Monday, July 25, 2011


On my birthday, I sat in the café across the road from the passport office. I needed a new passport. So, on the day I was born, I had to confirm and justify who I was.

You have to get your application countersigned by someone 'of standing in the community' who has known you for at least two years. I had been lost for anyone to ask, until my mother suggested a friend living near the house I was born in. When she came to the bit confirming how long she had known me, she looked at me.

"When were you born?" she asked, and then wrote '46 years', as the length of our friendship, on the form.

I loved the idea of having a friendship lasting since I first arrived in the open air only 100 yards from where the form was being signed. She wrote that she had known me since I had existed. Can a friendship start at birth? I decided it can, because a friendship only needs one active partner. If the other cannot yet speak or walk, then they can still receive friendship, and can return it in time.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


The best thing about Lagos is the positive attitude on everyone's faces; there's a strength of character here that means people get up and carry on, no matter what happens. I hope to come back again sometime soon, if I am lucky, with my camera. My favourite mental pictures are of a woman cooking and selling sweetcorn on the pavement; of countless motor bikes negotiating enormous holes in the road; of the fishermen's boats floating in shallow sea waters. I will take the positive attitude back home with me, plus thoughts of a beautiful country.

Tuesday would have been my sister Emma's birthday, and I'm so grateful to her childhood friend Rachel for sending me a text remembering her, and sending love to all the family.

The older I get, the more I realise that life is too short for conflict, and too long to live without smiles and kindness.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


I rarely sleep on planes. It gives me a chance to see what the mind does without sleep. There are several effects:

1. Increased sensitivity to pain. Little things bother me more. It is as though I were a sofa temporarily devoid of cushions, or a car deprived of suspension. Bumps are more obvious. I am more reactive, and find it harder to ignore discomfort.

2. Higher levels of paranoia. I speculate more on others' motives, on what is happening behind the scenes. I think this is a by-product of lower pre-frontal cortex efficiency. Less able to rationalize appropriately, I float through more theories, but with less certainty.

3. Reduced ability to eat and sleep. It is a descending spiral. The body has fewer of the chemicals that promote an easy metabolism, so it becomes less normative and more erratic.

In contrast, when I caught up on sleep with a glorious long session of dreams and relaxation, these effects reversed. In particular, a good sleep seems to smooth the relationship between immediate experience and long-term memory. Good dreams reconcile the irreconcilable, and allow concepts to sit more easily with each other. It does this by finding undiscovered conscious relationships between matters that were previously unsettled in the unconscious. It is the mind's equivalent of a grand conference, where ideas are aired and explored. A form of semantic democracy, promoting greater integration and harmony. In this way, sleep is a little miracle that sets the world to rights.


I find a great clarity in the English language used by Nigerians. I was reading the local paper at breakfast. It was the first time I have seen 'arrogate' used as a verb, ever. Wealthy people were 'arrogating' resources to themselves. The words are often longer, and sometimes misplaced, but there is a carefulness of expression.

In spoken words, too, there is the same care. Spoken sentences actually end; unlike in the UK, where we drift between endless chains of phrases, as though afraid of interruption.

Monday, July 18, 2011


In Lagos, between 5.30 and 8.30 in the morning, everyone shifts from where home is to where work is. People drift out of their shacks, or their houses, onto the roadside. Many don't have cars, and wait for the innumerable yellow and white vans to stop and pick them up. The bridge between mainland and island goes on for miles. To the left, gorgeous shapes against the rising sun, elegant and curved fishing boats, most with only two men aboard, drift along the reed-strewn coast. To the right, countless shacks with corrugated roofs look damp and dishevelled after another deluge of rain last night.

This is the longest bridge in Africa. There are cars along its whole length. Horns honk all the time. Men on foot weave dangerously between the vehicles, hoping to sell a few biscuits, cigarettes, or packets of chewing gum. Men on motor bikes have either no helmet, or bizarre half-helmets that belong in a cartoon, or in a 20th century war. On the island, some cook beside the road; some carry baskets or boxes of goods on their heads; and everyone seems to be talking, laughing, arguing, shuffling for position, fighting for a part of something, where there is not so much to share around. It's a beautiful place, though. Everyone seems to have clear and healthy skin, not pasty and spotty, like the UK.

