Why I Won’t Be Hitting the Diffusion Sale Next Year: My journey into minimalism

Year upon year, high-end fashion retailer, Diffusion, has a sale. Prices are slashed as the metaphor runs, by 30, then 50, and finally 70 percent. Every year I go in, every year I spend up to £500 and feel pleased with my bargains. Then buyer’s remorse hits. You might know it well. It’s when you suddenly realise you’d rather have the money than the things you bought with it. Diffusion has a seven day exchange only returns policy. When your money is spent, it’s spent. I’m left with nice clothes but a bitter aftertaste of regret, wondering why I’ve done it again. 

Last year, I discovered minimalism. At first I thought it was about having as little stuff as possible. Whilst the challenge excited me, it felt pretentious and hardly aspirational. Over time, I came to realise it’s about having the perfect amount of things, things that you love, untroubled by clutter that you don’t. Within a month, I cleared out perhaps 80% of my things, mostly books, clothes, CDs and items I thought were useful despite the fact they were never used. The weight lifted mentally was immense. No longer did I have all of these things adding stress, reminding me of the money I’d wasted, of the greed I’d been a part of, and of the unspoken obligation to use them when I didn’t want to. They added pressure, not enjoyment. I was free to enjoy the things I loved, like a husband who’s renewed his wedding vows. A declaration of love to my surviving things: if I could do it all again, I’d choose you.

Then came January. Diffusion slashed those prices and I found myself inside. I bought an Alpha Industries jacket, the style I’d wanted for ages, at a good price. I may have spent a little too long looking at alternates but the right decision was made in the end – I loved it, I loved how I looked in it and it added value to my life. Days later, I couldn’t help but pop back in. The jacket was reduced again, £28 cheaper. Me being me, I saw opportunity. Return it at the higher price, buy it again and have £28 credit to pick up a tee. I didn’t. I bought another two coats and the credit turned into a loss of around £200. I regretted this as I left the cash register and realised I’d done it again. 

I was fortunate. The prices at which I bought enabled me to sell the three items online and actually make a small profit. I no longer wanted any of them; my knowing this type of shopping made me unhappy and doing it anyway killed the buys and the experience for me. I wanted to wash my hands of it. 

And so this reminds me that minimalism is an ongoing ideal to aspire to. It isn’t easy, but when you get it right for that moment in time, it’s utterly wonderful. After a purge at the weekend, I lie on my couch looking at the intentional living I’ve created in my lounge, with the sun peeking behind the clouds and I can smile. I’m getting it right today. 

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The Smoking Gun

What Makes a Great Detective Story?

I’m going to keep this really simple. The answer is the attractiveness of the characters, their magnetism.

Recently, I flicked through Wednesday’s Child, by Peter Robinson. The synopsis is a treat: two social workers arrive at Brenda’s house and take her daughter into care. They weren’t real social workers. If that doesn’t send chills through you, you’re not a parent.

I’m near the end now, and a difficult path it has been. That’s because the characters are all salt of the earth, self effacing, polite but with an edge, boring nothings and nobodies. With a terrible name for the lead like Gristhorpe, how could I have expected differently? Think Sam Allardyce. Think David Moyes. Think past a synopsis before you commit to a read.

Contrast this claptrap with greats of detective fiction, such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Poirot’s insane ego, stupendous deductions and long running little grey cells metaphor keep the reader hooked not just to the end of the story, but through book after book. Holmes’ arrogance is astonishing, his magnificence obvious. Love them or not, these are characters that live in the memory.

This brings me to Edward Marston, author of a few different collections of linked stories, mostly set during the 1850s, or around World War One. The plots themselves are usually most engaging, yet the characters are too engaged with a genuinely pathetic level of virtue signalling. It’s nauseating at most points, perhaps an out of control wet dream of how Marston saw himself throughout his career in law enforcement?

I wrote 80% of a detective novel twelve years ago. It lacked research, a convincing ending, and marked the end of the floppy disk era. More than that, the lead character is introduced in a moment of flashback, like me at the time, as a somewhat jaded, if well-meaning, primary teacher. I can finally translate my feeling of unease about the writing into words, the main character lacked any kind of charisma that so stokes the imagination.

With the authors of Poirot, Marple and Holmes sadly long departed, who is out there?

A Brief Tale of Self-Loathing

Look at you, with your fat belly overhanging, with your muffin top testament to your pathetic ill-discipline. Your face, without angle or line, a wasteful ball of dough with thumb-hole eyes, forlorn at what they see in the mirror, and resignedly accepting you’re the architect of this. This. This! I point now at your stomach, face, dismissively, eyes flashing about with disgust. And in yourself, maybe you don’t care so much. You’ve sauntered in and out of this state with equal vigour from late teens. But your partner does care. Not in a nice way. Not in a supportive, hey let’s get you moving, make you a bit healthier, sorta way. No. Feelings of disgust are transmitted and received. A palpable lack of desire, of affection, non-malicious comments about belly size and its effect on intimacy, one piece of the jigsaw. Where do the feelings emanate from? Me to me, her to me, or her to her to some degree?

