Syria. A good day for democracy?

A funny thing happened when I came to write this blog last week. I had just written my (now previous) blog on out TV viewing habits (available here: https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/08/31/the-rise-and-demise-of-the-boxed-set/), but felt unable to post it due to certain more serious stuff going on in the world. The blog was all ready to go but it just felt exceptionally unnecessary at the time when we were poised on the edge of another conflict. So, I decided to shelve the fluff blog and look at Syria, see if I couldn’t get some thoughts together.

It was the day of the commons vote, and I was trying to pick my way through the bafflement of it all. I was (and still am) acutely aware of the myriad voices speaking on the matter, most of which carry more authority and knowledge on the issue. So, I didn’t want to add another opinion piece, pulled out of thin air, to the strata of loose opinion that is already out there, and instead decided to look specifically at the question itself, the question being:

What do I think about Syria? (specifically, what can I think?)

Bearing in mind that this was before the surprise vote last Thursday that ruled us out of conflict in the UK, I will paraphrase here some of the notes I made from the never-released blog (and when I say notes, I am literally trying to read my own hand-writing). Following this, I shall just offer a little update, now I know what happened last week.

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(original blog, Thursday 29th August, afternoon)

The question isn’t what do other people think about Syria, the question is what do I think about it?

At this point I am totally flooded by a sense of ignorance, resorting to snippets and tit-bits gleamed from the news and other people’s social feeds.

A vocabulary emerges for people who like me, have not specifically researched the issue but who have rather ‘allowed’ the research to find them semi-distracted and sub-consciously absorbent.

The words that spring to mind immediately are:

Assad, regime, rebels, Damascus, terrorists, Islam, oil, Turkey … And now (with this latest development), chemical weapons, UN, resolutions, weapons inspectors, arms, Russia, China, allies, USA, Obama, Hans Blix, intelligence and so on.

But what do I think about Syria?! To be honest, I know next to nothing about it, and what I do know, I only think I know. I’m not getting all philosophical, metaphysical about it or denying reality here, it’s just true.

So, I could say that the Western interests are forcing its hand to intervene in the ‘civil war’, and that the stability of oil supplies and wider business interests in the region is actually closer to the true motive for intervention than any humanitarian concern. But I have this niggling feeling that Syria (like Libya) are not huge sources of oil production, or tactically as important as say Iraq or Afghanistan. But I don’t know any of this, I can’t even cite my sources.

Another possibility is that our leaders really do ‘draw the line’ on the use of chemical weapons, as hypocritical as that seems to me. I could justify this idea though, because I can imagine how the rich and powerful could foster a twisted morality whereby the reasons and the scale by which you kill people become less important that the means by which you do so. A kind of honour-amongst-thieves scenario. Yes, we happily go around killing civilians, but with drones and missiles, not with gas. Etc..

But I can’t be sure, who can other than the handful of people making these decisions? And even then, if they are ‘convincing themselves’ in order to make the organised killing of humans more palatable to their conscience, how can we trust that there thinking is clear and reasonable?

Another problem is that I can find a counter claim to every accusation made by our leaders, simply be reading the retorts of the involved parties. When a spokesman from the Assad regime says this whole thing is a set-up by the West to draw them into conflict, why shouldn’t I believe them? I’m not saying I do, but it’s not like the CIA haven’t created or encouraged ‘trigger’ events before, so why shouldn’t we entertain the idea that they are doing it again? After all, if the regime don’t want to be bombed into tiny pieces by the West (and I’m guessing they don’t), why would they do the one thing that looks certain to guarantee it? It would almost make sense for the none-specific ‘rebels’ to stage this, in order to bring about this set of circumstances. But who knows? I don’t.

Given the thought process I’ve just briefly set out, are our MPs really able to make such informed choices? If they deny evidence produced by those who rule them and want war, would they not be branded unreasonable and risk losing the little power they have been allowed to keep?

If an answer is incompatible with any logical puzzle, it cannot be a solution to anything. A bit like ‘Jeopardy’, the American game show where the answer is stated and then the question must be guessed. But in this version, the question and answer must constitute a positive truth. So the answer could never be ‘a unicorn’, because the only question could be ‘name a mythical flying horse’, which would constitute a myth, a negative reality as such. For me, ‘war’ as we know it (not self-defence), will never be the answer to a positive reality question. It will never justify any possible question that can be asked. This is why no amount of thinking or debate, or evidence, should ever lead us logically to military intervention. Which leaves us only with other factors, less honourable intentions.

