Gordon Brown, Bigot-gate, and Brexit.

Was this the moment that resulted in Brexit?

It was ten years ago this year (October 2009) that the BBC’s Question Time reached an audience of eight million viewers for the only time in its lengthy history. The reason? Well, that was human curiosity at the inclusion of the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, on the panel. For those that don’t remember, the invite to Griffin to appear on the show caused considerable controversy. There were protests and complaints. Columns in the national press suggested that Griffin’s appearance would normalise the BNP and make it seem just like any other political party. Home Secretary Alan Johnson said that it would “legitimise” the views of the BNP and compared the party to fascism and the National Front. It didn’t happen. Griffin was revealed to be the vile creature he was. At the election in 2010, less than a year after the Question Time appearance, the BNP contested 339 seats. They won just 1.9% of the national vote despite the number of contested seats, and the average votes per candidate had gone down from the 2005 number, despite (or perhaps because of) the publicity on the BBC programme.

Let’s skip forward a few months to the election campaign in 2010 and Gordon Brown being recorded by accident telling those travelling with him in his car that the woman who he had just been speaking to was “bigoted” after she complained to him about the amount of Eastern Europeans “flocking” to the country, and about there being too many immigrants. The media jumped on him for his comments, and he apologised. More than that, he then went back for a forty minute chat with the woman in order to try to save face. But what had happened between October 2009 and April 2010? Nick Griffin was lambasted and reviled for his views on Question Time (and rightfully so) and yet there was outrage when Gordon Brown called out a woman for being bigoted for her views on immigration, but little anger for what she had actually said.

My suggestion is that it was that moment, “Bigot-gate,” when the seed was sown for Brexit. It wasn’t Question Time, accused of legitimisising the views of the far-right by allowing Nick Griffin to appear and show himself to be a vile human being, it was Gordon Brown apologising for the bigot comment. By apologising (and some might say grovelling), Brown did something that neither Griffin or Farage had managed to do – he admitted it was OK, legitimate, to think what Mrs Duffy thought about immigration and air those views in public. It’s certainly true that, in comparison to what many have said since (or what Griffin was saying at the time), her comments were relatively tame, but that is beside the point because everything we have now, not least Brexit, but also the racism, the xenophobia, the Islamophobia, the increased homophobia and misogyny – all of which we see on a daily basis on Twitter and in newspaper headline, and overhear down the pub – stems from Gordon Brown’s apology. In apologising, effectively saying that it wasn’t bigoted or wrong to have those thoughts, Gordon Brown brought bigotry, hatred, and the distrust of those unlike ourselves back into the mainstream. He gave Mrs Duffy a voice. It opened the floodgates; people need no longer be ashamed of what they thought about any group of people.

This begs the question of what should Brown have done once he had said Mrs. Duffy was a bigot? The answer, in all likelihood, is that he should have gone on TV, smoothed things over by saying he had chosen his words badly, and then gone on to explain why what had been said had upset him so much in the first place and why it had no place in British society. Instead, the opposite happened.

While Nick Griffin sank back into obscurity, the next couple of years saw many changes. Immigration became a core policy of the coalition government formed in 2010, and, beyond that, political language changed – it was fine for Cameron & Co to name and shame those they thought were responsible for the state of the nation. Immigrants weren’t the only enemy of the people, but also the unemployed (people were either workers or shirkers) and the disabled who couldn’t work. The people wanted someone to blame for the financial crash, and, now he felt he could pick on certain groups, naming and shaming them for all to see. It was OK to do that now.

Then, of course, there was the rise of UKIP and Nigel Farage in particular, leading his party in the 2013 local elections to 23% of the vote. Within three years of Mrs Duffy’s comments about immigration, one in four people at the polling booth were voting UKIP (in the wards where they put forward a candidate). By 2014, Mrs Duffy’s comments seemed mild compared to what Farage was saying at his party conference:

“In scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognisable. Whether it is the impact on local schools and hospitals, whether it is the fact in many parts of England you don’t hear English spoken any more. This is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.”

