On blogging: sex, drugs and George Orwell

fireworksToday is the one year anniversary of my blog.  In that year my daughter left home for Honduras and returned (in one piece), albeit speaking Spanish. I started the 5:2 diet and didn’t stop. Although I’ve recently found  6:1 (1 day fast, 6 eating as normal including treats) is enough to maintain ideal weight, improved and younger looking skin (so my husband remarked at dinner, although what he actually said was);

“Are you wearing much make-up?”

“No not much, why?”

“Your face looks different, smooth… umm….”

“Younger?”

“Yes. That’s it. I didn’t want to say because then you would think I thought you looked old before.”

“Did I?”

– aswell as keeping the ankylosing spondylitis under control, with minimum medication.

I wrote a novel ‘The Replacement Wife’, but have yet to secure an agent (I will not give up). A short story got short-listed in Mslexia. My son studied for and passed his A-levels (and is off to Warwick to study philosophy). We got a new dog called Fred, a rescue poodle mix (cockapooish) from Cyprus, who is cute, devilish and has a crock (as in ugly plastic shoe) fetish. And summer arrived and stayed (sort of).

I salute you.
I salute you.

But what of my blog? Who visited and why in the past year?

Nearly 12,000 people have dropped by. A lot of them repeat visitors (thank you).

Average visits per month has grown to over 1000.

The main search terms revolve around sex, drugs and George Orwell.

george-orwell-quotes-sayings-lies-truth-famousGeorge Orwell led 98 people here, not sure what they made of it.

Agnus Castus brings hundreds of people to my blog and dominates the top of the search terms as well as the majority of search categories. Quite rightly. It works.agnus castus flower

Lord John Shayler, who opened a strip club in Ampthill, which is no longer a strip club, came third in most searched term. Probably disgruntled Ampthillieans, the ones in the incongruous image below, posing outside the contested strip club for a charity calendar.

ampthill

And finally, 380 comments!! Thank you so much. One of the best things about a blog is getting a comment on a post.

I didn’t know if I would sustain my blog. I didn’t know what I would blog about. I didn’t know if anyone would read it.

I have sustained it. I still don’t really know what I blog about. But you do read it. Thank you.

Here’s to another year of sex, drugs and George Orwell!

No chick-lit here: Review of Alys Always by Harriet Lane

Alys Always

ALYS ALWAYS is Harriet Lane’s debut novel about the ‘little’ people, the ones that make world turn for the ones who think it turns just because they will it to. With a cast of morally dubious characters it is both a satire of celebrity culture and an indictment of how lost all of us really are.

What matters is ‘who you know’ and in the small and nepotistic literary world, Frances Thorpe (thirty something sub editor on The Spectator) doesn’t know anyone. That is until she meets Alys Kyte, trapped (and as it turns out dying) inside her overturned car on a lonely, country road. At first Frances wants to forget the horrible incident, until she realises who Alys was married to; literary heavyweight Laurence Kyte. When she is asked to meet the family (for closure) she is invited into a world of privilege and entitlement. Encouraging the friendship of Polly, who is missing her mother and nursing a family secret, Frances’ metamorphosis begins.

Frances is a complicated and calculating female character, which makes this a refreshing read. No chick-lit heroines here. Hallelujah! The story taps into the jealousy us ‘little’ people feel when we pore over the pages of glossy magazines at the lives of the fated, and asks the question; what would you do?

There are two reasons I really enjoyed this novel. The first is the clean prose. Harriet Lane bravely puts her command of grammar under the spotlight by making Frances a pedant, who spends her days correcting book reviews for the magazine she works on. A great plot can be ruined by sloppy writing, and although of the two plot is key, many times I have given up on a book because the writing overwhelmed me (and not in a good way). It is said that great writing is invisible, which does not mean it is without voice or personality rather it does not eclipse the story and become a thing in its own right. Rest assured Alys Always has a clear, ego-less voice in direct contrast to the lauded novels of the ‘emotionally lazy’ Laurence Kyte. Harriet Lane is making a subtle point in both ‘how’ she writes and in Frances assessment of what passes as ‘great’ literature.

My second reason is an emotional one – the most reliable indicator of a good book – and more specifically how I felt about it when I wasn’t reading it. Like falling in love, I was excited about seeing it again and planned ways of making time for it. I thought about it frequently. I was desperate to find out how it all turned out, but at the same time didn’t want it to end. On finishing it, I missed it.

The novel’s protagonist reminds me of the insidious character of Barbara in Zoe Heller’s Notes on Scandal. Like Barbara, Frances’ actions are driven by dubious motives, but the people around her are so convinced of their ‘special’ status that you can’t help but wish she succeeds.

My only minor criticism is that the ending, although satisfying, would have been improved by an increase in conflict. I was craving a character that could really challenge the status quo and push Frances to her limits (and beyond them).

I would certainly read more from Harriet Lane and for those who want a story where the woman isn’t a simpering simpleton waiting for Mr Right, then ALYS ALWAYS is the book for you.

Let me know what you think? Does it matter to you if the lead character is likeable or not?

For more on Harriet Lane Click here 

Animal collection: Bridport prize 2011(longlist)

Schrödinger’s cat

schrodinger's cat

His cat slipped through my legs and disappeared upstairs as I let myself in the front door. In the kitchen, I emptied the contents from his Waitrose bag-for-life onto the pine scrubbed table. I poured out a glass of red wine from the bottle I’d started last night and reached over the sink to press play on the CD player on the windowsill.  His garden lacked inspiration. I pictured gaily painted pots, spilling over with summer blooms. I would suggest doing them on his return.

The chunks of beef browned in the heavy bottomed saucepan from John Lewis. My stomach felt like a kitten’s, swollen with squiggling worms. I topped up my glass.  He’d said I could stay if I wanted, save having to come by and feed the cat. I’d not been home since. I didn’t plan on returning.

His cat startled me as he leapt onto the work surface and made a beeline for the saucepan.

“Shoo.” I flicked the tea-towel at him. He arched his back, but held his ground, his tail a black bottle brush.

“I said off!” I lunged at him like a pit-bull on a short leash. He jumped from the work surface and skittered across the floor, his tail curled around his bottom. The cat-flap flapped as he exited.

I added a good glug of red wine and used the edge of the wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan like my nana showed me, before Mum and her fell out. Adding the roughly chopped vegetables, I replaced the lid and turned down the gas. The CD ended and the radio cut in.

“… Head of communications, John Haines, said: ‘It might have been struck by lightning. It’s a possibility.’ We will bring you the latest on this breaking story in our seven o’clock bulletin. In other news a man is suing McDonalds for making…”

I remembered the cat just before seven and popped a tea towel over the dumplings, perfectly round and smooth like eggs, before emptying a packet of cat food into his bowl. Dropping the empty packet in the bin, I turned back to find his face in the dish as if he’d always been there.

“How’d you do that?” He purred and smacked his lips. I reached down to ruffle his head.

Hisssss. He shifted his position to the other side of the bowl. The narrow tip of his tail flicked.

 “Don’t be so precious. You’re going to have to share him from now on.”

 I picked up the spoon and lifted the saucepan lid. The stew simmered patiently, unlike me. I would take a long bath and paint my nails to pass the time. A meaty aroma filled the kitchen as the seven o’clock news began.

“Fears are growing for 229 passengers on board British Air jet 658, which vanished on a routine flight from New York to Heathrow over the Atlantic around 3pm BST. The most likely explanation is a lightning strike. Head of Communications, John…” 

The wooden spoon clattered to the floor. Gravy splashed onto the terracotta tiles. The cat sauntered sideways as if aiming for the cat-flap and took a surreptitious lick. He began to purr and settled over the dark stain.

I held the piece of notepaper up to the lounge window, scanning the details three times. The evening light was the colour of peaches. I crumpled to the floor. His cat appeared and head butted my shins. I pressed my hand along his spine. He arched into my touch and I whispered his name, “Schrödinger.”

His name was silly, I’d said, the first night he brought me here.

He laughed at me and said; had I never heard of Schrödinger’s cat?

And I said, yes, because I had, but that was all, and then I distracted him with my lips and hands.

At work, I’d looked it up on Wiki, but got irritated by the jargon and gave up clicking on links because each one made me angry. It wasn’t until after he told me he loved how we ‘fit’ together that I asked him to explain.

Are you going to listen to me then?

I’m a woman I can multi-task, I said, pressing butterfly kisses into his chest, before resting my ear against his heart.

You put the cat inside a box
Why would you do that?
So you can’t observe it
Why not just say, so you can’t see it?
Because seeing and observing are not the same
They are
Your eyes see, but your brain observes
You’re splitting hairs
Cat hairs?

Funny, not. Inside this box is some mechanism that could cause a random event to occur, and this random event, if it does occur, would smash a vial of poison

What random event?

It’s not important – the important part is that the vial of poison may or may not smash and therefore the cat may or may not be alive

And…?

But don’t you see, the cat is both dead and alive at the same time

Only until you look in the box

Exactly! It is the act of observation that collapses the cat’s superposition. Reality decoheres into the observable and the not. In one reality it’s dead, in another it’s alive.

My head spun. I kissed his nose. I don’t know about split, but I imagine it would be spitting. I wouldn’t want to open that box without a full body suit and thick gloves on. Why didn’t he use a rat or mouse or something harmless like a fly?

You exasperate me. The point is this. Until you look the cat is both dead and alive at the same time. It is your observation that creates reality

So if I don’t look nothing is real?

Yes and no. If you don’t look everything is real, every reality is possible. That’s what Schrödinger was trying to demonstrate with his thought experiment…

Enough, enough, I get it, I lied. Now kick out the cat, close the bedroom door and observe which state I get in…

Schrödinger strutted off, his tail smooth like a snake. I pulled myself to standing using his desk for support and tugged my phone from my bra. His number rang and rang and rang… The house phone startled me. I dropped mine, the back and battery separated as it hit the floor. The dying sun crept across my bare toes. The house phone stopped.

“Darling, it’s Mum. Your dad says a flight’s gone missing over the ocean, but I don’t think it’s your flight number…”

I reached down and yanked the phone line out of the wall.

‘He’s departed, but not yet arrived,’ I spoke it softly, like a prayer.

Schrödinger cleaned his ears and cheeks and then his right back leg. Or he’s arrived and has departed.

It got dark. I found some ear plugs for his iPhone in his bedside drawer and rammed them in until my ears hurt. A waft of stew made me retch. I slipped silently down the stairs and turned off the gas, returning like a scolded cat to the safety of the landing. I dragged the feather down duvet into the en suite and climbed into the bathtub shaped like an egg.

“So what came first? Chicken or egg?”

“Neither and both,” I replied. Flicking water at his chest.

He smiled and stroked my thigh. “How long is a piece of string?”

I blew bubbles from my palm into his face. “As long as you want it to be.” And he laughed and told me that was exactly the right answer, but I didn’t know why.

“Take reality,” he said, “what is it?”

I sat up. Foam slid down my breasts as I pressed my hand flat against his. “This.”

 Cocooned in the tub, wrapped in his king-size duvet faint with his scent, I slept. When I woke, my limbs were stiff as if I’d made a quantum leap into old age. Daylight showed too much of everything. I climbed out of the bath. On the top shelf of his wardrobe, I found his ski goggles. It took some time to tighten them. In the silent blackness my dream returned. He soared across the sun. The muscles of his shoulders and arms picked out in gold.

Something nudged my leg. My panicked hands groped around the sides of the goggles, until I realised it was Schrödinger. I crouched down. He was meowing. I could feel the vibrations in his chest and front legs.

I made my way downstairs and into the kitchen. The surface of the cold stew was congealing white or maybe it wasn’t. I ran my hand along the work surface until I came to the tall cupboard. Pulling a bottle from the shelf, I unscrewed the cap and sniffed and then made my slow and stumbling way back upstairs.

Eventually the Vodka bottle grew light and I didn’t know if it were day or night. I saw him constantly in the vast, blue sky, flying beyond the moon, past Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, all the way to Neptune and then on and on through the nothing of outer space and on and on and on…

 He’s flying not dying.

 My head split apart. Unfurling like Schrödinger after a rainy day snooze, I climbed from the bath, groping for the cool edge of the sink. I opened the cabinet above. My fingers walked around bottles and boxes. I felt Schrodinger’s presence like a draft on wet skin.

He has arrived and departed, he hissed.

No. He has departed and not yet arrived,’ I replied, clutching a box and spinning round to confront him.

You’ll see.

‘I won’t. Not ever.’

I swung back to the sink, my cheeks hot, and lifted the bottom edge of the goggles to check the label on the box. The brightness of the light flooding in around the goggles frightened me, like a buried memory of something bad that had happened.

 In next door’s home office, Schrödinger padded across the Karndean floor as the radio announced plane wreckage had been spotted in the ocean by a cruiser.

The tablets popped easily from the foil into my palm.

Schrödinger cleaned his tail in front of next door’s television showing pictures of an upturned section of fuselage, the words scrolling beneath; after three days at sea, a handful of survivors of Flight 658 have been spotted by a luxury cruiser.

I swallowed five tablets and climbed back into the bath and dreamt of angels and gods and planets and stars and forever. I woke briefly and took the rest, dropping the empty blister pack over the side of the bath.

A flight touched down at Heathrow.  A shiny black car with tinted windows left the airport.

 Schrödinger returned, though no-one saw him arrive. He sat in the doorway of the bathroom as Hannah’s head lolled to the side and bubbles of dribble escaped her pale pink lips. A car turned into the tree lined road.

From the turn in the stairs through the top-light over the front door, he observed two navy suits get out of a long, sleek black car. The hairs along his shoulders and spine lifted like an arrow and his pupils widened into oceans of dark matter. The suits took off their hats and tucked them under their arms. A crumpled shirt appeared between them as they reached the front door.  Schrödinger’s tail twitched and his hair smoothed flat. He stretched – a purr rolled through his jaw. The front door swung open.

His whole world was before him. Schrödinger could not contain his smile. He has arrived. His head swiveled to the bathroom; and she has departed.

He trickled down the stairs and entered orbit.

Agnus Castus, Prozac and Sarafem: Corporate deception by any other name would be called bare-faced lying

Watching that advert, you would think that Eli Lilly had discovered a brand new drug to treat the more distressing symptoms of PMT.

You would be wrong. SARAFEM is in fact PROZAC (fluoxetine hydrochloride), renamed and repackaged to appeal to a new market of users in the US – women suffering from PMT (also repackaged as Pre-Menstrual Dysmorphic Disorder , which gives it a status as an illness and therefore can be targeted by drug companies).

“To return to the history of PMDD, some feminist professionals, including the APA’s Committee on Women and the National Coalition for Women’s Mental Health, objected to the inclusion of such a syndrome under any label. From their point of view, menstruation is a normal bodily function, and any psychological changes associated with this function should be seen as normal as well. Classifying PMS or PMDD as a mental disorder stigmatizes women, and may have other undesirable social consequences by laying additional foundations for disability claims and the insanity defense.” Click here for source.

 All Eli Lilly did was run a trial on PROZAC with women suffering from PMT. Based on this trial, where they found 60% of women reported a reduction in some symptoms, they were able to gain FDA approval for SARAFEM (Prozac put inside pink and lilac capsules).

The fact that trials on Agnus Castus (with minimal if no side effects) reports an 80% reduction in most symptoms of PMT is neither here nor there. Herbal stockists do not have the marketing budgets available to them that profit hungry Pharma companies do. And of course since 2011, in Europe at least, the dosage of Agnus Castus is restricted to 4mg per tablet, rendering them ineffective if taken as directed on the bottle.

20mg is needed to gain relief, supported by a number of trials, all of which were rejected by the European Medicines Agency – and you have to ask yourself why?  Look up Schellenberg 2001 and 2011 for trials – or see previous blog posts on agnus castus.

But why did Eli Lilly do this? Funnily enough in 2000 the patent on PROZAC was coming to an end. FDA approval of SARAFEM specifically for the treatment of PMDD, meant the patent could be extended until 2007. Eli Lilly also sold the rights to Sarafem for £187 million to NI drug company Galen in 2002, they also made profits in excess of £300 million in the first year of Sarafem’s launch in 2001.

Galen Holdings Plc, Northern Ireland’s largest drugmaker, will pay $295 million for Eli Lilly & Co.’s Sarafem, a treatment for a severe form of premenstrual syndrome…  Although cheap copycat versions of Prozac are available, Sarafem is protected from generics until 2007, King said in an interview. Sarafem is prescribed by gynecologists, who are less likely to use generic Prozac instead, analysts said. “Generic erosion, which is illegal, is thought to be modest, and underlying prescriptions are growing,” Merrill Lynch analyst James Culverwell said in a note to clients. “Sarafem fits well with Galen, as over half of Sarafem prescriptions are made by obstetrician-gynecologists, where Galen has a specialist sales force.” click here for source.

Now all Eli Lilly had to do was to convince women that firstly they were suffering from PMDD and secondly that the only cure was SARAFEM. It didn’t really matter if doctors knew the truth or not because if a patient asked for SARAFEM, doctors (in the US) could not prescribe a cheaper generic fluoxetine tablet because only SARAFEM had been specifically trialled on women with PMT. No other SSRI (the class of antidepressants prozac belongs to) had been tested specifically for PMT and therefore could not be substituted for the expensive patented SARAFEM – which don’t forget it is actually PROZAC which is actually FLUOXETINE HYDROCHLORIDE.

Drug trials (RCT’s) were supposed to be used to test out new drugs, in order to make sure they were safe and did not have dangerous side effects. Instead their use is corrupted, with pharma companies not compelled (by law or conscience) to release the results of trials conducted, meaning they can cherry pick the ones that support their commercial aims. 

The fact that the link between PMT and depression and depression and Serotonin levels is little understood should also be of no surprise. The theory goes that depression is a result of low levels of the neurotransmitter SEROTONIN, which is how messages pass between neurons (in the brain). Of course, it could equally be that feeling depressed results in low levels of SEROTONIN. It could also be the case that SEROTONIN levels in the depressed are no lower than those not reporting depression. In the case of PMT, there is the added fiction (presented as fact) that fluctuating hormone levels impact on the levels of SEROTONIN in the brain in the second part of the cycle.

None of this theory is proven and in fact the role of neurotransmitters in bodily functions, feelings and emotions is turning out to be an extremely complex picture of interrelated dependence, with neurotransmitters having a variety of roles based on where they are in the body and whether they are excitatory or inhibitory.

 “Sarafem® is an FDA-approved prescription treatment that relieves both the mood and physical symptoms of PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder). Many physicians believe that Sarafem helps to correct the imbalance of serotonin that could contribute to PMDD.”  Click here for source.

Note the official information above states that ‘many physicians BELIEVE that Sarafem helps…’  Even Eli Lilly daren’t claim to know there is a link between hormones, serotonin and PMT – and yet they are prepared to give out a drug to many, many women with distressing side effects, such as loss of libido and suicidal thoughts.

So there we have it. And it is not just PMT sufferers that has become a target group for money hungry pharma company boards. We have a proliferation of behaviours now classified as mental illnesses. Childhood tantrums are now called ‘Conduct disorders’. Concentration problems are labelled ‘Attention Deficit Disorder’ and if the child is also very active and doesn’t need much sleep, we can add an ‘H’ for Hyperactivity. Being shy, is called ‘Social Phobia’ and worrying about the state of a world run by capitalist corporations who serve the top 1% is called ‘Generalised Anxiety Disorder’.

And for each of these ‘disorders’ there is a corresponding drug, which messes with a delicate system we actually know very little about. And don’t get me started on halitosis, a completely made up condition to sell mouthwash. And ‘panty liners’!!! WTF! Women have secretions, they are normal, that is what knickers are for!

It is time we women said enough! We been having periods long before big pharma companies decided they were an illness.

PMT is not an illness, but some side effects of menstruation (like irritability and cramps) can make life very difficult for some women. This is no different to how it was for women hundreds of years ago. The difference was those women didn’t have pharmaceutical companies convincing them they were ill and suffering PMDD and needed this particular drug to cure them.

Instead they listened to each other and tried out remedies handed down over the generations until they found something that worked for them.

The answer to our ills doesn’t necessarily reside in a bottle of pills, but in talking to each other and not believing everything we are sold.

For more on psychiatric labels and the drug industry, James Davies has written a book called ‘Cracked: why the psychiatry is doing more harm than good’. Published by Icon 2013. 

Why is psychiatry such big business? Why are so many psychiatric drugs prescribed – 47 million antidepressant prescriptions in the UK alone last year – and why, without solid scientific justification, has the number of mental disorders risen from 106 in 1952 to 374 today? The everyday sufferings and setbacks of life are now ‘medicalised’ into illnesses that require treatment – usually with highly profitable drugs. Psychological therapist James Davies uses his insider knowledge to illustrate for a general readership how psychiatry has put riches and medical status above patients’ well-being. 

 Do you have any further examples of drugs that have been re-branded as a cure for something else? Have you tried Prozac for PMT and did it work for you? What side-effects did you have if any?