The Great British Breakfast

wp_20160319_001Or not.  At its best a morning repast in the UK can be something sublime.  At its worse, well, it’s a disgrace quite frankly.  I’ve stayed in B&B’s up and down the UK and generally have some great experiences.  My preference is to stay in a B&B rather than a hotel as you generally get better service, ‘vfm’, and the personal touch that is lacking in many larger establishments.  Travelling in Scotland over the last 30 years I’ve had some fab breakfasts – and some dreadful ones.

Let’s do a bit of myth busting: no 1.  The price you pay is no indication of the quality of the breakfast you will receive.  I’ve stayed in some fairly pricey places and had mediocre meals.  The converse is also true.  No 2. Just because someone is serving ‘local produce’ does not mean that they can cook it!  I’ve had some lovely fresh local food with exceptional provenance which was ruined by careless cooking.  You know the sort of thing – bouncy eggs, burnt sausages, dried out beans.

If you’re paying to stay somewhere overnight and having a breakfast, then the establishment should be judged on the quality of that meal.  It’s 50% of the equation after all, yet standard tourist board ratings take no account of this.  You get points for facilities and matching furniture, but if you serve bouncy battery eggs, it doesn’t seem to have an impact.  The fact that somewhere has a hairdryer and Wi-Fi seems to carry more importance than whether they provide a decent breakfast.  Frankly if I’m staying away from home I’m interested in starting the day off with something I can actually eat.

I’ve stayed in two establishments recently, out of necessity; one was a fabulous house with a large bedroom with a balcony and many luxury features.  The host was friendly and helpful, but none of these things mitigated the fact that she couldn’t cook and was using poor ingredients.  If you’re running a B&B shouldn’t you at least be able to cook an egg?  The bread was a cheap frozen supermarket loss-leader and so dry that I couldn’t eat it.  As a semi-vegetarian I am frequently disappointed with the breakfast offerings at most accommodation and usually rely on an egg or bread to get me through, so when that fails to be edible I do get somewhat antsy.

How hard can it be to provide a creative vegetarian option?  Mushroom pancakes, stuffed mushrooms, cheesy tomatoes, would a daring huevos rancheros be too much to ask?  Clearly it is.  How about a nice loaf of homemade soda bread or some Scotch pancakes?  I could cope with that.  If there is a vegetarian option – and generally there isn’t – it consists of Quorn Sausages or their equivalent.  Now I know I’m fussy.  Some people love these sausage substitutes.  Not me.  I don’t eat sausages or bacon and don’t need something that has the flavour or texture of them on my plate in the morning as it’s likely to make me boke.  Make a Glamorgan sausage and freeze them or I’ll give you the recipe for my chestnut sausages, which cook from frozen.  These options are cheap and easy and there really is no excuse not to do something for those of us who represent between 7 and 10% of the population.

There are glimmers of light.  A recent stay in a small B&B before getting the ferry to the Western Isles delivered up a well-cooked breakfast using local ingredients, including her own hens’ eggs.  OK, there were no veggie options, but the eggs were good and the bread was a nice seedy grainy offering. I’m not asking for the world here, just a bit of thought and a bit of care about what you’re doing.

A friend of mine opened her own B&B earlier this year and has made a point of serving vegetarian and vegan options.  She kindly indulged me by asking for my recipes for various things, and by all accounts the veggie options are proving very popular.  It can be done.  It takes a bit of thought, a bit of effort, but if this is your business, your source of income, wouldn’t you want to do it well?  It can actually be a selling point, especially when there are so few places serving decent vegetarian breakfasts.

The most recent breakfast faux pas was not a B&B but a local establishment specialising in local produce and offering a Sunday breakfast until lunchtime.  My partner and I thought we’d treat ourselves whilst on an errand.  It turned out not to be too much of a treat.  Bacon so hard and melded together it was inedible, over-cooked eggs and microwaved black pudding.  All in all, not a success.  Needless to say we won’t be going back there.

The only experience I’ve had which was worse was in a B&B in the Lakes which offered ‘speciality breakfasts’.  I’m still not sure what the ‘speciality’ was, possibly how terrible the breakfasts were. The breakfast room was locked and guests were only allowed in at the appointed hour.  The ‘speciality’ changed every day.  One the first day it was oatcakes and on the second day it was boiled eggs.  Hard.  Without toast.  There were no options; you got what you were given.  I was so outraged I actually complained to the tourist board.  As the business was being sold on they felt disinclined to do anything.  Maybe the owners were disillusioned with the B&B business.  I was certainly disillusioned with my Cumbrian breakfast.

I’ve not ‘named and shamed’ here, but I confess I am sorely tempted.

I suppose there should be some balance. I’ve had some great breakfast in some great places: a lady in Shetland that makes her own yoghurt and muesli, a couple of guys on Skye who make their own bread and jam, and serve generous well-cooked portions of local salmon, eggs, sausages and bacon.  It can be done.  It should be done.

Breakfast can be a fantastic meal, so here’s a plea to all the B&B owners in the UK to put the ‘Great’ back into the British breakfast.  Please.

