Travel

For my generation, travel is the (attainable) dream. People who have jobs that involve travel are envied, and saying that you’re not super keen on travelling is like saying you don’t like puppies, or halloumi (I should say now, I don’t like halloumi).

It’s not that I don’t like travelling. But it does make me very anxious. I didn’t travel at all for a while when I was younger, actually for about six years – from age 17 to age 23. During most of that time I was living in London, and either a student or working in publishing. The people who said to me that flights were so cheap and “why not just go away for a weekend” confused me – yes the flight isn’t so bad, but I have to sleep somewhere, and eat, and where does the money for that come from? I have friends who spent those years backpacking and sofa surfing, but that never appealed to me. The anxiety of it would have outweighed any pleasure. Is that a weakness? Perhaps.

Without those cheap options, the few hundred pounds involved were out of my reach – I had savings, but wanted to save them (a smart move as it turned out) and my salary didn’t even cover me month to month – I was always borrowing money from my parents. Any trip would have come out of my already overstretched salary, and as I always earned more than my ex-boyfriend (he was rarely earning a salary even, but living from one inadequate money injection to another) a trip abroad for the two of us would likely have meant me carrying the majority of the cost. My first job in publishing paid just £10,000 a year, and the second only £18,000 – you can see how it wasn’t easy.

Anyway so I didn’t go anywhere. This isn’t really a newsflash, there are many, many, many people who do not travel. But for my age, and in my circle of friends and colleagues and acquaintances, not going abroad was bizarre. I felt self-conscious about it, and the longer I didn’t go anywhere, the more of an obstacle it became in my head. That finally broke a little when I was 27, and I went on a few trips to Europe to go on blues dancing workshop weekends. These weren’t too anxiety-inducing for me, because it was a controlled situation. I was going abroad, but there were people there I knew, and stuff to do, and most importantly it was just a push to get up and go. The FOMO became bigger than my apprehension about going somewhere where I couldn’t communicate properly, and the anxiety of travel.

Since then I’ve been to a few more places, mainly Canada to visit my boyfriend’s family. Last week I went to Iceland with him (he can pay his own expenses, thankfully – setting the bar low!!) which was one of the first times I’ve gone abroad without a “grown up”. I wasn’t staying with someone who would come and pick me up, I had to arrange our transport and where we were going to be and how it was all going to work. It was still structured – we booked a package including a few trips, so we had various times when we had to manoeuvre ourselves to a bus stop to be picked up by a coach – but still, it felt like an important step to go somewhere without that safety net.

Is it sad, that I find travel so strange and anxiety-inducing when I’m about to turn 30? I feel like it is, a bit. It’s easier for me to bow to a pressure in my head that says it will be simpler to stay at home, but the more I do that, the worse it becomes. The trip to Iceland was an anxious trip for me – I catastrophise like you wouldn’t believe; just endless scenarios running through my head of what could go wrong. When I said to my partner on the penultimate day that I’d just about started trusting the coach company to actually be there to pick us up, he looked incredulous. It had never occurred to him it might be a problem, whereas half my thoughts had been about what we would do if they didn’t pick us up or drove off without us leaving us stranded in the middle of Iceland. I imagined falling off boats or slipping into waterfalls. Sometimes the thoughts were so strong it felt like I might do it just from the force of the worry. What a waste of time! If I didn’t have to think about all those things, think of all the other things I could be thinking about.

It makes me sad that this is a habit my brain has got into. But I’m so glad that I fought it to go away and do all the things that we did – I loved Iceland and had so many incredible experiences while we were there. In fact, I loved it so much that I now have a far more common problem: the post-holiday blues. How easy it is, when you come home from a country where steam rises out of the ground, and whales swim half an hour from the shore, and volcanoes cover the earth with ash and lava – how easy it is, to find everything you do on a day-to-day basis at home tired and mundane. I’m tired of the worries I have about things which are, of course, exactly the same as they were before I went away. I can understand far more clearly a friend of mine who said a big fat FUCK IT to everything a year and a half ago and went to Australia. I don’t know if I’d ever have her guts, but I understand the motivation more now.

I’m well aware that some of my anxiety around travelling comes from my mum. We went on annual holidays abroad when we were children, mostly by car taking the ferry to France or Spain. The few times we had to go to airports I remember my mum being sick with nerves. Neither of my parents have been abroad for some years, mainly because they’ve had a dog which has never been put in kennels, and he’s a bit of a prima donna so they aren’t sure how he’ll respond. I expect my mum’s anxiety around it all is a restricting factor as well. And she’s very happy to catastrophise on my behalf too – when I told her we were visiting a waterfall she responded saying ‘have fun- don’t fall in!’

Now that we’ve been somewhere once I’m feeling far more comfortable about going to more places, experiencing more new things. Iceland was very easy in one particular way: everyone there spoke English as naturally as if we’d been at home. I can do nothing but panic and do a blank stare at people when they ask me things in other languages – even in Spain when if I’d put my mind to it I could have worked out exactly what they were talking about. One time it was about Coca Cola, for heaven’s sake! I do feel terribly guilty though, going to places where I know none of the language and expect everyone to know English. I was depressed and fatigued by the behaviour of some of my fellow Brits on the trip to Iceland – conversations overheard were always about inadequate this or that, just little nitpicking moans about everything. On one of our coach trips, we had a guide describing the places we were passing, and telling us some culture and history. He spoke exceptional English, and paused now and again either because he was trying to think of the right word or because he had a slight stammer. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard someone behind me copying him and guffawing. I turned round in amazement thinking it must be a child – but no, a man of at least 35. I gave him a furious stare and he stopped doing it. But really! You get up there and tell us all about it in Icelandic, you fool! See how you get on!

I’m sure this must be a strange post for a lot of people who’ve never felt fussed about travelling, and have embraced the issues with communication and so on as part of the adventure. I am hopeful that the more I do it, the more I take steps one by one to go to new places, the less the anxiety will get in the way. Even if it means that I have to learn to adjust better to the flat feeling the first few days after I get home, and not just sit around in a sulk. Which definitely isn’t what I’ve been doing. (Except it is.)

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Lady Bird

I’m still not absolutely certain whether I want children or not. I’ll be 30 in May so many people would tell me that I need to get a move on and decide (although plenty of others these days would tell me not to worry about it for another ten years). Like most people, probably, I’m very worried about having a child and bringing her/him up badly. What if I pass on my anxiety, insecurity and general tendency towards melodrama? What if they don’t like me? What if I don’t like them?

I went to see the film Lady Bird at the cinema yesterday, which is about a teenage girl trying to negotiate all the usual difficulties of being at that age. School, friendships, relationships, and family: it’s all there and the plot is absolutely packed with twists and turns, events going right and going wrong. I loved it all, but her relationship with her mother is especially good. I expect every girl and mother who goes to see it will be smiling, grimacing, or weeping with recognition.

They are alternately best friends and worst enemies. They fight and shout and say horrendous things to each other, and both say the wrong thing at almost every opportunity: and yet, share moments of understanding and love more easily than they will with anybody else. You can see perfectly how much they are hurting each other, but you can also understand their motivations and empathise completely with each point of view. I was never half as confrontational with my mum as Lady Bird is with hers, but I can still recognise the pattern of their relationship. And I can see how easy it is to have such a relationship with your child, or with your parent, despite best intentions on both sides.

I am lucky to have a close relationship with both my parents. I went to a concert with them this past week, to see Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra play a tribute to Benny Goodman’s legendary 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall. My Dad and I have long bonded over swing music. I have bought him many CDs for Christmas and his birthday over the years, sometimes chosen entirely at random by walking into the old huge HMV on Oxford Street (before it closed down) and picking based on the cover or reviews. I can’t remember exactly why I chose it, but I bought him a recording of Benny Goodman’s 1938 concert many years ago. We would often put it on when it was the two of us making dinner on a Saturday night, when Mum traditionally had a respite from cooking. The routine in my parents’ house is to walk the dog to the pub and back before dinner, so we would be tipsy and very hungry, trying to cook while bobbing our heads along to Benny Goodman playing swing and blues. Our favourite track, unsurprisingly, is Sing, Sing, Sing. About ten minutes of glorious big band sound, interspersed with brilliant solos. Apparently, when the concert was played in 1938, the audience were bewildered not just by the mix of white and black musicians on the stage, but also by these extended solos that stretched on and on. If you listen to the recording, there are a few solos followed by swells of music, abrupt stops, and then a lot of applause – which slowly, confusedly, fades away as the audience realises yet another soloist has begun.

The concert at the Barbican we went to see this week wasn’t quite up to that standard, in my very humble opinion, perhaps because the atmosphere is rather different in a very chic and rather expensive concert hall, with little gaps in between each song while we had the next choice explained to us – not to mention applauding the musicians who’d just played and welcoming on the next guest. But it was still a wonderful evening. My Dad and I nudged each other and shared conspiratorial grins at our favourite pieces – which for me, for the most part, made up for the fact I’d rather offended my Mum on the way in by asking if I could swap seats so I was sat next to Dad.

Our relationships with our parents are so very complicated. I felt it during that evening of music and I felt it very strongly while watching Lady Bird – so strongly, in fact, that I kept bursting into tears for an hour or so afterwards, remembering  the many desperately poignant moments: the parents making sacrifices for the children, and the children breaking free and breaking their parents’ hearts as they went. And yet it wasn’t a sad film, overall. There was a lot of joy in it too, a lot of laughs and so much love. So very, very much love.

At the same time as I’m entering the age when I have to start thinking about whether I want to start a family, I’m also entering an age when a few more of my friends have lost their parents. These are still very young deaths – early 60s or so. But they are already more common, no longer the extra rare and dreadful bad luck that robs people of their parents when the children are in their teens or earlier. I am conscious of wanting to spend more time with my parents, not just because I enjoy their company and my Mum makes me feel guilty when I don’t, but also because even if I see them every month or two, that’s still only 6-12 times a year. Is it enough that I won’t regret being around more, if something were to happen? I suppose we will always regret not being around more in those circumstances, and I know many people who see their parents much less – it’s all a case of what you’re used to. But since my car accident last year, I’ve been even worse at worrying about terrible things happening to people, and fretting over whether I could have done something to help (…to avoid an entirely fictitious accident – honestly, being inside my head is completely exhausting). I worry particularly about my parents. They aren’t in the best of health, but a long way from the worst of health as well. My Mum always says she doesn’t want to get to an age where she’s a burden – in fact in many ways she seems to have been looking forward to death since I was little (which is great for the child, as you can imagine! Oh hello, several years of therapy). My Dad, meanwhile, is very much of the attitude that he’s going to do what he enjoys, for as long as he can, and doesn’t bother with any of these ridiculous government guidelines on food and drink which could potentially give him a few more years. To him, it isn’t worth it the extra years as they would all be much less pleasurable without the wine and the cheese (a much healthier attitude for the child, although does lead to some nervousness about how quickly the wine and cheese could catch up with him).

I’m sure one of the most difficult things to learn as a parent, once children are past a certain age, is that you can no longer control their decisions or actions – and nor should you try. In fact, at this rate, I’ll have just about got the hang of not trying to influence my parents’ decisions or blame myself for them not being completely happy, and then I’ll have a child to not try to influence and not blame myself for as well. But then, I’m lucky, because there will always be those moments to remember of love, and feeling at home with my parents which nothing else will ever beat. Unless I do have children, I suppose, and manage to have as good a relationship with them as my parents do with me. Which may be enough to make me think it would be worth the heartache. Maybe.

Change

This year, as I am entering my fourth decade, I’m thinking a lot about what I’ve learnt and achieved. How does it compare with where I thought I would be? Turning 30 is a manmade phenomenon, a landmark where none really exists, but just because something is all in our heads doesn’t mean it feels less real and tangible. I thought by now I would have learned to eat chocolate without getting it on my trousers, but I haven’t. I rather hoped I would have worked out what I want to be when I grow up, but it seems I’m still wondering.

It’s a strange feeling when we have a solid idea of who we are and what we’re about, and then suddenly find we’ve changed without our noticing. I was bemused the other day to realise something I’d known for a long time – that I work in the finance department of a technology company. That certainly wasn’t something I or probably anybody else would have predicted for me. It doesn’t mean it’s bad – far from it – but it’s unsettling when you realise something about you or your path has changed.

I’ve had another revelation this week. For the last two or three years, I haven’t owned a full-length mirror. I didn’t think it was particularly important, and in some ways it was rather nice – if I couldn’t see whether or not an outfit worked together, then I could just assume that it did and roll on with it. But at the same time I realised I wasn’t entirely sure what I looked like anymore. So I bought a mirror. And it turns out I’ve changed rather.

When I was younger I was very thin, so thin that people always accused me of being anorexic and called me names. I didn’t like it at all, but as I got older I changed a little and people started telling me I was slim in a nice way, rather than a mean one. When I was 24 my hips suddenly realised I was no longer prepubescent and they expanded somewhat, which I also rather liked. I’ve always been insecure about my breasts being too small but overall I thought I was rather a nice shape.

I’m still more or less the same shape, I think, but I’m certainly no longer the waif I was growing up. My hips have decided they didn’t do a good enough job when I was 24 and seem to have expanded again; I’ve grown a bit of a tummy – a pouch to hold my extra cookies, as Jess says to Nick on New Girl – and my thighs have changed shape too. The last may partly be muscle as I’ve been going to the gym and doing squats and deadlifts, which are bound to add on some muscle, but I’m not sure, maybe some of it is fat too. I’m aware that I’ve put on a bit of fat the last two years, mainly I think from having a commute which means I’m sitting down for an extra two hours a day, which makes quite a difference.

Anyway, rightly or wrongly, I was surprised by how I looked. It wasn’t the image I had of myself in my head, and it’s a very odd feeling to find that the body you’re walking around in doesn’t look the same as you thought it did. How can you possibly miss it, I thought, it’s there all the time! I wasn’t sure I trusted the mirror, and my friend said mirrors lie, so I decided to have a wardrobe clearout to see how much had changed.

Well, oh dear. Several dresses that used to be sleek and flattering now make me look like a sausage in a very tight casing. A pair of trousers I rather like and thought looked nice now look decidedly strained. A couple of skirts now no longer fit neatly round the hips but sit up round the waist in an extremely unflattering fashion. Determined not to be annoyed or shamed by these clothes that no longer serve me, I now have three large bags of clothes for the charity shop.

