Sunday, 7 October 2012

It may never happen...

I was watching some excerpts of one of Ross Kemp's programmes on Sky One the other day. I can't remember what the series is called, but it must be something like "Ross Kemp Visits Some Real Shit Holes", because the abject poverty and desperate tales of abuse and destitution were genuinely distressing and very moving. It's so easy to forget that even in present day Britain or the US, there are people whose lives are based around survival in the most squalid conditions.

In one scene, Kemp visited a man living in an abandoned, hurricane damaged house in New Orleans. Was it living in conditions, that even the least fussy rat would object to, that had lead to him suffering from what were clearly severe mental health problems? Or was it this very illness that had lead him there in the first place? Probably a combination of the two, creating a very viscous circle.

Thankfully, as often seems to be the way even in the most desperate of conditions, a group of volunteers tended to this unfortunate chap and the many others like him. It was genuinely humbling to see the essence of human spirit that deep down, cares for those less fortunate than ourselves, in action. For every Mark Bridger, there are many many more decent people who are actively supporting various good causes and it does my heart good to remember this.

Kemp spoke with one of these outreach workers and described that among the many other dreadful things that people like the mentally ill chap had to endure, was living an existence that was not even as good as 'day-to-day' but more like 'second-to-second'.

Now, I know exactly what he meant by this and it's true that a situation devoid of hope like this one, is impossible for most of us to imagine. But the phrase 'living day-to-day' and it's even uglier cousin, 'second-by-second', reminded me of the times that people have said that to me as they've sympathised with a predicament that I've been in - usually the pain caused by chronic ill health.

But in actual fact, illness and all the other various mental and emotional pains we humans get to experience during a typical lifetime, have given me plenty alongside the bits they've apparently taken away. One of the greatest gifts is actually the very thing which most people use to label unfortunate people in an undesirable situation, and that is 'living moment by moment'.

Far from being some kind of affliction, it has actually brought the greatest freedom imaginable. My experience has been that releasing my aspirations to achieve certain goals in the future that would yield happiness once achieved, and instead focusing my attention on what's happening right here, right now, has revealed a really quite magical world where happiness and many other positive emotions bubble up to be enjoyed immediately.

I'm not saying it's all a wonderful rose garden. Sometimes sitting quietly whilst taking notice of what's here is extremely unpleasant. But by giving it our full attention, you do get to see it for what it is. Somehow this lessens it's power and I have found this to be genuinely healing.

It's not always easy to keep focused on the present moment. Our minds appear to be predestined to try and run off and imagine various possibilities and fantasies that are anywhere but right here. We live in a culture where this is seen as normal and often encouraged - especially through aspirational marketing that is so prevalent.

At one time, this may have been part of a survival mechanism in order to help cut off the myriad of possible dangers faced by early man, before they happened.

And even now, it's nice to let your mind go and play with various concepts and have fun in an imaginary world. But when it does this of its own accord, all of the time, and dwells on worries and possible calamities, it ain't half wearing. I have found that being able to choose to spend a little while back 'here' is amazingly nourishing and therapeutic.

I had found myself scrabbling towards this conclusion myself, when, towards the end of the nineties, the Universe gave me a big old helping shove in the right direction.

I was in a bookshop when suddenly, a book actually appeared to come off the shelf and float in front of me! I think this was actually because of my eye moving rapidly from one place to another in quick succession rather than anything more mystical, but it got my attention nonetheless.

The book was called The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle (for Londoners, you may know it as 'The Pah of Nah'). The title was a little bit off putting to start with. Usually a book in the self-help section with the word 'Power' in it suggests how you can harness something to achieve your own goals; to basically get your own way. But I still felt drawn to it and in actual fact, you couldn't find a book less centred on letting the ego try to run your world.

It's focus is on just observing what's happening, right now, in a non-judgemental way. It's about accepting what's happening as it is. For me, it was such a relief to find someone with a point of view that was similar to my own - I was fed up and worn out trying to get the world to fit in with the way I wanted things to be.

I must have bought about two dozen copies for friends and family over the years. Whatever your situation, these are just some guiding words to encourage you to take notice of what's happening right now. You don't have to buy into any belief system. In fact belief, or faith are completely irrelevant here. It's all about your own practical experience, right now. Don't rely on what anyone else tells you is good or bad or any other judgemental label, just be aware of what you're doing, of what's going on.

I like how right now, I am typing these words on my iPad on a Sunday afternoon. And yet also right now, you are reading these words, whenever that may be. It could be days, weeks or years in between these two events in our conventional understanding of time. But ultimately, they both happen right now. Everything happens right now. There is nothing other than right now. You can imagine your next holiday, or you can relive the one you had last year, but what's really happening is that you're sat there, accessing various parts of your brain in the present moment.

Despite our very best efforts, we can never escape now. So spend a while focusing on what's here and let it be.

If any of this resonates with you, why not check out the book for yourself? (available here on Amazon for example)

There are many other helpful guides like this, but I have found it to be the best introduction to, what for many of us, is a very different way of looking at things.

There is also a 'lite' version called Practising The Power Of Now which strips down the essence of the original book into more digestible bite-sized pieces for those who prefer it that way.

These books are also available on Kindle and iBooks etc.

Whether you're blissfully happy, or going through some kind of turmoil, I really hope that these, or the philosophy they contain, help reveal a new dimension within your own life, like I found they did in mine.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

What's that coming over the hill, is it a monster? Kind of! It's Uncle Toby (and he's not even bothered to clean it up)

Why, who is this kindly old fellow with a peculiar dress sense and a keen desire to make youngsters happy. No! It’s not Sir Jimmy Saville, but good old Uncle Toby.

Just to clarify for those of you who have asked; no, Uncle Toby does not offer a range of rice or stir-in sauces. You're muddling him with Uncle Ben. Blimey, how could you get confused by that, they’re not even the same race for crying out loud! 

Anyway, let's get on board the Troubled Bus and steer it away from the Cliff of Despair and back towards the calm gentle waters of Solution Beach.

Today's first problem comes from Jen in 'The Independent Free State of Cornwall'. So, that's Cornwall then:

Dear Uncle Toby,

I'm 18 years old and have just moved away from home to start the next phase of my life at university. I come from a small village where everyone knows everybody else, so moving to a large city is really scary! My mum is naturally concerned about my welfare and has warned me in particular about a thing called 'date rape'. I didn't want to appear stupid or worry her by admitting I didn't know what that was - please could you explain?

Jen xx
P.S. Thanks for your daily emails, inviting me to come to stay with you if I'm feeling lonely and vulnerable.

Hi Jen, you're welcome. I'm always here for you (unless you turn out to be a bit of a gargoyle - in which case, you're on your own).

Date rape is quite a sticky subject, but I'll do my best to handle it with my trademark tact and care.

What it basically consists of is getting the small, fleshy fruit of a palm tree and inserting it (or indeed several of them) into a lady's love passages, without their prior consent.

This is obviously a very invasive experience and most sadly of all, ruins what would otherwise be a perfectly good snack.

If you should be unfortunate enough to suffer with a date rape, be aware when cleaning out the debris that they do contain quite a large stone, so make sure you remove this before resuming normal activities down below.

Stay safe.

Onto our next correspondent, T from 'just over there':

Dear Uncle Toby,

Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy day to help us normal, troubled people with our crappy little problems.

Last week I tweeted a joke that contained the words 'whore' and 'slag'. Whilst I appreciate these are unpleasant ways to address ladies in the real world, I thought that on Twitter within the context that I used them, they wouldn't cause genuine offence. 

The joke was supposed to be on a man who would really use such words, and not intended to be derogatory in any way. Whilst many females found this funny in the way it was intended, alas some ladies didn't see it like that and took great offence, suggesting that I had committed a crime towards the female species that's the equivalent of directing racial abuse at ethnic minorities and that I had contributed to the oppression of women by using these terms. 

The intent behind these attempts at humour couldn't have been further away from the way they were interpreted by some and I regret having caused this upset. Some of my best friends are women. I'd be grateful for your thoughts on this thorny issue.

Thanks in advance for your limitless wisdom,
T x (that's a kiss by the way, and not my second initial as if my surname were Xavier or something).

Hi T, thanks for getting in touch. From the tone of your question, it seems obvious that you genuinely didn't mean to cause any harm. Unfortunately, getting the 'spirit' of a joke across in a tweet is extremely hard and is always open to misinterpretation.

