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The last game

Tennis, friendship and suicide.

Three days before Christmas 2015, my friend Mark killed himself. He had a well-paid job at a respected law practice in London. He was close to his family and friends. He was about to go on honeymoon. He was just 38 years old.

On the afternoon of his death, he had arranged to play tennis with two friends from the tennis club he and I belonged to in north London. He never turned up. When his wife discovered him that evening, he had been dead a couple of hours. They had been married only four weeks.

What makes someone with so much to look forward to take his life? At Mark’s inquest at the coroner’s court in Barnet, there were few answers. The coroner considered reports from Mark’s employer and his GP. He then read out part of a note Mark had written before he died, addressed to his wife. It had been left on the kitchen table of their flat, along with car and house keys, bank cards and a photograph of their wedding. On the table, too, were the remains of lunch and a cup of cold tea.

A couple of hours before Mark died, he had talked on the phone to a friend to confirm a game of tennis that evening, and mentioned he must get round to buying a turkey for Christmas. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide. Nobody, he said, could have done anything more. It was Mark’s decision, brought on, at least it seemed to me, by debilitating depression.

When I met Mark after he joined our tennis club six years ago, I recognised a fellow tennis obsessive. We were about the same standard and we ended up in the same team. When I took over as the team’s captain in 2015, it was on the understanding that Mark would be my deputy and soon take over from me. He was, after all, the same age as most of the other team members, while I am about twenty years older. After our matches, Mark and I often stayed late in the club bar talking about the shots we were proud of and the mistakes that would haunt us for days afterwards. It’s the nature of the game.

Sometimes, after we had exhausted all the arguments about topspin or slice, our conversation might switch to less important things such as work and life. And then, after another beer or two, we might talk about relationships and about how happy we were with how things had panned out, both being sons of Irish immigrants who had done well in Britain although we both lost our mothers before their time.

Once or twice we did touch on their deaths, only to be interrupted by other tennis friends coming over to our long, black sofa to gossip about who was playing well and, more importantly, who wasn’t. People knew that Mark wouldn’t turn them away even if all they wanted was to complain about why they weren’t in the team: he was one of the few players in the club who was genuinely loved. And so we budged up to make room and the conversation switched back to tennis, and an opportunity to deepen our friendship was missed.

The Wednesday before his death he took part in our team’s Christmas game, when everybody played wearing the Santa hats I’d bought at the 99p shop on the Holloway Road on the promise they would glow in the dark. Mark seemed uncomfortable and not on form. His looping serve was sluggish, his volleys wayward. The light on his Santa hat kept going out. After the game, he sat in the corner of the Turkish restaurant we had adjourned to and said very little. At one point, I asked him if he was OK and he nodded, but he looked as if the blood had drained from his body. Somebody took a picture of us that night and there he is, frozen in time, right at the end of our group when he was usually in the middle, looking pale and withdrawn as he tries to smile. I said to him afterwards he could ring me any time and he nodded, but he never did.

 

***

 

Last year the Office for National Statistics published a report showing that men are still three times more likely to kill themselves than women. Although male suicide reached its highest levels in Britain in the early 1980s in England and Wales, it remains the most common cause of death for men between the ages of 20 and 49, which Mark was. In the early 1980s, when I came close to killing myself, so was I.

It was the winter of 1983. I was 29 years old and living in a shared flat in Wynford House, a postwar north London council block just up the Caledonian Road from King’s Cross. Four of us had been rehoused there while our short-life houses, five minutes’ walk away in Richmond Avenue, were turned into permanent homes.

Despite Margaret Thatcher’s second electoral triumph that June, those were good times to be in London if you were young and politically radical. Across the road from us lived Margaret Hodge, the dynamic leader of Islington Borough Council, one of the most left-wing in the country. The development officer who had masterminded the transformation into a long-term co-operative of our run-down Victorian terrace, originally occupied by squatters, was another Islington Labour councillor, Chris Smith. He soon became Britain’s first openly gay MP.

A couple of friends of mine had powerful positions at the Greater London Council under its new leader, Ken Livingstone. Others worked in left-wing bookshops or made films for the new Channel 4. My own housemates were employed by CND, Release and Shelter. There were many exciting possibilities to combine work, politics and life. Instead, I became depressed.

A month earlier, I had started a doctorate in sociology at the University of Sussex to reinvent myself as an academic. As the nights grew colder and the theory tougher, it became an ordeal. My manic working-class confidence, which had seen me through a university degree and then helped me get work with the half-dozen radical book publishers that were then flourishing in Britain, ran out of fuel. I crashed down.

One Monday morning I took the train to the campus in Falmer, near Brighton, rented a student bedsit and retreated from the world. When I failed to return to London for the weekend, my housemates became concerned. When I still had not made contact after a week, one of them drove down to find me. I wonder what would have happened if he had not.

For days on end I had stayed in bed until mid-afternoon and gone out only when it was so dark that I wouldn’t bump into anybody. I ate convenience food but did not allow myself any alcohol, because that might make me face up to how miserable I was. Late at night, I would creep into the uni­versity library and take from the shelves something that was straightforward to read and that would distract me from reality: a history of pop music or a detective novel. I would stay in the library for hours, returning to bed only when I was about to collapse. Occasionally I might venture out to walk the coastal path to Brighton and allow myself to be buffeted by the waves washing in from the English Channel, wishing one of them would sweep me away. I kept putting off any decision to live or die until the morning I felt sure would come, when I would wake with certainty about what to do: either start living again or kill myself.

Fortunately, that morning never came. Instead, there was a knock at the door that wouldn’t go away, until I was forced to answer simply to stop the noise. Standing there was Christian, one of my London housemates. He put his arms around me and took me back to London.

Back at Wynford House, Susan, an ex-girlfriend, took over my life and negotiated with the university, my GP and local social services to sort out my affairs and find me an alternative to mental hospital: in the spirit of those times, we all thought that there would be nothing worse than ending up on a psychiatric ward.

Through friends of friends, Susan discovered the Arbours Crisis Centre in Crouch End, a private community with origins in the anti-psychiatry movement of the late 1960s. At that time, Arbours offered intensive residential therapy for those with “serious emotional problems”, which I certainly had. She applied on my behalf to Islington council for a grant for me to stay there, which my GP supported. The council approved the money and I spent four weeks at Arbours receiving psychotherapy twice a day. It saved my life.

Arbours survives today but its innovative crisis centre is no longer. Gone, too, are other crisis intervention teams that were part of the NHS, such as the one that ran for many years in Barnet and which would have been available to Mark, day or night. Instead, the help on offer these days for people who find themselves in the same despairing place as he was usually comes down to antidepressant medication, combined, perhaps, with a weekly visit to a counsellor. In an emergency, you go to A&E.

There are places on psychiatric wards in general hospitals for people at serious risk of suicide but that risk often becomes clear only when it is too late. Many men like Mark are “smiling depressives”: we hide our despair under a cloak of cool bonhomie. So, we don’t get help until it’s too late or until some of our loved ones insist that we do.

Thirty years ago I was lucky. My smiles had long gone. Everyone could see how desperate I was. My friends were determined to find somewhere for me to be safe. Without them I wouldn’t be here today.

After Mark’s inquest, held at the end of April last year, I left the coroner’s court in Barnet, crossed the high street and passed the parish church, resisting the urge to go in. Instead, I found a French coffee shop run by hospitable Kurds. It was early spring. The sun was shining. The coffee was fresh and strong, and the Danish pastries inviting, but nothing could lift the deep sadness I felt. 

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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