Well, who cares, you might ask. So I’ve changed shape a little – what does it matter? It’s an excuse to go shopping! New clothes! Hurrah! But unfortunately it isn’t quite that straightforward, at least not for me. There’s such a degrading feeling to having to throw out clothes because you’ve put on weight at the best of times, and for me it’s compounded by not really knowing how I fit into my own idea of myself as being very thin and slender. This may sound ridiculous to a lot of people who’ve seen me lately. I am still by most sane measures a very slim person. Some would say I’m now a “better” weight – for the first time in my life I’m designated at as a ‘healthy weight’ by the BMI index, whereas previously I’ve been classed as ‘underweight’ or even ‘emaciated’. But I’m still feeling a bit despondent, a bit unattractive, and, most strangely, a bit less worthy than I used to. In today’s society women are held up to an impossible list of physical ideals, but I do know that putting on weight is almost never seen as a Good Thing. It’s the butt of so many jokes on sitcoms and TV programmes: running into an ex when you’ve put on weight is about on a par with smacking someone over the head with a golf club. There is a definite feeling that you’ve lost, or failed, by changing shape in that direction.

Of course, the whole idea that who we are should be interpreted or judged by what we look like is absurd. It doesn’t make any difference. Or rather, it shouldn’t  make any difference. I’m no longer the super skinny girl who would get called Twiglet or gently asked by a doctor if she has any trouble eating. While that isn’t a huge part of my identity it is still a part, and one that I now need to adjust. Right now I’m in danger of adjusting too far the other way, so I’ll be careful of that. It’s good to have a realistic sense of what you look like, but also to hold that idea gently, and to try not to make it a focus of your thinking. Being a touch heavier doesn’t mean I’m less clever, or smart, or interesting as a person. And I need to keep reminding myself that seeming attractive to others is only partly to do with what you physically look like – it’s more about how you see yourself. If you feel good, people will respond to that.

So I’m going to buy some new clothes that make me feel pretty, and keep chucking out any old clothes I find that make me feel crap. And put in some practise at thinking of myself as a fairly slim, reasonably toned woman, with a bit of a tummy – and a great arse.

New Year, New… Not a lot

The concept of the ‘new year’ is a strange one. It’s entirely man-made, and feels fairly arbitrary, particularly when you remember that the Chinese celebrate New Year at a different time to the rest of the world. Until the intrusion of the west, many countries in East Asia measured time by a solar calendar instead of a lunar one. Japan started using the Gregorian calendar in 1873, after a modernisation push begun in 1868. I remember learning that at university and thinking how odd it is that something we rule our lives by so strictly isn’t exactly real – it’s something we invented to make it easier to organise things and keep track of how long people worked for.

I’m thinking about time more and more these days, and 2018 is an interesting year for me as I turn 30 in May. This is neither a big deal nor not a big deal to me; it just is, and in the same way as we evaluate things differently when we arrive in a “new year”, so turning 30 can make you consider things in a different light.

This can be dangerous if it means you suddenly start beating yourself up for not being where you thought you’d be by a certain age. For better or worse, I’ve never been one for life plans or had specific ambitions, so I’m not overwhelmed by negative thoughts about hitting a fourth decade. But I am aware of the expectations that come with putting labels on the passage of time. I think many of us are tricked into thinking everything will be different in the new year; it’s a blank slate and the irritations of the past year will be have faded away, or at least be easier to manage. Certainly we are helped in this assumption by endless marketing campaigns shouting NEW YEAR, NEW YOU! I filed away a lot of odds and ends at work and at home before Christmas and really thought that the time off would make a meaningful difference of some kind, so this week has been a bump back to earth and a struggle, as I’ve found that things are in exactly the same mess as they were beforehand. Our expectations create an artificial high which is never going to be met, because nothing has changed except the date in the corner of the computer screen.

Of course, if we look at time the right way, we can help ourselves to create something out of nothing, and try to build new habits or kick old ones into touch with the help of a new diary and calendar. I’m doing Dry January this year, not because I drink an enormous amount, but because I’d like to see how it affects my mood, sleeping patterns, and general wellbeing to be sober. (If you’d like to sponsor me/donate some money to Crisis, my page is here http://bit.ly/2m4AElz.) Other people start new classes, or try new diets (Veganuary seems to be all over the place this year) and it can be a really helpful time to make a new beginning – as long as you realise that you are the same person you were on the 31st of December, and won’t automatically have a brand new Willpower Pack and Courage Belt to help you.

While turning 30 doesn’t make me think ‘Oh Christ! Why don’t I have a husband/children/a house/a proper career plan’, it does make me think of myself in a slightly different light. I’ll think about doing something I’m afraid of, and think, ‘well I’m nearly 30 – I should be able to do that’. The way you see yourself can be extremely powerful, and I’m quite enjoying the sense of grown-up-ness which is coming with my impending birthday. (An example of a less useful self-image is when I was diagnosed with depression some years ago, I kept thinking ‘I’d better be careful – after all, I am depressed’ which was a rather self-limiting way of looking at things.)

I’m glad to have this internal feeling of security and strength, as this week has been a tough one for me, not just because I was disappointed that my work to-do list was still as long, but also thanks to the news. For whatever reason I’ve seen more headlines than I normally do, and they haven’t filled me with joy: my annual rail pass has gone up by £248 to a staggering £7,188, the average deposit in London is now £80,000 (up £30k in a decade) and our NHS is being held together with string and the sheer determination of the people still working inside it. I look around and think, what is my future? It takes people ten years to save for a house deposit, and that’s presumably not if they’re spending their savings each year on the train that gets them to work. Thanks to low salaries, an MA degree, rail passes, a waster ex-boyfriend, and car expenses, my savings have been massively depleted in the last ten years. Every piece of news I see about the UK makes me wonder how the country is going to stay on its feet. My partner is all for moving back to his home country of Canada, provided we can find jobs, and I’m open to the idea but terrified absolutely stupid at the same time. I’m not wondering why I haven’t got to a certain place in life before 30, but I am wondering what seismic changes there will need to be politically or personally for me to get to that place at all.