The journey takes hours. Just when you think the bridge is finishing, there is more. I am the only white person I see. I have an armoured car behind me, to protect me. I know it's necessary, but I feel overprotected, on display.

Sometime after 8.30, when my journey is done, everything will go quiet again, until the evening backflow chains its way home.


"That went like no time," she said.

We had been in a long queue, and had started chatting. Now we were at the front, and the half-hour wait had only seemed like minutes.

The secret is to always be making things with the time you have. Make connections, make bread, make anything: just fill the time with engaging activity, and it will pass like magic.


At a barbecue yesterday I bumped into a psychiatric nurse.

"Forgive me asking," I said, "but how would you define psychotic?"
"Losing touch with reality," she said. "Be careful," she added. "A guy from Oxford has been with us preparing his doctoral thesis, and he's started showing signs of psychosis himself."

She herself was researching the relevance of physical health in the early stages of mental illness. Keeping physically healthy is so important, but is often forgotten in the quest to offer drug treatments. I think she said that those taking antipsychotic treatments are particularly susceptible to heart problems.

It's a fine line, she said, between paranoia and psychosis. Perhaps just a matter of degree. And people get better, she said. Or start off fine, and then relapse into psychosis at times of stress. It's often pressure that does it. Things become too much, and the mind starts altering reality in a misguided attempt to cope.

She was very calm and factual about it all. As though she saw it every day, and it no longer surprised her. Compassionate, though. The easy, calm compassion you get from a good, experienced nurse. It's nice there are people like that. People for whom life is care and understanding, not profit and control.


I was chatting with a good friend recently about grieving. About how we think we're OK, but suddenly have days where we're overwhelmed with sadness, when all we want is for things to be like they used to be. And how we think we're getting stronger; but suddenly have a day when we feel like the weakest person in the world.

"When I broke up with my husband," she said, "the worst month wasn't immediately after the break-up, but almost a year later. I suddenly broke down and couldn't cope."

At such times we just need to go with the flow of emotions, and not try to rationalize. Later, with another caring friend, I just sat and let plain misery flood me. I didn't argue with the feeling, I just let it flow through me. I didn't try to cure anything. I just let it be. And she had the generosity not to try to solve anything, but just to let me grieve, like a child, without logic or plan or escape. Simple loss is a flow, where you become the shape of the sadness. And if you can absorb it, you can begin to heal.


It's flood season in Lagos. 24 dead so far. A resident was telling me about it.

"It's the people near the canals who suffer,in the low-income areas. The water channels are not well-drained, so they just get carried away. The Governor is a good man, though. A lawyer, with a good understanding. Where are you staying?"

I told him.

"Aah! Upper class area. You will enjoy."
"I'll lower the tone," I said.
He laughed and shook my hand. He explained that I should be careful. In what way, I asked. "Watch your bags, keep them close. They know who lives there, and who is a tourist… the way you walk, the way you look, the way you move."

He taught me my first Nigerian word (although he warned me there were so many different dialects, all fairly unique. I don't know how it's spelled, but it sounds like "shallafione". It means hello. I like to learn a word or two. It's my way of getting a little immersed in a place. And a mark of respect for my delegates.


At the airport, I bought a cappucino and looked for a space to sit. The café was full, but I used one side of a table already occupied.

"Where are you flying to?" said the girl opposite. We did the pleasantries, and it turned out she was a student illustrator, travelling to see her family in Bangkok.

"I do the old kind, arty and low-tec, like for album covers, things like that. I'm two years into my studies. When it gets to four years I move countries; I can't stay more than that. It's been like that all my life. I have never stayed anywhere." She was eating a huge burger. "I hate the plane food, so I stuff it all in first!"

She had the energy of youth; everything to her was quick and easy; life was full of drama but her brain was adjustable and she could cope, she would cope, she was flowing through life like water.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


It's so hard sometimes, when you miss the company of someone special.

It's such a mad world that keeps people apart; but we can always hope for better times, and say a quiet prayer.

"If you love someone more than anything, then distance only matters to the mind, not to the heart."

Friday, July 15, 2011


The other day, a friend told me she had been 'dropped' by a best friend. She didn't know what she had done, but her mate had simply stopped communicating. She had gone over their recent relationship, trying to think of ways she could have offended her friend unintentionally. But nothing made much sense.

"I have no idea what's happened," she said.
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"I'll wait for a while," she said. She didn't want to be confrontational. Of course she would have loved to know what she'd done, so she could make peace if necessary.

Relationships are funny things. We can be travelling along fine, and then a friend, a customer, or a family member can seem to be avoiding us. It becomes like a detective game to work out what, if anything, we might have done wrong. Whether we ever find out can depend on the approach that other person has to communication. I'd suggest there are four types:

1. THE COMFORT SEEKER (low-risk, low-energy) - This type of friend will do whatever's easiest. If they have something they can't tell you, they will just avoid you until the problem has blown over. They don't like risk, so they won't pick up the phone and risk the chaos that might result. They don't have the energy to work through the issues, so they'd rather leave them.
What to do: Wait. You will hear from this person when it suits them. In the meantime, you're on your own. They don't mean any harm. They just want an easy life.

2. THE PACIFIER (low-risk, high energy) - This type of person applies a lot of energy to making peace in their world. Like the comfort-seeker, they don't like risk, but they do apply a lot of energy to making things right with others. They will generally keep on and on adapting, and rarely avoid people, preferring to make the effort to stay in touch. It is very rare for these people to avoid others, but if they do, it is because they feel they have tried everything, and there is nothing more they can do.
What to do: Get in touch, sit with them in a safe environment, and ask them for thoughts, ideas, suggestions. If you show yourself willing to make peace, so will they.

3. THE NEUROTIC (high-risk, low-energy) - This type will be impossible to read; their behaviour will seem inconsistent, blowing hot and cold. When they are in the mood to be friendly, you will receive their friendship; when they are in the mood to withdraw, you will hear nothing.
What to do: Accept that this person's behaviour will depend on their mood. When they're in a good mood, enjoy it. When they're in a bad mood, get occupied on something else. Don't require rational explanations: they won't have one.

4. THE NOMAD (high-risk, high-energy) - This person will enjoy things for what they are, but if something more interesting comes along, they're off enjoying that instead. They generally don't mean any harm - they have just acquired the habit of choosing new adventures, and 'going for it'.
What to do: Accept that you cannot chain this person to the ground, and that it's not personal. Wait, and keep yourself occupied on other things. You will hear when they have a window in their diary!

I hope this helps to interpret the sometimes confusing behaviour of our fellow human beings! The main thing is not to take things personally - it will just eat you up while you try to guess what you have done wrong. In the famous words of St Paul, 'Love keeps no record of wrongs'. If you love others truly, then you will allow them to be themselves, adapt where possible, and, most importantly… when they come back from hiding, retiring, sulking or adventure-seeking, smile, love them, and enjoy them for the imperfect but beautiful human being they are!

Sunday, July 10, 2011


I was driving to collect my son the other night, and went past two figures running fast on the pavement. At first I thought they were runners; but then I saw that they were dressed for a night out. After a few moments' thought, I decided to stop and ask if they needed help.

"We're trying to catch the last train!" they said, out of breath.

I offered them a lift and they hopped in. A little later they spotted their friends on the pavement.

"These are our friends - you can let us out here!"

But as I did so, I heard the friends say, "Why did you get out of the car? You could have got there!"

As I drove off, I remembered that they had said they were trying to catch the 11:52pm. It was 11:49pm.

I thought about it. About whether there should be limits to my help, or whether I should keep helping until the job was done.

I stopped again around the corner. When they were level with me, exhausted, I opened my window.

"Listen, do run if you want, but if it's easier, just all get in and I can try to get you to the train."

They piled in (I think there were five of them), and we rushed to the station, getting there with two minutes to spare.

As they got out, they held out a can and asked if I wanted a beer. "I don't drink, but just do something nice for someone tomorrow!" I said.

"I love you!" shouted one of them as I drove away. I heard someone call me a guardian angel.

I can honestly say I gained several things that night, in just a few minutes. The adrenaline rush of a quest. The pleasure of being part of something. The happiness of something achieved. A sense of friendship. The feeling of generating goodwill and faith in human nature.

So if you see someone 'running for a train' - whatever form that train takes, and if you have time (we always do really), see what you can do to help them. You will gain from it somehow, I guarantee!

Monday, July 4, 2011


I was in London the other day, at the New Designer's exhibition in Islington. It was held at the Business Design Centre, which has a wonderful arching roof like a Victorian railway station. There were hundreds of exhibitors, all designers exploring the boundaries of what is possible, using processes whose limits are not fully understood.

My good friend's exhibit included a beautiful red bowl, made from material squeezed out from a special machine called an extruder. If you can imagine a giant toothpaste tube being squeezed, and the contents being teased into a large bowl-shape before the material dries, then you have the idea. No one has done this before, so the product has the great attraction of the new, combined with tremendous aesthetic appeal.

She told me about other ideas that have been explored. They had traced the journey from Manchester to Milan on a map, and then programmed the shape into a computerised 3-dimensional printing machine, which can build up a 3-D structure in layers. What they discovered was that information (here in the form of map information) has a definite aesthetic feeling about it when transformed into another medium. The road from Manchester to Milan will have its own special shape, as will all journeys.

As I listened, many psychological parallels struck me. Our intuitive response to experiences, for example, rely on receiving a great mass of sense information, and then somehow processing it into a whole result which gives us a gut feeling in our stomach. For example, music can be written as a complex web of information; but the resulting song can have a recognizable identity all of its own. So that when we play a song, we are immediately taken to an emotional place which we recognize.

I would go further, and say that emotion acts as a mediator between the raw information and the intuitive response. This allows us, through feelings, to deal with masses of information all at once. So, for example, we can tell if a situation feels right, just by being there for a few seconds. We do not know what information we are processing, but we are aware of the emotional result. Music, fashion, and most art work on this level - without an emotional response, we might as well not bother with art. Everything has a mood, and that mood is what we use to organize our response. Without it, we have no sense of preference or priority.

But the response, to be effectively organized, has to be within normative limits. When our sensitivity is too high, for instance, we react to everything with extremes of fear, apprehension or suspicion. This is the world of phobia and paranoia, where our past experience has conditioned us to be so alert that we lose all proportion. In emotional situations of this kind, our friends often suggest to us that we get some distance, to regain a sense of proportion, of balance.

As we sat outside on the pavement, watching the Islington crowds go by, it was a chance to recharge the spiritual batteries, and to recalibrate the emotional sensors. When life becomes very dramatic, it is easy to forget proportion, easy to react with fear and distrust of the world. But by exploring together, by trying out new techniques, by trial and error, and by comparing notes with our friends, we can rediscover a sense of proportion and beauty. Instead of being reactive and afraid, our intuition returns to harmony with the information around us. And we can then drop our excess fear, rediscover our inner peace, and find comfort again in those closest to us.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Yesterday, in the sunny evening of a beautiful day, as the shadows were lengthening, I was walking through a garden with little Poppy.
It was the end of a long day at a theme park, and my friend's daughter was disappointed. She had trekked across the park to have a last go on her favourite ride, only to find that it was closed for the day.

"That's it," she said. "There's no point in anything any more."

All suggestions were met with the same response. No food would taste right; no activity would match up to the swing ride she had wanted to go on; there was no hope in the world!

I noticed in her a little version of what comes to us all when we are disappointed. We let the disappointment move outwards, until, quick as a flash, it has affected all aspects of our life. Nothing feels right, so nothing can be right. The happy past does not exist. The future is bleak. Poppy wouldn't even be comforted by a plan to make that ride the first one on the next visit.

"It's a year until then," she said.

"You know, the thing I like about your attitude," I said, "is that you haven't given up yet." (I guess she had given up a little, but I wanted her to see the hope that remained and believe in that!)

We all looked aroung the gift shop. As closing time arrived, with a minute to go, she hadn't found anything to cheer her up. Finally, with seconds left, her mum, held a furry polar bear up in the air in front of her.

Poppy looked at it.
You could see that she was feeling the pull of pessimism; hearing a little voice that said happiness had ended, so why should she try to find it.
But then a little smile came to the corners of her mouth.
Suddenly her posture changed, she took a deep breath, and nodded.

"That's the one!" she said, shining with a new humour and confidence.

After all the disappointment, she had caught the important lesson that there is always something happy around the corner, if we just smile and reach out a bit.