2012: Making the best of an awful year


How was 2012?

For me, in the grand scheme of things a disaster. If someone said to me at the start of the year that I’d have a mental health crisis resulting in me not being able to work full-time hours, I’d mark 2012 as a disaster – irrespective of anything else. When you lose a key aspect of your health to the extent it has a significant impact on your life, it changes everything. No. Really. It does. For a start it limits your ability to apply for full-time courses or jobs. Given the state of housing, you suddenly become dependent on others for the short to medium term. A culture shock when used to a life of independence.

It hasn’t been pleasant living through these tough economic times – seeing too many of you struggling even harder than I am – through no fault of your own. At least I have family to fall back on – for which I am grateful. For those dependent on an ever shrinking state, I cannot even begin to comprehend what it must be like to be told your benefits will be cut because of a flawed assessment from a foreign outsourcing company. Democratic vs contractual accountability anyone?

I observed close at hand the big TUC march on 20 October 2012 and was left deeply worried about ‘the big picture’. It didn’t look good then and doesn’t look good now. None of the mainstream big name politicians (if I can call them that) inspire me – and I’ve seen a number of them close up in the flesh. Ed Miliband even refused to have his photograph taken with Puffles! (All the more hilarious when Cambridge’s Lib Dem Mayor of Cambridge, Cllr Sheila Stuart asked if she could have a photo with Puffles! Not to worry, Labour MP, former Cambridge Mayor and my old near neighbour Barry Gardiner took Ed to task over this gratuitous snub!)

“So…Puffles had fun then?”

Oh yes – lots!

It started with South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridge City Council inviting Puffles to do some talks on social media to local councillors in Cambourne and Cambridge respectively. That was the beginning of a new line of work as a social media trainer – for which I am grateful for both councils for taking that risk on someone new to this line of work.

I’m a celebrity! Get me out of here!

Puffles even managed a newspaper appearance in the since-closed Cambridge First. Thus began Puffles’ appearances at public conferences – such as UKGovCamp 2012 and at the Institute for Government. This led to a series of ‘celebrity appearances’ with the likes of authors Mark Henderson, Ben Goldacre, ex-Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell and Stella Creasy MP, as well as meeting with Shadow Local Transport Minister Lilian Greenwood MP and cross-examining Cllr Nick Clarke, Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council.

After Puffles caused panic in Whitehall (“Magic dragon spotted in Whitehall!!!!“), it took the calm actions of Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson to bring Puffles down from the rafters with the offer of tea and cake while the rest of Westminster’s knights put on their suits of armour. Puffles had that much fun that we decided to go to the Paralympics. The Army and RAF took such a shine to Puffles that they ran off with Puffles – until I showed them that Doug Beattie would get upset. At which point they promptly returned Puffles – pleasantly surprised to find that the recipient of this citation (for a Military Cross – awarded for gallantry in the face of an enemy – and is really worth reading in full) is one of Puffles’ long-time followers. Puffles managed to get busted by City of London Mounted Police but was released in time to watch the wheelchair tennis and David Weir’s exploits on the track.

Pub lunches make the world go round

I organised and went to a number of gatherings – mainly in London and Cambridge where I met up with a number of Puffles’ followers. I got the feeling that Puffles had become more well-known than me when at one such gathering, someone asked loudly:

Yeah – who’s that bloke with Puffles?

…as I entered the room, dragon fairy in arms.

As far as meetups go, it’s far easier for people to find you if you have Puffles with you than without. “Look for the bloke in the black coat” vs “Look for the table with a big cuddly dragon fairy sitting on it”. It’s a no-brainer. As with 2011 it’s been lovely to see people within my social media circle of friends meeting up for the first time and starting conversations as if they had known each other for ages. No need for the “I like peas, I don’t like cabbage” awkward introductions you get with normal ‘networking’ meetups. I’m looking to continue with these in 2013 – basically because my philosophy is that social media should complement, not replace ‘offline’ friendships. In anycase, I’m of a mindset where I don’t differentiate between ‘offline’ friends and ‘social media friends’. Truth be told, I don’t have any of the latter. Nearly all of my current friendships have been formed &/or maintained through social media.

On several occasions I’ve been explaining what Puffles is all about to those unfamiliar with social media, only to find a follower wandering up at the same time saying something along the lines of:

“I just wanted to say ‘hello’ to Puffles”

…which has more than convinced a number of otherwise sceptics as to the potential power of social media. Thus there is a community of followers growing in both depth and breadth that follow (and engage with) Puffles via Twitter. So much so that Puffles at the last count had 15 MPs as followers across 3 political parties. Even more interestingly, Puffles was mentioned THREE TIMES in a session of the Public Administration Select Committee – see Qs 231, 235 and 242. Not only that, the BBC decided to publish a report mentioning Puffles on Christmas Eve! As my old workmate Nader Khalifa said, it must have been a slow news day.

“So…Puffles had ALL of the fun?”


Well…not quite. For wherever Puffles went I nearly always followed. It was the year I started toying with my own ‘work’ website (as opposed to this blog), unleashed Teacambs with Liz Stevenson and fed into the new social media guidance for civil servants – allowing Puffles to take the credit. I was also pleased to get this blog cited on a national newspaper website for the first time too – on the issue of outsourcing of policy.

All of these things ultimately led to new commissions, delivering training, awareness-raising seminars and workshops for a variety of audiences. These have ranged from private sector freight firms working on the Low Carbon Freight Dividend in East Anglia, through to the University of Bristol  (I love this picture of myself and Puffles at the University of Bristol’s event) all the way back into Whitehall.

Finally, to top it all off just before Christmas my first niece joined us on planet earth.

‘And…I’ve got a DRAGON’

You could say it’s the whole ‘image’ thing, but I’ve reached the stage where I feel that I’ve got nothing to prove to the career ladder (and those that judge by it) any more. How do you respond to someone who can respond back to you with the line: “Yeah…but I’ve got a dragon!”? One that’s been into Parliament, quoted in Hansard and mentioned on a Cabinet Office website? The only other dragon likely to have been mentioned in all three at any point is the poor creature killed by a certain mythical knight of the realm. Puffles’ take is that the dragon was denied a right to lawful arrest, legal representation and a fair trial – and was thus unlawfully killed. Yeah – how do you respond to someone who can reel that off in a complete deadpan manner? Thus I’ve found with Puffles I get to have more fun in these dark and depressing times.

And they have been dark and depressing – Olympics and Paralympics aside.

“What about the Olympics and Paralympics?”

We didn’t have a summer this year. 2012 was one of the wettest years on record. The Olympics and Paralympics provided an insight into just how great our communities could be if we all supported each other and worked together for the greater common good. What a sharp contrast the Queen’s Jubilee was compared to the opening ceremony. Okay, the weather played a huge part. But in my view, Danny Boyle got it spot on. The military pageantry was left to the former. Bearing in mind in British military uniforms the country has invaded about 90% of the PLANET, making a big thing of all things military at The Olympics was probably inappropriate. Going for the UK social history, a wonderful blend of music, the NHS which employs people from all over the world, and the cultural exports of TV and film worked wonders for me. Oh, and if you want to experience it all again without the commentary, it’s here. The soundtrack for me was the best album of the year by a country mile. I still listen to it now. Little can get near it.

The Paralympics opening ceremony was also wonderful too. Did you see Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson flying? Yeah – Puffles made that happen! (Sort of!) This was the first international tournament I have ever experienced where we the people were able to interact and send messages of support to competitors from all over the world. Given all of the bad news coming from the men’s professional game, the Great Britain women’s football team showed the men how to do it. Against Brazil. In front of 70,000 people.

“Umm…that sounds like a fairly awesome year”

But all in the context of not being able to function properly full-time. And that change of mindset has been excruciatingly painful emotionally. In part because I guess I had this idea of where I was supposed to ‘be’ when I hit my early 30s. Being at home, living with parents and not being able to work full time was not what I had pictured. Rather, own house, own career, own car, life partner – ‘Middle class is magical’ if you like – only it’s no longer magical. But I knew that in October 2011. What I didn’t know was that this mindset was worth abandoning. What’s the point of aspiring to things that are now blatantly beyond my reach? I’m just not going to play ‘their’ game of aspiring to the property ladder. I’m going to aspire to other things instead.

Medication and working out what ‘recovery’ is

Despite all the good stuff, it was all happening through sleepless nights, anti-anxiety medication and short-term tranquillisers that knocked me out for the best part of 36 hours at a time. Hence all of the #sleepfail tweets. It’s been a year of insomnia. I guess what I’m learning is that good things can still happen despite the condition I find myself in. When something like this is constantly in your face (or in your mind) it makes enjoying the good times that little bit harder.

It’s also taken its toll on some friendships too – falling out with people who really deserved better than to deal with my angst. It may be a common occurrence of mental health crises but it doesn’t make it any easier when you experience it. But you have to move on and not dwell.

I’m still trying to work out in my mind what I am capable of in 2013. I could make a huge list of activities, but the truth is I’d be exhausted by the end of the first week if I took the approach of previous years. People who have been through similar crises have indicated it will take years to make a full recovery – ie to the extent I can work full time again. What’s hard to cope with at the moment is that I don’t have a ‘vision’ of what that looks like: Of where I will be, what I will be like and who I will be with. I can’t be at ‘home’ forever though. It’s both frightening and exciting. Frightening because I don’t know if I’ll be able to cope on my own, exciting because I’m not bound to institutions in the way I was in years gone by.

I have no grand plans for this time next year. Better physical, mental and financial health along with closer friendship and family ties are all that I’m looking for, for now. And a better outlook for all of you. Anything else would be a bonus for me.

All the best for 2013 and many thanks for your support over the past 12 months on what has been a difficult year for all of us.

Happy New Year!



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