All this has led to a week of stress, anxiety, and lying awake at 4am – before being awoken at 6am for my commute, and wanting to cry. I haven’t found it difficult not to drink, but I have realised it’s my default position to have a drink when I’m stressed or anxious. I’m having to find replacements now and it isn’t easy. Nothing is as fast or as simple as having a glass of wine! I might get the same results from a bath or an hour reading or half an hour of yoga, but they all require more effort and none of them are anywhere near as sociable.

One plus point is that the feelings stay in my head for longer, so I’m more inclined to write them down and do more of these blogs (hopefully you think of that as a good thing too, dear reader!). I don’t have any magic answers today, only lots of little things I can do to make me feel like I’m moving forward and moving in the right direction. And continuing to write and straighten my head out is one of those things, as even if it doesn’t get me a house or a cheaper commute, it gets me a better night’s sleep – and maybe that’s the best thing I could get anyway.

Highlights of 2017

I’ve done this for the last couple of years – it’s a great way of looking back over the year and picking out the best bits, not just for now, but for when I look back in future years.

Swing Train

This is an exercise class based half on swing dancing, and half on cardiovascular exercise. The music is enormous fun and the moves range from Charleston kicks to squats and even, in one of my least favourite tracks, press-ups. I’m lucky enough to have a class only a few minutes’ walk away with a wonderful teacher, who is enthusiastic without being irritatingly peppy, and extremely good at judging the energy levels in the room and how to push us just enough, but not too much. Highly recommended.

New chair

Recently we bought a new Ikea armchair and footstool, which sits in the corner of our living room with bookcases on either side. It’s deliciously comfortable and my favourite place to sit and properly unwind.

Overcoming fear – twice

This time last year I’d just driven my little Renault Clio home to my parents’ house for Christmas, the first drive on motorways I’d done for years. That drive improved my driving anxiety enormously, and I kept doing more driving and feeling more and more comfortable doing so – until July, when I crashed the car on the M40. After that, I had to go back to the start. I had to deal with all the admin of the insurance for the old car, and of buying a new one; and then I had to learn to feel confident at driving again. With most things I get anxious about, there’s no real danger, but driving was always different. And once you know what it feels like to lose control on a motorway and smash into something at 70mph (like a high-powered game of dodgems) it’s very difficult to tell yourself your anxiety is unwarranted. With patience, practise, the help of Winnie the Pooh audio tapes, and some driving lessons, I am now feeling much more confident in my driving. It’s still difficult, and tiring, but I know what I need to do to feel safe now and that makes a big difference.

My birthday

It’s a cliché to say that you birthday should be one of the best days of the year, but for me, in 2017, it was. The day before I drove my partner and me down to Tarr Steps, a beautiful spot in Somerset where I’d spent many birthdays as a child. It was the longest drive I’d ever done, and when we got there the weather was hot and still and perfect. I had a cold shower to get rid of the sweat of six hours in a car with no air conditioning, on a very hot day, and then got drunk ludicrously easily on white wine sitting outside. The next day, my birthday morning, I woke up very early. When I was small my brothers and I used to get up super early, sneak out of the hotel, and walk along the river to a meadow and back before breakfast. I decided to relive the tradition. When I set out, the sun was only halfway down the trees covering the sides of the valley either side of the river, and the river itself still had patches of mist. By the time I got back to the hotel, the sun was fully up and everything was hushed and quiet but bathed in warm golden light. It was a perfect start to the morning.

Gratitude jar

Every weekend, or sometimes more often, I wrote on little pieces of paper things that had happened that had made me happy or that I was grateful for, and I kept them in a glass jar. It’s been a great way of remembering the good bits, and emptying out the jar to relive the good times on the 1st of January was hilarious and heartwarming. Many of them seemed to involve weekend trips to the pub for a drink and a heart-to-heart with my partner, although there were also many to do with books I’d read, or relief at various drives being over without any incident.

Concerts

I went to several excellent concerts (gigs? I don’t know what to call these anymore) this year, most of them with one of my brothers. We saw Radiohead in Manchester, which was phenomenal, and the band James twice (some of you may remember James from the 1990’s hits Sit Down and Laid). We saw them at Newmarket racecourse, which was a brilliant and hilarious afternoon and evening. I got quietly drunk on Pimm’s, we watched some races and then the band came on around dusk. One of my happiest and brightest memories of the year.

Learning

Last year my employers encouraged me to get some more training in bookkeeping, as much of my job involves bookkeeping tasks. I am now the proud holder of a Foundation Certificate in Bookkeeping, and I’m planning the next course to embark on now. Studying alongside work is far from easy, especially when you have a long commute, but it’s great to feel like I’m still learning something.

