What is a life worth?
Garnet’s Gold opens over the Highlands, over London, over Garnet’s eclectic, cluttered colourful front room as he asks: ‘What happened to life, you lazy man. You coward. Why didn’t you do more?’
In the tallies that we keep – probably these days, on social media – shouting into space the good that we are, what do the fleeting moments of vital, beautiful life mean? What can be claimed without those adult trappings – the mortgage, kids, relationships and all the things on the shelf?
Death comes. What have you collected? Where will it go? What we choose to show others that we are, and what we think of as our selves; what does that add up to in the end? What is the score? And for all those quirky, heart-lonesome souls who can’t belong to anyone?
Cold and clear images of Highland lochs and mountains sear through the stories that affectionate voices tell about Garnet. He is a tall and thin ball of energy. A wildly imaginative, intelligent, passionate person – but note they never say creative. Not a producer but an imaginer. He says himself that this is his great downfall. Always very nearly doing something, until it’s on again. His friends, mother and a past love fondly talk about him as a frenetic unsatisfied idealist. Too busy building dreams to get started.
At 58, Garnet is looking at the life around him and what he’s managed to amass. In terms of the physical, tangible realities it isn’t much. But is that where our value as living beings lie?
In the latest wild bid to bring one dream to life, he is investigating a hunch that, years ago, he might have inadvertently found the hiding place of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s long-lost chest of gold. His plan is to return the Highlands, back to the place where twenty years before he had been lost, alone and stranded in a deserted glen. Only by a miracle was he found before dying of hunger.
By that lonely loch, he had come across an old staff wedged into a rock, submerged in a rivulet – the clue his hopes clutched to. That he might have a chance, one break, to find the gold, to find the life drowning in his dreams.
His mother is a woman canny, bemused and loving as she sees him off from her bed. Knowing him, she had said: ‘Gold isn’t just stuff you find in the ground, or in a box marked ‘x’ on a map. Your life consists a lot of the time of thinking about the past and your place in it. The friends you had. And you gather up fragments of gold from those.’ He cares for her, with mountains of pills, doctor’s visits, slow aching steps, as she cares for him, loving after her heartfelt, burning, aching boy.
‘When will I be free?’ he asks.
And so he returns for the gold. The closer he gets in the hills, the more his thinking out loud takes a tone of nearly angry bitterness. The things beyond words, the unpronounceable nature of the desire he has, too monstrous for form. How crushing is the weight of the heart’s desire. The insult it is that he could lack all the resources to have what he wants, but frustratingly, never lose the impatient store of joy that having it could bring.
In the Highlands, his body becomes the landscape. The fragility of his whiskered cheek weighed against the shadows hanging on the other side of his nose. Worried crows feet on the dark green hulking hills.
Near the end, standing in a river rapids he plunges underneath the water, too full of longing, frustration and feeling. The weathered arm skin of his ageing body against the ancient rocks and water is enough to break your heart. Delicate as we humans are.
‘Turn around – and you’re tiny. Turn around and you’ve grown,’ he sighs.
It’s a film embodying the question of Kafka’s beautiful line: ‘You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.’ Garnet stands above the cloud layer on top of a hill, the mist writhing before him as he stands and whispers to the sky, ‘Thank you, world.’
Written by Heather Lune
A Play, A Pie and a Pint at Òran Mór is one of the most iconic regular events that takes place in Glasgow. For your ticket, you are given a small-scale performance with up to three actors, alongside a beverage and your lunch to enjoy as you watch.
Recent themes in the current season of plays have included sci-fi and political satire, but for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, in association with Luminate, a new play Descent was performed six times over consecutive days, promising an accurate account of dementia and its struggles. I was intrigued: how would such a serious health issue be conveyed among more light-hearted plays in such a basic form?
One set and three characters were all that was needed. The play followed Rob (Barrie Hunter), an architect who is developing dementia. His wife Cathy (Wendy Seager) and young adult daughter Nicola (Fiona MacNeil) are forced to deal with his downfall and both have different methods on how to do so. Rob goes from a spontaneous, fun-searching worker to being paranoid, scared of change and unable to remember the most basic tasks. Admittedly, I went into the play without knowing much at all about the dementia. All I knew was that the person will suffer memory loss. But after a quick Google search, I was greeted with the synonyms ‘insanity’ and ‘lunacy’.
Thankfully, Descent showed both those synonyms to be wrong. It truly educated me, and, more than likely, many audience members, about the true reality of living with dementia. Along with forgetfulness, there can be frustration, lack of logic and a complete change in personality. Hunter portrayed the role of a sufferer accurately. At the beginning of the play, his character Rob showed no effects of the illness and the audience even laughed when he started falling into memory loss.
