The Look – Woodsy

I see the look.
I see that it’s me that you’re not looking at.
I see the shield, too,
cloaking the thing behind your eyes
so nobody else will believe it’s there.
But yeah,
I see the look.
Not the one you’d have me see.
Not the one on the sales pitch.
But I see the look
that fits the voice.
I see the look
that fits the stance…
the wariness
that you don’t think you do.
is it still gaslighting
if it’s you?
The thing that comes to pull up my floor.
Is it still valid
if I see it in you?
The eyes that make me doubt what’s true.
you didn’t do me on a flipchart.
You still don’t get
what you have not heard,
what you cannot share.
I’m shingle here –
jagged and rancid from the surf…

and all your pebbles are so cleanly labelled.

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Are we doing anything right for wellbeing?

Today I was watching a group of young children being put through their paces at a tae kwondo class. It struck me that as I watched them take the stances for their grading that they had no idea of what the positions and actions were really about.

I then reflected upon the work that is being done in mental health at the moment, whether it be on suicide awareness, or professionals assessing and interacting with people who are distressed. It struck me that it was more about ritual than action.

The children, were they confronted with a real life situation, would find no utility in the poses they have been trained to present as a form of protection or defence. Their discipline would no doubt be excellent but their response to an unexpected and chaotic threat from another or others would be about as useful as a banana in a gunfight.

Likewise I find the training being offered to people as “mental health first aid” and the assessments carried out by professionals with people presenting at a statutory service similarly as useful as that banana.

Rituals, processes and protocols rarely have any utility when it comes to individual human beings. All these ideas are based upon some putative average person who doesn’t exist. Research based upon “weird” criteria serve only to distract from the distress of the individual.

Louis Appleby makes a similar point on twitter today (12th May 2019), “What exactly are we raising awareness of? With so much in media about feeling suicidal, about actual deaths, could message be that suicide is an option? And with so much talking about talking, are we distracting from what is needed on health care, alcohol, deprivation?”

The reality is that changing communities towards working together, nations collaborating to use resources more sensibly and sustainably, developing a view of the future that is wanted rather than fearing the one that is not wanted, is essential. This remains the paradigm shift that everyone talks about. That paradigm shift is not about models, frameworks, science; it is far more fundamental, it is about the way that we think and view ourselves, others and the world around us. We have to overcome 270 million years of evolution to overcome our fear of the “other.”

Unfortunately, I think the world is about to go through a process which will not reflect well upon the human species. The “oh! so powerful” neoliberal agenda is currently using fear and fear of the “other” to drive an agenda that will set nations, communities and individuals against one another. I fear for the future of millions of people as the cycle of history turns again and lessons that were learned once more forgotten in the search for the power, glory and wealth of a small number of individuals.

There is an irony in this, that research in human beings requires large numbers for the research to have power and credibility to indicate that it has value and meaning, yet we ignore at our peril the power of individuals!

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Woodsy And I.

A few days ago, Woodsy and I decided that we wanted to write something together. Woodsy wanted to write a poem, I can’t write poetry. I wanted to write a piece of prose, Woodsy doesn’t write prose – much. So, what is below is the thoughts of both of us, all thoughts exchanged by email.
We would like to know what you think…

Woodsy – A sweet little meal in your light

When you ring those friends,
the kind you value when value seems an empty word,
just wanting to hold their voice,
long enough to show them…
long enough to let them know
just how much the sky has grown
since riding home in their light.

When you want to thank them,
praise them,
treasure them
for all the moments when you held back,
scared to mess up something precious…

And they ring back saying:
“We’re just putting a meal out… are you up for coming down right away?”

When it’s wow…
a whole new flavour,
catching you now.

But you don’t want to name it
or frame it
or tie a big fluffy ribbon round it.

You want it simply
what it is…
a genuine place,
making a brew
giving me space.

A flood of calm in the wake of things said…
a beacon,
caressed in time so softly spent…
holding me upright
in a world upside down…

finding my words
and teasing them free…

melting the clench in my fists over tea…

telling the world’s meanest fingers
they don’t have to scratch anymore.

Being safe,
when there’s nothing safe left.

Being the home
I couldn’t find hanging on a wall,
or framed in pretty smiles…

Being the wild thing
that held me when nothing else heard,
that warmed me madly in chilly fabric…
rain on my cheek,
sea-sprayed railings
and the sound of midnight tide,
like wet laundry.

Like me,
spun loose and soaked…

Like you…
holding a voice that weeps in the strangely distant air

nursing the wounds
from small but unshakeable holocausts

because you have your own share of dark, smoky pillars –
and you know,
better than most,
how the lies of the righteous hang prettily there.

I have been working with Woodsy since the beginning of 2019. It is not for me to tell his story, that is for him to do, but his has not been an easy life. He started sending me his thoughts and poetry after we had met a few times because we both felt it would be useful for me to have a wider insight into his thoughts through his writing. I have published a few pieces on my blog and Woodsy does a number of performances of his poetry at various different places in the region every week.

We had been discussing where we go from here and the kind of things that would be useful and helpful for us and for others. We agreed that perhaps Woodsy would write something and I would respond to it. Neither of us knew what would come of this. Woodsy has excelled himself, as usual, all I need to do now is to try to say something else that would also be useful…

Well-being is a very slippery subject. It means so many different things to different people. Different experiences produce different ideas about what well-being is for a human being. To begin with well-being is a socially constructed concept, it is determined, it seems to me, by the prevailing power in a society. While there may be some universals such as security, warmth and light when we get into the realms of experience well-being becomes a much trickier subject. For some people parascending or parachuting is a peak experience of well-being, for others it would be the greatest nightmare. For example, I used to love caving and I would like nothing better than disappearing down a big damp cave somewhere in Yorkshire to explore with some friends. Today, 40 years later, while it wouldn’t quite be a nightmare, it would certainly not be my idea of fun.

Our needs and wants change over time, sometimes on a daily basis, the very idea that it is possible to categorise these and subvert them into some kind of model protocol that can then be applied to the population generally has always struck me as being rather bizarre.

Woodsy catches this superbly in just a few lines,
“When it’s wow…
a whole new flavour,
catching you now.

But you don’t want to name it
or frame it
or tie a big fluffy ribbon round it.”

The idea that the poetry of human thought or even actions, can be represented by a reductionist approach to well-being just suggests how limited the imagination of some of our social scientists is when trying to work with people who are distressed.
When I started working with distress a quarter of a century ago, I sat in that reductionist paradigm. The irony is that because I knew so little, I thought I knew so much. Today, now I know so much more, I have come to know that I know so little.

I am always minded of Voltaire’s famous statement,
“Doctors pour drugs of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, into patients of whom they know nothing”.
While I think this statement is a little cruel today as in physical medicine so much more is known about diseases and the drugs that we used to treat them in physical conditions, the statement remains largely true of what medicine chooses to call psychiatric conditions.

It is axiomatic that those who work with people who are in distress know little or nothing of them.
“You want it simply
what it is…
a genuine place,
making a brew
giving me space.”
“Being safe,
when there’s nothing safe left.

Being the home
I couldn’t find hanging on a wall,
or framed in pretty smiles…

Being the wild thing
that held me when nothing else heard,
that warmed me madly in chilly fabric…”

Woodsy’s words provided me with such an insight into what was needed. Not a fancy intervention, not a demand to breathe and meditate, not a job to go to (meaningless or otherwise), not a challenge to irrational thoughts and beliefs, but a place where Woodsy felt safe and listened to. A place where distress could begin to unfold, and a sense of calmness and warmth could seep into the cracks between the distress.

Today we try so hard to fix everything yet, ironically, the more we try to fix it, the more broken it becomes. I also think that so much of the time we don’t even know what we are fixing. We are just like rats in a maze, responding to the needs of the maze, going down blind alleys, panicking that we are not going to get where we are going, yet not knowing where we are going.

Our science of the mind reduces us to protocols, to predictable behaviour. When we do not respond in the expected way we are discarded, “they didn’t engage”, we become outliers in the great scientific experiment, unwanted, unloved, unheard and unheeded.
The science of the mind currently ignores the quality of life and merely measures the quantity of life. Services for the distressed, unhappy, disordered people in our society attempts to pat them into shape so that they fit into the sausage machine that are our current services. When they don’t fit the machine spits them out.

Today’s world doesn’t value human beings equally. We are measured by our output, usually in financial terms. I have always found it strange that dustbin men, cleaners, health care assistants and other service industry staff are among the lowest paid people with the least training, yet they interact with more people than just about any one else on a daily basis. Their work is not valued, yet stop emptying the bins, stop cleaning, stop caring and the difference is felt immediately. In contrast, the highest paid, like politicians, bankers, fund managers and other financial industry people are rarely missed for months on end.

“When you ring those friends,
the kind you value when value seems an empty word,
just wanting to hold their voice,
long enough to show them…
long enough to let them know
just how much the sky has grown
since riding home in their light.”

