Given the clattering clown car of idiocy and doom that was 2018 (and, indeed, 2017 and 2016), I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’ve had a really good year. It didn’t start out so well either. After slogging through about four years of severe and uninterrupted depression since the last nervous breakdown, I cracked up again in the spring. (I won’t bore you with the details, but it was pretty bad.) What was different this time was that I decided to go and seek some professional help, rather than trying to go it alone and leaving Gracie to pick up the pieces. Now this is a road I’ve gone down many times before, but for the first time since the early-90s it actually worked. I’m not sure if I was ready to listen this time, if the medication/therapy balance was unusually in tune, or if the people looking after me were just especially awesome – which they were – or if I just got lucky, but I feel more together than I have done for years, back in that zone of contentment and productivity that came with getting married and becoming a father. Until my immune system went bad in 2014, that was probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my own skin.
But this isn’t supposed to be a post about mental illness, though I must admit that it feels good to finally come out and say it, after going to such lengths to pass for human – I mean, what did you think all that online work was about? Aside from school runs, I barely left the house. Anyway, as I’m out of academia now I feel more able to confess this stuff without having to worry about being judged or losing professional credibility. And that’s really what this post is about…
So, basically, this year I’ve lightened up a lot, through a combination of anti-depressants, psychodynamic counselling, peer support and just a dash of mindfulness. Oh, and physiotherapy; I finally started to deal with arthritis and the nerve damage in my spine. This means I’ve come off a lot of pain medication – heavy end downers which weren’t doing my state of mind any good at all. The other magic ingredient was a returning love of motorcycling, brought about by a lovely pre-apocalyptic summer. OK, we’re all going to die, but having lived in Japan for several years I have missed hot summers. It feels like it’s just been raining forever, doesn’t it? Having ridden bikes since I was fifteen, over the last few years my mental state had not exactly stopped me riding but taken all the joy out of it. Running an errand made me feel like a neurasthenic World War One pilot. I could do it, but it frightened the life out of me. Bad scene for a lifelong biker. Now, I’m back to riding like I stole it, and feeling all the better for it. ‘Use it or lose it’ is my new mantra. Any excuse to get out and green-lane it, really, and to hang around with other bikers, rekindling old friendships and making new ones. Also, both my long-dead classic bikes are on their way to being rebuilt, having been dormant and hopeless since I got back from Japan thirteen years ago. Vincent and I are already planning BSA and sidecar excursions next summer like Wallace and Gromet. Single-handedly stripping my A10 over the summer was one of many rediscovered pleasures. (Oddly, doing it on the side of rainy roads in the 80s never seemed such fun.)
I’ve been getting out more socially as well. Meeting people in coffee shops might sound like nothing to you, but it’s a huge fucking deal to me. This is the old me, holding court over a large latte, social anxiety no longer causing my hands to shake or lowering my IQ by about 50%. I missed him. I really liked him. Figured he was gone forever. I’ve done a few concerts as well. Me and my brother-in-law saw the Rolling Stones at Old Trafford; Gracie and I did Eminem at Twickenham; and I caught Public Image and The Damned in Norwich on my own. These are not small things.
All this means I’m thinking much more clearly these days, and able to trust the decisions I make. (That I can make a decision at all is a nice change. Anxiety and depression had left me as paralysed as Hamlet.) And I’m thinking a lot about my life. Where I’m going, what I want, what I can realistically achieve in the time I have left… What I realised – though Gracie has known this for years – is that I had to let a lot of stuff go, both physically and emotionally. ‘Physically’ was easier. Somewhere along the line after Japan, I went from a collector to a hoarder – not, I hasten to add, storing my own shit or turning our house into a rat-ridden maze of old newspapers, but nonetheless hanging onto a lot of old junk on the dubious grounds that it might be worth something one day, might come in handy, or because it was some sort of memory trigger. The house was therefore pretty cluttered, especially with books, while the bits you couldn’t see, like the outbuildings and the attic, were a floor-to-ceiling disaster. Those of you who’ve seen the place know what I’m talking about; it’s an Aladdin’s Cave of crap. Finding myself without any classes to teach in the autumn, I decided to try sorting this stuff out and selling it. So far, results have been very positive. I have off-loaded a ton of old toys, vintage clothes, Japanese knick-knacks and assorted post-war paraphernalia on eBay, restored order to the glory holes, found a few forgotten treasures, and made about a grand in petty cash, allowing me to buy things I’d actually like but usually can’t afford, such as a new crash helmet (back to open face, another sign of fearlessness), sturdy motorcycle boots, body art, and a decent winter wax cotton jacket. (Frank Thomas, not Belstaff; I didn’t make that much money!) Oh, and other must-have items such as Star Trek Barbies, punk picture discs, inappropriate DVDS for Vincent and imported Congo Powers CDs. Turns out my flair for storytelling and the ability to research efficiently makes me a very good salesman. We also ditched half-a-dozen big boxes of books and DVDs on Music Magpie, clearing a significant amount of shelf space. And I’m going to keep going, because you can’t take it with you, can you?
