Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Mindful how you go

One of the best things to have happened to me in the last six months is discovering "mindfulness".  I'm only a few decades late to the party, but so glad to have finally found it.  It's hard to exaggerate the benefits I've experienced from just a few minutes of guided mindfulness therapy - and published research suggests this is not uncommon.  I had my first taste of mindfulness therapy at London's Dragon Cafe.  Their free (and hugely popular) "Mind Works" course was an incredible introduction, both to the science and the practice of mindfulness.  

In short, it is a deliberate awareness of and focusing on the present moment in time: sitting on the chair, eating, breathing, moving, whatever the exercise may involve.  The key is lack of judgement: when the mind naturally wanders back to our anxieties, we forgive it and simply bring it back to the present moment.  It is a form of meditation, but without necessarily involving any deep breathing or chanting or yoga mats.   There is a huge literature out there, but for an easy introduction to mindfulness, I would heartily recommend the "The Little Book of Mindfulness" by Dr Patrizia Collard.

I think, in centuries past, mindfulness happened in humans as a matter of course: hunting for food, surviving, invoking rituals and praying to the unseen forces of nature that governed existence.  I'm guessing that our hunter-gathering ancestors had little time to worry about the past or fret about the future.  They lived solely in the here-and-now, doing the necessary to sustain life.  Modern life has become easier and easier to survive.  But, perversely, we have more and more time and inclination to worry.  Without needing to think where our next meal is coming from, or if our babies will survive the cold night, our minds have free rein to worry and stress and fret as they will.  

For someone prone to depression and anxiety there is no shortage of worry-fodder.  Working my way through a series of graduate jobs, for example, I spent my twenties agonising that I was a terrible employee and it could only be a matter of time before I was discovered to be an intellectual and professional fraud.  The anxiety was crippling: unable to think clearly or communicate with anyone, unable to make even simple decisions, and ultimately unable to function.  

And throughout all this anxiety ran a deep seam of self loathing.  There's a roof over my head, food on the table and a loving family.  What had I to be stressed about?  Why couldn't I enjoy life's simple pleasures (and there were many) without constant anxiety about the past or the future?

I'm no expert, but I'm starting to think that our modern life is partly to blame.  We have so many things vying for our attention, so many competing demands, it is hard to find the pleasure to be had right in front of our noses.  

Unlike our ancestors, who focussed on the present out of sheer necessity, we have to carve out time and learn how to be mindful.  And we need to be kinder to ourselves when we don't always get it right.  Mindfulness, when practiced properly (which generally means being guided through it by a qualified practitioner), ultimately leads to increased self-acceptance, and self-compassion.  Which in turn leads to increased gratitude and compassion for others.

Do check it out if you can!
If you're lucky enough to be able to get to The Dragon Cafe:

Online resources:

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Feeling motivated

Hello again, it's been a little while...  I won't bore you with many details of the last 6 months.  Sufficient to say I've been around the mental illness block a few times.  On the one hand, quite pleased with myself for seeking help proactively, and engaging with services (particularly a very effective Community Psychiatric Nurse and GP trainee, as well as a private psychotherapist).  But then angry and frustrated with myself for not adhering to the homework (or the medication), and for failing to be content with my by-all-means comfortable lot in life.  I've even experienced the frustration of feeling acutely depressed while on an extended stay in what can only be described as a tropical paradise (more on this in a seperate blog post)!

I'm learning now not to be so hard on myself, and to accept that mental illness rarely fits a neat recovery model.  I'm learning that it's ok to see the funny side, even when everything seems bleak.  And I'm learning to live and function more effectively with the emotional ebb and flow of bipolar disorder.  All humans are bipolar to varying degrees - some of us happen to experience more extreme highs and lows.  Or react in more extreme ways.  And that's ok. 

So - chin up, best foot forward.  I'm doing the best I can, being mum to an increasingly hilarious two year old, and partner to an ever-patient man who makes everything I do possible.  Blogging and social media have both taken a back seat, and that's been no bad thing, but I think I'm ready to re-engage with the world of mental health advocacy and peer support.  There is a lot to do. 

The original purpose of this blog was to document progress towards establishing a local social enterprise cafe.  While it all began with a (in hindsight) flurry of manic over-ambition, the original aim remains. My goals now benefit from both a sharp personal reality check and some invaluable advice from new friends and colleagues in the maternal mental health community:
- the need for safeguarding and professional oversight (don't risk personal health and safety, and that of potential service users)
- the importance of a multidisciplinary team/committee (don't try to do everything yourself)
- a phased approach to project goals (don't try to do everything all at once).

