Forgetting Everyday Life

I didn’t write anything on here last week. In fact I didn’t do much at all. The UK was struck with a heatwave, which in turn struck me down with the kind of inertia that only comes with Spanish sun married to English humidity. Clamminess, sleeplessness, and a week of lounging about in my dressing-gown trying to get through Howards End without falling asleep. E.M. Forester’s prose is fine, but both reading and sitting in a slumped position have the effect of sending me to sleep. The former activity is relaxing and surprisingly introspective. The latter, as I’ve known for years, is asking for trouble.

What has been preoccupying my thoughts for the last week, however, has not been that people don’t connect, but rather that social media gives an unsatisfyingly abridged account of human life. Of course, this has been pondered on in many articles before, but scrolling through Facebook or Instagram last week presented me with a long list of people who were determined to actively spend as much time in the sun as possible. Even a conversation with a friend on WhatsApp revealed her to be strolling from Canterbury to Whitstable – a walk of several miles each way – on the kind of day when my body is acerbically informing me that it cannot face living with gusto. Were they all really not exhausted? No: I’m certain that they were. Flopping on the bed, though, is neither becoming nor compelling reading. So, we edit it out.

Why should people share the minutiae of their lives, though? Gustave Flaubert said something about letting a horse defecate in the same room that you eat in, and treating both acts of life with equal reverence, but why would anybody want to hear about daily defecation? Members of St John’s College, Oxford, if the website is to be trusted, buoyantly fill their days with the kind of extracurricular activities which would confine me to my bed, overcome with exhaustion both emotional and physical: rowing before breakfast and then convening a few student societies in their study breaks. Only one confessed to eating cake, and even that act of hedonism was spoilt by its taking place in a social setting.

On the contrary, I wake up and do a load of washing-up, fuelled through it by at least one black coffee. Although I make sure to invest a reasonable percentage of my time in fairly high-brow activities, I spend unfortunately longer either trying to fathom out daily household chores, performing them, or recovering from them with one of either: cake, a nap, going to bed early, or browsing the internet for information on obscure subjects – like examples of how, if at all, psychotic people can be shaken out of their delusions without drugs.

But, why are life’s daily tasks (or battles) so rarely mentioned? We are more and more at the mercy of those, especially celebrities, whose lives appear nothing but glamour that we forget how we all have an “off-screen”, personal, humdrum life. Dame Julie Walters famously weeds her garden. Mary Beard sits at her kitchen table in her dressing-gown: read her blog, ‘A Don’s Life’. And why shouldn’t we take an interest in how others treat life’s chores? They might not be particularly edifying if dwelled upon – but aren’t they better than heavily-edited photos of that day Margate Beach became almost literal Heaven?

Anyway – I’d better mention that I went up to central London last week to visit ‘The Hardy Tree’ in Camden…

 

Exhaustion

I’d be the first to admit that I have little common sense, and I sometimes wonder whether it may be rich and honed-to-perfection life skills which give other people the energy to live lives undominated by the mysteries of the washing machine and how to remove clean crockery and cutlery from the sink without leaving a thin residue of grease on it. Even though I have support workers and a weekly visit from an occupational therapist, I still struggle with categorising my life effectively, and this problem is the primary reason why I’m telling you this today instead of discussing people who rant online about elitism at the University of Oxford. The secondary reason is that I’ve been advised that neurotypicals would find my dry anecdotes of my daily life both funny and fascinating.

I’m sitting at my desk, composing this and finding that wordsmithery gives me the same combination of enjoyment and mild anxiety as usual. I’ve found putting words together to be a peaceful and musical experience since my GCSE days at earliest, and, despite worries that I am losing my sense of style, I’m still as happy as ever to stimulate myself by improving analytical and written abilities. And this is far easier than what is about to happen in three minutes.