 

 

Bracarina House is run by the lovely Heather and Robert Forbes.  They pride themselves on the quality of their home and serve delicious vegan and veggie breakfast.

Vatersay House is run by amazing hosts Brian and Andy.  The breakfasts, which include many homemade elements, are fantastic.

Sick of Superheroes

 

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Really.  I’ve had enough of them.  There’s a never-ending stream of boys in spandex, or metal – cape optional – with the odd girl thrown in for sex appeal; although let’s face it, it’s mostly boys: Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman, Captain America, Ant Man, The Hulk, Thor, Blade, Ghost Rider, Dr Strange, Black Panther and Nick Fury.  Are you bored already or shall I go on?

I’m no expert.  I have no idea how many superheroes there are and I’m not about to do a Google search to find out.  Actually, I’ve just done a Google search, and the results are staggering.  The list goes on for pages and pages: fan clubs, games, Lego, costumes, films, TV, and merchandise.

Marvel has defined the superhero in contemporary culture. Marvel’s own modern incarnation was in 1960’s comics in the USA, although the brand had other manifestations prior to that.  The comics transferred to TV in 1966 and the brand was bought by Disney in 2009, and as you’d expect, a continuous excretion of films, games and attendant merchandising, raking up billions, has followed.

These superheroes do not live in a vacuum.  There are the requisite villains, of course, super-villains who always get defeated and yet always rise up in some new incarnation bigger, meaner, stronger.  That’s one of the things about superheroes; they need villains to be able to ‘do their thing’.  And we all know what that is: the fights and explosions.  Except what used to be ‘Bing!’ ‘Bang!’ And ‘Kapow!’ has turned into increasingly realistic special effects which are less and less comic style.  With the violence bigged-up on screen, there is often massive destruction in its wake and these ‘good guys’ often kill as many civilians as they save.

In an ideal world with power comes responsibility, but seemingly not if you wear a costume and a have a super-ego to match your super-powers.  Oh no, then you get carte blanche to cause as much death and destruction as Mr Villain.  Superheroes, supposedly a fighting-for-good patriotic bunch, seem to be enjoying a punch up for the hell of it as much as for anything more noble.  Though unintended, it’s a neat metaphor for a country that wades in all over the world picking fights with villains of their own definition, often for less than moral causes. Superheroes create super-villains and war monger create wars and rebels.

OK, so I don’t need to see another superhero film.  I can let my partner get on with it and pass.  The fact is, I will still be bombarded with this stuff: in trailers, in the media, on- line, in kid’s games, in adverts, and in merchandising.  You can’t avoid it.  It’s in the ether and the psyche.  And it’s depressing.

We all know life isn’t as simple as good guy/bad guy, but these stereotypes stick.  Look at the female superheroes.  Surely we have more in our armoury than sex appeal?  And let’s face it, girls don’t get out of bed in the morning with point perfect makeup and no bed hair.  We do not all have figures like Scarlett Johansson.  But as long as guys are making the movies…

Best not get me started on those topics though, I can feel another rant coming on!

Look, what about the ordinary people?  My superheroes are all real people who have fought against the odds, the Mandela’s and the Malala’s of this world, the Paralympians, the ordinary people who are less than perfect but are standing up for what they believe in against hostility or persecution.  And what about the ordinary people who have superpowers?  The peacemakers and leaders, those with quiet perseverance?  I’m with Bowie – ‘we can be heroes’ if we believe our ordinary lives matter, and other ordinary lives matter: black lives, LGBT lives, disabled lives, immigrant lives.

I bet you haven’t heard of Jessica Jones.  She’s an original Marvel character, a private-eye who prefers to use her brain to her brawn.  She’s a superhero in a much looser sense: foul-mouthed, hard drinking, and not a stitch of spandex in sight.  Now she is someone I could get to like, but as yet she has made no appearance on the big screen.

So, as I say, I’m sick of superheroes.  Sick of the fighting and destruction and posturing. There’s only so much escapism this girl can take. We need a new breed of superhero, modelled in our own image, so that real courage and stickability, and standing up for truth are the superpowers we encourage and admire.  For now, if I don’t see another superhero in my lifetime it will still be too soon!

 

 

A Writing Life

Pro writer

I’ve been meaning to write something about writing for a long time, but every time I start I’m crippled by gnawing self-doubt: what do I have to say about writing?  I mean, I’m not really a writer am I?  I don’t make a living from my writing – odd payments for articles, the odd competition prize, they don’t count – and realistically, probably never will. However, the fact is that I have been writing for over 40 years.  I’ve edited a community newsletter and I’ve had bits and bobs published by a real bone fide publishing people.  I’ve been actively writing a blog since 2009 and have completed a short story for children. One of my short stories is about to be published as part of a local collaboration, and I’m half way through writing my first novel. Isn’t it time I started thinking of myself as a writer; calling myself a writer?

The dictionary definition of a writer is ‘someone who has written something’ so by that count I certainly qualify!  I suppose what I often mean when I say I’m not a writer is that I’m not a ‘real’ writer:  I’m not famous; I don’t have a book deal or an agent.  I refer myself – and you- to my previous point: a writer is one who writes.  And it is only by writing that we will ever become the writers we mean to be.

I count myself as fortunate to know a lot of writers, many of them professional: people who have been writing for years, who have been published and made money from books.  Let me tell you a secret, which I’m sure they won’t mind me sharing, many of them don’t feel like ‘real’ writers either!  Some feel like frauds; that sometime someone is going to find them out, like their success is a big mistake.  The thing is it takes courage to be a writer, to be a creative of any kind.  Putting yourself ‘out there’ in any form is always going to be scary, but don’t worry, that’s part of the creative experience.  Take it from people who know, if you won’t take it from me.

I can’t emphasise this enough.  The ONLY thing that makes you a writer is writing. Thinking about writing is not being a writer; reading a book on how to write is not being a writer; attending a literary festival or a workshop is not being a writer.  Picking up a pen, or tapping on the keyboard, and churning out words is what makes you a writer.  It might not make you a famous writer, or even a ‘good’ writer, but it does make you a writer.  Writing is a craft and like any craft you have to work at it.

I have a friend who said she always wanted to be a writer.  The funny thing is, she always has been a writer!  She’s been writing for as long as I have, although it’s only in the last eighteen months or so that she’s taken herself seriously enough; given herself the permission to write and then actually taken the time to work at it.  She’s started her own blog, won a local competition, and is now putting together her first anthology of short stories.  The desire was there for decades, but it’s only been in taking time to work at her craft, edit her work and share it, that she has made good on her dream.  And she now calls herself a writer.

So, as a writer, the most important thing for me, and for many people, is making the time to write.  If you want to achieve something you have to make time for it.  It’s no good wanting to learn how to play chess and never allowing yourself the time to attend a club, or have a game with a mate.  It’s not rocket science.  If you want to do anything you have to allow yourself the time to do it.

Some people have very specific times that they write – first thing in the morning or last thing at night, for example.  There is no magic formula.  Ignore anyone that tells you there is and that it’s what they do, say writing at 3pm in the afternoon or someone who insists you need to sit in front of a laptop from dawn till dusk.  Only you know what is going to work for you; and if you don’t, experiment.  Be realistic.  If you work full-time and have a family the chances are you are not going to manage anything in the working day.  Can you snatch 20 minutes before work if you’re an early-riser, and don’t have a young family to get organised?  Can you grab half an hour in the evening a couple of times a week when everyone’s in bed, if you’re a night-owl?  Or at a lunchtime? Can your partner, or a friend, entertain the children while you grab an hour at the weekend?  Can you do some flex-time or take a half-day break to give yourself a start?  The busier your life is the more creative you will need to be.  If there’s something you are desperate to write, you will find a time to write it.

Some people never manage to find the time to write because of the pressure and commitments of hectic lifestyles, and if this is you, don’t guilt trip yourself.  Accept that you can’t squeeze another minute out of the day and you may have to wait until the children are older, or you’re working less hours, or don’t have a caring commitment.  Some people take a sabbatical – 6 months or a year- to complete a specific project, but that is a luxury not all of us can afford.  If you can carve some time out to attend a retreat, or simply give yourself a break from your usual routine then go for it.  Most of us have to work hard to find time within the restrictions of our already busy schedules.  Beware, however.  Don’t use being busy as an excuse.  If you can find 10 minutes to update your Facebook page or Twitter feed or hug that mug of coffee whilst gazing bleary eyed into the distance then you can find the time to write!

Thinking of writing as ‘work’ will help.  Writing is not a fuzzy feel-good activity.  What’s that old adage: 10% inspiration 90% graft? Writing is work; often hard, solitary, laborious, frustrating and unpaid work.  It can also be fulfilling, satisfying, stimulating and highly enjoyable.  If you don’t have the desire and commitment to write, and then put the effort in, you are unlikely to ever get that novel finished.

But don’t be like me and let the fear of not being good enough paralyse you.  Like a lot of people I am my biggest critic.  I am always convinced that what I’ve written isn’t ‘good enough’.  This is really a thinly veiled fear that I am not good enough.  That what I have to say doesn’t matter.  If you want to be a writer you need to take yourself seriously and develop a tough exterior.  You need to take your courage in both hands and share what you are writing with someone.  You can tell yourself that you’re writing ‘just for yourself’, that you don’t care if what you write is published or not, but it isn’t true.  Writing is a form of communication.  It’s meant to be read. What you write can touch people, amuse, instruct, enlighten, inform people.  What some people write changes lives.  Sharing your writing is your opportunity to share something unique that only you can say: nobody else can write what you do.

I’ve recently joined a local writers group.  It’s a new group and some people are novice writers whilst others are more experienced.  We are all a bit nervous about sharing what we’ve written, sharing ourselves in some way, and yet doing so has been a liberating and inspirational.  Having an audience for something you’ve created is affirming.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a paragraph, a short story or a poem, everyone is offering up something that they’ve created to share with the rest of the group.

