I thought I Understood Mental Health, Until January.

The whole thing is so ironic, I can’t help but laugh about it now. The professed key to me gaining back control of my life sent me down a vicious spiral, which if not reversed, could have ended it. To unravel that riddle for you: in early December I was put on new anti-convulsant medication for my epilepsy, the high dosage of which sent me into a deep depression and left me suicidal. I feel rather ridiculous and over-dramatic even typing that – my nickname is Perky for goodness sake…

I am not here to relay to you my every thought and feeling during this time – it is the weekend after all – but this dramatic shift in my behaviour and mentality taught me some valuable lessons. I, like so many of us, have had my fair share of second hand experience with depression and suicide. I have seen loved ones suffer and/or lose their battle. I have endured my own periods of sadness as a form of inevitable collateral damage. But I, like so many relatives and friends, am not a depressive. At least, not usually. If there has been any silver lining to my most recent debacle, it’s that I now get it. I thought I did before, but I didn’t.

Firstly, it is only with hindsight that I can write this. At the time I was too tired to take to the keyboard; that’s presuming I had anything to say. I was also far too immersed in a thick fog of nothingness to have anything to say. So consumed by my paranoid delusions and sense of nothing that I could’t comprehend for a long while that there was anything worthy of discussion. Nothing was wrong, other than with me, of course. Everything was wrong with me.

Many of you who know me will also probably be reading this thinking “really? I never noticed anything was up!” (or maybe you did, but I’m guessing you didn’t jump to this extreme). But it was. I also learnt this year then that it’s really quite easy to pretend nothing’s wrong. To show up just enough to make people think that you’re just “really busy at the moment”, when really you’re avoiding 8/10 plans only to find yourself in bed for the fourth day in a row, feeling lonely. As I’ve seen with people close to me who are on that downward spiral, this method works until the day it doesn’t. People then tend to wonder, I used to wonder, where the burn-out came from. What changed? Why, suddenly, can’t they get their sh*t together and stick to a plan? Selfish, lazy, self-indulgent. That’s what comes to mind all too easily. Turns out, they’d had a whole load of sh*t to get together every time they got out of bed for quite a bit longer than any of us realised. And if we’re honest, we didn’t really want to be made aware of the situation while they could still pretend everything was OK.

Upon reflection therefore, the most important insight I gained was rather oxymoronic: that the behaviour displayed during a time of mental illness is 100% out of the sufferer’s control (no, they can’t just ‘snap out of it’), but also: it’s not permanent, and in some cases it’s even avoidable. Things can be done to prevent affliction, and help those who do suffer conquer their battle. The problem is, the grand narrative still dictates that it is the sufferer’s fault, and little seems to be being done to help manage this quite probably manageable problem (easier said than done, I’m aware).

I’m no doctor but I’m also not oblivious to the fact that mental illness, just like obesity for example, is clearly on the rise. And just like obesity, mental-health problems may be (partly at least) a symptom of modern life. I am not talking about a complacency society in our times of relatively high standards of living. I am talking about: the added pressures that come with social media, and the 24/7 connection provided by technology; our obsession with material goods as an indicator of success; the chemicals that we pump into our bodies with the food we eat, and/or indeed the medication we take. The list goes on.

If you look at the status-quo, however, it appears we have no clue what we’re doing. While we’re definitely talking about our ‘feelings’ more, and that cannot be underestimated, we’re certainly not making any discernible effort to modernise the infrastructure of our society to match its changes. For instance, food stores (supermarkets, take-aways, restaurants) have pledged no commitment to make the customer aware of the hormones and chemicals that many of their products contain; nor are they under any pressure to do so. Furthermore, advertising companies know exactly how to make us want more, and are relentless in their campaign to move the goal-posts of success and fulfilment. And Instead of preserving the carefree innocence of childhood – an increasingly precious phase of life – primary schools spend their time preparing for exams, starting with KS1 tests, which children sit aged 7. To put that into perspective, in Germany children have only just started school at 7. These are examples of the many facets of modern life that are largely out of the individual’s control, yet have a colossal impact on our well-being. Logically then, altering sectors such as: food production, advertising, pharmaceuticals and education to act consciously, in a way that is supportive of our mental well-being, is a necessary tool of prevention. Sadly it appears that money-making and league tables still matter more.