In three minutes, the washing machine is going to finish a two-hour long wash cycle and progress onto the drying stage. Had I elected to skip the drying stage when filling the machine, I’d be stuck with the problem of whether or not completely wet washing can really be dried on a clothes-horse; I’ve been a proponent of the argument for it, but after an incident last week where a pair of vile old green tracksuit bottoms used for gardening ended up smelling as though they’d slept rough after falling into a river, I’ve become less confident. Medieval women used to lay their washing out on grass to dry, which would undoubtedly lead to grass stains because of some kind of common-sense science which has escaped me. Laundry authorities reportedly advise against using tumble-dryers at all on shirts, as they can potentially damage them for reasons known only to alchemists – which is just as well since my apparatus calls itself a “sensor condenser”. I don’t know what a sensor condenser is, only that it takes approximately three hours to get my shirts dry enough that they’re damp. And then I have to hang the things on the clothes-horse while trying to troubleshoot the fault that befell the green tracksuit bottoms to avoid replicating it. Hmph.

Whole days can be spent on a combination of this sort of insipid activity and on trying to relax and enjoy myself in ways that aren’t going to mentally stimulate me last thing at night. I often lie in bed and just enjoy my own consciousness and the strangely liberating feeling of human existence in itself, when you’re not trying to ascertain how often to wash a tea-towel. (If you’ve got a really dirty tea-towel, wouldn’t its filth just sully and possibly clog the inside of the machine?)

The best tactic I’ve found to try and combat this problem – and it works – is just to do the minimum. Rise above it all. Guess – if that lets you do something better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Charity’s fine, subscribe to mine…” Canterbury’s con artists

Ron Moody’s Fagin follows up these words, however, not by inviting people to sign up voluntarily, but rather by robbing them: “Gotta pick a pocket or two!”

The musical Oliver! (Moody debuted his Fagin in the original 1960 London production, returning in 1968 for a film version) might show hustling as blatant yet elegant pickpocketing, but I today want to talk about a couple of encounters I’ve had with a man who is either homeless, hapless, helpless, or just a very good con artist who takes your happiness and replaces it with a temporary uneasiness. Con artistry is rife in Britain, and one of the main reasons why I stopped giving money to the homeless and vulnerable directly, instead joining the University of Kent’s ‘Canterbury Homeless Outreach’, and helping to distribute food and advice. These incidents took place in Canterbury (Spanish beggar culture deserves a post of its own), and should serve as warning. Both, though, made me think – unlike many of Canterbury’s crooked chancers who ask for “a few quid for my bus/train back to [wherever]” or try to sell me lucky heather for “paper money to feed the little gypsy children”, the man in the following anecdote acts rather well, and leaves doubt in the mind of his mark as to his authenticity.

I met this man in Canterbury high street; he told me that he recognised me from somewhere, before proceeding with a long-winded and dull tale about how he was a visitor to Canterbury, having come from a nearby town with his girlfriend and young child. His girlfriend had stormed out of a fast-food restaurant earlier, returning home with their daughter – as well as his money. In a plight, he needed some quick cash for the train fare back home. Simple enough – and a classic scam story. Unlike a few others who have tried this on me in Canterbury, though, this would-be traveller said that he was happy for me to accompany him to the station, buy the ticket, and watch him board the train. Normally, raising this suggestion makes would-be practitioners of the stranded swindle flee.

Of course, my practice of not giving out money, but being a member of a recognised charity (Kent Union) dealing in supporting the homeless should make rogues scarper with almost equal effectiveness, but this man’s suggestion complicated things – I was within my own personal boundaries of not giving out money, and I am still not convinced that a scam focusing on refunding tickets for a fifteen-minute railway journey would generate much profit. For a start, the staff would get suspicious after a few goes. Secondly, the scammer might get off at the next stop, but he still needs to get back to Canterbury to run the scam again.  Thirdly, he might be able to convince several ‘marks’ to buy tickets for him in a day, but the refundability, and thus lucrativeness, of at least some of those tickets will be invalidated – by the inspector coming round too early and stamping them!