(Nigel Farage, 2014 UKIP conference speech)

And this, of course, is the kind of rhetoric and opinion that led many to vote for Brexit in 2016. Would Farage have been saying this if Gordon Brown hadn’t opened the door for him by legitimising this train of thought? Would Boris Johnson be getting away with his “letterbox” and “bank robber” comments? We shall never know for sure, but for me there is a clear trajectory. Without the “bigot” incident there would have been be no legitimate voice for UKIP, without that there would have been no referendum in an attempt to stop Tory voters flocking to UKIP, and without the referendum we wouldn’t be where we are now as new year begins with the UK in chaos. Oh, Gordon Brown and Mrs. Duffy, what a wonderful thing hindsight can be.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

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John Kingsley Orton was born on January 1, 1933 and died on August 9, 1967 – a little over a week after parliament had voted to partially decriminalise homosexuality.   However, that political event gets no mention within Prick Up Your Ears, a film that takes its title from the play that Orton was about to start work on at the time of his death.

The film tells the story of Orton (would was rechristened “Joe” instead of “John” once he achieved literary success) and Kenneth Halliwell, his lover, mentor, friend and partner-in-crime (even if that crime was defacing library books).   The two had met back at the beginning of the 1950s at RADA, with Orton intrigued by, and ultimately attracted to, the older, well-read Halliwell.  The last entries in Orton’s first period of diary-writing gives the reader a good idea of how their relationship was progressing:

15 May:  Started at RADA.  Oh bliss!

19 May:  Someone in the other class keeps looking at me

21 May:  Was Eyed.

25 May:  Met Ken at Charing Cross road.  I don’t quite understand Ken.

2 June:  Am beginning to understand Ken.

8 June:  Met Ken.  He has invited me to live with him.

11 June:  Must leave my digs

12 June:  Ken offers again.

13 June:  I say no.

14 June:  Ken offers again.

16 June:  Move into Ken’s flat.

17 June:  Well!

18 June: Well!!

19 June: Well!!!

20 June:  The rest is silence.

Writing later, Orton spoke of how he found RADA to be “complete rubbish,” and that, at the end of his two terms there “I had complete lost my confidence and my virginity.”

Orton and Halliwell wrote works together over the next decade, but it was only when they were separated that Orton’s creative genius came into its own and his radio play, eventually entitled The Ruffian On the Stair, was picked up by the BBC Third Programme.  It was based on an unpublished novel by Orton and Halliwell called The Boy Hairdresser and, as you will see in the film, marked the beginning of both jealousy and rage on the part of Halliwell that he was not got getting the recognition and acclaim that Orton was, something which only became magnified with the success of Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot, and Orton’s commission to write a film for The Beatles, a film which was never produced.

The film actually begins at the end, with the finding of the dead bodies of Orton and Halliwell, From there, it jumps forward more than a decade as author John Lahr writes Orton’s biography with the help of his wife and Orton’s literary agent, Peggy Ramsey.  At first, the film suggests that it is going to be a relatively straightforward account of the last six months in the lives of Orton and Halliwell, told in flashback.  However, about a third of the way into the film, the flashbacks take us to the early 1950s, telling us how the two men met and, ultimately answering the inevitable question that most will have after watching the 1967 segment:  why were these two men living together?

The relatively complicated flashback structure is unsurprisingly handled with ease by the masterful Alan Bennett, whose script switches from moments that are unflinchingly dark to others that are uproariously funny.  He also manages to filter in parallels between the past and the present.  When Orton becomes famous after the production of his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Halliwell keeps reminding him of the contributions that he has made to Orton’s script and success.  In the present-day sequences, we see the same thing with Lindsay Duncan as Anthea Lahr, wife of Orton’s biographer, trying to remind Orton’s agent that the book wasn’t a sole effort and that she was working on it as well.

