An Introduction To The Mental Health Crisis

For some time now, perhaps the last thirty or forty years, there appears to have been a growing crisis in the mental health of Planet Earth. Befrienders.org (http://www.befrienders.org/suicide-statistics) say that global suicide rates have risen 60% in the last 45 years, and are presently at the rate of 1 every 40 seconds. By 2020 they expect it to be 1 every 20 seconds.

It’s not hard to find statistics like these from even the most momentary web search. All evidence seems to suggest that, at least within recent memory, things are getting worse at a rate of knots – measurable by, for instance, the suddenness with which depression in young people has become the enormous issue it now is. Even without citing statistics it’s possible to know that teenagers today are dropping out of school with depression at a completely unprecedented rate. Certainly to my mind the mental health issue could be the biggest one facing humanity today. I distinctly remember being 20 years old, starting at university and slowly finding that virtually everyone I knew seemed to be struggling with a mental health problem – usually anxiety or depression, or more often both. It was the first time I’d really begun to understand the scale of the thing, and I was struck by the thought: ‘What the hell is going on?’

Surely it hasn’t always been like this?

Well, it must be acknowledged that it might have been. Before further discussion I need to nod to the distinct possibility that my argument that this ‘crisis’ is new might be totally bogus. After all, information about what we now term ‘mental health’ is sparse the further back into history you go, and of course there are all sorts of questions about whether in the past we would have reported depression like we do now, and indeed whether we recognise it as capital D ‘Depression’. There’s no question that things like depression and anxiety have always existed – think of the many famous cases of suicide throughout history, or even fictional characters like Konstantin Levin in ‘Anna Karenina’ who lies awake at night in fits of despair over the inevitability of death and the uncertainty of his own existence. These days this would be termed anxiety disorder resulting from depersonalisation.

But in reality I acknowledge this possibility in order to re-emphasise my conviction that this is indeed a crisis. Within the last forty or so years, during which time the way in which depression is recognised, reported and filed has been more or less standard, the numbers have shot up like someone’s glued them to a rocket. The National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS) in the US, for example, found that the number of US citizens diagnosed with depression has increased 450% since 1987. There are now more than five times the number of people on anti-depressants than thirty years ago.

One Independent article[1] last year cites statistics showing that rates of anxiety and depression in UK teenagers has soared by 70% in the last 25 years, and that 93% of teachers have reported seeing a rise in the mental unwellness of their pupils. Similar statistics are simply piling in: in 2016 the NSPCC reported a 35% increase in demand for child anxiety counselling in the UK, while on a global scale the WHO predicts depression to be the second biggest debilitating illness by 2020 and the biggest by 2030. The same organisation has observed an 18% rise in global depression between 2005-2015. I could go on.

So while the arguments surrounding a perceived rise in mental illness are inherently problematic, given the nature of illness recognition and reporting, I take it as my foundation that there is a growing crisis in the health of the globe. I do this for two reason: the first because, if there is a crisis happening, then it needs to be solved fast; and the second because there are so many people in my life who are suffering, and if it can be fixed as I believe it can, then we must do whatever possible to alleviate the pain. For some of them it is too late. I am twenty-three, and even at this age I can count the number of my peers who have killed themselves on two hands. I dread to think how many more have attempted it and failed.

And one last very important point before we continue: when I say ‘mental illness’, I am talking mainly about anxiety and depression. The term ‘mental illness’ can cover a huge amount of ground, referring to conditions as wide-ranging as ADHD, schizophrenia and anorexia, and even less pronounced learning disabilities like dyslexia and dyspraxia. Some of these terms are somewhat outside my remit. I am writing to uncover what it is that has made anxiety and depression in particular the ‘illness du jour’. If on the way I find evidence that the factors involved also cause or exacerbate the other illnesses, then that is as may be; but, for now, I’m looking for the primary killer. I want to end the bastard.

The following articles will explain in shorthand the many complex reasons I believe are behind this rise in global misery. I’ve arranged them into short-term factors (those that can be solved in an instant), medium-term factors (which have a slightly deeper cultural origin) and long-term factors, which are based on the cultural foundations of our society and I admit to be more speculative.

More to follow…

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/teenage-mental-health-crisis-rates-of-depression-have-soared-in-the-past-25-years-a6894676.html

Leaving At 23: Memory and Self-Pity

Three weeks ago I turned twenty-three, this month I finish my three years at Bristol, and at the start of August I’ll be taking a one way flight to Myanmar. I’ll be gone for at least a year, until my contract at the school I’m working for runs out next July. As I write this, in mid-June, with two weeks to go until the lease on my student house expires, I feel like I’m sitting on a precipice watching the coming landscape roll towards me without a blind clue if I’ll like it when I fall off.

It’s not necessarily a bad feeling. It’s time to move on. Life up to now has been strange and effete, and student living in particular has left me washing away into the floorboards like a useless liquid. For at least the last two years I’ve felt like I’ve been stagnating, with no motivation, no direction, an absence of real connection to anything and a general sense that life is just passing over me. That anxiety common to just about the whole English middle class that compels them to be productive or face guilt has been attacking me for years, and it’s been deeply frustrating to find that I haven’t made intelligent use of it in recent times. To that end I’m happy to see university go. The cycle of structureless days, bad eating and over-drinking can now be pleasantly dropped behind me as I walk into the future.

But beyond that is also a wider, stranger past that I’m leaving behind, and I’m writing this to try and make myself reflect on it a bit. It’s an odd thing for me to do because I generally try not to think about the past – it’s an awful lot less useful than most people believe it to be – but somehow it’s been creeping up on me, and I need to take this moment to consider it.

I honestly can’t say precisely what it is that’s forcing me to think like this. I feel, however irrationally, like I’ve been wronged in some way – but I don’t quite know why. After all, I’m not a victim like some people have been, I wasn’t bullied growing up in the way some people were, and in comparison with some I’ve led an almost blessed life. Of course it hasn’t been a blessed life, and it would be an absurd thing to say as much. If anything I can see the problems with it more clearly than ever before. I now don’t shy away from understanding the bullying I and my friends were punished with at school, for example. I didn’t understand that it was bullying at the time, but as history brings me a balcony from which to view it I realise that it was. That has been a strange thing to see.

I’m sure my story is little different to everyone else’s, so repeating it will just be repeating the contents of my schoolmate’s heads. I was fourteen when I went to my secondary school, a year older than most because I had been held down a year aged six. The school was a large private boarding school, or ‘public school’, which is confusing because it was anything but public. To get a place there you had to pass an entrance exam and have a handy £30,000 a year ready to pay. As such the atmosphere in schools like this is one of painful entitlement; if the pupils felt wronged by something they would shout, ‘I’m paying for this, and this is how you treat me?’

It was lazy and rural, fiercely hierarchical and extremely competitive. As with teenagers across the country, if you didn’t develop a big ego fast then you would get character killed – but with the added intensity of there being no chance of escape if things went wrong. It was a 24/7 boarding school: you were in a house with sixty other boys, around ten of whom were in your year and for the first two years you shared a room with. Every day you would wake up with these people, eat every meal with them, go to lessons with them, probably play sport with them and in the evening fall asleep with them in the neighbouring bedsits. If you didn’t get on with them then there was nothing you could do other than drop out.

My first year, like most people’s, was utterly hellish. I was character killed. I was a whacky young teenager with lots of challenging ideas to voice and a strong sense of there being a ‘right’ way to do things, and so it was an inevitable awakening I had at the hands of a super-intense micro-culture of a school that did not agree with me. In the gaggle of boys I’d been sent to live with I was quickly identified as one of the ones who ‘did not belong’, and in the kill-or-be-killed atmosphere of the place the others in my year had no reservations on ganging up on us. I say ‘us’ because I know there were plenty of people in the same position, but in reality I don’t mean ‘us’. I mean me, because that’s how it felt as a fourteen-year-old. School became a very lonely, very unhappy place very quickly.

It would be easy to wax lyrical about the pains we had to endure, but I want to avoid that because in all honesty it would paint the school in an unfairly negative light. There was plenty to recommend it, and I did all sorts of things there that I could never have done anywhere else. But I do ask that I not be mistaken: I do not believe on balance that it is a good place, and frankly I don’t think it should exist. For that matter private education as a whole should not exist.

