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High time for a bit more of this…

Wow. Where did the last five months go? I’ve just checked – and my last Drum & Monkey post was at the end of April. How shaming! Or it could be, if I let it. But I’m not sure how many people read this guff anyway – and besides it’s my blog: I’ll do what I want.

And what I want, it turns out, is (as far as possible) to take summers off. Not that we had much of a summer, weatherwise; but, in common with many others I suspect, I experienced an odd kind of burnout earlier this year. It can’t have been pressure of work – I was fortunate that I had just about enough; my workload was eminently manageable and, working from home, was even more so. But I think the stress of last winter – the UK’s rocketing Covid-19 numbers (of cases, hospitalisations and, sadly, deaths) with, at least to begin with, no vaccine in sight – left all of us suffering some low-level form of PTSD.

Whether I still am is for others to judge – but by and large I’ve enjoyed the past few more or less indolent months. I love summer sports, and the return of Wimbledon, complete with crowds, and the well-attended Test cricket series against New Zealand and India gladdened the heart. The results hardly mattered – it was enough just to see people gathered together en masse.

And of course there was football, and Euro 2020: held a year late – but oh what a circus, oh what a show. With matches staged all over Europe it was, to some, a colossal waste of money and an unpardonable splurge of environmentally-unfriendly profligacy. Others (me) found it massively uplifting: an example sans pareil of the resurgence, the indomitability, of the human spirit.

If you were to ask me, do I like football, I would unthinkingly answer yes. And it’s true I like to see Norwich City do well – it’s my home town, my home team, and the city feels a marginally happier place when “the Canaries” are on a winning streak. (Which, at present, they aren’t.) But I don’t get bent out of shape when they lose (which as just as well). I just don’t feel that invested in it, somehow.

Give me the World Cup or the Euros though, and I’m all over it. Especially in the early stages. I lose a bit of enthusiasm once teams start getting eliminated and the whole thing becomes more ponderous; but the first days and weeks… Four matches a day? A riot, a rainbow, of colour, drama, excitement? Massive crowds of people going nuts in the hot summer sun? Bring it on.

Turns out it’s not really football I love; it’s tournament football.

This year especially – partly because it was such a poke in the eye to the pandemic; but also there was England’s performance to sustain my interest. There was no shame in their eventual loss to Italy – just inexperience, and a certain naivety.

Bring on the World Cup.


Where there was shame, however – and rightly – was in the widespread reaction to the trolling of England penalty takers Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, all of whom missed from the spot during the penalty shoot-out that decided the match, thus handing victory to the Italians.

Much has been written about the so called “culture wars” being waged in the UK and elsewhere. Pro-vaxxers versus anti-vaxxers. Climate crisis deniers versus eco-warriors. The “woke” versus the “anti-woke”. The list goes on and tediously on; but what characterises these conflicts, these differences of opinion, is absolutism – a total unwillingness even to acknowledge that there might be a point of view other than yours. Simply because of how it works, social media – Facebook especially – encourages this polarisation, this reductive, binary tribalism, devoid of nuance.

And our government, shamingly, has jumped on the bandwagon. Crude populism, enabled by social media, is what brought about Brexit, and what got Boris Johnson elected.

And while culture wars, the extremism of culture wars, does not in itself give legitimacy to trolling, it does provide an environment where it can exist: where trolls feel encouraged to hurl their disgusting insults with relative impunity. And where, if it’s not too much of a reach, radicalised wingnuts can find justification for carrying out atrocious acts, of which last week’s murder of Southend West MP Sir David Amess was merely the latest.

Consciously or not, most of us who use social media (and I use Facebook a lot) are operating in an echo chamber. We become friends with people who share our opinions – and every exchange with our Facebook friends just reinforces our confirmation bias. It’s how the algorithm works. And if someone disagrees with you? Hey presto: just unfriend them.

But it’s not necessarily how friendships work in real life. With real, flesh-and-blood folks, your friendships are yours to make – not down to some bloodless, soulless, sinister piece of computer code.

It’s probable that most of the people you choose to spend most of your time with share most of your opinions – but not all. I have a friend whose views on certain issues trouble me (because they don’t chime with my own) but who is one of the most generous, thoughtful, kind-hearted people I know. Am I going to terminate our friendship because we disagree on one thing (albeit a fairly fundamental thing)? No I’m not. I’ll continue to press my case, and to call my friend out when they say something that I find offensive. And we’ll continue to make each other laugh, to commiserate with one another when needed, and “have each other’s backs”.

It occurs to me that perhaps I need to consciously expand my real-life friendship groups – to extend the hand of friendship to those with whom I might, on some subjects, vehemently disagree. It’s got to be healthier than allowing Mark Zuckerberg to arrange my social life, or access my headspace.


Like many cities, Norwich is characterised by narrow streets lined with Victorian terrace houses. I live in one such.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. The street where I live is pleasing to the eye, characterful, and the neighbours are friendly and helpful. As I hope I am to them.

Traffic is a concern. And that problem will continue to grow unless and until laws are passed limiting car ownership, and car sizes, per household (which may be the subject of a future Drum & Monkey). But it’s one we put up with, for now.

Or did. I can’t be the only one whose equanimity has been seriously challenged by the profusion of delivery vans on our streets: an issue that predates the pandemic, but which has become a great deal worse over the past 18 months.

Actually it’s not so much the number of vans that upsets me – I order stuff online myself from time to time – it’s the behaviour of the drivers.

If you’re doing a drop, and there’s no place to pull into nearby: fair enough. Stop your van, do the delivery sharpish, jump back in, and off you go. I can be patient for the couple of minutes or so that that takes, and we’ve all got to make a living.

But when did it become acceptable to just slam on the anchors, stick your hazard lights on, and leave the van in situ for 10 minutes or more while you do a bunch of deliveries? Traffic backing up behind you all the while? Worse: WHEN THERE’S A PERFECTLY GOOD PARKING SPACE AVAILABLE?

DPD drivers: I’m looking at you.

Pilots of the airwaves: I salute you

Written and posted just before our Prime Minister announced a month-long England-wide lockdown…

In much the same way as our parents and grandparents talked of themselves (and others) as having had a “good (or not-so-good) war”, I fancy that once (please God) this now not-so-novel Coronavirus is behind us, we’ll talk about what we’re currently living through in similar fashion.

Me, if I had to rate my pandemic experience thus far on a scale of nought to 10, with zero being “Covid? What Covid?” and 10 being a total horror show, I’d give it about a three. Maybe four. I had a soft landing; I was lucky enough to be welcomed back into my family home for the duration of the (first) lockdown. A strange experience, but these were, and are, strange times; and we made it work. I chafed against being confined to barracks (comfortable though those barracks were) and became fixated about taking my hour-a-day’s exercise (and not a minute less). My alcohol consumption went up. And I indulged in a lot of introspection. Self-examination. Not difficult, as I consider myself endlessly fascinating.

Others had an even easier time of it; and certainly there were many who had it tougher. But since lockdown ended, life – my life, at least – has returned to something I recognise as near-normal. Being a writer is a solitary profession anyway, and working from home makes it even more so. Leaving aside whether that’s healthy or not, work having (thankfully) picked up it does mean I can spend great swathes of time in total denial that Covid is even a thing. When I do finish for the day and venture out to the shops or the pub, I don’t regard wearing a mask as much of an imposition – though I’d hate to have to sport one for hours at a time.

While early 2020 saw many of us hoarding loo roll, pasta and pulses, one commodity, or diversion, we have not been short of this year is – or are – things to watch, or listen to. Lockdown provided a perfect opportunity to gorge on visual and audio treats – to take our fill, and then take some more. To binge on box-sets, plough through podcasts and – for once – catch up with catch-up.

Personally, I scared myself silly rewatching the terrifyingly prescient Years and Years; sought light relief in Sex Education and Young Offenders; and discovered Danny Baker’s Treehouse podcast (I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s a hero of mine. The first 60 or so episodes are available free on various platforms; accessing more recent content means paying a small subscription fee). I’m currently working my way through another podcast: My Dad Wrote A Porno – breathtakingly rude at times, but bloody funny.

Lockdown 2.0 (don’t pretend it isn’t coming) will doubtless mean more of the same. Which is all fine; but what I’m finding is that I am increasingly drawn to live broadcasts. Television, yes; but especially radio.

My attraction to live TV is easily explained. I am, or at least I was, a journalist; and there’s still enough of the newshound in me to go in search of up-to-the-minute information. Yes, we can get our news from the papers, and off the internet – and I do both of those things – but there really is no substitute for live reporting, especially with this godawful virus continuing to wreak such global havoc. I’m not interested in what happened 10 minutes ago, I want to know what’s happening now, and what the implications are, or might be, for me and those close to me.

My fondness for live radio, however, runs much deeper. It always has.