At times over the last six months my brain has been full to bursting with ideas, plans, thoughts.  While being in a "bipolar mixed mood" can be dangerous, it can also be intensely creative and inspiring.  I would love to take some of my ideas and see them through.  It will take hard work, and a lot of planning and perseverance, but I will get there.

More than anything, I want to be useful.  I want to help make the change needed in the world my little boy is growing up in.  Ok, so maybe I can't change the world - but if we don't at least try to improve our local community, to use our experiences to help others, then what's the point in any of it?  In my sphere of maternal mental health, local children and family services are at grave risk of government cuts.  NHS mental health services are stretched to the limit, and the cracks are getting wider.  If voluntary groups, charities and social enterprises don't step in then who will? 

To be continued... I will leave you with one more gratuitous island paradise shot:

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Guest post: 5 reasons to vote No, from an Englishman looking in

Slightly last minute: a "guest post" from someone who (unlike me at the moment) has managed to think through many of the arguments. 



Please vote “No.”  This is happening all the wrong way, and it’s likely to go terribly badly for all of us.  It’s not that I don’t understand that “Yes” voters want a different and independent Scotland.  I do.  It’s just not likely to happen.  And it’s not that I don’t understand “Yes” voters’ complaints about the past, and “the Westminster government”.  I understand those, and share many of them.  It’s just that voting Yes in this referendum isn’t likely to help any of that either.

This isn’t going to be an emotional appeal by an Englishman about 300 years of the union, and the fact I want you to stay etc.  Yes, it would be terribly sad if that all went out of the window, but sometimes the past has to be the past.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire worked for a while, and then it didn’t and nobody misses it now; albeit its collapse did leave a terrible mess at the time and that probably ought to be born in mind - Central Europe wasn't a great place to be for some time afterwards.  Self-determination should be the right of all, and if the Scots had a good reason to leave then they must leave.  Given this will affect me deeply as an Englishman, I’m pretty miffed that I don’t have a vote – butthat’s not the Scots’ problem.  (Although as an aside, self-determination is a bit over-rated – if I was an Aberdonian I’d be seriously considering an independence movement of my own to take all the oil – but I don’t suppose the rest of Scotland would be too impressed.)

In short, and for the reasons I expand on below, as far as I can tell there is simply no good reason to vote “Yes” in this referendum at this time.  

The benefits will be minimal at best, and the costs may well be enormous.  First, the economic case for “No” is unanswerable – and that has to be important.  “Liberty” isn’t much use if you’re on the breadline.  Second: what liberty?  The idea that “Scottish” people will be more able to pull the levers of power in the interests of “Scots” (whoever they are) is a fiction.  Third, the world is dangerous out there, and there is no real doubt that an independent Scotland will be weaker and more vulnerable than one in the UK.  And the world will become more dangerous for all of us simply because the UK as a whole will be weaker.  Fourth, as for the suggestion that Scotland will be a “fairer society”: that won’t be possible because the sums won’t add up; and anyway this whole affair has been hugely divisive within Scottish society – a divide which will become more acute if there is a Yes vote. Finally, if being proud to be Scottish is something important (and who am I to question if it is?), then know that The Greatest Scots In History (who were also very proud to be Scottish) would definitely have voted No.  (Clue: not William Wallace)

The bottom line is: in this referendum, “Yes” in fact means “Yes at all costs”, because what eventually happens is so unclear and most of all so dependent on the rest of the UK giving up things it may well not give up, and Scotland will be at the mercy of the financial markets from Friday 19 September.  And those costs could be vast – ruin-Scotland-for-a-generation vast.  Whereas “No” can just mean “Not at the moment.”

1.  The political establishment.  This is one of the supposedly unanswerable arguments of the “Yes” campaign; i.e. Westminster stinks, let’s rid ourselves of it and even if we have to tighten our belts in the initial rocky period, at least we’ll be “free”.

It’s a fiction.  The idea that by gaining independence from England, Scots will have detached themselves from the remote Westminster political class and be able to replace itwith a magically much friendlier and responsive set of rulers who are Scottish and therefore inherently better, is plain wrong


I understand that many Scots don’t like Westminster, and see it as remote and wrapped up in its own issues (whether duck houses or otherwise) and not those of the country which it is supposed to be governing. Because I feel that too.  It’s not a uniquely Scottish feeling.  I live within 15 minutes walk of Westminster (many of my neighbours are politicians), I work in a traditional establishment profession which has sent manyof its members (usually the less competent ones) to becomeMPs to Westminster (e.g. Tony Blair), I went to Oxford, I even studied PPE just like Cameron and Clegg and half the rest of the Cabinet, and I was privately educated.  I should be immersed in it.  This should be my world.  These should be “my people” if they are anybody’s.  But they aren’t and it’s beyond a joke, especially when they want 10% pay rises.  I’d like there to be change too.

I also understand that many Scots don’t like the Tories (although at the last general election the SNP won around 490,000 votes in Scotland and the Tories about 412,000 - so the idea that the Tories are somehow “un-Scottish” is clearly nonsense.)

So why won’t Scotland be free of these malign influences?

First, if Scotland does keep the pound (as Salmond says it will), then it won’t have detached itself from this elite.  rUKwill still make all the important decisions about the Scottish economy – it will do that if Scotland is a partner in a currency union, and especially if it isn’t.  But the trouble is rUK will be a foreign country, and won’t have any reason or obligation to make those decisions with Scotland in mind.  In fact, Scotland will be less powerful because it will have no say in Westminster (and the City of London) where all the important decisions will still be made.  A version of this has happened with the Euro.  Germany made all the important decisions, and the upshot was that it did rather well and Greece/Portugal/Cyprus suffered badly – oddly, the Greek economy was at the whim of Chancellor Merkel, in a way that the Bavarian economy (because Germany is a federal state) wasn’tIt will be “independence” without any real independence.  

In fact, the greatest deception of the “Yes” campaign is that, in my view, actually that is an outcome they would be content with.  It would be bad for Scotland, but they could pretend to the world that Scotland was “independent”.  They could start ordering all those statues of Salmond, Sturgeon et al for squares around Scotland.  They would have “won” and their egos would be inflated.  But Scotland would have lost.  The fact they will have been able to get away with this betrayal of Scotland is a symptom of my second point.

The second point is that, as Scots know well, Scotland alreadyhas its own equally unattractive ruling elite.  Scots will be exchanging like for like, just with different accents.  Salmondand his pals aren’t the visionary Founding Fathers, dodging harsh winters and British cannons to draw up lists of self-evident truths for the benefit of America and the world.  They’ve been in power locally for ages.  They could have used their tax raising powers to raise NHS spending in Scotland, but they haven’t.  They talk about a “fairer society” but spend weekends at Gleneagles and rub shoulders with Donald Trump (“A new gold resort Donald, on pristine countryside near Aberdeen?  No problem.  I’ll sort out any problems with the little people.”)  This isn’t a party political issue – just like in Westminster, they are all up to their necks in it.  These people will be in charge, and they will sell Scotland (incl what is left of the NHS etc etcdown the river if it suits them just like the Tories might do in England.  

In fact, they’ll have to, because it’s going to be hard for Scotland to balance the books.  Which brings me on to…

2.  Economics.  It might be called “the dismal science” and there are very few certainties in economics.  But there is one thing that is certain in economics and that is uncertainty.  The economy doesn’t like it.  It’s going to be very bad for all of us if there is “Yes” vote, and especially Scotland.  This uncertainty already exists, but if there is a Yes vote it will get much worse.

I’m won’t dwell on what might be called the “balance sheet” approach to asking whether Scotland’s economy will succeed; e.g. there is oil, and skilled people, and other useful resourcesetc – great assets that already mean Scotland is a rich country.  All other things being equal, it probably would continue to be a rich country, simply because it is at the moment.  But all the other factors wouldn’t be equal.  Many of them are going to change a lot, and the big problem is that nobody knows how, because the Yes campaign hasn’t explained it.  And even to the extent it has, none of it is guaranteed as they need rUK to agree to it.

None of those (considerable) assets are of much use if there is uncertainty, and people feel unable to make the decisions about the future that allow Scotland to benefit from those assets.  

On Day 1 after a “Yes” vote, no one knows what an independent Scotland will look like.  How laws will be made,whether it’s going to be in the EU, how the banks will be regulated, what the currency will be, even whether it will pay its debts…. the list is endless.  The Yes campaign has notprovided any of the details. Consequently, investors have to assume that there is at least a reasonable possibility that they will make a terrible mess of it – which possibility begins to feel like a probability when Yes Scotland are pressed for answers and can’t give them.  Zimbabwe was a rich country once, and it could be again, but bad government sent it into chaos.

This is a big problem.  For investors to make decisions about putting money into Scotland (or leaving in money that is already there), they have to be confident that it is a stable country where people, and especially the government, pay their debts.  But all bets will be off.  People will stop putting money into Scotland to invest in its future.  And people that have already invested money in Scotland may take it out if they can.  There will be a similar effect in the wider UK but probably less severe.  The existing prosperity of the UK is the result of 300 years of stability.  

What will happen?  Economics 101.  The value of the pound will fall dramatically, which means imports cost more.  The value of the stock market will drop.  This means that the value of people’s pensions and savings will drop.  The housing market will crash.  And companies (especially Scottish companies) will be poorer.  There will be less money for them to invest in expansion, and it will be harder for new businesses to start.  This means fewer jobs.  The interest rate the government has to pay will go up, which means less money for nice things like the NHS, or higher taxes.  Everybody is poorer, and the government will have less money to help with that.

This is why 80% of FTSE 100 chairman think a Yes vote is a bad idea.  These aren’t fatcats in their ivory towers.  Ok they might be fatcats – but these are the people that employmillions around the UK.

The Yes campaign has no answer to this, because it can’t be answered.    I can be sure about that because it’s already happening, simply because markets are concerned about the risk of a Yes vote.  Money is already leaving Scotland (and to some extent the UK).  The value of the pound and the FTSE dropped sharply on the first poll that suggested a possible Yes vote. To put that in perspective, the value wiped off Scottish companies following that poll was more or less equivalent to total annual tax receipts from North Sea oil.  So much for oil paying for everything…

When there actually is Yes vote, it’s going to get pretty out of hand for a while.

This isn’t a question about whether Scotland has the “assets” (natural resources, skills etc) to survive in the long term.  It’s a question of whether it can survive the initial weeks and months.

When the benefits of independence are far from clear (see 1 above), what’s the point?

3.  The dangerous world.

The world outside the borders of the UK is a dangerous place.  It’s probably more dangerous now than it has been in a generation.  Dark forces like ISIS are filling the power vacuums that are appearing all over the Middle East.  Putin has made it pretty clear that he wants to expand the borders of Russia in more or less any way possible.  The US has made it pretty clear that it’s not going to be the world’s policeman anymore – it doesn’t have the appetite.  It’s pretty wild out there.  Some of the fault for this situation I think has to be laid at the door of Bush and Blair and others.  But it is the world we live in now.

In spite of all of those threats, we are in the UK fortunate enough to live in a country which is relatively rich, stable, and just and fair for most people most of the time.  We are more or less protected from these forces outside in the world – or as much as is reasonably possible.  There may have been times when we were slightly better off.  But compared to the history of the UK we are largely better off than we ever have been and we are certainly better off than the vast majority of the people in the world.  The “Yes” campaign wholly lacks a bit of “big picture” perspective.

The reason we are in this fortunate but delicate position is because of hundreds of years of building a country which has the resources to keep those dark forces at bay – whether it’s people, or technology.

Why would anyone break this up?  Why gamble, for no obvious benefit (see 1 above)?

4.  The “moral sin of separatism”

Enough from me for a bit.  Let’s hand over to MichaelIgnatieff, former prime minister of Canada – a country which has had its own separatist issues (see his article “A secessionist lust for power that tears lives asunder”  FinancialTimes, 27 June 2014,

Secessionists, whether in Scotland, Catalonia, Quebec or anywhere else, invariably assume that a person must either be Scottish or British, Catalan or Spanish, Québécois or Canadian. What about those who feel they are both? I know that I cannot share the same sense of being a minority my Québécois friends feel but I do know that Quebec’s soil, its language, its winter cold, its languid summers, are part of who I am.

I am not so exceptional. There are hundreds of thousands of Scots who acknowledge English, Irish or Welsh parts of their very being. Lives and destinies are similarly intertwined in Catalonia and Spain, in Ukraine and Russia. The same was true in the former Yugoslavia, where in the 1990s women with Croatian names and Serbian husbands used to ask me with tears in their eyes why the nationalists were forcing them to choose between parts of their being.

This is the moral sin of separatism. Separatist politicians, desiring to be presidents or prime ministers of little countries, force their fellow citizens to make choices that they should not have to make between identities that they have combined, each in their own unique way, and now watch being ripped apart – one portion of themselves flung on one side of a border, a damaged remnant on the other. If Scotland does secede, there will be many torn souls the day after.

I do not claim secession is never justified. When blood has been shed, people will fight to be free of an alien yoke. But where, as in the UK, Canada, Spain and Ukraine, peoples have lived side by side, perhaps not always in justice but usually in peace, secession is the worst sin in politics, a gratuitous infliction of political choice on peoples who do not want to be forced to choose."

This is all very compelling.  But for Scotland it goes even further.  Many Scots (perhaps a majority) don’t want to be forced to choose.  They want to stay in the Union.  These people self-evidently have a different view of what “Scotland” is and means from the Yes campaign.  Why should they be forced to assume a different identity?  Maybe they’ll leave – and go to a nearby neighbour where they speak the same language, differences will be respected, jobs will be available etc.

Which brings me onto what being Scottish might mean for some people, and what Scots can genuinely be proud of…

5.  The Scottish Enlightenment.  

This is the really important one for Scots who care about Scottish history and identity.  

I think unquestionably the greatest thing that Scotland has ever given the world, and the thing that all Scots (whoever they are – see below) should be most proud of, is the Scottish Enlightenment.  It’s more important than the TV or the telephone or anything else that Scotland gave the world.  It’s in a different league entirely.  

Central to this 18th century movement (see Smith, Hume et al) was the idea that decisions about important things, like the way a country is governed, should be made on the basis of observation and logic, and not emotional and atavistic impulses like nationalism or ethnicity.  Seems pretty sensible and obvious.  In the 21st century the vast majority of people in the West accept that lots of different national and ethnic groups can rub along in one state under one government, which allows differences to flourish.  In fact, differences of nationality or ethnicity should be no more important in working out how we should be governed than differences of class, or sexuality, or marital status, or hair colour etc.  We accept that the role of government is not to favour one tribalgroup (or any other kind of group) over another – it’s to work for all.  Democracy isn’t even just the rule of the majority – it’s government of the people, by the people, for (all) the people.

This was a revolutionary idea in the 18th century.  It led indirectly to the French and American Revolutions, and it more or less introduced the idea of liberal democracy to the world.  The history of the 20th century could be said to be about the fight of ideas like these against the despotic ideas of nationalism in its more extreme forms and the communism of Soviet Russia. And some thought in the 1990s that that battle of ideas had finally been won (well, Fukuyama did.  A lot of other people thought it was obvious that it hadn’t.).   People like Putin and ISIS remind you that it definitely hasn’t.

However, a “Yes” vote by Scotland would be a wholesale rejection of those ideas.  It would be a return to the ideas and values of pre-18th century Britain.   Scotland would be going back on the greatest thing it ever gave the world.  

For example, one of the Scottish enlightenment philosophers might have approached the debate in the following way:-

“We use the same currency in England and Scotland.  This makes sense because there is lots of trade between us. It also helps us as people living in Scotland to have the much bigger backing of all the people in England in case anything goes wrong.  So it helps for the governments to be fiscally united. We’re better together.  The fact that I’m Scottish and English people are English is irrelevant.  We can each be different and live in a mutually beneficial state which allows us all to prosper.

These guys would utterly reject the notion that you should make decisions in the following way:

“I would rather be governed from Edinburgh by Scots, because that is the capital of Scotland, and I am part of the imaginary community of Scotland, which is comprised of Scots, who are some people living north of an invisible line through heathery hills somewhere between Carlisle and Berwick-on-Tweed, and whom I imagine to be a bit like me and love haggis and tartan and football and Irn Bru.”

The enlightenment philosophers might point out that an accident of geography or a shared way of speaking is no basis for a system of government.  They’d urge you not to consider yourself bonded to all other Scots in some special way, any more than you are bonded to anyone else that you might have one or two things in common with as: (i) most of them youhave never met, and you know nothing about; (ii) most ofthem aren’t in fact remotely like you in any way, save the one fact that they live within a few hundred miles of where youlive and have a sort of similar way of speaking; (iii) many ofthem aren’t in fact even “Scottish” by a lot of definitions i.e. they weren’t born here, or have only lived here briefly, or (worst of all) they are English.  The fact that some of them put on blue shirts and go to Murrayfield with you might be fun.  For some people it’s important.  For (many) others it’s meaningless beyond a bit of fun and other bonds of family or class might dominate.  As Billy Connolly has said, he feels he has more in common with a welder from Liverpool than most Scots – does it follow that welders should declare some sort of independent state?

Put another way, separation on the basis of geography is drawing an arbitrary line – you are no more likely to get a government that represents your interests than in the status quo.  What you are more likely to get is a government which speaks with a similar accent to you, and maybe supports the same football team.  But does that really matter?  Of course not.

As Rory Stewart MP points out in this elegant and brilliant article linked here (, there is an invisible line in the Solway Firth that used to be important.  During Roman times it was the line between civilisation and barbarism, and there was in fact a physical barrier – Hadrian’s Wall.  But for the last 300 years it has been as it should be – invisible and basically irrelevant.  Why draw a line when there isn’t one there?  It’s totally arbitrary.  

This pretty much kills the main argument advanced by “Yes” people i.e. that you can leave aside the economics, “we” all know there are risks, “we” just want to govern “ourselves”.  

There isn’t a “we” that is meaningful to this question.


Sunday, 31 August 2014

Bear with me...

Bear with me, dear friends... After an action-packed summer and so much going on (for the maternal mental health community, for Scotland and the UK, for my nascent business plans...) there is much I'd love to write about.  It will come: blog posts on Italy, restaurants, tips for a long road trip with toddler (The Boy was incredible, but we learned a lot along the way!), where I stand on the Independence Referendum (nae thanks, and I will tell you for why!), updates on mental health campaign work, fundraising ideas for APP and PANDAS... It will all come. 