As a writer, having a people who can offer support, advice and constructive criticism is important.  Some of us are working on existing projects and some of us are wanting inspiration to kick-start the writing process.  Whatever stage of the writing journey you are on, you need someone other than your mum or partner to review your work – to give honest feedback – and a good writing group will do that. However, don’t let this be an opportunity for naysayers and denigrators to offer negative or disparaging comments.  If you’ve made the effort to write something and share it, the least people can do is be supportive of your efforts.  Fulsome praise and flattery is no use to any writer, but unconstructive remarks can be seriously destructive to the confidence of a novice writer, indeed any writer, so chose your critics wisely.

So, you’ve actually started writing.  You’ve been brave enough to share your writing with a friend, or you’ve joined a writing group.  All is hunky-dory.  You’ve got that much needed inspiration, or you’ve started the project you always wanted to write.  Then the muse desserts you.  Writers block descends.  I’m sure ‘real’ writers have written lots about this, provided magical formulae by which you might negotiate your way around this brick-wall.  I have no idea.  What works for me is this: I  keep writing. I write it out.  If I can’t think of anything to write, I describe an object; I write about a photograph; I make up a story about a stranger; I write a ‘to do’ list, a poem. Anything.  If that doesn’t work –although it usually does – I do something else.  Read a book, go for a walk, even write a letter.  The channel will free up again in an hour, a day, a week.  The important thing is not to panic.  Congratulate yourself that you’re experiencing a real writer’s phenomenon and move on.  Over-thinking things will likely prove less helpful than simply accepting you’ve got a momentary blockage.  You’re a writer.  These things will happen.

Keep writing. Keep sharing. Keep creating.  You’ll be amazed what you learn about yourself, what interesting people you meet, and how positive you feel about this whole ‘being human’ experience.  Writing really can shape our thoughts and help us explain our emotions to ourselves and to others.  Writing can be a big deal for some people and a bit of fun for others.  Whatever your style, form and content, get writing and keep writing.  There’s a writer in all of us looking to be unleashed on the world.

Be brave.  Enjoy.

Taking The Challenge

 

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At the weekend my fiancée swam a mile in Loch Lomond as part of the Great Scottish Swim event.  He’s been training for a year and has seen his fitness, stamina and speed improve in that time.  Some of our friends thought he was a bit mad to do it, and some of them thought he was courageous.  In reality you probably need to be a mixture of the two!

It got me thinking about why people take on these sorts of challenges: climbing a mountain, swimming a loch, running a marathon, abseiling from a tall building.  For some people it’s about raising money for charity; doing what you can for a good cause.  Tony has raised, so far, over £500 for a small MS charity that provides support to MS sufferers and their families, though for him that wasn’t the prime motivator, it was more about the personal challenge.

Sometimes it’s good to have an objective focus for our efforts.  As someone who has multiple long term health issues, getting fit, and staying fit, is always a challenge due to my energy (lack of) and pain levels (high). At the start of the year I decided to challenge myself to run a 5k.  I chose the Loch Ness Marathon because it was far enough away in the calendar for me to stand a chance of achieving a degree of fitness and managing to put in some training time before the date, and also because I love their strap line: ‘If you have to put yourself through hell, you may as well do it in heaven’.  This applies to the gruelling rough terrain marathon, but for me it sums up my attitude to the 5k – any distance in fact- as I enjoy being out in the open to train.  I could have got fitter without signing up for a 5K race of course, but there’s something about setting a formal challenge that motivates me to achieve my best.  I guess a lot of people are the same.

The swim on the bank holiday weekend in Loch Lomond was a joyous affair.  There were people of every age, sex and colour.  Participation in these events is open to everyone who can complete the distance, regardless of any other factor, and that is also part of their attraction.  The oldest participant was 80 years old.  He swam a mile in under an hour.  I’m not sure of the age of the youngest participants, but there were certainly people there in there early twenties.  There was a great community spirit from both competitors and supporters, with everyone focused on the same thing: taking part.

For some people a 5K is literally a ‘walk in the park’, for me it’s a really big deal; for some people a marathon is hard and for others it’s relatively easy.  There were a high proportion of first-timers taking part in the swim, and I will be doing the Loch Ness 5K for the first time in September.  A lot of people decide to take action in their 40’s and 50’s.  With youth long gone and the prospect of getting old on the horizon, many people make the decision to get fit, take up a sport, take on a challenge, or otherwise shake up their lives in some way.  I have friends who have taken up cycling, rowing, dancing and running now they are into their 50’s.  I like to think it’s more than a fad, or worse fear, but more a life-affirming joy of living; knowing that we can hone our bodies into some sort of physical shape that makes it possible to swim lochs, cycle continents, climb mountains, for as long as we have the strength to do so.

People have always taken on challenges.  Some are more risky than others – mountain climbing or sailing around the world- but the essential reasons why people do these things are the same.  We do them because we can: the mountain is there to be climbed, the loch is there to be swum, the race to be run.  It gives us a sense of adventure and challenge; the adrenalin rush and the achievement; it instills some sort of discipline and routine and encourages us to learn lessons about ourselves – what motivates us and makes us tick.  We understand on a fundamental level that these things can be good for us both mentally and physically.  We know in our bones that we weren’t designed to sit still in front of gadgets for hours on end.  As it says on my fiancée’s t-shirt ‘if you think adventure is dangerous, try routine – it’s lethal!’ We are designed for thrill, challenge and adventure in the physical world – our ancestors are testament to that, and we are testament to the fact that sedentary stressful lifestyles are not what we are made for.  So, I would urge you to get out there.  Challenge yourself.  Do something adventurous; take a risk.  You will enjoy improved fitness and better mental health.  Find something you enjoy and you will come across others that enjoy the same thing.  There are clubs and societies and events up and down the UK.