Bennett’s screenplay does take some liberties with both the timeline and the truth at various points.  For example, Orton and Halliwell made three trips to North Africa and not just the one that we see within the film (although one of those only lasted a day).  One of those trips was made with Kenneth Williams, who may not be portrayed in Prick Up Your Ears since he was still alive at the time the film was made.  Their trip together was, however, dramatized as part of the BBC film Fantabulosa, a dramatization of Kenneth Williams’ life starring Martin Sheen.   Williams and Orton had become friends back in 1964, during the time when Orton reworked his next play, Loot, as a vehicle for Williams.  However, it was a flop during its try-out in Cambridge, and Williams didn’t continue his association with the play which, after many re-writes, would become a success and win Orton the prestigious Evening Standard Award.  Bennett’s screenplay pays very little attention to the troubles that Loot had from its inception through to its eventual success.  Meanwhile, it is understood that the telephone call between Brian Epstein and Orton regarding the film script for the Beatles never happened, with the script being turned down with no reasons given.  In Prick Up Your Ears, Joe Orton proudly talks about having sold the film rights for Loot.  The film was made in 1970, as was an adaptation of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, but, rather interestingly, the general opinion was that they had not translated to the screen well.

Alan Bennett as scriptwriter headed a production whose cast reads like a who’s who of British acting talent.  Gary Oldman was cast as Orton on the back of his acclaimed performance as Sid Vicious in 1986’s Sid and NancyPrick Up Your Ears was Alfred Molina’s breakthrough role, although he had also appeared in films ranging from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Letter to Brezhnev.   The supporting cast of the movie is likely to have many audience members of a certain age thinking “oh look, it’s him,” at various points as Lindsay Duncan, Frances Barber, Eric Richards, Sean Pertwee (if you look close enough), Richard Wilson, and Julie Walters flash up on the screen.  It’s interesting how thirty years can make a difference to an actor or actress’s life – Walters, playing Orton’s mum, is on screen for all of five minutes, and yet her name is proudly emblazoned on the front cover of the most recent DVD release of the film as if she is one of the main performers.  Stephen Frears directs the film, just two years after he was at the helm of another gay-themed movie, My Beautiful Launderette.

It is interesting to note that the film received largely good reviews in the UK, but not so in the US, although one perhaps has to disagree with some of the comments by Philip French, written in the Observer.  He says that the “film’s sympathies ultimately lie with Halliwell, a sad, pathetic, vulnerable figure.  He is made to think himself in grave need of psychiatric help because his fidelity, loyalty and tolerant kindness have turned him into a jealous monster. As opposed to the cruel, opportunistic, amoral Orton, who radiates psychic health while exhibiting the air of false innocence and psychopathic absence of guilt associated with his bisexual hero, Mr Sloane.”  One can only wonder if the critic’s sympathies for Halliwell rather than Orton had to do with the time in which the film came out and the review was written: 1987, when the AIDs crisis was at its peak, and conservative Britain (with both a small and capital C), only a year away from imposing section 28, was not allowing itself to sympathise with a promiscuous gay man who enjoyed meeting strangers for sex in public toilets – whether he was violently murdered or not.

Nearly a decade after Prick Up Your Ears was made, British queer film would take an altogether lighter form with a cycle of gay romantic-comedies spurred on by the success of movies such as Beautiful Thing and Get Real, among others.  There is little sign of that levity within Prick Up Your Ears, though, despite the fact that is very funny in places.  Instead, the movie is part of a tradition dating back to the late 1950s, where the dour Serious Charge and the sobering The Trials of Oscar Wilde paved way for 1961’s Victim, which was then followed by A Taste of Honey, The Leather Boys, The Killing of Sister George, Nighthawks, and Sunday Bloody Sunday.  This dark, gritty tradition of queer-filmmaking that the Orton biography is a part of would continue through The Fruit Machine in 1988, Young Soul Rebels in 1991, Priest in 1994, Like It Is in 1998, and even on through the acclaimed Weekend in 2011.