I think the lack of malice is the worst bit. If there’s nothing gained by saying it, no spite, it must be true, right? I’ve lost it all before; I can not eat refined sugar for months on end; I can cut a stone in two weeks easily and keep it off with discipline. That will make a difference, though I’m maybe 4 stone away from a weight at which I’d respect myself more. It is less the physicality and more what I know I’ve done to get it; I’m ashamed of myself.

Imagine I cut, again. What will be the gain, where can I find permanence in it so as to not be here again in six months’ time, this pit of self-loathing and confusion? Wanting but never feeling I have what I want, and, as is the case in all places with an abundance of food, attempting to satiate wants by ploughing egregious amounts into my literal cakehole.

Over recent months, I’ve become peculiarly envious of countries such as Mexico and Colombia, which (so I read) have just enough food for everyone. Here in the UK, terrible foods are the cheapest. Introduce a sugar tax! That’s for another day, today is about taking responsibility for my part in this malaise. For without my being a player, there can’t be a game.

So runs the conversation in my head, as the battle between logical and emotional parts of my brain rages on. The bloodshed is severe but you have to look deep into a person’s eyes to see it. It is an ongoing dialogue that’s beginning to cut to the core of who I am and what I’m about. I mean, we are what we do, right? How could we ever be otherwise?

Selecting Those 1% Reads

I haven’t written in months. I would classify myself as someone who writes, as opposed to a writer. The former brings possibility, the latter pressure and expectation. I need to feel to write. Today, I feel.

I’ve read many books down the years. I intensely disliked reading as a child, yet was handed the opportunity to address that at university, when, for the first time in my life, I could not get around reading the assigned book, Jacqueline Wilson’s The Suitcase Kid. Whilst aimed at people younger than I was, it was most enjoyable, and over the years, cemented its place as the spark that ignited a bonfire. The fire continues to burn, and, having read a mind-changing piece minutes ago, it motivates me to share a few titles with you, titles which represent that one-percent, crème de la crème to me.

Each has changed the way I see the world. I’d love to know how you felt about these if you have read them, now, or later, or which books impacted you so. Book talk multiplies the enjoyment of reading exponentially.

Stuffocation – James Wallman

Perhaps the best title ever given and a word that should surely adorn the pages of our dictionaries for time to come. Wallman argues that too much stuff is the greatest problem the Western world faces, that it’s killing us. Dramatic? Possibly. But it led me to minimalism as I found myself identifying with the problems of having too many things, a problem I naively felt was unique to myself, yet formed part of the reason I entered therapy some time ago, and spent my early adult years unhappily married yet hopelessly trapped. Wallman has a couple of talks on YouTube, and a slightly awkward manner of delivery. I urge you to check them out, especially if you’re at the beginning of the minimalism journey, or, even better, yet to discover it.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari

Harari’s brief history of humankind presents thoughtful considerations on why Homo sapiens have developed as we have, with particular reference to behaviour. Today’s reading discusses the development of religion, and how Communism and capitalism fall squarely within its confines. Time and again, he has illuminated my thinking, and I love nothing more than a person that challenges the way I think about things.

The Things We Are Prepared To Walk Away From – Joshua Fields Millburn

https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.theminimalists.com/walk-away/amp/

In this short essay, Fields Millburn cuts to the heart of how I interpret minimalism, providing a parallel context away from the abstention of unnecessary material pursuit. Here, he discusses the need for ongoing love for the people we spend time with, and that only with that love can both parties attain fulfilment. Thought-provoking, borderline radical in parts, I challenge you to read this with passivity. I couldn’t, and, many reads later, cannot today.

The Damned United – David Peace

The controversial fictionalisation of football (soccer) manager, Brian Clough, covering his early career and dovetailing this narrative with that of his ill-fated forty-four days as manager of then-giant Leeds United. In Peace’s version, he brings to life the legend of Clough, with his greatness and especially his weaknesses. I have many, many weaknesses, and tend to respect, if not quite revere, those who know what it is like to struggle with things too. The character is portrayed so strongly that you can begin to predict what he’ll say or do next. A fabulous text for anyone who understands why we don’t always do what appears so obvious to everyone else, for anyone who understands what it is to be driven by fear. For anyone who understands what it is to spend so much time watching the bottom line that ascension to the levels above appears as mythological as Heaven to an atheist.

When Does a No Mean Yes?

I have discovered a destructive habit cultivated in marriage that has affected my relationships since.
My ex wife and I disenjoyed a fractious and tense relationship. Never more so than when she wanted money. We split everything, income and bills; we had the same. Our values were different. She would burn through hers within a few days, I didn’t. 
Tired of her wanting more, I began to respond, “No,” almost instinctively. This felt like the only course of action because a softer approach was met with the sort of railroading you would rather be prepared for. This marked the beginning of the game; my ex wife would kick her persuasive efforts into overdrive and it became a case of counting the cost: losing money versus losing the modicum of peace we had.
I laid on the couch one evening. Her aunt had been discarding a couch and a couple of chairs that my ex wife wanted. It meant hiring a van, which would have been around £300 with deposit. I loved our current couch, and knew (as did she) I had about £350 in the bank until payday two weeks later, to cover food and living. 
She raised the idea days before and I had said that I didn’t want to do it, mostly due to the cost of getting it home, but also our couch was comfy. This night, she was more determined. My resistance was met with rage, after shouting, then abuse, she began to hover over me. I’d never felt threatened by her, much less frightened. Yet here I found myself pulling my legs towards my chest with my right arm and covering my head with my left. She dropped and sunk her teeth into my leg. Days later, I was in the bath, and she asked me about the large bruise on my leg. We even laughed about it. It wasn’t particularly painful, at the time or later, and still I felt no fear of her moving forward. 
But that wasn’t the point. The point was that we booked the van the next day, completed the swap and were left with a little over £10 to last a few days as it takes a while for deposits to be refunded. The boundaries were virtually non-existent by now.
And though the methods employed to turn a no into a yes were more severe here, it was a well-worn pattern of behaviour between us. She believes every no is a starting point for a yes. It’s not a bad thing, or a good. It is what it is, and it wasn’t right for me.
I have since realised I was never the right man for her, and that brings me peace of mind. We weren’t right for each other.
This quick-thinking, reactionary manner has devastating consequences with those not used to fighting over everything. With people that take a no at face value and an acceptable expression of self without feeling obligated to challenge it, it represents finality where it isn’t meant. 
This hit home last week when, with my partner, I was in Tesco, and I picked up some chocolate. She wanted some saved for a few days later, and asked. 
My immediate reaction was no:

There wasn’t much… I would have burned through it by then… I could easily buy more later… and all of these immediate, if unhelpful, emotional responses we voice internally, whilst we compose more appropriate replies.
I uttered “no;” she accepted it. I wished I could take back that word but I couldn’t. 
You see, I was expecting the battle, and this was my part: a player in the back and forth until middle ground was found. It’s like the quick no served as a scanning system, to detect threats and buy time. A gap of silence in marriage would have been taken as a fatal hesitation and make no, if tendered, a less credible position. 
Even with trivial matters, the meaning of the quick no transcends context; it stabs at the heart of generosity and consideration, especially when your partner isn’t a player in the game. 
When I think slowly, and do less, I find myself more calm than excited, and better able to express myself according to my values. A gap of silence is a good thing; it extends the courtesy of time and attention to the other. We respect people who have boundaries, and take their time. And we respect ourselves when we behave that way.

Taking a Step Back

This week has been all about taking a step back in my relationship, cutting out the noise that creates unhappy thoughts and feelings, and looking for something that aligns more with my values. 
It’s easy to forget who we are in this world of constant stimulation. A moment’s peace is harder to come by. Even on a walk by yourself, you can find yourself bombarded with unwanted advertisements – billboards, taxis, even minimalist podcasts – all vying for your attention. 
But attention is a scarce resource. By paying attention to one thing, you cannot, by definition, be paying attention elsewhere. Choosing how to spend it governs much of our wellbeing, which is why it is imperative to monitor how you feel when you are around different people, things and situations. Ask yourself: Why am I here? If you can’t describe a net positive contribution for your soul, maybe you should be some place else. 
A difficult week with my partner follows a couple of difficult ones and we decided to be honest with each other a couple of days ago. It was a painful experience and I’m digesting what was said, and I realised I needed to take a step back. Some of the things that were said made me realise my partner doesn’t really know me at all. Maybe I’ve lost so much of myself in the relationship that I don’t either. I don’t like who I am when I’m around her sometimes, and that matters. Having a poorly face adds frustration into the mix, feeling unable to comfortably express myself so much of the time. Taking the last couple of days to reconnect with myself has left me peaceful, enjoying a slower pace of life. 
This morning I packed and brought home several everyday items that I had left with her, clothing mostly. I found it quite upsetting and put it away immediately, the sight of it heaped in the corner a reminder of what ultimately looks like failure. A healthier way to express it would be the continuation of my journey, and all steps are valuable, even the unhappy ones. When unencumbered with false urgencies and stress, I often reflect on the past this way; it enables me to enjoy happy reminiscences and neutralise events that once caused me pain.  
I don’t know what the way forward will be here. There appears one or two insurmountable obstacles, though time softens the sharpest of words, because when it’s all said and done, no one remembers what you said or did, just how you made them feel. And I don’t feel that bad. 
By taking that step back and spending more of my attentional energy in my world, my space, it’ll give me that peace of mind and freedom necessary to be able to give more to others, which is what I’m doing when I feel most purposeful, and ultimately happiest. 

What Has Happened to the Working Class of Britain?

The working class, once the backbone of Great Britain, has increasingly become the object of ridicule from both the media and great swathes of the population at large. Few would be so socially bankrupt as to outright lambast perceived lifestyles and attitudes of the poorer members of society when referring to them as the working class, which is one of the reasons terms such as ‘chav’ and ‘hoodie’ exist. Pejorative from the outset, they provide a backdrop against which all manner of ill accusations may be made, regarding standards of education and living, the things money is spent on and particularly how it is obtained, and even speculated promiscuity.  

Borrowing from Martin Luther King’s rhetoric, we have to ask ourselves why we have millions cast in the stereotyped roles of Shameless. As King suggested, so to do raises questions of our capitalistic system, but also, which King didn’t suggest, an analysis of the current opportunities available to the working class, and whether or not they are being maximised. 
Pre-Thatcher, British industry provided breadwinner jobs for millions of British men (and less often, women). Over time, as outsourcing of manufacture became first possible and later inevitable, and the government found itself pouring subsidies into British industry to safeguard the jobs. Ultimately, the cost of this became unpalatable to Thatcher, who sought to accelerate the transition towards a greater-proportioned service economy. Over the course of her first five years in power, Thatcher made great strides in her war and millions found themselves unemployed, and, which is perhaps worse, without positions with parity of pay to walk into. A worker earning enough from his specialist manufacturing role to support a mortgage and family will not do the same from the lower-level service jobs available, such as waitressing or retail work. 
Thirty years on, Thatcher is seen by many as the destroyer of communities as far apart as South Wales and County Durham, with all of the mining communities in between, having not only killed work in her time but offered no future, because the work was never replaced. 
In a free market economy, private business owners can provide employment and benefit from it by turning workers into customers. Lower socioeconomic classes are shown more than any other class to spend almost every penny they earn. Hence by employing these workers and having them and their families become customers, businesses can grow, workers get richer as the demand creates more work, and the economy at large expands. The difficulty is it takes a leap of faith on the part of employers to make this a reality. 
In Owen Jones’ ‘Chavs,’ he lambasts the Thatcherite period and highlights the advantages that middle class children enjoy over their working class peers that enable them to excel at school and take the best positions in the workplace. One such advantage is that mothers may be able to afford to stay at home in a middle class family, and can teach their children to read, for example. The same opportunity is afforded to the unemployed, yet this goes without mention. 
Further to this, having taught for over a decade, it is clear to me that children who work hard on their basic skills of literacy and numeracy, coupled with an interest in reading that requires fostering over time, can excel. The vast majority can attend university, graduate with a degree befitting their effort levels and gain employment the same. If the goal is to earn more money, though it is not the only route, graduates earn more on average and so university is a good place to begin a career. For many professions, where respectable pay is granted upon entry, teaching being one, a disadvantaged background need not provide a ceiling to the future. Jobs eliminated thirty years ago, creating deprivation in a community, need not limit the aspirations of its children today. When we see documentaries on terrestrial television suggest communities are akin to Beirut in places, hopelessly cut off, I do not accept this. People wishing to climb rungs on the socioeconomic ladder have the means so to do through their course of education as children. As parents, we have a responsibility to ensure are children are given every opportunity to succeed in that endeavour. That takes time, patience and a great deal of encouragement. 
For fifty years or more, whatabout arguments have avoided the need for introspection. Each party, when accused of taking away opportunities and cutting communities off (government) or being idle and an underclass (benefit claimants, if you read the comments in the Daily Mail, at any rate), responds with a what about you, yes but look at what you are doing response. Perhaps the truth is neither quite does all it can, and when it does, the rising tide will lift all ships, the inequality gap will narrow, bringing greater prosperity to all. 

Why?

Why do we have 1 in 20 unemployed in the UK, vast swathes reliant on meagre benefits to survive and unprecedented inequality, with all the problems that entails?
When you posit the question that way, a considered answer requires an examination of our education system, of why minimum wage is below subsistence level for many, and of why we have a system of governance designed to protect the rich rather than enhance living standards for all.

A Memory of My Father

I haven’t seen my parents in eighteen months, though we exchange weekly messages. Both are well and happy. 

In March 2000, Dad and I attended a radio rally at Drayton Manor Park, and I had a horrible cold. I was out of tissue, and my dad went to the toilets to get some for me. 
I watched as he pulled off sheet after sheet after sheet – it must have been nearly half a roll – to get to the middle where it would definitely be clean and free of germs. 
That episode left a footprint on me as an unconscious signal of love and care, one that’s brought me much comfort down the years.