Can’t, not allowed, not able: five words that resonated with so many Belles during our February meeting.
In a poignant talk led by James McIntosh and his partner Dr Thomas Ernst, we heard how intolerance of Northern Irish James’ sexuality pushed him into depression despite being at the height of his career as an international food TV host and global brand ambassador.
“I brought a lot of business home to Northern Ireland. Heaven knows it needed the business. I was on TV and in the press with it all, the food producers of Northern Ireland were united in their efforts. Then the games started in politics,” James explained. “They said I was ‘too gay’ to represent Northern Ireland on the world stage,” adding he had even been told not to come home on an occasion.
At the age of 35 James was diagnosed with a moderately severe depressive episode.
“I woke up and could not move. I was not lazy, I just could not move,” he recalled. “Things had bottled up, one thing after another and then the final snap came. Fear, anxiety, a catatonic physical state, panic. I had no energy. The depth of sadness in my head was too much to bear.”
As a senior consultant physician at a leading London hospital, Thomas knew depression is a real illness and throughout it he sent his ward sister Suzanne to check in on James after her shifts. Suzanne introduced James to knitting and it wasn’t long until he found himself grappling with two chopsticks and some string as he watched YouTube to learn how to cast on.
Before James knew it, he had knitted a “something or other” followed by an “itchy” beige Alpaca jumper knitted on 12mm needles.
“The resulting product is somewhat shapeless but will live on as a trophy to my health for many years,” James remembered. “My first knitted garment allowed me to love myself again.”
This is knititation
Over time, James could do everyday things again. He visited John Lewis with his mum and Thomas – a keen meditator who also runs what is thought to be the only NHS mindfulness clinic to treat chronic illness and pain – convinced him to try the practice.
But James was reluctant. “When Thomas explained mindfulness, my head was not able to concentrate on the present, so Thomas suggested ‘mindful movements’.
“Picture the scene… We are both standing in our living room, listening to a CD whilst being aware of the present, moving as instructed to the voice of a monotone man who is telling me to move in a particular fashion. One leg in the air looking like a flamingo in full Ninja mode,” he said. “I continued… Next thing I was lying on my belly on the rug being instructed by said monotone voice to form the position entitled ‘the lower cobra’. I was thinking of the Indian Cobra beer at this point. Dr Thomas [was] next to me taking it all very seriously and my inner core strength while thinking of the Cobra beer weakened.”
Although James was not a natural mediator, he understood why Thomas had encouraged him to use meditation to embrace his feelings and the present moment, even if it involved acknowledging negatives. “Panic subsides, anxiety subdues, worry is dealt with by your body,” James said, adding he could see that hand knitting and meditation were in many ways the same.
“Feeling the yarn and needles as a stitch forms allows thoughts to run through your mind as you are aware of them and feel the bodily sensations of stitch creation and that of your bum on the seat and your feet on the floor,” he said. “This is knititation.”
Knit and nibble
James credits hand knitting with helping him get better. He went on to write award-winning book Knit and Nibble because he was unable to find patterns for colourful garments he wanted to wear that were marketed in a more gender-neutral way. James also wanted to write a book that helped other men restore their self-worth, so he honed his knitting skills, found an editor, photographer, marketer and raised £19,000 to print his 256-page book.
He said: “Surely gender is the biggest lie in life? All it says is ‘you can’t’, ‘you’re not allowed’ or ‘you’re not able.
“Many knitting patterns were distinctly sexist in their marketing ‘knit for your man’. So, I raised the money, learnt to knit, found the winner of the best food photographer in the world two years running to photograph the book, got the sponsorship, located models, wrote the marketing plan.
“I knit on planes, tubes, trains, in night clubs on the N36 night bus and taught the Chinese army to knit as well. I designed the jumpers and can now write knitting patterns. Not to mention opening my own publishing company – McIntosh Publishing – and finding distribution for my book and products,” James continued.
“Knit and Nibble was made in Northern Ireland; printed by W&G Baird in Muckamore, the printers of The Good Friday Agreement, and sewn and bound by Robinson Mornin on the Shankill Road in Belfast. I had to forgive, I was hurting, but I had to use the money I had raised in crowdfunding, that was given to me, to bless the people of the land who persecuted me.”