All rather depressing

So the roving eye of the British public moves on.  Bored of ‘occupy’, bored of bankers and bored of arguments over who’s being racist on twitter (for the moment), it settles on the issue of depression, and depression in sport in particular.  

Gary Speed kicked it all off when he went and hung himself.  It was as shocking as it was surprising.  That day, twitter was full of the standard ‘RIP Gary’, but was also inundated with messages urging people to spread the awareness about depression.  This seemed odd; no valid reason has ever been suggested as to why Gary Speed would take his own life, and yet the twitter-ati clearly decided that it was an open and shut case, and the D word needed to get out.  This made no more sense than the average man in the street, who upon hearing about a plane crash, immediately campaigns for greater public awareness of testicular cancer.

Depression does seem to affect a large number of sportsmen, and the incidences of suicide (especially in cricket) are certainly higher than most other professions.  Marcus Trescothick’s well publicised battle with the disease is a case in point, and it’s clear that many sportsmen struggle to cope with life once their playing careers are finished.  Ex-Hull City striker Dean Windass spoke to the Guardian this week, keen to admit (possibly as catharsis) that he was ‘close to ending it all’ this week.

I’m not an expert, but the link between sportsmen and depression seems to make sense.  The weight of public expectation, the mighty highs and cavernous lows and the ‘back to earth with a bump’ that accompanies the end of one’s playing career would indeed cause some of the less robust personalities to struggle to deal with the harsh realities of ‘real’ life.  I was amazed that a colleague of mine chose to rail against this phenomena, expressing utter contempt for these sufferers and an amazement that they could be afflicted in this manner, given that they were performing in a role that many ordinary folk would give their eye-teeth to take on.  ‘Let them go and meet the maimed soldiers from Afghanistan’ she wailed, ‘then they’d know how lucky they are’.  I’m pretty sure this is not how depression works.  It would be easy to snap out of things if all one had to do was to be introduced to someone more worthy and/or more unlucky.  I’m sure that the bi-polar Stephen Fry is aware that he is a clever, successful man, and very much the nation’s favourite uncle.  This doesn’t seem to make him snap out of the medical condition with which he is afflicted.

As if to satisfy the public’s curiosity with all things depressive, and hot on the heels of Gary Speed, came Andrew Flintoff, who opened his heart on his depressive past.  Less convincing this one: his depression apparently co-incided with his only tour as England captain.  As England slumped to only their second ever 5-0 Ashes defeat, and their first for 85 years, Flintoff admitted that he had felt down and had struggled to get out of bed in the morning.  He had even started to drink too much.  None of this seemed all that surprising.  Legendary boozer Flintoff had carried on boozing.  He had also felt pretty low and gutted that his team were being comprehensively thrashed.  This isn’t a depressive episode, it’s just a bad day (or few weeks) at the office.  Miraculously, this depressive episode seemed to pass once England started playing a little better.

Fintoff’s mate Steve Harmison has now chipped in, blaming his lack of form on foreign pitches on depression.  ‘I didn’t realise it at the time, but that’s what it must have been’.  Give it a label Steve, just to make yourself feel better.

The saddest thing of all is that many people do need to change their opinion of his disease, which is misunderstood and brushed under the carpet all too often.  However, the more that celebrities trivialise depression and use it merely as a catch-all label to magic away the natural lows of their profession, the more that it will remain misunderstood.  Ironically, by bringing it into the public eye in this manner, it is likely to provide just a few minutes of pub chat, and less likely to kick-start any worthwhile debate on the issue.  

It’s all just so depressing.    

Familiarity and contempt

I’ve used the Stephen Fry expression to describe friendship before. The Nation’s favourite Wildean uncle claimed that he ‘likes to taste his friends, not eat them’. Aside from the obvious innuendo, it’s a sentiment with which I agree. Some of my favourite people are those that I don’t see for a couple of years, and when we do meet up, it’s like we’ve never been apart. I’ve just spent a week in the states with a friend I hadn’t seen for 3 years (we keep up only through twitter) and it led to some of the most enjoyable, entertaining and easiest conversation you could imagine. Some people like to surround themselves with a small group of close friends, and these people act like a kind of social comfort blanket. Friendship lines are drawn, everyone knows which topics are there to be debated and which are off-limits, opinions are generally well-known, and conversation can be dominated with everyday chit-chat.

I’m certainly not saying that the better I know people, the less I like them, or even the less interesting I find them; I do consider however that the friendship of those people that I rarely converse with and meet up with even less often can be just as valuable. It’s like music and books. Some books you are happy to read and re-read, and there’s some music that you never tire of listening to. There are other books that you loved first time around, but you have no desire to read again, at least not in the immediate future. Some music is like this too; I love it, and then I love re-discovering it, but only at a much later date.

As I’m on holiday at the moment, I’ve had the opportunity to do quite a lot of reading. I’ve been reading a couple of authors that I thought I liked a lot: Malcolm Gladwell and Jay McInerney. The more I’ve read of them, the less I like them. Maybe that’s a little strong, but the less interest I have in them; their freshness is notable by its absence. In McInerney’s case, I’ve read him pretty much chronologically, starting with the fantastic ‘Bright lights, Big City’. His later novels (less so the short stories) resemble less good versions of his earlier work. The themes are similar, the humour more forced, the material less fresh. People say that you write about what you know, but he seems to have written about all that he knows in the first couple of books, and has spent much time re-hashing old material after that. Gladwell is more odd, because I read Outliers (2008), then What the dog saw (2009) then his breakthrough novel The Tipping Point (2000). Gladwell certainly has a brilliant easy-reading style, and it has been said of him that he ‘makes you feel as though you are the genuis’. It’s a very leading style though, and many of the conclusions that he comes to, which appear watertight at first, do not stand up to any kind of rigorous scrutiny. His standard technique is to take a one-off event, re-tell it as an incredibly entertaining story, and then to draw far reaching conclusions from this single event that usually challenge general thinking on the subject. Thought and discussion-provoking certainly, but hard evidence? almost certainly not. The more I read, the more I feel that I’m being worked on, albeit very gently, into believing the genius of Gladwell, and I find that irritating, and just a little bit subversive.

This isn’t the case with all authors. If one reads Orwell chronologically, things culminate with 1984, and all of his other writing and experiences feel like a build-up to this. It helped that he died young, and knew that he was dying, and maybe that’s the key: to die before one’s output starts to tail off. Morrison, Dean, Fitzgerald have nothing duff in their back catalogue; they simply didn’t have time. Conversely, the longer that Jagger or McCartney hang on, the more hapless the material they produce has become. This is similar with Dave Grohl, who sounds more like un-edgy bad Nirvana with each album. I used to think that Dali was a genius, until you realise that you’ve seen all the good stuff in the first 10% of his output, and the rest of his career was a re-hash of former ideas.

Perhaps there’s a limit to creativity, and it’s best to stop when you feel genuine creation is harder to come by. Bowie and Picasso manage to stay creative forever by continual re-invention. They are the genuine outliers; these are people with whom one can be fully familiar, and feel nothing but admiration for their genius.