Wine economy: the £5.99 to £7.99 rise forced a crisis. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images
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The universe doesn’t seem quite so random and pitiless when a reader sends you fifty quid in the post

If that particular envelope-opening scene had been filmed in the 1930s or 1940s, it would have been accompanied by a shaft of sunlight and the sound of a heavenly choir.

Ah, the whirligig of fate. It’s a Tuesday morning, or morning-ish. My daughter has been staying, and we seem to have got into the habit of staying a-bed for as long as possible, because whoever gets up first has to bring the other a cup of tea. This can make for some long lie-ins. My daughter is a champion sleeper but I have stamina and cunning. It is a matter of seeing who blinks first, so to speak: the time when you realise that if a pot of tea is not made in the very near future, you will have entered that phase of the afternoon when tea is somehow inappropriate. And the thought of no tea is too horrible to contemplate.

Anyway, I digress. Where was I? Ah yes, Tuesday, morning-ish. Today is the day the affordable wine I can drink with pleasure goes up from £5.99 to £7.99, and so last night I had to blow the reserve tanks – helped with a hefty loan from the daughter – on buying as much of the stuff as I could afford in one go in order, paradoxically, to save money. This meant that Tuesday and Wednesday were going to be awkward: funds do not hit the bank until Thursday morning. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, I thought, but I could hear the clanging of warning bells in the background. Things shouldn’t be like this, not at my age.

Well, at least now we have enough wine to last a long siege. (The daughter has a capacity for wine which rivals mine, which means the Hovel’s wine bill has almost doubled. If you have not bought shares in Majestic Wine, do so now. I gather the manager of my local branch has bought a Porsche.) Meanwhile, I want to buy train tickets for me and the three children so that we can go to Scotland for a holiday, the first time I’ll have gone on holiday with them for years. But every day’s delay is putting the price up, and at the moment, according to research done by the Estranged Wife, we are nudging £450.

What will it be by Thursday? I dread to think. What if I buy only singles instead of returns, and, Micawberishly, see what happens further down the line? I love Scotland in general and the people we’ll be seeing in particular, but I would also like to come back from there after our allotted time, and I think they would, too.

I pick up an envelope from the stack of mail. The handwriting looks familiar; is this a belated birthday card? It turns out to be a card; but not a birthday card. It is from my occasional correspondent, L——, with whom I have maintained contact ever since she wrote a particularly articulate and insightful letter c/o this magazine. Being an attentive and close reader, she has worked out that I am skint from time to time, and she has occasionally sent gifts – a £20 note here, a truckle of cheese there – and I am not too proud to accept charity. Anyway, out of this card flutter two twenties and a tenner.

There are times in one’s life when one’s certainty that the universe is random and pitiless takes a bit of a knock. You begin to wonder whether that sentimental and somewhat overstretched film, It’s a Wonderful Life, might have been on the money about guardian angels and all that. Or that there is a providence that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will. Or is that the providence that looks after fools and drunkards?

It wasn’t just the gift: it was the timing of it. If that particular envelope-opening scene had been filmed in the 1930s or 1940s, it would have been accompanied by a shaft of sunlight and the sound of a heavenly choir. I rather spoil the moment by immediately suggesting we get a takeaway, but the daughter, who is not as daft as she looks (or as daft as her father, at least), puts the brakes on this idea. Yet it means that we can eat our emergency pizzas, freshly garnished with olives, anchovies, extra mozzarella and capers, without the grim feeling of explorers who have eaten the last of their rations.

So we spend the evening happily, I revelling in the hot, soupy evening air and blessing the fates – and, more importantly, L——, who is not so much a correspondent and benefactor as the whole US cavalry riding over the hill. And then the phone rings, and I learn from my rather frantic mother that my father has tripped on a wire and has, she fears, broken his hip. Her fears prove to be correct. And so the universe, or my perspective on it at least, briefly shunted off-course by an act of generosity, resumes its previous trajectory: headlong, off a beetling cliff.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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Relax – there’s new evidence that mindfulness actually works

The relaxation therapy could prevent relapses in sufferers of depression, according to a new study.

If there’s one thing that can be said of buzzwords, it’s that they almost always fall by the wayside in the end. Yet in the field of mental health, one buzzword has survived the best efforts of critics and naysayers – “mindfulness”.

First coined by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the term mindfulness was initially characterised as a state of mind that would enable someone to pay “attention on purpose” to the present moment. Modern secular society seems to have embraced it as a form of meditation. Everything from exercise to breathing now has an associated mindfulness manual attached.

However, not everyone is convinced. For example, the recent phenomenon of adult colouring books – devised to promote mindfulness and serve as a form of therapeutic escapism – has been criticised by therapists as over-hyped and not necessarily helpful.

Meanwhile, sceptics have pointed out an alleged bias in the publishing of positive findings from trials using mindfulness as a form of mental health therapy. Researchers at McGill University in Canada “found that scientists reported positive findings 60 per cent more often than is statistically likely” after analysing 124 different published trials involving mindfulness as a form of mental health therapy. In some cases, the practice has even had a reverse effect, inducing anxiety, pain or panic.

However, a new study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry seems to demonstrate that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can be a potent treatment in preventing and managing relapse into major depression. Led by the University of Oxford, the study’s researchers conducted the largest meta-analysis (an analysis of various different studies) to date on the therapy’s impact on recurrent depression.

The particular form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy that was used aimed to equip patients with the skills required to successfully recognise and repel the thoughts and feelings they most commonly associated with the state of depression, in order to prevent any future relapse.

According to the study, “the MBCT course consists of guided mindfulness practices, group discussion and other cognitive behavioural exercises. Participants receiving MBCT typically attended eight 2-2.5 hour group sessions alongside daily home practice.”

Using anonymous patient data from nine randomised trials involving 1,258 participants, researchers found that 38 per cent of those who received mindfulness-based therapy experienced a depressive relapse, in comparison to 49 per cent of patients who didn’t receive treatment. The patient data covered age, sex and level of education – key inclusions, as the meta-analysis was able to show no significant influence by these factors on the therapy’s performance.

The most prominent form of remedy currently available for mental health patients is anti-depressant medication. Four of the nine randomised trials comparatively assessed the impact of therapy alongside medication, to deduce if a combination of therapy with varying doses of medication was more beneficial than medication alone. The patients from the study who received mindfulness therapy along with continued, reduced or discontinued medication were less likely to fall back into depression than patients on maintenance anti-depressants alone. This helps legitimise mindfulness as an option in combating depression’s debilitating effects and reinforces its efficacy, whether it is taken up with or without anti-depressants.

Willem Kuyken, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and lead author of the study, called the results “very heartening”. “While MBCT is not a panacea, it does clearly offer those with a substantial history of depression a new approach to learning skills to stay well in the long-term.

“It offers people a safe and empowering treatment choice alongside other mainstay approaches such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and maintenance antidepressants. We need to do more research, however, to get recovery rates closer to 100 per cent and to help prevent the first onset of depression, earlier in life. These are programmes of work we are pursuing at the University of Oxford and with our collaborators around the world."

Though the findings will certainly reinvigorate confidence in mindfulness, Richard Byng from the University of Plymouth and one of the co-authors said, “clinicians need to be cautiously optimistic when tapering off antidepressant medication, and treat each patient as an individual who may or may not benefit from both MBCT and other effective treatments."