***

So that was my blog, but I decided to wait for the vote before posting it, and as I guess you know, our house of commons voted against any military action in Syria. Big hooray yeah? I think so, but then…

It was hard to fathom at first, as I sat listening to the live house of commons session. An amendment was made to the bill by Labour, specifically Ed Miliband, that called for a second vote at a later time once the weapons inspectors had actually finished their task of you know, inspecting weapons. I must admit at this point I was confused, having been out all day and only just sat down to hear the process, I wasn’t aware of the structure of debate. As far as I could tell, whatever happened, there would be a second vote after the UN had published its findings, which I thought was at least better for our elected representatives to make an informed choice.

So, as I listened, Nick (what-is-the-point-of-me) Clegg was defending/explaining (badly) how it would work if a second vote was needed, and quite rightly being questioned by a stream of confused MPs as to why a need for the first vote, if a second vote was going to happen anyway. As usual, the pointless voice of Clegg evaded and danced around the question, while constantly assuring them that the result of the first vote wouldn’t be taken as licence to act. So why the vote at all? I wondered, as did most of the house, it seems.

Then, the house withdrew to vote on the amended version, and the amendment was defeated. Immediately the house withdrew to vote on the original bill, and it was only at this point I started to grasp that this meant no second vote, if this was passed, we were as good as signing up for the conflict. I tried to reconcile why it was then that I had just heard Clegg defending Miliband’s own amendment to his own party members, but before I could unpick this, the vote came back and the original bill was also defeated! Cameron said one of the most clear things I have heard him say, that it was obvious the house didn’t want to take action and that he would therefore respect that, and that was that. No war!

But wait! Was this a victory for Miliband? Well, no. If his amended bill had of gone through, the vote for war would have happened again the next week, which by then, no doubt, plenty of ‘compelling’ evidence would have been compiled. So Miliband, Clegg and Cameron all had a position that led us to war/intervention, whatever you want to call it (killing people, basically). It was only the surprise overturning of both bills, by rebels in both parties I expect, that prevented all our leaders (opposition and all) from getting what they wanted. Conflict.

So now, am I meant to be happy with this? I get a suspicious shudder when I think that actual ‘democracy’ happened last week, because I have learned not to trust the power people, and now don’t know if I should just be happy, or wary. I’m certainly weary.

I can’t shake the feeling that something good happened, but that there will be repercussions. And I don’t mean, more chemical attacks etc… Conflict is conflict, solving it with conflict, that doesn’t add up. I mean, in our processes that allowed us to actually say ‘no’ this time. And then (the even more suspicious side of me) worries that this was engineered in order to show a glimmer of democratic control at a time when so much vile and damaging domestic policy is being shoe-horned in against the will of so many people, and no real opposition exists. But hey, at least we aren’t going to lob some missiles at another country right?

What has happened to me that makes me think everything our governments do is so suspicious? Even when it is something I want? Is it me? Is it paranoia?

No. I don’t think so. I am perfectly able to conceive of a world where the kind of inequalities I see, the kind that lead to conflict, disease and death, are not present. And in this world, the only factor that is different, is the lack of the ‘kind’ of people that are running things currently, and the systems that support them and that they utilise, i.e. massive financial backing. Sorry, MASSIVE FINANCIAL BACKING and access to machines of war, that just isn’t made available to the rest of us, because if it were, we just wouldn’t accept the lots we have been granted, across the world.

That’s what I think of Syria, I think. I hope that the suffering is alleviated by greater wisdom than we seem to posses at the moment. I hope that ‘Nobel peace prize’ Obama is defeated in his congress vote to happen soon, but I guess he won’t be. I hope we do not get consistent with the shame and pressure we should be pouring on all the leaderships of our democracy who tried so sneakily to dupe us into conflict, and that we stand up more often to be counted against the multitude of sins that are taking place both at home and abroad by people who would convince us they are helping us, while they are really feeding off us.

But then, I hope a lot of things.

 

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Totally Leek

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(Take a bow Marc…!)

For those of you who don’t know, I have strong connections with a sleepy little market town in the Staffordshire Moorlands, at the foot of the peak district, called ‘Leek’.

I worked there for about ten years in my former life at a building society, I lived there for three years, my band ‘Gravity Dave’ (www.facebook.com/gravitydave) are based there, I ran a music festival for the last 4 years (www.leeksummerjam.com – unfortunately on hold for 2013 while we take time to consider our options), and best of all, I have good friends there.

So I have taken an interest, I am a Leek ‘fan’ if you prefer. I may not live there any more, but I am there every week for rehearsals, and often on other odd days for gigs & visits. Nowadays, I live in Longton with my partner, and as nice as it is, well, it’s just not Leek.

I try and explain this to people when I talk about how much I miss the place (even though I’m often there). The usual explanation goes something like,

“You can just walk out of your door you know, and it’s nice, just being able to ramble round the shops, maybe see a few familiar faces. Have a pint. Oh, and it’s great when there’s a market on…”

Because that’s what you get in Leek, a proper yet inclusive localism. Maybe it’s just because I’ve joined the ranks of the self-employed, but I know so many traders, musicians, artists and skilled people who live and work there. And maybe that’s why it was so nice to see the opening of Leek’s first ‘pop-up emporium’ last Thursday (04/07/13).

It’s bitter sweet in a way, because the good people of the unique gift-shop ‘Colloco’ (http://www.colloco.co.uk/) have decided to wind up their high-street presence, but luckily for the rest of us, the driving force of the ‘Totally Locally’ campaign in Leek (http://totally-locally.co.uk/leek/), Colloco’s Marc Briand, has decided to allow other traders in for the final couple of months of the tenure, to road-test Leek’s first pop-up.

And so it was, on Thursday, while taking a swift break from a gruelling day of setting up recording equipment for a Gravity Dave session (and it was gruelling, there are about 5 sets of stairs to our lofty practice room, and they wind and turn like an Escher painting), I decided to nip out for some grub before the big push. Our fantastic volunteer producer (another Leek talent, a man who knows everything there is to know about recording and is a talented musician to boot) asked if I could pick up some biscuits from the health-food shop, but alas, it was closed. So a quick call later and I was asked to grab “a nice Tartlet from Pronto”. Pronto is the gorgeous little Deli, which handily for me, is also directly opposite the newly opened Pop-Up shop.

So, clutching my bag containing my ‘nice tartlet’ and other goodies, I wandered into the waiting crowd at the official opening. There were lots of smiling faces and a vibe of energy running through the place, as producers, customers and local dignitaries gathered round to browse, chat, promote, network, and nibble on the free snacks (also provided by Pronto).

Once the photos were done and the ribbon cut, we all filed back in to the sound of Dominic Morgan (the hardest working musician in the North from what I can tell – check out his fantastic acoustic numbers here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dom-Morgan/411516972218221?fref=ts), and continued our joyful perusing.

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First stop, for multiple reasons, was the wonderful Miscos chocolates stand, (www.miscoschocolates.co.uk). I say multiple reasons because a) I love their chocolates and wanted to bag myself a salted-caramel cup, and b) because ‘Cisco’ from ‘Miscos’ is the bassist in my band and I wanted to let him know how the set up was going, and c) because Meg & Cisco from Miscos are very good friends of mine and I’ve watched them build up this amazing business, and helped out where I can. The fixture looked amazing, as you can see:

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After that, I started my quick scanning of the rest of the wares. I’ve spoke to Marc about the whole set up before, hoping that if it continues long enough I may well start my own book-stand to sell a few of my upcoming self-published titles. He told me about the many and diverse local producers in the area that he has discovered thanks to the cooperation that has emerged out of the ‘totally locally’ campaign. That was certainly evidenced here, and this is only the first brave batch of traders to have a pop at the pop-up format.

From clothing (I particularly like the ‘Choose Leek’ range, see below), to jewellery, haberdashery, a great range of craft cards and gifts (I bought myself a modest little notebook and badge set from the fun and cheerful ‘Crap Cat’ range, below) and even the odd bit of local publications and art from the ‘Borderland Voices’ group (http://www.borderlandvoices.org.uk/). Plus a whole lot more that I had neither the time or memory to list here for now. Just go and see it, that’s the best way.