Upon realisation that I was not going to pay a train fare for him, the would-be strandee attempted to have an overly-theatrical anxiety attack, failed under my gaze of combined indifference and mild amusement, and eventually ran off proclaiming his intentions to jump under a train. The next morning, though, he was still very much in Hell on Earth, having purportedly spent the night in a telephone box.

Despite having occurred a number of years ago, this particular incident has stuck with me due to what must have been a meticulous scam to plan for little guaranteed reward.  The situation easily invites consideration of thorny issues of moral and ethical responsibility. He claimed to have Asperger Syndrome. His offers of homosexual sex were risky, for some people aren’t choosy. He even wore the same clothes on the second day for added authenticity. This man attempted to induce a variety of emotions in me ranging from fear of him all the way to fear for him; with regular Hitchcockian shifts in mood, I not only questioned his sanity, but also acknowledged the scenario in meta: is this really the scam I think it is, or is the victim vulnerable, dangerous, and genuine? On that, I still haven’t made up my mind.

Wouldn’t it be easier to enrol in community theatre?

It’s been exactly a decade since I got my A-Level results…

NB – Please excuse any minor errors in this post. I have been coerced into writing and publishing this immediately, as otherwise, given my meticulous nature, I will post so little that having a blog will become unfeasible.

Ten years ago, on A-Level results day, I walked into my secondary school to collect my results. My head was probably hurting (the result of an epileptic seizure which had caused me to fracture my skull two weeks before my final exams), and I was apprehensive that my performance would have been impaired so much that I’d now have little chance of meeting one of my conditional offers from the University of Kent to study on one of their psychology courses. Thanks to plenty of support, my Asperger Syndrome had, against the odds, distinguished me; my teaching assistant and mentor was a professional woman with an unusually good understanding of autistic spectrum conditions. Perhaps I look back with the infamous rose-tinted glasses which are now far too often worn in writing, but I thought I had a successful career, and life, ahead of me.

Today, on A-Level results day, I’ve been lounging about my mother’s home, trying to work out exactly what has happened during the past ten years. It’s been like a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare. My mind has only started to recover in the last six months or so, after I requested that my doctor stop prescribing me high doses of an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drug which made minor headlines earlier this year when it was reclassified as a Class C controlled substance: I’d already decided by then that I’d rather suffer the stress! I got a 2:2 degree in Comparative Literature and Spanish a couple of years ago, after eight years of getting every mark between 8 and 80, and spent two of those years living and working in Spain. I’ve been to A&E multiple times for suicide attempts, failed an English-language teaching course, house-shared with a pair of mentally ill people, been described as the best English-language assistant a particular Spanish school had ever had, flooded the mentally-ill people’s house, and, a particularly low point, spent ten days in a maximum-security Spanish psychiatric hospital after an eviction-with-immediate-effect from an overpriced guesthouse for foreign academics. My current support worker is a professional of sorts – he’s a trained chef – but admits that he has very little knowledge of the autistic spectrum and is an ardent supporter of a no-deal Brexit. Has my Asperger Syndrome actually distinguished me? Only in that it sets me aside from the support worker’s other clients, many of whom have severe psychiatric illnesses; autism is, in contrast, a disability, hesitantly a learning disability, but certainly not a mental illness.

I didn’t expect any of this, but cannot help feeling that part of the problem was that I rushed into going to university immediately after leaving school. Possibly unlike many of my neurotypical counterparts, I had not been primed to take care of myself in ways other than academically: I was used to structure, to only having to focus on my studies, and to not having to worry about tasks such as cooking and cleaning. When I moved into halls of residence for the first time, I very quickly became overwhelmed by tasks which might initially fool every fresher, but which I continue to struggle with to this day – namely those non-academic tasks which can threaten to dominate life if not kept in check by some mysterious check. This, and attempts to build a routine out of a timetable full of empty self-study periods left me vulnerable to procrastination and anxiety, especially as I eventually learnt that I study best after an hour or so of “warming-up”, preferably in a zone with reduced stimuli of other kinds.

