Loops of memory

I recently read the Derren Brown book Happy, which included some intriguing quotes from Douglas Hofstadter’s book I am a Strange Loop, prompting me to loan it from the local library. I’m now about a quarter of the way through. Both books have pushed me to start thinking about philosophy in ways I hadn’t previously – I always saw it as something too lofty and divorced from real life to be in any way useful – but now I am starting to apply it to ideas I was already interested in, about the mind and how it reacts, about mental illness and maintaining good mental health. The following post is about my recovery from a recent car accident, but is heavily informed by ideas from these two books – namely the ideas of confirmation bias and our self-narratives from Happy, and the discussion of feedback loops and memory and the existence of “souls” in physical objects from I am a Strange Loop.

It is only three weeks since the crash, so I am probably expecting too much of myself, but I still feel impatient to be “over it.” I believed that if I could get back in a car, and drive (which I have done) then that would be most of the problem solved. My anxiety has generally been rather worse, I have been struggling to relax properly, and lately I have been haunted by a strong feeling of sadness, making my default mood more depressed and low than I’ve been for a long time. None of this sounds hugely surprising when I type it out, but still I find myself surprised.

Until Monday of this week I had a hire car, provided by my insurance company, which was happily a dream to drive and went a long way to restoring some of my depleted confidence. Sadly my search to buy another car has thus far not been fruitful, due to a combination of factors. The first car I went to see was at some cowboy garage, and it had decidedly alarming brakes, which screeched at the lightest tough and brought you to such a sudden stop you felt you were about to be thrown through the windscreen. I drove it for about two minutes before returning it and dumping it in the middle of the forecourt. Just those two minutes made me nervous of driving at all, and made me far less eager to drive very far to view any more cars. I saw a couple of vehicles at a local garage I know and trust, but the ones they had were either too small or too expensive for the wishlist I had drawn up for myself. I am now in the state of wanting a car, but not being able to look at cars because I don’t have a car to get to them in, and even if I did hire a car to go and look at a car, if I wanted to buy said car I wouldn’t be able to drive it and the hire car home. My partner doesn’t drive and I don’t know anyone where I live well enough to want to ask them to do me the favour of driving me twenty miles to see a car, which may in all likelihood have kangaroo-jumping brakes at a garage run by an adolescent with the sales acumen of a damp sock. I am also uncomfortable at the idea of having other people in the car with me at present, and feel better driving alone. This isn’t just due to the practicalities of being able to focus better when I am on my own, but also because the majority of my thinking after the accident was about how close I came to inflicting injury on other people. Particularly my partner, but also the innocent people driving around me. Thoughts of what could have happened to me personally did not feel so important.

Aside from the practicalities that come with having my own car, I feel it is a necessary step in my recovery from the accident. Others may be surprised when I say that apart from the nerves and negative memories of the accident, I also feel very sad at the loss of my car. It was the first car I had owned since passing my test, which I’m sure makes a big difference, although perhaps some people always feel attached to their cars. I felt “sorry for it” when I was staring at its smashed-up front on the motorway, and seeing other fully whole silver Renault Clios since has given me painful twinges, which are entirely divorced from the horror of what might have been, and are only connected to feeling bad for the car itself. In the same way as I might feel sad after the end of a relationship when I visit places I went to with that person, I have felt sad revisiting places I drove to in my old car. Of course, I am aware that these feelings are not bound up in attributing reciprocating emotions to a lump of metal and plastic and glass, but are connected to my own feelings at those times, the feelings of anxiety and triumph and happiness at driving somewhere I wanted to get to, and doing it successfully. The greatest of these was the longest drive I’ve ever done, to Somerset, in May, when I drove myself and my partner there to one of my favourite places on earth. Since the accident, looking at pictures of that holiday has also made me feel sad. The memories are tainted: whereas before, that beautiful place felt so much closer to me because I knew I could drive there whenever I wanted, it now feels so much further away, knowing that it will take time and effort to get my confidence back up to a place where I can drive there – but also gaining the confidence and trust of my partner so that he would be happy for me to drive him there again.

People get emotionally attached to physical objects from cars to jewellery to books to mugs to almost anything you can think of. In most cases it is the emotions we feel when we are around those physical things that we are attached to, or the pleasure that comes from looking at something we find beautiful, and knowing that it is ours and we can take it where we like. Or they have sentimental value and remind us of people or places we cherish. In my case, with my car, I am sad to have lost the feelings of freedom and overcoming my own mental anxiety when driving, but also the grown-up-ness of having my own car, and keeping my things in it; I hadn’t yet got past the novelty of it and still enjoyed seeing my CDs and bits and pieces strewn about the car, making it mine. I cleaned it regularly, much to the amusement of my neighbours when I cleaned it in very cold temperatures, and would glance at it in its parking space every morning out of the window and every evening as I came back to my front door. The empty space outside is a constant reminder to me at the moment, not only of the absence of my sweet reliable little car, but also of my own failure. Although everyone says the accident could have happened to anyone and it wasn’t my fault, I have an idea of myself as a not particularly skilled driver, so it is easy to match this narrative with me crashing a car due to my own incompetence.

We constantly create these stories of our own lives, and because they are reinforced by our own selective memories of ourselves and of things that have happened to us, they are very difficult to change. We use confirmation bias – seeing things that reinforce that story and explaining away those that don’t – on a daily basis. And we unknowingly create endless loops of memory, thought and story which keep certain ideas alive, even if we don’t want to keep thinking about them. For example, at the moment, looking at the pictures of Somerset in my living room creates this loop: Somerset -> driving to Somerset in May -> crashing on the motorway -> I am a failure. Depending on our own internal stories, these stories tend to be positive or negative. Mine are often negative. I have endless feedback loops which remind me of stupid things I’ve said and done, or little nuggets of information my partner has given me about his exes which I’m sure he’s long since forgotten. For example, people who talk a lot are often called ‘chatty Kathys’ in North America, something I hadn’t heard until I started going out with my Canadian partner. Now, whenever he says it, this is what my brain does: “Chatty Kathy” -> Ex called Cathleen was called Cathy by her parents -> she disliked it and my partner thought it was a stupid shortening of the name (I disagree, it seems perfectly reasonable to me). Every time. It is exhausting, but an almost impossible cycle to break. I’ve also noticed this as a somewhat irritating reaction of mine when watching films, as obviously the same thing happens every time I watch the same film, and my brain has the same thought automatically when I watch it. For example, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Elrond says at the council: “One of you must do this” (take the ring to Mordor) my reflex response is to say: “Don’t all volunteer at once!!” It isn’t a particularly funny or interesting comment the first time I make it, so I feel sorry for the people I watch it with who hear me say it every time.

Of course, memories get replaced with new ones and some of these feedback loops will change over time. Once I get a new car (somehow) I will create new memories to replace the old ones, and one day I will drive myself back to Somerset, and lay that demon to rest. Perhaps I will still feel sad about the loss of my old car, but I’m sure it’s normal to continue to feel sad for the loss of a physical thing, especially if it’s something you had tied to a new and still-delicate version you had of yourself. You’ll also be glad to hear I’ve stopped saying “don’t all volunteer at once!!” when I watch Lord of the Rings. Other reflex thought reactions are more difficult to replace: it may take a long time for me to build a narrative of myself as a competent and even good driver. But one of the things that I find especially fascinating about the brain is its malleability: we can train and exercise it in certain ways the same way as we can other parts of the body. Over time, what feels now to be incessant and inescapable can slowly change.

Advertisements

Do you have a plan?

“Phoebe, do you have a plan?”

“I don’t even have a pl-.”

The above is a quote from one of those Friends episodes that absolutely nails being a mid-twenty-something with no bloody idea what you’re doing. We all assume when we’re growing up that you reach a certain age when everything will work itself out: you’ll marry your partner and buy a house and start having a family, all while holding down that great job you fell into after university. I used to watch this episode of Friends without really getting it – of course people worked out what was going on in life! I wouldn’t still be floundering in my mid-twenties!

Well here I am in my late twenties and the shit is in many ways not coming together into a perfect sphere like it was supposed to. I graduated into the second year of a global recession and suddenly realised I should have spent the last three years getting masses of work experience as well as a First Class degree. This is thanks to what I see as the ultimate Catch 22: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. One mildly embellished CV later I got a job on the minimum wage working for a man who shouted himself puce in the face whenever he thought I’d made a mistake. A few years later, the relationship I’d started at university which I assumed would end in marriage – because that’s what happened with the relationship you started at university, according to my parents and most of my friends – finally kicked the bucket, and I went back to university to restart my career and, suddenly, restart my love life too.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m in a happy relationship, but about as close to acquiring property or a dog as I am to writing a bestselling book – i.e., some light years away. I have a job I enjoy with people I like very much, but the boundaries of it are constantly shifting and I am frequently plagued by worry that the problem with creating a job from no job title, is that the job title can disappear and the job can go with it. Throughout it all I wonder if my problem is the same as that of Monica and Phoebe: I don’t have a plan.

When I was at university a friend told me the plan she’d made for the rest of her life. She knew what kind of man she wanted to marry, how many children she wanted to have, where they would live, and what job she would do, right down to the events she’d host for local disadvantaged children when she was retired. She asked me what my plan was. I said: ‘Well, I thought I’d finish this degree, and then… see what happens.’ She was as astonished and terrified by my lack of a plan as I was by her planning down to the nth degree.

I don’t do well with long-term plans because I’ve always found the ground shifts too much underneath me for any plans to be of any use. This shifting ground can be good or can be bad. Sometimes opportunities pop up unexpectedly and I like not having a plan to change – I don’t like changing plans if I do make them, in terms of the day-to-day and longer term. Other times, people disappoint you, and I feel it’s slightly less painful if you haven’t pinned too much on them to begin with, so I try not to. Most of the time any plans I put in my diary or on my calendar have a question mark after them, because then it hurts a little less if it turns out people have forgotten, or they cancel at the last moment.

But not having a plan can also be very unhelpful. There can be things you want to achieve but if you don’t set down the end destination it’s difficult to plan the route to it. I shy away from deciding, even in my own head, what I want the destination to be because I don’t want to be disappointed when it vanishes into the mist. Or because I fear that I won’t be strong enough to get there, and it will be twice as embarrassing when I collapse in a heap and have to be carried home. This is going against every motivational quote and women’s magazine ever written, not to mention all self-help books, but to be honest they always speak in such vague language that I’ve never really known what they meant. ‘Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits!’ What does that mean, in concrete terms? Show your working! Give me diagrams! It’s only now, when a potential goal of mine has been moved further away, possibly due to my own lack of certainty, I can see that I do need to set down that destination – even if I’m not 100% sure about it. Sometimes it’s impossible to be 100% sure, especially when it involves other people being on board too. But your determination might be a guiding light for them.

One of my science teachers in high school praised me for saying that I thought X was the ‘probable’ outcome for the end of an experiment. In science, this lack of ego is good because it’s often difficult to be certain. But in life, going around saying ‘maybe’ and ‘I might but I’m not sure’ could just end up with me not quite going anywhere. And that would not be a good plan.

Playing peekaboo with a squirrel

What a first month to 2017. Particularly the last ten or eleven days. The news has brought one shock of disappointment after another, quickly evaporating any hope that Trump’s presidency might not be as bad as it looked. As a UK citizen, seeing the way May has handled herself has made me sick to my stomach. We appear spineless, naïve, collaborating – Chamberlain and Hitler all over again, if you want to take a very pessimistic view. The sneaking tendrils of the policies of both leaders are weaving themselves into my life and the life of those around me, in ways that make me frightened for my future. I am lucky that I am 28 before my government has made a noticeable negative impact on my life – unless you count the university tuition fees which tripled in time for me turning 18. But seeing what these fees have done since, I don’t feel I have much room to complain about the £25,000 odd debt I still have round my neck. These policies making people feel unwelcome outside their own country, pushing the poor deeper into poverty, and spreading hate and stupidity are affecting everybody now, even if we can’t see it straight away.

The news this month has been overwhelming in new ways, a bit like having your head held in a toilet by the school bully while they flush it over and over again. I started the year feeling good on some new anti-anxiety drugs – indeed I’m now wondering how anyone is getting through at the moment without them (joke). But the last ten days or so, I’ve started getting dragged down if I spend more than a few minutes a day on facebook, where I am bombarded with people’s statuses detailing the latest horror, or NYT article after article explaining why we’re going to hell in a handcart. Every now and then, we all need a break. But the worst thing is that when the news is this bad, it has some kind of centrifugal force that keeps us spinning round and round it, trying to pull away but kept in place by this weird effect of negative gravity. This week, I am trying to take a stand, and return to a few habits I had in the first weeks of the year which were keeping me feel centred and grounded. For me, it’s a combination of looking at the very big – and the very small.

The very small first. I spend a lot of my working week sitting down, so at lunchtime, I try to go for a half hour walk. Next to the office complex where I work, there’s a mosque. Sometimes in the summer, presumably when there are too many people to fit inside, men pray on the pavement outside. Other times I’ll come out for my walk at the end of a service, and there will be so many people filling the road that the occasional car struggles to get through. I watch the people at the mosque, with innocent human curiosity about a religion I don’t know enough about. I hope they take my glances as curiosity, and nothing more sinister. When I see them I wonder how much attention they get, how much courage it takes to walk outside wearing what they wear, marking themselves as “different”. On one of the lampposts by the mosque, there is a battered, rain-drenched flyer about inclusion, and welcoming refugees. I wonder if it was put there by someone at the mosque, or whether it was someone else trying to offer them some support and solidarity, to let them know that not everyone in England feels like they should “go home”.

After five minutes of entirely uninteresting pavements, my walk takes me to the canal, which is lined with houseboats. Next to the canal is a strip of greenery and trees, a wildlife garden set up around 15 years ago that’s gone slightly to seed. The small ponds are stagnant and covered in algae, some of the fences are in need of repair and there’s a general unkempt feel to many parts of it. A wooden walkway squishes slightly underfoot, as if (and I think it’s probably the case) the wood has rotted underneath. In one area, I often find three grey squirrels. Grey squirrels get a bad rap in this country: introduced by somebody sometime, they turned out to be rather more aggressive than the native red squirrels, which lost more and more territory to the grey squirrels, and now red squirrels are only rarely to be seen- mostly in Scotland, in pine forests. The grey squirrels also get a lot of grief for their habits of digging up plant bulbs, or stealing food in bird feeders. My dad will run out into the garden at odd intervals shrieking a battle cry or brandishing a cane, trying to get “the little bastards” away from the feed, and prompting my mum to say: “your father’s taken leave of his senses”.

Poor grey squirrels. It’s not their fault they’re greedy and extremely good at procreating. I have made friends with one of the squirrels in the wildlife garden, whom I have christened Chubs, for no real reason other than it’s a comforting sort of word, and he’s a comforting sort of squirrel. He stops and stares at me often when I walk past, interrupting his game of chasing the other squirrels round and round trees, either in an attempt at flirtation or to get them away from some buried treasure, I’m not sure which. One day, he was staring at me and I was staring at him as he held onto a tree trunk upside down. After a moment, he disappeared around the other side of the trunk. I waited, and a second later, he peeked his head round one side. I made a sudden, ha! I see you! action to that side, as you would with a small child. He disappeared. Then appeared on the other side of the trunk. I did the same thing. He disappeared… and reappeared again on the other side! I had to laugh at the sheer ludicrousness of what I was doing: playing peekaboo with a squirrel. He peeked round each side five or six times before he remembered the buried treasure, or the mating, whichever it was, and wandered off.

It’s the little things, the moments and pictures that make you feel grateful, even for only a little time. The benefits of interacting with nature are well-documented, and it’s nice to know it’s possible even in the middle of a large city. I’ve also watched coots diving in the canal, fascinated by their disappearing, reappearing act, and the smoothness of each of their dives. I’ve watched robins singing in trees – something that strikes me as actually quite rare, to be watching a bird sing. I watch birds, and I hear them sing, but not often do I see the bird that’s singing.

So if these small acts of nature watching on a lunchtime walk help make me feel centred in a whirlwind world, I’ve started turning to non-fiction to ground myself. Oddly, because I wasn’t keen on the subject at school, I am taking refuge in science. Specifically, physics. I read Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics at the start of the year, then followed it up with his examination of similar themes in Reality is Not What it Seems, which has a greater emphasis on quantum gravity. How much do I understand? 40-70%, depending on what he’s talking about, I think. I also lose the specifics very quickly, which is frustrating. But I enjoy reading about people discovering things we take for granted, or things that are too weird for us to have comprehended yet. The stories of failure and trying again are quite inspirational, especially in today’s culture of failure being something so monstrous nobody is allowed to fail – everyone gets a medal for participation – or nobody tries because they failure is too difficult to entertain. Science is a beautiful subject in that it is, in some ways, so ready to take criticism. If someone disproves something, then okay, we move on. Einstein proved Newton wrong on some things. Einstein was wrong about some aspects of quantum theory. We are all wrong, and it doesn’t make us bad or useless people. I am finding comfort in that.

I am also enjoying using my brain in different ways, and I’m intrigued to learn how relaxing it can be. Until now I thought to really RELAX I needed to be watching Friends, or reading a Mhairi MacFarlane novel (excellent intelligent “chick lit” which is actually genuinely funny, even if the plot is more or less identical in each book). But I’m finding I can relax with my brain engaged. I am rediscovering the joy of learning, which I think I lost a little after my Masters degree. Reading about quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity and the history of autism (Neurotribes, EXCELLENT book – a pamphlet summarising it should be required reading for everyone) has shown me that I can learn about things I thought I would never understand, and feel better for it. I’ve also read a couple of Jon Ronson books, on public shaming and psychopaths, which are certainly lighter and easier to read, but which I wouldn’t have considered standard ‘relaxation’ fare either. As I found during my degree, placing myself in a wider history or broader story is comforting. Even though looking back on mistakes and seeing them reflected in today’s world is sometimes discouraging, you can take heart from the changes that did eventually come. Paying attention to new facts and history makes it obvious how ignorant many people still are about things they really shouldn’t be ignorant about, but seeing how change eventually arrived in many areas is also heartening. I’m talking here about advances in science in many arenas, physics, but also psychology, as documented in Neurotribes and Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. Neurotribes really deserves its own post as its messages are so important, its approach to people who are “different” and how we respond to and interact with those people. I’d like to send a copy of that and The Psychopath Test to Trump (I’m fairly certain he’d come out as a psychopath) but I don’t suppose he’d be interested in learning anything new outside his own self-centred, self-interested, stupid view of life. I am grateful that I do not think like him. What a prison it must be.

2016: A few things left to say

Here we are at the end of 2016. From January onwards, there have been an abundance of social media posts about this being the worst year ever. You’ve all seen the gifs and the memes about what a crap year it’s been, and the posts listing the shit that has happened: Bowie, Prince, Brexit, Trump. The last few days it seems to have been another day, another celebrity death.

I don’t have much else to say about Brexit and Trump. They have dominated the news for the entire year. Instead I want to talk about the bits of 2016 that stick out to me as being particularly disappointing, partly because of the way they have been reported in the news and on social media – or rather, the way they haven’t been reported. While the deaths of much loved actors, musicians, and comedians are very sad, and I don’t want to take away from people’s grief, all these people will be remembered. Most of them lived full and interesting lives, and even if some were taken too soon and too suddenly, it is clear that they will live on in their arts and their fans.

None of us have been able to get away from Brexit all year. I am sick and tired of hearing the word and wish to goodness nobody had thought it up. I have largely tuned out of the negotiations or lack thereof, the ridiculous arguments about soft and hard and single markets and other nonsense. The truth is people voted for something they didn’t understand, something that seemed threatening and pointless, and nobody managed to articulate properly why it was something we needed. I’ve read a few articles laying the blame for this at the feet of the UK media, which have been reporting for decades on EU bureaucratic red tape, pointless studies on the shapes of bananas, and other ridiculousness, meaning that for years we have focussed on the negative. This shouldn’t be much of a shock: the media focuses on the negative 9 times out of 10 now. I already disliked following the news much because of that tendency, but this year my belief in our media has failed completely. At the same time as all the endless coverage of Brexit and Trump and the pages and pages of celebrity obituaries, some of the news stories of the year that have shocked me the most have barely caused a blip on the radar.

So far, I haven’t seen a single 2016 round-up article, meme, or social media update that mentions Orlando. This was the worst shooting in US history, and the worst crime against the LGBTQ+ community since the Holocaust. At the time I was bewildered by how little impact it made on my social media, and now I am twice as confused about why it is never mentioned, never alluded to in stories and speeches and thought pieces. Even at the time, the UK media coverage left a lot to be desired: the Daily Mail has been overt in its homophobia this year, and didn’t even put the story on the front page. Most UK newspapers focussed on the gunman’s connection to ISIS, even though it was clear from the start that the affiliation was tenuous at most. Owen Jones walked off a breakfast programme after the hosts refused to acknowledge that this was a homophobic crime. Unfortunately, happening as it did in the run-up to the Brexit vote, this tragedy got swept up and forgotten. I too am sad about the deaths of various famous people this year, and I am deeply disappointed in the outcomes of the referendum and election. But I hate the fact that these people, who died in the worst circumstances of terror and hatred, have been completely forgotten by so many.

Shortly after Orlando, Jo Cox was killed. I still don’t quite understand why her death knocked me so hard, but it did, and it still does. Perhaps because it seemed such a remarkably unlikely thing to happen in the UK: an MP be gunned down in the middle of the street, in broad daylight. It seemed completely unthinkable. Again, the newspapers glossed over the motivations for the crime, focussing instead on the idea that the gunman was mentally ill. I was completely confused, again. Why weren’t more people talking about his affiliation to far right groups? If he’d been connected to ISIS that would have been all anyone had to say. Why, when it was a white man who was committed to xenophobia and racism, was that fact not really talked about? Again, the news story got pushed out of the papers by the result of the EU referendum. Farage had the nerve to say that they had won ‘without a single shot being fired’. When her killer was sentenced, more newspapers covered the motivations behind the attack. Why didn’t anyone say anything at the time, when – potentially – it could have made a difference? Maybe I’m overestimating the effect better coverage of a woman’s violent death could have had. But I do think the media covered it poorly. Of course the Daily Mail was not to be outdone on this story either, as the sentencing of her murderer was moved to page 30. They even painted him as a sympathetic figure who just wanted Jo Cox’s help protecting his house from some sort of swarm of immigrants. What a repulsive rag.

Other devastating news stories from around the world appear to be getting more coverage as the year draws to a close. The pictures and stories coming out of Syria have been horrendous for some time, and there seems to be more being reported at the moment, as Aleppo is bombed out of existence. Sometimes it seems ridiculous to me that we in the UK have been complaining so much about a referendum which, yes, is ludicrous, a marker of social disharmony and is likely to bring about a great deal of change – quite likely negative for many of us, especially if you are a minority – but we are hardly being bombed out of our homes. I don’t want to minimise people’s fears, but it is good to gain some perspective and think of other people who have it worse and need our help.

Similarly, the situation in the Philippines has brought me up short recently. Their President, Rodrigo Duterte, is a complete psychopath. You may remember him being elected earlier in the year, saying he was going to crackdown on drug usage by sentencing users and dealers to death. Well it’s not turned out to be quite as official as that. It’s getting reported more now, but I didn’t hear a whisper about what was happening (and neither had my mum, who reads The Times every day and listens to BBC Radio constantly) until I read this New York Times article a month or so ago. They sent a photojournalist there who documented the deaths of 57 people in 35 days. Reports estimate that 6,000 people have been killed since Duterte took office. And this is not trial and law and order and sitting on death row. People who turned themselves in as drug users are being slaughtered in their own homes. Police turn up, shoot them (sometimes in front of their family and children) and then leave them. Later someone comes to collect the body. Police drive past on motorcycles and gun people down in the street. If you do look at the NYT article, take great care. We may think we’re immunised to pictures of violence these days but these photographs still haunt me.

I realise this is not a cheerful post. Basically I’m just giving some more reasons why 2016 was a bag of crap that aren’t talked about quite so often. Despite the death and the stupidity and the hatred, many good things have happened this year. We don’t hear about them because good news doesn’t sell. Several animals have been taken off the endangered list, which I’d never thought about as being a thing: somewhat pessimistically, I assumed that once an animal went on the endangered list, they were headed the way of the dodo. But giant pandas, humpback whales, and green sea turtles are no longer endangered. The number of tigers in the wild rose for the first time in 100 years. We have an Ebola vaccine. The survival rate of people with pancreatic cancers has risen by 9%. Leonardo di Caprio finally got an Oscar. While in many ways this has been a poor year in terms of progress for LGBTQ+ people, Taiwan is on the verge of becoming the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage.

There is good news out there. What this year has shown me more than any other is how much we all live in a bubble. So many people on my social media were out preaching to the choir before the Brexit and Trump votes. Both results were a huge shock to me because I live in a comfy liberal circle of people. We have been fed on bad news for the whole year, and we have kept the circles going, feeding it back to each other in an endless cycle of ‘2016 IS THE WORST’. Some months ago I started feeling like ‘2016’ had become a separate thing, some kind of personality with its own agency that was out to cut us all down. Obviously, this is nonsense, and 2016 is far from the worst year in history. Have half our families been wiped out with the plague? Have all the men we know been sent off to war? Have we lived through a famine? Occasionally I understand why people must get so annoyed with the liberal people wanting the world to march forward on what we see as its inevitable journey towards freedom, democracy and love for all: as someone puts it in The West Wing, we are incredibly smug. I’m not saying we necessarily should change. I don’t really know how, and despite all the calls to action over the last few months, I’m not convinced anybody else does either. But I am frightened of the power that the media and social media have now, and that they are being used for deeply negative ends. From trolling, to negative feedback loops on everyone’s facebook pages, to fake news stories spread by bots and believed by half the people that see them. Perhaps we all need to think a little more about how we are using our influence, and spread a little more happiness. Even if it doesn’t change the world, bring the UK back into the EU and oust Trump (preferably before he even gets into the White House) at least it will make people smile instead of making them think, ugh, yes. This year was the absolute worst.

2016: My Year in Books

I’m planning to write a few ‘Review of the Year’ type blog posts in the coming week or two. Some might address the general shitshow that we all believe this year to have been, but others I want to be quite light and more positive too. Here are a list of my favourite and least favourite books from this year. I’ve noticed that most of the favourites have a bit of a theme: they are about hope. No wonder they were my favourites in 2016. Let me know what you think!

The Good

All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

I walked past this book and picked it up and read the back numerous times before, one day, it was the right day to actually buy it. I’m so glad I did: it is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. The story follows a young French girl and a young German boy through the Second World War. The girl is blind and escapes Paris with her father, while the boy is a whizz with radios and electronics and gets inducted into the Hitler Youth as a result. The innocence and fragility of their young lives is stunningly well-written, and the moment when the two eventually meet made me incredibly emotional. I’ve sought out other books by the same author since, and haven’t been disappointed. About Grace is also a gorgeous, if at times painful, story of love and loss.

Girl meets Boy, Ali Smith

Not published this year, just one I got round to this year. It’s amazing. One of the most gorgeous, hopeful books I’ve ever read. It’s all about gender fluidity, feminism, and standing up for what’s right. Totally accessible, small but perfectly formed. I loved every word and the end made me sob like a baby, but with happiness.

The Art of Happiness, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler

Speaking of happiness: I read this classic this year. I think it will need a few rereads, as some of the ideas take a while to sink in, but it was very well-written and engaging. I loved that it used mixtures of Eastern and Western philosophy and showed how often ideas from totally different backgrounds match up, even if one is rooted in science and other in philosophy or spiritualism. The thing that stuck with me the most was the idea of being honest as an antidote to anxiety. If you are honest with other people about what you can do, you have no need to be anxious. It also quoted this classic piece of advice: if you can do something about it, do it instead of worrying. If you can’t do anything to change it, there’s no point in worrying. Easier said than done!

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

I haven’t read much science fiction but I absolutely adored these books. They can be read as a series or equally as stand-alone books. She has really gone to town imagining different species with totally different customs, examining human nature and society with real insight and compassion. Her examination of people’s feelings, gender, love, and what it means to be alive is brilliantly thought out and, again, very very easy to read. She also veered away from a common plot line in fantasy/sci fi of things going steadily to shit, and then a big battle at the end, and then things are good. She mixes it up and messes things around, but also keeps most of it on a wonderfully low key- the books are by no means uneventful, but I was never too stressed out by them. Can’t wait to see what she writes next.

The Descent of Man, Grayson Perry

A late entry as I just read it this week. I think Grayson Perry is brilliant and fiercely intelligent so I was really interested to hear what he had to say on masculinity. It was thought-provoking and engaging, even if it did feel a little bit like a draft of an essay that one of my old lecturers would say needed polishing, tightening, and a rework to bring the main argument front and centre stage. Very much worth the read though because he challenges so many aspects of patriarchy that one might not have thought of, and some of his examples are very useful. Extremely well-written and easy to read.

