An observation on panic-buying

It’s rather bewildering to go shopping and find only dented cans left on the shelves.

What exactly is the thought process on that?

“Quick, grab as many tins as you can, it’s the apocalypse!”

“This one has a dent in it…”

“Leave it! We might be desperate, but we’re not that desperate.”

Keeping sane in a crisis: an autistic perspective

As someone with autism who’s neurologically predisposed towards obsessing over danger and freaking out over every little thing, I have forty years experience of battling dread and fear, and so the threat of a pandemic bearing down on us like a runaway train is just another day to me. However, it seems to be something new for large sections of society, and as panic starts to spread, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on keeping sane in a crisis – because if an autistic guy can do it, so can you.

First a disclaimer: I’m not an epidemiologist. Nor are most journalists, or the person on Facebook claiming coronavirus is harmless, or the neighbour stockpiling toilet paper. None of these behaviours are particularly helpful, because they add to the noise and misinformation out there, making it difficult to know what to believe and harder still to keep a level head. That’s why I’ve held off blogging about Covid-19: because I didn’t want to add to that noise.

But since we seem to be at peak saturation for signal clutter, what can it hurt? And hell, in some small way it might even help.

1. Demystify what you’re afraid of

There is nothing scarier than the unknown, except, perhaps, the unknown over which we have no control. There’s a very obvious evolutionary reason for this – the unknown could be dangerous and might kill us, so it’s safer sticking to the familiar where we can manage the risks.

Unfortunately, this means we have a tendency to inflate the dangers of anything new, and downplay the severity of those dangers we face everyday. That’s why we’re afraid of terrorists (odds of dying in a terror attack in the UK: 1 in 7.3 million), flying (1 in 5 million) and sharks (1 in 900 million), and not the death machines parked on our driveways (1 in 20,000, or a staggering 1 in 240 in your lifetime).

One of the best ways of controlling our fear of Covid-19 is to make it familiar, and thereby strip it of its mystique. Look at the bald statistics from a reliable site (like the World Health Organisation and Worldometer) and they’re more reassuring than the unhelpful running totals on websites listing number of cases alongside number of deaths.

As of 9:40, Thursday 12 March, there have been 126,628 cases, of which 4638 have died and 68,325 recovered. More helpful, perhaps, are the stats on current cases: 53,665, of which 47,957 (89%) are mild, and 5,708 (11%) serious or critical. While the tabloids might delight in showing photos of people lying in hospitals on ventilators, and implying there are more than 100,000 of them, the truth is that, globally, there are 5,708. Even if you catch Covid-19, the vast majority will have mild or no symptoms.

And this is good news for the statistics. The mortality rate is based on the percentage of known cases that have died, but if up to 50% of cases are asymptomatic, there are undoubtedly thousands who are infected, or have been infected and recovered, without even realising it.

So how lethal is Covid-19? Answers vary depending on which source you look at, but the mortality rate is estimated to be around 2% (ranging from 0.7% to 3%). This varies greatly by age, however, falling heaviest on the elderly and those with underlying health issues. If you’re under 50, the fatality rate runs at 0.2% of those infected, or 1 in 500, giving you a 99.8% chance of recovery, while those in their 80s have an 85% chance of recovery.

Therefore, if you catch Covid-19, you’re still twice as likely to die in a car accident in your life than die of coronavirus this year. Indeed, not only will you most likely recover, you’ll probably have either no symptoms or the mild symptoms of a cough, a high temperature, and a shortness of breath. This doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous or that we shouldn’t do everything to protect ourselves and those more vulnerable to the virus, but knowing what we face is far easier to deal with than worrying unduly.

2. Put your fear into perspective

Oftentimes, it feels like the end of the world. Especially as an autistic person, you spend your life magnifying things to the level of a catastrophe. Your chest tightens as you’re flooded with adrenaline, obsessing over the danger and letting it consume your every thought, because you can’t avoid the thing that’s coming for you. At these times, it’s best to step back and put things into perspective.

Look out of the window: is the world still there? Is the grass still green? Can you see insects buzzing and flowers growing and clouds scudding across the sky? Then it’s not the end of the world, even if it might feel like it.

For the past few months, people have been comparing coronavirus to the flu. For just as long, people have been saying, ‘Stop comparing it to the flu! Stop saying it’s only dangerous to the elderly and those with underlying health issues! Stop trying to minimise the dangers!’ Such people are, I think, missing the point of why these things are being said.

People are scared. People want reassurance. Comparing Covid-19 – the unknown bogeyman – to something we’re fairly comfortable with, like flu, is a way of dispelling some of that fear, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The situation is serious, yes, but uncontrolled fear leads to the kind of irrational, unhelpful behaviour we’ve been seeing with panic-buying and stockpiling, which places massive strains on supply chains and has the potential to be very damaging. In a crisis, the last thing you want is panic. Making sane, rational decisions is always better than rushed knee-jerk reactions.

Nor do I think it’s a problem stressing that 98% of those infected will recover, with most of the remaining 2% being elderly and/or those with underlying medical issues. There was an article in the Guardian yesterday about the people in that 2% ‘at risk’ group feeling thrown to the wolves to make the other 98% feel better (along with lots of the usual Tory-bashing), but while you must be feeling vulnerable in that 2%, the solution isn’t to fill the remainder with dread. This doesn’t mean that those who die from this pandemic are unimportant and that we shouldn’t do everything we can to keep them safe, simply that we shouldn’t panic by overestimating the lethality of this virus.

Putting Covid-19 into context shows that it’s much worse than the flu, which has a mortality rate of 0.1% and a mortality rate in the over-65s of only 0.83%. However, it’s far less lethal than recent health scares like bird flu (60%), Ebola (50%), MERS (35%), and SARS (10%). It’s also nowhere near as contagious as measles or chicken pox.

Looking at the big picture, the government’s worst case scenario – something that is unlikely to happen – is that 80% of the UK gets it, resulting in 500,000 deaths. While this seems terrifying, again we must put it into perspective. In the UK, there are around 600,000 deaths each year from all causes, which is around 1% of the population. Therefore, more than half-a-million people die around us each year and we barely even notice it. Many of the people in the government’s 500,000 would have died anyway and been included in the 600,000, so if we speculate that around 1 million people will die in the UK this year, the worst case scenario will increase our annual death rate by half a percentage point – from 1% to 1.5%. This is worth remembering.

It’s also worth remembering that all of these figures are speculative. Covid-19 has the potential to kill millions, but so far it hasn’t, and only time will tell how it pans out. As my mother always says, worry is a waste of energy – if the thing you fear doesn’t happen, there was never any point worrying about it, and if it does, your worry didn’t stop it.

You know what does kill millions of people around the world each year? Heart disease. It kills 18 million people a year, but very few of us heed the warnings and change our diets and exercise. Cancer kills 10 million, many of them preventable. 9 million die of hunger. 1.5 million die of tuberculosis. 1.1 million of dysentery.

Judging Covid-19 on what it has actually done, instead of what it might do, is a better way of keeping a level head. I understand those people who scream that Covid-19 could kill millions, because they’re right. I also understand those who say that coronavirus has only killed around 4500 people, and even if you do catch it, you’ve got a 98% chance of recovery, because they’re right too.

3. Switch off

As someone whose autism causes him to obsess over every little detail of an issue until it dominates every aspect of his life, I’m well aware that there comes a point where, for the sake of your sanity, you just have to stop. It’s understandable that people want to keep abreast of the situation, because you want to keep an eye on the danger and avoid it if you can, but we’re in a uniquely difficult age where our technology gives us 24-hour access to information. What starts as a desire to keep you and your family safe can quickly turn into an addiction.

Watching the news a couple of times a day is fine, but tracking the spread of Covid-19 in real time and checking your phone for updates every few minutes isn’t healthy. It gives you the illusion of safety while simultaneously heightening your anxiety – a wound can’t heal when you’re constantly picking at it. Following Covid-19 doesn’t make you any safer, but it does make you far more uptight about it. So learn what you need to learn, hear what you need to hear, and then switch off, or else you risk letting your fear of coronavirus take over your life.

