War is sport, sport is war

I feel like I’m spoiling all the fun, but I find it distasteful to reduce the Libya campaign to a fo

IT'S WAR. The Sunday Mirror headline said it all. It wasn't quite the barely restrained glee of Chris Morris's presenter on The Day Today announcing the opening of hostilities, but it wasn't a bus ride away from it, either.

You can get a clue to how we see war by how newspapers are selling themselves through their front pages. The news-stands are covered with more explosions than human faces; the bombs are the story, and the message. One cloverleaf-shaped explosion in particular so beautifully conveys the story that it's on five front pages today. The bombs are the stars.

The Sun veered close to "Gotcha!" territory with today's headline, "TOP GUNS 1, MAD DOG 0", superimposed on the blast. This is war as a football match, war as a thing that can be counted in terms of a score. One-nil to us! "We", the Allied forces, are the "Top Guns"; we are Tom Cruise on a brave but necessary mission against one man, The Mad Dog, Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Other newspapers take a different approach. The Independent and Guardian sell themselves on human faces and, in the Guardian's case, the result of those pretty orange bomb clouds: dead bodies. And that brings the reality home. All of a sudden it isn't a cup tie, or a film with a stirring soundtrack where the goodies defeat the baddies, or a distant kaboom on a strip of desert: this is something very real.

Whatever the arguments, or the case for intervention, or the case for intervening in Libya instead of, say, Bahrain or Yemen, this isn't a football match. This isn't a Hollywood film. This isn't one-nil. This isn't half-time. Those beautiful cloverleaf explosions will have people inside them . . . I feel like I'm spoiling everyone's fun, but there it is. I find it a little distasteful to reduce the military campaign to a football score, an away win, a penalty kick.

The Sun was just carrying on the good work from the News of the World yesterday, whose front-page "BLOWN TO BRITS" explosion and cut-out missile carried the same message. Just in case you had any lingering doubts about who was The Bad Guy, the subs helpfully put Gaddafi's face in bright red cross-hairs. To further stoke the jingoism, we were told it was "our boys" who were making the things explode.

This, then, is the tabloid glee of war. Our Boys are attacking The Mad Dog, and it's one-nil already. How can we not support it? How can we not be shocked and awed by the beautiful photos of explosions, the family-friendly pictures, without mangled corpses or that messy business that gets left behind when the clouds disappear? IT'S WAR. War is sport, sport is war. Look away now if you don't want to know the score.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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