I was made to feel like a freak because I didn’t speak the same language as the others and didn’t understand the way they behaved, which I saw as cruel and immature even at that age. The way they would pick on people and make them feel small, how they boasted about being cool, being in sports teams and experimenting with girls was admittedly no different to how most teenagers behave, but I can’t help but feel it had a peculiarly nasty edge at that place. Physical bullying was not uncommon, verbal bullying was in virtually every conversation I had and the constant, unrelenting sense of needing to compete was mind-crushing. The place was built on bullying. I can barely remember someone being kind to me at least for my first two years. It even still had ‘fagging’, a Victorian practice that was supposedly illegal but somehow managed to carry on anyway, where if an older boy ‘fagged’ you to do something you would simply have to do it. They’d say something like, ‘Beer, I fag you to go and get my wallet from my room’, and if you said no then you were black-listed, called ‘cheeky’ and maybe even beaten up.

I suffered a total capitulation of self at that school. I’m absolutely certain that if I had seen a psychiatrist at the time they would have pronounced me clinically depressed. So hard was the weight of feeling I did not belong that I destroyed myself from the inside out and rebuilt every last aspect to try and fit in. It made me manically insecure. I couldn’t walk down a street without shooting eyes all over myself to see that I looked okay, that I looked as a boy ‘ought’ to look, that people – especially girls – didn’t think I was a freak. The feeling that I might be ‘found out’ at any second was sensationally horrible and the fear that I really might be a nasty, worthless person was everywhere I went. I had never felt so ill in my life. Even now I can remember groups of thirteen-year-olds chanting my name in a derogatory way, the sixth-former who punched my arm so hard it went dead and the teacher who, when I tried to explain what was happening, simply said ‘It’s hard being a teenager’, and left.

So intense was the culture at this school and so hard had I worked to fit in that when I left at the age of nineteen I could not believe that the real world was nothing like it. All of a sudden you aren’t automatically inferior to people older than you, and house ties, rugby teams and belonging to the ‘gang’ meant nothing. I thankfully spent a year to readjust before coming to Bristol, something I’m exceptionally grateful I did.

Then when Bristol came along I found it to be, as I’ve already indicated, a strange jumble of experiences. It has veered from long periods of purposelessness to the most ecstatic moments of my life and back again, interspersed with theatre and more heartbreak than anything resembling a successful relationship. Emerging from the tight-laced little world of boarding schools without a paddle to guide me was a strange and disorienting experience, so joining another institution provided a sense of security I had been lacking for a year. In some ways it felt familiar – being away from home in a communal living space like halls – and in some ways it was completely different. I had never drunk that much before, neither had I tried any drugs, neither had I been in quite such a socially intense space. But the exhilaration of it won out, and that is what I remember about my first year at university: being absolutely swept off my feet by this exciting but painfully ephemeral lifestyle

It became obvious to me very quickly that the public schoolboy I’d learnt to be had to be readjusted once more, a painful reminder that human beings are as fickle as whatever environment they land themselves in. I had to learn to be friendly to people without worrying about them being friendly back, for instance. That was something I’d never learnt at school. At school it was always a case of lying low and hoping you wouldn’t have any attention directed at you at all, because if it was it was likely to be negative. In this crazy new environment of Bristol, however, it felt like there was more free rein to cultivate the aspects of myself I thought to be objectively good. So over the course of the last few years I’ve tried to put down any assumptions of other people, not care in the slightest for what other people think of me and to plough on and say whatever I like without fearing the approbation it might bring. This took me a surprisingly long time to do, but I’m well ahead of it now. That is probably the biggest change I’ve undergone since I came here, and I’m delighted that it is the case.

Though it must be said that what really pushed me to ignore other people’s opinions was the ‘Nights at the Disco’ controversy I found myself in last year. It’s a long story to explain to anyone who doesn’t know what happened (read about it here <http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/bristol-university-student-s-short-story-on-drug-abuse-and-sexual-violence-causes-controversy-a7024641.html&gt;), but all you need to know is that I very suddenly found myself enduring the most disgusting, hate-filled and baseless criticism from people I had previously taken to be my friends. I knew I was in the right through and through, and in fact had acted out of compassion. That was a penny drop moment in which I realised I would have to not think twice about what people say, mostly because popular opinion is usually based on rubbish. Fortunately it occurred just before a two month, social media-free stint in Nepal, and by the time I returned in September I had grown up perhaps more than in any other period of my life.

So I have seen over the years a gentle coming together of maturity in myself, which, while it feels pleasant, is also a bit unsettling. I quite like the luxurious agonies of youth, and I’d rather that they stay luxurious rather than becoming just plain agony.

One aspect of immaturity that remains, however, is in romantic relationships. It’s probably because I haven’t had one. There are no easy ways to explain this, but frankly girls remain as perplexing to me now as they did when I was a teenager. The voyeuristic drifting that I’ve found so characteristic of my life has made it difficult for me to get close to anyone at all, as much as I might desire it to be otherwise. To be perfectly honest I find this conversation difficult; it’s exceptionally easy to be misunderstood when talking about romantic successes and failures, and I could so easily make it seem like I’m being either boastful or self-pitying, or even both. What I will say is that, while I haven’t been unsuccessful with women, I certainly haven’t found any solace from a relationship as yet. I haven’t met anyone who has really captivated me or shown me the kind of love I want to return; I have liked people, but it has always been fleeting. If anything I’ve been disappointed, but almost certainly by myself rather than anyone else. And no matter how much I intend to look after people and ensure that they don’t get hurt, somehow they all too often do, and there is a whole lake of guilt into which her and I can plunge. Relationships do not scare me, but I have yet to feel right about them.

There have been plenty of romantic entanglements over the years, but they have all either slipped by me in the wind or ended by accident. It’s strange, on reflection, how much I associate Bristol with girls, and how the self-understanding you’re taught to expect from women – an essentially misogynistic outlook on gender relations – simply did not occur here. But that’s fine.

Although, if you will excuse my silly little heart speaking for just a moment, there was one girl who even now, some time later, manages to claw my thoughts back to her. She’d be shocked to find out that she still makes up the furniture of my mind – she’d be shocked to know that she was ever in my mind in the first place. But I’m happy to leave her oblivious. I doubt I’ll see her again.

And now here I am, on the cusp of whatever being a grown up means, about to set my stare forwards into the future. I’ve looked at the past now, and found that I’m inclined to see myself as a victim. But this is nonsense. We can all see ourselves as victims, or we can all see ourselves as saviours.

Certainly it’s very easy for me to explain how I have always felt distant from life, how I have suffered the most excruciating depressive spells, treading the line of suicide in the summer after my first year, how I have never felt like someone understands me, how there are times when the universe terrifies me, how I fear for my success as much as my failure, how I have been consistently misunderstood by whole bodies of people, how I think about death more than I think about eating. I can explain all of that, and I can ask you to pity me. But what would that achieve?

Self-pity is an ugly thing. The truth is that we have a choice about how we view ourselves, and we always have and we always will do no matter what it might feel like at the time. Both emotions and thoughts lie to you. I can see that boy now, the one who hid crying in his study with the lights out in 2008, and feel that what he experienced was not necessary, but it had the potential to make him a better person. In the long term I hope this to be so.

And think about it: If all the world’s a victim, who committed the crime?

Danny Disowned Pt. 1

In certain hours of night, on very unusual summer days, in only the most occasional weeks at very particular times of year, the streets of Bristol dance with nighttime like God’s violin were eking out a diamond melody from even the stillest and most reluctant paving stone. The streetlights showed no people on Whiteladies Road at 4AM sometime in late May, but if they had been there and had listened very closely, they might have heard the quiet tune of the calm in the leaves, the closeness of the night’s sky and the faraway twitter of a skylark, all rocking this way and that in the warm summer air.

In fact, although Whiteladies Road was quite perfectly empty on this fine summer night – so empty that had you whistled down it the only thing that might hear you were the trees – there were several people awake and busy not very far from it at all. Up by the Downs at the top of the hill, on the Clifton side, there is a road called Worrall Road, and down there and somewhere to the right was a house that on this particular night was filled with music. But this music was a different sort to the kind blowing about outside: it was less subtle, less euphoric, simultaneously both more and less focussed. It demanded that you pay attention to it, but at the same time that you forget what you are listening to.

The house party at Thirteen Sutherland Place had begun at nine and raged like an electric storm from eleven til three, at which point the crowds began to thin like the manic rain that breaks a long, oppressive patch of heat. The sitting room and bedrooms, unrecognisable from their daily forms, had been convulsing with sound in between lights more lugubrious than a graveyard; students had come and thrown their all at the great combustion of energy pulsing through the ceiling and floorboards like the wires that kept the city alive had momentarily broken loose and electrocuted the air they breathed. Empty beer cans, cigarette ends and the odd drugs baggy polluted the floor like the slow smoke that tainted the air. Most of the partygoers had left now. Downstairs in the sitting room a small group remained, appearing to listen to music from someone’s phone but perhaps not really hearing a thing, passing a lucrative joint between them and frequently forgetting what the topic of conversation was, if indeed there was one at all. A musical ecstasy had been reached for some of them, and now they were drifting away from the dizzy-dazzying highs they had achieved, uncertain if they were ever to land where they had taken off just a few hours before.

And outside in the garden was Danny Torrent, the creator of the party, rolling an infinite cigarette and talking to his friend Tom Reader, whom in fact he did not know as well as he might.

‘I’m feeling strange, Tom.’ The cigarette paper was licked and the tobacco rolled. Danny reached for his lighter. ‘I’m feeling very strange indeed.’

The summer night that had never truly become night had already begun to roll back into morning, and in the leaves around them the plaintive warning sounds of the morning birds had begun to sing.

‘In what way?’ said Tom. He had his own straight cigarette ready to smoke.

‘I’ve been thinking about Talia a lot tonight. I was thinking about her a lot anyway, but – I don’t know. I thought maybe she’d come tonight.’

He lit the cigarette. Tom, quiet and sceptical, a History student and an always perceptive young man, kept his face steady. He knew Danny better than Danny knew him, and would sum him up as someone too intelligent for his own good. If he was worrying about his ex-girlfriend, he was really worrying about something much greater.

‘Really? Why would you expect her to come? I thought it makes no sense for you two to be together?’

‘No, it doesn’t. It makes absolutely no sense. I’m going away too soon, and she’s staying here. And you know what I think about staying here. I can’t. I need to get away. I desperately need some perspective.’

‘You keep saying that, but I don’t know what that means.’

Two other hangers-on from the party came outside to smoke joints, and their conversation mixed quietly with the chatting of the birds behind them. Danny suddenly stood up on the bench and looked over the wall, from which you could see the whole city spread out beneath you like a bowl of distant lights.

Never The End

It was a warm, wet, windy day in early May, and I was sitting in my car wondering if I should go and speak to my dead friend.

I was parked outside his old house, with the same garden he romped in as a child lying differently before the same empty windows and withdrawn brick walls. The slightest rain was dashing across the space between myself and the front door. I don’t know why I was there; something in my sleep had compelled me to come, though I don’t know what it was, and I felt like perhaps I would not find out.

Sam had died very suddenly six months ago, and the sorrows that a death can throw at a family were still clinging to the fabric of the household like a disease clings to the lungs of the breathless. I and most of our schoolmates attended the funeral with the utmost sense of the surreal clipping our heels, not being quite able to understand that a person so close to us could just disappear as he did. Seeing his family without him made them seem tremendously alone, even with all his siblings there with their parents, outnumbering the dead and yet still being weighed down by them. Growing up you simply never conceive of circumstances in which your friends could vanish into eternity, and what’s more is you never talk about it; so when it happens you feel as if the universe has deserted you. The first time you attend the funeral of someone you love is the first time you realise that the struggle is surreal. The childish belief that life makes sense is smacked out of your hands as if by a bully; and yet we keep on trying to make it make sense. The day of Sam’s funeral was one of the hardest of my life.

And now I was back at his house, wondering whether to go inside…

At length I finally decided that I ought to, and before I could think twice about it I was in the front hall, having found the front door unlocked and ready to swing open at my approach.

The corridor was the same as I remembered as a child, with the faded white skirting board running around bottle green wallpaper, the red tiled floor and the faint smell of barbour jackets emanating from the cupboard under the stairs. I glanced in the sitting room to the left and saw all the same furniture sitting unused, with the warm, wet early summer swinging about through the window outside. There was no sound anywhere. The next door to the left was a study, Sam’s father’s, which was also empty. For a moment I thought to cry ‘Hello?’ up the stairs, but decided against it – at which point I turned into the kitchen, where I found, sitting at the table with a cup of tea in his hand, my dead friend.

