We Are All Politicians Now

On Facebook recently I saw someone post ‘Is it safe to come out yet, or is everyone still a politician?’ There has undoubtedly been an explosion of political discourse recently in the wake of some major political events. The UK’s In/Out referendum stirred up a lot of heated debate about some very emotive issues like immigration, NHS funding and sovereignty. So yeah, for a while Facebook did seem like it had become swamped with politicians. But you know what? In a democratic society we are all politicians. We should be engaged with these things, and we should be vocal about it because the issues at hand are big and hard to understand and we won’t get anywhere by politely keeping quiet about it all.

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This week I read a book called Five Ideas To Fight For by Anthony Lester. The five ideas are Human Rights, Equality, Free Speech, Rule of Law and Privacy. Lester, a human rights lawyer and liberal democrat peer, goes over each of the five, giving a short historical account of the UK’s relationship with them and exploring the difficulties we seem to be having in maintaining them. Things that seem fundamental might be on shakier ground than we might think.

It’s not always easy to tell when change is for the better. Was the conservative policy of scrapping the European Courts Human Rights Act and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights an improvement or a dangerous slide away from the protection of those rights? Where do you draw the line between free speech and hate speech? Is government authorised invasion of privacy justified by security risks? It takes a lot of information to actually arrive at a well-formed opinion on these sorts of questions, and unfortunately well-formed opinions are not always easy to come by.

Five Ideas To Fight For wants to refocus our political discourse. We talk about border control but we should be talking about human rights. We talk about benefits but we should be talking about equality. Don’t lose the heart of the issue by surrendering to the details. Don’t act rashly and then realise the value of the things we just threw away. Especially when a lot of those things were so hard-won in the first place.

Even though Lester’s alignment with the Liberal Democrats is evident throughout one things shines clear through the book; the core ideals that form the bedrock of a civilised, free-thinking society are not the property of any of the political parties. They are the standards by which the actions of politicians should be judged, (and in a democratic society we are all politicians). The question of where we draw the lines is important because those lines are where our principles and our values lie. Fighting to keep them when it would be easier to let them go is what integrity is all about.

This book is absolutely worth reading.

You can buy it at Waterstones

Or at Amazon

Also, one of the nicest things to come out of what is often quite a bleak book is the small insight it offers into the House of Lords. Mostly the Lords are characterised as a bunch of unelected old men who sleep through the afternoon and get in the way of parliament. Anthony Lester offers a glimpse into a place where getting in the way of parliament is often a good thing, and being unelected actually has some valuable qualities to it.

Mr B’s Reading Year

If you love books (and I know that you do) then probably the best birthday present you could receive would be some sort of monthly book subscription where a bookseller takes note of all the things you like the best, and all the things you would like to try, and all the things you aren’t interested in, and then sends you a hand-selected book in the post every month. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?

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These are the first six books that I got from my Mr B’s Reading Year. Every month they turn up wrapped in brown paper with the Mr B’s wax seal and it has become a highlight of the month. My personal bibliotherapist selects books that he thinks I will like from the answers I gave in my introductory questionnaire and so far they have been fantastic. The best thing about the books he has selected for me is that I had never heard of any of them before they turned up. I wonder if I even would have picked them up from a shelf in a bookshop or if my hand would have just drifted over the top of them. How many times has my hand drifted over them? This is a great way to find some excellent new books, and gives you something completely different from browsing bookshops, or even recommendations from friends. I know book recommendations can be clumsily given, because of the number of clumsy recommendations I have given. I usually just recommend whichever book I happen to be most excited about when asked, which is why I would make a terrible bookseller.

All six have been great, but The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury really stood out for me. Some of the driest, most subtle humour I have ever read, compounded by some truly heartbreaking stuff toward the end. I won’t spoil it, just check it out. I’d recommend it to anyone (even people who probably won’t enjoy it.) I read most of it one day over the Christmas break when I couldn’t sleep and got up at five am. I sat there reading it all through the morning and well into the afternoon.

