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“Reasons to Stay Alive”; Book Recital With Matt Haig

So we’re three days in to Dundee’s Literary Festival already! This evening I took a trip down to the festival’s hub, Bonar Hall, to hear Matt Haig speak about his newest Novel Reasons to Stay Alive. Although the title gives off a faint whiff of self help guidebok, it is actually Haig’s own account of his personal struggle with depression spanning over two and a half decades and how he dealt with the mental illness. With him onstage this evening was Jo Clifford, an accomplished playwright, musician Rachel Shermani and host Sasha, of whom I didn’t manage to catch a second name, a member of the Scottish Book Trust. Referring back to my trusted guidebook for the week, I did note that Linda Irvine from NHS Lothian was expected as present, unfortunately for reasons not given she was not present. However it did not detract from the evening as it appeared the evening was directed at the experience of depression and not the medical definition of such, a topic that arose in the talk and was clearly differentiated from.

Sasha welcomed us to the evening and began by asking Rachel to sing. Her voice resonated with unusual scales and melodies: calming and serene. After a deafening applause from a full audience, Matt began to read a segment from his newest work. He seemed a quirky man; confident in his speaking yet humble in his mannerisms, eyes only leaving the sight of his shoes to read from his book. He began by explaining that he had indeed attended many a book reading in which he chose the same two passages to highlight; one taken from his account of suicidal contemplation and another of “a bit lighter” nature. On this occasion, he had chosen to take another section in which he experiences a panic attack whilst making the journey to “the Londis for milk and marmite”. In his pre-amble he explains the fear and self-loathing that occurred in his mind ‘twenty four seven” and how the fear had manifested into an imagined future in a padded cell which brought about the agoraphobia. The piece was read with a quick and staccato like pace which set my heart to thump harder just as his must have on his walk. The recount was harrowing as his use of repetition and small, sharp sentences rattled around the room, recreating and conveying his sense of almost indescribable terror of the shop looming in the distance. He quipped that he should have named the chapter Indiana Jones and the Temple of Marmite”, an amusing, yet somehow plausible in this case, title.

Once he had finished his reading, he opened up about his experiences with mental health and depression, mystifying about the brain. “The brain can think about the universe, the moons around Pluto but it can’t think about itself and that scares me”. He spoke about how depression did not change his personality, that he was the same Matt Haig he always was; he was just ill. I found this point quite thought provoking and profound because as a society we fail to see depression as such, perhaps accepting it as a characteristic trait and maybe that is why it does not hold such as such a high regard as physical health. He then talked about the stigma around Suicide and how some people regard it as an ‘opt out’ or a selfish act. He uses the analogy of a burning building. “Its like being in a burning building and there’s no way out. If there’s no way out you might want to jump out of a window”. It is his external and physical representation of an internal, unseeing illness that brought the room to a silence of clearer understanding.

Jo Clifford then beings to speak. At this point I whip my head up in total surprise. Jo Clifford had not only attended the event this evening to give an excellent input of opinion of a literary degree towards Haig’s book but also to speak of personal battles with depression and Dysphoria. Jo was a child born into the wrong body as she recounts a memory of looking into the mirror and seeing the reflection of a little boy where should have stood a little girl. She recalls a train ride to school with her mother which passed a Gasometer surrounded by near by houses. She asked her mother how anyone could live around such a terrible smell of gas all the time in which her mother replied “You would just get used to it to the point of not smelling it”. This idea didn’t resonate with the child as she knew she would never get used to living in this boy’s body. The conversation opens up and both Haig and Clifford discuss how certain words didn’t exist in the times they lived in such as ‘mental health’ and ‘transgender’. It then brought up the importance of language and writing these struggles and emotions on paper as to relate as closely as possible as to how it might feel to be depressed. Both speakers agreed that they thought themselves the only people in the world who must have felt this way, completely isolated in their own minds yet how writing gave allowed them a sense of freedom – “words are a way out of yourself as mental health is internal’ said Matt as Jo responded with “writing saved my life. Think I would be dead by now without it”.

The floor was then opened as Sasha asked if anyone from the audience had any questions. One woman asked if Matt had any tips as to how to deal with a friend with depression to which he replied “Be there for them [and] not pressuring them into getting better”. Another woman asked what mental health treatment should look like in society to which the burning building analogy was solidified in its ideas. He spoke of how Mental and physical health should not be categorised separately but given an equal weight and regard and then maybe people will understand it better. “We’re not embarrassed [to talk to a doctor] about chest pain” Jo chipped in “so why should we be embarrassed to talk about mental pain?”.

Previous to this event, I thought I had a pretty clear idea about mental health but this evening has brought about a new vision to me of what it is to suffer such an illness. Because that’s what it is; an internal illness that can be treated just as any physical ailment can – not just treated in the medical sense, but treated by society and humanity as a whole.

Aileen Gilchrist


Human Being, with Gavin Francis and Prof. Sue Black (3:30pm)


A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum

This event had the largest audience of all the Dundee Literary Festival 2015 events I’ve been to. It was held in the larger hall on the ground floor of the building, and almost every seat was taken by the time I arrived, five minutes before the starting time. As I quickly and quietly took my seat and unpacked my notebook, music began to play and Gavin Francis and Sue Black entered, walking up the centre aisle and onto the stage to take their seats. Laughing, Sue Black explained that the musical intro had been provided by “naughty people behind the scenes”. I forget the name of the tune, but she explained its personal significance, as it was a melody used as a “warm up” by her piano playing father. This kindly introduction set the mood for the entire discussion that contained laughter and light-hearted comments, as well as serious and somewhat emotional topics.

Having never read the book Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis, only the Literary Festival programme description (which captured my interest), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from today’s talk. Sue chaired the discussion, introducing Gavin (who is a practicing GP as well as a writer), who Sue playfully commented had studied, unfortunately, at Edinburgh and not Dundee. This remark generated laughs from the audience and was a reflection of her admiration for Gavin’s expertise. Sue then allowed Gavin to talk about Adventures in Human Being before beginning to ask questions about the book and his general approach to medicine and being a doctor.

The book is “essentially eighteen essays examining different parts of the body”, Gavin began. He explained how the approach is not only scientific, but also takes into account cultural and historical perspectives. He talked about two particular chapters in his book, namely the one concerning the heart and pulse, and the other the human face. Playfully, Gavin asked the audience to find their pulse, showing us how to do this, and everyone placed their fingers onto their neck as he demonstrated. He explained some facts about the pulse and explained that the idea of a pulse is relatively new – only three/four hundred years ago did the idea of the heart pumping blood come to light. He also touched upon the “exhilarating” experience of finding a baby’s heartbeat, particularly when the pregnant woman has visited, anxious that they haven’t felt the baby move for a couple of days. It was through moving comments like these that Gavin’s love for what he does became highly evident.

Although the discussion had a very factual, practical level concerning the human body and its functions, there were also strong emotional aspects to some of the topics touched upon, such as “bequeathers” (organ donars), and those who are terminally ill – how different people take the information and also how can you train a doctor to give fatal news? From questions such as these, the talk also took a slightly different direction – a somewhat more philosophical approach, peeling back the edges of questions such as what it is to be human and the complicated but fascinating relationship between the mind and the body.

I found the talk today with Sue and Gavin honestly fascinating and I feel no review (including this one) could do the event justice. Even though I have not read Adventures in Human Being, I am moving it to the top of my ‘to read’ list.

Frances Kelly