Of course not all mental illness is preventable, and for those who suffer it is rarely due to their lifestyle choices. However, astonishingly, while mental health problems account for around 23% of disease in the UK, it only takes up 11% of the NHS budget.*  If we all agree that the situation is much like being hit by a car or having cancer, which the NHS deals with so effectively and admirably, surely the treatment of those who fall mentally ill should be covered proportionately by the budget.

Am I wrong? If not, then where is the evidence of any such alterations? So much for the commitment by politicians to concentrate on solving Britain’s mental health crisis, the policy which shaped many of the campaigns in the 2015 general election.

My experience seems so alien now, so distant and long ago that I am able to discuss it openly, even joke about it. But I’m excruciatingly aware that for many others those thoughts and feelings are a daily battle – and that’s no laughing matter. While I don’t begin to suggest that everyone should chemically induce their own mental instability, I do make a plea for a shift in attitude. A more active approach. One that is enlightened to the genuine suffering of those with a mental illness and one that provokes change. Just like obesity and other pervading social problems, such change must be top-down if it’s to prove effective. Hence as well as educating and looking after ourselves, we must put adequate pressure on the government and big companies to invoke the necessary changes to their methods of employment.

This is a problem far bigger and more systemic than someone’s inability to ‘pull themselves together’, and it sadly cannot be solved simply by ‘talking about it’. I’ll put my hands up and say that, until this year, I myself didn’t fully understand that.

*Figures as of 2015; sourced: https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/projects/verdict/has-government-put-mental-health-equal-footing-physical-health

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I thought I Understood Mental Health, Until January.

BANKSY’S WORK IS A LEGITIMATE VOICE OF THE VULNERABLE

If you think Banksy’s work is no more than an act of vandalism you are wrong. It may be that graffiti is illegal, but one thing’s for sure: his work goes far further than him pissing on a street wall to mark his territory. And his newest piece is no exception.

 

Over the weekend Banksy’s latest thought provoking message appeared on a street corner in Knightsbridge. The piece – which depicts Cosette from Les Miserables, emerging from a fog of gas with her eyes streaming – is a clear response to the French Police’s night raid on refugees in Calais. Next to the mural is a barcode that allows passers by to watch the police attack for themselves on their smart phones.

 

No one can deny that it is clever or powerful. Fundamentally it is not so much the message that Banksy is presenting here that is of importance, but the act itself: bringing the conversation, which is so needed, to the realm of popular-culture.

 

Purely through his conscious anonymity and the cult following that entails, he wields a power in conversation unmatched by politicians or identified activists. Said activists are too in-your-face and politicians would rather not have the conversation, unless it will win them votes. The vast majority of people avoid listening to either at all costs.

 

His message, though, is also incredibly important. Banksy has once again provided a voice for the vulnerable: those who cannot legally or visibly be heard. Without a whisper, or pledging allegiance, Banksy has managed to become an advocate and speak for a group of people in dire need of attention. People whose own attempts are being drowned out in the media by football scores, Corbyn drama and the Great British Weather.

 

When officials aren’t averting our gaze they soothe our angst by patting the heads of those helping from afar, as if that’s sufficient action. They’re perfectly happy to congratulate Germany on their warm welcome to those who made it to Europe. Well up for considering those Greek islanders, who helped so many, for a Nobel Peace Prize. But actively help them themselves? Unlikely. Apparently the government has got 99 problems and helping refugees ain’t one.

 

Banksy’s depiction of un-humanitarian police action, so vulgar that it would hurt the children of a Revolution, may not go down so well with those who think ignorance is bliss. But I don’t think there are many Brits who wish to remain in the dark. That’s why the voices of popular artists like Banksy are so necessary: we need to be aware of all, not just official opinions.

 

That his voice comes in the form of vandalism is part of his point; his protest is against the State, testing the rules of our society that he believes are unjust. It’s illegality and accessibility adds a dimension of authenticity that can only be achieved in public spaces.

 

In true ironic style the council have now, (as they often do with a piece of vandalism as valuable as a Banksy) covered the mural, not in the name of the law, but to save it so that it can be sold for huge amounts of money. I doubt that any of the money raised will go towards helping the real-life tear-stained Cosette’s wipe their eyes dry.

 

No matter: it looks like Banksy’s job here is done. Enough people saw it for it to go viral, make the news and lead many news websites to include the all important video that the barcode links to.

 

Once again it shows that rules are there to be broken. Big up Banksy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BANKSY’S WORK IS A LEGITIMATE VOICE OF THE VULNERABLE

I’M A BARBIE GIRL, IN THE REAL WORLD

Mattel has announced a new range of ‘realistic’ Barbies. Customers will now be able to choose from three body types, seven skin tones, and twenty-four hair shades. While the collection may have limited direct social implications, and is undoubtedly a ploy to regain lost traction in the toy market, the latest additions do sport the badge of realism and diversity. This has to be seen as a step in the right direction.

 

As an icon and the most realistic doll out there, the plastic figure has a heavy responsibility, serving as a role model to millions of young children across the globe. So far she has failed in her duties. Adults criticise and blame her for embedding all sorts of insecurities, while their children play innocently. All the while they are unknowingly yet another generation to be conditioned to think that being anything other than a white, blonde, blue-eyed, tall ‘woman’ with a pinched waist, thigh gap and perfect boobs, is no good.

 

It’s in Barbie’s very nature to evolve: she was after all modeled on a German hooker doll, ‘Lilli’. The creator, Ruth Handler has been known to say that “every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future”. Funnily enough, mothers haven’t tended to be so keen on their children dreaming of their future involving being paid for sex.

 

But so far, by way of social awareness, the company’s modifications of Barbie lie merely in her clothing: astronaut Barbie in the 60s, disco Barbie in the 80s. Never before have they dared such radical progression as to allow her to eat. Never before have they accepted that children of different races might like to play with a toy that lets them dream about their own personal future.

 

What Mattel has done is not revolutionary. Barbie isn’t the first in a line of brands, like Dove, to respond to growing resistance to society’s obsession with the visual utopia that is presented to women. Consumer demand has called for a reality check. Producers have been, albeit slowly, responding. It’s simple economics, not groundbreaking morality.

 

But the change is still significant. Even if it is the smallest of steps towards social equality. Even if it is to keep up with competitors. Even if people only buy the already existing, outdated Barbie. It’s important because toys are important cultural symbols: they reflect what we as a society deem appropriate for our children to identify with. Dolls help to shape our children’s – aka society’s future’s – view of beauty. For the individual, ‘realistic’ Barbie will hopefully go some way to show children that their own looks are iconic. Broadly speaking, children playing with dolls that are of a different colour, or body shape, or are ginger, instills acceptance, even a love of diversity.

 

Beauty ideals are not a fixed, but they are pretty entrenched in our culture. Dove may make already insecure adult women feel better about their ‘flaws’, but to really change our perception of what is beautiful, to really create a society which unanimously celebrates diversity, we must look to the impressionable souls of the future generation.

 

The designers of Barbie’s endeavours most probably boil down entirely to a need to respond to increasing competition. But so what? Their response to consumer demand is a mark of how our culture of prejudice is waning; so much that an item that has been an icon for 57 years requires dramatic revamping to avoid fading out of the market. For that reason I could not be happier with this new line of Barbies.

 

 

 

I’M A BARBIE GIRL, IN THE REAL WORLD

The Public School Stigma

If there’s one thing that shapes our lives, it’s our education. It’s how we learn to communicate, how we learn what is acceptable in society, how we learn skills to make something of ourselves in the future, how we learn, well, stuff that makes our lives more interesting. It’s a pretty important thing if you think about it. Actually, you don’t have to think about it at all.

 

In fact education is a pretty vital component of the fabric that makes up our identity. A lot of that education is unconsciously soaked up through socialisation. However the subsection that is formal education is undeniably also incredibly important. It forms the structure and routine of our lives for up to 14 of our most impressionable years. A good quality schooling can be the difference between a well meaning and an articulate person; an inefficient and efficient worker; an ignorant and enlightened thinker. Anyone can learn manners, but not many can learn to criticise Rousseau’s Theory of Natural Human or prove Cantor’s Theorem without acquiring the skills and knowledge that school gives you access to.

 

Moreover a good education has always been a vehicle for gaining power and wealth in society. Look at Wolsey; an inspiration for any butcher’s son dreaming of more than boning pork shoulders. It is no wonder then that education is pretty high on a parent’s list of priorities. Furthermore with our current system it’s fair enough that many parents store away much of their savings for their child’s education. Of course there are many state schools in the UK which provide an equally, and in many cases better, education than some private schools. However without living in the catchment area or being the right religion you have little choice but to fork out serious cash for quality. Moreover the crème de la crème are, ultimately and indisputably, private schools. I’m not saying that’s ok; I’m just saying it’s how it is. At the end of the day each and every one of us British children must spend most of our formative years in the education system, so it makes sense to invest well in our choice of school.

 

But that doesn’t make those who went to private school aliens, out of touch with real life. It doesn’t make them less worthy of your time or friendship. (And please, if you have been skim reading so far please concentrate on this paragraph.) Just because someone went to private school it doesn’t mean they’re rich. Just because someone went to private school doesn’t mean they think their superior. Just because they went to private school doesn’t mean they didn’t have to work hard to be where they are. Just because their parents decided to invest their money in education doesn’t make them bate for your bad jokes.

 

Agreed, it’s not fair that some people get to experience education at a standard that the majority of the student population don’t have access to. I can understand people’s issue with that, and indeed I have an issue with it too. I agree that it’s a problem, which our society should be addressing more rigorously. But the biggest antipathy doesn’t seem to be academically related. Not among people my age. It’s not the unique, gold standard opportunity for learning and acquiring knowledge that people are riling against. In my experience, acquaintances from state schools aren’t so bothered by the fact my teacher could teach me whatever they found interesting, that I got one on one mentoring in my last year, and that my classes were made up of 10 students not 30. They care about the general lifestyle that the stereotypical private school student lives, and the stereotypical view of a state school contemporary. In other words it’s inverse snobbery.

 

This is totally irrelevant to the issue of education; it is ludicrous to assume that because someone’s family spent money on their education that they are ‘in the money’. And when these assumptions are put into practise they are not only irritating, but also devisive. I blame a lot of it on the media, of course.

 

The media deludes people into thinking private school children are a homogenous set of privileged dumbos who do well because of Daddy’s connections. Last week I watched an episode of Cuffs on BBC iPlayer, which focused its plot on a private boys boarding school. Not only were the students portrayed as weeping willows, with one of them crying he wanted his mum whilst attempting suicide; one of the inspectors outright said that it was “cruel” to send a child to boarding school aged 7. Biased? Never. Then, there are documentaries on schools such as Harrow, revealing the names of schools where Made In Chelsea stars went to…the list never ends. It is obvious to any intelligent human being that not all private schools are like Harrow, and that not everyone who went to schools like Harrow live like Made in Chelsea stars. Not even most of the MIC crew live like the MIC crew. Conflating this microcosmic group within the public school sphere doesn’t serve the majority of the public; it propels unnecessary social tension.

 

It is possible that the media is trying to create a counter proportional depiction of private school lives to readdress the balance in working opportunities. That’s how they portray their motives anyway. But it does no more than cause friction between the two parties and further drive the deepening inequalities it pretends to oppose. However, of course, anger makes money in the media. It’s an easy story; makes for a tantalising read. Why would a money making body change its ways for the sake of morality? It’s understandable from a capitalist point of view, but the consequence of their indifference is that the entrenchment of social separations and hostility begins from an earlier and earlier age. Encouraging these differences only makes for greater inequality of opportunity. No wonder our governing body all went to Eton together, the prime minister would probably be told where to shove it if they asked anyone else to be in the cabinet, being accused of patronising them or something (only joking…chill).

 

I have wasted countless hours of my life explaining how it is possible that I went to boarding school without owning a pony, dining with the queen, living on an estate, having a trust fund. Most of the time I go on to have fascinating discussions about politics, social philosophy and morality with the exact same person who at first pitted me against themselves with these irritating set of petty assumptions. All of the time I end up finding something – often a lot – in common with the exact same individual. How funny it is that: having gone through the same national curriculum, been brought up in the same culture, be of a similar age, have access to the same media, we have cultivated shared views, interests and abilities? Who knew? I’m shocked. Sense sarcasm? Well done.

