Locked up with writers

No duffers, no loons, they could cook, they were funny and twisted and many of them had nice mums -

Once again I am hunched in the only office I may ever know – a train - my own lovely home being a distant memory filled with housework and DVD’s I haven’t watched for ages. On this occasion I’m in a Birmingham-bound diesel office which has managed to sneak out of Edinburgh Waverly without being – thus far – stymied by all of the apocalyptic and mysterious things that happen to the rail network on Sundays. Yes, dear reader, I am mad enough to attempt Sunday travel.

Sitting opposite me in a kind of smiley coma is Gill Dennis the splendid creature responsible for writing, among other things, the screenplay for “Walk The Line”. We have just tutored a screen writing course and, having talked and thought almost continuously for five days we now find it challenging to organise complex tasks like blinking. Occasionally we cry. I may even be crying now.

Tutoring residential courses represents a delicious kind of community-based Russian roulette for writers. There you will be, trapped in a remote location with a number of complete strangers in order to Teach Something About Something, perhaps with another writer who may or may not turn out to be going through a drug-induced internal soap opera, or a sex-induced external soap opera, or a typing-induced grand opera.

Expecting typists to respond warmly to group experiences always seems odd to me. We are not naturally hugging, sharing, orderly folk. We have the power to transform The Walton Family Eats Dinner into The Manson Family Gets Even. Before arriving at one of these things – on a train – I am always assailed by similar questions. Will there be more than one nutter? Will inappropriate sexual behaviour in thin-walled bedrooms cause conflict/envy/bootleg recordings? Will we end up building a rudimentary altar and sacrificing the weakest participant? And, most importantly, will all the writing be shit?

Happily – miraculously – this course involved 100 per cent charming and co-operative people who could also write like the stars I hope they become. All sixteen of them - no duffers, no loons, they could cook, they were funny and twisted and many of them had nice mums. Plus, Mr. Dennis is one of nature’s gentlemen and a joy to be around. Much fun was had, much work was done – and I got to enjoy being slightly teary on the final evening as work was presented and everyone found out how good everyone else was.

If only there was a British film industry it would all have had a point. If only there was a Scottish film industry and the powers that be weren’t more interested in rebranding themselves than making watchable, unique films that would entertain, enlighten and delight. If only they were interested in the arts at all – we could be another Ireland. But we’re not.

Lately, I’ve also managed to lie in a couple of pals’ spare bedroom and finish the first draft of a short story. (I will commence serious rewriting once I have finished this.) As said pals were away for the weekend and left me in charge of their children – no, that’s not arrestable, I am in fact a competent warder/baby sitter – I had the incalculably wonderful experience of introducing two ankle-biters who don’t have a telly at home to the full glory that can be squashed into three box sets of Dr Who.

They are excellent young people – partly because their parents love them and they have not been accosted by television and partly because they have gone to a school that treats them like human beings and has equipment and proper teachers and lots of running about and mild risk – they just didn’t have the doctor.

And now they do. Ah, the flinching, the giggling, the looking away, the being surprised when tricky situations are not resolved by murder, the gentle exploration of a world that loves adventure and intelligence and curiosity and human potential. A television show that respects the viewer. They have only a vague idea of how rare that is. But they now do know how good the doctor is. I growed up with him around and they can, too. He’s where the BBC keeps what’s left of it’s soul.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt