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.



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: 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.


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.

“What do you do?” Careers and Labels

Careers are such strange things. When we’re children people ask us what we want to be and it’s always these clearly identifiable jobs, ones that carry an identity with them: teacher, fireman, policeman, actress, doctor, etc. When you get older you realise that there are so many jobs that don’t have a name, which you can’t aim for because you don’t know they exist, and where telling people what you do requires a paragraph of explanation. In some cases, this can make you feel like your job is worth less than the jobs that have a title, and less than the people who’ve been aiming for the same vocation their whole lives.

For example, my boyfriend is an academic, many of his friends are academics, some of his exes are academics. Before we met, after a period in publishing I decided to go back to university for a Master’s degree, with a thought that I might carry it on this time and become a lecturer. Talking it over with a teacher who knew me well he gently warned me that academia might not be right for me because there is so much time spent alone, doing research or marking or writing lectures, and the rest of the time you have to be in some way an extrovert, engaging the attention and motivating the minds of dozens of students. In the past I’ve heaped a whole load of contradictory labels onto myself – introvert (needs to spend time alone), history of depression (shouldn’t spend too much time alone), anxious (should steer clear of stressful situations). And then I wondered if I was limiting myself with these labels from a career that I could enjoy. So I kept aiming for the PhD, until I found out other, innate qualities about myself that don’t have labels but which do mean that being a lecturer wouldn’t be the best path for me. I don’t enjoy working on one thing for long periods of time, I find it tedious and frustrating. Although I enjoyed what I was researching in my MA I didn’t have that all-consuming desire to get to the bottom of a topic and do everything required – learn new languages, travel – to find out everything about it. Although I’m a competent public speaker it makes me extremely stressed. For these reasons amongst others (expense, lack of job opportunities on the other side) I decided not to carry on with my studies.

As someone who defined themselves for a long time by their grades (see other blog) I’m still coming to terms with this decision, and struggling not to feel inadequate and intellectually a lesser being next to these academics. And maybe I am, in some ways, if you judge by particular criteria. I don’t have the kind of memory that holds on to thousands of historical facts. I seem to have filled up my brain by age 16 with information about different horse breeds and the plots of hundreds of books – there’s not much space left. I’m not one of those people who can expostulate at length on various topics when I don’t know exactly what I’m talking about (introvert trait?) unless I’m drunk (or just shy?) so being a lecturer probably wouldn’t work out so well. If a student threw me a curveball question I’d either need to have a hip flask of gin to let me bullshit about it or tell them to ask again next week once I’d read up on it. Although it’s been a difficult process, I’m glad to have done the MA so I could find out these things about myself, about my differences. Essentially, I believe that’s what university is all about.

The company I work for has recently been approached by a group working to encourage students to take STEM subjects at GCSE and beyond. As a mapping company and technology company you’d assume we’d be a good fit for a slightly ‘think outside the box’ example of what you can do with STEM subjects. But the people in the office mostly didn’t do science and maths. Of the people who did further education, we have an assortment including English, History, Architecture, and Music. Some didn’t go to university at all, and their A Levels weren’t in the right ball park either – Latin, Greek, etc. We are, in fact, an advert for Arts and Humanities subjects as passports to whatever the hell you like. While I understand that we need to show children what they can do with maths and science and encourage them to carry it on if they enjoy it, I think we should also be teaching children that they can keep changing their minds, over and over again. What they do at university does not need to define them for the rest of their lives. Neither does their first job. Or their second job.

As you get older your ideas of yourself can change – they might not, you might carry out your childhood dream – but if, like me, your ‘childhood dream’ changed monthly and was remarkably similar to what your best friend’s ‘childhood dream’ was, or the occupation of the protagonist of the latest book you’d read, then don’t panic. You don’t have to have had a dream, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. You have the freedom to just see what comes up, see what sounds interesting, and see what opportunities come from people that you know. Do not underestimate the advantages of going for something that isn’t what you ever imagined, if the people are nice and the job keeps your mind busy. I love working at the job I’m in now because I get to do so many different things every day. I have an obscure job title which nobody has ever thought up as their dream job while they’re at school (we invented it) and which tells you virtually nothing about what I do every day, but it suits me with my preference for short jobs I can chop and change between.

The film Good Will Hunting made me laugh in this respect (spoilers!). There’s so much debate about what Will should do, what job he should go for with this fantastic brain that was going to change the world. But why did he need to decide right then? He was what, 20? He could do one thing for a bit, then something else. He could go be in love with the girl for a while, sort his head out after some pretty serious and life-changing therapy, then think about what he wanted to do. We shouldn’t keep pushing young people to think of a career by an expiry date, especially when people are putting down that expiry date as 17, when you’re picking your university subjects. Hardly anybody knows themselves at 17 – that’s why most of us have relationships at that age which are, in retrospect, such monumentally bad ideas. People change their minds about their passions and careers at 28, 35, 50, 65, whenever. Talking the issue over with a colleague recently, he said he thought the best advice would be: whatever you’re doing, do it well. Do the best at it that you can. Which is why I believe it’s so important not to assign career paths to students and imply that their subjects and university degrees will be labels that define them for life. They need to be doing the topics that interest them, because it’s so much harder to do well at a subject that you don’t enjoy. Also, although we can encourage children to think of the big dream jobs, we could also try to explain that there are many jobs that they won’t be able to think of yet, but which will suit their qualities and differences just right. And they’ll find out those qualities and differences through experience, and little else.

The Sounds of Silence

I’ve been thinking about different kinds of silence lately. A few weeks ago I was on the phone, telling somebody something I found difficult to say. Even though there was a lot of noise around me, suddenly I was acutely aware only of the silence on the other end of the line, and me throwing words into that abyss.

Silence seems like such a simple concept on the face of it. Just an absence of noise. But what kind of noise? Sometimes by silence we refer to an absence of voices, or an absence of traffic noise, or just an absence of a noise that may have been particularly trying to us for a long or short period of time. For example if you’re listening to a song you particularly dislike, and when it stops you feel a sudden surge of relief at that silence, the absence of that particular sound.

When it comes to conversations with people, there are so many types of silence. It might be awkward, or loving, or so full of tension it seems deafening. Of course, on the phone, there’s also the silence that means you’ve been cut off and you really have been throwing noise into nowhere for the last few minutes. But most of the time we can feel something in a silence. We try to gauge people’s feelings through the lengths of their silences, the quality of that silence. Sometimes we are wrong, but silences are surprisingly easy to interpret. We wait or we break the silence, depending on how sure we are of what it means, and how much nerve we have to sit and listen to it. Silences are so important.

This got me thinking about other silences, including very brief, even momentary silences in poems or songs. In poetry, a break, or caesura to give it its fancy name, changes the flow and feel of a poem or gives the reader and the listener a moment to reflect on the words that have just come before. Sometimes it can be where we would naturally take a breath when reading aloud, but often it serves to isolate a particular thought, and give it extra emphasis. In songs, breaks in the music can mark the end of a phrase, but, particularly when you’re dancing to music, breaks and pauses and silences can be full of feeling. There’s a great satisfaction to anticipating a break and stopping dead for it, but also in continuing to move in a certain way into that silence. When the silence ends the music may have changed. The silences mean as much as the sounds.

I’m sure you’ll all remember John Cage’s 4’33”, a piece of music that consisted only of silence. It is a strange concept, and many people thought it was just ludicrous. How can we say it is a composition or a performance when it’s just nothing for four and a half minutes? We are so uncomfortable with concentrated silence in modern Western culture – perhaps in Eastern culture too, I’m not really sure – maybe less so. It is so rare to sit and consciously not do anything, especially now when we all have smartphones and tablets readily to hand, not to mention books and music players. I can imagine the silence in those concert halls being full of tension, confusion, antagonism, but perhaps for a few, a deep and peaceful quiet.

When we’re with others we expect there to be sound. Everybody pities the couple sitting in a restaurant who aren’t speaking to each other. But who knows what kind of silence they’re sharing? It could be bored, distrustful, resentful, panicky, tired, restless, or apathetic – take a moment to think about how each of those silences would feel. But it might also be comfortable, content, smouldering, happy, teasing, sleepy, or peaceful. One of my favourite quotes of all time is from Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction: “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody really special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute, and comfortably share a silence.” But it’s so rare. People are usually more comfortable with noise when they are around others, feeling that they should be interacting and saying something.

The exception to this is when we are surrounded by strangers. Then only silence, a particular type of silence, will do. This is a silence characterised by noise spilling out of earphones, and keypad tones, and muttered expletives when people get in our way. People on tubes and trains keep their silence, even if in this case silence just means no speech, unless it’s between people who already knew each other. But, thinking about it, even with this broad definition of silence, the individual people are rarely sitting in total quiet and peace. In their heads, there is noise from the music they are listening to, or the videos they are watching. Or if they are reading, their minds are full of the voices they are giving each character, and the pictures and places that are being conjured up by those silent pages. I used to experience a total silence toward the outer world when reading – I would be completely deaf if I was really involved in a book. I didn’t hear people calling my name or telling me dinner was ready or that it was my turn to read aloud to the teacher. It was a gorgeous self-imposed deafness. I am, sadly, less good at creating that silence outside my own head now. It is something I am working to reclaim, and not just when I’m reading. I’m working on sitting in a crowded place, or an empty place, and doing nothing. Just sitting and being, and ignoring any noises around me that I don’t find interesting.

In the wider world, there are many other different qualities and types of silence. I’ve been living in London for almost ten years, and a lot of the time it’s very loud. Constant traffic, chatter, sirens, and building work. But I’ve noticed that every now and again, and not that infrequently, the noise stops. I’ll be walking along a street in central London and just for a few seconds the noise dies away. There’s a brief but full and peaceful silence, like somebody pressed pause. Then a car engine will rev and the silence is over.

I love those small and gentle silences. But the quality of them is so different to silences in the country. There silence is the norm, just trees and the wind and sometimes the odd bit of traffic. It’s absolutely lovely in many ways, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I find it harder to sleep there now because of this almost total silence. I have become used to the buses moving past my window at regular intervals through the night, and to falling asleep to the sound of traffic. If I wake up when it’s dark I can guess the time by the sounds of the cars. Sometimes at times when you think that silence would be preferable to noise, silences are, again, less comfortable. For people who suffer from insomnia, silence can be much more difficult to rest against than some kind of noise. I personally think there is no silence more lonely or that inspires more desperation than the silence of those around you sleeping. Even if, technically, it is not silence because you can hear their breathing, I would call that a silence and it can be a very difficult silence. There is so much to be felt in that silence – all the rest and quiet we are missing, because we cannot fall asleep.

Moving from these silences, I thought about the invisible and private silences inside ourselves. Silences can be easy to stay inside, if speaking will cause discomfort or irritation or danger to ourselves. Then many people will stay silent. Other times silences are difficult to keep, but are kept because they serve a better purpose than speaking. The example of this that has affected me most recently is from the book To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron, about his journey to the sacred mountain, Mount Kailas. In the book Thubron also tells stories about his family. His father shot several wild animals when he was in India, and he kept the hides and taxidermied remains in their family home. His mother never liked them, but was deeply conscious of the complex emotions her husband had towards them. He was proud of them, but at the time that he shot the animals he was also afraid, and uncomfortable, and overcoming those emotions to bring the animals home had enormous importance in the view he had of himself. Despite the discomfort they gave her, his mother never said anything about the animals. She knew that voicing her displeasure would cause great disquiet to her husband, so out of her love for him she kept her silence. I think there’s an important lesson here, in an age when we feel we always must have the right to be comfortable and to have our voice and opinion heard, either in the wider social cause, or in this concept of “keeping things in” being unhealthy to ourselves. Of course most of the time speaking out is very important, and staying silent about things that are unjust or wrong is not something we should maintain. But, in smaller ways, we should sometimes consider the impact that speaking or acting will have on everyone else. On some occasions, keeping your silence might serve better than making noise for the sake of making noise.

Hurrah for the end of January: Empathy, Labyrinth, Rules of Civility

First of all, congratulations to everyone on making it to the end of January. All my close friends seem to have had a terrible January for one reason or another. If it wasn’t total job upheaval, or anxiety spinning out of control, it was relationship struggles, or having to move house. In some cases, it was a jolly mix and match of all of the above.

When you are having a difficult time at the same time as those around you, it can get very difficult for you all to really help each other. I recently read Brené Brown’s book I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn’t) and one of the focuses of this book is empathy. Some of us may think we’re pretty good at being empathetic – I thought I was – but after reading some of the points she made I realised that it’s more complicated than it sounds. There is a big difference between sympathy (from over here, I can see that this looks bad and I’m sorry for you) and empathy (I am seeing this through your eyes, and I want to understand). When we are all struggling with things, and someone starts to talk about their own problems, it’s easy to get frustrated and respond in a way which shuts down what they’re feeling.

Some of the barriers to empathy that Brown talks about are the ‘stacking the deck’ response: I see your break-up, and raise you a father with an illness. “Oh, you think you’ve got it bad? Wait ‘til you hear about my day.” Sometimes of course it isn’t that black and white. People can think they’re ticking the empathy box by saying “Oh, poor you.” But then cut off the other person’s problems by expanding at length on their own, without giving the other person a chance to expand. Or someone might talk to you about something, and you can’t immediately relate to what they’re saying. Someone might say: “I have been thinking about self-harming lately.” And you think “Wow, this is heavy. I don’t know anything about that. I’ve never considered doing that. I don’t know what to say. So I don’t risk saying the wrong thing, I’ll say nothing at all.”

When somebody shares an emotional pain with you, it’s often easier to step back than step forward. Especially if you are having a hard time yourself, and don’t feel like you have a lot of energy or time to give the other person. But empathy is a two-way street. Showing empathy to somebody else helps you with your own issues. Maybe you haven’t experienced the exact same thing as that other person, but you might have felt something similar. Maybe you’ve never thought about cutting yourself when you’re feeling frustrated or unhappy, but you can probably connect to the idea of release that people can experience when they do that, even if you experience that release in less self-abusive ways. And if you listen to them, and respond to them, they will probably be happy to hear you, and will be in a better place to listen from a position of giving and thoughtful response. Empathy really is the practice of truly listening to and hearing others. It’s so common to try and explain a problem to somebody, but they will only half-listen and fill in the rest of the gaps for themselves. In the end the person reaching out is left feeling diminished and small because they haven’t been heard, and the person who hasn’t been able to fully hear them is feeling frustrated and bored. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to stop and fully listen to people.

Another point about empathy, which is part of this notion of giving empathy being as useful to the giver as the receiver, is that empathetic conversations are two-way streets. I speak to several friends every day, and we are all very good at talking about ourselves for a while, but making sure we also respond to the other person and ask questions and make them feel heard. I’m sure you all know how quickly a conversation dies when only one person is asking the questions, especially over text or email. The person doing all the asking will often eventually give up and respond without any questions either, and the conversation dies without having anything new put into it. It’s often very difficult to fully show empathy over electronic communications, particularly as we’re often replying quickly and may not have read every word of the message. It’s a good idea to slow down for those few seconds, and think about what you’re writing. If the other person has said they’re struggling with something, respond to that in the first half of the message. Then talk about yourself in the second half. Of course there are exceptions to this, but I think it’s a nice rule of thumb for making people feel appreciated.

There are many more aspects to empathy that Brown talks about in her book, but this is the one that really stuck with me and that I found most useful, this concept of truly hearing and listening to other people, and having the courage to reach out to others when we are feeling down. Reaching out in this way can be very scary, so it’s important that you know how to respond if someone does it to you: if you cut them off or make them feel unheard, they probably won’t reach out to you again. It is less painful to not reach out and to keep painful emotions to ourselves than it is to reach out and get knocked back.

I know this is a pretty heavy topic and many of us have had a pretty heavy January, so here are some other things from this month that are more cheerful:

After the terribly sad death of David Bowie, I finally got around to watching Labyrinth for the first time. What a bizarre movie. Apparently they’re making some kind of sequel, which got me to wondering how on earth they’re going to do the Goblin King without Bowie. How on earth he still manages to be sexy while sporting the worst wig I’ve ever seen, flowing blouses and those tights I don’t know. I was saying to a friend that it was bizarrely attractive but I don’t think anybody else could pull it off. Do you think anyone has ever asked their partner to dress up like that as a fun sexual fantasy type thing? “Yes, so a blonde wig with a kind of mullet, and a lot of silvery eye make-up, a low-cut blouse, and tights that are VERY tight in some places and strangely baggy in others… I don’t know why this isn’t working…”

I was ill in bed for a week this month, and discovered that I’ve finally overplayed Friends. It just isn’t so much fun when you realise that you’re older than the characters are, especially if you’ve been watching it since you were 12. I felt very old. My new mindless TV is now Sex and the City, which I was actually too young for when it was first around. They’re all a few years older than me so I have some time. This may be a sign that I should investigate getting Netflix or something, but the internet signal in my room seems to have been on strike for January so maybe it would be a waste of money.

I read The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat a few weeks ago. It’s incredibly gripping and interesting, and makes you feel supremely lucky for being able to do simple things like recognise faces, or for having proprioception – an awareness of the your own body. One of the women in the book lost proprioception through a freak incident with some antibiotics. She cannot feel her own body. She has had to relearn how to move and walk visually, because she doesn’t know where, say, her arm is unless she is looking at it. Extremely odd but many of the stories were surprisingly life-affirming and optimistic. Highly recommended.

I also tried to read The Knife of Never Letting Go this week. Not recommended if you are having any kind of struggles with anxiety or depression. It is BLEAK. I have sought solace in Rules of Civility, one of my absolute favourite novels, set in 1930’s New York. The writing is delicious, with such lines as: ‘The game had changed; or rather, it wasn’t a game at all anymore. It was a matter of making it through the night, which is often harder than it sounds, and always a very individual business.’ In honour of the characters in Rules of Civility, let’s raise a martini (or martini glass containing your beverage of choice if you think martinis taste like toilet cleaner) to a good February.

Radical self-care part 2: Not Giving a F**k

Last week I mentioned that as part of my resolution to engage in radical self-care, thereby protecting my own mental health, I was going to read Sarah Knight’s book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k.’ Thanks to the speed of online ordering (not from Amazon, I hasten to add: I refuse to buy books from Amazon now) and the fact I am a very fast reader, I have already finished said book. It’s amazing and I’m going to share its basic concepts with you, as well as a list of some of the things which I, personally, do not give a fuck about.

The basic premise of the book is that you should be spending less time you don’t have, doing things you don’t want to do, with people you don’t like. By deciding what you do and don’t give a fuck about, and compiling a ‘Fuck Budget,’ you can spend less time, energy and money on things that annoy, and use that time, energy and money on things that bring you joy. Knight divides your Fuck Budget into four different areas:

  • Things and concepts
  • Work
  • Strangers, acquaintances and friends
  • Family

For each you make a list of things to do with that topic that you just don’t give a fuck about, and then later work out whether you can not give a fuck about those things without hurting people’s feelings. Of course, some things are much easier to not care about than others, and you have to be careful at all times to be polite and honest without going over the line into the ‘Asshole Quadrant.’

I don’t want to deprive her of book sales by going into the details of how you achieve not giving a fuck about all these things, and as I only finished reading it a couple of hours ago I can’t tell you yet how well it works in practice. However, I have already mentally discarded several things or events that do not fit into my Fuck Budget, and just deciding to let go and not care about whole lists of things is fun and invigorating. By carrying out Knight’s NotSorry Method, I’m feeling stronger and like I’ll have more time and energy to take care of myself and do the things that I genuinely enjoy. Yay!

So, here is a sample list of things about which I, personally, give zero fucks. Most of these come under the heading of ‘things and concepts’ – by far the easiest category because, in general, not giving a fuck about these things affects nobody but you.

  1. What other people think. I’m actually still working on this one, but Knight insists that it has to be on the list otherwise all those fucks you save by not going out to parties you don’t want to go to with people you don’t like will be wasted on feeling guilty for not going to said parties, just in case somebody noticed your absence and cared on some level. In my experience, this is, in any case, unlikely.
  2. Organic wine. I’ve tried it, it’s nasty. I’m going to waste no more fucks worrying about whether I’m a good person by not drinking it.
  3. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I know this is controversial because so many people love him, but I tried to read Love in the Time of Cholera and I just couldn’t get through it. I’m giving zero fucks about not wanting to read any more of his books.
  4. Political theory. When I arrived at university for my Masters I found that I’d missed a memo on doing at least an A Level if not a degree in political theory. And reading Foucault’s entire back catalogue. I tried but I just don’t give a fuck about any of it. Most of it sounds either so narrow as to be useless except in very specific cases, or so blindingly obvious I don’t understand why anybody felt the need to write a book (or several) on it. Perhaps I’m missing something, but really, zero fucks given.
  5. Dietary/alcohol intake/what does and doesn’t give you cancer advice from the government and various experts. I am sick to the back teeth of articles telling me what I should and shouldn’t be eating, and what is and isn’t going to kill me, and whether it’s okay to drink wine on a Tuesday but only if it’s a full moon and only as long as you then don’t drink ‘til the following month. FUCK OFF. When did we stop being trusted to realise what generally is and isn’t good for us, and act accordingly? The amounts of time, energy and money I will save by giving zero fucks about this is at stratospheric levels.
  6. Apple merchandise. Enough. I get it, it’s pretty. But it breaks like all technology, stop pretending it’s magic.
  7. I’m actually looking forward to the next fad so people can stop telling me to eat kale. It’s nasty and I don’t want it. (See also no.5.)
  8. The nuclear threat from Iran/North Korea/any country that America etc. have deemed too “uncivilised” to be allowed to hold a stick to have some defence against the bigger bullies in the playground. This is doubly useful as something to save fucks on as there is also bugger all I can do about the nuclear capabilities of any of these places. I could read all the news items and absorb the rhetoric that all these nasty barbarians are going to try and kill me, but really, it seems pretty unlikely so I just don’t want to spend a fuck on it.
  9. Conversations about TV programmes I haven’t seen. The list of things that have come out in the last several years that I haven’t seen includes but is not limited to: Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Grey’s Anatomy, The Killing, The Wire, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Lost, True Detective, Dexter, Homeland, Parks and Recreation (although I wouldn’t mind seeing that), and Downton Abbey past series 1. As you can tell I give few fucks about keeping up with recent ‘must-see’ programmes. This means I give no fucks about conversations about any of these programmes. If you insist on talking about them at length in my presence then please don’t be offended if I check my phone, stare into space or go for an extended bathroom break. Telling me I’m “really missing out” will be met with death stares. Sorry NotSorry.
  10. Anybody’s opinion on whether I should or should not have children, including the opinions of friends, family and the media at large. I am tired of being asked if I’m broody, or being told that when I hit 30 I’m going to suddenly desperately want a baby. I feel like I’m waiting anxiously for a stealth attack from my own ovaries. I’d love to know for just a day, or a week, what it’s like inside a man’s head without this sodding pressure to think about children, and whether you want them, and just in case you do, to plan for the degeneration of your own body. I’m resolving to give no fucks about this from now on, and set up a zero-fucks barrier against all baby-related propaganda.

I feel like I’m taking better care of myself already.

I hope you’ve all had a good first ten days of 2016! And apologies for this post to anybody who had ‘resolutions/any New Year new you bullshit’ on their ‘Things I don’t give a fuck about’ list (Hi Emma!).