 

It got boring being teased for my education the first time it happened, probably about 10 years ago. I don’t see what there is to gain for making me feel guilty for having a good education. All you’re doing is vocalising the perception that there is a gaping hole between us, illustrating a version of reality where our differences are exponentially larger than they in fact are. This actually puts private school alumni at a greater advantage. No wonder my friend got angry when people stopped teasing him for going to Eton after they found out he was there on a full scholarship; the falsified detachment is almost a head start in itself. It would be much better for everyone else if we shut up and got on with it.

 

To those that have mock me: I worked hard just like you; to end up at a good university, to write coherently, to get my previous jobs, to get work experience. Funnily enough I am at university to better my future prospects, just like you. I am in a position where being a working adult is necessary, just like you. Not all private school students have the option of sitting on their parents’ money for just long enough before they marry their suitor. In fact, I’m probably equally in the shit as you, seeing as my parents spent most of their dollar on getting me through school.

 

Maybe let’s skip the seemingly compulsory private school, them and us, ‘banter’ and get straight to being friends?

The Public School Stigma

A Defence of the (Not So Dark) Arts

There is this continual debate over whether arts should be given equal merit as the sciences. Recently in the UK it seems to have arrived at the stage where those in power are questioning whether the arts and “soft subjects” should be scrapped all together within the education system. Lunacy, I hear you yell? I couldn’t agree more. I think that this notion is not just idiotic, but dangerous. My reasoning includes the fact that: there is no fixed definition of an “Arts subject” therefore making it practically impossible for politicians to set an unchanging limit to what is scrapped; the arts are intrinsically linked to culture; and it is not actually beneficial to London’s economy, let alone for the UK as a whole. Those in power should strive to not only keep our country at the top, but our people happy and for that we must look to the 3 main responses to normative ethics – the virtue theory, deontology and consequentialism: what is good, what is right and the consequences of our actions. We admittedly have a lot of room for improvement in our efforts to achieve this prosperous state, but I don’t think these recent propositions seek any attempt to fill that room, nor would they deliver in doing so. The idea is a fad diet they follow because their friends mum’s cousin tried it once and it really helped them lose that extra 5 pounds.

Firstly I think we have to pose the question: what actually is a science or an art? Where is the line and is there a line? I don’t think there is. Furthermore I think that seeing things in black and white to this degree rarely leads to a particularly satisfactory, let alone comprehensive answer. More importantly I think that putting any sort of cap on what subjects are available to study leaves the poll greasy and ready to be slipped down faster than anyone would think now. To me, all this arts vs science (or sometimes termed “vocational”) chat is a slap-dash, confused way of our Cady-esque politicians expressing their concern over keeping up with the Regina Georges of the financial world, like China.

I think subjects are split more into disciplines – for example a physicist and medic are both considered scientists, but during their degree a physicist wouldn’t have a module which tests their people skills. Even within a degree– let’s use medicine again: some may specialise in brain surgery and some may train to be a GP. If the real issue is that a subject is too “soft” or too “arty” – are they planning on eliminating said elements that naturally creep into their blessed science degrees? A doctor has to be able to handle the person, not just their cells.

N.B. For the sake of ease I will from now on refer to these subjects that are apparently the spawn of Satan, as “the arts” as that is the term many journalists and MPs have been using during the debate.

I shouldn’t have to say it, but I will – on the most basic level of democracy this idea of shunning “the arts” is wrong. Delving into the theoretical world the state choosing which subjects we can study would break the Social Contract and the power balance between state and people would be shifted disproportionately. It certainly defies aspects of Freedom of Expression. Also Locke terms our rights in terms of property, which he defines as “life, liberty, and estate”. Locke says that in life “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness”, thus individual happiness is a human right. Furthermore this is theoretical backing for the idea that happiness is intrinsic to success. Seeing as most of our politicians did PPE they really should know this stuff.

Wait a minute, that’s right the majority of our leaders did do PPE… how very hypocritical of them.

We also have to look at the consequences. Just to start with, it leaves plenty of room for censorship if they can control what we learn from the beginning of our subject specific education. Additionally it would lead to a loss of culture, further sterilising the environment in which we live. We are historically a nation of inventors, storytellers, and war fighters. We have a rich and long history and with this history has come traditions and mannerisms that are knitted into our very being – from drinking tea dating back to our time in India to many of our idioms coming from Tyndale’s first translation of the Bible into English, to wearing a white wedding dress thanks to Queen Victoria etc. These elements of our culture would not be possible in such refined form if study of “the arts” were to be scrapped. Who would have made Kate Middleton’s exquisite dress that was talked about for months (not to mention Pippa’s…)? Creating artistic icons like these is vital. Looking outwardly as a small island we need these as a platform for our scientific merit. Introspectively we need them to ensure a sense of belonging. At a time when so many Brits are so worried that we as a nation are losing any sort of identity, it seems bizarre that we would be in favour of loosening our grip on it further. That in mind I was shocked when I saw Farage has said he would scrap tuition fees for the sciences, but not the arts seeing as he is so concerned with that it is to be British…obviously his focus is skin deep…but let’s not waste words on him.

If you ask a tourist what they think makes a person British, it’s either centuries out of date, rather unpalatable or a bit non-distinct. We have the potential to evolve our culture, as the several different cults of inhabitants on this wee little island have always done. However we don’t and I think our refusal to embrace and express our multitude of characters that make up this nation proudly is a sad effect of viewing success in terms of global financial power.

Focusing in on this idea that politicians are thinking of treating GDP as the great JC of all policy – after all a booming economy get them votes – maybe they should take a second look at their POA. Firstly “the arts” provide the government with a great financial turnout, contrary to popular idea of arty farty faffing about. In 2013 0.1% of state funds went into “the arts” and yet 0.4% of our GDP was as a product of “the arts”. Not so useless now are they? In terms of the City I don’t agree that a more rigorous, scientific approach to education will lead to London’s greater global success. If all accountants did accounting at university, for example, there would be a very narrow array of perceptions. There would be little originality of thought and ultimately innovation and creative thought (granted, alongside precision and intellect) is what brings about progress. Some countries focus solely or mainly on science and technology, Britain does not need to be added to the list. Returning to culture briefly – some cultures are based around the rigid nature of science, like Eindhoven (being the home of Phillips) and some have a stain of communism, but Britain has never been touched by 5 Year Plans and our artists have brought us as much notoriety as our scientists – the Beatles arguably did as much for our country as Isaac Newton. I can see that professional politicians may find this a tricky concept, as they were themselves trained for the job, rather than training their minds and then learning on the job.

Besides, people are being pushed enough at school to do well in core subjects, we no longer have time to breathe or grow into ourselves, and more people are experiencing mental health problems as a result of stress. It’s not good enough to tell them they can take up artistic disciplines as “extra curriculum activities”, they won’t have the time to fit it into their day, let alone the energy to enjoy it. The Dalai Lama was quoted to say “The world doesn’t need more ‘successful people.’ The world desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.” This is where the biggest danger lies. Not in the effect it would have on our economy, not even on our culture. If you take away a key element of a well-rounded being from a whole generation you breed ignorance and intolerance. The average Brit accepts so much these days and yet those at the top we are willing to suppress so many. It doesn’t match up.

And it doesn’t fit in with Aristotle’s virtue ethics, which states that to be virtuous you must be act between two opposing vices. Science needs “the arts” in reality, just like the arts needs science. “The arts” has scientific elements like the golden ratio and science must have morality and creative thought. Ethics must be considered in the progression of technology to stop us wiping out our own species, let alone to max out our fulfillment of life.

Finally (you’ll probably be glad to hear) I just bloody love the arts. I love history, politics, literature, debating, going to watch plays… all of it. And I have a lot to thank it for. For example if I hadn’t been forced to do drama at school there is no way I would be able to meet new people confidently now. I’m so opinionated that if I had never been taught to make a balanced argument, through essay writing and critical thinking then Lord help us all, I can’t bare the think of the things I would say to get my point across. I’m lucky because my brain can hack both– I did 2 science AS levels. What about those who simply do not have the mind for science? It would be bad enough to turn them down university style further education, but to turn away their potential at school would be absurd.

Ultimately maybe the intentions behind supressing the arts should be looked at, and if it’s for the success of our country maybe we should rethink what success really is. I agree, there are major issues with our education system and some are choosing less vigorous options out of laziness. Suggestion? Create a more (dare I say it) Scottish or even American system at university where we have to do more than one subject at first.

A Defence of the (Not So Dark) Arts