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So, after my quick browse, purchase, snacks and salted caramel cup (yes!), I left them to it so I could walk back along the historic market town  of Leek to my practice room and get on with the job of recording. It was perfect timing. Our producer relished his tartlet, I got to see the pop-up shop, and a great evening of recording lay ahead of me.

These kind of days happen in Leek all the time. You pop out for something and you see something else. It may be one of the many Markets (the fine-food market every first Sunday is a must…), or the local, independent restaurants, cafe’s, pubs and shops that are working together to show what high-streets can and should look like. They are defying the odds when you look at the topography of Leek only to see it is surrounded on all sides by massive national/global supermarkets, all trying to turn every town into a boring carbon-copy vision of a generic shopping-hell future, undercutting prices and sapping character from every corner of the country. But not in Leek, not yet, and hopefully not ever. Not while we have the cooperation and enthusiasm of the local producers working with each-other and the council (when possible) to stage events, offer local discounts, start pop-up shops (hopefully one of many to come), put on amazing markets and generally just be a cool place for a day out, or (if you can convince your fiancé to move there, which I’m working on), a life lived.

Where else can you… (in no particular order):

  • Grab a slice of stone-baked pizza over a continental larger… (The Napoli. http://www.thenapoli.co.uk/)
  • Try the rare-bread meat’s, artisan bread, chocolates, and local brew beers on your way through town (Fine food market)
  • Drop into a few antique centres, just for the fun of it if you like, they’re always interesting places, full of little treasures (the many antique centres)
  • Freshen up with a Belgian beer or two (Den Engels Belgian Bar)
  • Drop in and browse a selection of wares from local producers in a friendly and colourful atmosphere (totally locally pop-up – https://www.facebook.com/TotallyLocallyLeek)
  • Grab a posh-oatcake and choose from dozens of real ales from the good people of Titanic brewery (The Roebuck)
  • Have a coffee, see an exhibition, or catch a few bands in the historic ‘Foxlowe’ community arts centre (http://www.foxloweartscentre.org.uk/) (The Situation – original music nights every month at the Foxlowe, amongst other events, https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Situation/113561162062815?fref=ts).
  • Pop into a wine tasting evening (http://www.wineandwhisky.com/), drop in to the Deli for a ‘nice tartlet’ and wander over to the beautiful park for a sit down, drink and a snack…

These are just a few things that spring to mind, there are lots more, and it’s only a small place! I know other towns also do or are starting to do this kind of thing, I just hope they all follow through on the experience and bring this laid-back yet skilled and productive continental style brand of localism to the whole nation. (I secretly cheer a little inside every time I hear of another multi-national chain store going into administration. That model is broken and if we keep up with doing it ourselves and supporting local producers, maybe even the MPs will take note and start reducing the over-inflated business rates fixed by the mass-buying power of the faceless corporations… you never know).

So another great day in Leek. If you’ve not been, visit. If you want to know about the ‘Totally Locally’ model, feel free to contact the guys through the links provided in this article, they are all about best practice and idea sharing, and maybe you can make a Leek of your own, in your own town, supporting your neighbours and local traders, providing skilled and independent jobs, making the high street a nice place to be again.

Well done Leek. Keep it up.

Of the Benefits of Crisis

There is an important question that should cross the mind of anyone who makes a departure from a particular career after a significant amount of your life has been given to it: Have I just avoided a mid-life crisis, or am I heading towards one? I had this thought last night, a bit drunk, while smoking and looking at the stars as usual. I should request here that those who say that 31 is hardly ‘mid-life’ to put semantics aside for the purposes of this article… you get my meaning.

