How I travelled the world without ever leaving London

A festive-looking London Chinatown

In the space of just 5 minutes, I’d been transported from Kashgar in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province to Bucharest, Romania in the heart of eastern Europe. Over the course of the subsequent few hours, I’d also managed a whistle-stop tour of the Punjab followed by a layover in Eritrea on the horn of Africa. How was this possible, you ask? Well, I managed it without ever venturing beyond the London Orbital.

Few places on Earth can boast of London’s culinary diversity. Think of any cuisine, no matter how obscure, and you’ll find at least one place in our capital that offers it. A few miles from my hometown on the outer northeastern fringes is Etles, the first Uyghur restaurant to open in the UK situated on Walthamstow’s Hoe Street. This rare and undiscovered cuisine is a bridge between central Asia and China. At various times the Uyghur autonomous region often known as East Turkestan has been conquered by the Mongols, the Han, the Turks, the Kazakhs and even the Arabs. Indeed you can see this unique admixture in both the people and the food. 

When I’m in London, I go to Etles fairly frequently and converse with the chef-owner Mukaddes, often by code-switching between English and Mandarin, a language I picked up whilst living and working in China. She tells me that the majority of her clientele are Han Chinese, often students and homesick expats, who travel far and wide to have a taste of a cuisine that’s hugely popular throughout the Middle Kingdom. As usual, I order a couple of juicy lamb kebab skewers generously seasoned with cumin and a plate of fresh pulled noodles known as ‘laghman’. Momentarily I feel as if I’ve been transported to the little family place near to my old apartment in Xi’an, a city reknowned for its Chinese Muslim cuisine. Every time I go here the rich cumin smells elicit an intense feeling of nostalgia. Afterwards I invariably head for dessert at La Manole, a Romanian restaurant, for ‘papanasi’, a delectable doughnut dessert filled with cream and sour cherry jam.

‘Ganbian chaomian’ at Etles, Walthamstow

During my last trip to the capital however, I had a hankering for something different. After watching Mark Wiens, the affable YouTube food blogger, practically eat himself to ruin at the famous Gwangjang food market in Seoul, I decided one Saturday that a Korean feast was in order. A quick Google search yielded a few places in the centre of town but, for the true authentic experience, I knew I had to go slightly further afield whilst still remaining well within the bounds of the M25. It took me about an hour for me to travel to New Malden, a fairly unremarkable suburb in the southwest of the city known unofficially as London’s Koreatown. New Malden (or “Nyumoldeun” as its Romanised in Korean) has such an array of specialist restaurants, grocery shops, bakeries and acupuncturists that you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in Busan or Incheon. Why so many Koreans (20,000 in total) have congregated here is a mystery but for inveterate foodies like me it doesn’t really matter.

On the train there I overhear a group of teenage girls of various backgrounds excitedly discussing their favourite K-Pop artists. From what I gather, they’re going to New Malden to dip their toe into Korean culture, inspired by their love of popular boy bands like BTS, 2PM and Exo. Upon arrival it was tricky deciding where exactly to eat but after much deliberation I opted for an unassuming little place serving up dishes that were as unfamiliar as they were exciting. I was served a fiery hell-broth of tofu, vegetables, kimchi and ramen that seared my mouth and invigorated my taste buds with its robust flavours. The dish was ‘kimchi jigae’ and it was one of the most complex and delicious dishes I’d ever eaten. The waitress was thrilled that I had devoured every morsel and, seeing that my lips and mouth were on fire, even offered me an ice-cold glass of soy milk on the house. I left full and with a feeling that all was right with the world. 

On the way back home, I couldn’t resist stopping off for a masala chai and a ‘cham cham’ (a milk-based Bengali dessert) at a Shaad, an authentic cafe-style eatery on Brick Lane serving homemade a dazzling assortment of flavourful homemade dishes . This is the sort of place you should opt for when I head to Banglatown, as opposed to one of the many gaudy and generic curry houses. At Shaad I chatted with a couple of local Muslim elders about life back home in Bangladesh. They reminisced fondly about the bucolic serenity of rural life in their native Sylhet, telling me stories of catching fish and spending long hours helping their mothers prepare communal feasts for the village. Few non-Bangladeshis came in here they said and, sensing that I was more intrepid than your average non-Bengali customer, the owners shook my hand and gave me my tea and sweet on the house. Such hospitality and kindness are rare in Britain nowadays but are, in my experience at least, much more common in many of its immigrant communities.

Still animated by a zest for adventure, I ventured westbound the following morning to Southall, a mini-Amritsar en route to Heathrow to continue on my London weekend food odyssey. This place has excited me since I was a kid when I would watch Michael Palin traverse the Punjab on packed steam trains. Southall was as close as I could get to India’s northwest. My go-to place here is Rita’s, a place that specialises in ‘chaat’ (crispy Indian snack plates), samosas, pakoras and Punjabi classics like my absolute favourite ‘saag paneer’ (a spicy, creamy spinach dish studded with cubes of fried Indian farmer’s cheese). This time round I opted for roti with dal before delving into the Himalaya indoor market with its saree shops and Bollywood DVD vendors. 

After a swift espresso pick-me-up at Bar Italia, an old-school Soho cafe with a retro feel, I headed south for something I’d never tried before. This was to be the most pleasant surprise of my food-centric weekend. A stone’s throw from Oval tube is Adulis, a warm and friendly East African restaurant specialising in the food of Eritrea. Popular with locals, this place really hits the spot with its zingy, citrusy vegetables and rich meaty stews served on ‘injeera’, a spongy pancake with which you eat and served in a woven reed basket. The flavours were new, complex and exciting and like nothing I’d eaten before and, given my enthusiasm, I perhaps overindulged. Noticing this, the waiter offered me some strong Eritrean coffee served in a traditional earthenware pot. It was a perfect end to a perfect weekend of unbridled self-indulgence in what is the truly global city of London.

Boudain lives on in the many he inspired

db767ee65a545f2147885bbea1aa123aSince my mid-teens, I’ve loved nothing more than to lose myself in the beautiful chaos of London’s Chinatown. This vibrant enclave in the heart of the West End provides a temporary escape from the humdrum realities of city life, as well as an opportunity to eat my way through the full colourful spectrum of Chinese cuisine, one delicious morsel at a time. You won’t find gloopy wanton soup and electric-pink sauces here, but the sort of fayre one might expect to eat in the street markets of Hong Kong, which is to say, the good stuff.

I invariably start my culinary tour, which has been a monthly ritual since the age of 18, with a BBQ pork bun and a pearl tea. At the pagoda at the bottom of Gerard Street, I sit with my bun in one hand, pearl tea in the other, and watch the throngs of tourists and Chinese expats go by. While families lug around shopping bags loaded with Chinese kitchen essentials, groups of students, many of whom new arrivals from the Mainland, make their way to restaurants where they sit around a bubbling cauldron and shoot the breeze over mouth-searing Sichuan hot pot. In the restaurant fronts, tough-looking chefs in soy-spattered aprons carve roasted meats using sinister-looking cleavers with terrifying speed and precision. I could sit at Gerard Street and absorb the smells, sights and sounds for literally hours. The atmosphere here is heady and chock full of sensory delights.

By the age of 15, Bourdain’s television series ‘A Cook’s Tour’ had left an indelible impression on me and, like many fellow food obsessives, I had embraced his enlightened hedonism with an almost radical fervour. Thanks to Bourdain, London had transformed in my mind from a city in which I merely lived and worked into one in which there were infinite possibilities for gastronomic adventure. Animated by my new-found zeal for exploration, I’d pick a different ethnic cuisine each weekend and traverse the sprawling capital in search of it. This included an hour-long Tube journey to the unremarkable suburb of New Malden, home to London’s 10,000 or so Koreans to eat bulgogi and bibimbap and a half revolution around the London Orbital to Hounslow, on the city’s Western extremity, to try the UK’s best Punjabi-style thali. In my more intrepid moments, I even ate at a Somali community kitchen, listening to tragic stories of life in war-torn Mogadishu and, on one occasion, I had the honour of being invited to a Bengali home in Bethnal Green by a Brick Lane shopkeeper whose wife lovingly prepared for us a Sylheti fish curry feast.

Eventually in my early twenties I was to go one step further by cutting loose and winging it abroad, embarking on a quest of the apex of world gastronomy and hoping, like Bourdain, to have a few epiphanies along the way. In 2015, I risked everything, threw my life into a suitcase and headed for China, the place that had fueled my imagination about as a youngster. On the plane, I dreamed about the hutong, Beijing’s old neighbourhoods, where I was told all the good stuff was to be found. Upon arrival, I quickly settled in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, where I paid my way working as a teacher, and assimilated into the expat community, forming lasting bonds with fellow travelers from all corners of the globe, many of whom were also influenced by Bourdain’s work and, more to the point, his love for authentic and unpretentious food. On day three, a long-time expat, chef and travel blogger from Montreal, whose prized possession was a signed copy of Bourdain’s magnum opus, ‘Kitchen Confidential’, took me down an uninviting series of backstreets in the hutong to ‘Li Qun,’ arguably the best Peking duck joint in the world. After enjoying a symphony of juicy meat and crispy, molasses-lacquered skin, we fortified ourselves with baijiu, a Chinese moonshine similar to lighter fluid, and raised a toast to Anthony whose photo, which was taken during an episode of his ‘No Reservations’ show, was displayed prominently on the tiled wall of this decades-old institution. In that moment, I felt a close connection with this man and, through a shared love of his work, I was finally meeting people with whom I shared a Bourdainian ethos. From being a fairly isolated and apprehensive young man in London, I’d staked out my place in the world as a daredevil traveler willing to try anything, and I was hungry for more.

A few months after my arrival, I had become part of a clique of Beijing expats with a maniacal passion for food. Together, we’d regularly scour the city’s markets and backstreets in search of degustatory pleasure, whether from roadside vendors or high-end gourmet restaurants. Wherever the good stuff could be found, we ferreted it out. After exhausting the capital, we boarded a sleeper train to Hong Kong, perhaps the most food-centric destination on the planet where we planned to follow the Bourdain trail, eating in the same restaurants and dai pai dong featured in ‘No Reservations’. In a spectacularly good beef noodle joint in downtown Tsim Sha Tsui was a framed photo of Bourdain, looking rather handsome and posing with a slightly bashful smile. The owner was effusive in praise, describing him as honest, kind and devoid of affectation. A profane Buddha, Bourdain spoke eloquently not only of food but moreover of people, in such a way that celebrated both our differences and our commonalities. His macho rock-and-roll image belied a deeply thoughtful and sensitive individual to whom thousands like me around the world paid homage through our travels. After eating ourselves to ruin during the trail, we went to a local 7-11, bought a bottle of maotai (a slightly smoother version of the paint thinner we’d had in Beijing) and ended our 48-hour escapade in a park overlooking Hong Kong harbour. Again, we toasted to Bourdain, the man who’d brought us all together, staring across the habour at the city’s beautiful neon skyline. It was a transcendent experience.

A few years later, when the news arrived that he’d committed suicide, I, like many others, was shattered. A man whose witty prose and sparkling humanity had inspired me and so many others to get out into the world, had succumbed to his own private despair. I always sensed from his writing that he had a latent depressive streak, but assumed he had the strength to overcome it. I was wrong. It’s now been about 5 months since his passing and, truth be told, I haven’t quite gotten over it. Speculating as to the reasons why he might have done it seems like a futile guessing game however. After all, none of us was privy to his innermost thoughts and feelings.

Though he may no longer be with us in person, his philosophy remains and lives on in the spirit of those who it inspired. Bourdain taught us better than anyone that food lies at the intersection of people and culture, and brings us to the table both literally and figuratively. More importantly, he showed us how exciting and humbling the world is -— a place full of essentially good people making the best of whatever ingredients they have to hand.

Male Autistic Incels: The Unspoken Truth

adventure-contemplate-depressed-54379By Thomas Clements & Jonathan Mitchell

Thomas: “If a woman were flirting with me, I probably would not be aware of it.”

This isn’t a subject I particularly wanted to talk about. I never spoke about sex at home and generally shy away from the very mention of it. It’s quite strange therefore that sex and reproduction are also fundamental aspects of human identity, belonging and biology. The vast majority of us are sexual creatures with often strong and intense desires to seek out a partner for physical affection and intimacy. Autistic people are no different in this regard. Most of us in some point in our lives will have a yearning to satiate our natural biological urges and to keep on doing so over extended periods of time with a stable romantic partner. Unfortunately, many autistic men like me languish in the dark, twisted world of involuntary celibacy where opportunities for having sex with someone are slim and the chances of being able to find a long-term sexual partner are even slimmer.

In my case, I’m 29 years old and, to put it bluntly, I’m sexually frustrated. Not being one to make small-talk or to engage in flirtation, my opportunities for sex thus far have been limited to say the least. Flirting is something I still cannot grasp intuitively or intellectually as a concept due to a failure on my part to be able to read body language and to recognise more subtle non-verbal cues. If a woman were flirting with me, I probably would not be aware of it. In fact, people I’ve been with have berated me in the past for missing chances to flirt with members of the opposite sex who have apparently given indications of romantic interest. I drifted through my teens, my college years and my early twenties having had zero contact with the opposite sex. And I mean none. Not even so much as a handshake. At university, I even gained the nickname “The Monk” for my celibate lifestyle. On my part, this was certainly not driven by some puritanical religious conviction and the stigmatising label only increased my feelings of inadequacy and despair.

In 2013, I decided I needed a fresh start in life and moved to China where I taught English. Being a white European in China made me quite desirable in the eyes of many women (light skin is seen as an feature attractive across Asia) and many vied for my attention, openly asking me if I would be their boyfriend. For me, a sexually naïve young man, it was a huge confidence boost and a very erotic and exciting experience. Eventually, I went out with a colleague called Wendy and it was then that things kind of went pear-shaped. On the one hand, I had the attention of a beautiful Chinese girl and a huge boost in my overall confidence. On the other, I was abysmal at showing affection towards her in the typical way romantic partners do and had immense difficulty navigating the complex world of romance. I was a neglectful boyfriend to say the least and one who dodged phone calls, never thought to buy gifts or to engage in playful behaviour. Worst of all, while I had summoned the courage to hug her, I did so begrudgingly due to my dislike for physical contact, we never had sex. It was for that reason that we agreed mutually to terminate our very brief romance. She had apparently been hinting to go to the bedroom for a while but I’d been quite oblivious to it, and when it came to it, I couldn’t face the physical intimacy of being up close to somebody, what with my sensory sensitivities and all. I cannot tell you the frustration of simultaneously craving sexual intimacy and at the same time not being able to engage in it due to an instinctive aversion to touch.

Like many autistic men, I face the rather grim reality of remaining involuntarily celibate for life. It’s not a nice truth to have to acknowledge and it’s a subject many are squeamish about even broaching so I felt the need to do so. I’m not proffering an answer because there simply are no trite solutions to this vexed and rather unpleasant conundrum. I’m simply telling things as they are for many us, including many autistic men I’ve spoken to privately, including my friend Jonathan.

Jonathan: “My ability to relate to women is impaired”

“Why don’t you find an autistic girlfriend?”  This is the usual query I get when I discuss my inability to find a successful relationship with a woman and my involuntary celibacy.  Sometimes I feel I have the gift of prophecy. I know exactly what people will say when this issue comes up.

I’m a sixty-two-year-old man with autism, and I’ve never had a full-fledged girlfriend, though I have had some casual dating.  My ability to relate to women is impaired. I’ve met women who seemed to like me at first blush. However, after I’d gone out with them or they got to know me better, certain behaviors of mine came to the fore.  I was very loud, intense, made funny movements, discussed the same things over and over and had a scowl on my face. These behaviors caused them to lose interest. Much of the time, I’ve been too shy to ask them out or had a problem relating.  

This has caused me great frustration in my life, and the loneliness bites at me. There are some things those who have suggested finding an autistic mate don’t understand. There’s a four to one ratio of autistic men to autistic women.  According to some authorities, it’s more like seven to one in the more mildly impaired autistics such as myself.  These numbers mean that if the autistic man is only restricted to dating their own kind, the majority of us will be left out in the cold.  There’s also the question of whether or not the autistic woman would be interested. One way of expressing it is even though numerically the odds are good for the autistic woman, they might not care because the goods are odd.  

Involuntary celibacy is a common problem for males on the spectrum.  David Miedzianik, an autistic man from Rotherham England, detailed his problems with women in a memoir he wrote as well as numerous poems.  He would write posts in various internet groups, demanding a girlfriend, not understanding why this was socially unacceptable.

Perhaps one of the best known cases is Elliot Rodger, who very possibly was autistic.  He made various videos and wrote a manifesto, detailing his frustrations with his lack of sex.  The frustration became so great to the mentally ill man that he went out and killed some women whom he perceived as having wronged him by denying him the loss of his virginity.  He subsequently committed suicide during a police pursuit while he committed these atrocities. This is an extreme case though. Despite the fact that many autistic men are frustrated over celibacy, it’s rare they go out and commit murder.  

Others have advocated prostitution for autistic men, though this is a poor substitute for the emotional ties of requited love.  Sexual surrogates, a quasi-legal alternative to prostitution in which a paid sex worker, usually collaborating with a clinician, is sometimes another option recommended for autistic celibates.

Despite involuntary celibacy being commonplace among autistic males, the problem receives no publicity by the media. Some of the most widely publicized autistic males, including John Elder Robison, Ari Ne’eman, and Michael Carley are married.   Most news stories about autism are of a feel-good nature, extolling alleged virtues and talents of autistic people. More often than not these stories do not jibe with reality.

Some of this journalism is driven by the high rate of unemployment among autistic people–figures as high as 80 to 85 percent are quoted for both the United States and the United Kingdom.  Stories claiming that autistics have superior aptitude for the IT profession, great attention to details, are loyal employees abound. One piece in TIME magazine went as far as saying that autism is an opportunity.  This is despite the fact this only trivializes the problems of autistic persons, the majority of whom have disabilities in getting along with people and performing a job well that greatly affects their employability.  

The media fails to give autistic celibacy the same attention.  In the same vein as with employment, they could claim that autistics, due to their superior attention to detail and abilities in the IT industry, would make great husbands and providers.  Or, their loyalty to a woman would preclude adultery and make divorce less likely.

Though there are no easy answers to the problem of celibacy, I know it causes pain for myself as well as other men on the austistic spectrum.  Perhaps it’s time for the media to bring attention to this.



Is Western Man Incomplete Without God?

29196677_10155651687598040_5267477294884061184_nEven as an inveterate atheist, I’ve long admired the fullness of meaning in the lives of the devout. From watching my Catholic grandmother praying on her knees to Saint Anthony for the recovery of a lost purse, to observing Zen monks at Daitokuji temple in Tokyo sitting for hours on end chanting holy mantras in a quest for enlightenment, the innate tendency in humans across cultures to seek something beyond themselves has struck me both as significant and hard to grasp. What is it that the religious intuit that us skeptics and secular materialists have become seemingly detached from? Has the West’s view of reality become overly mechanistic and devoid of purpose? And is this absence of deeper meaning in our 21 century lives potentially harming us?

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that it was the task of Western man to rediscover his Christian roots in order to achieve an equilibrated psychological state. He posited that the malaise afflicting Western man may be attributable in part to his loss of contact with the metaphysical substrate underlying his culture, namely the figure Christ and the divine Logos. Christianity’s emphasis on truth led to us effectively reasoning ourselves out of our religious beliefs, but in the process we became separated from the guiding principle of “suffering love” which once sustained us morally and spiritually. Friedrich Nietzsche predicted that the death of God would leave Western man susceptible to the catastrophic folly of bloody revolution. Indeed, the godless philosophies of fascism and communism, which offered to fill the gap left by religion with the promise of utopian order, both crushed the human spirit and the individual’s ability to flourish under the hefty demands that the two collectivist orders placed on their followers. The result was the transformation of human beings into agents of not of nobility and decency imbued with a sense of a greater purpose, but of iniquity and corruption. Western man, possessed by the spirit of tyrannical cruelty, was subsumed by the group and hence rendered unable to act according to his own ontological truth.

In reaction to the modern left’s devolution into the atomising, idolatrous nature of social justice identity politics and the attendant moral complacency of postmodernism, Jordan Peterson, a man often dubbed “YouTube’s father figure” came along to revivify Jung’s ideas and advertise Christianity for a generation of atheists through his exploration of archetypes. Inspired by the rich intellectual vigor of Peterson’s interpretation of ancient biblical stories, a new crop of self-described ‘Christian atheists’ have emerged, animated by a zeal for truth and buttressed by a renewed faith in the Logos. The testimonies of those whose lives have been turned around by Peterson suggest that there might be something to a belief in a higher power or at least spiritually guiding principle we might refer to as God.

Simultaneously, we’re also now seeing a revival of the type of thinking that once led to millions of deaths and the near-annihilation of an entire continent. In contrast to Peterson’s exaltation of the individual, alt-right ideologue Richard Spencer offers the spiritually impoverished the opportunity for belonging and unity through an adherence to tribalism and the promise of restoring the white race to its former glory. Spencer understands the dynamics of power through divide-and-conquer, rebuking Christianity for its humanist-universalism and its emphasis on the sanctity of the individual rather than of the group. His call for racial homogeneity and coherency promises order and to restore the self-esteem of disaffected white men who feel increasingly adrift in the stigmatizing climate of left-wing identity politics and its notions of privilege and patriarchy. Of course, we know from history the consequences of the sort of far-right identitarianism that Spencer is peddling and it’s most certainly not a road we should ever contemplate going down again. Collectivist groupthink united by an external, superficial and profoundly unspiritual characteristic like race, negates personal responsibility and concern for others, doing nothing in the process to improve the moral character of the individual.

It’s fair to say the more ‘rational’, less emotionally-driven secular spirituality promoted by the likes of Sam Harris, while commendable in its attempt to reconcile neuroscience and ancient meditative techniques, doesn’t quite satiate Western man’s yearning for meaning. The mindfulness industry is big but ultimately ephemeral and insufficient in substance to anchor an individual in a spiritually sustaining principle. Buddhism-lite or a Western-style Buddhism shed of the accretions of karma and reincarnation rarely proves to be inspiring and the philosophy abnegation of notions of free will prove incommensurate with our Judeo-Christian Western culture and conditioning. Business professionals and corporate executives may use mindfulness to improve performance concentration, but for a young, directionless man starving for a sense of purpose, it’s a weak solution.

China, a largely irreligious, atheistic country has tapped into the religious tendency in human beings by manufacturing a quasi-religious mythology about the perpetual struggle throughout its 5,000 history to unify the disparate Chinese regions and ethnic groups under the banner of one nation. Chinese nationalism has in a sense become the de-facto religion while traditional organized faiths like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, though tolerated, are regarded as “feudal superstitions” and potential impediments to progress. The loyalty of practitioners must ultimately be superseded by the health and prosperity of the state. The vacuum in spirituality and a sense of the transcendent in China in favour of a more pragmatic, state-centric materialism has led to Christianity’s proliferation in the People’s Republic which now sees a staggering 8,000 baptisms every week. The faith, though heavily state-controlled, is set to become the most dominant in the country by 2020, superseding parochial folk religion and even the once-influential Mahayana Buddhism. What the communist-led PRC fears most is the subversive potential of a religion that might act as a vehicle for Western ideas, perhaps of the divine individual which is immediately at odds with the collectivist materialist emphasis.

In the UK by contrast, the Anglican church is a shadow of its former self and remains, not as the driving force in people’s lives, but as a quaint relic of our past as its status has been reduced to a mere performer of ceremonial functions. Many of the church’s traditional values have been superseded by the prevailing left-wing orthodoxy and its insistence on political correctness. In a nutshell, it’s lost its backbone and men see it as weak and effeminate. It might explain why a vigorous and masculine faith like Islam with an emphasis on order and ritual holds more allure and is the main religion of the UK’s prisons. Submission to a totalitarian system that effectively governs every aspect of a person’s life is appealing to those who were previously spiritually unmoored and may even be of immense benefit, but like any ideology, the potential for the corruption of the individual to group pathology is strong. We’ve seen this with the thoughtless mob behaviour of Muslims baying for the blood of Salman Rushdie. Such mindless fanaticism is hardly commensurate with the noble, spiritual path as it reduces man to the state of a beast, hijacking his capacity for independent thought and the pursuit of self-knowledge. Islam’s collectivist pathology manifested itself most disturbingly when hundreds of thousands of young men from Muslim communities, many of whom well-educated engineers and doctors, responded enthusiastically to the call to join the ISIS caliphate, an organization that inspired the largest foreign fighting force since World War 2 hoping to play their part in reviving an antediluvian empire prophesised in 6th century Bronze Age dogma.

The question is, will Western man be able to rediscover that which once gave his life dignity and purpose or will he devolve back into the temptations of idolatry? With the symbiotic growth of the far-right and the far-left, this rediscovery of the metaphysical substrate may be integral to the survival of his individual liberty. Without it, he may be liable to misuse by a corrupt ideology and thus become an agent of harm rather than of good. A healthy society is contingent upon the Logos which gives rise to epistemological pluralism and the creative interplay of ideas, a mechanism we use so as to avoid one virtue playing a hegemonic role over others. In order to sustain this ideal and to become an agent of God or Logos, Western man must learn to once again walk in his own light, to grow and develop spiritually and intellectually according to his own reason, and to embrace duties that go with rights.

Depression is horrific, but it’s no excuse for suicide

34830149_1943836075668728_6129500832036552704_nThis is not a blog I wanted to write, but after the recent tragic loss of the author and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to suicide, I now feel compelled to explain to others what it’s like to be stuck in the depths of a debilitating depression, utterly convinced one is beyond outside help, to the extent one even goes so far as to begin contemplatng taking one’s own life. Whether or not it was depression that induced Bourdain to kill himself is still unclear but, whatever the origin, mental affliction so severe that it exhausts one’s resources for coping, invariably leads to a person taking drastic measures to terminate their suffering. Though I am unable to proffer a solution to depression, I can from personal experience give you a unique insight into what it feels like and why, even after years of torment, I remain deeply averse to the idea of suicide and its catastrophic consequences.

It’s important to establish from the outset that depression is not merely a case of the blues. Rather, it is a life-denying, soul-crushing condition that’s often very hard to describe to those who haven’t experienced it. I usually compare it to a vortex of despair from which you struggle desperately to escape but can’t, or to a plague of inner-demons mercilessly tearing away at the very fabric of your being. Even such evocative descriptions often fail to do justice to just how painful depression in its chronic form can be. Andrew Solomon, author of the bestselling ‘The Noonday Demon’, described it as a loss not of happiness but of vitality.

In a state of depression, one often becomes socially isolated, disinterested in once enjoyable activities, listless, lethargic and desensitized to the outside world. While some sufferers become sad and irritable, others withdraw from life altogether. During a time spent working abroad, for reasons I’ve yet to discern, a switch went off in my head and my brain short-circuited. I could no longer get out of bed, let alone go to work and earn money. I lost contact with my friends and acquaintances and, after several months confined within four walls, which had become a festering landfill site of potato chips and cola bottles, some filled with urine from where I couldn’t even drag myself to the bathroom, I took myself to a nearby psychiatric hospital. I checked in and stayed there as a voluntary inpatient for 8 weeks in total where I was put on a course of antidepressants.
Antidepressants work by boosting neurogenesis in the hippocampus, the part of the brain which helps regulate emotions, and generally start to take effect after a couple of weeks. Though not a panacea, they can provide a respite from the worst, perhaps enough to enable someone to begin the work of CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Unfortunately for me, it took several years after having run the gamut of medications until I was to find a drug that agreed with me. Citalopram, the first one, gave me yellow diarrhea. Prozac, the second, gave me the dreaded “brain fog” during which I struggled to think, plan and even initiate conversation, while Remeron gave me an appetite so voracious I would eat incessantly, leading at one point to me developing obesity. It was upon taking Venlafaxine, a drug that increases the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, that I finally felt better. Muscles in my body began to relax while my mind returned to a state of clarity. Though depression still lingered somewhat precariously at the back of my mind, at least now I was able to function again and return to work after a very long absence.

Depressed people are used to hearing facile advice such as to exercise more and popular but empty platitudes like “Time to talk” and “It’s okay not to be okay”. After having opened up, both to their families and to their therapists, many depressives are all talked out, while others, having become a burden on those closest to them, have become painfully aware that it’s in fact not okay not to be okay. Depression affects everyone around you, diminishing their quality of life as well as yours. When compassion fatigue sets in, common depressive behaviours such as withdrawal and non-participation draw accusations of selfishness, breeding enmity among family members, sometimes leading to a complete breakdown in relationships.

In some cases, especially where a person has become so intractably depressed, suicide can seem like the only rational option. However, suicide is so utterly devastating that bearing the burden of depression, in spite of the hell it entails, is still the better option. For me at least, my mission in life as I see it is just to stay afloat. To do this, I take each day as it comes and limit my time frame. I’ve also developed coping strategies for when suicidal ideations creep into my consciousness, such as drawing up lists of things I can do, however banal, to improve my immediate environment. The famous Jordan Peterson maxim “clean your room” works well here. When I feel overwhelmed by rumination and complexity, I set myself a difficult task requiring maximum concentration such as completing a Sudoku puzzle or preparing a complex meal from a lengthy recipe, written in another language just to make the task more involved. Anything to stave off those darker impulses which I have conditioned myself to recoil from ever more viscerally, knowing deep down that they are simply unacceptable.

While many posit theories as to the causes of depression, it’s not clear there is a singular cause. In his new book ‘Lost Connections’, the journalist Johann Hari attributes the rise in instances of the condition to the atomising effects of neo-liberal capitalism, a claim I’m very skeptical of, while a slew of wellness experts talk about the gut-brain axis and how improving the diversity of gut flora helps restore mental well-being. Maybe there’s a kernel of truth in all such claims, but reducing such a complex condition down to a single cause seems ill-advised.

Unconventional solutions like psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms have become the subject of renewed interest as conventional mental healthcare proves increasingly ineffectual at stemming the tide of the West’s depression epidemic. Though the mechanisms of these mind-altering hallucinogenic drugs remain a mystery to science, the numinous experiences they often elicit are frequently reported to liberate mentally ill people from the maladaptive cognitive and behavioural patterns that had previously held them psychological prisoner, enabling them to map new pathways and to alter their perspectives on life through the temporary dissolution of ego consciousness. For the past few years, Dr. Carhart-Harris at Imperial College London has been conducting clinical trials into the therapeutic effects of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in amanita muscaria mushrooms, with some success with some patients reporting a feeling of having been psychologically rebooted after having received the mystical vision. Some involved in the trial however, perhaps owing to their mental and emotional fragility, experienced hellish visions, or bad trips, landing them in an even more anxious, more neurotic state than before. The therapeutic benefits of these highly potent and unpredictable drugs is therefore not a guarantee and in any case not advisable to the most sensitive, who by nature, are also the most susceptible to mental illnesses like depression.

Aside from hallucinogens, relatively new therapeutic methods like Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS, a non-invasive procedure for treating mental illness which targets specific parts of the brain using a magnetic coil to stimulate neural growth, offer hope to sufferers determined in the quest for an answer. Though still not fully developed as a mainstream depression treatment, it holds a lot of promise. Behind closed doors, Electroconvulsive Therapy or ECT, a procedure depicted famously in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, is reserved as a last-resort treatment for the most stubborn and prolonged cases of depression. Though carried out discreetly and rarely advertised by health professionals, it’s effective, albeit brutal. Patients who’ve received  ECT often report immediate relief from their depressive symptoms but also memory loss, sometimes to the extent where important life events such as one’s marriage and college graduation have been entirely erased.

Depression is a terrible thing and, if left untreated, can devastate a person’s life. Suicide may seem like a quick and tempting relief from the unbearable suffering depression entails, but its consequences are far, far worse. At a recent talk in Indianapolis when the psychologist Jordan Peterson was asked by a suicidal audience member why they ought to go on living, he responded by saying “Don’t be so sure that your life is yours to take.” It was a pithy, yet compassionate response which immediately resonated with me. Though it’s not the case that everyone can be saved from suicidal depression, I believe it is possible for people to sustain even the most abominable suffering with an attitude that they can continually override their darkest urges by carrying on humbly and nobly in the knowledge they’re doing the right thing, not only for themselves, but moreover for those that love and cherish their presence here on Earth the most. Through undergoing such a courageous, almost superhuman effort to stay alive, a person soon discovers just how great their capacity is for withstanding pain and how meaningful life can be having to bear a cross that is that little bit heavier.

The Soul of Autism

My beloved younger sibling, Jack.

It’s easy to speak in simple platitudes about autistic people, but more often than not it’s better to let them speak for themselves. To really understand autism, one must spend long periods in the company of those on the spectrum, observe their idiosyncrasies and get to know them as individuals. As with everything, the picture you get is far more nuanced than anything you can in read in a book or a government-approved pamphlet. Like neurotypicals, autistic people have multi-layered identities, complex personalities and come from diverse cultural backgrounds. They are far from the one-dimensional creatures of popular film renditions.


Aside from autistic people themselves, the true holders of knowledge about the condition are the family members, the carers and those that spend days, weeks, months, years and decades working and living alongside spectrum folk. These people have a level of expertise that goes well beyond that of cold, calculated studies written in science and medical journals. They have a warmer, more intuitive rapport with people they don’t view necessarily as pathological, but as individuals with hopes, dreams, joys and frustrations just like the rest of us. People like this know and accept the challenges involved in caring for an autistic person and make accommodations for them in ways that allows them to carry on in the way that is at one with their atypical nature.


One such person is Jodie, a full-time employee at Jack’s college whom I first got to know funnily enough when we were colleagues at a local supermarket. She is a special sort of human being who lives to help others and bring joy to those who society tends to ignore. Her naturally compassionate nature is ideally suited to where she works. Indeed, such compassion is necessary to survive in a job which, due to the complex nature of autism and other complex neurological conditions, presents challenges beyond what most are used to facing in their daily lives. Some of the students and residents at the St. Elizabeth’s are both mentally and physically disabled and some also have epilepsy. Many require full-time assistance to carry out the most basic of tasks. Working with such vulnerable beings is an angel like Jodie who carries out her work dutifully and with a big smile on her face. It can’t be easy cleaning up somebody’s mess and having to placate those with challenging. Sometimes violent behaviours, but she does it because it brings her joy. It’s the sort of job that requires a level of dedication and selflessness well beyond the norm.


What is most special about such carers is that they are able to see beyond the disability and get to know the individual. They soon discover that behind the hand-flapping, the strange noises and the repetitive behaviours is a human being with a unique temperament. When Jodie contacted me to tell me she was working with Jack and that she considered it a real pleasure to do so, I was touched beyond words. Having been conditioned to do all in my power to conceal Jack’s disability and to be ashamed of his obviously autistic behaviours, it was consoling to hear someone I know to be totally sincere to say such nice things about my dear little brother. Usually, those that do say nice things come across as quite phony and patronising, but, through working alongside Jack and getting to know him personally, Jodie like us was able to delve a little deeper and understand that, much like everyone else, Jack is a person and not just a disability. She described how she got to know him at ‘Pets Corner’, a part of the college where the students get to interact with and care for a range of animals. Jodie told me how enthusiastically Jack feeds the rabbits with sticks of carrot and celery. It was a heartening thing for me to hear given how indifferent I thought Jack was towards animals before. She also described how intrigued she was by what she could hear Jack was saying to himself. It all sounded interesting, but of course she had no idea what it all meant! After I explained to her that he does the very autistic thing of reciting large chunks of dialogue to himself, she was clearly thrilled. When one understands the reason why, one develops a much fuller picture. Autism can often seem mysterious to an outsider, but with a little perseverance and time spent in the company of those on the spectrum, it begins to make a bit more sense.


‘The Brothers Autism’

Another discovery we as a family made during our time networking with other autistic families from across the UK is just how different autistic people are. This shouldn’t really have been much of a surprise of course, but like a lot of people, we all believed that autism was a uniform condition. Instead, we met autistic people with various personalities and temperaments. Some were very pleasant and agreeable, some weren’t so friendly. Some were gregarious and chatty, and some were painfully shy and introverted. Some were adventurous in their eating habits, and some were severely limited. What we discovered was that the label of autism should not define the individual. As the popular saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”


It’s for this reason that I fundamentally trust people like Jodie, who work with a broad range of autistic people each day than I do any clinician or any self-appointed spokesperson for the autism community. Whereas the clinical expert sees patterns of behaviours, sets of emotional responses and activity in the brain, a carer like Jodie sees a human being and forms with that human being a bond built on a solid foundation of love and empathy. Such an intimate one-to-one connection is not something that can be quantified, peer-reviewed and backed up by double-blind studies. It has to be felt and it is that level of feeling for autistic people that I want to encourage more of. Science may help us to conceptualise and frame the condition, but the lived experiences of autistic people and those of the family members and carers who are close to them, convey the true soul of autism.

Sargon of Akkad and his use of ‘autism’ as a pejorative

photoSargon of Akkad is a YouTuber who has gained a substantial following in recent years. I watch his videos from time to time, particularly while I’m doing the dishes or preparing dinner, and generally enjoy the content in them, despite not always agreeing with everything that he says. Like him, I’m dismayed by the loud coterie of PC bullies, third-wave feminists and thin-skinned offence-mongers in our society at the moment. And like him, I’m also a classic John Stuart-Mill liberal and a free speech absolutist who prefers civil discussion and dialectic to merely shouting down one’s opposition.

That said, I find myself in the uneasy position of being a fan and simultaneously being quite dismayed by his use of “autistic” as a pejorative. Both Sargon and many fellow YouTubers have popularised the infamous “autistic screeching” meme across the internet. Such a stereotype of autism is crude to say the least and one that plays into a very simplistic and derogatory view of a disability that is both complex and varied.

Now, I am on the autism spectrum myself, albeit at the very mild end, and I don’t find the meme personally that upsetting. I can tolerate offensive memes and slogans without taking them too much to heart. For example, if a comedian says something I don’t like, I just won’t bother watching them. I’m not going to start a campaign to shut them down because ultimately I don’t consider myself a moral authority with the right to police people’s views and speech. That said, I feel the need to voice my opposition, in the name of free speech, to what I see as the perpetuation of widespread ignorance of a very real disability that ought not be trivialised during a time when autistic voices are straining to heard in society.

I don’t think Sargon, who has a large following from people across the political spectrum, considers that with his substantial outreach, he perhaps ought to be more vigilant and responsible in his speech sometimes. With his sort of power to shape people’s attitudes does come a degree of responsibility and in this regard I feel that he is being complacent. Autism, as he implicitly claims, does not equate to the humourless fanaticism, inflexible thinking and a lack of empathy displayed by the PC fanatics he often condemns. Comparing fanatical postmodernism or third-wave feminism with autism comes from a place of deep ignorance and prejudice about a condition which is only just beginning to be properly understand. Autistic people are a varied bunch of individuals with a multitude of different strengths and weaknesses, but to compare us to those especially prone to collectivist herd mentality is so deeply wrong. Autism stems from the Greek ‘autos’ meaning ‘self’ and autistic people, generally speaking, are fierce individualists who are perhaps some of the least susceptible to crowd pathology precisely because they often value truth and logic. That’s often why any attempts to collective autistic people into groups and communities fails and why organised religion rarely sits well with our relentlessly sceptical and critical minds.

I’m asking Sargon to re-evaluate his use of autism as a pejorative. It does reflect very badly on him in my opinion and undermines a lot of the serious issues that he discusses. I’m not against him and actually think he’s a decent guy underneath. I just wish he paid attention to where he is wrong sometimes. After all, the essence of being liberal is to be confident in what one says whilst maintaining a strong possibility in the back of one’s mind that one might also be absolutely wrong.