I sat down.

Sam looked at me calmly, meeting my presumably astonished features with a warm, quiet recognition of the strangeness of the situation. He stayed silent, letting his eyes drop to his half empty cup of tea. The wind hushed outside.

‘What are you doing here?’ I said.

‘I’m saying goodbye,’ he replied.

I was lost for words.

‘Did you have a choice?’ I stupidly asked.

‘Yes. Of course I did. We all do.’

‘So what –‘ I caught myself – ‘what… I…’

I met his eyes over the table, and was suddenly moved by the most intense desire to cry. I held it back, I think.

‘So what… I mean… Why?’

‘Why?’

‘Why did you do it?’

He looked down again, contemplating the mug. A spatter of rain dusted the window.

‘I don’t think you know what that question means,’ he said. ‘When you’re in the place I was in you don’t think ‘why’. You think ‘how’. Life doesn’t have a value. Your family and friends are nothing. It doesn’t make sense.’ Then, with a strange flicker of humour, he added, ‘But that’s just the thing. I’ve sort of realised that nothing makes sense.’ Now he beamed at me. ‘You know what I mean, don’t you?’

I was stunned like my soul had deserted my body, and too confused to smile back at him.

‘No?’

‘I mean that life doesn’t make sense, so stop trying to apply sense to it!’

I couldn’t think.

‘I just… I don’t get it. What’s happening, Sam? Why are you here? Why am I talking to you?’

‘It doesn’t make sense,’ he repeated. ‘So stop trying to make it.’

‘I don’t know whether I want to carry on.’

‘Why wouldn’t you?’

I stared at him, perhaps even glared at him, though I felt too removed to understand how I might have looked.

‘This conversation doesn’t need to happen,’ he said. ‘I could just go. You won’t need to be troubled by me again.’

‘I can’t stomach it, Sam,’ I heaved. ‘I miss you. Your friends miss you. Your family misses you. You know what happened to them, don’t you?’

‘Yes, I know. They don’t know that I’ve been watching them, but I have been. I know what they’ve been through.’

‘Did it not cross your mind that that would happen?’

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

‘Well, yes. I must have done. I don’t know. I didn’t think.’

Silence once more filled the space between us, a more complete silence. We regarded each other strangely.

‘I don’t know what to ask you,’ I finally said. ‘I suspect we don’t have long.’

Sam shook his head.

‘We don’t.’

‘Then what should I ask you?’

He shrugged with the slightest of smiles you could imagine – but he continued to smile at me, in a way that took me right back to the beginnings of our friendship. The tree branches of our youth shook overhead with the sound of the playground shrieking with joy all around us; Sam was seeing how far up the unclimbable tree he could climb while I and the rest of his friends watched, secretly hoping that, if he didn’t reach the top, then one of us might succeed where he had failed.

‘What was it like?’

Now sincerity returned to his face.

‘At first painful. Then strange. Then peaceful. It was like tripping-‘

I laughed.

‘Trust you to bring tripping into it.’

‘Well it was! It was just like coming up on some powerful psychedelic, like an overdose of LSD… And at first it was scary because I didn’t understand it. But that didn’t last long. In fact, almost immediately, I understood.’

‘Understood what?’

He shrugged.

‘Everything.’

‘You understood everything?’

‘And nothing.’

I laughed again.

‘What does that mean?’

‘You’ll see when it comes!’

‘And are you okay?’

‘Yes. Yes, I’m fine. I’m better now than I’ve ever been before.’

‘What’s it like over there?’

He smirked again.

‘I’m not over there… But it’s beautiful. It’s the most immense beauty you could ever imagine. In fact it’s beyond the imagination. It’s as if all the pretty onenesses of the universe have gathered round you and drawn you out of yourself and into something greater and better… It’s divine. It’s all I could ever have wished for.’

‘I see.’

And I felt like I did see. He was content.

‘I suppose that’s all I need to know then.’

Another pause occurred, in which we continued to observe each other across the kitchen table. Behind him was a chest of drawers, lined on top with photos of his family, and in the middle a photo of him aged eight, dressed in his school uniform, looking in awe into the lens of the camera as if he had never seen anything so gorgeously confusing before. I knew he was eight in that photo, because I was next in the queue to have mine taken.

‘John sends his love. So do Harriet and Miles. In fact so does everyone. I couldn’t think of a soul alive who doesn’t send you their love.’

He nodded and looked down once more.

‘And I send them mine. Forever.’

‘We miss you, Sam. Every day. Every time I wake up and every time I go to sleep, and in all the hours in between, I miss you. Everyone does.’

‘I know.’ A pause. ‘And I would say I miss you too, but the truth is I don’t. Not one bit. You know why that is, don’t you?’

My water-twisted eyes met his in a spate of confusion. I felt like I shook my head.

‘It’s because I never left. It’s because I’m right there with you. Everywhere, all the time. No matter where you go or what you do, no matter if you are thinking of me or not, or whether you hate me for leaving, or whether you’re glad I’m dead, or whether you feel as if the universe is the loneliest place to be – I’m with you. There is no such thing as being alone. I’ll always be there.’

Outside the wind brushed a gentle melody against the window pane, and a triangle of bullfinches whistled into the welcoming blue rain.

‘You have to go now,’ he said. ‘That’s how it works.’

We both paused for a moment as we took it in; then I put my hand on his, and held it there for a second. Then I stood up, and with one final blink in his eye, moved toward the door.

‘Bye, Sam,’ I said. ‘We’ll see each other soon. I’m sure of it.’

And not wanting to wait longer than I needed to, I left immediately. But as soon as I was in the corridor I heard him cry:

‘It’s never the end!’

With a shot of impulse in my chest I turned back, flaming to set my eyes upon him one more time, throwing myself through the kitchen door again to give him one last hug, one final word of connection – and I found him laughing the most beautiful, incredible laugh you could ever hear. It was a profundity beyond the profound… He was wearing exactly the same gorgeous, boyish smile he had all the way through his youth, and in his laugh was everything: there was an epic something added to it, a distinct flavour of everything all at once. He was sitting there laughing at me, laughing and laughing and laughing, and I saw it all of a sudden: because in his laugh was the sky and the ground, the sea and the mountains, the dogs and the lizards, the Mondays and Fridays, the exchange of money in a shop, the mundanity of a cotton skirt, the awe of a starry night, the boredom of a maths lesson, the endlessness of eternity; in his laugh I could hear the first word he ever spoke and the last breath I ever breathed; all and everything, throughout all time and space, from the birth of the stars to the stones beneath our feet; ultimate, wordless, indefinable; all here and now, summed up in the laughter of my friend.

And it was so funny and so perfect that we laughed all the way through the night and into the morning – at which point I blinked, and he was gone.

Review of CellarDoor’s ‘Frankenstein’ @ Bristol Bierkeller

10/05/2017

One senses instinctively with a new theatre company like CellarDoor that the road ahead won’t so much rise to meet them as carry them right up into the heights of theatre making. With their production of Nick Dear’s ‘Frankenstein’ being only their second ever show – their first sparkling feature being ‘Corpse Bride’ back in January – they are very much taking the first steps of the journey, albeit not in the least bit tentatively. In fact they’re soaring into it with a confidence usually found only in experienced theatre makers, which, at the rate they are currently hurtling, they will soon be.

The latest in their series of Gothic thrillers is an unabashed success, the kind of show student theatre should always aim to be. Dark, lugubrious and electrifying, the audience at the ideally grim Bierkeller was treated to an evening of absorbing and highly intelligent theatre.

Unlike a lot of student theatre, which often dwells in its uncertainty and fails to push into higher gears, the grand intentions of the piece were both presented and met instantly with the opening sequence: Thomy Lawson as the freshly ‘born’ Monster, encountering sentience for the first time. That director Teja Boocock had confidence in her cast was beyond evident. The first five minutes of the play – crucial for seizing the audience’s attention – is spent entirely on the Monster learning how to move. From being splayed out on the floor, with suitable grunts and groans, Lawson slowly brings her Monster to life, sliding and falling about the stage until finally, after a considerable solo sequence, she is on her feet and staring into the face of a disbelieving Frankenstein (Niall Potter).

Boocock’s confidence paid off: the audience were entranced by Lawson’s dedication, and indeed as the play went on it was her development of the Monster, from grunting newborn to almost eloquent philosophiser, that was the centre of attention. There was never a moment in which she seemed to lose sight of the character’s development, and it felt like there was something new added in each scene: never too much and never too little.

And matching Lawson’s masterful performance was a cast as talented as Bristol could hope for. Peter Borsada, for instance, puts in a charming and delightful performance as Delacey, the blind man who unwittingly befriends the Monster. He delivers the ideal amount of kindness and trust to inspire poignancy in his character, providing the perfect crux for the audience’s understanding of the Monster to sprout from. And this chemistry is continued with Niall Potter’s Victor, a pugnacious, fiercely intelligent rendering of the classic victim of his own genius. He strides about the stage with intent and purpose, hitting the line between intellectual confidence and emotional disturbance with a studied ease, let loose on the stage by Boocock’s detailed and trusting direction. He is supplemented pointedly by the likes of Sophie Stemmons’s Elizabeth and Aaran Sinclair’s father Frankenstein, in an ensemble that feels constantly natural and organic.

And to further complement this is a beautiful aesthetic to underscore the story, with a violinist and flautist appearing at sporadic moments throughout to match the melancholic lighting and ambient sounds. Through this coming together of acting talent and aesthetic intelligence, the themes of the awareness of one’s own consciousness, the complications of creation and the search for connection are displayed perfectly, so much so that the play is ultimately perfectly depressing and simply scintillating.

Boocock and co. have certainly laid a statement of intent in the last five months since their debut show, and one wonders how long it will be before they produce something truly spectacular. Although, with that said, when it comes to giving this show a star rating it is hard to know what to mark it down for. If there were any failings they were not in the slightest bit obvious; and given the ‘student’ status of the show, this is all the more impressive.

With all things considered, it therefore makes sense to give this show five stars.

*****

‘Mack And Mabel’ Saturday Night Review

Dear Cast and Crew of Mack And Mabel,

Imagine this if you can: your friends have been planning an amazing dinner for some months. It’s going to be fish of some kind, maybe haddock or plaice, with some rumours saying it might even be something really glamorous like king salmon. Their descriptions of it are mouth-watering: you simply can’t wait to get down there and dig in, such is the excitement they’ve kicked up about it.

But then you turn up and, not only is the dinner not cooked, the fish is still in the goddamn sea.

That’s what seeing ‘Mack And Mabel’ was like on Wednesday night. It was not just undercooked, it was like watching the fishermen trying to find out where the fish was (the fish is a metaphor for the script – I might drop the analogy now). As such my review was average.

So it’s with genuine delight that I can say you really showed me what for on Saturday. I came back suspecting you might turn the ship around, and you more than did that. Where previously you were slow, half-hearted and uncertain, you were now exploding with energy, never leaving the audience a moment to collect its breath before shooting for the next line, scene or dance move. The funny moments were funnier, the sad moments were sadder, the dancing was slick and precise, the relationships were believable, the acting was unbelievable (as it were) and the show, overall, was outstanding.

I have never seen a show get so much better in such a short amount of time. In fact I find it hard to believe Wednesday was part of the same production.

I also find it hard to believe I was watching the same actor play Mack Sennett. James Stevens frankly put my words to shame; all of a sudden he was big, bold and confident, throwing the emotion he needed into every line and being more than the monomaniac Mack is supposed to be. I am not being disingenuous when I say I was astounded; and maybe a little bit red faced about the fact that at least some of it was one almighty middle finger to doubters like me. Again, I’ve never seen a performance turn around so hard and so fast.

The reason I’m compelled to write this, by the way, is not in the slightest bit to apologise. My first review was still positive – it was still three stars – but it suffered because you were clearly unready. I’m writing it because the way you turned it around was utterly remarkable. As your friend, as a critic, as a fellow musical lover and so on, I wanted you guys to knock my socks off the way I knew you could. And you did – and you obviously loved doing it!

Of course the flaws were still there, but they didn’t matter as much. They were all to do with the script rather than your performance.

So congratulations to all of you. You smashed it.

4 Stars.