The laziest evening ever

I am someone who often has issues relaxing, as I always make to do lists so long that nobody could ever achieve all the stupid things I put on them. So the odd evening when I really chill out is precious. One evening in 2017, my partner was out at a conference, so I knew the evening’s choice of food and television viewing was just down to me. I got off the train, bought a bottle of wine, then went to the local chippie and bought battered sausage and chips. Battered sausage, wine, and a few episodes of Sex and the City: it was a truly glorious evening.

 

I hope you all had many wonderful memories in 2017, and here’s to making many more in 2018!

2017: My Year in Books

Rarely have I read more voraciously or more gratefully than I have in 2017. My commute is devoted to reading and I am incapable of going to work with only one book with me – I take two if not three in case one doesn’t take my fancy. This is partly because 2017 is the year I have started Actively Avoiding the News. I hit my emotional limit after the terror attacks in Manchester and London Bridge, and the Grenfell Tower fire. Each horror on its own would have scarred me, but the headlines about lost partners and family members became so gratuitously designed to twist a knife in your heart that I became too angry with the media to want to engage. Instead, I read books, and read even more fiercely than I do normally. Here are a few highlights and lowlights.

The Good

How Not to be a Boy by Robert Webb

This is a late entry for 2017, as it was a Christmas present. The writing is brilliant, and his story is by turns very funny and completely heartbreaking. His take on masculinity and his wise words on how toxic it can be make this a vitally important addition to the feminist literary canon. I learnt an enormous amount about the pressure boys and men are under from a very young age, and had a little more insight than I needed into how a teenage boy’s mind works. How he had the courage to put to paper some of the ways he acted at university is beyond me – a more accurate title for those sections would be ‘how to be a complete penis’, and they make me want to instruct all girls not to date a man below the age of 25 – but that, I suppose, is his point. The patriarchy benefits nobody, not even white boys who went to university at Cambridge. This book should be compulsory reading for all.

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

I’ve tried to read Virginia Woolf before, and found it impossible, but something made me try again with Night and Day. I absolutely loved it. The characters are brilliantly drawn, the dialogue is perfect, and the relationship between mother and daughter is so accurate it’s uncanny. Some might find the moment-by-moment descriptions of emotional states wearing, but I thought they captured the difficulties of everyday trials and tribulations only too well. I’ve since tried reading a few others of hers, but so far they’ve all been too whimsical and ‘let’s float off on a tangent’ for me.

Happy by Derren Brown

This is a self-help book for people who hate self-help books. Brown argues against the popular case for endless positivity, pointing out how this can quite easily just make everyone feel worse. He outlines various ancient philosophies in very accessible language, and generally made me feel a whole lot better about things. This and Night and Day are now fixtures by my bed for nights when I’m having trouble getting my brain to calm down and switch off.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Towles’s novel Rules of Civility has been one of my absolute favourite books for about five years, and I was a little nervous about this second book. The hardback, which I loaned from the library, is simply enormous and the cover is brash and unappealing. However, once I got into it, this is a wonderful story. It follows an aristocrat in revolutionary Russia, who is put under house arrest in the opulent Hotel Metropol (which I was very excited to find afterwards actually exists, and if Russia wasn’t such an autocratic, sexist, homophobic shitshow of a country I’d want to go and blow a lot of money staying there). He makes friends and loses them and has more adventures than you would think possible in only one building. The whole thing is brilliantly atmospheric, and I loved the little bits of Russian history he slipped in, too.

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr AND To be a Machine by Mark O’Connell

I’ve read a lot more non-fiction than usual this year, and found some real corkers. These books were both excellent examinations of technology’s effect on modern life. The Shallows focusses on the ways the internet is affecting how our minds work – fascinating stuff, and frightening too. Our attention spans and short-term memories are getting worse and worse, and this has knock-on effects for our relationships and how we interact. We are getting less patient and more fidgety, our brains are tired and our expectations are getting bigger and bigger. It’s a cautionary tale. To be a Machine follows the extraordinary world of transhumanism – people who want to extend human life spans, perhaps indefinitely, and perhaps by melding man and machine. The writing is superb, and along with The Shallows, it’s a great read for encouraging us all to take a step away from the technology and assess what’s really important to us.

The Bad / Unfinished

Agatha Raisin and a Spoonful of Poison by M.C. Beaton

I decided to give this a try as I grow worryingly close to reading every single one of Agatha Christie’s books, and thought I’d better look out for a “replacement” author now so the pain of having no more of her books to read will be easier to bear. However, Agatha Raisin is not for me. I read a couple and they’re reasonably funny but there is no skill involved in solving any of the crimes, only endless irritating returns to question the same people, long past most folk would have taken her to court for a restraining order, and then finding the culprit by falling over them by accident. Tedious.

The Big Four by Agatha Christie

Having said that, this novel by my beloved Agatha is really rather dreadful. An attempt at John le Carre-esque spy thriller-ness is just confusing and tortured, the ending is baffling and it involved Poirot’s twin – which I think may be the one and only time he makes a (sort of) appearance. The only one of hers I haven’t enjoyed, so far.

