I took these photographs of Fiddlers Ferry Power Station. It gulps down 195 million litres of water every day from the River Mersey. As a kid I always thought that the vast chimneys were pumping out poison which would inevitably kill us all. In fact they pump out only steam. In 1984 one of the eight chimneys collapsed due to high winds apparently, but was rebuilt. Why was I not notified?!!
Here’s another one of my now and then photos. The first shot is of Waterloo Road in Runcorn, my home town. The second is taken by me and shows the same spot from as near to the same angle as I could get, 100 years later. Lots of deterioration is evident in this comparison. This part of the town has struggled in recent years and there are plenty of boarded-up windows visible nowadays. The building on the right was a community centre. The community ended.
My daughter Hannah was recently part of a stand-up comedy show and I went to see it. I think that stand-up comedy is probably the most scary thing in the world to do. Acting is scary but at least you have a character and script written by someone else behind which to hide. With stand-up there is nowhere to hide and nowhere to run. Part of this show was done as various characters such as the three Nana’s shown above (Hannah first on left) but for the rest, each person involved had to do their own routine, as themselves, performing their own material!
I can’t imagine anything scarier. I admire all stand-up comedians as probably the bravest people in the world. Why it is so terrifying to stand up in front of an audience and try to make them laugh? I’m not sure. The worst that can happen is that nobody laughs. You’re not going to die (unless it’s from fright), you’re not going to get your head chopped off (unless the audience really really hate you), you’re not going to get chained to a car and dragged across nettles (some people pay good money for that). So why is the prospect so mind-numbingly, butt-achingly terrifying?
I suppose it’s to do with our powerful need for approval. The relationship between a stand-up comic and the audience is completely raw, naked and immediate. You say something; they laugh (or not). You expose yourself (not literally unless you really have to); they give their approval (or not). If you don’t get a laugh, you’re not getting approval. And if you’re not approved of, your whole identity could be at stake. You may be forced to face the fact that you’re rubbish at this, you failed, you’re not the person you thought you were.
Ironically, the thing which is most likely to make you fail, not only in stand-up comedy but in many areas of life, is your fear of failure. The only way you can be a good comedian is if you get laughs and the audience must be relaxed before it can laugh. If those people watching you sense that you’re not confident then they won’t relax and they won’t laugh, no matter how good your material. So really, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you can genuinely convince yourself that you will succeed then there’s every chance that you will. Generally I don’t tend to believe in things unless I have evidence (no, not big on religion as you can imagine). So I could never make the leap of faith required to get up on stage and do stand-up for the first time. The only evidence I have to go on would be the fact that I was rubbish enough reading out in class at school so I’m probably going to be super-rubbish as a performer. If I could take it on faith that I’d be able to cope, whatever happens; that my whole identity wouldn’t be threatened if it didn’t go well, then I might stand a chance.
Luckily it wasn’t me up on stage for this show, it was Hannah. But when you have kids, you feel their pain as though it is your pain. I was in agony before the show started, writhing in the shadows in sympathy with my daughter. When she came on stage my agony reached a horrific crescendo of empathetic fear mixed with pride. It was about ten minutes before I breathed again.
Hannah did well. She did a good routine and got laughs. It was going to be OK. Then, of course, I realised that it was always going to be OK. She was always going to do well because she’s good but even if she hadn’t done well, that would have been OK too. She would have come off and laughed about it and either said how she’d never try that again or maybe said how she would try it a bit differently next time and gradually build up her skill. Her identity was never at stake. My problem is I’m so terrified of pain, however fleeting. I can’t accept that pain is good, pain is there for a reason; to keep us safe, to teach us how to be in the future. I spend most of my life avoiding pain and so I never learn.
The show went really well and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Even me, once I’d been treated for hyperventilating by two paramedics named Janice and Darren. Maybe next time I’ll realise that, whatever happens, it’ll be OK. Or maybe I’ll just remain an enormous wuss. See you soon Janice and Darren.
So it’s true that some things don’t change? The two photos above show the exact same spot from as near to the same angle as I could get. I don’t know who took the first one but it was taken not far off 100 years ago! The second photo was taken by me, last week. As you can see, there’s very little difference between the two. The main changes can be seen in the objects around the building which is a pub near to where I live; on the old picture there’s a beautiful old car parked outside whereas on the modern one there’s…. wheelie bins.