If you’re struggling with health issues or have disabilities, there are still active things that you can do.  There’s a father who has pushed his disabled son through a thousand or more marathons in a specially designed chair; there are disabled athletes of every discipline.  And if like me, you are in pain and suffer with a lack of energy, aim for something small – a walk around the block, a length in the pool – enlist the help of a friend to support and motivate you.  We can all benefit from being outside and having a bit of excitement in our lives.

 

Happy adventures!

 

Support me here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Debbie-Mathews-Ruppenthal

Support Tony here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/theweeappshop

British Paralympic Association – Find  a Sport. http://parasport.org.uk/find-a-sport/?gclid=Cj0KEQjw3ZS-BRD1xu3qw8uS2s4BEiQA2bcfM9fbdHAiskWcx8FsaYR-fhYQo82Zf10zDUuZjGUbR6kaAje58P8HAQ

 

 

 

See Me

See Me End Mental Health Stigma

Invisible, long term and utterly devastating.  Mental illness, in particular depression in its various forms, is still very much misunderstood.  It’s 2 years since Robin Williams died.  The news shocked and saddened me – I’ve been a life-long fan – but I shouldn’t have been surprised.  No one is immune.  Depression isn’t choosy about who it picks: actor, football player, rugby player, teacher, police, stay-at-home mum, politician – anyone can be struck down and at any stage of life.  Some depression is situational. But for many depression comes often without reason or cause.  Depression isn’t always ‘about’ something, it just ‘is’.

Some people found it hard to understand how someone privileged could take their own life.  It’s an indication of the sheer desperation and desolation that many people with depression feel.  Wealth, family, fame, none of it can insulate you from the impact.  For many people with depression it’s the ultimate action of power against a foe which you have no control over, and no way of beating.  Hopelessness leads many down the same path.

As someone who has completed Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), and spoken to people who have lost family members to depression, it is clear that the action is not cowardly or selfish, as many claim.  The act of taking one’s own life may be a desperate one, but many people genuinely feel that their loved ones would be better off without them. Such is the feeling of worthlessness that this seems like a reasonable, logical option – the only option.

High profiles deaths like that of Robin Williams have done something to raise public awareness of depression, and that’s a good thing.  Far more needs to be done however, so that this invisible and destructive illness doesn’t take as many lives, and ruin somany more.  In 2014 (the most recent figures available) there were over 6500 recorded deaths from suicide.  The highest suicide rate in the UK in 2014 was for men aged 45-49 at 26.5 per 100,000.  Suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 and 49 , eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. That’s a very scary statistic.  There’s plenty of research into cancer and lots of preventative advice about heart disease but comparatively little research and advice on depression and suicide.  It’s mainly left to charities like the Samaritans, Mind, and a host of smaller third sector organisations to raise awareness and provide advice and support.  Given the statistics, that isn’t good enough.  We have public campaigns on testicular cancer – an exclusively male killer- why not depression?  Whilst it may be true that more women are diagnosed with depression, it is also true that more women than men seek help.

See Me Scotland have had high profile campaigns to end mental health stigma but there has been no equivalent in other parts of the UK.  Isn’t it time we made a concerted effort to tackle this serious public health issue which is affecting men adversely?

In part it is a question of men feeling that they can’t talk to anyone and receiving negative responses when they do.  Being told to ‘get over it’ is a common response to depression.  Women may be more sympathetic in general, but it’s not really a ‘man thing’ to admit vulnerability, and being depressed is often seen as a weakness.  We need to get across the message that depression is an illness.  You wouldn’t tell someone to get over cancer or a broken leg, and no one with depression should be told to ‘get over it’ either.

Clearly this is a more complex issue than this brief piece can cover.  I would urge you to find out more.  Do the ASIST training so you can recognise the signs in friends, family or strangers. Find our more from the organisations mentioned here. Above all, be kind to your fellow human beings.  You never know what struggles they are going through.  Don’t assume because someone is a joker or the life and soul of the party that they are happy, that they are immune from depression.  Robin Williams was a brilliant actor, had a fantastic sense of humour and what looked like a perfect life, but he also had depression – and it killed him.

I am running a 5k as part of the Loch Ness Marathon at the end of September in support of Support in Mind Scotland, a small charity providing support to people with mental illness and their families.  If you feel you can donate something please go to my JustGiving Page. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Debbie-Mathews-Ruppenthal

Thank you for reading this.

 

Statistics courtesy of the Samaritans:

http://www.samaritans.org/about-us/our-research/facts-and-figures-about-suicide

 

Adrift

BrexitWhen I heard the result I was devastated.  That’s not an understatement.  I literally felt sick in the pit of my stomach.  I cried.  Loss and grief broke over me.

