Running hard to stand still: Anxiety, writing & a world of confusion…

images (2)I sit at my PC. My hands hover over the keyboard, my mind trying hard to focus on the letters. I will them into words, sentences, paragraphs. I flick through my folders of research; the articles I must read, the chapters I have identified in the books taken  out of The London Library. But it isn’t right. It is never right. The words are there but they are not fit for purpose and refuse to get into shape. I switch to the internet, searching for inspiration on twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Nothing but distraction, they only add to a sense of frustration and an anxiety that increases as the minutes and hours pass.

I turn to the social media and blogging work I do for others – that is fine. My editing and proofreading work is going well. I am not letting clients down, just myself.

I stand up, stretch and try a change of scene, getting out the colouring books that still my mind.  Alternatively I take up the book I am currently reading, greedily turning pages of stories that take me away from my desk, the room, the house and ultimately the life I am living. The sun might be out, the day warm and the plants in pots close to where I sit offer a faint scent. All I can hear are gulls, light traffic noise and a sound akin to a roomful of anxious sleepers grinding their teeth, as my dog sits next to me chewing on an old bone.

What has happened? Shell Shocked Britain has been a success, as far as I can tell from reviews and comments following the many talks I have done. I have been commissioned to write two further books, both non-fiction and both on subjects that would usually fascinate me. They do still. But I can’t write. This blog post is the first I have written in weeks and it scares me. Everything scares me. and perhaps that is the problem.  As always, my favourite poet is wise beyond words:

….if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all…. (John Keats)

download (1)The world feels a frightening place at the moment, the very air we breathe charged with anxiety. Austerity, deprivation, radicalisation, dehumanisation, the race for technological progress at the expense of simple peace.  Clearly life is in real terms much more frightening for those fleeing war zones, fighting extremists, simply struggling to stay alive. But their fear seems to transmit around the globe with an intensity that touches my soul, and eats away at my sense of my own safety. My work on social media offers no protection from the tragedy and sadness that can strike even the happiest of communities, families, individuals. Illness, accident, the actions of the wicked, the thoughtless or the desperate that devastate and cut short lives – stories that are shared, retweeted, posted and reposted until our bodies become ticking time bombs and our families prey to the seeming whim of fate.

I return to my chair in front of the large, bright screen and the stream of words that taunt me, meaningless as they seem in the face of the tears that fall, the heart that races and the breath that comes in wretched little sobs. Anxiety is a condition for which I am prescribed a number of pills, but this doesn’t feel like a sickness that can be cured by any chemical. It is a symptom of a loss of control over the world I inhabit, of a sense of being done to, rather than doing. Reactive rather than proactive.

fallHow do those of us that struggle with mental health issues regain a sense of power over our destinies? Is it possible to surge forward once again when one has tripped and fallen behind the confident front-runners? I have lost my momentum and am struggling against a headwind; somehow I must pick up my pace once more, and fly (you can tell my family are in the next room, watching an athletics meeting on the TV….)

Does anyone else feel like this at the moment? The tiny space I occupy on the troubled globe seems a lonely place sometimes……

Posted in Books, Mental health, News, Work, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

In which I learn more about spiritualism in the Great War and need some help with ‘Theosophy’….

Whilst writing Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I became fascinated with the rejuvenation of the Spiritualist movement just before, during and after the Great War, on into the 1930s. People were so fascinated by the chapter in the book that dealt with the subject that I pitched an idea for another book to deal specifically with that subject, and how bereaved families turned to mediums and the spiritualist church in their thousands as a response to grief. That book has been commissioned and I am thrilled to have the chance to do more research on the subject.

Someone who has been a huge support to me as I try to find out more is Ian Stevenson, who has written on this blog twice before, most recently in response to a piece I wrote on spiritualism to highlight how people dealt with the psychological trauma of war. So, when I expressed some confusion about ‘theosophy’and its relationship to spiritualism, he offered to clarify things for me and I thought readers of my blog might be interested too… Here is a summary of his thoughts:


Blavatsky and Olcott in 1888

Theosophy means ‘The wisdom of the Gods’, and the Theosophical Society in England describes it as ‘the thread of truth in scriptures, creeds, symbols, myths and rituals. ‘ It is usually used to refer to teachings of the Theosophical Society founded in New York in 1875 by an American, Henry Olcott and a Russian noblewoman Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, usually called Madam Blavatsky, or HPB. Olcott was a Spiritualist but Blavatsky claimed to be a medium with psychic abilities and beliefs that caused disagreement with the Spiritualist Church. In her view mediums did not usually contact the real person who had died but a ‘shade’. In her view, once on the other side, the essential person began a process of life evaluation and progress to a new life. The personality of the life just left separated and became a shade. It could respond with the memory and characteristics of the deceased but it was not the real, essential person. After a while, it even lost the power to communicate and became a shell which drifted and eventually disintegrated. This did not go down well with the Spiritualists, who grappled with her controversial and often inconsistent views.

We think of the Victorian age as one of faith. In fact there were growing doubts and a survey in 1851 found that only half the population attended church-and that was a day the clergy did their best to ensure good attendance. The urban working class were the worst at attending church. The poem Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, published in the 1860s but probably composed earlier, refers to an ebbing of faith common to may intellectuals of the time. Blavatsky believed the mainstream churches had lost  deeper understanding of their faith and all people had were the doctrines, preached without real understanding.The motto of the Theosophical Society  is: “there is no religion higher than truth”, or that behind all the different faiths was a single reality, which could not be understood by reason alone.

The Theosophical Society has three aims or objects:

  1. To form a nucleus of the ‘Universal Brotherhood of Humanity’ without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.
  2. To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.
  3. To investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.
Annie Besant

Annie Besant

The Society played a major part in bringing Eastern thought to the West and providing alternatives to the Christian monopoly of religious thought. Many of the concepts of the New Age movement which flourished in the 1960s onwards, were first introduced by the Society. A key concept of Theosphism is that of re-incarnation and karma, along with the hidden or occult world and such ideas as  astral planes and mental planes of existence. Blavatsky wrote a number of books, notably The Secret Doctrine,  which influenced great names such as William Butler Yeats, Frank Baum (author of the Wizard of Oz), Paul Gauguin, Kandinsky, Klee, and Mahler. The emphasis on brotherhood and treating women as equals was, for its time, quite revolutionary, and in Britain an early leader was Annie Besant, prominent women’s rights activist and socialist, who married a clergyman. After reading the four gospel accounts of the crucifixion decided she could not believe in the inspired nature of the Bible and refused to take communion despite being ordered by her husband, from whom she later separated, to do so.

In 1920 Theosophy was debated at the Lambeth Conference, which the Anglican Church holds every ten years, along with Christian Science and Spiritualism. Of course, they could not approve of these movements. Many resolutions condemned them. Others, however, felt that they should, at least, be taken seriously. But there was no real attempt to create dialogue and today the church will speak with other mainstream religions but has little contact with alternative spiritual movements.

By the 1960s, other strands of spiritual thought were emerging e g. Transcendental meditation or Zen.  The emphasis of the New Age was on ‘bottom up’ spirituality and the individual finding their own path, drawing on ancient traditions, such as Gnostic Christianity and modern movements, such as the psychology of Carl Jung as well as modern science. The Theosophical Society  has a more dynamic presence in the USA and the British sections  have declined, though not disappeared.

My thanks to Ian for drawing my attention to the importance of Theosophy to our recent increased need to find a more spiritual path via meditation and mindfulness. It is a complex subject but I will look at the photos and discussions about Madame Blavatsky as a medium with greater interest and understanding of her motives. It is easy to call all mediums ‘frauds’ (Stephen Fry even called them that directly through the cameras of QI XL this week….) but some genuinely felt they had a gift, and a connection to whatever constitutes ‘the other side’. I am looking forward to examining the subject in more detail in my book!

Posted in Books, Guest posts, History, psychology, Shell Shocked Britain, spiritualism, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Guest post: A Nurse at the Front – Edith Appleton, WW1 nurse and diarist – by Dick Robinson

Today I am really pleased to welcome Dick Robinson to No wriggling out of writing. Many people have asked me about how the nurses who tended the wounded soldiers, and those men suffering from’shell shock’ coped with the trauma they experienced. I was contacted by Dick after I gave a talk on Shell Shocked Britain and I was fascinated by his story. Here he uses the diary written by his great aunt Edith Appleton (published as A Nurse at the Front) to offer a vivid description of a woman at war….

EdieHead12 September 1916:   “I sent 17 of my shell shocks off to Havre yesterday where they are to receive special treatment. Should have liked to keep them here – treating them will be very interesting. I got very sick of hospital rules yesterday and took Matron’s dog for a walk over the cliffs.  I was quite alone there and enjoyed it immensely; bathed, sat with not much on and my hair loose and read.”

Sister Edith Appleton served in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service in France throughout the First World War, often close to the front line. Somehow, amongst the carnage, she wrote a daily journal which has been transcribed to produce first a website ( and more recently a book (A Nurse at the Front) published by Simon & Schuster in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum.

As a child in the 1940s and 50s, I remember Edie as a rather strict elderly lady running a somewhat spartan post-WW2 house.  It has been a rewarding experience for me, a century after that terrible war, to rediscover the young woman in her thirties with a sense of humour, a strong sense of duty and a seemingly endless capacity for providing professional, but clearly loving, care.

In the Spring of 1915 Edie was located at No. 3 Casualty Clearing Station near Ypres.

April 28.  We were so much under fire since Saturday that on Monday night we were ordered to clear out in half an hour. We had operations on at the time and tried to become used to the explosions of a big shell close to us every 5 minutes, but it was difficult and my knees did shake.                   

So to-day, just for one day, after the fortnight of  working night and day, we are having a picnic in a beautiful wood just outside Hazebrouck. It is very restful not to hear the roar of the guns so loud and near.

As a child I knew nothing of Edie’s experiences in the Great War.  She never spoke of it and certainly not to us children. In 2013 I spent some time in the Isle of Wight. Not a single soul in the village of Brighstone, where Edie spent the last 35 years of her life, knew about her Great War experience.

Here’s another extract from the period when Edie was stationed in No. 1 Stationary Hospital at Etretat on the Normandy coast.

11 September 1916:   “We had a convoy of 399 in yesterday. Most of the sick were suffering badly from shell shock. It is sad to see them; they dither like palsied old men, and talk all the time about their mates who were blown to bits, or their mates who were wounded and never brought in. The whole scene is burnt into their brains and they can’t get rid of the sight of it. One rumpled, raisin-faced old fellow said his job was to take bombs up to the bombers and sometimes, going through the trenches, he had to push past men with their arms blown off or wounded anywhere and they would yell at him: “Don’t touch me,” but he had to get past, because the fellows must have their bombs. Then he would stand on something wobbly and nearly fall down and see it was a dying or dead man – half covered in mud.

Edie names over 200 individuals – colleagues and patients – in her diaries and one of the best rewards of publishing the diaries has been contacts from descendants of some of those named. There have been 16 to date and some are linked from this page on Edie’s website.

30 May 1916. One gruesome thing my patient Sam Maddox told me was that when they were marching into Ypres they saw another Company of the Warwicks resting by the roadside, some sitting on the kerbstones, some lying about. They took not the least notice of the passing officer – no salute – nothing. Then the officer went up to them and touched one man’s cheek – white powder fell off. He was stone dead. They had all been killed by gas as they sat or lay. It was a horrible sight, some of them were smiling and some looked as if they were asleep.

In October 2013 I was with the BBC in Etretat where Edie spent a year of the war.  A programme was shown in November 2014 on BBC2, ‘The Great War – an Elegy’, in which the poet Simon Armitage looked at seven WW1 artefacts and wrote a poem about each. One of these is Edie’s diary and the programme, described in The Times Culture Awards as “The Best First World War TV Programme of the Year”, can be viewed here.

The diaries include many sketches. Here are a couple – in Etretat. The words next to the three figures are “going for an early dip – ME not one of them”.

sketch1 We are currently giving illustrated talks around the country about Edie and her amazing diaries; see I tell Edie’s story and my wife, Lisa, reads extracts from the diaries. We are happy to receive invitations.

To end, here’s another diary extract:

“In one of my huts, among the many severe cases, there was one especially sad one: a sweet boy not much over 18. A grenade had torn his left arm cleanly off. His little face was always screwed up with pain and no sound came from his lips. When the surgeon examined him only I handled him; as he said “with Sister it does not hurt so much”.

That wasn’t actually Edie writing. German Krankenschwester – Sister – Hanna served on the other side of the front line, caring for German wounded.  Last summer Lisa and I gave our Edie presentation – in French – to German, French and Italian diary archivists in Strasbourg. They, like us, were keen to acknowledge the horrors which all went through in that terrible war.

Dick Robinson

My sincere thanks to Dick, and to find out more contact him at or follow the diaries on twitter at

Posted in Books, Family History, First World War, Guest posts, History, Shell Shocked Britain, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How depression has been let down by the media: On Hopkins, Morgan & the battle ahead

Katie Hopkins

Katie Hopkins

I have tried so hard not to write this post. Don’t get me wrong – it is not through any feelings of shame at admitting my years of battling depression and anxiety (anyone who knows me and this blog will know I am totally open about my mental health issues and have a page devoted to posts on the subject by me, and by others) but because I felt I had nothing to add to the discussion of the Germanwings plane crash tragedy and subsequent media treatment of the story. I shared a couple of posts on Facebook, but quickly realised how wound up I was feeling and made the decision to step back and observe, as people I respect and mental health organisations made statements I heartily endorsed.

But this morning, having read a great post from The Blurt Foundation and more of the marvellous Matt Haig (whose book about his own experiences of depression Reasons to Stay Alive was published last week), and seeing the vitriol being poured forth by Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan on twitter, I can resist comment no longer.

What are people like Hopkins and Morgan FOR? Who do they think they are representing? Why should they be allowed to berate those with mental health issues on a public forum in the most hateful and bullying terms and be allowed to get away with it? I am not going to give any more publicity than is absolutely necessary to the comments Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan have made – if you are interested you can go on their twitter accounts – but the general gist is that those of us with depression are self-absorbed, malingering, attention seeking hysterics who are only after a sick note. In addition, we are a danger to the public and, as a consequence of the Germanwings crash ought not to be allowed to use anything resembling machinery.


Even one of my closest and loveliest friends has now made a joke about how she will be scared to get in a car with me….

I am furious that the newspaper headlines and people like Hopkins and Morgan can undo all the hard work that has been done, and undermine the work still needed, to reduce the stigma attached to mental ill-health. It is particularly shameful in light of the fact that men are far less likely to seek help for depression and three times more likely to commit suicide than women. There are men and women returning from conflict zones experiencing PTSD who deserve respect. We need people to seek attention – not feel ashamed for doing so. It is those who need help we should be listening to, not the media whores who would rather be hated than ignored.

I would give anything not to experience the desperate anxiety that has on occasions wrecked weeks of my life. No-one chooses to feel clinically depressed – it is HORRIBLE. And I work, and drive and do all those things people do to just get on with their lives. I am just me – trying hard not to be defined by my mental health issues, working hard and finding joy where and when I can.

And it is about time we took people like Katie Hopkins to task. She won’t care, she will just shout ‘freedom of speech’ and spit more worthless s**t about people whose lives she knows nothing of. I am not a violent woman, but by God if I met her I would be hard pressed to hold the slap back.

The battle to reduce the stigma associated with mental health is not lost of course. But perhaps we need to re-write a few rules….

Posted in Mental health, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Happiness is SO yesterday – On World Poetry Day, who else but John Keats?

keats19Today is World Poetry Day, following swiftly on the heels of the International Day of Happiness. I have to say that this is the day more likely to see me full of passion for life. I downloaded the Happiness Pack yesterday, out of interest, and the air was filled with the smell of pie in the sky. I am sure it is well-intentioned but happiness is not a switch that you can turn on and off at will. Life doesn’t read pretty .pdf documents, or care much whether you have smiled at a stranger this morning.

Please don’t get me wrong – I long for happiness and contentment but have come to accept that life is rather more complex than I would like. That is why I love poetry so much. Poetry, and the good poet, can distil an emotion into so few words that you can hear or read two or three lines and think ‘YES!!’, and know that however you are feeling, someone is or has been with you there.

I have written about my love for the life, letters and of course poetry, of John Keats on here many times. There is a whole page dedicated to links to posts about him, and how people interpret his work. His poetry and letters helped me through some tough times, and I continue to read him widely simply for the pure pleasure of it. So for World Poetry Day I have chosen a poem in which he offers us all (as a celebrity and appearance obsessed society) and anyone tempted to enter a TV talent competition, a proper wake up call. At the same time he writes with such sensuousness, and sexual reference, that much erotic fiction could learn a thing or three….

On Fame

You cannot eat your cake and have it too.”–Proverb.

How fever’d is the man, who cannot look
Upon his mortal days with temperate blood,
Who vexes all the leaves of his life’s book,
And robs his fair name of its maidenhood;
It is as if the rose should pluck herself,
On the ripe plum finger its misty bloom,
As if a Naiad, like a meddling elf,
Should darken her pure grot with muddy gloom:
But the rose leaves herself upon the briar,
For winds to kiss and grateful bees to feed,
And the ripe plum still wears its dim attire,
The undisturbed lake has crystal space;
Why then should man, teasing the world for grace,
Spoil his salvation for a fierce miscreed?

John Keats 1819

The comparative ugliness of the first lines, compared to the relative purity of the final six, shows us how far a drive for fame for fame’s sake can despoil a man’s life. It is a subject Keats wrote about more than once, also comparing fame to a ‘wayward’ girl, who teases the man who would chase after her and who reserves her affections for those more circumspect. We need to leave our roses on the briar, step back and enjoy that crystal space….

Happy World Poetry Day!!


Posted in Books, Keats, Literature, Poetry, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sigur Rós – Ekki múkk


I had to re blog this post by my artist and writer pal Rivenrod, who has fallen in love with this film, backed by the music of the wonderful Sigur Ros. It is a 10 minute meditation on life, the Universe and everything. Just what I needed as I battle the aftermath of ‘flu…..

Originally posted on Rivenrod:

Absolutely thought provokingly beautiful.


Thank you so much Lalocabrujita for introducing this to us.

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‘What’s the use of worrying?’ – Letters from the First World War

Today I welcome another guest to No Wriggling – fellow Pen and Sword author Jacqueline Wadsworth, whose book ‘Letters From the Trenches – The First World War by Those Who Were There’ offers us the most moving personal stories from the pens of the ordinary people whose lives were so utterly transformed by the conflict. Having read it I heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest not only in the Great War, but in humanity and in the triumph of the spirit in the most desolate of circumstances….

Edward Kensit, at home before the war with his fiancee (Courtesy of Sue Collier Jenkins)

Edward Kensit, at home before the war with his fiancee (Courtesy of Sue Collier Jenkins)

‘Had such a nice walk to some French village and had steak and onions. We marched through the lands all red with red poppies.’

You would be forgiven for thinking that this quote describes a peaceful day out in the countryside – although the word ‘march’ probably gives it away. In fact it comes from a letter written from the Western Front in May 1916, and illustrates something I learned very quickly while researching my new book ‘Letters from the Trenches’: most letters were not full of doom and gloom. Instead they were often light-hearted and humorous, written by men (and women) who tried to make the best of things despite the difficulties they faced. The quote above comes from a letter by Private Edward Kensit, a 37-year-old South African soldier who worked as a botanist during peacetime and fought with the British in France. Here’s another scene he described, while in a rest area away from the trenches – his company must have been very reassuring.

I was on guard at an old farm house the other day and I made myself a nice bean feed – I soaked the beans about 3 hours then the women [locals] put them on the stove for about 5 hours. I put in a 1lb of butter – cost me 3 franks (2s/6d) my chums all paid their share but it was a fine feed … We had milk too.’ He added: ‘There was a grand show of rhododendrons, oh such a grand sight. Here I first saw the forget-me-nots growing, also some rhubarb – but very abnormal.’

