Monday, 14 January 2019


I have painted a picture of a ghost
Upon my kite,
And hung it on a tree.
Later, when I loose the string
And let it fly,
The people will cower
And hide their heads,
For fear of the God
Swimming in the clouds.             
Superstition, Amy Lowell, 1874-1925

Hello and welcome to another blogging! As the
Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance grows, over the next 6-months we'll be uploading more and more regional information about events, funding etc and the national website will have a dedicated regional/sub-regional section. I'm really looking forward to this collegiate work expanding, and I'll keep regular readers of this blog in the loop. Both this blog and the more dedicated Greater Manchester focused website will continue to grow, and I'm pleased to have secured some funding to deliver some work across GM over the next year focused on collective research, evaluation and CPD. So much more to follow on that soon. This dear old blog, will continue with a mix of what I can only think of describing as a slightly more critical arts and health agenda! So please do continue to send me things to share and as all these things evolve, I'll make the call as where best to place them.
Early-bird rate for the World Healthcare Congress closes this week. Click on the image below to register.

The Other in Mother

Here’s a film by John Grey about the Sarah Greaves art installation commissioned by Arc, around perinatal mental health issues and motherhood. 

While I've not seen the dance linked below, I am very excited to go an see it. Click on the link to find out some more details from this new group.

Abattoir Tour

ACAB - All Choreographers Are Bastards

The Washing Up
by Small Performance Adventures

Wed, March 20, 2019
4:00 PM – 5:00 PM
The John Thaw Studio Theatre
The Martin Harris Centre
The University of Manchester
With original songs and stories, The Washing Up takes an absurd look at the politics and practice of this every day act. Audiences have told us that it is “bonkers and brilliant”, so please do join us to explore what lies beneath the surface bubbles and find out whose turn it is to do the dishes and how they should be done. Every kitchen sink has a story to tell, of power struggles and pots and pans, of greasy plates and moments of quiet contemplation…

The Washing Up was premiered at Your Place, Brighton Festival in 2018 and is a partnership between small performance adventures and cascade creative recovery. Full details and FREE registration HERE.

I do ruminate - it’s not a good thing - but it goes on behind the scenes of flesh and bone when I’m conducting all the day to day pleasantries. So often, I’m getting eaten up by bigger and smaller things that happen to be circulating in my own personal headspace. Low flying anxieties entering my own sovereign territory. For those of us in the UK, regardless of which way we voted (you did vote, didn’t you?) I think it’s safe to say, we’re sick of all the gibbering and fence-sitting of those we elect to serve us. Which ever way you look at it, it feels like a precipice. Yet they trouble me like hornets in my psyche. The exterior is fine, but inside I just can’t swat them. Hollow at times - full to overflowing at others.

I ruminate too, in the fetid stench of ‘successful’ men, who I and others like me, are downwind of with little room left to breathe. Not all white, middle-aged men are bastards. A couple of years ago, I spoke at a big event in Australia, called Artlands - the biggest thing I’d spoken at, and I wrote something called Weapons of Mass Happiness. In it, I did much of what has come to be expected of me - had a go at the self-styled arts and health philanthropists and their complicit trialists - but I also explored racism, difficult as it was, as a white English man speaking to delegates, many of whom were indigenous first nation Australians. But I bit the bullet. The response I got and the conversations after, were quite liberating. That work got written up and is published HERE. It’s broadly about music, health and social justice - and a poke at arts/health cure-all evangelists. 

Then in 2018, towards the end of the Sun-Bed-King’s first year in office, and the unfolding stories of abuse from actors, directors, politicians, philanthropists and the rest - I found myself attempting to take on the roots of some of this murk (I think) at The Big Anxiety Festival. For two days, I had space at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney, to talk to the public about how mental health diagnoses have been scuppered by, what I argue, are some of the same forces that have given predators their ‘permission’ to abuse. The same forces that dictate that capitalism gets its Kentucky-fried-king of end-days in Washington, and austerity is used as the acceptable catch-all to keep people small, and grateful and servile. So what’s brought all this on today?

Well, that talk at the MCA wasn’t recorded. The paper isn’t being written up, and other than a highlights film (see below) it won’t be, as it moved very close to the knuckle. Well - the bare bone! It was personal - and it was difficult. I asked both the audience and the organisers to just let it be ‘live’ - an experience that happened, and which would vanish into the ether. An so it did. But I want to share some extracts from it here and now, which bridge those roots - of racism, colonialism and reductivism, and of the oily neoliberal compost that has nurtured contemporary predators who have left me ruminating.

In his Rede Lecture at The University of Cambridge in 1884, British Scientist, (and cousin of Charles Darwin) Francis Galton announced:
“The powers of man are finite, and if finite are not too large for measurement.” Galton was a polymath to say the least, amongst other things he was an anthropologist, tropical explorer and statistician. He published the first newspaper weather map, coining terms that may resonate with us - of ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ and ‘pressure fronts.’ Though they sound more like useful ways of describing day-to-day mental difference too!

By its very nature science requires a reductive eye for detail and Galton had a giant appetite for the statistical measurement of human data, crunching it and finding patterns. He believed that everything could be quantified, notoriously compiling data for a ‘Beauty map of the British Isles.’ On walks in parks around the the UK, he would wear a pair of large gloves which he had specially adapted with a pin in the thumb, and a small piece of paper hidden in a pouch which he would prick to rank the women he ‘observed’ on his travels. He would discreetly walk along classifying the women he passed, “…as attractive, indifferent or repellent,” insisting this was a robust way of collecting data. And the results of this grand survey? Aberdeen in Scotland was judged as lowest, and London (surprise, surprise) the highest. 

And this pseudo objective approach to mapping beauty, morphs into a more sinister form of colonialism, when Galton is funded to visit South Africa, his great quantifying eye, rolling over landscape and people with impunity, and settling on a woman sheltering from the midday sun under a tree. Unlike any woman he had ever seen, (brace yourselves) he fixated on her buttocks, and he made it his goal to quantify every inch of her. To do this he used a sextant and made, (apologies again):

“…a series of observations upon her figure in every direction, up and down, crossways, diagonally and so forth, and I registered them carefully on my outline drawing…this being done, I boldly pulled out my measuring tape, and measured the distance from where I was to the pace where she stood, and having thus obtained both base and angles, I worked out the results by trigonometry and logarithms.” 

So here we have the giant white man of science, exhibiting the most disturbing confluence of both his obsessive personality (that’s another and well described story) and spurious science, as part of an expedition to which he won, the Gold Medal from the Royal Geographical Society for taking an expedition to a country, (steel your nerve) “never before penetrated by a civilised being.’ So alongside his cultural myopia and objectification of women, 
we have the insidious evolutionary roots of eugenics.

 Galton’s later study, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences, set out to measure the frequency of ‘eminence’ among the offspring of the most illustrious parents, as compared to the poor old general population. His conclusion of course - was the offspring of the illustrious were more likely to be illustrious than children of the non-illustrious! Observations of outcomes, devoid of context. 


His  younger contemporary - German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin - was researching connections between brain biology and mental illness. Like Galton, Kraepelin was an influential proponent of eugenics, but he took the data to another level, and extended the ideas of racial hygiene focusing on alcoholism, degeneration and hysteria, believing that the education system and the welfare state undermined the Germans biological "struggle for survival” in their attempts to break the process of natural selection and liberate people from poverty and distress. The statistical influence of Galton alongside the conviction of Kraepelin - that degeneration was underpinned by brain biology - would go on to influence the way biological disease was understood, ultimately paving the way for the 1952 publication of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 

Waiting in the wings, and embracing much of Galton, was economist Friedrich Hayek who argued that any value that can’t be expressed as a price - decided by the market, was nothing more than subjective opinion and preference. Hayek’s research would go on to influence the ideals of Thatcher and Reagan - that society itself, was nothing more than a universal market. All these factors combined contribute to nurturing the roots of neoliberalism, which play a significant part in the ways all our mental health is understood and how our fellow humans are ranked.

Clinical Psychologist, Peter Kinderman et al, in an essay of the same name, suggests we should ‘drop the language of disorder’ and start by acknowledging that distress is a normal, not abnormal, part of human life - that humans respond to difficult circumstances by becoming distressed. The death of someone we love, can lead to a profound, and long-lasting, grieving process. In what sense is it a ‘disorder’ he asks, if we remain distressed by bereavement after 3 months? This excludes any possibility of finding meaning in people’s ‘disordered’ responses and experiences, preventing people from understanding how they might use their own resources to address their difficulties. Kinderman tells us, that those psychosocial factors like poverty, unemployment and trauma are the most strongly evidenced causal factors for psychological distress - other factors - genetic and developmental— influence the magnitude of the individual’s reaction to these life circumstances. If mental illness is seen predominantly as an individual chemical and statistical problem, this has huge benefits to the market, whilst neatly apportioning blame and shame on the individual, while feeding the pharmaceutical industry, who doling out medication contributing to the creation of a passive and compliant workforce to boot!

Added to all this blame and shame, the booming wellbeing ‘industry’ seems fixated on anyone being able to recreate themselves as ‘the best possible version of themselves.’ In his book, The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James suggests that toxic capitalist policies and culture stoke up the aspirations and expectations of our entrepreneurial and delusion societies, that we can all be the next Kim Kardashian, Bill Gates or, if you really work extra hard, the president. James believes these toxins are poisonous to our well-being by reinforcing the systemic belief that material affluence is the key to fulfilment and that access to the top is open to anyone willing to work hard enough, regardless of their familial, ethnic or social background - if you do not succeed, James wryly notes, there is only one person to blame! We have been marketed an image of constant perfectionism which doesn’t exist physically or mentally. It’s a delusion that we are all in some way part of.

You see then, my third and final rumination of the week got the better of me. I remember Alan Bennett talking about how as people get older, they become more insufferable in their politics. Might this be happening to me? As I look to the increase in reported mental health issues, I begin to question everything, increasingly feeling confused/conflicted - are we all really ill - and is this really an epidemic of mental illness, or day-to-day anxieties that are being rebranded as an illness - and if so why - self centred individualism - ideation built on the increased media coverage - the proliferation of competitive anxiety - or just responding to the market and feeding the self promoting ‘wellbeing’ industry?

The deepening crack in the Earth, systemic inequalities and acceptance of gross hierarchies and all that they decree, are surely the sickness that needs treating, and our 'Epidemic of Despair' actually seems like a very natural response to a twisted society. Heads down in our lonely echo chambers, avoiding the long-read in favour of 280 characters, or a digitally enhanced vision of the almost always unattainable. After all, social media brings us together and divides us, quantifying our social standing, and intensifying social comparison to the point at which, having consumed everything else, we start to prey upon ourselves, our inadequacies, our vulnerabilities and our loneliness. 

This week, I had the pleasure (said with just a hint of irony) of reading the sad and vacuous French author and television presenter Yann Moix, (50) who said ‘he was “incapable” of loving a woman aged over 50. “Come on now, let’s not exaggerate! That’s not possible … too, too old, {he commented, adding that women in their 50s were} “invisible.”  “I prefer younger women’s bodies, that’s all. End of, {…}The body of a woman of 50 is not extraordinary at all,” he said, adding that he preferred to date Asian women. 

Still, in defence of the backlash he faced following his interview, he justified himself with aplomb: “I don’t see this as pride, but almost as a curse. It’s not my fault. We are not responsible for our tastes, our penchants, our inclinations. I’m not here to hold forth on this.” Listen HERE.

It all makes me feel kind of sick.

But not the kind of sickness any medication
 can cure.

. . . 

OK - enough already. Here's a film and a song.

For anyone interested in some great literature to get them through these winter months, can I recommend the micro-scripts of Robert Walser. Dig into him and see if he makes sense to you. My parting shot today - a quote from a longer work by Walser, which I guess could be my aspiration for the new year. Now who’s coming along with me to establish this company of like minded humans? 

“With all my ideas and follies I could one day found a corporate company for the propagation of beautiful but unreliable imaginings.”
Robert Walser - Jakob von Gunten (1909, IMYS)

*I never question the terrible reality of mental health crises or enduring mental distress, or the release that medication, combined with talking therapies can offer. But it feels like some grotesque contagion is taking place and many minor mental health crises might just be a healthy response to an unhealthy situation. 

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