Of course, distracting yourself from that feeling of impending doom is not always easy. Instead of telling yourself not to think about it, which only makes you think about it more, simply acknowledge it whenever it pops into your head and gently shift your focus onto something else. I find doing something that requires concentration, focus and hand-eye coordination – a jigsaw puzzle, a model, a paint-by-numbers – is a far better means of taking your mind off your fears than TV, movies or a book.

And once your mind is off it, go do something else. Count the leaves on a tree. Dance in the shower. Focus on the here and now and the things you have control over, instead of things that might happen tomorrow. Know that this will pass.

4. Learn to accept the things we cannot change

I think the biggest thing I’ve realised from watching this emerging crisis is just how resistant people are to accepting things. They might close the schools, they might cancel my holiday, it’s not fair, rage, fume. When you come up against a brick wall blocking your path, repeatedly bashing your head against it is nothing more than a futile gesture. Sure, it’s annoying to find our way blocked. The solution isn’t to cry, it’s to go back and find another path.

You also have to accept that we’re all mortal and will therefore one day die. I’ve seen tons of people in their 70s and 80s in denial, panicking that they’re going to die. Why? If you’ve not accepted your mortality by that age, when you’re already past the life expectancy of an adult human, you’d better start working on it. I’m 40 and I’m comfortable with the fact that this bundle of cells, animated by that mysterious force called life, will one day become nothing more than meat. If I die of coronavirus, or heart disease, or in a car accident, it’ll be sad for my wife and kids, my family and friends, but it’ll be normal, and natural, and it was simply my time. There’s no point feeling bitter over the years I didn’t get to have, because I was never entitled to them, and I never had them anyway.

Accepting that no amount of huffing and puffing will change the nature of the universe is a vital skill if you want to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs.

5. Keep a sense of humour, even if (especially if) it’s dark

The best way of dispelling fear in a crisis is finding the humour in your situation. I remember someone posting that you should look around at all your friends and know that two of them will die. Wow, I thought – with a mortality rate of 2%, she’s vastly overestimating my popularity!

I’m also bemused by people’s fear of self-isolating. To me, that’s a normal day.

I find social media an endless source of amusement. It’s fascinating how easily Covid-19 slips into political rhetoric. To the right wing, the crisis is the result of immigrants bringing in the virus; to the left, it’s because the Tories have cut health services. Various right-wing websites are claiming that Covid-19 is a biological weapon that escaped from a Chinese lab; various left-wing websites are claiming it’s an American biological weapon designed to crash the Chinese economy. You’ve got to see something amusing about that.

Perhaps the weirdest thing is how quickly people’s professed virtues flip to the opposite extreme. After Brexit, I lost count of the number of Tweets I read hoping that elderly Leavers would hurry up and die; then, in the run-up to the election, those same people were saying how we had to vote Labour or else millions of old people would be at risk. After the result showed most old people voted Tory, I again lost count of the number of Tweets saying they looked forward to the elderly dying in their millions as the Tories ran the NHS into the ground as it would serve them right; and now, those same people are saying, Save the Elderly! Save the Elderly! I mean, come on guys, pick a side and stick to it: do you want elderly Brexit-voting Tories to die, or don’t you?

One of the best jokes I saw online was: If there was a vaccine for coronavirus, most of you wouldn’t take it anyway. Now shut up and wash your hands.

We have some difficult times ahead of us, people. But keep calm and carry on.

Good luck on staying sane.

World Book Day 2020: Top Ten Non-Fiction

In honour of World Book Day, and having already listed my Top Ten Novels, here are ten of my favourite non-fiction books (with the exception of my own, of course!). These are ten books spanning various genres that stood out from the crowd, providing entertainment, fascination, insight, knowledge and joy.

1. Chariots of the Gods, by Erich Von Daniken (1968)

Filled with wondrous insights about the ancient aliens that created us…oh no, wait. Only joking!

1. A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson (2005)

Writing a scientific history of the world that explains not only what we know but how we know it, and the oftentimes bizarre people who made it possible, and putting it all into one book that is readable for the layperson, seems like an impossible task, but Bryson manages to pull it off with aplomb. From geology to seismology, biology to paleontology, particle physics to relativity, he takes some incredibly complex fields of science and somehow makes them understandable, entertaining and endlessly fascinating. Part science primer, part history and part biography, this book is a must read for anybody curious about the world around them.

2. Heavier Than Heaven: The Biography of Kurt Cobain, by Charles R. Cross (2001)

I’m not normally a fan of celebrity biographies, and having already read several on Kurt Cobain, the tragic frontman of Nirvana who committed suicide in 1994, I didn’t expect this book to be anything more than a casual read. I was happy to be proved wrong. Expertly drawing together details from hundreds of interviews, Cross recreates Cobain so vividly, I felt I could reach out and touch him. Indeed, for someone who died before I even knew who he was, this book brought Cobain back to life, almost as though the narrative was unfolding in real time as we drew on towards the inevitable conclusion. Raw, heartfelt and honest, I’d recommend this to anyone, even if you’re not a fan of Cobain’s music, for the way it manages to penetrate the public persona and reach the real individual beneath.

3. A Voyage for Madmen, by Peter Nichols (2011)

The definitive account of one of the strangest and most gripping stories of man at sea, this is the kind of twist-filled, rip-roaring adventure you’d describe as unbelievable if it wasn’t true. In 1968, nine solo yachtsmen set out to become the first to sail alone and non-stop around the world. And what a strange bunch they were – a philosopher, a failed inventor, a soldier who didn’t know how to sail, in boats that hadn’t been designed for the rigours of the open seas. Of the nine, four pulled out after being battered by the ocean; one after vomiting blood from a peptic ulcer; one sank; one didn’t want to stop sailing so abandoned the race to become one with the ocean; one went mad, wrote a 25,000 word treatise about the human condition, and then killed himself; and only one made it. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe this perfect storm of eccentricities, and this book more than does them justice.

4. The Case For Mars, by Robert Zubrin (1996)

A fascinating proposal for colonizing the Red Planet using existing technology and scientific know-how, this is both a sales pitch and a step-by-step manual to creating a sustainable habitat on Mars. With infectious enthusiasm, Zubrin convincingly shows how to achieve each stage physically, technologically, scientifically, politically and financially. Indeed, from reading this book it becomes clear that we don’t need to wait a hundred years or even fifty – we could start right now. If that doesn’t excite the little child inside you that dreams of walking on alien worlds, then nothing will.

5. Travels With Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck (1962)

Travels With Charley is an absolute gem of a travelogue that has informed so much of how I see the world. While it’s ostensibly about Steinbeck’s trip around the US in a pickup truck when he was sixty, accompanied only by his pet dog Charley, it’s as much about an old man coming to terms with his mortality, revisiting the places he once knew and that are now lost in time. Along the way, we learn what it is to take a journey, why we should refuse to surrender the fire in our bellies, how we can never go home again, and why men should have beards. Atmospheric, lyrical, meditative and philosophical, in trying to pin down what makes Americans so American, Steinbeck reveals far more about what it is to be human.

6. The Stories of English, by David Crystal (2004)

Essentially a history of the English Language, this book is far more readable and entertaining than it has any right to be. Do you know why the land of the Angles and Saxons came to be called England and not Saxonland? That the sea used to be called a seal bath, swan road or whale way, and ships were keels, wave floaters or wave horses? That the Vikings are the reason Keswick and Chiswick are no longer pronounced the same? That as a result of Norman noblemen exploiting Anglo-Saxon peasants, all the names of domesticated animals are English (calves, cows, sheep, pigs) but all the meats are French (veal, beef, mutton, pork)? Whether you’re looking to understand the language or simply want interesting facts to fire at your friends in the pub, The Stories of English is the easiest and most enjoyable way of doing it.

7. Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, by Richard Rhodes (2002)

Despite its slightly misleading title, this harrowing piece of historical study is one of the most important and revealing accounts of the Holocaust I’ve read – and I’ve read a lot. While everyone knows about the death camps, very few know about what came before them, when four ‘special task forces’ of a thousand men each followed the army into Poland and Russia, rounded up Jews, and shot more than one million of them into makeshift graves. Following the organisation, training, development and ideologies of these groups, Rhodes shows how the death camps weren’t created to make the killing more efficient – they were created to make it easier on the executioners, who were suffering depression, alcoholism and suicide as a result of murdering people all day long. A nasty but worthwhile read, Masters of Death shines a light on a gruesome part of history that should never be forgotten.

8. The Dinosaur Hunters, by Deborah Cadbury (2000)

Popular history at its best, The Dinosaur Hunters is a fascinating story of heroes and villains, gifted amateurs exploited by amoral academics, and the battles that raged as the first dinosaur bones were pulled from the earth. It’s the tale of Mary Anning, a poor Dorset spinster who made some of the greatest discoveries of all time but was shut out of the scientific community because she was a woman; of Gideon Mantell, a country doctor who lost his money and his wife trying to prove that the giant bones he collected belonged to prehistoric lizards; and of the obnoxious anatomist Sir Richard Owen, who destroyed Mantell’s reputation before taking credit for many of his discoveries and stealing the honour of naming the dinosaurs. A real page-turner that shows in stark terms how difficult it can sometimes be to separate the vested interests of the scientists from the science itself.

9. The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout (2006)

We tend to think of sociopaths as violent criminals, but did you know that 4% of people are reckoned to have no conscience? In this eye-opening and frankly terrifying book, Stout reveals how 1 in every 25 people walking around in society are only out for themselves, with no instinctive limits on how they treat others, having zero empathy and no remorse whatsoever. Ever made excuses for someone’s behaviour, like they must have forgotten or they must have been under a lot of pressure, because you simply can’t believe any normal human being could do such a thing? Chances are, you’re dealing with a sociopath. Filled with horrifying case studies of the destruction wrought by these people in relationships, families, the workplace and wider society, this book teaches us how to recognise the sociopaths in our lives and how to protect ourselves from them, and for that alone it’s essential reading.

10. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, by Captain Charles Johnson (1724)

If you’ve ever read Treasure Island; played Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag; watched Johnny Depp do his best Keith Richards impression; or told the joke, ‘Why are pirates called pirates? Because they arrrrr’; then this is the book for you. It pretty much created everything we think we know about pirates, from peg legs and buried treasure to eye patches and the Jolly Roger. A collected ‘biography’ of famous pirates, all the big names are here: Blackbeard, William Kidd, Calico Jack Rackham, Bartholomew Roberts, Mary Read, Anne Bonney, Charles Vane, Edward Low, Israel Hands, Stede Bonnet, Sam Bellamy and a whole bunch you’ve probably never heard of. Given that its authorship is still in dispute and there’s no doubt that much of it is exaggerated, if not simply made up, calling this non-fiction is a bit of a stretch, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun nonetheless.

World Book Day 2020: Top Ten Novels

In honour of World Book Day, I thought I’d list ten of my favourite novels (with the exception of my own. Hint, hint, any publishers who are reading this!). These are ten books that got under my skin and left such a deep impression that I was still thinking about them months or even years later – no mean feat when I’ve read around 800 in the last twenty years. While they might not be considered ‘literature’, and are therefore unlikely to grace many Top Ten lists, they show writers at the top of their craft, able to stir, excite, move, challenge and satisfy. What more could you want in a book?

My Top Five (in no particular order):

1. The Death of Grass, by John Christopher (1956)

A horrifyingly real apocalyptic thriller with a uniquely ominous, slow-burn first act as the world edges towards catastrophe. Set in post-war Britain, the story is about a virus that starts in China (where else?) and spreads slowly westwards, killing all grasses – including rice, wheat, oats and barley. With an upcoming election, and in the mistaken belief that science can find a solution, the government opts not to take the necessary but unpopular measures to offset the crisis, so by the time the virus hits, it’s already too late – at least half the population is going to starve.

Escaping from the city shortly before martial law puts it on lockdown, an ordinary man and his family set out towards his brother’s farm – a safe-haven in an easily defensible valley where they’ve been growing potatoes. Following the adage that civilisation is only ever three meals from anarchy, the countryside rapidly descends into a lawless hell of robbery, rape and murder, forcing the travellers to unexpected acts of savagery to survive – but at what cost to their humanity?

What makes this book different from so many others is the sheer believability of both the premise and the characters, showcasing the best and worst of mankind. When I first read it a few years ago, it scared the hell out of me, and with the coronavirus dominating the headlines, it’s as resonant today as it ever was. A word of warning to the easily offended: it isn’t very PC. But then, for a book written in the fifties, why would it be?

2. Changeling, by Matt Wesolowski (2019)

A work of staggering impact that ought to be taught in schools to warn about the dangers of certain types of abuse, Changeling explores six different perspectives on the disappearance of a child in a haunted forest so creepy it has the genuine ability to make your skin crawl. What at first appears to be a modern supernatural chiller slowly reveals itself to be a psychological thriller that is as profound and unsettling as it is insightful and authentic.

And that is the genius of this novel – it deliberately turns everything you think you know on its head. Possibly more than any other novel I’ve read, it gets inside and shakes up your view of the world. The human monster at the heart of the story is far more convincing and everyday than Hannibal Lecter, which makes him/her all the more disturbing. This isn’t the horror of cannibals and serial killers, but of partners and parents, people who live with us and present a civilised front to the world while, out of sight, they destroy us one little bit at a time – tap, tap, tap.

I’m not sure why this book isn’t better known – perhaps because, like its antagonist, it wraps itself in a cloak that disguises what it really is. But this is what makes the book so affecting – by putting us, its readers, in the same position as the novel’s victims, we’re able to experience what this form of abuse is like, and what it feels like, and how truly awful it is. It’s an important book, something that could change how people think about power in relationships, and it deserves to be read more widely. I can’t recommend it enough.

3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

I read Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club and didn’t really care for it (the movie is one of my favourite guilty pleasures), so I wasn’t really expecting much. How wrong I was. Oh my gosh, I cried and I cried and I cried. Reading this was like opening up a wound and exposing all that came out to sunlight. I ploughed through it in a day, desperate to get to the end just so the pain would stop.

It’s pretty far from a perfect book – some of the side characters are one-dimensional and the subplots are poorly executed – but the central story, about the relationship between a girl and the sister she grew up with, is brave, and thought-provoking, and devastating, so moving that it makes up for everything else. I can’t say too much about the plot without giving away the twist, but it’s a mix of family drama, mystery, tragedy and coming-of-age story. If you’re sensitive, if you feel things deeply and can’t bear to see another creature suffer, keep the tissues handy because you’re going to need them.

4. HMS Ulysses, by Alistair MacLean (1955)

The only book I’ve read more than three times, this is the definitive account of the horrors of the Arctic Convoys during the Second World War. Following the cruiser of the title as it escorts an assortment of merchant ships towards Russia, battling German planes, surface raiders, U-boats and the elements, the novel is a thrilling, draining, harrowing tour de force of a war story. The characters are so real, they leap off the page; the descriptions of the polar conditions so vivid, you feel the spray turning to ice in the wind; and the tiny details that populate every paragraph, evidently taken from real life (MacLean served in the Royal Navy during World War II), blur the boundaries between fiction and lived experience.

This is one of the few books where every character stands out, living on in the mind for years afterward; where events, seemingly small and insignificant, are so clearly depicted they linger like memories. While it might be fair to say that many of his later novels were somewhat derivative, MacLean’s debut is a storytelling masterclass that has been undeservedly overshadowed by Nicholas Monsarrat’s better-known The Cruel Sea.

5. Furnace, by Muriel Gray (1997)

For a few short years in the 1990s, Muriel Gray was the best thing about the horror genre, a worthy rival to Stephen King. Unfortunately, she only wrote three books, and Furnace, her second, was undoubtedly her best. An homage to MR James’s chilling 1911 short story Casting the Runes and its 1957 film adaptation Night of the Demon, the novel follows a long-distance truck driver as, while crossing rural Virginia, he stumbles into the wrong town at decidedly the wrong time. Cursed with a string of runes written on human skin, he learns he has three days to find out who gave it to him, and give it back without them knowing, or else a demon will manifest and devour him.

Gray takes this simple idea and imbues it with everything you could want from a page-turner. The growing sense of urgency and desperation is beautifully aligned with characters you really care about in a subculture – that of US truckers – that feels authentic and atmospheric. As an author, she had a real talent for pairing character and setting with a kind of creeping terror that didn’t rely on gore or schlocky cliches to scare. Definitely a book to read late at night when the shadows contain secrets.

And the rest of my Top Ten:

6. Deliverance, by James Dickey (1970): A survival horror masterpiece in which four city dwellers go on a weekend canoe trip in rural Georgia and run foul of the locals, Deliverance is a deceptively simple tale that’s still shocking in its uncompromising portrayal of violence and refusal to answer the ambiguous moral questions at its core.

7. The Relic, by Lincoln Child (1995): A Michael Crichton-style techno-thriller that has a pace and gnarliness all its own, this is a tense and exciting story about a mutant monster roaming the basements of the Chicago Museum. Any 450 page novel that can sustain a breathtaking climax over 150 pages without going off the boil is a masterful display of craftsmanship. Just don’t judge it by the atrocious film version.

8. Gates of Fire, by Steven Pressfield (1998): Depicting the last stand of the 300 Spartans against an army of 100,000 Persians at the pass of Thermopylae in 480BC, this novel is that rare thing: a war story that recreates the brutal realities of killing without any of the usual gloss, and an historical drama that lives in its own time without imposing modern sensibilities onto the narrative. Erudite, literate, vivid and, above all, exciting, it’s a definite must-read.

9. The Lost Fleet: Dauntless, by Jack Campbell (2006): Military science-fiction at its best, the first in a series of books about a fleet of warships cut off, surrounded and stranded in enemy space light-years from home. What makes this stand out from the rest is the realism of fleet tactics in three-dimensional space, taking into account the relativistic effects of time-dilation on manoeuvring. Simply top notch storytelling.

10. Sea of Ghosts, by Alan Campbell (2011): Insanely creative, bizarre, intriguing steampunk fantasy merging science, technology, and psychic powers with monsters, magic and parallel dimensions, this novel is an absolute weird gem. Set in a world where the seas are toxic and slowly rising, poisoning the land, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever read. My only qualms in recommending it is that while this is the first in a series, it was cancelled after two novels, leaving you on a cliffhanger that will likely never be resolved. That said, it’s worth reading just to spend time in Campbell’s unique world.

NB: Now that you’ve read this Top Ten, spare a thought for fiction’s lesser cousin. Non-fiction might not have boy wizards or fifty shades of rubbish, but it has a lot of good. Check out my Top Ten Non-Fiction Books.

More life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old self-taught guitar-player who never learned to read music, I’ve spent the past two months attempting to master the cello. Hard? Damn straight. But nothing worth doing is ever easy.

At first, I thought my age would count against me – Yo-Yo Ma started at 4, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the cellist du jour, is only 20 – but I quickly realised that studying an instrument isn’t about simply learning the notes: it’s about utilising important life skills that have far wider applications than music (Life lessons from learning cello). I might not have the flexibility, patience or single-mindedness of a child, but I like to think my adult insight makes up for this deficit.

So here are more life lessons from learning cello.

1. Don’t try to run before you can crawl.

The first few days, I mastered the C-Major scale across the four strings, and it sounded pretty good. Up, down, up, down, what could be simpler? I learned the notes and finger positions and figured I’d be a virtuoso in no time. If I know where the notes are already, I thought, I’ll be able to play proper music, without having to waste time on Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

As they say, pride comes before a fall.

After six days, I looked up the sheet music for Schindler’s List – one of the pieces of music that inspired me to take up cello – and worked out where all the notes were (not being able to read music, after all). I figured it’s a slow piece, so there shouldn’t be much of an issue. After all, I was playing Nirvana a week after first picking up the guitar. How hard could it be?

Hard. It sounded like a leaky arsehole. Eurgh!

There’s playing notes and then there’s playing music, and the two things are worlds apart, especially when it comes to the cello. On the piano, you can make a perfect note every time with a single action – whether you’re five or fifty-five, press a key and you’ll get the same sound. On the cello, multiple things have to happen to make a note – the fingers of your left hand have to be in the exact position, not a millimetre out of place, and you have to be applying the right pressure; in your right hand, your bow has to be held properly, and it needs to be pressing on the strings correctly, with the correct force, moving smoothly and perfectly straight at the right speed. And for music, you need to adjust the force for expression, accelerate or decelerate. Without vibrato (where you rock the fingers of your left hand), everything sounds horribly thin and unappealing.

While you might be able to go up and down a scale and make it sound okay, and you can play the notes to Schindler’s List after six days, to make it sound good takes years. This realisation was a massive blow to my confidence, and I was of a mind to quit outright. But you have to be resilient if you want to achieve anything good – which brings me to my second life lesson.

2. Take it one step at a time.

A journey of a thousand miles starts beneath your own feet. All you have to do is take one step.

That’s all such a journey is – a succession of individual steps. Don’t think about all the months and years it’s going to take you. Don’t think of all the steps you’re going to have to take. The only thing you should think about, and the only thing over which you have control, is the very next step. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually you’ll get there.

That’s how we achieve any difficult, incremental goal whose attainment is way off in the future, and it’s a vitally important skill to have when learning an instrument – one step at a time. It helps you remain patient; encourages you to take it slow and master the basics; prevents you from racing on ahead and becoming disheartened; and limits much of the frustration and despair that you will inevitably feel.

And remember: you can’t take the second step until you’ve taken the first. So after those rapid first six days, I picked myself up and went back to the very beginning: the cello position; holding the bow; bowing an open string; moving from one string to an adjacent one; skipping over a string; first finger; third and fourth finger; and learning to read the notes on the bass clef. You need a solid foundation on which to build, and if you don’t get the basics right, it’s all just wasted effort.

So when the other day, after two months of nursery rhymes, I learned to play the cello part from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, it sounded amazing, a just reward for my perseverance. Of course, it’s one of the easiest classical pieces to play, but who cares? I’m proud of myself. And that is so important in a world where you’re surrounded by people better than you.

3. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

(Props to Jordan B. Peterson for this one). This, I think, is probably the most important lesson any of us can learn, whether it’s as a musician, a partner, a parent, or, really, anything. There will always be someone better than you. And I’m not just talking about listening to Stepjan Hauser and despairing that you’ll never be as good as him – I’m talking about all the crap that social media throws at us on a daily basis about our abilities, our relationships, our worth in regard to other people.

Part of the reason I raced ahead to Schindler’s List in six days was from watching videos on YouTube showing how far ordinary people had come in just one week with the instrument. I felt like I was in competition, and I compared everything I was doing with them. And it’s strange, when you start learning the cello, how many people suddenly appear out of the woodwork to say, ‘My cousin’s a professional cellist,’ or ‘My nephew’s just been accepted into music college,’ and I just felt so bloody inferior to them all, so darned useless.

But really, it’s not about competing with anybody else, because I’m not anybody else – I’m me. And each day I sit down to play my cello, I get a little bit better; it feels a mite more natural; and I’ve taken another step towards that distant goal.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Of course, taking it slowly, mastering the basics, and judging yourself only against yourself, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mindful of the bigger picture. Yes, right now I’m playing Algy the Bear, but ultimately I want to be playing River Flows In You, and it’s not wrong to keep that distant dream in the back of your mind to give you both a goal to work towards and the motivation to get there. Just make sure it helps you, and doesn’t hinder you.

To help me on the way, I’ve started taking lessons. Originally I’d intended to teach myself, but after following five separate teachers on YouTube, all of whom were excellent, I found they were actually confusing me more than helping as they all said slightly different things. When you’ve learned five different bow holds, you start to second guess everything you do, so I decided I’d need one single tutor who could correct all the mistakes I’m making.

In terms of ultimate goals, she asked me how far I wanted to go with the cello, and I realised I hadn’t really given it much thought. I played her River Flows In You on my iPod and told her I wanted to play things like that. ‘So, professional then,’ she said, and it threw me through a loop. When I started to play the guitar, it was to play rock songs; I knew I probably wouldn’t ever be as good as Kirk Hammett from Metallica or Slash from Guns N’ Roses, but I’d definitely be able to master Nirvana, Oasis and Weezer (yes, this enables you to date when I started playing the guitar). But when I took up the cello, it was to play classical music – I mean, that’s what it’s designed for, right? You don’t take up cello because you want to play RnB. Doesn’t everyone reach the stage that they’re playing classical music? Does that mean they’re all professionals?

She’s teaching two other ‘mature’ students, one of whom has reached Grade 4 in eighteen months, the other Grade 8 in two years – whatever the hell that means. They want to play in orchestras. I only ever thought about playing in the spare room – I was learning the cello for its own sake, but I guess the essence of music is performance, so it’s something to consider, provided it doesn’t interfere with lessons 1-3 above.

5. Have fun!

And, all of the above notwithstanding, have fun. Enjoy what you’re doing, even if it’s just Baa Baa Black Sheep. After doing an hour of scales, I like to reward myself by working out a rock song and then making as much noise as I can. Pachelbel’s Canon in D is virtually identical to Green Day’s Basket Case, while U2’s With or Without You is pretty easy. Pantera’s Walk is less so. Lamb of God’s Redneck is a non-starter.

So these are five more life lessons from learning cello:

1. Don’t try to run before you can crawl.

2. Take it one step at a time.

3. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize.

5. Have fun!

What do you say in response to THAT!?

What should you say when you’ve just sprayed blood into someone’s face?

As an autistic guy, I have a number of rehearsed responses to virtually every question and situation. I don’t think I’m alone in that – much of society have pre-programmed sets of words they drop into sentences to convey meaning without having to engage their brains and thus slow down the communication.

When we meet a casual acquaintance, for example, we don’t choose every word to create a sentence – we select a block of meaning, as from a drop-down menu, and send it to the mouth:

‘Hi, how’re you?’

The unthinking response is invariably, ‘Fine, thanks, how’re you?’

We do this all the time. It’s the reason idioms are so divorced from their literal meanings – catch you later, how’s tricks, I’ll take a rain check, a piece of cake, shitting bricks. Instead of thinking of each individual word, we select the meaning we want, and the particular register (formal, informal), and our brains arrange the chunks and make the sentences for us.

If we didn’t operate like this, it would take too long to say anything and too long to interpret what other people are saying. It’s as though society has consented to ignore the individual words and ascribe meaning to blocks of words – they’ve agreed that ‘once in a blue moon’ means ‘rarely’ and ‘over the moon’ means ‘pleased’, for example.

This can be a good thing for those of us on the spectrum, as it means we can fake empathy and not have to struggle to figure out what someone’s thinking or feeling. So long as we learn the rules – which can admittedly be difficult in itself – we can fit in.

For example, I’ve had to learn that when people ask, ‘How are you?’ it’s merely a means of facilitating conversation and not an earnest enquiry after your health, so you’re not meant to tell the truth (for a time, I answered with, ‘Entering the inner sanctum of the seventh circle of Hell, and you?’ just to see the reactions).

Where a context-specific response is required and I can’t tell whether a comment is serious or sarcastic (‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’) I normally reply with ‘Indeed’ or ‘Absolutely’ so that it fits both. Unless I’m tired and slip into Aspie mode, where I’ll take everything literally, overthink everything I say and consequently fail to communicate, I can normally mask my difficulties.

However, there are three situations I keep encountering that I’ve never figured out how to deal with.

There’s a lady at the school gate who keeps slipping into small talk that her eldest daughter died as a toddler. Every time she does it, it’s so matter-of-fact that it knocks me off track.

‘How was your Christmas?’

‘It was really good. We lost a child at Christmas, so we make the most of it every year. How was yours?’

‘Er, er, yeah, fine,’ but all I can think is, Should I be saying, ‘oh dear’, or ‘that’s terrible’, or ‘poor you’, or ‘what happened’?

Another difficulty is when old people look at you, groan wearily, and say, ‘Don’t get old.’ Since I live in a village full of elderly people, this happens more often than you’d think. How the hell are you meant to respond to that?

‘I won’t,’ or ‘I’m not planning to,’ sounds like you’re going to kill yourself. Saying, ‘It happens to us all,’ is a bit patronising because they’re old and in pain and I’m not, as is minimising their experience with, ‘It can’t be that bad’ or ‘It could be worse’. And giving some philosophical statement like, ‘Youth is wasted on the young,’ or ‘Any day there’s air in your lungs is a good day,’ is a little too in-depth when you’re standing in a queue at the local shop.

But the worst, the absolute worst, is when I spray people with blood.

I’ve mentioned before that I donate platelets. The way they do it is to put a blood-pressure cuff on your upper arm, inflate it, then stick a needle in your arm. Despite having normal blood pressure, for some reason I have a tendency to squirt. It’s like popping a balloon – the second the needle touches my arm, boom! Blood spattered all over their hands.

So I warn them every time. And every time they’re like, ‘Ah, I’m better than the other nurses, it won’t happen to me,’ and every time – pop – I get them.

There’s something incredibly intimate about blood, so it makes me feel embarrassed and kind of dirty when I spray it over some poor girl’s hand, or neck, or face. The girl yesterday got it all over her bare hand and up her arm, and was clearly horrified, and in those situations I have no idea what to say.

I muttered, ‘Sorry,’ but that seems on the one hand inadequate (I’ve just squirted my bodily fluids over her, after all) and on the other pointless (I can’t exactly control it, can I?). I once tried, ‘See? Told you so,’ but decided that’s rubbing salt in the wound. Likewise, ‘Gotcha!’ makes me seem like a sicko who enjoys the sight of his blood on someone’s cheek.

So I just sit there uncomfortably and squirm. Every time.

If anybody has some advice for how I can respond, I’m all ears!

Life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old casual guitar player who can’t read music, I’ve embarked on a journey to learn the cello – an instrument that doesn’t spoon-feed you anything the way a guitar or piano does, and that requires time, patience and practice to play a single note. I’ve had my cello three days now, so how am I doing?

It’s going really well, actually. When you get it right and the instrument rewards you, there’s an immense feeling of satisfaction because you know you’ve earned it. And unexpectedly, I’m discovering that a lot of what I’m learning on the cello has a wider application – that the lessons of how to play are also lessons on how to live – so I thought I’d share them here.

Day One: Confront your fears

I had a girlfriend once who played the violin, and she never tuned it. ‘These sorts of instruments are too hard to tune,’ she said. ‘You have to take them to a specialist to get it done properly.’

So before getting my cello, I built up a massive complex about tuning. Since it’s a rental and came with luthier setup, I figured I’d leave it exactly how it came and be done with it.

When I got it out of the bag, and after adjusting the height until it felt comfortable, I tentatively plucked the strings. To my ear, and having no frame of reference, it sounded fine.

Being a guitar player, and thus well-versed in left-hand fingering, I ignored the bow for the moment and decided to practice some scales by simply plucking the strings (pizzicato). Since cellos have no frets, I knew the first step was to put tape on the fingerboard to mark first position, so I watched various YouTube videos explaining how to do this. They were all clear on one thing: you had to make sure the cello was in tune. Checking it against some tones I found online, I realised my cello was about one whole step down and all four strings needed tuning.

Bugger. With swelling anxiety, I read that, if you want to be a cellist, you have to be able to tune your own instrument. I knew if I left it, it’d grow into such an issue I’d never get over it, so I bit the bullet and watched a bunch of videos on how to tune a cello. With a healthy amount of trepidation and the certainty that I was going to mess up the very thing I’d been waiting for all week, I turned the first peg.

Wow. With 30-40lbs of tension in each string, the instrument makes one hell of a frightening cracking noise when you adjust the peg. And that peg is held in place by friction only, so you have to push it into the hole as you turn it, or else the moment you let go, it spins the other way and undoes all your hard work.

But you know what I discovered? It’s surprisingly easy, and once you’ve done it, your cello sounds so much better. There is no reason whatsoever to be afraid of tuning.

I spent the rest of the day plucking up and down the C-Major scale across all four strings, feeling rather pleased with myself. I’d conquered my fears and found them baseless, and was already being rewarded by my instrument.

So the big lesson of the day: confront your fears. You might just find that there was nothing to fear all along.

Day Two: Act with confidence

Since I was already building up anxiety about the bow, I took the lesson of Day One and dove right in. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d already read that in the first couple of weeks it’ll sound awful, but I wasn’t prepared for just how awful it sounded. The A-string is close enough to the violin (see my feelings on violins) that you can experience the screechy, scratchy drowning cat sound without even trying, especially if you’re fingering with your left hand at the same time. The lower strings sound better, but far from perfect. Like I said, the cello doesn’t spoon-feed you anything – instead of simply pressing a key, you have to do several tricky things at the same time to get a decent note.

Since practice makes perfect, I spent most of the day practising, but it wasn’t very good. I was nervous, which meant I was very tentative with the bow and I was trying to play quietly so I didn’t inflict the wretchedness on the rest of the family (and the neighbours).

Just when I was ready to give up for the day, I thought I’d throw caution to the wind and give it a bit of welly and – boom! – the sound improved massively. It was like flicking a switch to turn night into day. I realised that if you play nervously, afraid of the sounds you’ll make, you make bad sounds, whereas if you play with confidence, even if you’re unpracticed, you make good sounds.

That’s a great lesson for life – if you go into something worried that you’re going to fail, you will, but if you trust yourself and do it with confidence, even if it’s something new, you can achieve far more than you ever thought you could. The best at climbing trees are those with no fear of falling, after all.

Day Three: find what works for you

After two days playing the cello, yesterday evening my left wrist and right hand ached. I’ve watched more than a dozen videos and read about twenty articles on that ever-important bow-hold, and they all seem to say something slightly different. No matter which one I use, it cramps up my hand after a couple of minutes, and various parts of my body start to punish me.

Stepping back a moment, I found I was way too stiff. By trying to do everything right, and contorting my body into uncomfortable positions to fit someone else’s idea of ‘the correct way’, I was not only making myself sore, I wasn’t making a very good sound. You don’t grip the bow tightly, locking your fingers into place – you need a light, relaxed touch. And you don’t sit rigidly in the ‘correct’ posture – you need to be loose and gentle. Not all bodies are built the same, just as no people are built the same, so find what feels natural and right for you, and relax into it. You need to let go of your tension and flow, not only because it stops you getting sore, but because it makes everything sound better.

I spent today practising the C-Major scale with the bow up and down the four strings, and I’m feeling nowhere near as stiff, and not only that, it’s sounding great.

So, from three days of practice, I have these rules for life:

  1. Confront your fears
  2. Act with confidence
  3. Find what works for you

Who knows what I’ll discover tomorrow?

Is my child a psychopath?

What will my child become?

I think that question is pretty much universal among parents. Whether it’s a daily obsession or just an occasional thought, we all take our child’s current characteristics and project them into an imagined future. Will she be happy? Will she be nice? Will she be clever, confident, artistic, musical?

On other days, we worry. Will she be mean? Will she get into drugs? Will she end up neurotic, psychotic, and confined to an institution?

And on our worst days, if you’re anything like me, we wonder if there’s any possibility, no matter how small, that she might grow up to be a serial killer.

It’s not such a crazy question, when you think about it. Every serial killer was once a child; ergo, right now there are children among us who will one day grow up to be serial killers. Children whose parents feed them and bath them and dry their tears and rock them to sleep at night. Children who are innocent and cute and totally harmless. Or rather, who seem to be.

But we reassure ourselves that there are signs – there must be signs. We’d know if our child harboured a darkness within, wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we?

In the past week, my four-year-old daughter has landed two humdingers that, while making me laugh at the time, have made me wonder in retrospect.

We were in a minibus on the way back from a family Christmas get-together when, apropos of nothing, she suddenly said, ‘Why did the clown cross the road in front of a car?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Why did the clown cross the road in front of a car?’

‘Because he wanted to die!’ she said, and burst out laughing. To be fair, we all laughed, because it was darkly funny. But it’s not exactly one for the family album.

Then, earlier today, we were watching Swallows and Amazons. When we got to the scene where Uncle Jim shouts at John, I said, ‘What a nasty man.’

‘Yes,’ said my daughter. ‘They should kill him.’

‘Whoa,’ I replied. ‘You don’t think that’s a bit of an overreaction?’

She just shrugged. With the absolutism of a child, the penalty for meanness is death. Yikes. Where does this end?

I’ve always been interested in the ‘red flags’ that might indicate future criminality. It’s perhaps inevitable, given my age: I was 13 when two 10-year-olds murdered the toddler James Bulger, close enough in age to the killers for the case to fascinate and horrify me; likewise, I had just finished school when two high school seniors murdered thirteen of their classmates at Columbine. I remember the media wringing its hands, blaming video games and movies, society and Marilyn Manson, while the man on the street put the blame a little closer to home: on the absent parents and on the killers themselves, evil oiks who should have been drowned at birth. Trying to understand why these things happen is programmed into my psyche.

Given the vast number of crime shows filling the schedules, I’m definitely not alone in wondering what makes someone a monster. Is it innate or learned? Are they born imprinted with the desire to kill, or does something turn them from well-adjusted members of society into stone cold killers? And can we ever identify those among us who might one day become murderers?

Luckily, there are multiple lists of the early characteristics of serial killers available online. Of course, children displaying these behaviours and backgrounds aren’t necessarily going to grow up to be Ed Kemper, but most Ed Kempers have them in some combination.

The big three, the trifecta, the so-called Macdonald Triad, are:

  1. Bed-wetting after the age of five.
  2. Arson.
  3. Cruelty to animals.

If you noticed any of these in your child, I think you’d be worried anyway, regardless of whether or not they’re predictive indicators for serial killing. While the first one is often indicative of child abuse or parental neglect, the three together might make you sit up and take note.

In addition, most serial killers have the following backgrounds:

  1. Troubled family life with a history of substance abuse and/or psychiatric disorders.
  2. Child abuse.
  3. Witnessing extreme violence.

While such things are just as likely to make someone a victim as a killer, these characteristics in combination with arson and animal torture, are hardly things you’d look for in a potential babysitter.

And the more subtle behavioural clues that might predict future problems:

  1. Thrill-seeking/risk-taking.
  2. Aggression.
  3. Antisocial and manipulative behaviour.

True, that seems to describe every child, but the intensity of these three, combined with the previous six, are things to look out for.

Other positive correlations between early behaviours and serial killing are:

  1. Inappropriate sexual behaviour.
  2. Voyeurism.
  3. Substance abuse.

You’ll notice that nowhere in the early signs of serial killers does it say, ‘Makes bad jokes about suicidal clowns’. Phew.

All joking aside, I don’t think my daughter will grow up to be a murderer. She’s kind and sensitive and remarkably well-adjusted for someone with two autistic parents. As a parent, I know my daughter. And that’s why I don’t believe a pair of ten-year-olds could murder a toddler, or a couple of teenagers gun down their classmates, without there being a multitude of red flags that their parents chose not to see.

If you’re wondering if your child is a psychopath, unless they’re fascinated with fire and torturing animals, odds are that they’re not. Nor does having a difficult childhood or watching some bad movies make your child a monster unless they were born with something monstrous inside them. People don’t wake up one day and start murdering – in interpersonal violence there is always a progression, an escalation, from the minor to the major, unless they have a personality-changing bump on the head like Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Albert Fish and Dennis Rader – which makes head trauma another sign to look out for.