Like so many of those films that I have just mentioned, Prick Up Your Ears makes no excuse for the flawed nature of its protagonists, or even how there are moments within the film when they come across as thoroughly unlikeable.  At times within the film, both Orton and Halliwell appear to hit the self-destruct button, although it is unlikely that either of the two men could have envisaged how their story would end.  Perhaps Orton realised, however, that his success would eventually bring unhappiness, writing in his diary just two months before his death that “to be young, good-looking, healthy, famous, comparatively rich and happy is surely going against nature.”

 

 

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

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For some unknown reason, it’s at this time of year that I often turn my attention to films from the early 30s and B-movies of the 40s. The brisker running times of 60-70 minutes are often useful in the busy run up to Christmas!

Not very Christmassy, though, is Wild Boys of the Road, directed by William Wellman in 1933, and included in a set of his films entitled Forbidden Hollywood, volume 3. Wellman, rather like Michael Curtiz, was a remarkably fine filmmaker that probably is little known today outside of film fans simply because he moved from genre to genre. He directed the brillant war aviation drama Wings in 1927, and then turned his hand to westerns, war films, murder mysteries and even a film about God giving speeches on the radio!

Wild Boys of the Road, though, is a social conscience film which I remember first seeing on the BBC, probably about twenty years ago – although I’m guessing that version might have been edited given the fact that this pre-code era movie contains sexual assault, violence, murder, and a rather horrific accident.  Indeed, the latter caused Screenland magazine to ask whether something could be done to “spare us the anguish” of the scene in question.

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People unfamiliar with this era of film-making might be surprised at some of the content.  As with many pre-code movies, it still packs quite a punch today, and its story of kids travelling from one town to the next by illegally riding on trains (and risking their lives all too often) because their parents are out of work and can no longer afford to feed them certainly has uneasy parallels with the migrant crisis in Europe today. At one point, the kids even make their own camp in a junk yard with permission from the owner, but are forced by the authorities to disperse and move on, with water hoses used to enforce it. Sound familiar?

Frankie Darro, the young star of the movie, spent much of the 1930s playing tough kids with a good heart, and that’s exactly what he does here, but it’s the little-known Edwin Phillips, with only three screen credits to his name, that steals the show as his best friend. Darro would fall out of favour in the 1940s, and was reduced to bit parts and stunt work by the end of that decade – ending up as the actor INSIDE Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet in 1956! Wellman directs this episodic tale with typical efficiency and flair, and manages to keep sentimentality at bay until the last few minutes and the story’s rather unlikely (but welcome) end.

It’s often easy to forget just how adult (and yet classy) cinema was in the early 1930s before the Production Code was enforced, and this fine drama about the effects of the depression on young Americans is just about as hard-hitting as it gets.  Such a tale involving adults would be grim enough, but with this being about youngsters makes it one of the most devastating films of the period.

Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto (review)

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It’s probably true to say that nothing could have prepared Bobby Darin fans in 1968 for the music he recorded on his Direction label and released over a couple of albums and a handful of singles. While he’d had dalliances with folk-rock with the albums If I Were a Carpenter and Inside Out, and folk itself with the Earthy and Golden Folk Hits releases, there were really no clues that the singer would move into protest music other than his song We Didn’t Ask to Be Brought Here and the message behind the story of Dr Dolittle, the music of which he built an album around directly prior to starting his own Direction label. His music for the label remains the least known of his career (with the possible exception of the first Motown album) and yet stands out as some of his best work.

Recorded over a number of sessions in 1968, the nine songs that make up Darin’s first Direction album, Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto, are a mixed bunch, both in message and quality. One of the most surprising things when looking at the sheet music (yes a book of sheet music from the album was released at the time – I doubt it was a big seller!) is the simplicity, even naivety, of the musical elements of these songs. Darin was a sophisticated musician and an intellectual to boot, and yet here everything is taken back to basics. Virtually none of the songs have what might be called a “chorus,” and most don’t have a bridge section either – just a series of verses, in some cases nearly a dozen.

Questions opens the album, and is a song about environmental damage. These songs were written during Darin’s sojourn in Big Sur, and that may well have inspired him on this song. There is also inspiration here from groups such as The Beatles and The Loving Spoonful in the production of these songs, which ranges from the basic to the complex including the use of sounds which appear to be tapes played backwards. Darin certainly isn’t shy about what he has to say, with some of the lyrics almost visceral :

How do you kill the ocean?
How do you make it dry?
Well, you first dilute,
Then pollute,
Cut the fruit,
At the root.
And the ocean’s floor
Will be like a whore
Who will lie no more
‘Cause she’s dead;
Use your head.

Jingle Jangle Jungle follows, with Darin this time turning his attention to money and finances, and the power that goes with them. This is one of the more Beatlesque sounding numbers, and the sound is harsher and more rock-oriented than some of the other tracks. Anyone used to hearing the showman-like sound of Darin’s swing material wouldn’t recognise the singer here. There is no razzamatazz, often not even as much as a vibrato.

The album is cleverly sequenced. The final verse of Jingle Jangle Jungle refers to the Vietnam war, which is the subject of The Proper Gander, an allegorical tale about a group of mice encouraged by their leaders to go to war to fight a Siamese Cat that doesn’t actually exist, with the leader being found out as the song comes to the end of its seven verses. Once again, everything here is tied up in the lyrics. Out of each verse’s 28 bars, 22 of them are simply just the chord of G. The lyrics more than make up for it, however, with Darin writing them in such a way that they can not only relate to the Vietnam war but any bulls*it spoken by a government in order to win votes and confidence.

Bullfrog is an 11-verse opus in which Darin doesn’t sing a note. The whole thing is spoken with a rhythm background, and finds Bobby telling a frog about how the history of money. It’s all rather strange, something which is reflected in the lyrics themselves: “Now, I thought I was stoned, so I started walkin’/I mean, whoever heard of a bullfrog talkin’?”

Long Line Rider became the single taken from the album, but made no impression in the charts. It’s certainly the most commercial number of the nine songs here, not least because it does actually have a chorus. It tells the true story of some killings (by those in charge) on an Arkansas prison farm. Darin went on TV and promoted the single, dressed in denim and without his toupee. On one occasion he was told he would have to censor the line “this kind of thing can’t happen here, especially not in an election year,” and Darin refused to perform. Once again, it is musically simplistic, built around the basic I, IV, V chord progressions (with the exception of one bar), but the lyrics are so well-written, the production so good, and Darin’s performance so committed that no-one notices.

The second side of the album is decidedly more relaxed and laid-back. Change sounds like it could have been written by Dylan for Nashville Skyline. This time the musical element is somewhat more sophisticated (the song even has a bridge!), but the lyrics are less biting than on the first side of the LP. This is simply a call to people not to resist change. Nothing more, nothing less.

I Can See the Wind is something of a mystery, and ultimately the low point of the album, although not unpleasant. Presumably this is a song about the benefits of smoking hash (although there’s no suggestion that Darin did), but your guess is as good as mine.

Sunday, on the other hand, is a dark, cutting, attack on organised religion, the death and misery it has caused through the years, and the hypocrisy that Darin saw in the church itself. “Sunday,” Darin sings, “bow down to the blood you’ve shed/Sunday, Bodies piled so steep/You say keep the faith, but there’s no faith to keep.” This is one of the tracks that utilises recordings played backwards (in the organ introduction to the song), and the song is well-constructed. It lures you in with relatively bland verses, with each one getting more and more hard-hitting in its lyrical content, until a world-weary Darin sighs in the final verse “Sunday, let the people sleep.” This is a brilliantly executed little song.

The final song on the album strips everything back to just Darin and an acoustic guitar. Darin was a big supporter of Robert Kennedy, and he fell apart when he was assassinated. This final, subdued, song, entitled simply In Memoriam, never sung above a whisper, sees Darin confronting his pain at the events, and the funeral that followed. Each verse ends simply with the words “they never understood him, so they put him in the ground.”

This nine-track album was Darin’s opening statement in his new role as protest singer and, while the album is uneven, it’s still mightily impressive. And yet, despite good reviews, very few people bought it. Some have said that it would have sold much better without Darin’s name on it, and that might be true. The idea of one of the best entertainers in the business singing protest songs sounded phoney, and he was once again accused of simply jumping on a bandwagon. That wasn’t the case though, for this LP made no effort whatsoever in being commercial. Despite it being a financial flop, Bobby Darin wasn’t deterred, and he returned in 1969 under the name “Bob Darin” with a new album that was a mix of protest album and a reflection on the counter-culture, with its discussion of everything from Ronald Reagan’s move into politics, the Vietnam war, drugs and sexuality.

Glee: What Might Have Been

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*Contains season six spoilers*

Quite how Glee managed to limp through its mostly-awful fourth and fifth seasons is anybody’s guess.  There were times when it seemed that the whole thing would just grind to a halt and no-one would be bothered to even turn up to write, direct and act in it, let alone watch it.  And yet, since the death knell has been sounded, and the sixth and final season has started, this most erratic and frustrating of series has finally found its feet once again.  At its very best, Glee does not just entertain but it can also move its audience and send out a message like virtually no other programme.

I actually came to Glee in the first place about four years ago because a couple of my students were writing an essay on it, and I needed to see a few episodes.  Even back then, in its first and second seasons, the writing was erratic – brilliant one week, bloody awful the following week.  And yet one thing shone through despite the bland writing, forgotten narrative threads, bizarre characterisations, and awful song choices:  Glee had heart.  There were times when it became a little preachy to say the least, but at least it was preaching acceptance.  But the erratic quality of the programme saw viewing figures fall (understandably), and the third season could easily have been the last.

But still it carried on, trying to dig itself out of the hole it had dug for itself, trying every trick in the book to win back viewers or, at the very least, keep the ones it still had.  The idea to have what were essentially two parallel narratives running through the fourth and fifth seasons was interesting, but doomed to fail.  Glee got more and more silly and irrelevant.  It had been forgotten that the show was at its best when it was also at its simplest, but still there were moments when Glee’s best qualities shone through despite everything.

Now the show is at the midway point of its sixth and final series of just thirteen episodes and, somehow, it has returned to very near its best.  Surreal humour that makes sense to no-one is mixed up with genuinely moving storylines and songs that are actually there for a reason.  There are no fireworks as Glee comes to an end – no big attempt to win back viewers, but just an eagerness to let this once-loved show close out with some dignity.  But this simple aim has resulted in some wonderful moments – and as a forty-one year old man, I really shouldn’t be saying that given that the target audience is probably about fifteen.

Dot-Marie Jones has been nominated three times for a Prime-time Emmy for her performances in the show and, given her performance in recent episodes that have centred around Coach Beiste’s decision to live life as a man, it’s highly likely that a further nomination will be forthcoming.  Excusing the fact that his decision was made and surgery taken place all in a matter of four weeks, this storyline has resulted in one of Glee’s best episodes in years, entitled Transitioning. It’s a simple episode, in which a number of storylines get moved forward, but Jones’s performance as her character returns to work for the first time as a man is remarkable.  It’s been mentioned in various places over the last few weeks that the transgender community gets forgotten or ignored when it comes to LGBT representation and politics, thus making this current narrative arc particularly welcome.

OK, I admit it, just like a Hallmark afternoon movie starring Lindsey Wagner, the climax in which transgender former student Unique sings a message of acceptance to the rather lost Coach Beiste, backed with a 300-strong transgender choir, is obviously intended to pull at the heartstrings and get the audience either crying like a baby or puking as a result of saccharine overload.  And yet it’s done so well (and is so out of the blue) that even the most-hardened watchers would struggle not to be moved by the whole thing.  Yes, it’s manipulating the viewer without apology, and, yes, it’s unadulterated feel-good TV – but that’s not always a bad thing.  And yes, I cried like a baby.

Glee has tackled numerous issues over its six-season run – some were done remarkably well and in depth, while others were handled so appallingly that the writers should be ashamed (most notably when Ryder admitted that he was molested as a child).  And, yes, there are “issues” that have, for some reason, been avoided.  In a series aimed at teenagers, why did the producers seemingly go out of their way to avoid storylines relating to drugs or mental health?  But the one thing it has consistently done, and done well, is ask for acceptance of the LGBT community, and this sixth season is no exception to that – quite the opposite in fact.  And, as a gay man myself, I understand the importance of that message going out to a core audience of the age that is just starting to understand who they are and  their purpose in life.

This final season of Glee has felt more like a beginning than an ending, and no doubt the show’s constant viewers will be watching it thinking of what could have been had the programme had been of this standard over the previous three seasons.  But there is a time and a place for everything, and the series has run its course.  In 2009, when it started, it was fresh, vibrant, funny and different.  Now it’s viewed by most as tired and cliched.  But I for one, even as a grumpy middle-aged man, am pleased that Glee has been allowed these thirteen episodes to get its arse in gear and finish with its head held high and to demonstrate just what it achieved over the last six years rather than where it failed.

Naive Nick’s Mental Health Pledge

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Are those with mental health conditions meant to be jumping for joy at Nick Clegg’s announcement today that a target would be set that all sufferers will have access to talking therapies within eighteen weeks should the current coalition find themselves still in power after the next election?  This will, apparently, mean that around £120m of extra funding (more about the “extra” later) will be spent over the next two years – this will, I guess, go towards restoring some of the funding that has been cut over the last four years since the coalition  has been in power.

For me, the whole thing smacks of empty rhetoric, grave naivety and a cynical touting for votes.  No-one is going to moan that waiting times are going to be cut or that more spending on mental health will take place, but the ridiculous simplicity with which mental health is being treated is rather insulting to those who are suffering from these conditions.  It’s thought that up to 10% of sufferers die as a direct or indirect result of their condition.  Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.  If those stats were related to a form of cancer, there would be a considerable outcry if a waiting time for treatment was reduced to eighteen weeks.  Reduced.  God knows how long the wait must be now if you’re not one of the lucky few who lives in the right postcode.

The lack of understanding of mental illness by those spouting these latest wonders is only too evident with the announcement that suicidal patients will get the same priority as those with a suspected heart attack.  That’s all very nice, but people with a suspected heart attack ring 999 – people who are suicidal do not.  Suffering from a mental health condition for up to eighteen weeks without access to certain treatment might be enough to turn someone suicidal in the first place. And there’s also this strange notion that people are either suicidal or they’re not – something which fails to take into account that people might be fine one day and not the next.  That MPs are simplifying conditions in this way is insulting – the least they could do is try to understand the issue in the first place.   But to do so, and to acknowledge the complexities doesn’t make for such rousing speech-writing.

And how about reviewing the benefits process for those with mental health conditions.  The Personal Independence Payment form might give an indication of how serious a physical disability is, but it’s a joke when it comes to mental health, with half of the questions not even applying to people with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and the like.  Can we use the loo?  Well, yes, thank you very much – but why aren’t you asking us about issues of concentration that prevent us doing things, or panic attacks that might stop us going to a supermarket.  And, wait for this one folks, if you can’t use public transport due to your condition you might be awarded a free bus pass.  I kid you not.

Charities have welcomed today’s news – they have little choice: more funding is better than funding cuts, no matter how modest the targets that have been set.  Just six weeks ago, The Independent ran a story stating that mental health services are “dangerously close to collapse,” and that there were 3000 less nurses working in the sector than two years earlier.  57 mental health trusts had lost £253m in funding.  And yet we should be saying “well done” and “how wonderful” to the coalition for promising to put half of that money back.   That’s hardly “extra funding.”

I confess that I have been lucky during the twenty years I have had my own condition.  When I first fell ill, I got to see a doctor within hours (this was 1995 when you could do that) and, since then, I have always been treated by my succession of GPs with respect, concern and (thankfully) good humour.  The last in that list might seem like an odd addition, but actually it highlights the importance of striking up a rapport with your GP, especially with regards to mental health conditions where, more than ever, everyone is different.  I have a great relationship with my GP, not least because she knows I’m more than willing to find the humour within the issues that I have.   It’s the way I get through.  Another doctor wouldn’t get or understand that.

The problem is that seeing your own GP (including my own) is not that easy anymore.  Often the waiting time to see your regular doctor these days is two weeks, not two hours.  If I had a severe turn for the worse with my illness, would I even contemplate seeing a doctor I didn’t know?  Probably not – and with good reason: notes on a screen are not the same as talking to someone who has seen how your condition has changed (or not) over a number of years.  Mental health conditions aren’t a series of test results, facts and figures, where X+Y = medication A.  It’s far more complicated than that – which is why some of the rhetoric used by Nick Clegg today comes across as so naive.

Any increase in mental health budgets is to be welcomed, but it shouldn’t have got this bad in the first place – and the amount of money involved doesn’t get close to making up for the cuts from the budgets over the last few years.  And, while Clegg has said he wants to work to stamp out the stigma associated with such conditions, that promise seems very empty too.  There are few, if any, signs of how he plans to do that.  Does he mean well?  Possibly.  But, as with most things he does and says, his ineptness and lack of deep understanding of the problem is laughable or offensive, depending on your mood (swing).

Mental Health: Don’t Forget It

depressionA man died this week and suddenly a discussion of mental health issues has started.  There is an outpouring from twitter users, as they retweet messages about depression.  Statuses of support for sufferers of depression are being shared over and over on facebook.  There’s even a multitude of new videos on YouTube on the subject.  The problem is that, last week, most of these people didn’t give a fuck about depession.  And, after the funeral of a well-loved celebrity, the furore over how sufferers are let down by the system and by society will die down to a quiet murmur once again. 

Depression, bipolar and other mental health conditions DO need to be talked about, not least because the lack of understanding about these issues is so severely lacking amongst many members of the public – and it is that stigma that prevents many from seeking treatment or admitting they have a problem.  There is something of a backlash about comments made on TalkSport radio by Alan Brazil (I have no idea who he is) in which he said he had “no sympathy” for Robin Williams.  Shep Smith, a newscaster on Fox News in America, referred to Williams as a coward.  Both men, bizarrely, still have their jobs.  The truth of the matter, though, is that many members of the public have the same lack of understanding of depression as these two men – and twitter and facebook have shown that too in the last few days. 

Suicide is thought to be the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK.  Mental health issues affect 1 in 4 of us at some point in our lives.  According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, around 30% of sufferers will attempt suicide, and it is thought that around 10-15% of sufferers die as a consequence of the condition. 

A 10-15% fatality rate.

So, what are we doing about it?  Well, we’ll talk about if for a few weeks and then forget it.  Public figures and politicians will tell us that support has to be given to sufferers.  However, mental health budgets in the UK are being slashed.  For example, six weeks ago the BBC reported that the budget for child and adolescent mental health services at Birmingham City Council were cut “from just above £2.3m in 2010-11 to £125,000 in 2014-15, a drop of 94%.”  Mental health trusts have had their budgets slashed by 20% this year.  NHS England has cut budgets for mental health by 2%. 

There has to be a link here between the lack of education on the subject (and thus its perceived seriousness) and the cutting of budgets.  It’s still thought people can “snap out of it” or that it isn’t a “real” illness.  If the condition had the word “cancer” or “disease” at the end of it, we would all be looking at in a very different way.  It is as real as diabetes or heart disease.  The fact it doesn’t show up in a blood test robs it of that reality. 

What I’m trying to say here is that, for a few days or weeks, mental health issues will matter to more people than ever before because someone they liked on the telly has died as a result of it.  But those deaths (and attempted deaths) are happening all the time.  It’s a reality that people and governments need to wake up to.  More than ever it is time to educate, talk, support and treat. 

In the four minutes it took you to read this article, six people will have attempted suicide in the USA alone.  Five of them will have had a known mental health issue at the time.