Having analysed my own problems over the past decade, I sometimes hypothesise that my life is backwards: that I should have done what I am doing now (living in a flat and being taught by an occupational therapist how to stop letting dull tasks like mopping floors intrude on my reading) immediately after leaving school. Maybe it would have eliminated some of the seedier events from my life.

To be continued

 

The Social Care System: The Elephant in the Room.

Just before Easter, I got a shock. I was given an “Infected groin”. The capital letter was there in the original, as if to add a certain gravitas to the issue. Read it in the voice of the woman who does the adverts for Marks and Spencer’s food: “This is not just a groin – this is an infected groin!” Like much advertising, the advert barely matches the reality, for my groin is, and always has been, unremarkable.

I receive two hours’ support four times a week from a fairly small, local (in that it covers much of Kent) company which I may as well call ‘Blithebicker Care’. Purportedly to assist me in the additional challenges that Asperger Syndrome presents me, in reality I am descended upon by a self-styled ‘Recovery Coordinator’ whose formal training in anything to do with the autistic spectrum could range from a degree in social care to never having heard the term before; and whose motivation to help me is thus, inauspiciously, on a similarly haphazard scale. Virtually anybody can apply for this minimum-wage position (which is also billed as ‘support worker’), and at least in the case of Blithebicker, your acceptance or rejection post-interview is dependent entirely on whether or not your interviewer thinks you have the correct mindset and potential. Different senior staff members in the company hold a vast array of ideas on what traits an employable candidate should have; hence, any chance of well-trained professionals taking the reigns as overseers in higher-paid industry roles is eliminated, for all senior staff were initially hired as support workers. So, the blind are not leading the blind; the nearly-blind are being led by those who’ve manufactured their own glasses.

To be fair, this service’s clientele is hardly in robust shape to complain. It’s made up mostly -or so it seems -of people with severe mental illnesses or personality disorders, in some cases brought on by a spell in the army or prison, or from homelessness. Many of them, from what I have deduced, are too traumatised, or in some cases, too drugged-up, to really care what kind of qualifications the person looking after them has, as long as they appear as a powerful authority figure who will make life make sense.

In one case, that figure turned out to be a cheery young chap of about 20 who hated reading and whose only objective knowledge of psychosis came from a solitary documentary on the topic. He was very friendly, and shared his various conspiracy theories with me, but then an affable high-functioning autistic who has lived with his syndrome for years, and additionally has a good objective knowledge of the autism spectrum, is very different to a recently-diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who became diagnosed a month ago and is still trying to come to terms with what has happened to her. The latter is fictitious, yet rings true in terms of what a support worker might face.

The titular elephant in the room in this industry is obvious: there is a lack of funding in an area of work which is pseudo-medical. Perhaps as recently as a decade ago, some kind of nurse or healthcare assistant, probably trained in mental health, would have undertaken this role. Nowadays, due to budget cuts, companies like Blithebicker have little option but to take on inexperienced workers and pay them a minimum wage. A kind of mantra, recited to me by a couple of staff members, is that you “can’t expect professionalism from somebody on a minimum wage”. When prodded, this statement was reinforced with an affirmation that the professional demeanour adopted by clinicians must be part-and-parcel of graduating from medical school. And this, quite frighteningly, is a service in which clients are at liberty to disclose their most personal difficulties with their minds, and their biggest quandaries in life, which will be recorded – perhaps with spelling variations within the same form, as was the case with my dyspraxia – on a (thankfully secure) system. What is part-and-parcel all too often is, rather, rejection of the notion there is any problem with hosting this carry-on around the vulnerable and impressionable; I eventually received a competent support worker in the form of a counselling graduate, but had to fight hard. I may be pessimistic, but I can imagine this industry to be so glib as to be occasionally potentially dangerous.

My personal attempt at rectification of this issue is to simply circumvent any medical connotations whatsoever, and use my support time to undertake those of life’s labours most suited to those of a pragmatic and practical bent, such as cleaning out my refrigerator or doing my budgeting. And as for the “Infected groin”? It lost its capital letter during a revision of the paperwork, and I had an antibiotic in the form of “the Seal”* purge it from the system. An error, for sure, but one which could have been tackled sooner and probably prevented in the first place.