A game of Trivial Pursuit between the characters where Rob claims that England won the World Cup in 1066 gained the most laughter of all. However, the more serious his condition became and the more he forgot, the less we were laughing. After Cathy has to pick him up from work for the umpteenth time because he has forgotten how to drive his car, the message becomes clear: dementia is a serious, life-changing illness.
Seager and MacNeil also played their characters excellently. The mother and daughter duo argue numerous times over how Rob should be treated. Cathy is adamant he should be looked after at home, while Nicola believes he should be taken into a nursing home. They conveyed the struggle of family members looking after a loved one who does not want to be looked after and their characters generated the most tears among the audience.
Written by Linda Duncan McLaughlin and directed by Allie Butler, Descent was a realistic portrayal of dementia. We finally live in a world where mental health conditions, including dementia, are being counted as real illnesses, and productions like Descent are helping to educate on the warning signs. The play’s true message is that no one should have to go through dementia alone and help needs to be there when they need it.
Written by Rebecca Cook
Having completed its run at Òran Mór, A Play, A Pie & A Pint continues with Descent at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh until Sat 24 Oct, with an additional evening performance at 7pm on Fri 23 Oct.
At this event at Milngavie Library and Community Centre, the audience were treated to two speakers, Karen Cowley, recently appointed Chief Executive of the Scottish charity Action on Depression, and Stockton-on-Tees born novelist John Nicholson.
Action on Depression aims to provide support to sufferers of depression, raise awareness of the condition, inform people of the various treatment options and self-help courses that are available to them, and remove the stigma that surrounds mental ill-health. Karen presented some facts and figures about how significantly attitudes towards mental health have changed in recent years, and, more importantly, how much work is still to be done.
John Nicholson’s talk followed Karen’s presentation and gave his own personal insight into living with and coping with depression. He explained how he was able to turn to writing fiction as a way of not only making money, but also as a way to cope with and treat his depression.
I caught up with John after the event had broken up to ask him about his experiences of stigma, the fear of coming out and being open about his depression:
‘Guys are kind of brought up in this culture of emotional repression. So if you're struggling, it's almost like: a. you wouldn't want to admit it to yourself; and b. you certainly wouldn't want to talk to anyone else about it.
‘Especially when you're younger, you just think it's the least sexy thing to say: “Actually, I'm struggling to get through a day.” Who wants to hear that? So you just keep it to yourself.
‘That's why people like my books, I think, because they just empathise. They see things that they've had to go through in them, that's why they're almost grateful that I've written it, which is a great honour for me. It's a privilege to write for people, to express something that really may be deeply hidden in their lives.’
I then asked him to say a little bit about why he started to write fiction:
‘I started writing the fiction three years ago and I write incredibly quickly. I've written ten novels in 34 months, which is incredible, I know, it's part of my mania. I write them in two months and edit them and proofread them in a third month.
‘It is clear to me that this has been building up all my life, and that this is my time to do it. I'm like vomiting it all out, it's sort of projectile literary vomiting.
‘Part of that is the recognition that it's hard to sell a lot of books, of any one book. So if you have a lot of books and you sell a few of all of them, then that way you can make a living.'
I then asked John about the effect he has felt knowing that people read and respond to him books:
‘Being read, and being understood, is very therapeutic I think. It's very self-justifying, it helps you think that you're not a useless git. You just think that, “well, I've got something”.
‘The people who read them really do love them, and I hear from them every day and it's very touching.
‘It's a very intimate thing being a writer. There's only you and the reader in the room, so you're there with them, often in quite an intimate situation, they're sitting in bed sometimes, you know? And that's a sort of privilege I like to respect really. So for people to take time just to say, “I loved it”, is a beautiful thing.’
Written by Andy Revill
For more information on Action on Depression, visit their website.
For more information on John's writing or to purchase one of his books, visit his website.
Three authors scooped distinguished prizes at the Scottish Mental Health Film and Arts Festival’s 2015 Writing Awards. With over 120 entries to the competition this year, the judges worked together to whittle them down to a final twelve, and the shortlisted writers showcased their pieces during the ceremony. Commendations were handed out to Douglas Nicholson and Clare Blackburne, while the top prize was presented to writer Harry Stigner for her moving short story ‘Selkie’.
The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival’s second annual Writing Awards ceremony took place on Thursday evening at St George’s Tron Church in Glasgow. Held in conjunction with Bipolar Scotland, the event was hosted by Times journalist Kenny Farquharson, who was joined by fellow judges Bipolar Scotland chair and author Gordon Johnston, Glasgow University lecturer Dr Elizabeth Reeder and celebrated screenwriter Donna Franceschild.