To me, Woodsy seems to be making a clear comparison here between the genuine friendship of people who allow him to be who he is and the stark contrast of the way that value is measured by statutory organisations, “when value seems an empty word”.

Woodsy’s experience of support from statutory services has, shall we say, less than a positive experience in the past. It is interesting to note that as Woodsy begins to develop a reputation and an audience, the attitude of many in the statutory services has changed significantly.

Trust, hope and friendship have always been high on Woodsy’s list of desirable characteristics. The consistency that goes with those qualities and the ability to trust them is something now that is only beginning to re-emerge, and it shows in Woodsy’s recent poetry.

For example, a little further on in the poem the observation is made,
“You want it simply
what it is…
a genuine place,
making a brew
giving me space.”

All Woodsy is asking for is an opportunity to reflect to gather thoughts and an opportunity to hear those thoughts out loud instead of buzzing like a swarm of angry bees within that grey blancmange that is the human brain. Thoughts that are intractable, painful and always negative. All that is wanted is time and space to begin to reorder those thoughts, have the opportunity to pay attention to new ones and bring in that which is desirable rather than trying to remove that which is undesirable.

Throughout the poem the desire for contact, connection and perhaps even community is screaming through the isolation of our day-to-day mechanical world where being connected means having a job, making money. The value of meaningful relationships, trust and hope are demoted, like a second-rate football team, to a lower division. Self-esteem, self-worth and the valuing of each other has become less important than our ability to make money, the climb up the greasy pole of success by standing on the corpses of those around us who we dismissed as unimportant in the race for wealth, fame and recognition.

The cynical use of media to normalise stigma, seeing the not so lucky, the distressed and ill as feckless, wasters and a drain upon society are all tools that have been used in the past to “cleanse” a society. Those tools are coming back into common parlance today we see politicians and the media flagrantly using the fears of others to further their own personal causes. The money and power is not used for the benefit of all but wasted by the few.

Perhaps as a final thought, it might be that money is not the best currency for reward and that perhaps care and compassion might be better forms of currency. For then the good nurse, refuse collector or shop assistant might be rewarded more appropriately for the work that they do for others. Those that change the world like engineers, architects would begin to develop their ideas around effective spaces in which good care for each other can take place, while the banker and hedge fund manager might struggle to make a living!

Using currencies like quality of life, sustainability and ecological soundness would make it impossible for people to gather and secrete wealth, as the only way to gather it would be to act, at some level, for the benefit of others and on a continuous basis. The irony of this is that we would naturally develop the “caring capitalist”. Now that would be a better world! A world more suited for those such as Woodsy. that would be a better world! A world more suited for those who just want an opportunity to create and discover too, such as Woodsy.

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The Petal Fund – Woodsy

“The petal fund”
They love me…
They love me not…
They love me…
They love me not…

Funding petals,
drifting free…
as though not pulled,
vetted and

Puppet flowers,
sound bites
in the coldness…
whim flakes in the snow…

The cash we can share
for a piece of that there…

They love me…
They love me not…
They love me…
They love me not…

What boxes to tick,
what remit you fit…

What piece of your soul that crawls out of the mist
can be labelled
and valued
and allowed to exist.

And all those windblown,
burning things…

all those deep-dug holes…

and plucked
and pulled
where heartstrings used to be…

like rusted rings on splintered doors…

the hope that lives on sinkhole floors.

All the way down from the sell-yourself shop…

All the way down to the sea.

They love me…
They love me not…
They love me…
They love me not…

All the way out of the garden…

All the way down to the sea.

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Beachcombed – Woodsy

I  love the tide,

my rolling go-to place.

The movement…
the texture…
the churn, mirroring my own…
the restlessness, mirroring my own…

rippled space to float an imagination on…

a rhythm to set my heart by…

nature’s timepiece.

The fence at the edge of my world will never hold me,
as long as there is a tide.

And what of yours?

Where does yours roll in?

Where do you find you?

The real you that sits in the core of you and rebuilds itself when anyone wants a piece of you…

Find it. Be it.

If you’re in an alley full of dross and there’s no way out, find it there.

If you’re sitting in an office being talked down to, find it there.

If the walls are collapsing around your heart,
find the part of your heart that doesn’t need walls…

the part that builds bridges in scary places,
and raises cathedrals that sometimes only you can see.

They can’t shoot it.

They can’t jail it.

Whoever “they” may be,

they can’t sanction it out of being what it is.