It is really important that mankind offers nothing but absolute respect to females (or 'bitches' as they prefer to be called). Life gives them plenty to deal with after all, what with not only having to put up with periods and childbirth, but also cooking, cleaning, not watching football and having smaller brains.

If they want to dress like a prostitute, that's their choice and I for one, wouldn't try to stop them.

Finally tonight, here's one from thingy in somewhere or other:

Dear Uncle Toby,

I am a mid-twenties woman who suffers greatly from shyness and social anxiety. I don't know why, but people never seem to notice me and I often get ignored. Is there anyway I can overcome this and make more of an impact? It's such a relief to finally be able to share my problems with somebody like you who is such a great listener.

Many thanks,
Blahdy blah.

*checks watch*

*finishes sudoku*

And that's all we've got time for tonight folks! Remember to keep sending your problems in. No matter how big or small, I'm ready to help you (assuming I'm not prevented from doing so because of legal proceedings against me - so nothing involving small rodents, milk bottles or Vaseline just now thanks).

Monday, 1 October 2012

My big day out! (part 3 of 3 unless I do a Director's Cut) - The Main Event

Welcome to the next thrilling instalment of my adventures in London with my glamourous sidekick, Keira Husky. You may like to familiarise yourselves with our railway journey (where we nearly got gassed to death on the tube) and our expedition across tower bridge (where we nearly got drowned to death my sea monsters). In summary, against all the odds, we had somehow made our way to the Design Museum in one piece...

We were directed up toward the '1.5 gallery', where the photography exhibition was taking place. I'm not sure if that's pronounced the 'one point five gallery', the 'one and a half gallery', the 'three divided by two gallery' or what. But it's obviously very cool and sophisticated. 

After being greeted by several ladies with clipboards who checked off our names in triplicate, we were offered a choice of drinks. Alas they had no Guinness or beer, so it was champagne for Keira and fruit juice for myself.

I was then taken over to where my picture was displayed and had my photograph taken with it by the official event photographer. For the first time in his career, he had encountered someone who blinked every single time he used his flash.

After the seventh failed attempt, we agreed that a higher ISO setting might have to be used instead of the flash. I was hoping that the extra grain this might bring to the image, may help hide the sweat and raindrops that were still nestling on my ample forehead. The dress code for the event was 'smart / casual', but at that point I was more 'clammy pile of shit'.

We were then asked to go around and vote for our favourite picture in each of the categories. Although this seemed straightforward enough, my admin assistant Keira Husky, found it more challenging than I had hoped. There was quite a bit of crossing out in order for our chosen photograph titles to actually end up in the right section of the voting slip. I now see why champagne is not available in office drinks machines.

One of the highlights of the night for me was that a string of attractive young waitresses (and one Korean dude) would come around with platefuls of unidentified, but very tasty, posh nosh. Suddenly, the whole concept of pretentious ponciness which once repulsed me, seemed bloody fantastic! Looking at nice pictures with a limitless supply of drink and tasty food, all whilst overlooking a beautiful part of London, was a wonderful way to spend one's time.

After doing some mingling, eating, sitting, drinking and more eating, I suddenly heard a very familiar voice. Had someone switched the radio on? No! Reggie Yates was actually in the room! He was looking very cool and dapper. Well almost. There was one exception to his attire that just didn't seem to fit in with the rest of his look - he was wearing slippers.

Now, as regular readers of my twitter feed will know, I recently bought a new pair of slippers myself and have really fallen in love with just how comfortable they are (non twitter folk, if hearing that you're missing out on that kind of insight into my life doesn't make you want to join up and follow me, I don't know what will). But really? Slippers? Smart / casual? This event wasn't like popping over the road for a paper and some milk.

What really completed this look was the fact that they had a skull and crossbones on. I would have loved some of these...when I was six! *bitch face*

So, despite that fact that he was wearing little boy slippers which, to my mind didn't really go with the rest of his look (bear in mind that I'm an avid viewer of Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model, so I think I know a little bit about style), the first thing I said to him when I had the chance was, "Hi Reggie, great to meet you. I LOVE your shoes!". Honestly, I can be so two faced.

Slippers aside, Reggie was an absolutely lovely guy. No doubt he was being paid to be there and mingle with us all, but he couldn't have been more friendly or patient. Keira and I had a really good chat with him and he seemed a genuinely decent chap. I would like to be his mate and hang out with him (especially when he goes shoe shopping - I could have helped him out there).

The other guest of honour in attendance, was Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding. She was completely different to Reggie. She spent the whole night following me around, telling me how good my photograph was and touching my knee whilst whispering things things like, "I've got a feeling Tower Bridge won't be the only thing going up tonight".

I felt bad that the other guests weren't having much of a chance to speak with her and eventually, when she had got in between me and the tasty food once too often, she was asked to leave. It was horrible to see her cry like that, but it was for the best - if we were together, it would only have been a matter of time before she introduced me to the other members of Girls Aloud and, unless she was willing to share me, her heart would have gone through even more pain.

As the evening went on and the champagne flowed, the occasion grew louder and louder. Keira was kindly drinking my share of the fizz (and also that of the twelve guests who hadn't been able to make it). There was a really nice atmosphere and it was a great experience to be able to chat to the other entrants who were refreshingly normal.

My previous experience that people from the north of England and most of Wales are the friendliest in the country, was proved once again, although Keira and I did our bit as ambassadors for the south. In fact, one of the Welsh guys there was especially friendly towards Keira and would have been that extra special kind of friendly given half a chance. Luckily having spent too much time hanging around with me, she's fairly used to batting away unwanted male attention and managed to escape unscathed.

The only downside of the night (aside from them not serving Guinness) was that we were desperately missing the third member of our Terrific Trio, Jessington Cupcake. Despite my best efforts at wangling a plus two, she gracefully stepped aside to let Keira enjoy the day. We both resolved that we would visit London again soon, but this time with Jess firmly in tow. Plus, Ms Cupcake also gets the consolation prize of an all expenses paid lunch (up to the value of £15, terms and conditions apply, no cash equivalent shall be given) with me.

At twenty minutes past the time that the event should have closed, they started to turn the lights out and a few minutes after that, actually booted us back down the stairs. It had been an amazing evening and the four and a bit hours we'd been there had flown by.

One question now remained; what shall we do with the drunken Keira? Actually, she was probably 'really quite tipsy' rather than 'blind drunk' but the journey back towards the tube station was very entertaining. Our mood was jolly and buoyant, and this made Keira decide to try and make fiends with as many random strangers as possible.

Thankfully, London is full of weirdos on a Friday night who responded to this quite well and took her in as one of their own.

On one occasion I had to restrain her from approaching a gang of feral looking youths with caps on at jaunty angles, which thankfully she thought better of. The only other restraint I urged her to show was when we were passing a fresh faced young policeman. Although that encounter passed off peacefully, she did manage to blurt out, "What are you, 12?" as we passed by.

Whilst we waited for Tower Bridge to return to its flaccid state after having been raised, I noticed that there were round floodlights set into the pavement which were shining brightly. But then I wondered, whether these may actually be teleport pads to get us across to the other side whilst the bridge wasn't available. I stood on one to try it out and even made teleport noises, but unfortunately, it appears that it was just a spotlight after all (unless it was faulty I suppose). I don't even have champagne to blame for this incident, although I guess I had been passively drinking Keira's all night.

One of my long standing memories of this night will be Keira stood by the automatic barriers at Waterloo underground station, waving her crumpled ticket in the air, saying "I need assistance!". It would seem that she wasn't the only one affected by the fizz and her ticket was too far over the limit to be of use any longer.

Thankfully the train back to Salisbury was far quieter than the one we had arrived on. The only incident of note was when a young couple started canoodling. The woman was being cradled in this guy’s arms like a baby. Then they started kissing. But wait, what’s going on? That’s not kissing. He’s actually sucking on her nose. Her nose! I nearly called the guard to stop such peculiarity, but they soon got off (the train, not the other way, at least so far as I could tell).

For the remainder of the journey home, we reminisced and laughed together about the evening we had just experienced, both unable to put into words quite how much we had enjoyed it. Despite having been on my best behaviour for most of the day, my mischievous (or 'dickish' side) did rear its cheeky head as I found myself hiding Keira's purse whilst she slept. I still don’t think she’s noticed the £20 that’s missing.