A few months ago I finally left employment at the bank I had worked at for about ten years. It was a job that I had originally taken as an agency worker in my very early twenties after dramatically leaving my job at a pub due to differences in opinion (I thought the landlady was a nosy drunk, she didn’t). Before working at the pub I had been placed in several factory/warehouse jobs by agencies, so this time I wanted to try something that a) required greater use of my brain, and b) had somewhere to sit. So I decided to try and get a job in an office. At the time I had no inkling that I could turn my skills as a musician into a paying enterprise, and writing was still just an occasional hobby. I just wanted some money so that I could live for a bit and see what happened. The agency took some persuading, usually when I asked for office work they would nod, stare blankly, tell me that they would have a look, and then send me to a factory in the meantime. But eventually I got in at Britannia Building Society in Leek and was able to don my old school black trousers and shoes (literally, that’s not a fashion comment), pull on an ill-fitting work shirt (having fluctuated in weight by two stones since I had last bought any) and head to my new office job where they had computers and everything.

For the first two months I was put in a documents store room and spent all day on my feet filing miscellaneous paperwork into mortgage deeds. We had one chair between three of us, no windows and no supervision. It was just like being at a factory again, but eventually, after what seemed to be some kind of sadistic trial period, they let me upstairs to hit keys on computers and move paper around. They soon found, as did I, that I’m quite good at hitting keys on computers and moving bits of paper around. I was also quite good at telling other people what keys to hit and where the paper needed to be moved to, so I moved relatively quickly into a job where I helped to figure out what keys needed pressing, and even designed some of the bits of paper that got moved around.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, in fact, I pretty much hated it. I even grew to miss the honesty of putting cups in boxes, because it was a clear and distinct task that had some merit and needed doing. Most of the work at the bank, especially when I got involved in projects, was reactionary and unnecessary. It could have been done by the computers if they would just spend the time and money. But apart from that, it was just so damn false and I quickly learned how much emphasis was put on advertising and internal propaganda. They wanted us to whistle while we worked (not literally), to be ‘on-board’ and ‘with the programme’ – we were quite often told that if we didn’t agree with the bank’s ‘values’ we should leave (all very well and good coming from an exec who pockets over a million pounds each year… it’s easy to hold values with that kind of incentive). But I persevered, I panicked but did nothing, I threw my efforts outside of work into a relationship which eventually broke down, and then I had my first quarter life crisis.

I say a quarter life crisis because I must have been 25 at the time, so although it’s unlikely I will see 100, again, you get the meaning. As I found myself moving back home, a shadow of a possible life left behind me, I laid a lot of blame at the feet of my job. I had thrown myself into work, going for interviews, moving up the ladder slightly, bringing home the pay and bonuses. I had convinced myself that was what was required when I moved in with my girlfriend. I had a household to support etc… all that protestant work ethic crap which was somehow engrained in me (and still is to an extent – it’s that feeling of guilt you get when not being productive). But it made me unhappy, creatively starved and frustrated. That probably wasn’t the reason the relationship ended, but my retrospection found it the easiest thing to target as something I could do something about. I couldn’t do anything about the failed relationship, that was over, and I was determined not to slide into self-pity and destruction (I had done that before and it wasn’t pretty for a while). So I took the big, bold step of… going part-time. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was determined to carve out some space to figure out what I wanted to do. As quite often happens when you come out of a situation, I rediscovered a lot of my friends were still there, waiting to be supportive (I’m very lucky in that respect), and things started to happen. I moved to Leek with a friend and we set up a music production business, I got involved in organising events, I restarted my education with the open university and started to write, I lived by myself for a year (everyone should try it), I got engaged, I joined a band, I moved in with my fiancé, and then, last of all, after ten years of waiting for the right moment, I gave up the day job.

That was three months ago now. February 2013. Throughout all the changes I had continued to work for the bank, partly because I still didn’t have the confidence to give it up, but mainly because for the last three years there was the possibility of redundancy and walking away with a reasonable sum of money (due to the take-over by wool-clad wolf, the Co-op – see https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/ethical-alternative-my-guide-to-the-coop/). Eventually that possibility, though still hanging in the air as a remote distant chance, was denied to me. While others around me were losing jobs they wanted to keep, I couldn’t get rid of mine. I tried my best to argue the senselessness of this to the powers that be, even ending up face to face with my ‘big boss’ and telling him what I thought of the way they did things, but it didn’t make a difference. Perhaps I had showed my cards too often, threatened to leave just one too many times, because they wouldn’t cut me loose. Why would you give me money to go when I quite obviously wanted to leave anyway? That’s the corporate way. Despite all the work and energy I had given them for ten years, despite the moving of the ground from beneath our feet as one lot of corporate clowns took over the running of our lives from another bunch, that path was not open.

And so, after a few sleepless nights and the flaring up of every ailment in my mind and bodies repertoire of stress-induced warning signs, I gave it up. It was not very dramatic in the end. I told them I was going to leave, they did the paperwork, and within a couple of weeks (thanks to stored up holidays), I walked out of the building for the last time, with the sun and the chatter of open-office politics behind me. I was overwhelmed for a minute or two as I drove away, laughing tears, and then I was back to normal. I waited a few weeks for the reality to kick in, but it already had. All I had now was what I made of it, all I have now is what I make of it.

So the point of this blog is, have I just gone avoided a mid-life crisis or am I walking straight into one? And I hope to make this appraisal global enough for this blog to be of value to anyone else reading who has or might be thinking the same thing, otherwise I’d just be sharing with you chapters from my life, which is not my intention.

One of my nightmares as a teenager was ending up like ‘Ernold Same’, the eponymous character from the Blur song over which Ken Livingstone drones this monologue:

Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed at the same time
Looked in the same mirror
Made the same frown
And felt the same way he did every day,
Then Ernold Same caught the same train
At the same station, sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to him the same old what’s his name
On his way to the same place to do the same thing
Again and again, poor old Ernold Same.

– ‘Ernold Same’, Blur.(The Great Escape, 1995)

                So if turning away from a day job at a bank, in which I sat in the same chair, next to the same people, doing the same things, again and again, the same drive to work, the same canteen, the same coffee machine, the same pot plants, the same meetings, the same screens, the same problems and the same solutions, the same frustrations, the same politics, the same building, has made me a little less like Ernold Same, and a crisis that is, then a crisis is certainly a good thing and I would urge anyone considering having one to go for it.

If on the other hand, the crisis is forthcoming, and this is a temporary stop-gap where everyday my work is what I make it, be it writing music for high-street companies, writing stories, writing scripts, writing scores for original films, writing blogs, or whatever else I choose to do, then what a crisis the next one will be! Is it possible that one crisis will cancel out another and I could end up back at a desk in an office? Not if I have anything to do with it, not unless the work that takes place in that office is  creative and/or for the benefit of those who need it (the moral-void of bank work is a strong motivator to express yourself and help others). So now, as a fledgling self-employed person, with all the uncertainty that brings, not knowing if the last paid job was literally my last paid job, having to try and pick my opportunities from everything I am capable of and convince others of that capability, a crisis would surely be a good development. I mean, the last two crises I’ve had started my desire to educate myself further and produce original work, and have given me the opportunity to do so. What will be next? So far, I’ve had only net gain from crises, the only thing that was ever holding me back was not instigating one in the first place.

I say, if you are heading towards a crisis, at whatever stage in your life, bring it on! It is a creative act and we are creative creatures. It is decision and action, and those are attributes we are blessed with. Aristotle said that our capacity for reason was the objective of human-life, and that only aiming for mere survival like plants and beasts is to not fulfil our humanity. So let’s not be plants, not just now, maybe another life-time if you believe in that kind of thing, but not now. Let’s greet crisis with open arms, because it means something is about to change, and change is the only way we can create (there was only ever one truly creative act in this Universe, and no one really knows how that came about, we just work with what we’ve got).

So in answer to my own question, I think I have both gone through a crisis, and am heading towards my next one, and I hope that is always the case.  For others, and I do not mean to undermine the choices people make, some people genuinely do want to work for a bank or other such industries and that’s fine (though I wager most people don’t), but if you are becoming a bit ‘samey’ and you wonder where that feeling of wasted time and senselessness is coming from and what, if anything, you can do about it, instigate a crisis of your own. So far, the evidence tells me, they can be very good things, if you have control (which of course we all do, though it may not seem that way). There is a fundamental truth in here somewhere, even if the crisis comes to you and seems negative, there is nothing you can do about the past, there is only how we choose to appraise and move on from it to the future by choosing the present moment by moment. That is not a wishy-washy, motivational sound-bite, it is just a statement of fact. I certainly don’t feel that I have ‘made it’ yet, and the anxiety of self-employment is a formidable foe (this article is just one round in the fight against it), but I’m definitely on the right ladder now, which is a start.