It is you.

Find it, and let the world know.

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Travel lines – Woodsy

Cradling the warmth of stars,

your private fusion closet –
only to find a wet and empty thing
nestled in your palms.
The cup you’ve been nursing
over the wild abandon of friends and galloping conversations…
The ticket,
folded and fraying in your hands
as you melt into the rhythm of the tracks…
The journeys,
no longer wasted on their destinations…
The world
repainted beyond windows,
waiting for fresh eyes…
People hungry for the touch of new shores,
something tugging at their feet,
their hands,
green from moss and tree bark,
wet from rock pools,
or their hearts,
pulled from the terrors of small screens
and replanted
on a path where scary becomes exciting again.
without steering wheels
and the ache of overdue tyres.
waiting for the soul across the aisle
to notice…
and smile.
For the first time,
in a life lived between the lines
of other people’s deadlines,
a new kind of nowhere
becomes a special kind of place to go.
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I don’t really mean this, do I? by Woodsy

Before one of my recent performance poetry readings, a friend of mine was sharing the weird disparity between: “Wow, that’s brilliant! So powerful!”
and the patting-on-the-head moment:

“Oh, what, you don’t really feel like that do you? Here, you’d better sit down!”

He was expressing a sense of those invisible barriers that determine what you can say and what you can’t.  There are definitely some things I could sell in a poetic performance that I would never be able to say as myself –

certainly not as a member of the “other” tribe…

one of the clienty, service-usery people… one of the damaged people.

I guess I’ve sensed this more in recent weeks, as I’ve found myself in a strange limbo between the damaged people and the “we can rebuild you” people.

If you’re on the “proper people” side of the equation, you can sound off, let off steam, vent some cynicism… even go on an occasional power trip, and then call each other an arse for doing so.

Because you’re proper people.  You can do all this and laugh it off afterwards – or pretend to.  You’re allowed.

Maybe you’re even allowed to do this at the totally broken end of the spectrum, too – although your motives will be seen very differently, and you will be handled very differently… because you’re broken.  You can’t handle this stuff like the proper people can.

Even worse,  however, is when you find yourself in no-man’s-land, like Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic War hero Richard Sharpe, for example – no longer one of the lads, yet never really fully accepted by the other officers.

If I sound off, or share something… even if it’s just a casual offhand comment, with no real agenda behind it, I can often feel myself being instantly policed:

“Oh, don’t get down about it!”

“Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t meant like that!”

The assumption is that people with the perception and life experience of a turnip can now sweep all my insights away if I express them in what might be considered an inappropriate manner, because I’m a broken thing who can’t be trusted with his own feelings.

It’s disempowering, it makes vulnerable people feel much more vulnerable, and it’s nigh on impossible to talk about because the instant reaction is generally some kind of patronising “I acknowledge your perception” spiel…

which generally means no, they really don’t.

And by the way…


if being human isn’t being inappropriate, it probably isn’t really being human.


In fact, there’s another, less insidious aspect to this subtle policing of your feelings and  attitudes – one that goes right to the core of what it means to be human, in all its inappropriate glory.

I need to be clear about what I’m not saying in this next bit. I’m not saying I haven’t appreciated help.  Sometimes, I have needed a great deal of it. But the fact is, the biggest strides towards recovery, while they might indeed be taken with a cushion of support around them, are generally the ones we take alone.

I had to face stuff. I had to deal with stuff. I had to walk into places. I had to start conversations.  All of these things, I had to do with my own voice. I was right there, in the middle of it, as this voice began to flex and heal, to rediscover and rebuild itself.

It has done things lately that have been described as nothing less than “amazing”.

Sometimes, when people guide you through those things they feel you can do, the things you can’t do, the things that aren’t safe to do,

the things you’re really not ready for…

the things you maybe ought to start thinking differently about…

You see how this is growing?

More of them, less of you.  Is this the truth of empathy, then?

“I can heal your voice by making it more like mine.”

The simple fact is this:

those times when I have blown people away, when I have done something they considered “amazing”, have always, always come from when I was using my own voice.  Not once have I been amazing when trying to be the John version of somebody else.

“But you have to eat, John… you have to keep a roof over your head… you have to consider what will happen if you…”

I have a lot of things to be scared of –  and if I work really hard, being an uncomfortable version of somebody else, I  can claw my way free of them.

But of course, I wouldn’t be.  They’d all still be there, scaring me –

and maybe laughing at me, too, for allowing myself to lose something amazing for a safety that doesn’t exist.

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