But for now, bear with me.

For the first time in two and a half years (since before becoming pregnant with The Boy) I have been feeling the first familiar signs of an episode of depression coming my way.  When I had postpartum psychosis and subsequent anxiety - well, back then I was in hospital, or at home being visited by a CPN and specialist HV.  I was in "the system", diagnosed, in the care of perinatal specialists.  This feels like the first real test of what it means to manage my symptoms myself, proactively.  

During my PP recovery I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (having explained about my periods of depression, and possible manic symptoms, over the last 15 years).  After leaving the Mother and Baby Unit, we took care not to take on too many potentially stressful things, and my family and I were vigilant.  But as the months of good mental health sailed by, I naively thought that I had somehow found my cure.  That being a devoted mummy to The Boy (all those walks in the park, teaching him new things, laughing along with his antics) was acting as a protective shield.  My confidence grew (possible hypomania, but who can ever really tell?) and so did my to-do list, as I thought that I could take on the world.

This was never going to end perfectly.  But the good news is: I have recognised the early symptoms (sleeplessness, racing anxieties, inability to concentrate, social anxiety) and we are taking action.  And I have, for the first time in my life, found a community of people (the incredible #PNDfamily - you know who you are!) who I can share all this with.

So please bear with me, dear friends: normal service will be resumed soon!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

SRT2014: Spain & France

So, instead of our usual route to Italy (Old Kent Road, channel tunnel, France/Belgium/Germany/Switzerland) we found ourselves in the Basque region of northern Spain.  The plan now was to spend some time in San Sebastián, before making our way down the French (autoroute) side of the Pyrenees, a further stop in the Languedoc/Provence region, and then drive all along the South coast of France until we hit Italy. 

San Sebastián 
This was a place we had been keen to savour for some time.  As a pair of food buffs we had heard tales of Basque cooking and the amazing seafood and tapas ("pintxos") to be enjoyed.  Perhaps we should really have made it here prior to The Boy's arrival, but hey he loves a tapas bar crawl as much as the next one year old, so he was very much along for the ride.

We stayed at the NH Aranzazu hotel, near the Onderetta beach.  A quick word on the NH chain of hotels: they can be found in many large European towns, and we would highly recommend them.  We have stayed in four different ones now (Budapest, Turin, Seville - and now San Sebastián) and they have all been immaculately clean, well located, spacious, and hugely generous with their breakfast offerings.  I believe they are operating in the same mid-upper price bracket as Mercure, Novotel and Holiday Inn. 

San Sebastián is an easy city to navigate.  There is one main road into the commercial centre, which also takes you straight to the beach and sweeps along the bay front to the old town.  The beach was a revelation.  I had heard so much of San Sebastian's gastronomy, I hadn't realised it also boasted one of the best city beaches in the world.  The town occupies a sheltered bay (complete with island), and along the entire shoreline is a wide sandy beach.  There must be at least a mile of sand to enjoy, with certain areas marked out especially for families, serious swimmers, boaters, surfers, etc.

Our hotel was very near the western edge of the Ondaretta stretch of beach, which is deigned for families: parasols and deck chairs, snack bars, play equipment, showers, and a full lifeguard station.  Once we managed to drag The Boy away from the choo choo train  climbing frame, he quite enjoyed dipping his toes in and jumping over the gentle waves.  The Husband and I took turns having a proper swim, and I loved the liberation of a sea swim in warm waters with the comfort of a lifeguard nearby.  A quick rinse in the communal beach shower and we were ready to saunter along the promenade towards the old town and its famous bars.

Perhaps it was our sky-high expectations but I actually felt a tiny bit disappointed by our (first) pintxos experience.  They looked amazing, a huge array laid out over an old-fashioned bar, but clearly they had been on display for some time - so the Serrano-wrapped prawns, morcilla, croquettes and other delicacies were all stone cold.  My advice?  If you don't have responsibility for a restless toddler, then relax a while and prop up the bar with a cold cerveza - then nab the best-looking plates as soon as they appear from the kitchen.

Our second day (we stayed three nights in total) was more successful: we had booked lunch in a neighbouring town, upon a friend's recommendation.  El Kano, in Getaria, is a seafood restaurant, employing the traditional barbecue grill that is typical of the region.  Getaria itself is reached via a spectacular coastal road from San Sebastián - and, although much smaller, has its own beaches and winding old town to explore.  Our lunch (and subsequent ice cream) here was great, and really gave us a feel for Basque food (in particular, hake "neck"). 