The Bad / Unfinished

I try not to leave books unfinished, but have also started abandoning them when I am really not enjoying them at all. Thankfully most were acquired from the local library. I walked away from a few classics this year – apologies in advance if this offends you!

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Apologies to all those who thought this was phenomenal. I got about a hundred pages in and stopped. I have a strong dislike for books that go off on endless tangents rather than getting to the sodding point (unless it’s Ali Smith, who is just too awesome for me to care) and I found I just gave zero fucks about any of the characters or any of their stories. I didn’t even get to the bit where the boy finds out he’s magic or whatever, which may have been a mistake. Just the endless stories about noses and whatnot made me start losing the will to live.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

I was given this as a gift so I’m not sure it’s advisable to include it on the list, but the gift giver was my best friend so I’m thinking we’ll be able to work past it. Both she and my partner love this book, and I loved Neverwhere, so I was expecting to love it too. Instead I found the main theme of the story – that we have gods now but they’re of electronics etc – quite dull and one-dimensional, and I also found the fact that there were basically no female characters who weren’t sexual objects exceptionally tedious. There also seemed to be a lot of unnecessary references to their breasts, or other women’s breasts, or just breasts randomly, and I found that pretty dull too. That probably speaks to my own issues rather than anything else, but I get enough of teenage boy humour around me in life in general, I can do without reading about it too.

Left of the Bang, I can’t remember the author

Got it out of the library. I don’t know why. Girl has unsatisfactory relationship with boy, meets other boy from her past, has fantasies about him, does bugger all of use about it. Meanwhile her boyfriend starts having sexual fantasies about children. How About No.

Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

I was really excited about this for the first half, and then sort of faded out of it. A big part of the mystery of the bookstore was revealed, and not as exciting as I’d hoped, and the boy starts going to save the day as per usual while his girlfriend tags along as sidekick. Also, as with American Gods, the teenage boy-ness of it started getting me down. OMG, my girlfriend is super intelligent, geeky, and really attractive!! FFS. Stop being surprised and give her some freaking flaws to make her an actual person. And again with the boobs: the lead’s mate runs some company making tools for software companies to make perfect, realistic CGI breasts. Which were used to make some beach volleyball computer game. Give me a fucking break and take me out of this teenager’s wet dream.

High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

It might not be fair to include this as I read literally about five pages. Douchebag runs through list of break-ups; isn’t fussed about most recent one, tries to work out when he’s next going to have sex. Broke up with girl at school because she wouldn’t let him touch her – you guessed it – breasts. I swear to god. This year’s books have done nothing to get me past my fear that men are obsessed with perfect boobs. The guy sounded like a complete arse and I put it straight in a bag to go to the charity shop.

Author of the Year

Agatha Christie

I have read SO many of her novels this year. They are perfect when you are ill, or in a book rut, or just want something that doesn’t require any effort but still has an amazing plot. They are so easy to get into, and I never ever guess the outcome. What an incredible brain. How did she think of all those plots?! I know many people think her books are ‘light’, or simplistic, and they are light in the sense that they’re so well-written you don’t have to work to find them interesting or enjoyable. But I think her talents as a writer are often underestimated. I would love to write a single book with such an enjoyable and unguessable plot, never mind however many she managed to write. Stand out books were Then There Were None- fabulously creepy; and The Secret Adversary- almost more of a spy novel, but just brilliant.

Also:

Josephine Tey. Another female detective writer. Love her style of writing and again, brilliant plots.

Uprooted, Naomi Novik. Loved this. A really different fantasy novel with some great twists – also really quite frightening. I never quite got to see the characters as fully rounded people, otherwise it would be in the favourites list.

Keep hoping, friends.

Well. Since 3am I’ve been lying awake or having nightmares about Trump becoming president. Maybe it’s because I had a few run-throughs of waking up to it before I actually woke up to it, or maybe it’s because of the Brexit result in the summer, but this result isn’t such a shock to me.

I know how terrifying this is, especially for people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, women – or essentially, anyone who isn’t a straight white misogynistic power-crazed man. I am very depressed for what this says about people’s attitude to women in the 21st century. By voting for Trump, people are voting for a view of women which many hoped had died off around the 1950s. And by going with an “anyone but Clinton” attitude, although people say it’s because of her corruption, it seems to me pretty obvious that one of the main reasons for it is because she’s female. If you keep their histories and behaviour but switch their genders, there’s no question about how this election would have played out. A 70-year-old woman who had been divorced three times would never have got close to the White House, while a man with Clinton’s experience would have been, I would guess, far more popular. I don’t understand all the reasons why people dislike Clinton so heartily, but I do think they underestimate the role sexism has to play in it. If we take the view that people see women as Madonnas or whores, Clinton doesn’t fit: she’s clearly not a whore, but she can’t be a Madonna because she is powerful and, at times, ruthless. Terrifyingly, apparently the majority of white women voted for Trump. This is baffling to me, but perhaps feeds into arguments that women are threatened by the power of other women. Or maybe they enjoy that kind of ‘man taking control’ bullshit that Trump espouses so brilliantly.

