionary rebelliousness, or (d) so replete with establishment self congratulation true self expression is impossible. Real innovation exists somewhere between the twin horns of the dilemma of established tradition and innovation. O Bheal segues around this difficulty as it embraces both sides of the aisle. You can, within reason, read whatever you like, and nobody gets offended. I have had, in the past to temper my material to avoid giving offense to people. In actual fact, in order to avoid any such eventuality, I actually asked if there was any subject I might avoid so as to no offend anyone. I was told not to worry.
4. Winthrop Street in Cork is a Super Venue. Its not too big, not too small. Its a kind of Goldilocks venue, just the right size. Homely and welcoming, I loved it. Here’s a map:
5. Its Got a Good Mix. O Bheal combines an open mic, a featured reader, and what is known as the ‘five word challenge’. People suggest five words. and you have to make up a poem from the five words. The winner gets a pint free from the bar. Some of the poems are remarkable. My own offering was absolutely dire, by the way.
6. Its Social. Like Seven Towers events O Bheal has a strong social element. I got involved, despite being really tired from five hours traveling, and giving a reading, in all kinds of discussions about writing mostly. These included such arcane topics as second century atheistic poetry in Muslim countries and Doris Lessings post colonial guilt. I got into my rooms about 2 AM, completely wrecked. Then I had the joy of listening to the loudest snoring I ever heard ever from downstairs. It sounded like the bed and breakfast had a dragon staying.
7. You get Paid and B&B. They put you up in a really nice B&B and they pay you. Enough said. This is important. Writers need to be paid. Thanks to Paul Casey and the team. Kudos.
8. The Reading. And heres my reading 8th June 2015 at O Bheal Winthrop Street. Cork
Enjoy, and check out the event. A great evening.
Directed by Stephen Frears. With Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings.
The notion of any kind of hereditary monarchy simply incomprehensible to me. It is a system of government so riven with problems as to be potentially catastrophic for a country. This is why the UK have reduced the monarchy to figurehead status. That being the case, the UK remains with a Queen, and Helen Mirren (who won an Oscar for her role in this movie) plays Elizabeth II just after the death of Diana Spenser in 1997, formerly Princess Diana. Diana Spenser is named by Blair as the peoples princess (Tony Blair is played by the creepily brilliant Michael Sheen who also should have gotten an Oscar for his role as the obsequious power hungry worshipful Machiavellian Tony Blair )
Blair, though ostensibly promising to modernise the UK, in many ways sees his path to power along the road of maintaining the status quo. Blair wants power and is intelligent enough and a gifted enough politician to be no socialist revolutionary anti monarchist. He is not long in office and Elizabeth II is wary of him. Diana is dead and she refuses to treat the death as a royal affair despite a very public outpouring of grief and the fact that Blair refers to her as the ‘people’s princess’ – a divisive term to say the least and something that causes a deep division in the Royal household. Elizabeth couldn’t compete with Diana in terms of popularity, or even her capacity to communicate with people. Diana was a girl chosen to be the wife of Charles, who was already deeply in love and in a long term passionate relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. Not a recipe for a sound long term arrangement.
Diana surprised the royals. She was beautiful warm and charismatic and was unafraid to display her many flaws in public. Elizabeth was the polar opposite. She was precise and cerebral, cold and driven by duty. There was a sense that she loathed this person, this Diana, who had invaded their carefully controlled royal cosmos and refused to conform to its mores. In some ways the movie is more about the ghost of Diana Spenser and her effect of Elizabeth II than anything else.
Blair pressurizes the Queen to come down out of the hermetically sealed forty thousand acre estate in Balmoral in Scotland and meet the people in London. The sheer distance between the Royal Family and the lives of the ordinary people becomes apparent as the Queen reads the news day by day, watches the interviews Diana gave after her divorce, unprecedented interviews which broke the code of silence, and sees her own ratings plummet as the tabloids turn on her. She concedes to Blair’s entreaties and returns to Buckingham Palace and meets the people and looks and the swathes of flowers and expressions of regret and she is horrified. It is obvious that many hold her and the machinations of the Royal family household personally responsible for Diana’s death. Which is both interesting, tragic, and at the same time not unusual. A much loved public figure with royal connections dies in a Parisian tunnel with her boyfriend while being chased by rapacious paparazzi. The driver of the vehicle was drunk. Had he not been drunk the crash may not have happened. Anyway when a terrible unforeseen tragedy occurs, such as this one, there is an outpouring of grief and of anger and people look for someone to blame (something I can understand only too well from my own life experience). They blamed the Royal Family and particularly Elizabeth II.