Further tapas explorations, back in San Sebastian, yielded: sublime vegetable tempura-like fries, bacala cod, pork cheeks, and gazpacho. 

We chose to break our journey south with two nights at Des Trois Couronnes in Carcassonne.  We chose this hotel primarily for its secure underground parking, on-site restaurant, and small swimming pool.  The room was much smaller than at the NH, but perfectly serviceable.  We made good use of the pool, and the restaurant.  

Carcassonne is famous for its medieval walled city, and it really is impressive.  It is also well known for its cassoulet, a homemade version of which is served at even the most basic of restaurants.  

But don't bother trying the "renowned" creperie La Ble Noir - unless you happen to have made a reservation.  I was prompted to write my first-ever Trip Adviser review after we were turned away (from a completely empty restaurant) when we only wanted a very quick bite.  I don't know, I respect their reservations policy, but aren't crepes "fast food"?!  We left, shaking our heads at the French, their attitudes towards tourists, and their precarious economic productivity...

Domaine Des Clos
Onwards, to somewhere completely different.  We found this hideaway about five years ago, on the way back from an earlier road trip, around Corsica and returning via the Marseilles ferry.  Domaine Des Clos is a renovated provencal farmhouse, between Beaucaire and Bellegarde, near the attractions of Nimes, and the Carmargue (think: lavender, lace, Provençal herbs, white horses and flamingos!).

Des Clos offers utter peace and quiet (if you don't mind a background hum of crickets), and a complete escape from the world.  It is charming and rustic enough, without being kitsch.  It is neither a B&B, hotel or collection of gites - but incorporates the best elements of these all.  That is, you can enjoy a delicious breakfast laid on in the beautiful converted stable block, while also having your own kitchen and dining room.  You can enjoy the inviting swimming pool in the company of other rampaging toddlers, while also finding quiet spots in the extensive grounds all to yourself.  The grounds are completely safe (there are even child-proof locks on the swimming pool fence), and you can even find a trampoline and sandpit.  Twice a week (in July and August) you can join in the fantastic "table d'hote" cooked by owner Sandrine.  

It is just a lovely, welcoming, place to escape with a young family.

We felt completely rested after three nights here, and ready to tackle the drive along the French Riviera towards Genoa. Unfortunately, by this point, we were racing to get The Husband to a dentist (long and boring story) so we could only just clock the famous place names as we passed along the winding autoroute: Cannes, Monaco, Nice, Monte Carlo, Cap D'Antibes.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Three things we can all do in response to Robin Williams' death

Robin Williams' death was shocking.  And not just because he was such a well-loved talent.  People are understandably confused as to why someone so successful, so funny, so famous, could also be so overwhelmingly depressed.  

It takes a tragic (and preventable) death such as this to help us all realise that depression can and does strike at random.  Depression is not about being happy or sad.  It is not about being pleased or annoyed, amused or bored, fulfilled or malcontent.  It is an illness.  It can happen to anyone, at any time, even when they are supposed to be happy.

Hiding depression away, putting on a smile, a brave face, makes life more pleasant for the rest of us.  But the consequences for the sufferer can be acute.  So here is three things that we can (all) do:

1. Conscious that they don't want to "bring everyone else down", a person with depression may start to hide away.  Their illness may be preventing them from getting in touch or socialising at all.  If you have not heard from your friend, your sister, your neighbour, in a while - send them a text or write them a quick email, asking "How are you?" "I've been thinking of you".

2. A person with depression may start to think about suicide.  It's a commonly-held assumption that asking about their suicidal thoughts or plans may only encourage that person in ending their life.  This is a myth, as I learnt on my recent Mental Health First Aid course.  Talking about suicide does not increase suicide risk - so ask the question.  It's the hardest question you may ever have to ask a loved one, but it might just help.  Many years ago, when I was struggling with one of my first (and scariest) depressive episodes, alone in a new city and away from my family, my dad asked me directly over the phone: "Kathryn, are you thinking about taking your own life?".  I couldn't speak, but yet the love and support that flowed down the telephone line and into my ear was enough to keep me safe that day.  So I repeat: ask the question. 

(Ps This is not the same as the media covering explicit details about a person's death.  Some of the coverage on Robin  Williams has been outrageous and, frankly, quite dangerous.)

