Time to stop just talking about it

Candice: It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. There is a lot of content about it out there this year as, though it is something that always exists, in the last year mental health issues have hit a lot more people than before. The change that the pandemic has wrought had an impact on us all. And some of us have dealt with it better than others but I think everyone has been touched by loneliness, isolation, just not being able to be around friends or loved ones.

I’m not ashamed to admit it has not been my best year for my own mental health. I am a social bunny and like to be out and about enjoying life. Even the simple things like hanging out having a chat round the coffee machine are something that gives me motivation. Being locked in my house for a year (with the odd break), has not helped me. I missed going to the gym, going out to concerts and just hanging out with my friends.

For the first time in a long time I am going in the office this week. I have no idea what it will be like. I know what the rules around what I have to do in the office are, but actually being in the office and being around people…. well that is a bit of an unknown. I have mixed feelings. I want to socialise but I have got so used to my new lifestyle, logging on in the spare room, walks round the block in the lunch break, no commute, that I am not sure how I feel about this. And I sure I am not the only person thinking this. We’ve all got use to the ‘new normal’ and now reverting to the ‘old normal’ seems just as odd. However, one of the reasons I am going is to help me get back some of that normality.

I’ve got tickets for concerts over the summer, and holidays planned and I need to get back into the idea of being around groups of people, we all do. I’ve been going to the gym and the supermarket but I am sure a lot of people haven’t and have a whole other step to get over around socialising with people.

So what do I really want to say – there is a lot of talk about the impact of the pandemic over the last year but I think just as important is the change to the return to normal. Some people may deal with it better than others. Being aware of the impact on others, not pushing people to do things that they might not want to do, being flexible is just as important.

I watched a TV programme the other week about male suicide. There was one point that stayed with me after the show over all others. “Ask someone if they are ok, then ask them again.” Some times by asking twice they give the true answer, rather than the flip answer that we all give of being fine. I thought that was a really good idea.

So I’m going to ask you, not just during Mental Health Awareness Week but every week, to check on those around you if they are really ok. And if they aren’t then see if you can help or direct them to the places that can – as soon as you can. There is some really good information here. Mental health: Can you tell if someone is struggling? – BBC News

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Sally Parker’s not my mum, and I’m relieved

Sally Parker is struggling to find the hero inside herself.
All she wants to do is lie down.
Her husband Frank has lost his business, their home and their savings, in one fell swoop. Their bank cards are being declined. The children have gone feral. And now the bailiffs are at the door.
What does an ordinary woman do when the bottom falls out?
Sally Parker is about to surprise everybody.
Most of all herself.

Phil: I like Mel Giedroyc. She’s very funny on the telly.

But if this is typical of her literary output, please, please don’t let her near a keyboard.

Sally Parker (no relation) is one of those ladies who lunch. Her husband, a hedge fund manager, pays all the bills. She lives in a gilded cage with staff she doesn’t like, who do all the work. The three kids and one niece, are all nightmare spoilt brats. Her skills are being born pretty.

We know all this by reading the interminable build-up. If you want to know how the other half lives, then you’ll love it. I was bored.

Then it all starts to fall apart. Slowly. There is a financial crash. Husband Frank develops narcolepsy and keeps falling asleep. They lose the house and move through a series of improbable situations to keep a roof over their heads.

Eventually, we end up in Wales at the bedside of a dying aunt – for no reason I could entirely fathom. There, after a bit of trans-misogyny that might have provided a much stronger plotline, everyone ends up standing in a room.

This might work if there was a single character you cared about. But there isn’t. If the who lot had been killed on page two, I’d not have missed them.

It’s tempting to pull out problems, but that’s just going to turn into a rant. We could mention Sally’s good friend Janice who it is made clear, silently fancies Sally and pretty much saves the day without a hint of thanks. Or the wonky timeline where, as everyone individually rushes to Wales, sees Sally suddenly decide to take a days’ employment mucking out at a stable. Or Mikey, the business-minded child constantly being told to shut up when she tries to offer cash to help dig the family out of a whole. I could go on.

In theory, the idea that Frank started out tarmacing as a boy, and ended up by dint of his hard work, a successful fund manager, ought to be interesting – but it just happened. You would have thought that as Sally was party to this from the start, she would be involved and feel part of it. Nope.