In total, twelve entries were shortlisted and three prizes dished out on the night. One top prize was up for grabs and two submissions were singled out as highly commended. The evening kicked off with an enlightening couple of songs from local musician Shambles Miller.
The first commendation was to Douglas Nicholson, a director for Health in Mind in Edinburgh. Picking up the prize on his behalf was his colleague Doreen Graham. His poem ‘Lutine Bell’ told the tale of the HMS Lutine that sadly sank. It focused on the symbolism of the ship’s bell salvaged from the wreck, ringing once if lost or twice if found again. It portrayed deeper meanings, looking to understand how individuals with mental health problems can also find themselves lost and without hope but ultimately that doesn’t mean that in time they won't find their way back.
Delighted to be receiving the award on behalf of Douglas, Doreen said: ‘I’m sure Douglas will be doing cartwheels knowing he has won an award for the poem. It was a privilege to read it for him and the whole event has been so special. He’s written this poem with immense insight into how mental health can actually affect someone’s life and the highs and lows that brings, but I know he’ll be so thrilled his words have meant so much to so many people.’
Also commended on the night was Clare Blackburne, a well-travelled writer who spent the last nine years in Asia. ‘A Letter to V.’ was another highlight of the night, written and performed by Clare. The poem bore themes of madness and greatness intertwined, referring to the powerful legacy of Vincent Van Gogh, affectionately known as V. Clare’s passion proved cathartic in this instance as she took home the other award. It engaged, enthralled and explored the deeper Latin definition of what passion really is, the love but also the suffering.
The outright winner from the Writing Awards this year was London based author Harry Stigner. The 28-year-old studied the craft of writing but only recently felt she had the confidence to enter into competitions and put herself out there. Her short story ‘Selkie’ encompasses aspects of her own experiences with mental ill-health, as well drawing on tradition and folklore.
In Glasgow for the night, before heading off to Madagascar for a six month beekeeping project, Harry spoke to me about what winning meant to her. She said: ‘It feels like a bit of a contract now, I need to take my writing seriously and no longer be embarrassed by sharing it with people, and that’s one thing the course I was on taught me.’
Reflecting on what inspired the story behind ‘Selkie’ Harry continued: ‘It’s hard to pinpoint but I feel like that there is a bit of me in all of the characters. I did go swimming in the border of Norfolk and Suffolk and there was a seal in the water, and at the time I was struggling with depression.
‘I later then heard the folklore about what a Selkie is, a “seal woman”, who becomes a woman for a time and then goes back to the seal, but I don’t know who I identify with most in the story. It’s either the daughter or the mother but there are parts of me in both of them. I can’t explain it but it felt like an analogy for how I was feeling at the time.
‘Every other person I’m close to in my life has experienced mental ill health and they are creative people and I think this festival is so empowering and so many beautiful things have come from it.’
The shortlist as a whole had a wide ranging spectrum of talent from heartfelt letters to moving poetry. Poems performed on the night included a recital of ‘close’ by Eileen Taylor. It was rich with meaning and intense in its delivery, exploring metaphorical doors that open up for us and then close again, striking vivid imagery throughout.
Across the pond in New York, Michelle Chen wrote the equally moving poem 'November', read on the night by Donna Franceschild. Aged only 16, the young writer was inspired by events at home in New York and using powerful imagery depicts two weeks spent in a Manhattan hospital, reiterating the notion: ‘I'm not crazy, just a little unwell.’
Another four poems added weight to the strength of entries this year. ‘Passion’ was the title for two, the first an enlightening exploration of what a panic attack can feel like, really brought to life by the performance of the young and talented Reyah Martin. It was delightfully dazzling and every breath was shared with the audience.
David Subacchi from Wrexham was unable to make the trip, but his passionate piece was shared by judge Gordon Johnston.
The Glasgow audience were not left disappointed as Brian Reid from Beith delivered his poem ‘kiss’ in local Ayrshire vernacular.
It wasn’t just an event to showcase poetry though with a couple of heartfelt letters also striking a chord. Young blogger and fashion design student Aymie Black stood up and read out 'Letter to my Sixteen Year Old Self', touching on the themes of relationships and how depression was triggered by an early breakdown. It was emotional and left many to perhaps reflect on what they would write back to a younger version of themselves.
‘Dear Mum’ by Lubna Kerr explored the difficulty of discussing emotions in Pakistani culture, loss and bridging that gap when your comfort blanket goes. A tear-jerking piece, it left a distinct impression about what can happen when you lose your drive and direction.