Working from home, alone, is not something I mind overmuch. As I say, there are many who maintain it’s not good for a person – and maybe they’re right; though I think it depends on the individual. But I will admit it can get lonely; and whatever the pandemic has or hasn’t done, it’s sure as hell exacerbated that feeling.

Which is why it’s so great, and I’d argue so important, to be able to hear a friendly voice, talking to you in real time. Personally, and as I’ve said here before, I’m a huge fan of BBC Radio 6 Music, which is broadcast from studios in London and Manchester – in both cases hundreds of miles from my home in Norwich.

That doesn’t matter. This is not about being in the same location, or experiencing the same things – the same weather, say – contemporaneously. But, with 6 Music’s mixture of uplifting tunes and grown-up chat, it absolutely is about knowing that the person fronting the programme is doing it live – that you are listening as he or she is talking; not an hour, a day or a week later.

I can’t explain why this matters – but it really, really does.

Podcasts and box-sets have their place. Prerecorded radio shows have their place too; and 6 Music airs its fair share of those.

But live radio is a friend indeed.

Moving forward

In 2019, aged 57, I was finally forced to face up to a deep-rooted mental health issue that, in retrospect, had affected my thinking and my conduct for some 40 years. I knew I had to have help; but I also knew from previous experience that the problem – or problems – couldn’t be medicated away. The alternative was therapy.

However, therapy (or counselling if you prefer) costs money. As indeed it should – therapists are professionals, who have undergone rigorous and lengthy training to get where they are. But it was money I didn’t have.

Thank whatever God you believe in, then, for the St Barnabas Counselling Centre. A Norwich-based charity, staffed by qualified counsellors who, for their own altruistic reasons, give both their time and expertise to help folks like me, who pay what they can afford. Folks like you, too, maybe.

I have been attending weekly, one-to-one meetings at St Barnabas (or if not on the premises, under its aegis) for the last eight months. My therapist is both kind and empathic; though these sessions are by no means easy. She is forensic, homing in on details that at the time I’d rather she didn’t – and she will not quit. But the benefits have been, and continue to be, huge. Forty-plus years of bad knitting takes a lot of careful unravelling, but I feel we’ve made, and are making, fantastic progress.

In March 2020 the UK was hit by Covid-19, and our face-to-face meetings were forced to cease, moving instead to an online environment. I was worried that the switch to an online platform would render the sessions less effective; but I needn’t have been. If anything, being able to talk to my therapist from the comfort of my own home, with my own familiar things about me, has made me more open, not less; and while I hope that we can resume our face-to-face sessions as the Coronavirus threat diminishes (don’t get me started on that one), I think a mixture of face-to-face and online may well be the best way forward.

Talking of own homes, another big change.

For personal reasons I left Norfolk, my home county, for Wiltshire in early 2017. Due to my character flaws (the flaws that therapy is in the process of fixing) the new life I’d hoped for didn’t work out. I returned to Norwich last August prepared for a short period of sofa-surfing while we sold the family home.

Twice we had a sale agreed – and twice it fell through. In February this year, a third buyer came forward. After a bit of horse-trading we agreed a price, and began the tortuous process of selling up and buying two (smaller) houses. Conveyancing, as it’s known.

More tortuous even than normal as it turned out, thanks to the pandemic. When lockdown was announced in late March, I may actually have shaken my fist at the heavens; yes, I had erred – but hadn’t I been punished enough? That sofa was getting mighty uncomfortable. Then I checked myself; even my ego is not so colossal as to believe that a deadly virus would be visited upon Planet Earth solely to upset my own personal apple cart.

We finally completed the deal on 3rd July – not far short of a year after I left Wiltshire – and I am now occupying my own home. As I write, the word is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a bid to kickstart the housing market post-Covid, is poised to suspend Stamp Duty on house purchases – which, had he done it sooner, would have saved me £2,300. So thanks for that, Mr Sunak. But hey – at least, at last, I’m in.

How long I’ll stay here I really don’t know. Therapy (which I might add is horrible) might indirectly provide some clarity – although that may be asking too much of it. Once the dust has settled and I’m living my rewired life, I’ll take a view. But (a) my chosen profession is extremely portable – just a laptop and an internet connection, and I’m there – and (b) so, it turns out, is my therapist. The same criteria apply.

Housing aside – a red herring, but I just wanted to vent a little – we all have our own issues, our own personal reasons, for seeking help. The St Barnabas Counselling Centre is with me on my journey towards finally, belatedly, becoming the me I want and need to be. Wherever I’m living.

The financial cost? Affordable. The benefits? Beyond price.


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