Imagine a box. Imagine putting all the darker aspects of yourself, all the things you would rather no-one knew about you, into that box and imagine closing the lid. Feel better already, don’t you?
That’s what my book Mr. Mad is all about. There are two main characters in the book. Doctor Georgina Barnes is a respected psychiatric consultant on a busy hospital ward. She knows exactly how to convince people that she is confident, capable and in control. All of the darker aspects of herself are safely locked away in a box. No-one can threaten the façade. Not even fiery young Doctor Billy Craig?
The other main character is Redman. A year ago, Redman was a detective with the police. Now he’s an in-patient on a psychiatric ward. When a fellow patient falls to his death from the hospital roof, Redman’s cop instincts re-awaken. People say the old guy took his own life. Redman is not convinced. But if the man was pushed from that roof… who pushed him? And why are the hospital authorities so keen to avoid an investigation?
The doctors have suggested Redman imagine a box. They say he should imagine putting the symptoms of his illness; the voices, the hallucinations, the paranoia… into that box. Redman battles his symptoms in order to uncover the truth about the man who fell from the roof. Everyone on the ward is a suspect, even Redman himself. To solve the mystery, he must face his own demons. He must open the box.
How important is routine to you? I’ve got some time off work at the moment and I’m using it to think about maybe changing some routines that I’ve been following slavishly for years now. I saw a thing on TV about the Scottish Labour Leader Jim Murphy and he was saying that he goes running from 12 midnight till 2am every night! He said it was the only time he could fit it in and he found it theraputic, trundling along with Johnny Cash blaring through his earphones. Can you imagine the motivation it must take to get your tracksuit on at midnight?! I struggled to go running for half an hour at 8pm!! But maybe, once a routine is established it actually takes less motivation because you’re not viewing that action as a decision to be made but just accepting it as what inevitably happens.
That’s why I asked about the importance of routine at the start. Maybe establishing strong routines might be a way for me to sidestep my terrible lack of motivation to do… well anything really. With a routine, you don’t say to yourself ‘shall I go for a run?’; you just go for a run without debate.
I’m reading Daily Rituals by Mason Currey and I’ve learned that film maker David Lynch had a strict daily routine of eating at ‘Bob’s Big Boy’ (what?!!) I’ve got to go there!) at 2.30pm and drinking 7 cups of coffee before writing down ideas on napkins. In his thirties, author George Orwell would wake at 7am, open up the book shop in which he worked at 8.45am, write for four hours before returning to the shop and working there until 6.30pm. Artist Jackson Pollock would have breakfast at 1pm, then paint in his barn until 5pm when he would have a beer and walk to the beach with fellow painter Lee Krasner. It seems as though, regardless of what the routine consists of, creativity and productivity are boosted through the establishment of routine.
So routine is good. Great. I have a routine so I’m off the starting block. However, maybe there’s a down side to all this structure. Firstly, if your routine doesn’t leave time to do the things which are important to you then it’s probably going to work against, rather than for, you. I’m finding currently that I’m fulfilling work and family commitments but I’m not building in time to do writing. Also, I’m wasting valuable time watching bad TV or going on the net. I have to change this.
Secondly, if your routine is too rigid, too well-established, too old… then it may actually decrease creativity and productivity because it’s making you bored! Certain parts of my routine are well and truly fixed and can’t be changed such as time spent at my day job. Other parts I wouldn’t want to change such as time spent with my family. But the rest of it (and that’s a surprisingly large chunk) can be tinkered with.
Personally, I find this kind of stuff difficult. I find it very hard to change old routines and even harder to establish new ones. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to establish a routine for my running. I did have a good routine for writing but even that has gone a bit haywire recently. Also, there’s lots of other things I want to do more of such as photography, blogging, videos, painting, drawing and others. I want to do healthy things too like get eight hours sleep a night instead of my typical five. During my time off I’ve got to make a big effort to get a new routine ready to start when I go back to work. Unfortunately, I do have a tendency to slide towards laziness, mindless TV watching, alcohol drinking and basic slobbing around. This can change. This will change. If Jim Murphy can go running at midnight every night then I can change a couple of little habits. Can’t I? Can I?