So don’t worry about what your child might become. It’ll probably be worse than you hope and better than you fear.

But if they fit all twelve of the above, you might consider talking to someone, for all our sakes!

Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Truth Era

A reader asked my opinion on a conspiracy theory currently doing the rounds that a number of high-profile suicides, such as Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, who I mentioned in my post Suicide Isn’t Painless, were, in fact, murdered. The theory, an offshoot of the Clinton Body Count and Pizzagate conspiracies, is that they were murdered to prevent them exposing a paedophile ring led by the Clintons and Jeffrey Epstein and composed of numerous politicians and celebrities. She asked why I thought people were so keen to believe celebrities were murdered, rather than committed suicide. This is my response.

I’ll start with the general and then move to the specific.

I think there are four main reasons people prefer to believe celebrities were murdered than that they killed themselves. The first is that fans tend to feel a kind of ownership of our heroes. We’ve had their songs, their movies, their images in our hearts and our living rooms for so long, and our lives have been so shaped by their words and philosophies, they’ve become our personal gods. So how could they do this to us? They wouldn’t.

The truth that we never knew them and they were never perfect and never owed us anything or actually cared about us is far too hard to accept, so we decide they didn’t leave us, they were murdered. That way, we pass the blame to an innocent party and our hero remains perfect and blameless. It’s the reason so many people claim Kurt Cobain was murdered. I mean, why would a guy obsessed with suicide, who told his mom as a kid that he wanted to join the 27 Club and wrote a song called ‘I Hate Myself and Want To Die’, go ahead and kill himself? Instead of hating Kurt Cobain and holding him responsible for the hurt he caused us, we can hate that evil Courtney Love, who had him killed because she’s a talentless hack (actually, I think there’s a lot of misogyny in these theories – it’s always the wives who are blamed, never the men themselves. Yoko Ono ended the Beatles, not John Lennon; Sharon Osbourne ended Black Sabbath, not Ozzy; Max Cavalera’s wife ended Sepultura, not Max Cavalera, etc.). And if your favourite celebrity was murdered to stop them revealing a paedophile gang, it transforms a suicide into a heroic martyr, so that’s even better.

The second reason is that, as vulnerable biological organisms, we’ve evolved to spot cause and effect in order to protect ourselves. While this has mostly served us well, we’ve developed an erroneous, instinctive belief that big effects must have equally big causes. The destruction of the Twin Towers was too big to be caused by a bunch of Palestinians armed with box cutters and led by a man in a cave, so it must have been a massive conspiracy; Diana was far too important a person to die in a simple car accident, so it must have been an assassination; our hero was too rich and famous and successful and talented to hang himself in a hotel bathroom, so it must have been murder. We don’t like to believe that our heroes are as vulnerable as ourselves, and that no matter how big and successful you are, you’re just as frail and insignificant as the next man, and could just as easily die from slipping in the shower as having a noteworthy demise.

The third reason, related to the previous and applicable to most (if not all) conspiracy theories, is that we’re terrified of chaos. Since the year dot we’ve invented gods to explain the mysterious workings of the world – why this volcano erupted or that year’s harvest failed. We want to believe that things happen for a reason, and if we can spot the signs, we can control our fate – if only we sacrificed more virgins, we could have prevented that flood, and suchlike.

I think the rise in modern conspiracy theories correlates with the decline of our belief in God – we’ve replaced a mysterious, invisible, vengeful deity with a mysterious, invisible, vengeful cabal, whether we call it the Illuminati, the New World Order or the Bilderberg Group. It’s more comforting to believe that someone, even someone bad, is controlling things – that it’s possible to control things – than accept that shit happens, there’s no grand plan behind it all and there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves. Sometimes one man with a rifle can kill a president; sometimes the biggest luxury liner in the world can hit an iceberg and sink; and sometimes the people we look up to can kill themselves with little explanation. Conspiracy theories give meaning to the meaningless, and the illusion of control where none actually exists.

And fourthly, and most simply, I think believing in conspiracies makes people feel special. ‘You other idiots think they killed themselves, but know the truth, because I’m more intelligent, and more perceptive and better informed than you.’ You see this smug, superior mindset all the time with conspiracy theorists as they cherry-pick their evidence and twist facts to suit their political agenda – that’s why they always shout, ‘Wake up, sheeple!’ – because they’re better than us ‘sheep’. Reducing the complexity of the world into good vs evil, and aligning yourself with the forces of good, makes you a hero, and not a schmuck who lives in his mother’s basement. I can understand the appeal.

On the specifics of Cornell and Bennington, I have no doubt whatsoever that they killed themselves. You just have to look at their songs, statements, substance-abuse problems and mental health issues, and the massive death-rate among rock musicians and vocalists, to realise that their committing suicide is not particularly unlikely.

One of Cornell’s best friends, Andrew Wood from MotherLoveBone, died of drugs in 1990 (the survivors went on to form Pearl Jam), while the numbers of dead musicians surrounding the grunge scene, and therefore known to him, is staggering: Mia Zapata (The Gits), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Kristen Pfaff (Hole), Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon), Bradley Nowell (Sublime), Jonathan Melvoin (The Smashing Pumpkins), Layne Staley and Mike Starr (Alice in Chains), and Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots), to name but a few. It was a self-destructive, nihilistic movement. Cornell wrote loads of songs using death and suicide as metaphors, like ‘Pretty Noose’, ‘Like Suicide’, ‘Your Time Has Come’ and ‘Nothing Left To Say But Goodbye’, so his suicide isn’t that unbelievable.

Chester Bennington was similarly troubled. Most Linkin Park songs are about struggling with depression and addiction and self-loathing. From what I’ve read, it seems that Cornell was the rock that Bennington leaned on, a hero and a friend who helped him through the hard times, so when Cornell killed himself, there was little hope left for Bennington. He sang at Cornell’s funeral, then killed himself on what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday. Again, listening to Bennington’s lyrics, it’s not necessarily surprising that he killed himself.

Of course, the fact that their autopsy reports and inquests are a matter of public record should put this subject to bed, provided, of course, you trust the police, coroners, pathologists and jurors involved. You’d need a pretty good reason to doubt the institutions and mechanisms we’ve developed to make sure murders can’t be passed off as suicides, and you’d have to believe in an all-powerful and infallible group of people that can manipulate crime scenes, witnesses, family members, multiple law enforcement officials, medics, coroners, pathologists, courts, jurors, and the press, without leaving a single trace of themselves anywhere. I don’t think such an organisation, or even the capability, exists outside movies and the imaginations of conspiracy theorists.

Which brings me to the whole Pizzagate rubbish and the proliferation of online conspiracy theories. Back in the past, there were gatekeepers standing between nuts and a mass audience, and rightly so, because not all ideas are of equal merit or value. In the past, the crazy guy down the road who lives in a caravan and wears a tinfoil hat to stop the CIA from stealing his thoughts would just have been a harmless eccentric; now, with a keyboard and an avatar, that person can do some real damage.

The internet has been celebrated for being ‘democratic’, in the sense that nobody can monopolize discourse, the little guys disseminating their ideas alongside the big boys, but that freedom is a double-edged sword. People have been conditioned to believe that what they read is true, and this conditioning acts against them. While many content creators are conscientious, dedicated to reasoned argument, fact-checking and accuracy (I like to think of myself in this category, or rather, I aspire to it), many are not. Some are insane, some don’t realise what they’re doing, and some are deliberately untruthful. As is often the case, the extremists ruin it for the rest of us.

If you met someone in the pub who claimed that the first African-American President was actually born in Kenya, and was therefore ineligible to be President, you’d probably conclude you’re talking to a racist and dismiss it out of hand. However, if you put that in black-and-white on the internet, with some spurious but official ‘evidence’ taken out of context, people are going to believe it, particularly if it reinforces their prejudices about the kind of people they don’t like, and more so if it is ‘something The Establishment doesn’t want you to know!’