 

*My nickname for the leader of the sub-team of support workers responsible for my local area. He is large, grey and cuddly – and an “unqualified social worker”. Alongside the counselling graduate, he is a rare find in this industry. 

 

 

Overthinking Spilt Coffee

I always end up starting the New Year late. I find I overthink my New Year’s Resolutions. For me, the first of the untarnished twelve months ahead never begins until after my birthday on the 6th January – and, in the couple of weeks since then, I’ve been musing on what I’m going to do with myself this year.

Firstly, in relation to this little project, I’m confident that some changes are in order. I’ve got many things that I want to write about, and some that I am in the process of drafting, but creating thorough posts is counter-productive to the purpose of a blog, in which regularity is (apparently) what triggers any eventual success one has in terms of sucking readers back for more. So, I’m going to intersperse more carefully researched posts with rather more immediate accounts of my thoughts, feelings and encounters – starting from now!

Yesterday, I had a minor incident in Canterbury which reminded me how most people, unlike me, seem to know immediately what to do in any situation. I was due to volunteer at a University-organised outreach event for the homeless in the early evening, and so decided an hour beforehand to get a quick meal in Marks and Spencer’s café. For the same price as going to McDonalds, I found that I could get well-cooked food in an environment free of obnoxiously tuneless pop music and slightly intimidating, slightly drunk people. My problem occurred when I spilt my post-dinner black coffee on my navy trousers, with a token splash on my tie. What to do?

Most people would be  concerned with removing any stains incurred using a convoluted method involving steeping the stained area in a bucketful of distilled water at room temperature for exactly six hours, before dabbing at the area with a solution made of equal parts ‘Dr Foster’s Lemon Micro-Reformed Concentrated Acidic Vinegar Clothes Tonic’ (only available in one independent grocer’s a two-hour drive away) and diluted alkaline paint stripper (only sold online, in tiny bottles, at £16 a bottle, with a four week wait.) After all, this is the sort of advice doled out by Good Housekeeping, and most people have these items at home, along with mysteries such as a wrench, sandpaper, a bar of coal tar soap, and several claw hammers in various sizes.

I was less concerned with stains – which come out in the wash – than with what kind of breach of etiquette I might be about to commit. Turning up covered in coffee might be very bad form or it might be entirely acceptable. Other people know which way of thinking their fellow neurotypicals will adopt. Are you unprofessional for not popping home to get changed, or commendable for continuing despite your minor plight? My mother used to continue to university after being covered in muddy water by passing cars during her commute, and one scholar, during a conference, stumbled into a lake only to emerge and deliver his paper saturated in algae. Unfortunately I was neither splashed nor soaked – I just looked a bit sloppy. “Hmph”, I remember thinking. “Typical. This is exactly why women don’t date me!” 

Even cancellation is a mild chore, for, unlike a cat at a window, humans cannot change their minds ad infinitum. Enough volunteers were present that the outreach could still comfortably go ahead, yet cancelling due to my own mere appearance could be seen as nauseatingly vain and decadent. Yes, a moral quandary entered the fray. “These people have nothing”, I thought, “and I’m wondering what to do about a worse-than-average trouser-soaking, which is now seeping through to my underpants.” I’m almost certain that most people do not have these drawn-out dilemmas over something so simple, yet I don’t believe they look it up in Debrett’s A-Z of Modern Manners. They just know.

Fortunately, this blog post came out of the event, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed attempting wry humour. Look forward to my dissections of why having a frank and emotionless attitude towards discussing and analysing sex can make for some rather funny discussions. Until next time, consider – why can’t humans bear to realise that their parents had sex?