Anyway. We could talk for hours about what a depressing result this is. God knows 2016 has been a hell pit for anyone of a liberal persuasion. Here are a few thoughts I’ve been having to try and counteract the negativity this morning:

  • I have such low hopes for Trump that really, the only way is up. If he hasn’t nuked China within the first six months, I’m counting it as a win.
  • I am taking solace in the fact that there are millions of people all around the world who are feeling just as lost and powerless as I am today. Thanks to today’s technology we all have ways of connecting and joining virtual hands around the globe, and that kind of connection can only be a point of comfort.
  • I have recently finished The Art of Happiness, a book full of conversations between the Dalai Lama and an American psychologist. Together they try to find ways of creating happiness which take elements of both Eastern and Western philosophy. It is a heartening book particularly at times like these, showing the surprising similarity of ideas that originated in such different cultures, and also what it can be like when people are open and receptive to other people’s thoughts and opinions. One idea that is helping me in particular is samsara, or cycles of death and rebirth, which is central to Buddhist thinking. I do not believe in reincarnation per se, but Buddhists also believe the world goes through cycles of samsara. I’m not entirely sure if it’s supposed to be used in this way, but I am looking at history today for these cycles.

    In the nineteenth century there was a rapid increase in communication across the world, with the advent of telegrams, railway lines, and increases in trade. This was in many ways the beginning of western hegemony, as previously China was one of the most powerful empires in the world. With western industrialisation, the balance of power changed. Through the first half of the twentieth century many racist attitudes held sway, and extreme nationalism brought several terrifying leaders into power. After a massive cycle of change and, of course, wars, the balance changed again. The second half of the twentieth century saw many of these “scientific” racist attitudes thrown in the trash, empires slowly began to come apart, and since then we have had huge steps forward for women, gay rights, and civil rights.

    I am, of course, simplifying MASSIVELY and I’m sure any academic reading this will want to step in and teach me a few things. Not today, please. Be tolerant today. Unless you believe my views are harmful or you’re really in the mood for teaching and debate, in which case, let me know and we’ll discuss it like adults, and like rational human beings, and I’m sure we’ll both enjoy the conversation immensely. But sadly we are now seeing a backlash to this “opening up” which has brought joy and happiness to so many. Unfortunately, for some, these expansions in rights have not been a sign of progress, but a sign of their own power being reduced. If we believe that there is only a finite amount of power and influence to go around, these are frightening times if you are someone who has, to date, held most of that power. Or if your beliefs are such that you think only certain people should be allowed to hold it. If you believe in the verses of the bible which prohibit homosexuality, then I can only imagine that the day the US allowed same-sex marriage you had much the same feeling as I do now. If you believe that the colour of someone’s skin has something fundamental to say about what they can and cannot achieve as a person, then the anger that has flowed through many American cities of late can be read as confirmation of your beliefs, rather than the righteous fury of people mistreated for too long, too often. And if you believe women’s main role should be at home raising a family, then this year will have been a real shake-up for you.

    I am sad to think that people believe these things. But I am not surprised by the fact that they have not disappeared yet. It seems clear that these attitudes have risen up again, that we are rushing headfirst into a new era of intolerance and rolling back of the rights of people who have been fighting so hard for them. I am hopeful that we will avoid wars of the kind of magnitude we experienced a hundred years ago, especially as, with someone like Trump having their finger hovering over the button, it would literally be the death of the earth. And although that’s depressing to think about, if it does happen, then we’ll have nothing to worry about anyway. (Side note: I’ve just started watching The West Wing (I know, I’m ten years behind the times. When I’m 40 I’ll start Breaking Bad) and I had no idea that it is basically ONE person’s decision to start attacking another country. Just the president. Terrifying! Also, is Aaron Sorkin and the West Wing cast available to run America? I feel like they’d do a stand-up job, especially compared to this crazy waxwork clown who’s got in instead.)

    Steering back to my positive point: the world has gone through some serious shit before. We’ve had men who chose to try to exterminate an entire race. We’ve had terrifying eras of persecution and intolerance and people treated like less than animals. And it does end. Eventually. Although sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, we’ve come a long way and more people have more than they have done at any time before in history. A friend said she read an article which argued that if Clinton had got in, as the ultimate establishment figure, the feelings that started with Sarah Palin and ended up in Trump would just have got worse. Maybe getting what they think they want will prove that it isn’t as advertised (hello, Brexit). Keep up the hope, my friends. We are all human beings underneath. I know it is tough for everyone who has already worked out this fundamental human truth – that we are all just people – to see the rest of humanity continue to be so fucking stupid, but the millennial voting map in America was very positive. Hopefully this new generation, of which I am a part, will rise up against the bigotry and dumb rhetoric which has characterised politics in the UK and US this year, and we will fight for a brighter future. The cycles will keep on turning.

    And in the meantime, there’s The West Wing to distract us.