And then it snowballs. People copy and repeat the lie. They add more ‘evidence’. They link to other sites that support the same lies, making it seem as though a consensus has been reached. Then the mainstream media picks it up. Refuting it just makes you sound guilty. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the lie takes on a life of its own. It gets so big, it seems impossible to deny.

That’s how you end up with Pizzagate. A white supremacist pretending to be a New York Attorney ‘leaks’ that the police are investigating evidence from Clinton’s emails that point to Hillary being at the centre of a paedophile ring. Before you know it, the internet is positive, without a shred of evidence, that there is a vast conspiracy of (Democrat) politicians and (liberal) celebrities running a child-trafficking paedophile ring using pizza restaurants as fronts to carry out Satanic rituals. All fun and games, until a man walked into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington DC with an AR-15 and fired three shots while attempting to rescue non-existent sex slaves.

That’s why conspiracy theories aren’t harmless fun. They destabilise society and have real world consequences. They breed an atmosphere of mistrust. Large swathes of the Arab world deny the Holocaust happened, and accuse Jews of blood libel (murdering children and using their blood to bake holy bread). Anti-vaxxer hysteria is bringing back diseases that we’d almost wiped out. Second Amendment activists harass the parents of murdered children because they think high school shootings are performed by ‘crisis actors’ so the government can take away their guns.

And what happens? You no longer know who to trust. You no longer know what’s true and what isn’t. We live in a Post-Truth era, an age of Fake News, where people will believe and share whatever rubbish they’re told on Twitter and Facebook without checking a single fact. And when you no longer trust the government, the politicians, the media, who do you turn to?

You turn to populists. You turn to people like Trump.

The sitting President of the United States is the greatest example of the dangers of conspiracism. This is a man who kickstarted his political career with the birther conspiracy, who ran his campaign on the idea of combating a nefarious ‘Deep State’ that secretly runs America (in league with the ‘enemy-of-the-people’ news media, of course), and claimed Ted Cruz’s father murdered JFK. This is a guy who lies through his teeth while calling truth ‘fake news’, who claims that climate change is a hoax, vaccines cause autism and the Clintons murdered Jeffrey Epstein. When the head of the country tells you conspiracy theories are real, the truth goes walkabout.

And why? Because knowledge is power, and destroying the basis of knowledge – truth – destroys the currency of opposition. In a kingdom without truth, the best liar is king. And we all know Donnie’s the best of the bunch.

To quote the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels,

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

So what’s the solution? I honestly don’t know. I’m not in favour of censorship, and I think it’s too late for that anyway. On the other hand, I think more could be done to separate reputable news sources from the blatant liars. Perhaps there could be some body set up that you can submit your work to for fact-checking, and they could provide you with a tick or a digital certificate you can put on your website that shows your article has been verified. That way, you’re not blocking anyone, but you’re creating a two-tier system of verified and unverified data. Sure, there’d be flaws in the system, but I’m just spit-balling here. Wikipedia, once an incredibly unreliable source of information, has definitely become more trustworthy over the years, so perhaps crowd-sourcing is the way to go, although such an approach tends to prioritise consensus, mainstream interpretations over equally valid but less popular ones. I’m smart enough to know I’m not smart enough to solve this.

But three things I do know: nobody is infallible; three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead; and the Clintons had nothing to do with the deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington.

Why you should vote

With a General Election in the UK tomorrow that will likely change the way we live for a generation – either by delivering Brexit (Conservative) or re-nationalising utilities and transport (Labour) – most of the people I’ve spoken to have no idea who to vote for, and, therefore, have decided not to vote.

True, it’s a difficult choice – it can seem a little bit like choosing which plug socket to jam a fork into, because we’re going to suffer either way – but if you’re crippled by indecision, here are some things that might help you out of that deadlock.

The difference between left and right is one of opinion, not morality.

I am sick and tired of hearing this banal, simplistic dichotomy of left=good, right=evil; or, to put it another way, Left is right and Right is wrong. You hear all the time from celebrities, campaigners, news sources and anonymous internet users that if you vote Labour (or Democrat in the US), you’re a good, selfless person who cares about the poor and rescues drowning puppies, whereas if you vote Conservative (or Republican), you’re a selfish, uneducated, boorish racist who hates puppies and never tires of seeking out rivers to throw them into.

The world doesn’t work like that. People can’t be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ based on their voting preference, not least because there are really (realistically) only two choices, and picking one doesn’t mean you agree with everything they say and do, just that you disagree with them less than you disagree with their opponent. Rather than being a moral choice, that agreement or disagreement is simply your opinion on how a society is best structured.

Typically speaking, the Right, whether that’s Conservative or Republican, believes in individual responsibility and the free market. They think people should be rewarded for their efforts and punished for their failings; that independence, innovation and hard work should be encouraged, while dependence should be discouraged. They think a free market with the minimum of governmental oversight will give the consumer a fair deal based on the mechanism of competition, and that tax-breaks for the rich will make them spend more money and found new companies and invest in philanthropic enterprises, so the wealth will trickle down throughout society, and everyone will benefit. Essentially, they think people should be left to their own devices and all will come good.

The Left of Labour and the Democrats believes in collective responsibility and the regulated market. They think society controls who succeeds and who fails; that hard work is not properly rewarded and that society needs to take responsibility for your failings. They think the market needs governmental regulation because the mechanism of competition does not give the consumer a fair deal, and that tax breaks for the rich only make the rich richer. Essentially, they think the only way it will all come good is if there’s someone in charge making sure it does.

And that is the difference. True, some people who vote for the Right are racist xenophobes who hate the poor, and some people who vote for the Left are dyed-in-the-wool, hardline Communists, but that’s a minority. Voting Labour doesn’t make you a good person any more than voting Conservative makes you a bad one – it simply means you have a different opinion on whether the basic unit of society should be the individual or the group.

And as someone who sees himself as a political centrist, believing in some things from the Left, like the welfare state, and some things from the Right, like government non-interference, while simultaneously opposing things on both sides, I have no home.

It doesn’t matter who you as an individual vote for

As much as the UK champions itself as a democracy, really it’s just an elected dictatorship. Once somebody is in power, they can pretty much do whatever they want for five years, and no amount of protesting will prevent them from, for example, massively hiking up tuition fees or going to war on false pretexts. ‘People Power’ is only really relevant in an election year, and even then, your voice as an individual isn’t actually important at all, especially if you live in a safe seat.

Take my constituency of New Forest West, for example. Created in 1997, it has seen the Conservative MP Desmond Swayne win every election for 22 years. Voter turnout has been pretty consistent throughout this period: between 45% and 50% of the electorate. The least he has won by is a majority of 11,000 votes, back before the millennium. He won the last election by more than 23,000 votes. It doesn’t matter where I put that cross on my ballot paper, Desmond Swayne is going to win. My political power, as an individual, is zero. My vote has never had an effect on the outcome of an election, and likely never will.

But what about marginal seats? Doesn’t every vote count? No. The last time an MP was elected by a majority of one vote was 1910. Therefore, it doesn’t matter who you as an individual vote for. It doesn’t matter if you stay in bed and don’t bother. You, as an individual, have no say whatsoever.

But you should go and vote anyway

Democracy is a collective endeavour. While it’s true that your individual vote is unimportant, the individual votes add up. It might make no difference if you don’t vote, but if your household doesn’t vote, or your street, or your town, that makes a difference, especially in marginal seats. For politics to work for the people, the people have to engage with it, even if it’s simply to sully your ballot paper as a mark of protest. And while it’s true that deciding who to vote for in this election is particularly difficult, not least because the leaders of both the main parties come across as incredibly odious individuals, if you don’t vote when you have the chance, and after people have fought and died for the opportunity, then you don’t really have the right to complain about the outcome.

My fear is that, with so many people saying they aren’t going to vote because they’re undecided, this election is going to be decided by activists, the people with the motivation to go out and vote. And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met many political activists who aren’t extremists, running down the other side while blind to the faults of their own. Do we really want those people, whether Left or Right, deciding our future?