HITMAN 2 – Grand Theft Auto’s Big Brother

Hitman 2 (2018) is the successor to IO Interactive’s 2016 reboot of the successful Hitman video game series, and it is being both lauded and criticised by fans of the series. The 2016 instalment, titled simply Hitman, was notably ambitious in its adjustments to its previous incarnations. The setting and gameplay have always been simple – you play as a morally neutral hitman-for-hire who is tasked with killing a variety of targets in a variety of sandbox locations. The manner of their deaths – and indeed the resulting tone of each whole run – is player-determined, meaning that re-playability is high. Throughout the series, additions, refinements and upgrades in all areas have been commonplace, be they disguises or more complex artificial intelligence. The two most recent games play like a sombre Grand Theft Auto game. The antithesis of the loud, loutish and leering hyper-masculine thug, Agent 47, the playable character, is refined, a Renaissance Man, who uses his varied talents to pose as anything from a waiter to an excited fan of teenage chick-lit fiction. He’s also a genetically-engineered clone, built as a killing machine, something which had little relevance to 2016’s game, save for his ability to use ‘Instinct mode’, which gives the rough location of targets and tells you if nearby rooms are empty or not – basically the sort of intelligence a fully-human hitman could surely acquire.

The sequel cannot escape its origin; the Glacier engine on which both games run is almost the same two years on, as are the graphics, gameplay and overall style of the game. Had IO Interactive not split from its publisher and teamed up instead with Warner Brothers, we would be looking at a mere second season. The main distinctions are demonstrative of IO Interactive’s affability towards its fanbase; Agent 47’s briefcase – absent in 2016’s rendition, but a previous staple of the series makes a reappearance, security cameras now actually alert the guards who are sitting in the security level monitoring them, and non-player characters (NPCs) can finally see you in mirrors – a humorous oversight in Hitman, which led to many cases of pedestrians in various locations entering empty bathrooms and being tackled from behind by an apparently invisible foe. Such stunts, while achievable, are rightfully trickier to perform. The sandboxes are now larger, and several new non-lethal means of subduing NPCs have been added.

The targets are worse people than ever before – leaders of a Colombian drug cartel and a terrorist with bodies in her basement, to sum up just a couple. However, the current games can barely be called anything approaching a ‘murder simulator’, for the focus is on successfully approaching and killing the target rather than on gratuitous depictions of death. Although some blood is shown, there are no severed limbs, brain fragments or broken bodies: in short, a casualty dropped from a high ledge will appear the same in death as one who has been shot from behind with a pistol – a ‘ragdoll’, sprawled cadaver. The developers have always described the game as a ‘puzzle game’, and that is almost exactly what Hitman 2 is – a puzzle game with finesse, with conundrums fixable in a hundred ways. Even though there are some scripted ‘mission stories’ to guide new players towards successful completion, these are easily exploitable. Dress up in Colombia as a visiting American tattoo artist, there to tattoo a drug lord, and you can get close to dangerous cocaine king Rico. The mission story prompts you to stab Rico with your tattoo gun at an appropriate moment. This sounds plausible, but could easily compromise your current disguise as you roam the mansion. So why not tattoo Rico and then roam the mansion freely, held in high esteem by his staff and family? With a bit of tinkering, Rico can eventually tragically fall to his demise while he attends to his pet hippo – and there is sly, assonant humour in feeding Rico to Mijo. And this kind of humour relieves what, in the wrong hands, could be a horrific, bloody game. Set just one year in the future, Hitman and Hitman 2 find a license to parody current trends – a smartphone, if dropped, is after all irresistible to millennials – and artificial intelligence could eventually create robot soldiers. These trends are mocked in a game with only a smear of pastiche of James Bond, and allow themselves to be used in a satisfyingly creative way. Add in constant updates and new ‘elusive targets’ (like actor Sean Bean) from the developers for free, and what you have bought turns in to a bargain. Danger, self-deprecating humour from the voice actors, and sandboxes which only work to their best if fed with player-induced creativity make this game highly playable without being distasteful, and without any possibility of glamorising death. The fun is, above all, found in wandering each level, assessing each situation, and figuring out how to do what might seem almost impossible.

Visiting a Psychiatric Hospital – and why you should buy your coffee there.

Unlike many documents with this title, I don’t intend to give you guidelines on visiting a British psychiatric hospital – is ‘mental hospital’ permissible or not? If you’re planning to go and see somebody unlucky – or lucky, given NHS cuts – enough to be an inpatient in such an institution, then this article might not be for you. I only go there for the coffee.

A fortnight ago, before the heatwave struck, I decided to be a little adventurous. ‘Adventurous’ for me means buying my mid-morning caffeine fix from somewhere which isn’t a chain-run, capitalist business venture spanning most of England and possibly further afield. Going to your local hospital not only gives you an americano of higher standard than the typical provisions of a coin-operated machine; you also support the League of Friends, the charity responsible for giving patients emergency toiletries when they are admitted to a hospital. If they go under, we potentially all risk bad breath and body odour, so assistance is imperative.

And yes, I admit that I was very curious to get closer to that secured, inaccessible bastion that is the 21st century NHS psychiatric hospital. Strolling up the drive to Canterbury’s provision, I was taken by surprise. A couple of gardeners meandered about, and a handful of mild-mannered women wearing lanyards moved briskly, as though going to or from duty. Far smaller than the city’s general hospital, buildings were distinctly separated from each other by well-maintained green areas, lavender bushes, and a few signs offering directions to wards with names which gave no clue as to their usage. ‘Fern Ward’, ‘Bluebell Ward’, ‘Samphire Ward’. Grimly, I would have preferred the names of authors or public figures who were haunted by either mental illness or existential anguish of some kind – Kafka Ward, Woolf Ward, Van Gogh Ward, but such a scheme would possibly give unwanted meaning to whatever conditions the occupants lived with.

I’d cheerfully dragged a support worker along with me, mainly as a bodyguard in case I got challenged by burly security guards of the type employed by The Jeremy Kyle Show, but she was the only person providing any type of tension. “Please take off your lanyard!” I hissed. “People will think I’m a patient!” With no explanation she replied: “We could be colleagues. Now, we’re walking past a ward. Don’t mention mental illness!”

Said patients seemed hardly occluded by their admission to what has in a sense become a series of elite clubs for the most acutely unwell. The popular guideline is that a would-be inductee must be “a danger to themselves and/or others”; however, a man in a rumpled tracksuit sitting on the grass, chatting calmly on his phone, would appear something of a testament to what good work must go on behind the walls of the wards. My natural reaction was a kind of horrified pity because of the biggest surprise of all – these people looked ill. It showed somehow in their faces. They looked neither depressed nor dangerous, yet something was wrong with them. A middle-aged woman in a hospital robe looked at me with intense dark eyes which lacked any real emotion at all, merely the tiniest hint of unpredictability. The man on the phone’s face slumped. For whatever these poor people were feeling, it was as though the human face couldn’t convey it in all its complexity. I’ve never considered that the muscles in our faces may have a lack of elasticity before.

A couple of days later, chatting to the manager of the support team, who is known as the “Grey Seal” due to his large build, prematurely grey hair, and darting dark eyes, I told him of my experiences. “Oh, the last case of any violence in the grounds was about fifteen years ago”, he said, as we discussed safety issues for visitors. In effect, you should be safe popping to your local hospital’s cafeteria, and you’re supporting a valuable service. Just wear a lanyard explaining yourself if you’re in doubt, as you sip your discount coffee and listen to birdsong.

 

This blog will be updated each weekend – and perhaps during the week as well.

