September 28, 2022


For First-Rate Health

Digested week: it’s good to be back after recent lows with mental health | John Crace


It’s great to be well enough to come back to doing digested week on a fortnightly basis. I’ve suffered with mental health issues throughout my adult life, but the last few months have been among the worst and it is only recently that I have been able to make a gradual return to work. Throughout this time I couldn’t have been looked after better as I have been supported by so many people from family, friends and colleagues at work to mental health professionals – I was lucky enough to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital at my lowest point – yet I am still unable to say exactly why I had such bad depression and anxiety at this particular point. When people ask, I’ve taken to saying that it was the result of being stuck at home and not seeing anyone during lockdown as that sounds a plausible explanation, though I have no idea if it is true. After all, I seemed to survive the first lockdown just fine. All I know for certain is that I had reached a point where I would wake up having a panic attack every morning and on some days be unable to leave the bedroom, except to go to the toilet, for the entire day. Recovery was painfully slow and I knew I was getting better only when I belatedly realised that I had gone several days without horrific nightmares and that my anxiety levels were not as high as they had been. Even then it took a while to trust that the improvement was permanent. I’m sure my mental health problems will return – they always have – but hopefully I will have a prolonged period of respite. All I can do is keep my fingers crossed, keep on taking the meds, doing as my therapist says and say thank you to everyone who helped me. Not least the readers who took the trouble to get in touch.


When parliament returned after the summer recess, the chamber divided neatly down party lines. Following advice pinned up all over the Westminster estate to show consideration for colleagues, almost all opposition MPs wore face masks in the chamber. The Tories, though, with the exception of Theresa May and Michael Gove, made a point of going uncovered in the Commons. As if it was a sign of weakness – a giving in to the virus – to wear a mask. I had expected the party conferences to reflect the same divisions, but instead found that people attending Labour and Tory events took a similarly casual approach to face coverings. Not just in the conference hall, but also in packed fringe meetings and crowded hotel bars. And on the trains and buses. Though at first I found it shocking, I soon became used to it. As did almost everyone else I met in Brighton and Manchester. A fatalism set in as we all knew people who had got the virus despite being jabbed. If we got Covid, we got it and hopefully it wouldn’t be too bad as at least we were double vaccinated. Weirdly, though, despite the virus having ideal conditions in which to spread, I have yet to hear of anyone I know who went to conference having come down with coronavirus. Even if it turns out that masks are a bit hit and miss, I guess we were all still incredibly lucky. By chance, on the last day of the Tory conference I got a text from my GP offering me a booster jab the following day. I snapped it up immediately and I’m now reasonably hopeful of getting through the winter without a bad case of Covid. The only question that remains is whether Labour will start wearing masks again when parliament returns next week.


To boldly go where others have gone before. Fair play to the 90-year-old Star Trek actor William Shatner for becoming the oldest man in space. I’ve been obsessed with space flight since I was a kid and kept scrap books of the Gemini and Apollo missions, yet I would never have accepted Jeff Bezos’s invitation to fly onboard Blue Origin as I’d have been far too scared. Fear of heights and claustrophobia aren’t ideal character traits for any would-be astronaut. But PR stunt aside – and the Amazon boss certainly got full value out of his freebie to Shatner with the second flight of his spacecraft getting at least as much, if not more, media coverage than the first – I can’t help feeling there’s something rather pointless, not to mention self-indulgent, about the billionaire space race between Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson. Bezos’s stated aim of the Blue Origin project sounds laudable enough. He wants to enable a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth. But so far he’s got no further than building a rocket that can reach an altitude of 66 miles, giving the astronauts four minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth about 10 minutes after take-off. Climate change is odds on to do irreversible damage to the planet long before Bezos and co have progressed much beyond space tourism for the very rich. Still, Shatner does appear to have been profoundly moved by his 10-minute trip. So perhaps we should think about crowdfunding a flight for the UK’s Brexit negotiator, David Frost. Perhaps then he might get some insight into why Lord Frost now wants to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol that Frost negotiated two years ago and which he said was a brilliant deal for the UK.


A survey conducted on behalf of Create and Craft found that young people aged between 16 and 29 increasingly took up old-fashioned hobbies to relieve the stress and boredom of lockdown. Gardening, painting – Boris setting the trend – birdwatching and knitting topped the poll, but what caught my eye was that 5{5dfd1de9da59c0c38ca6720e3c60aa45adf7724498a16e1572e038fdc81a6ae9} have taken up philately. As someone who used to be a keen stamp collector, I found this remarkable, because even when I was 40 I always used to be by far the youngest person at any stamp fair or exhibition. Note the use of the past tense: I stopped because stamp collecting was slowly driving me mad. Here’s how it happened. I started out by trying to collect every GB stamp that had ever been issued – used and unused – but quickly realised that was a prohibitively expensive goal. So I then thought I would specialise further by just collecting unused stamps from the reigns of Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI. This also proved to be financially unviable once I had got my head round all the different colour variations of the same stamp. What I needed was something monetarily manageable and I thought I had found it when I started collecting complete panes that had been extracted from stamp booklets because, according to the specialist catalogue, they were all more or less affordable. What I hadn’t bargained on, though, was that there were at least 50 or so panes that never appeared in auctions or stamp dealers’ lists. Over time, it dawned on me that just because a booklet pane had been printed was no guarantee of anything, as it was quite possible that they had been broken up and the stamps used for the purpose for which they had been intended. So for more than 10 years, I had been trying to collect something which didn’t necessarily exist. This was a futility too far even for me, so I sold up and started collecting books and pots. And Panini stickers, of course. They have been ever present in my life since the 1970 World Cup.


There are many periods of my 20s where my memory is rather sketchy. Yet I can remember my dad turning 65 perfectly as it was a massive family event. That was the age at which he chose to retire as vicar of his three village parishes in Wiltshire and move to near where he and my mother had grown up in Hampshire. His retirement was a couple of years in the planning and I never once questioned his decision when he said he felt he was too old to continue. Back then most men did retire at that time of their lives and 65 did feel very old. But now I’m having to do a radical rethink as last weekend I reached that milestone myself and have no plans for imminent retirement as there is so much more I want to achieve. Though I certainly don’t feel young – it’s hard to do that when your children are 29 and 25 and have been living away from home for some years now – I do feel that 65 has rather crept up on me unawares and I certainly don’t feel old or at all ready to stop work. I’m up for another five years provided the Guardian and its readers will still have me. Here’s hoping. Even so, 65 does feel a landmark birthday. One that the NHS certainly didn’t forget as on my birthday I got a letter saying I was now due for a screening for an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Though I appreciate the efforts of the NHS to keep me alive, I could have done with another couple of days getting used to being 65 before being reminded I was now an age where I was in danger of dropping down dead at any moment. Anyway, I went for my ultrasound and my aorta was thankfully in textbook shape. So that’s one thing that can kill me hopefully ruled out. I left the clinic feeling as if I had been given a reprieve. Onwards and sideways.

Digested week, digested: Still not getting Brexit done.

Churchill bust and Boris Johnson
‘Forget it. You’ll never make it big in the US’. Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Rex/Shutterstock