The pain of this very public condemnation struck her to the core, but like all leaders and political figures, she summoned the resources necessary to survive, to maintain her distance and her dignity and to keep the Royal Family as a central facet of English life and culture at a time when a Labour Government was in power, a time when there was real talk of abolishing the Royal Family as a historical anachronism. Mirren shows the intelligence and the depth and the coldness of Elizabeth II. Michael Sheen shows Blair as the untrustworthy nasty piece of work he seems by all accounts to be.
All in all this is a great film, an ensemble performance about a truly surreal world, the world of the Royal Family and how deeply dysfunctional they are. I was glad I saw it. I switched on the TV and there it was. How Fortuitous.
THE WORST HOLIDAY OF OUR LIVES
(*SEE NOTE BELOW*)
We stayed ten days in Alykes, Zakinthos and it was
1. Drafty: The way the wind howled through the cracks between the windows and the doors during windy rainy nights and we were freezing and that no one checked on us after the night that the thunder roared overhead and the heating didn’t work and water washed past the front door of our apartment.
2. The Apartment: That our apartment was unclean (filty) and we had to wash it ourselves and the shower curtain fell over and there was a small open drain in the middle of the floor in the bathroom and one of the windows didn’t lock and I mentioned the air conditioning didn’t work and it was dreadful and unhealthy.
3. Garbage: That fact our garbage remained uncollected (I used take it secretly down to a local bin). There was even garbage on the beach. (The place is nothing like the website.)
4. Value for Money: That the food was bad and overpriced and the supermarkets were overpriced and the taxis were overpriced and there was little fresh food and almost no fresh fish. They sure don’t cater for vegetarians.
5. Our Host: That the owner of the ‘villa’ (absolutely nothing like the photograph on the website) took our money and seemed to basically disappear for much of our stay after day three. (Did I mention no one checked in on us?) In point of fact he was called by another hotel owner we met on our cycling travels who berated him for being such a poor host.
6. The Unfriendliness: I could wax lyrical about the incredible sexism Iza endured, the whistles, the beeping of horns. It was awful. But let me give an example – We went cycling one day to the Blue Caves and turned up in a restaurant who didn’t accept cards (surprisingly only half the island accepts cards and has cash machines) and they insisted we give them our ID as proof of payment and we had to cycle 18 km with chest infections the next day to get our ID back because the owner just wouldn’t drive down to us (In fairness she was apologetic – but still …)
7. The Dirt: Garbage left indefinitely in bins, trash thrown about, empty half-finished buildings everywhere, just sheer lack of cleanliness. I already mentioned the stuff on the beach.
8. Off Season: I thought all this was happening because we booked off season- or maybe they just didn’t like us. But other guests would turn up who had booked online and bang on our window in the morning looking for the owner who was nowhere to be found.
9. The Noise: Construction work going on right beside our apartment, constant sounds of traffic, howling barking animals night and day, so bad that we had to move ourselves to another vacant apartment.
10. Stray Cats: That the place was full of stray underfed sickly looking cats living in bins and wandering the streets day and night. I mentioned the dogs. I didn’t mention they were chained up all the time – probably why they were barking and yowling day and night. You did see some being walked, just like you saw well cared for cats. But mostly chained up dogs or feral cats.
Those were ten things that didn’t make our ten day stay in Alykes, Zakinthos sheer perfection. I thought about amassing photographs and publishing them here and bringing some kind of documentary proof and so on to show you, dear reader, the state of the place. After I had done that I thought of writing a few pithy lines about how unfriendly I found the locals, how untrusting, how much you -‘tourist’ or ‘visitor’, were there just to get money from (I remember one joyous moment I bought a bottle of cough medicine and some antibiotics and was charged thirty Euro). But I decided not to. Why? It was my experience of it. It might not be yours.
But away from people with all the greed and the dirt and noise and the money grabbing, was the island itself. Arcadia. And it was glorious. I will never forget the beauty of the landscapes, the shades of deep blue of sea, the lines of waves and the sound of the Ionian Sea at night, the myriad birds, the flora and fauna, the olive groves, the orange and lemon trees, the bats and geckos and falcons, it was all transcendentally beautiful. That alone made our ten day stay in Alykes, Zakinthos sheer perfection and utterly unforgettable. Just stay away from populated places, ok?
Since this has been posted (11.4.2015), Iza and I have found to our distress we have been banned from holidaying in Greece. This is as a result not only of this post below, but of our posting about what was a terrible holiday in Zante on Trip Advisor. There is, according to some hotel owners we have communicated with in Greece, a blacklist “like the Banks System is all the Hotel Owners make it to protect the Tourism Industry from some “Serious problems”” (and I quote). I was told that tourists were not to be informed about the list, but its there folks, and if a hotel owner in Greece doesn’t like what you write on Trip Advisor, well what happened to us could happen to anyone. The thing is, we were the ones who had the terrible holiday. The place would be shut down in Ireland.