 

 

 

A Look Inside a Cuban House

Visiting Cuba, as I did in the January of this year (2017) , is a coveted experience, not only because of the antidote to Western consumerism that it provides, but also because of the expense. Life in Havana itself is not particularly pricey for Europeans or Americans: a dual currency means that life’s necessities are paid for by Cubans in the national peso (the Cuban Peso or ‘CUP’) and by foreigners in the Cuban Convertible Peso, normally called ‘CUC’ (pronounced ‘kook’). And necessities they are; this is a land in which ration books are still used to achieve meagre measures of household staple foods and goods and people’s pay might be between 10 and 15 pesos per week. Cheap electricity and water bills, free healthcare and education all appease the situation. But when you consider that a single CUC is approximately of the same value as a US dollar, that a national peso is worth much less than a CUC and that people are paid in these national pesos, you begin to wonder how people survive.

I can’t find out how Cubans survive, despite the events of my stay in Havana. The penultimate day, everybody else went on an excursion somewhere. I don’t know where, only that it wasn’t in Havana. I opted to stay behind for a comparatively lazy morning strolling round Old Havana, a light lunch, and an afternoon visiting Ernest Hemingway’s house. I abandoned the last idea once I realised that the only way to avoid spending about 20 CUC for a one-way trip there in a taxi was to catch a bus from a remote bus stop somewhere incomprehensible – there’s no easily available internet maps in Havana. And even if I had gone, the chances of getting inside were nil: you have to walk around the outside and look in through the windows. So instead, I went blundering off along the Malecón (the seafront), up a side-street, and finally immersed myself in one of the many areas which look like the war-torn backdrops fronted by BBC news reporters on location.

Strolling up the street, I was considering where best to go – and deciding that my preferred option would be to go and have a look at Havana’s university – when a couple standing outside a house greeted me, told me that it was National Cigar Day (really?), and suggested that I come in and celebrate with them. Now, I might sound vulnerable at this point in the tale for accepting, but you have to remember several things here. I’d been hustled out of 50 CUC earlier in the week by a jinetero (a sort of hustler) on a bicitaxi and had gleaned from the encounter a basic understanding of Cuban resourcefulness and the inevitable subculture of hustling which accompanies a part of it. Cubans often can’t live on a salary from a single job and so will do almost any work to earn extra money. From my experiences, the difference between a jinetero and a resourceful Cuban is clear – the former employs a degree of trickery or asks for unreasonable sums of money whilst the latter is upfront and honest, negotiating a price with you for a service. Neither, though, is at all lazy.

In the case of this couple, as I entered their home, sat in an armchair and chatted with them, I was well aware that I was going to have to pay something for my visit. I told them that I would happily pay them just to hear about their life together in Havana. The room we sat in was quite cramped, consisting of a kitchen and sitting room combined. A sofa and armchair sat in front of a small, old-fashioned television which was showing a football match through a cloud of static. Many Cubans still don’t have refrigerators – let alone freezers – and so it made some sense that the fridge was next to the television; it was a prized possession. The kitchen had very basic commodities, consisting almost entirely of a couple of counters and a camping-style cooking-ring. The bathroom was the most Western of the three rooms in the house, boasting a flushing toilet, but the shower lacked a head; water just flowed freely from a piece of pipe. The stairs led to a bedroom with double bed upon which a young teenage boy was sprawled – half-asleep. That was it. But the most disconcerting thing of all was that this couple worked in jobs which in the Western world would have afforded them at least some comforts – the woman worked in a hospital, working out people’s payrolls. But how much extra could they possibly be earning if they were to regularly give house tours?

A survey by Rose Marketing, in the Miami Herald (2016) reported that: ‘the average Cuban still struggles to make ends meet’, but confirms that self-employment is thriving in a sense, as 34% of Cubans claim to earn ‘the equivalent of $50 to $100 per month.’ That must ease the financial burden somewhat, and details in the Herald suggest that there is quite a distinctive gap between the richest and the poorest in society. But what I saw was not dissimilar to plenty of other scenes throughout Havana – people performing odd jobs, using their cars as taxis, and being creative and inventive in thinking up ways to bump up their wages. This might take some of the mystery out of people’s survival, but it doesn’t negate the overarching feeling of comradeliness and friendliness which is felt on the street – and which extends to the foreigner.

Here is the link to the Miami Herald‘s report on Cuban living costs:

http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article89133407.html