Emotional letting go was mostly about work. To be honest, my academic career, such as it was, was over years ago, probably when I left the University of Fukui. I managed to cobble something together in the UK, returning to UEA and the old Art School (sorry, I can never bring myself to call it the ‘University of the Arts’), but the year Vincent was born they both made me (and a lot of my friends and colleagues) redundant. It was only Ashley Stokes getting me a gig appraising manuscripts for TLC and welcoming me to the Unthank School of Writing as a teacher that saved my professional profile. In that time, I have done what academics do, and continued to research and publish, hoping that this work, alongside the wonderful things we’ve achieved at Unthank, would lead to another university post, as long as I kept publishing, applying for jobs and attending interviews. After almost eight years of this without success, the writing is clearly on the wall and the cycle of perceived failure has brought me to my knees many times. Time to let that go and move on. Academia changed my life, but it never gave me the status and security I needed, at least not in my own country. And in later years, it wasn’t much fun at all. Let’s just say a lot of us discovered zero-hour contracts well ahead of the curve.
More by accident than design, however, some good has come of this, in that I’m finally achieving some modest success as a writer. Early days yet, but I’m doing articles on literary history for Wordsworth and writing books for Pen and Sword and for the first time in my life I’m getting paid to do this. My writing has always been subordinate to my teaching, but just for once in my life I’ve decided to take the risk and commit. To be honest, useless though I generally am, the best things that have ever happened to me came from ignoring the negativity and taking a risk: leaving the building site and going to university, moving to Japan, marrying Gracie, starting a family…
To that end, after consultation with my wife and Ashley, I’ve decided it’s time to retire from HE teaching, in both public and private sectors. (And by ‘retire’ I just mean stop – I don’t have a final salary pension. I still have to work, only ‘work’ now means full-time author.) It’s been 25 years and I’m ready for a break. This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped editing and mentoring, by the way, and I’m still affiliated with TLC, but I’m formally standing down as Head of Online Courses and tutor at Unthank today. This seemed like the right time to do it. The teaching team’s expanded and the online platform has changed, while I have a new book out that’s doing quite well, another one in progress and am already negotiating a third contract. Moving into mainstream publishing gives me a much wider audience than academic writing as well and a modest income. This is ultimately what I’ve always wanted to do with my life, and as I said it’s time to finally commit. Way back in the 90s I had a chance to work for IPC Magazines in Manchester and I didn’t take it because I wanted to finish my degree. I always wondered how that would have turned out. I could’ve been writing Judge Dredd or Batman… This time, I don’t want to drop the ball. In my remissive state it feels like there’s still time to write a few good books, talk to people after I’m dead, and achieve some level of creative and professional contentment. It’s been a pleasure working with Unthank and watching the school grow. I won’t lie, I’m gonna miss it, but I feel as if I’ve gone as far as I can go there now.
At the same time, I’ll also have more time to spend with my son and run the house now Gracie’s career has taken off – another good thing about this year was her promotion to Head of Design for Creative Crafting World. We’re even thinking about having another kid…
So that’s my year and that’s my news. Big changes in the wind, and it’s too late to back out now. As I said, I’m still working with writers so don’t be shy about getting in touch for mentoring, copy-editing, proof-reading and MS appraisal. I’ll get a new website up soon advertising these services. Green Door Books is not dead either, merely sleepeth, so watch this space. And I’ll keep blogging about creative writing as well, I promise.
I’m a rubbish blogger, I know. The posts are too long and there aren’t enough of them. Thank you all, therefore, for your continued interest and support. Here’s wishing you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.