I’ve never been one to shy away from change.  I voted remain for positive reasons.  I believe being part of Europe is the only way to protect the environment and ultimately the future – for our children and grandchildren and for the world. I believe we can only exert positive influence from within. There have been others way more eloquent than I who have put forward coherent arguments for why we should have voted to stay. There’s been a lot of scaremongering on both sides of the divide. People who were ‘in’s’ have been labelled unpatriotic and ‘outs’ have been called racist and xenophobic.  Many people voted for what they believed was best for the UK.  What they thought was best for our future.  Of course there are always people who vote for less positive reasons, and many who don’t vote at all.  The turnout was high, but not staggering, and it is telling that less than 40% of under 30’s voted.

What saddens me is the obvious rifts that exist: between old and young, between political parties, between ideologies, between different parts of society, between different parts of the UK.  These were the issues that needed addressing before the referendum and these are the issues which will need addressing long after the dust has settled.  Why people who fought for freedom and independence feel de-valued and lost; why young people feel dis-inherited of the future; why certain areas of society feel fearful for their jobs and homes; why immigrants have become the scapegoats for many of our internal problems.

A good and wise friend said that the sun still rises and sets and life goes on, or words to that effect, and of course that is entirely true.  Life will go on.  We will get up tomorrow and the day after, and the world will still be here. We will take steps as a country to work out how we extricate ourselves from a union which has existed for 40 years, which for all its faults, foibles and bureaucracy delivered tangible benefits to members, including the freedom to live, work and love in any of the member states. We will still be a little island in a big-wide-world and I for one will feel a little less anchored, a little less secure, and certainly a lot more isolated.

 

 

Island Resilience

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve often written about travelling to the Scottish islands – Harris, Lewis, Mull, the Orkney Isles, Shetland – remote outposts of the far north of our own island home.  My perspective is usually that of holidaymaker, traveller and visitor.  Perhaps not your typical tourist, if such a thing exists, but certainly my visits are not much more than a dalliance with island life.

 My trip to the Outer Hebrides this year was to a part of Harris I hadn’t been before, the bays area, along the so called Golden Road (so named for how much it cost to build).  It is a bleak landscape; treeless, rocky, full of lochans and peat bogs, similar in some ways to the flow country in Caithness.  It is wild and beautiful and full of life, but it is a harsh and unforgiving landscape.

The ruggedness and remoteness clearly encourages creativity.  In a 2 miles stretch there are 3 art galleries, a ceramic artist and photographer, and that’s in one small area.  The road is dotted with artists and artisans drawing inspiration from their surroundings.  It’s a tough place to make a living and a tough place to live; people have to be self-sufficient, resilient.

I have never met anyone more resilient than Eddie.  He and his wife owned the holiday cottage we were renting for our stay.  I don’t know how old he was, almost certainly retired, but it was clear that he had some illness which affected his speech and his core strength.  It later transpired that he was living with late-stage Parkinson’s.  This didn’t seem to hold him back: he cycled most days, did jobs about the house, gardened, and cooked.  We learned that in 2015 he had undertaken a charity bike ride up the spine of the Uists and headed all the way up to Stornoway.  Physically this should have been impossible, but he has grit and determination which seems to make up for some of the physical challenges he must face daily.  Eddie is not a native islander, but he has certainly adapted to island living and displays those characteristics – both flexibility and toughness – which make the difficulties he faces wholly surmountable.

He also makes an awesome Key-Lime Pie!

“Not the Answer…

not the answerThis statement appeared on the day of the budget in my Twitter feed.  The person tweeting was referring to the ‘Sugar Tax’.  There was heated debated about how futile it was, or what a good idea, or how it was taking the heat off other more important issues (are there many more important things than our children’s health and well-being?)

I got a bit foot-stompy and this blog is the result.  Well, no, of course it isn’t ‘the’ answer, or not the whole answer anyway.  No one is that naïve, not Jamie Oliver, not the general public, the nutritionists not even the politicians who approved it.  But here’s the thing, maybe things are so bad, with our own health, our children’s health and the health of our environment, that there is no single big ass solution – maybe there never was. Big ideas, high level strategic solutions are for governments and world organisations.  As people, we identify with the practical; what’s meaningful for us.  We feel irritated and overwhelmed by policy, policing and projects.  Most of us I suspect want to engage, but when the message is: ‘you must do this’ or ‘you can’t do that’ – negative dictates from above – we feel quite the opposite: disengaged, disenfranchised, and if you’re me, down right rebellious.

We long to be inspired by a vision of something we can achieve, something positive.  The carrot being infinitely better than the boot (to mix metaphors). We need to see results of the steps we’re taking and to take them one at a time, each one leading inexorably to the next until we’re on that journey towards making a difference. Thankfully there are trail blazers, eco warriors, impressive environmentalists and campaigners for the health of the planet and the health of the human race. And we need them to inspire and encourage us to take action.

However, there are people who struggle to survive now, people in this country who have to work out where the next pay packet, the next meal, the school books, the bus fare, the money for the electricity is coming from, and people in other places in the world who are far worse off than that.  It’s not always a lack of care that stops us from taking action as much as a sense of priority.  Ironically it is the people least able to take action that poor health and climate change impact first, and to a greater degree.

No one wants to see the earth burn; no one wants their children to be morbidly obese and unfit.  We have to deal with challenges at all levels: personal, societal and political to start making a difference to anything.

So, no, the sugar tax won’t cure childhood obesity, but it has raised awareness of the issues involved, it has raised the political profile of an insidious, damaging and costly epidemic.  There is much more to be done to rescue a generation of children from bad sugar and bad advertising, and a great deal more to be done to save the world for them.

And we all have a part to play.  We are all part of the jigsaw which will give us the panoply of answers required.

The Plan – Jamie Oliver http://www.jamieoliver.com/theplan/

 

On The Street in Edinburgh

how-to-help-homeless-peopleThey’ve become an homogenised, almost sub-human, element of our society.  A ubiquitous sight in most major cities and yet we fail to see them.  If they do register in our consciousness we ignore them.  Mostly.  Some of us complain.  Some drop a few coins without making eye contact.  Yes, I’m talking people who ‘live’ on our streets.  The homeless.  How did we come to be a society that could ignore ‘Homeless and hungry. Please help’, walking by without a thought or care?

Homeless people need better press.  Someone needs to do a marketing job so that we take some notice. They’re not cute enough or desperate enough.  I am willing to believe that familiarity breeds contempt, that a lot of us do care, but feel helpless: what can one person do to make a difference?  I am willing to be generous about my fellow humans because I don’t have the answers, though neither do I feel I can ignore a fellow human being in need.  So, I want to remind you, to remind me, that this is what the people you see –  and don’t see – on the street are: fellow human beings with history, with stories, with names.

I was chatting to Tommy the other day in Edinburgh (let’s call him that, he was too ashamed to tell me his name).  He doesn’t drink or smoke or take drugs.  He was made homeless by the council when his sister – whose home he was living in after job loss and marriage break down – died of cancer last November.  He wasn’t the tenant so he was unable to live there, even though he had no other family, no home, no job.  He was made homeless and has lived on the streets since.  He can’t claim benefits as he is ‘of no fixed abode’.  He goes from day to day with little hope of a better life, trying to survive because he wants to see his kids.

Tommy’s dad was in the army and Tommy was dragged about the place.  His education was disrupted and his literacy skills are poor. (This is surprisingly common in military families.  I taught literacy skills back in the 90’s). It was hard for Tommy to get a decent job.  After one tour his dad didn’t come home, so his mum had to leave the army accommodation and take him and his sister to a refuge.  Eventually they were re-housed by the council.  Tommy left school as soon as he could and took a job to help the family pay the bills.  He was 15.  The job was low paid and without benefits or security.

Tommy did the best he could with the resources he had.  His mum died in her 40’s and Tommy and his sister made their own lives with their own families.  In 2014 Tommy was made redundant and not long after his relationship broke down.  He found himself on the street with nothing. His sister, now a widow, took him in, but after she died he was homeless yet again.

Tommy doesn’t complain about being homeless or about the unfairness of his life.  He complained about it being a ‘bit nippy’.  He was upset that he wouldn’t get to see his kids this week as he didn’t have the bus fare.  He hates it when he does see his kids because he’s ashamed of himself.

I asked Tommy about homeless shelters and he told me that he stayed in one over Christmas and New Year, but it shut in January.  He told me his stuff got stolen.  I don’t think he was making up his story.  There are thousands of people like Tommy with similar stories to tell.

A contemporary of my stepson came home one day to find his belongings on the front lawn and the lock changed on the door courtesy of his step-father.  It was his 18th birthday present.  In young people’s homeless hostels up and down the country there are similar stories.  Young people are often forced to leave home when a parent takes a new partner or re-marries and the new partner makes it clear the young person, the son or daughter, is not wanted, or worse.  When young people leave the care system the state no longer has a responsibility for them and some of them become homeless.  They don’t have families, or if they do they’re not fit to look after them, and they drop through the cracks and out of the system. 140,000 young people run away each year and a percentage of these end up homeless in cities up and down the UK.  They’re not the only ones: ex-military personnel, people with mental illness, people whose relationships fall apart, people who lose their jobs.  The spiral to the gutter can happen surprisingly rapidly.  And without an address you are nobody.  You can’t claim any state help, you can’t see a GP.

There are alcoholics and drug users on our streets, although which comes first may be a moot point, but no one choses to sit on a busy street on a bit of cardboard and beg.  People sit with their signs and their hats – and yes, sometimes their dogs – because they have no other choices left.  Any number of circumstances can mean that you slip through the net.  When I left my husband, had I not had friends and family who could put me up, I would have been homeless.  It’s scary how easily it can happen in a so called civilised society.

I didn’t give Tommy any money that day.  I gave him some food and a hot drink and a few minutes of my time.  He was grateful, more than anything, that someone had stopped to talk to him.  You may tell me it doesn’t make any difference.  He’s still on the street today and probably will be tomorrow.  And you’re  right of course, but for 10 minutes he felt human again; connected, like someone gave a damn.  I didn’t ignore him, and walk by.  I stopped and acknowledged that he existed and listened to his story.

I’m sure there are plenty of us who care, who feel impotent in the face of such seeming hopelessness.  If enough people care enough to feel indignant about this, for the right reasons, then surely something could happen to change things, to give people a helping hand, a foot on the ladder back into society.

There are charities that do things in some places.  There was a recent TV programme which raised awareness of the plight of ex-services personnel, so maybe there will be a ground swell of public goodwill which will turn this tragedy of wasted lives around.

If you don’t feel you can do anything, if you can’t bring yourself to give money, perhaps you can spare a few minutes of your time to have a conversation with a homeless person, share your common humanity and give someone some hope, make them feel that they are worth your time and are not dross, not nothing, if only for a moment.

If enough people chose to do something small, it can amount to something big.

 

Let’s End Homeslessness Together  http://www.homeless.org.uk/facts-figures

 

Murder on the Rise

I’m not talking about the latest crime statistics here.  I’m talking the writing genre that is crime fiction.  Whether it’s ‘Nordic Noir’ or home-grown crime thrillers, there has been a definite surge in both interest and output over the last decade.  There have been awards for crime writing for many years -The Golden Dagger is the biggest in the world- and now there are crime writing festivals a-plenty, from the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival to Bloody Scotland.

crime fictionIn my home country (Scotland) there seems to be a plethora of dark writers, from established international authors like Ian Rankin, Stuart MacBride, Val MacDiarmid, Denise Mina, Alex Gray and Ann Cleeves, to perhaps less well known writers like Alan Guthrie, and Peter May, and newer writers like Helen Forbes and LG Thomson.

The UK has a fine tradition of psychological thrillers – not necessarily ’crime’ or ‘murder’ (think Hitchcock here) and a rich seam of ‘Who Dunnits’ and detective fiction.  The ‘Golden Age’ was always considered to be the 1890’s to the mid 1900’s with the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Michael Innes topping the popularity stakes.  They weren’t so much about literary style and rounded character but much more about the ‘whodunnit’ formula which allowed readers to guess who the murderer might be, with a little deliberate misleading, though rarely with too many surprises.

I read Agatha Christie in my youth, and bored easily of the formulaic approach.  It left me with a bad taste about crime writing in general, although I don’t deny that it was often clever and compelling, and very, very, popular. However, as a result I’ve tended to avoid the genre, until now.

My partner is an avid crime writing reader and has catholic tastes.  I’ve never much been persuaded by his gory descriptions (Stuart MacBride and Tony Parsons spring to mind) although when I ran out of reading matter one wet afternoon, I was tempted to a few Ian Rankin books, and was pleasantly surprised.  Although I got annoyed with Rebus after a while, it opened my mind to the fact that crime writers can handle plot development and character with the best of them.

We both support and attend a local literary salon which invites along publishers, agents and writers.  A surprising number of the authors we’ve had to speak are crime writers: the ubiquitous Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Alan Guthrie, Lin Anderson, Doug Johnstone and LG Thomson to name a few.  Their insight into writing both plot and character have been enlightening.  When one of our own members – Helen Forbes- produced a first novel in the genre, I bought it in the spirit of supporting a fellow member, and ended up enjoying the book enormously.

I’ve been impressed with excerpts from Denise’s books, and thoroughly enjoyed the readings from LG Thomson at the launch of Emergent’s XpoNorth festival in 2015.  These are writers who write gritty interesting characters and multi-faceted plots. Crime may be the genre of choice, but there are good stories here for the telling.  It’s changed my perspective, and reading choices.

I don’t tend to like graphic bloody films, and in some ways books can be as bad if you have a visual imagination, so I’ll still avoid those especially gruesome tomes and stick to something with a little more intrigue and a little less blood.

Edmund Wilson suggested that “reading detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking” and perhaps he is right.  Auden described himself as an ‘addict’ of the genre, and I have friends who can’t get enough of their ‘fix’ and read crime fiction voraciously and exclusively. There is certainly a popular and wide appeal and this sort of fiction is no longer separated into dark corners of bookshops but competes on its own terms taking up more inches of shelf space than some supposedly worthier tomes.

John Sutherland (former chairman of the judging panel for one of the foremost literary prizes) had the view that submitting a crime novel for the Booker Prize would be: “like putting a donkey into the Grand National” This may still be the view held by ‘literary’ types, but is a kind of literary snobbery that puts people off reading, rather than encouraging them.  And with around 1 in 3 new novels being crime fiction, not too many people will be giving too much gravitas to these views.

I doubt if the current assent of the crime novel will breed a race of psychopathic writers, or a nation of murderers.  My hope is it will continue to produce a nation of readers, and that we will continue to get good quality new crime writers telling stories of the complexity of human nature, and questioning how we judge people.

L G Thomson’s website: http://www.thrillerswithattitude.co.uk/

Helen Forbes Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Helen-Forbes-Author-457783327732599

Bloody Scotland Website: https://www.bloodyscotland.com/authors/