Do No Harm

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Robin Williams is dead, and lots of people are talking about depression at the moment. The darkness is different for everyone, but I’m going to have a really good go at describing depression from the inside, and I’m going to do this right now because I feel good and because I’m having a lot of happy days.

A few years ago, I started to feel like someone – or something – was following me. It wasn’t a feeling I had when I was with my wife, my kids or my friends and it wasn’t a feeling I had when I was working, writing or fixed on some determined task…

…but the feeling waited for me. It actually waited for me.

Imagine you have a stalker: one that’s causing you a lot of distress and one that has ceased to become funny or a point of conversation.

Now, imagine you’re on a vast, endless escalator (like the ones at Tesco). You’re going up the escalator: on the good days you’re running up and on the bad days you’re moving a lot more slowly….but you’re still moving. Your arch-enemy: the beast, the bastard, the demon (whatever) is on the escalator behind you. He/she/it is moving slowly and deliberately. There’s not a lot of chance of it catching you, but whereas you have fast and slow days your enemy never changes its pace: on the fast days it’s further away and on the slow days it’s nearer….but it’s always there.

I went to the doctor because I realised that my family had become a battery for my happiness. I worship my wife and kids, but every time they went to school, out for the day or (in my wife’s case) to work, the power drained out of me and I felt like I had turned on the escalator and was just waiting for the enemy to catch up with me. When it did, I felt terrible and overwhelmed….and completely worthless.

Good friends help, but you can't lean on them all the time and rely on them to keep you 'up'.

Good friends help, but you can’t lean on them all the time and rely on them to keep you ‘up’.

I was referred for counselling based on this, and because I abhor medication. I dreaded going because I actually started to train as a counsellor a few years back, and I’m familiar with the basic layout and format of the sessions. I stopped training as a counsellor because I didn’t feel comfortable in the role and I didn’t like the fact that I was basically being helped into a position where I could do tremendous damage to other people. In that situation, it’s incredibly difficult to ‘Do No Harm’. Counselling tends to be issued when it seems like you can largely solve your own problems (as opposed to psychiatric therapy, where a professional is trying to sort out any problems you have). It’s full of paraphrasing and reflection, techniques I immediately recognise and struggle to take seriously as helpful tools.

Patient: I feel worthless: I feel like nothing I do matters.

Counsellor: You said you feel worthless? Why is that?

Patient: (goes into greater depth)

…and so on. Counselling is a mirror with a different face that talks back to you. It can be incredibly helpful, as long as you try to focus on the bits that actually are poignant and beneficial.

The crux of my own therapy seemed to be that for some reason, growing up, I never felt that I was enough for my mum. This was news to me: I do remember my mum being incredibly disappointed when I failed my 11 plus, and I felt like I’d really let her down….but that aside I don’t ever recall feeling I wasn’t important or vital to her to life. It does explain why no amount of success or happiness is ever enough for me, and why I always see a bad or dark side looming in every great event. When it’s sunny, it’s sun before the rain: whenever I get another book deal, it’s going to be the last.

For this reason, meeting my wife, having two beautiful children, earning one of the largest advances in publishing history and travelling all over the world to promote my work are all things I’ve regularly felt that I don’t deserve….despite giving up ten years of my life, being incredibly lonely and working minimum wage jobs in order to make it all happen.

In order to justify or underline how unworthy I felt of being given all of the above, I was drinking quite heavily, relying on caffeine stimulants like coffee to get me through the day, binge eating and doing quite insane amounts of exercise to stay in shape.

I managed to give up most of the above, though I’m still succumbing to my daily glass of wine, my two coffees and my hour on the cross trainer.

Depression is a horrible thing.

Books can help: I’ve found a few (Beat Low Self-Esteem by Christine Wilding & Stephen Palmer and The Chimp Paradox by Dr. Steve Peters, in particular) to be very good at helping you use lots of techniques to keep the bad stuff in abeyance.

The most important thing is to talk about it, and keep talking. It’s when people stop talking that the trouble really begins….

Robin Williams fought very hard for an extremely long time, but one day the escalator just stopped. If it seems to be slowing down rapidly for you, go to the doctor and get some help, maybe read a book or arrange to meet a friend who has some experience with what you’re going through. Make sure you do something.

Julia Donaldson

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Books can be a bit of a luxury, these days….so when you spend your hard-earned cash on picture books – especially if you have more than one child and are buying from Waterstones or WHSmith – there are a lot of factors to consider. I have two smurfs (Bastian, aged 6 and Evie, aged 2) and I’m extremely picky about the books I choose for them. My checklist pretty much runs along these lines:

1. Is it a good story?
2. Is it well written?
3. Are the illustrations engaging?
4. Is Basty going to like it?
5. Is Evie going to like it?

You might think there’s a huge difference between the reading interests of a 2 year old and a 6 year old, but it doesn’t quite work like that. Bast now reads Fighting Fantasy books, my own Gladiator Boy series (aimed at 8-12) and even Grimm’s Fairy Tales….but he still loves to go through a few good picture books at bedtime before he settles down to something a bit bigger on his own.

So….very few books actually hit a 5 on my checklist, but I’ve found that several writers seem to be constantly re-read in our house for pleasure. These include Johnny Duddle (Pirate Cruncher, Pirates Next Door, King of Space), Jonathan Emmett (The Santa Trap), David Melling (Hugless Douglas) and, most reliably, the writer/illustrator team of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

The latter have both become widely-read since the success and subsequent televised adaptions of The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom, but – really – the two most highly regarded titles are actually the tip of the iceberg.

Our personal favourites in the Stone Household are, beyond any shadow of a doubt, Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book and A Squash and a Squeeze.

Charlie Cook is a very offbeat piece that reminds me a tiny bit of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (simply because Charlie flight of fantasy features lots of encounters with characters and objects you can see in his living room at the beginning of the story), but it’s incredibly funny, rhymes well and is very cleverly structured.

A Squash and a Squeeze is my personal favourite. I tend to use a Terry Jones (from Monty Python) voice whenever I relate the tale of the old lady who is really dissatisfied with the size of her house and seeks the advice of a rather clever old man determined to teach her a lesson.

This book is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED as a family favourite, not just because it offers children the invaluable advice always to be satisfied with what you have, but because – even when read at a child’s level of understand – it is an incredibly funny book.

It’s for this reason that ‘A Squash and a Squeeze’ sits firmly atop my mountain of children’s books. I could quite honestly read the thing out loud every night.

Movie Squad: Filming Merek

If you’d have told me just a few weeks ago that I’d be spending two days filming a fantasy movie in Sandwich with a Kent Film Festival Award-winning production team, it’s very likely that I’d have laughed in your face and told you that the other one – if pulled – would have bells on it.

So, let’s talk about Movie Squad. Seriously, let’s talk about them….before everyone else does.

On the set of Merek with director Bruce Partleton.

On the set of Merek with director Bruce Partleton.

As many people know, I’m fast becoming a bit of a recluse. I’ve settled into a comfortable routine of writing books every few years and I’ve been fortunate enough (thanks to my incredible agent) to keep signing deals with incredible publishers like Hodder, Disney and Penguin.

However, my increasing inability to promote my own work – largely due to bouts of moderate depression – has now seen me dread event offers from Edinburgh and Hay (where I’ve performed in the past) and even led to a late withdrawal from the Bath Festival (where I was scheduled to promote Undead Ed for Hachette).

The most difficult time to get me to emerge from my comfortable writing pit is when I’ve just signed a deal that I’m very pleased with, and I’ve recently done just that. Happy that the best book I’ve ever written is finally going to be published, I was content to continue in my daily schedule of being a decent daddy to my two smurfs, recovering from the rigours of a visit to Disneyland and running my fantasy roleplaying group on Thursday nights.

The only problem was that the man who asked me to come out of the office was Adrian C. Smith.

On the set with writer Adrian C. Smith and two leads from Merek.

On the set with writer Adrian C. Smith and two leads from Merek.

I met Adrian soon after our children became friends at school, and I liked him immediately. Adrian is a wildly creative writer with an imagination that regularly leads him into strange corridors of consciousness: he reminds me a bit of Terry Gilliam from Monty Python but perhaps a bit more measured by a splash of Terry Jones. He’s a bit crazy in the same way that I am, but has the sort of ideas you wish you could bottle. He also, it soon transpired, co-owned a film company with Bruce Partleton.

I love creative partnerships. I always thought it was a pity that Danny Wallace and Dave Gorman stopped working together as partners because Danny always had the terrific ideas but Dave seemed to know how to execute them better. In the same way, Red Dwarf never worked as well when Rob Grant (the comedian) stepped away from Doug Naylor (the more scientifically-creative writer): the mix just wasn’t there.

Adrian and Bruce run Movie Squad, and it’s bloody, bloody good. If you don’t know much about Movie Squad, I strongly suggest that you check out their official website (HERE) or join their Facebook page (HERE). Do it now, while they’re local and independent….because – in a few years time – you’re going to be really happy that you did.

Adrian and Bruce often create the story for their movies together, occasionally in storming sessions that run through until the early hours of the morning. Adrian then goes off and writes the completed script before Bruce takes over when filming begins. Bruce is a director in that true sense of the word, in that he doesn’t keep still for more than a few minutes at a time and regularly calls everyone back for a retake if he thinks of even the smallest thing that might improve the imaginative boundaries of the scene he’s trying to create. It’s difficult to describe the man, but something about the way he went for his shots reminded me a lot of Neil Jordan. Either way, Adrian and Bruce are a team. Their partnership obviously works extremely well: they’ve won the Kent Film Festival Award (Best Film, Best Drama, Best Sound, Audience Choice, Best Acting) and were Top Five in the BIAFF Film Festival.

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They know what they’re doing, and they do it well.

When I first arrived on the set of Merek (in Sandwich, Kent), I was greeted by the sight of a complete medieval village: pitched tents, flags, a witch-burning pyre, archers, troubadours, multitudes of children and adults in authentic costumes, a blacksmith’s forge and even a fully stocked hog-roast on an enormous banquet table.

It was hugely intimidating….but not quite as intimidating as the talent.

Some of the children I met on the set of Merek could act.

No, I mean: they could really act. I was playing a bit of an aggressive villain, and I had about ten lines to remember: the boy who featured in two of my scenes had roughly ten times the script and was reminding me of the stuff had to say before I said it.

I’m now convinced that some of the best actors to emerge in the next few decades may well have started their careers on the set of Merek. So…what is it about?

The poster for Merek - coming soon from Movie Squad.

The poster for Merek – coming soon from Movie Squad.

Merek is a dark fantasy set in a village troubled by rumours of witchcraft and centred, depending on your viewpoint, around the strange imagination or prophetic visions of the eponymous title character. Intended to be visually effective and deeply atmospheric, it’s top of my list in the coming months and I am completely thrilled to have been a part of it.

I can now safely relocate to my wife’s newly converted office at the bottom of the garden: I’m done for another year.

Keep an eye out for Merek: he’ll know if you don’t.

 

 

Dressing Up…

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Sometimes, I do quite silly things just to say that I’ve done them. It’s quite common knowledge among my friends that a good mate once found me inside my own fridge because I’d got bored and wanted to see if I could fit in the upper compartment once all the shelves had been taken out.

I was cold, but the look on his face was almost worth the discomfort, especially when I just climbed out and tried to carry on a normal conversation as if nothing particularly interesting had happened.

…but occasionally….I do stuff even I’m not entirely sure would qualify for a given value of normal.

A few years back, I went to a friend’s 30th fancy dress birthday party as Jason Vorhees, the mad murderer from the Friday 13th movies. The costume was basically a half-wrecked jumper, an old parker, a hockey mask and a machete. My mate went as a gangster and we had good fun with the somewhat weird difference in the characters as we arsed about at the venue….but the day following the party was a bit strange.

First off, I went to bed in the costume. I don’t usually do this, but I was either extremely tired or a bit drunk or possibly both….because I remember putting the mask back on and leaving the coat half on and actually sleeping on the plastic machete. My wife, who is used to me doing stupid stuff at least half the time, politely ignored me (after making sure I could breathe) and just went to bed.

The next day, after sitting bolt upright in bed and scaring the s*it out of myself when I saw my reflection in the mirror, I then proceeded to clean my teeth (raising the mask slightly but keeping it on), make my breakfast (wearing it) and – for reasons I never quite identified – then went outside with the bowl of Weetabix I’d prepared.

I stood outside my front door on Sydney Road in Ramsgate (where I lived at the time), looking like a demented slasher flick villain, holding the bowl and a spoon and just staring up and down the road.

During the five or ten minutes I stood there, three different people walked past. I knew all three of them, but none particularly well. The first guy to walk past just said ‘Morning Dave,’ as if I was displaying perfectly ordinary behaviour. The second chap gave me a quick glance but then put his head down and picked up the pace.

The third neighbour to cross my somewhat limited field of vision was a woman from two doors up who was carrying a big pack of toilet rolls under one arm. She actually stopped on my doorstep, looked up at me with a frown and said: ‘What are you supposed to be?’

I lifted my mask, nodded at the bowl and said ‘I think I might be a cereal killer.’

She didn’t laugh.

 

Stealing Cars

I tried to half inch this one at Disneyland Paris, but they'd welded it to the floor.

I tried to half inch this one at Disneyland Paris, but they’d welded it to the floor.

The year is 1991, and I am sitting in the manager’s office of Ramsgate’s old Pleasurama arcade, accused of trying to steal cars in the car park. My best friend, Russ, is sitting beside me: he’s accused, too. We have been in the office, waiting for the police to arrive, for around twenty minutes….but it feels like we’ve been there for hours.

We’re thirteen years old old, and we’ve never so much as stolen a pen, let alone a car. Unfortunately, the staff at Pleasureama are absolutely convinced that we’re responsible for the attempted theft because they’ve seen us trying to get into at least three vehicles.

Only, they haven’t….because nobody can find the woman who actually saw us trying to steal the cars. The staff are currently looking for her and, while they’re running all around the building between the arcade machines, we’re trapped in the manager’s office.

We went to Pleasurama every Saturday morning, mostly going through a routine of Pacland, Golden Axe, Rolling Thunder, Operation Wolf and Wrestler War. What we didn’t tend to do, being a couple of juvenile geeks in training, was to hotwire a few cars and go joyriding around Ramsgate in them.

Fortunately, I’m not that worried: despite their insane refusal to call either of our parents (we were young, and didn’t know this was totally against the law) my nan’s oldest friend works at Pleasurama and I’ve just told the manager to go and find her in order to confirm that I’m not the sort of kid who gets involved in stuff like car theft.

She arrives after what feels like an age, and then does something completely – COMPLETELY – unexpected.

She looks at me, this woman who has known me since I was born, and she says: “Well, I wouldn’t have thought – but – well, actually: you never know these days, do you? You just don’t know with these bloody kids.”

I stare at her.

To see if she’s joking.

She isn’t.

She just stares back at me, smiles sympathetically, puts her head on one side and says: “You just can’t tell.”

Then she leaves.

We sit there, in complete shock and silence, for another fifteen minutes.

Finally, someone finds the woman who is serving as an eye-witness to these attempted thefts. She walks into the room, barely glances at us and says: “Oh, no – they were much older than that.”

Then she leaves.

The manager doesn’t say sorry. He just takes us back to the arcade and puts twenty credits on Golden Axe for us.

We play for about two credits, and then we turn very quickly and walked out. My mate went straight home, and we didn’t really start talking about it until the following week at school. We were both scared, shocked and shaken up: I learned a horrible lesson about the unpredictability of human nature, and about how little people consider others when they’re on some sort of minor witch hunt.

Little things seem like big things when you’re young. To me, being accused of theft was horrific.

I assumed that they never actually called the police, but that threat – the threat of real trouble – hung over us every second we sat in that office.

We never went back to Pleasurama after that.

Personally, the experience and the unprofessional nature of the people who worked there was burned into my memory for years afterwards.

I was bloody glad when the place came crashing to the ground.

Disneyland Paris Top Ten Tips

Myself and my little dude on an early ticket for his 6th birthday at Disneyland Paris.

Myself and my little dude on an early ticket for his 6th birthday at Disneyland Paris.

Disneyland is a wonderful place where children pretty much see all their dreams coming true, and it makes the adults start feeling like children again. It is an incredible, breathtaking and magical experience for visitors, but it can also leave you broke, angry and utterly exhausted.

We have now had three very successful trips to Disneyland Paris: two holidays on our own and one with small children (aged 2 and 6). I’m going to break with my usual ‘Bloke Called Dave’ lunacy and actually give you what I think are ten tips that might very well save both your health and your money in the biggest dream park of them all. Here goes:

BLOKE CALLED DAVE TOP TEN TIPS FOR A HOLIDAY TO EURODISNEY

1. It’s a holiday for the children; not for you. If you want a holiday and you have small children, go to Centre Parcs: the kids will not have anywhere near as much fun, but you will get to relax in the evening. You will not get to relax in the evening at Disneyland. So my first tip is to only choose Disneyland if you’re not easily stressed by difficult situations, long queues and a lack of ‘couple’ time. If you’re used to this, go for it. If not, STAY AWAY from Disneyland: it may well kill you.

2. Keep your children up LATE….regardless of how small they are or how much you’ve paid. Listen to this one carefully: the better your hotel at Disneyland, the closer you are to the park. The closer you are to the park, the closer you are to the 11pm fireworks display. It is like nothing else on earth, and breathtaking to watch. However, if you decide to head back early to ‘put them to bed at a decent time’ you will be disappointed. If the explosions don’t wake them up, then five thousand people crashing back through the hotel at close to the midnight will. Trust me, I speak as someone who has stayed at the Disney Hotel, the Cheyenne and the Sante Fe. The rule still applies.

3. Be prepared to queue. In Summer, you will wait an hour to meet just about any Disney character, whether it’s Winnie the Pooh or Mickey himself. You should also magnify all ‘waiting times’ and add ten minutes to them in your head….otherwise, you will just get frustrated.

4. Prepare yourself for people who don’t think queues apply to them: they’re everywhere. The best tip is to make yourself wider and try to block the aisle. If there are more than two of you, fan out so that you occupy as much space as possible.

5. Fast Passes at Disneyland are a godsend, but don’t rely on them. Occasionally, the queue for a fast pass machine is just as big as the queue to get on the ride. Also, don’t be surprised if you get a fast pass at 10am and it gives you an entry time of 4pm: that’s the crowd for you.

6. If you’re going to watch the 5.30pm parade, ignore all the guides that say you should queue thirty minutes beforehand. If it’s Summertime, get there at least an hour ahead of everyone else, park yourself on the curb at the bottom of the ramp that leads to the Disney Castle…and DO NOT MOVE. If you get up to straighten your trousers, six hundred people will fight for the space you just left.

7. Get the early entry tickets. If you’re smart, you’ll pick up the early entry tickets. They will get you into the park an hour before everyone else and you will be able to go on at least three rides that will be impossible to get on later in the day. Definitely hit ‘Buzz Lightyear’ in Discoveryland as this really crams up later in the day.

8. Know your rides. Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Disney Studios Tour all move incredibly fast and have a high queue turnover. Alternatively, Peter Pan, Ratatouille and Buzz Lightyear will take up half your day in waiting.

9. Walking. People are lazy, and the hotels are not nearly as far away as people think. If you’re staying at the Hotel New York, the Cheyenne or even Sequoia Lodge, the park is literally at the bottom of the road. I saw people cramming to get onto a bus that was worse than the London tube in order to the equivalent of a shop around the corner. One girl cried because she couldn’t get on, and I saw her looking actually astonished when she got to the end of the road and realised that the hotel was THERE.

10. Expensive. Disneyland charges a ridiculous amount of money for nearly everything. A bottle of water will cost you close to £3 and you will not pick up a decent doll for less than about £25 or £30. My advice is to show your children every shop, ask them to choose their favourite toy and then tell them that if it’s still the thing they want at the end of the holiday then you will buy it for them when you get home…..on amazon……for a quarter of the price.

I hope this helps you to have a great trip to Disneyland. If it does, please feel free to SHARE it on so that we can help other folks have a great time, too.

Sorry, Can You Say That Again?

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“It’s Davey from Blockbuster in Ramsgate: store code 260116. I’d like to place a large stock order, please.”

It’s a Thursday morning, rain is pouring over Ramsgate and I’m on at early shift at Blockbuster. I’m really miserable: I’ve had a terrible night with very little sleep, and I’m on my own for the first hour of the shift. The sky is dark, people are running up and down King Street trying to get out of the rain and there’s even a few rumbles of thunder suddenly being thrown into the mix.

The store lights are flickering, but the place is empty. Apparently, even the soaking wet customers are avoiding us now…

The girl on the end of the phone, a customer rep from T.H.E. (our stock catalogue suppliers) is tapping away on a computer and muttering something, but I’m pretty sure she’s talking to another guy in their office.

“Okay,” she says, eventually. “Go ahead, please.”

“35664. 1 copy.”

“35664: that’s Scream on DVD, 1 copy. Go ahead, please.”

“53677. 2 copies.”

“53677: that’s I know What You Did Last Summer on DVD, 2 copies. Go ahead, please.”

“76452, 1 copy.”

“76452…”

There’s a pause. Then:

“Can you repeat the number please?”

“Sure. 76452.”

“I’m not getting that one: can I have the title, please?”

“Yes: it’s…..er…….oh, hang on: bloody hell…..it’s the Eat Sh*t and Die Boxset?

Another pause. Then:

“Is this a joke, Sir?”

I look down at the catalogue page, but it looks the same as all the others in the book. I even flick backwards and forwards through the catalogue, in case I’m suffering some sort of hallucination…but it’s THERE.

“No. It’s no joke, but…wow….I just can’t believe it’s called that.”

“Did you say ‘The Eat Sh*t and Die Boxset?’ Is that what you said?”

“Yes. It’s right here in your catalogue. No. 76452.”

“That definitely doesn’t exist, I’m afraid. I’ve searched under ‘Eat Sh*t’ and there are no variations on that title.”

“Sorry. I’m really not trying to make your job difficult: it IS in here, I swear.”

“Okay, but still….”

“Can we go on?”

“Of course.”

She’s trying not to laugh now, but I feel like an idiot…and, even though she can’t see my face, I know I’m going red in the cheeks.

“53632, 1 copy.”

“53632: that is Labyrinth on DVD, 1 copy.”

“84622, 1 copy.”

“84622….”

A terrible pause. Then:

“Can I have the title on that one, too?”

I trail down the catalogue page, and I’m horrified when I find the title. In fact, I almost can’t say it.

“Sir?”

“I don’t believe this. I can’t-“

“Sir?”

“It’s…….Nine Inch P*nis : The Return.”

“Nine Inch…?”

“P*nis: The Return.”

“I think somebody in your store might have set you up, Sir. These titles are definitely not on our system….”

“Er….yeah, totally. I’m so sorry: this is really embarrassing. I’ll call back.”

“Shall I go ahead and order the other titles?”

“Yes, if you would. Er….thanks.”

I put down the phone, and it’s then that I notice – for the first time – that the entry has been made with meticulous print handwriting, exactly placed beneath the last line of each order batch. It’s the other assistant manager’s handwriting.

I’ll kill him.