The trans story (Warning: Spoiler) that is largely ignored is that Frank’s dad, who he idolised, changed sex but his parents stayed together. That might have provided a thrust for his actions, but we find out about all this in the last chapter.

While not the worst celebrity novel out there (Hello Celia Imrie), it’s a book that would have benefitted from being written by a nobody and then beaten into shape with the help of an editor. Someone who would have picked up the pace in the first half (“one fell swoop” takes half the book), ditched the unnecessary narcolepsy storyline, and the pointless stuff about the doctor which doesn’t do anything for the plot. The deeper issues might have been turned up – the trans stuff and also the aunt they all rush to visit by the end. All the stuff about Frank’s business partner having repeated breakdowns seemed both odd and tasteless too.

Maybe, part of the problem is that I don’t live in this world. I don’t even come into contact with it. If I and my friends lived the ladies who lunch life, then I’d identify with more than just the surname of the lead characters.

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The Element of Surprise

Wonder Woman (2017 film).jpg

Candice: I had an interesting lunch time walk yesterday. After spending the morning trying to copywrite 20 letters, I felt I needed a break from the laptop and a turn round the block.

Now, I have become very familiar with said block over the last year. When I leave the house it actually becomes ‘which route can we go today without going slightly mad at seeing the same things over and over again?’. I mentally picked my route and set off, a little chilled as the temperature has really dropped over the last few days.

I’m just coming to end of the route and there are some roadworks. They are laying new broadband cable for someone, in fact they have been doing it for over a week and its been a bit of a pain. Thank gawd that at the moment my only commute is the odd trip to school, in the opposite direction.

I watch this black Honda Civic do a three point turn in the road and pull up. I’m thinking they must live in one of the houses and can’t get on the drive due to the work. I then spot one of the occupants get out, hood over his head as he sidles round the side of an unoccupied open back truck, with road digging equipment on the back. Next thing I know he is lifting off one of the pieces of kit.

At this point I jump into action as I realise what is going on. I’ve got my phone in my pocket so I get it out to take photos. I can’t get the attention of the workmen as they are too far away, and its too noisy.

Of course I can’t unlock my photo quickly as I am fumbling around. By this point the driver must have spotted me as the next think I know the Civic is burning off up a side round, passenger hiding in his seat while the Driver has his hand up to obscure his face as he drives past. I’ve managed to get off one photo with the reg of the car.

I don’t know if they grabbed something or not, so run down to the workmen to warn them something might have been nicked. Luckily their kit is chained down on the back of the truck so nothing was taken.

After many thanks from them I walk home, still shell shocked from what happened.

It all happened so quickly, I’m still amazed I managed to register what was going on. If I had been in a car I never would have done, or looking at my phone which is what most people do all day. According to my friends, I am now ‘Wonder Woman’. I’ll take that.

Good books all rely on the element of surprise to keep us engaged and get the adrenaline flowing. A twist, a death, anything to make the reader go ‘Oh’, and then they want to read on to see what happens next. Life can be boring at the moment, so see what you can find – if it’s a crop of bluebells, a text message to an old friend who you haven’t spoken to in a while – to help keep up your ‘element’ of surprise and keep the day fresh. I wouldn’t recommend a robbery every day though!

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Sweet Sweet Revenge Ltd

Phil: Some stories require the reader to suspend their disbelief to enjoy them. Sweet Sweet Revenge Ltd by Jonas Jonasson asks you to put your disbelief in a bag, take it down to the bottom of the garden and bury it.

Full of mad ideas and improbable coincidences, the story doesn’t make sense if you insist on being Mr Literal when reading. You will find the idea of a Swedish Nazi art dealer abandoning his illegitimate son in the desert to be eaten by lions a touch improbable.

You’ll also be stuck when the son doesn’t get eaten by lions, instead, being brought up by a Maasai medicine man. And when the son runs back to Sweden, his adoptive dad decides to track him down. All of this while we have a couple of fake (or not) paintings and an advertising executive helping people take revenge on others.

It is mad. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

In style, the book has a lot in common with the work of Tom Sharpe. Perhaps less dodgy sex (although the dealer does become known as “goat-sex man” for various reasons not involving sex with goats) and violence, but still that craziness where the rules of the real world don’t really apply. Or at least, not in the way we expect them too.

There is a lot of plot in these pages too. Most books would be happy with about half as much, but in this respect, it’s like a very filling meal which is so tasty that you can’t help eating a little more than you really should.

If you like absurd stories, then try it.

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All the Lonely People by Mike Gayle

All The Lonely People: From the Richard and Judy bestselling author of Half  a World Away comes a warm, life-affirming story – the perfect read for  these times eBook: Gayle, Mike: Amazon.co.uk:

Candice: I’ve read a few Mike Gayle books over the years. I’m not sure how I originally came across him, but he hails from our local area (Birmingham) so I always like to give a Brummie some support.

Phil sent this one over a few weeks again in one of his reading parcels (the only way we have been keeping each other sane during lockdown) and I’d waited to start it as I wasn’t sure about the title, it sounded too sad.

The story follows Hubert Bird, a Jamaican who came to the UK in the 1950s looking for work. Cutting between present and past it tells the story of Hubert landing in the country and finding that the streets weren’t paved with gold, and the locals weren’t friendly to a man with black skin.

He is rescued by Joyce, a fellow worker at the department store he ends up at. She is white, and they forge on through the years facing up to the prejudice. But, it also tells the story of the present, where Hubert is now on his own, Joyce dead and the children grown up and left home. He has lost touch with the friends who emigrated at the same time as him and now spending his days pottering, and having the odd phone call with his daughter who now lives in Australia.

In walks Ashleigh, local newbie looking to make some friends, and an unlikely friendship is created between this bubbly twenty something year old single mum and the eighty year old Hubert. It brings him out of the place he has been hiding and makes him realise he is actually very lonely.

Together they create a ‘Campaign for loneliness’ in the local area which gets picked up by the national press, Hubert the reluctant star.

As with all stories this would be too cut and dried if all was as it seemed, I won’t give the twist away but it’s a good one.

With everything happening at the moment I thought this story added a different view on what has been happening to people during the pandemic, even though it wasn’t specifically about it. We’ve all got lonely, sitting at home on our zoom calls, telling stories to everyone about how great things are. We all need to go and say hi to a neighbour, reconnect with an old friend, chat to the person at the local food shop, as we are missing out on what makes us human: being sociable and interacting with others. This week, of course, some have been partaking in a pint as soon as they can but to me its not about the pub, its about the people. And I have missed the people a lot in the last year.

This is a lovely story that doesn’t challenge but is a light read where you want to know what happens to Hubert and his friends. I came to the end with a smile on my face.

Don’t be lonely, people.

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Don’t fall down the research rabbit-hole

Phil: Have you ever found yourself on Wikipedia reading up on something and unable to resist clicking on a related link? At the time you tell yourself it’s relevant to the topic, but then there is another link, and another. And another.

You start reading about tractor production in post-war America and half a day later you’re learning about the proclivities of minor German aristocracy in 1830.

It’s addictive, something to do with dopamine in your brain, and the urge to procrastinate while kidding yourself that any education is good. I mean, who doesn’t need to know about flat-roofed pubs for example?

I’ve just finished the enjoyable Funny You Should Ask book by the QI Elves. It’s full of unrelated facts such as what would happen if you tried to dig through the Earth, or what causes deja-vu. If you enjoy odd snippets of information, it’s a good fun read.

The most useful fact in the book isn’t in the main text, but the introduction.

When writing for the quiz, they start with the answer and then craft a question around it. Working the other way around means endlessly researching as they fall down the rabbit-hole (named after the rabbit-hole Alice falls down in Wonderland) finding linked facts when they should be working.

I’m not sure this will help cure my procrastination, but maybe it will do something for you. In the meantime, I need to go a read up on The Auburn and Lidcome Advance. You never know when knowledge of old Australian newspapers will come in handy!

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Without problems, there are no solutions

When Emma opened her gorgeous little chocolate shop in the harbour village of Warkton-by-the-Sea, she realised a lifelong dream. Love is also blossoming with her hunky beau, Max, who’s slowly healing her fragile heart.

A rival sweet shop and killjoy landlord give Emma a headache, and when a face from the past turns up unannounced, Emma finds herself spiralling down memory lane. With Max’s crazy work schedule driving him to distraction, Emma’s in danger of making some choices she might regret . . .

With close friends, spaniel Alfie, and the whole village behind her, can Emma get the chocolate shop and her love life back on track?

Phil: Spoiler Alert. The book does not end with Emma sitting on the steps of the local war memorial, sucking the dregs from a bottle of Diamond While concealed in a plastic bag and watching the shop burn, consuming the bodies of her landlord and Max who had been having an affair.

Nope, it’s happy ending time, pretty much as you would expect from the cover. All the problems are solved, hunky Max is everything she wants him to be and all the bad choices are forgotten.

And relax.

The Nolan and I have been talking about marketing recently. She explained that if you want to sell a product, the first job is to identify a problem the customer has. Then you tell them how you are going to solve it for them. Simple, ut effective.

That’s what the blurb on the back of the book is doing – setting up a load of problems, with the promise that they will all be solved by the time you close the covers. Let’s be honest, we want that happy ending. Life is rubbish enough and books like this are lovely to wallow in, like a warm bath.

Every story needs a conflict at its core. Without this, it’s just words.

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Lockdown reading

Candice: I could write about the fact its been a year and a day since Boris told us all to stay home. But there has been a lot of coverage on that so I wanted to write about something else.

I would say that I haven’t read any more or less that usual in this year of lock down. The biggest problem I have had is getting hold of books. The range in a supermarket is never quite the same as a good book shop, and then at times even getting to a supermarket to buy a book was hard.

I did try and do book sharing with the neighbours but we either didn’t like the same books or they only read on Kindle so couldn’t share.

Phil and I have done some parcels to each other, as we haven’t been able to share books face to face. But we now keep forgetting who sent what to whom!

The other day I spotted and article on the BBC website about celebrity recommendations for lock down reading. BBC Arts – Culture in Quarantine – Meet the authors: What have Big Book Weekend’s guests been reading? so I thought I’d have a look. It was part of the Big Book Weekend, last weekend and you can hear interviews with each celeb about their favourite book.

The one that interested me the most was the book that Russell Kane recommended. It’s called ‘Wild Thing’ by Mike Fairclough. Its all about rediscovering how to be a child again as an adult, taking some of the stresses and strains that make us forget to have fun.

With over a year of not knowing what we can or can’t do, not being able to book or plan ahead to far as things keep changing, and home schooling for some of us, then perhaps its time to go back and take away some of these stresses. I’ve already decided to take time over the weekend when this is over, rather than stuff it full with expensive activities. Someone just wants to run round the garden sometimes, or play on the swings, and perhaps I do to (though I’m better on the trampoline). Anyone for back garden tennis?

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Lockdown is turning me into Bridget Jones

Phil: With all restrictions in place and our worlds clamped down hard, communications between members of team NolanParker have taken a turn for the weird.

“4067 steps. 2 trains. No cake” I message. “10009” comes the reply.

Basically, we’ve started becoming competitive on the numbers of steps taken during the day. Occasionally, I even win.

Since many of my strolls involve bits of the countryside where I might see a train (how I miss the days of travelling this way) and occasionally, there is a cake pickup involved, I bundle those into the message too.

Trouble is, it all sounds but Bridget Jones. Her diary lists the number of calories eaten, cigarettes smoked and units of alcohol consumed.  At least our messages are a bit healthier!

I suppose describing ourselves in numbers is all we have left at the moment. It’s not like talking about the weather is much fun, and we’re all bored of chatting pandemic!

 

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Something bad is on the way

Phil: I’m reading the excellent All the lonely people by Mike Gayle, but as I look at the book right now, a thought hit me.

I’m 2/3rd of the way through, but I know something bad is going to happen.

The story is partly told in flashback, and so we know where the characters are now, and where they were years ago. And not all the characters are in the Now.

So, somewhere in the remaining pages, there are bad things going to happen.

Perhaps I should stop reading and everything will be all right, but that would deny me the pleasure of finishing off the book. I probably should remember that these aren’t real people, but then I’ve invested in them and care what happens. And (I have the surname for it) I’m nosy.

Does anyone else ever feel like this?

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