Playwright Jen McGregor shared an excerpt from her short story ‘Old Woman with Masks’, dedicated to parents Bill and Jackie. It is built around the idea that life is an intricately carved mask where we can hide our real persona and be who we want to be. Narrated by an older woman, it brought up harsh realities about loneliness, the end of life but ultimately making every moment count.
English teacher Alyson Lawson from Glasgow was unable to attend due to work commitments but her story 'Vicious Little Stars' was a vivid portrayal of the cruelty of children.
All entries were well received and the winners worthy of their titles. The awards continue to grow and Gordon Johnston from Bipolar Scotland hopes the event will keep making an impact in the future: ‘This is the fourth year we’ve run the competition and it’s definitely been the best standard of all of them.
‘All the winners were all very different and what we loved about ‘Selkie’ was the ambiguous ending. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the three or four endings and what was the one that was meant and I think that’s a real strength from an author to be able write something that makes sense but leave things still open for interpretation.’
Written by Holly McCormack
It is now widely acknowledged that exercise can be helpful as a way to manage mild to moderate depression and anxiety. Doctors can now prescribe exercise, in the first instance, when presented with symptoms of these disorders.
The impact of exercise on mental health conditions is generally considered to be due to the increase in levels of the body’s ‘feel good’ chemicals, endorphins. However, other theories do exist, including the notion that, during physical exertion, the muscles produce an enzyme that purges the blood of a substance which accumulates during stress. No conclusive evidence exists, but whether it is because of something physiological, the boost to self-esteem, the sense of achievement, or simply the distraction from those dark thoughts and feelings, most people who experience these conditions will agree that exercise goes some way to alleviating stress and some symptoms of depression.
For me, running was hugely helpful in coping with generalised anxiety disorder and depression, which have been part of my life for some years. It was my first visit to the doctors that brought home to me how keeping active was vital to my mental wellbeing. ‘Have you tried exercise?’ my doctor asked. With very little thought and a slightly dismissive reaction, I assured her that I was a fit and active twenty-something. But the realisation began to dawn on me that, although I was involved in numerous sports as a teenager and into my early twenties, my current lifestyle had dismissed any physically active pursuits other than picking up a guitar or going for the occasional walk. So, I began to reintroduce them. Still hugely socially anxious, meeting new people was fairly terrifying, so team sports were out of the question. So, once I was able to summon up the motivation, I started running as a means to managing my mental health. For me, it really was a case of ‘healthy body, healthy mind’.
Promoting a more active lifestyle to sufferers of depression can have numerous benefits, not least encouraging social interaction and generally getting out and about, at times when the motivation to do so is so hard to come by. Mischief La-Bas, a highly innovative theatre company that seeks to directly engage with people by ‘taking themselves to their audience’ rather than vice versa, have an ethos and approach perfectly suited to tackling the stigma that still surrounds mental ill-health. And in their ‘Take the Black Dog Out on a Walk Tour’ they do just that. Des and Liz Mahagow, two running enthusiasts and black dog walkers are touring the nation, replete with day-glo running gear and black dog in tow. Represented by a stuffed toy dog on this occasion, the ‘black dog’ has long been an effective euphemism for depression, and here it serves as the perfect counterweight to Des and Liz’s colourful and zany personas.
Far from preaching about exercise, however, the whole endeavor is more symbolic; an endorsement to put our mental health problems out there in the open, display them for discussion and share each other’s experiences, all with the hope that this airing of our struggles in public can challenge those washed-out stigmas that still cause many sufferers to stuff our problems down into the sock drawer or hide them away at the back of our closets.
Many similar schemes exist, which seek to combine promoting a more active lifestyle with a forum for dialogue about mental health issues. Mental health awareness ‘community walks’ have begun to spring up all over the country, providing networks for people to chat, share or just act as a visible show of solidarity while you stretch your legs.
Des and Liz’s presence at this year’s Festival is hugely inspiring. They are symbolic standard bearers, adorned in bright sportswear, exuding positivity with wide infectious smiles; they are the visual antithesis of the ‘black dog’. Yet at the same time, they can be seen as champions of this complex beast. Many who live with the ‘black dog’ will tell you that they wouldn’t live without some of its characteristics: introspection, a constantly questioning impulse, or a sparring partner for their creativity. But, like all dogs, it needs constant exercise, room to breathe and frequent dialogue. Only then will the black dog be easier to live with.
Written by Tom Grayson
Follow Des and Liz's Take the Black Dog Out on a Walk Tour through their Twitter page and at Festival events across the country until Sat 31 Oct.