Even in the midst of the fighting there was ‘fun’ to be found, and young Frank Woodhouse, who worked in the mines of Nottinghamshire before enlisting, could barely contain his excitement in this letter home after a fire-fight in 1916:

I had my [twentieth] birthday in the trenches in rather an exciting time and you can bet I shall never forget the date. On the night of the 13that about 11.30 we were ordered to strafe the Germans who were known to be working on his parapets & barbed wire etc. All of a sudden we opened rapid fire with rifles & machine guns & rifle grenades & all kind of stuff. The noise was simply deafening. You ought to have seen our boys blazing away despite “Fritz’s” machine guns on our parapets. They carried on fully ¼ of an hour & then things quietened down a bit. I think our fire had good effect on them, since we “opened” so suddenly.

A soldier’s life obviously suited Frank, and the same was true of an officer called Charles Alderton, from Clerkenwell in London, whose middle-class home had been less than challenging:

My life here has been full of interest,’ he wrote to his family from France in 1917. ‘I am now sitting in a dugout about 6ft by 6ft where 5 of us feed and 3 sleep, my bed which is a stretcher is fixed up one end on the steps and one on the table and I can tell you we are really having a fine time and quite enjoying ourselves. There is a very deep dug out lower down leading out of ours which we were going to use only on exploring we (I and another fellow) found the remains of one or two Boche in a really fine decomposed state, so we had them removed and are giving it a chance to freshen up.

Tom Fake with his wife, Charlotte, and son (Courtesy of Jackie Carpenter)

Tom Fake with his wife, Charlotte, and son (Courtesy of Jackie Carpenter)

By contrast, Private Tom Fake was conscripted into the army and would certainly not have chosen to serve, but even he could be humorous in letters he sent to his wife Charlotte in Bristol, although it was sometimes at her expense! When she had her troublesome teeth taken out so that dentures could be fitted, Tom indulged some light-hearted teasing:

I am so glad you sent me a photo of yourself, for I think I should have had a job to recognise you, talk about shock, I think it would have been worse than shell shock, but now I know what to expect … I don’t mind seeing you without teeth. One thing, you will not be able to bite, but if you have lost your teeth, I suppose you haven’t lost anything else. Any rate I did not get mated up to you because you looked pretty, so that will not make any difference to us.

Tom and Frank survived the war, but Edward and Charles did not. Neither did an engaging teenager called Cecil Cadmore, 18, from Herefordshire, whose letter to his cousin Gwen from army camp in England was a real breath of fresh air, gently mocking the training he received:

Last Tuesday we were doing wood fighting. Before we started we were told not to pick blackberries while advancing. We went thro’ one wood in fine style & across & into another wood. We surprised about 60 of the enemy & captured them, & then got cussed for leaving the first wood. Then a Major came up & said he would lead us thro’ the next wood. He pulled out a compass & said we would march by that. Then we gave ourselves up for lost (we always do get lost when marching by compass.) Well! We did get lost & I picked a lot of nuts while we were halted, which we were every minute while the Major consulted his compass. When we did get out of the wood we found the rest of the Battalion had finished the attack & the grub as well. Never mind, I ate nuts all the way home.

Sadly, this was one of his last letters to Gwen, for Cecil was killed two months later in France. His attitude summed up that of many of the letter-writers you’ll find in my book – to quote the old WW1 marching song: ‘What’s the use of worrying? It never was worthwhile.’


My sincere thanks to Jacqueline for taking the time to write for my blog.

Letters from the Trenches is published by Pen and Sword Books, RRP£19.99. Jacqueline Wadsworth is a freelance writer and has written two books to coincide with the WW1 Centenary: ‘Bristol in the Great War’, ‘Letters from the Trenches’, both published by Pen and Sword Books. A third, ‘Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War’ is due out in November 2015. She lives near Bristol with her family and when not at her desk she is a keen cyclist, follower of Liverpool FC, fan of American roots music, and supporter of The Donkey Sanctuary. You can find out more about Jacqueline and read further extracts on her website

Posted in Books, Family History, First World War, Shell Shocked Britain, War, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment