I am sitting outside the MacDonalds on Penistone Road in Sheffield waiting for my car to be serviced which will take around an hour and a half. I would love to say that I just ordered a tea and refused to pollute myself with fast food, but I could not resist. So my brunch was a quarter pounder and chips, and of course the cup of tea.Beautiful June sunshine is beating down and I am now sated with junk food, and beginning to scan around my surroundings. I am under the yellow arch of course, on a dual carriageway, a main artery; the A61 in and out of the city, the Morrison’s Supermarket sign announcing fuel for £1.08p a litre, a B&Q behind that, all orange and grey, further up are KFC and a Pizza Hut and rows and rows of cars for sale across the road at Evans Halshaw. I have spent a fair amount of time in the US and apart from the Britishness of the automobiles I could be in Phoenix, San Antonio or Albuquerque. One thing is different. I have just observed, the preponderance of trees, green trees. The great bank where the Ski Village used to be is wooded, the sides of the road is columned with sycamores, beeches and silver birch.
I am amazed at how many white vans have passed me to queue for the drive-thru, and in the courtyard where I am sitting I am now surrounded by young people, one is vaping like a steam train, all eating chips, and all their legs are jiggling under the tables as if preparing for a sprint. I’ve got another cup of tea and a strawberry and banana smoothie, who knew I could get so much naturally occurring sugar at MacDonalds. Everyone, including me has a phone on the table and many are staring at the screens as if waiting for some revelation , or to stave of the boredom of just sitting. Great hoardings advertise the coming Euro’s; the football championship that begins on Friday in France, by the end of which we may have voted to leave the EU. It would be ironic to win it and leave it at the same time! A new series on Fox/Sky entitled Outcast is advertised in front of me, Philip Glenister carrying a cross emblazoned bible leaving me wondering why he is cast out and then I see it is from the makers of The Walking Dead, a zombie infested show sporting more British actors who have gone to the states to make their fortune.
This is our culture, no matter how much I listen to Radio Four and hear about the latest Man Booker, Turner, Bafta prize winner telling us about the next dystopian, post apocalyptic world they are inviting us to contemplate this world under the Yellow Arch is a much more pervasive reality and there are times when it feels far more dystopian. The young lad’s digits sweep over the cracked screen of his blue iPhone 5 as he stares intently at the message he has just received and a young Mum plays a counting game with her daughter about how many chips she has left. Two blue lighted ambulances scream past towards some emergency and I remember my recent stay in hospital. As I was leaving I noticed in the vestibule, as I waited for the lift, a vending machine selling exclusively Coca Cola products. This felt and still feels insane to me. What seems most crazy to me is that no one seems to sense the irony enough to even raise it as an issue. Testament to the depressing reality that if you tell people a big enough lie with as much advertising and branding power as you can muster they will swallow it, literally.
One of the greatest drains on the NHS is the rise of sugar related disorders, my son Tom is type one diabetic and I remember going shopping to Tesco just after he was diagnosed (a Tesco Lorry is just passing) and there were whole aisles of foodstuffs he shouldn’t eat. Try a saunter up a cereal aisle and look at the sugar content of the so-called healthy breakfast offerings. And there right in the beating heart of the Royal Hallamshire, on every floor from A to Q; a Coke Machine. Now every bed has an extendable arm with a pay-per-view TV attached and I couldn’t help thinking as I watched mine, of the scene in the Matrix where Neo – the hero, discovers his whole existence is the matrix created hologram in his mind while his body sits in a pod providing energy, like a human battery, for the machines that have taken over.
As I write a little wagtail has comes to the empty table from whence the teenagers have departed, she gets a tasty chip for her audacity and flits back into the tree. Yet another ambulance sirens its way past me, raising the question in my mind – what is health? We have a National Health Service but what is it to be healthy? I have heard or seen numerous reports over the last couple of days about anxiety, something I have become expert in by dint of experience. A psychologist specialising in the subject was asked on the radio recently why he thought there was such an epidemic. He observed that once, not that long ago, the young like the little boy running his Mum ragged opposite me, would go into the work their parent’s did. If you were in Doncaster you would go down the pit, if you were in Port Talbot you would be a steel worker, if you were in Bradford or Manchester a Mill worker, or if you were a woman the semi slavery of the housewife. Now he said, ‘it was all to play for’. You might change tack five or six times in your life, you might move from accommodation, to flat, to house and back many, many times. So less settled, more demanding of mental, physiological and social agility, and this creates stress, he said, and if stress finds no resolution it becomes anxiety and if it lasts too long, it becomes a disorder.
As I prepare to leave this spot under the Yellow Arch I can feel the pressure and our pressing need to relieve it with everything that modern, neoliberal, market driven capitalism can offer. I don’t feel judgemental of this, I am part of it after all, I can still feel the weight of my quarter pounder in my stomach and soul, and it hasn’t soothed that restlessness I often feel deep in the currents of my shifting identity. I feel compassionate, what are we looking for so ardently, with such addictive passion? I remember a talk at a twelve step conference, given by a leading light in Narcotics Anonymous, he said that the addict is a deeply spiritual person; they are just focussing their attention on the wrong power source. He compared the Twelve Step program to the repositioning of a satellite dish. He said that the addict has the dish pointing in the wrong direction and that this ‘gunky’ power source had fouled up the set top box and all the equipment needed attention. The first step, however, was to get the dish onto a better power source. ‘A power greater than ourselves’ they call it, without prescribing what that might be for each person.
Right now a grandma and grandad have their granddaughter in her red and white pram and are handing her two cute cuddly toys, what catches me is the way they look at the little blond bundle with a straw hat framing her curls. Practical, deep, protective, sweet, patient and unquestioning love. There it is; a power greater than the addictive self.
My car should be ready now, and anyway the tea is free at the garage. Health is still on my mind, and then I remember this poem I wrote about the two poles of sanity and madness in my life and the lives I see around me, especially in a place like this. It comes down to appreciation and breathing, the incredible power of acceptance, like the little wagtail, of the moments that life serves up to us, like this ninety minutes of watching. These things wake us up from the zombie like sleep of the matrix and help us to live lives of faith-filled uncertainty.
Step One—I Am Mad
I am mad
to stand outside
on cold mornings
and smoke crafty cigarettes.
Then to take vitamins
and little pearls of garlic and cod-liver oil.
To run on a machine,
or tramp though the valley with my dogs.
I take blood pressure tablets,
feel the squeezing armband of my systolic over diastolic,
and always the tension of my madness.
This is the frontline
between my presence
or my disappearance from this world.
I wonder what would it be like
to relax and not hold the tension between the two?
Between mother and father,
harmful or healthy,
pressure and release.
To hold left and right,
dark and light,
to wait for the reconciling third— the one who walks between,
offering inner dilation,
Where life breathes over me
in moments of tranquility
without the need for nicotine.
Could this be the road of returning sanity?
The way to pass
through the aperture of freedom to an unforced future.
Where I no longer store
all that anxiety in my neglected body
and then have to medicate it.
Where I can breathe
it all out in a moment of relief.
Where the deepest breath will fill the lungs of my deepest me.