How to Worry Less about Money by John Armstrong

Tepid. Obviously aimed at middle-class morons like myself who have time to read a book about worrying less about money, rather than people who actually need to worry about money like those who have to decide between feeding their children and paying for electricity. His main thought is that your worries about money are probably connected to something else, some other deep insecurity which isn’t actually anything to do with not being able to afford the latest iPhone. Well, duh. Don’t waste your time.

A Dog’s Ransom by Patricia Highsmith

Another attempt to find an enjoyable crime writer who isn’t Agatha Christie. Again, not my cup of tea. All rather odd and the sort of book where the mistakes people make are because they’re too stupid to take an obvious course of action. Tiresome and I skimmed the second half rather than prolong the pain any longer.

Underworld by Don DeLillo

Cracking opening chapter, total nonsense from then on. Something to do with a baseball, flitting between time periods, no clue who anyone is or why you should give a hot damn about any of them. No.

Author of the Year

It would be Agatha Christie for the second year in a row, and to be honest maybe it should be – I’ve read so many crackers of hers this year, particularly a few that aren’t Poirot or Marple: Crooked House, Sparkling Cyanide and Sad Cypress. All fantastic.

But one crime author who I returned to this year, and then read four books back-to-back, was Nicci French. I’ve read many of their books (it’s a writing partnership of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French) and particularly enjoyed their series with Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist who gets caught up in a lot of police cases. Earlier this year I read Thursday’s Child, Friday on My Mind, Saturday Requiem and Sunday Morning Coming Down one after the other. The plots are exceptional and I love the characters and places that they’ve created. If Frieda Klein’s house was real, I would want to buy it. The books are very creepy but not revolting, which is good for me – I shy away from a few contemporary crime writers because they’re just too nasty. I once read a short story by Karin Slaughter which was so revolting and poisonous, it made me think she needs some serious psychoanalysis. And to stop writing immediately. But I can highly recommend all these Frieda Klein novels, which are intelligent and completely engrossing.

 

Thinking like a smartphone

I saw a Reddit quote the other week in response to the question, ‘If aliens landed what would they find strangest about our society?’ The answer said: We carry around super computers in our pockets capable of looking up nearly all the information known to mankind, and we use them to look at pictures of cats and argue with strangers. I would add to that: and ignore the people we’re physically spending time with, without considering how rude it is. Because it’s just the way things are now. We are in a new age of communication – although people have been saying that for the last hundred years at least. But we are now in a revolution of manners, and of how we actually think.

Smartphones play a totally new part in our daily lives. Before, if someone was talking to you and you picked up a book or a newspaper and started to read when they were mid-sentence, it would be considered unbelievably rude. And yet we do it with our phones without thinking. I’ve had meet-ups with friends when they’ve spent more time texting someone else than they have speaking to me. (Which has on occasion felt ironic because they’re so bad at replying in general. It makes one wonder if you’re the only one who has to wait a week for a response.) Yet even though this infuriates me, I still do it to other people. I’ll check my phone while I’m out with a friend or talking to somebody else, and it doesn’t feel like a big deal. But it is.

I am genuinely worried about what smartphones (and smartphones specifically, as well as technology in general) are doing to our societies. When was the last time you switched off your phone? Even on planes or in cinemas or theatres, people can’t bear to switch them off. They’re just put on aeroplane mode. I switch mine off, but the first thing I do as I’m leaving is turn it back on. Why are we so addicted to these tiny pieces of technology? I would estimate that about 90% of the times  I check mine, there is nothing remotely interesting for me to look at. And yet I keep doing it. I’ve noticed on nights out when I’ve forgotten it or I have no signal I still get that automatic message from my brain: check your phone. I start feeling like I’m going mad because I get this compulsive urge, and reach for my phone before realising it’s not there – like looking for a phantom limb. It’s pretty alarming.

I read a book in the summer called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, about the ways that technology is changing the way our brains work. Not that this hasn’t happened before – it happened with the advent of deep reading. As writing materials became more widely available, and larger, people started writing more, and more people started reading – at first aloud, and then gradually, silent reading became the norm. ‘As language expanded, consciousness deepened.’ ‘The quiet of deep reading became part of the mind.’ Doesn’t it sound fabulously peaceful? But now: we are physically shortening our brain’s attention span with our use of technology. In simple terms, our working memory can only ever absorb a certain amount of information at a time, and then it gets stored in long-term memory. But we aren’t retaining as much of the information we look at because we don’t look at it for long enough. ‘Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering.’ We skim, and flick between tabs; minimise windows and move them around, read half an article then click a hyperlink to read another article, on and on, always with twenty things going on at once. Some people say this is multitasking, but multitasking has been proven to be a myth. The brain is not capable of performing two complex tasks at the same time. You can see this for yourself if you’re walking with a friend and ask them a complicated question they really need to think about to answer. Their pace will slow and may even stop. The brain cannot keep doing something even as simple as walking if it needs all its energy for another task. The same thing will happen if you are driving and chatting and then need to navigate a busy intersection. You will stop talking, often mid-sentence. You may be able to return to the sentence afterwards, but for those seconds, you cannot do two things at once. When we think we are doing two complex tasks at once, we’re actually switching between them very fast – and losing a little time every time we switch.

The leaders of Google and Apple and Microsoft don’t want us to believe this, however. No, the more apps you run at once the more efficient you’re being! Buy more processing power! Buy more gadgets to be EVEN MORE EFFICIENT! Schmidt, a former CEO of Google, came out with this truly terrifying quote: ‘The most obvious use of Twitter… can be seen in situations where everybody is watching a play and are busy talking about the play while the play is under way’. This doesn’t make sense. If people are talking about the play, they aren’t watching the play. You cannot do both at the same time. The last time I went to a concert, I ended up being forced to watch half of it on somebody’s phone, held up in front of my face. Whoever it was lost half of each song because they couldn’t wait until afterwards to upload the pictures and videos to the internet. It’s all about sharing and tweeting and making people aware of what you’re doing, even though at the moment you’re staring at your phone, you’re not at the concert. Your brain is elsewhere.

But the more time people spend doing real things in person, the less time they’ll be spending on Twitter and Facebook and shopping and buying and looking at adverts and making tax-evading billionaires lots more money. Or, in less cynical terms, the less time is spent communicating with wide networks of people and sharing information and expressing ourselves to our beautiful huge communities of online followers. That’s how it works, right? Everyone’s our friend. Except, if you’re me, hardly anybody notices what you’ve said/seen and you are left with that odd feeling of disappointment, of losing something you never really had. We are, according to Nicholas Carr, ‘lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment’. I certainly feel like a lab rat sometimes.

But what’s complicated about uploading a picture and listening to a concert at the same time, you may ask. Or having a conversation and reading a text.  You can do that easily. Can’t you? If your attention is focussed on reading, your ears won’t work so well. I do it all the time. “Sure, I’m listening, keep going, I’ll just answer this email while you talk… mm hmm… what? Sorry I didn’t quite hear that bit.” Much as we all want to believe we’re super-powered computers who can run a million jobs a minute, that isn’t how our brain works. It’s both much simpler and far more complicated than a machine.

I read a book recently called ‘To be a Machine’, about transhumanism – people who want to extend human life, often through part or total melding with machines. Some people believe if we find out enough about the human brain, we could recreate a mechanical brain. We can make ourselves into a computer, and thereby live forever. Or create androids, robots, replicants, with brains like ours. But is this really possible? We all talk as though it is: the metaphors linking our brains and computers are growing all the time. Processing, memory, bandwidth, the ‘space’ in our brains – brains or hard drives? – and so on and so on. Yet these ideas ‘take for granted that the brain operates according to the same formal mathematical rules as a computer does – that, in other words, the brain and the computer speak the same language. But that’s a fallacy born of our desire to explain phenomena we don’t understand in terms we do understand.’ It may seem odd to say that we understand computers and don’t understand our own brains, but it’s true. Even those scientists working right now on recreating a brain don’t know how to answer the question ‘will it be conscious?’, because we don’t know what we mean by the term conscious. Our own minds and the ability to have this concept of ourselves, of ‘I’, is something philosophers and scientists and theologians have been arguing over for centuries – and they’re still arguing, because we haven’t understood it yet.

So we’re convincing ourselves that computers can mimic our brains, and also persuading ourselves that our brains can mimic computers. We try to do everything at once, concentrate on ten different things and who cares if we look at our smartphones when we’re doing another task, or talking to another person? Why can’t we do two things at once? Perhaps our smartphones are already becoming extensions of our brains, relied on for looking up information, remembering phone numbers, doing even simple arithmetic, and communicating with people. We are making it easier to imagine being able to meld man and machine, as that deepening of consciousness that came with reading, the questioning and reasoning that it brought out in our brains, is made shallow and vague as we forget even the simplest things in preference to looking at the little rectangle in our hands. We forget how to have a full, complicated conversation, and how to wait for things instead of getting instant gratification. We become more rude and distant – even if nobody notices because everyone’s the same. Nobody notices what the person opposite them is doing, because nobody’s looking each other in the eye.

I know that when I spend a lot of time looking at my phone, I get this irritable, slightly queasy, flickering sensation in my head. Often I’ve been conscious of wanting to stop looking at this pointless endless scroll of information long before I’ve actually looked up, but have stayed glued to the screen: ‘we crave the new even when we know that the new is more often trivial than essential’. But I hope we retain some way of teaching young people how to process (!) information without the aid of technology. We risk losing this ability to choose what we see, choose some of what influences us, because we’re all addicted to the stream of words and pictures dictated by who knows who, with who knows what aims in mind. I’ll end with a quote from David Foster Wallace, who said that giving up this control, this means of exercising command over our own brains, is to be left with “the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing”. Our brains’ abilities are infinite. Those of a smartphone are not.

All quotes are from the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The last, from David Foster Wallace, is also quoted in The Shallows.