3. Stop perpetuating ridiculous ideas about what can or can't "cure" depression (and other mental illnesses, while we are at it).  There is an industry out there (lifestyle gurus, some religious preachers, health and fitness companies, etc etc) who all think they can give you The Cure.  Managing depression is about finding the right treatments for the specific case: it may involve pharmacotherapy, psychotherapy, some alternative therapies... But it is unlikely (in my view) that "finding joy", praying, eating or avoiding certain foods, will cure you.  Joy, prayer, fresh air, healthy food and exercise are all wonderful things in themselves (and I know being a mum of a lively toddler is a fantastic protective factor for me and my depression).  But they are not cures.  Presenting them as such places a burden of guilt on the sufferer, that they are not trying hard enough to be happy.  That if only they changed this or that they would be better.  Someone recently tweeted me that "self belief" could have helped rid me of psychosis.  It was well-intentioned, but hugely misguided.  I had no idea who or what I was - let alone a sense of self-belief!  So let's all stop with the cod psychology, the remedies and the old wives tales and recognise that depression is as much deserving of medical and therapeutic treatment as any other illness.

"Nanu, nanu" 
- Robin Williams, 1951-2014

Thursday, 7 August 2014

SRT2014: "Cruise"

They have a reputation for garishness, vulgarity, obesity and premature aging.  But, to be honest, the thought of a cruise has always been quite appealing to me: cocktails in the lounge, strolls around the deck, dinner at the Captain's table, and all the time in the world to while away.  What could be so awful?  Sadly, this same concept is The Husband's idea of hell on earth: norovirus-y, vomit-inducing, captive, claustrophobic hell.  So I'm not getting my cruise any time soon.

But wait!  What's that you say?  There's a 20 hour car ferry crossing from Plymouth to Spain?  On a huge ocean-going vessel with cabins, restaurants, swimming pool, and entertainments?  We are IN.  The Husband didn't even hesitate: here was a way to satisfy his wife's longing for some sort of cruise, while also getting us to the continent relatively easily.  And it was only 20 hours, so if it all turned into his idea of Hell he'd (probably) cope.

After our lovely week in Cornwall, we made the short trip to Plymouth.  The queue of cars waiting to board the Brittany Ferries ship gave us an idea of its scale.  It took several hours to get everyone on (apparently this is an exercise in brain and computer power, involving several complex algorithms to decide exactly which vehicle needs to be stowed where on the THREE car/freight decks).

Once on board, we headed straight to our cabin.  Sadly, this wasn't in the "Commodore" area (complete with double beds, complimentary fruit baskets and private balconies) but we did have a "large 2/4 berth" which was spacious enough for being in a boat, and had a surprisingly normal ensuite shower and WC.  We both had comfy pull-down single beds - The Boy in a specially-provided travel cot between us.  There was even room for two more bunks above us (although if these were occupied the cabin would have felt seriously on the small side!).

Ok, enough of the cabin.  What about the rest of the "Pont-Aven"?

Well - The Boy and I were giddy with excitement.  He was running up and down the corridors shouting CHOO-CHOO TRAIN!!! at the top of his voice, completely oblivious to the fact he was on a boat.  We went for a good walk (run!) around the main passenger areas, spotting: a soft play room, numerous highchairs throughout the cafes and restaurants, delicious looking pastries (all the catering and staff onboard were French), a glass fronted atrium, small swimming pool, piano bar, beauty spa, cabaret lounge, and more...  

Glancing at the prices, I noted they were remarkably reasonable: £3.95 for the "cocktail of the day" (a punchy Caiparinha) for example.  While the self-catering option looked fine (pizzas and panini based), we followed those-in-the-know to the reservations queue for the main restaurant.  At £25.90 for a buffet starter, main course, buffet dessert and cheese, it was justifiably popular.  Choosing the early 6.30pm sitting, I even managed to procure us a window table.

This left us just the right amount of time for some children's entertainment (including an introduction to ship's mascot Pierre the Bear), a drink and a wash before dinner.

Dinner did not disappoint.  The French know how to lay-on a buffet and to be honest if you had ordered the alternative a la carte starter and dessert you would have been disappointed!  I crammed my starter plate with pate, salami, salads, stuffed peppers, ceviche, souffle and more.  The Husband went wild on the fresh langoustines.  Main courses were less exciting, but just a prelude to the jaw-dropping dessert table.  Here, I initiated a colour-coordinated "wheel" of tastiness.

Dinner and an early night were quite enough for us, but if you had the energy you could have been entertained all night long with singing, magic, bingo, more singing, and a disco.

The next morning there was still plenty of time for strolling around the outside decks, and even some dolphin (or were they pilot whales?) spotting across the Bay of Biscay.  We also made good use of the soft play room.  Looking around our fellow passengers, we remarked just how many (the majority?) seemed to be other young families off on their holidays. Of the retired people onboard, most seemed to be grandparents attached to an extended family group.  It certainly all felt much more like Disney than Saga.

We arrived on time in Santander, waved goodbye to the Pont-Aven and vowed to come aboard again soon.  What a great, alternative, way to reach Spain!