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I made a new shelf on my Goodreads to keep the books together, and they all sit side by side on my actual bookshelf too. I like this disparate collection of books that have only come together because someone thinks I would like them. Naturally, you can see the thread that runs through them. The literary/realistic/experimental quality that obviously came through in the things I wrote in the questionnaire. And you know what, the questionnaire was one of the most fun parts. You can gush about books you love as much as you want, and no one is going to ask you to shut up and leave them alone.

If you like the sound of it, check out the shop, Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights.

 

My New Years Tradition

I’ve never been very good at tradition. Sometimes they feel forced and contrived, sometimes they feel pointless, sometimes they feel anachronistic. Sometimes I feel like everyone else does them right, and when I join in I sort of spoil it a bit. This time of year is so full of tradition that I find it a little tiring. Christmas presents is the hardest for me. Every aspect of this tradition causes me some level of anxiety. Did I buy for everyone I was supposed to? Did I spend too much? Did I spend too little? Was I grateful enough? Too grateful? Should I have opened it right away?

If you have ever bought me a present and I seemed underwhelmed, don’t worry, I was actually very grateful. I just don’t show it very well. I panic a bit in the moment and choose all the wrong facial expressions.

For me, the few days between Christmas and New Years has become my favourite festive tradition. We hide away at home, nibbling on the left over chocolates, reading our Christmas books, playing our Christmas video games, watching some movies. It is quiet, and solitary and after all the hubbub of Christmas it is so essential. And New Years Eve is no different for me.

I know for a lot of people, New Years is a celebration. A big party. Going out, drinking, dancing, and being with all the people that are important to you as the year ticks over into the next one. I get that. That is a very understandable way to want to do New Years. In fact, that’s what I used to do to. But now I want something different.

In an average year, plenty goes wrong. I do a ton of wrong things, say a lot of things I shouldn’t and make a bunch of stupid mistakes. New years is a way of drawing a line under all that. You can put it all away. It’s still there, for reference. You don’t have to forget all about it, but you don’t have to live with it in the same way either. You don’t have to have it under your feet all the time either.

It’s about a clean start. How many times in your life do you get a proper clean start? A fresh beginning where an entire section of your life closes and a whole new thing starts? I think I have had three. Three really genuine fresh starts where if it was a film the scene would have ended on a fade to black. Those sort of fresh starts are really valuable but they are rare too. New Years lets you have a little one. It’s a little manufactured, sure. Nothing really changes. But it’s a way of taking stock. Who was I this year? Who do I want to be next year? And for me, a quiet new years eve, and a quiet start to new years day, gives me what I need to do this.

Happy new year, however you’re spending it.

Nanowrimo 2015

I’m having a go at Nanowrimo this year. A proper go this time. I pulled an old idea for a novel out and have set to work on it. I don’t honestly think I will make it to 50,000 words before the end of the month, but I’ll give it a good go.

I got into the habit a while ago of trying to write 600 words a day. 600 is pretty manageable and it was going well for a while. I did it most days. I think I am a pretty committed writer, I have been at this for a long time, but some days just don’t allow for it. Sometimes other things have to come first, like the day job, or the washing up, or making time to look out of the widow and remember your childhood and things like that. Sometimes writing isn’t the most important thing.

So 1667 words a day, the amount required per day to meet the target, it a bit more than I am used to but I am just ploughing on. I like the carelessness required to do something like 50,000 words in a month. You can’t really spend too much time figuring out just the right way to say something. I can spend a whole evening on a single sentence. Nanowrimo doesn’t allow for that. Just say it wrong and move on.

But it has only taken two days for me to develop some serious doubts about the novel I am writing. Who has time for doubts? November will be over before we know it, hell, next November will be over before we know it, so I’m trying to just keep going. My idea of Withnail and I meets The Shining meets Apocalypse Now sounded good at the time, but now it just seems… wayward? I don’t know. I’ll just keep at it, see what it turns into. I don’t think I have ever written a novel that didn’t turn into something unexpected (and, I can’t help but feel, better) by the time I was done with it.

I didn’t even plan it during October. It didn’t even occur to me. (My excuse, very busy at work. You can’t prove I’m not. (I actually am.) ) I popped on to the Nanowrimo website and saw a thread on preparation and outlines and stuff and immediately felt off the pace. Next year I’ll write an outline. And then ignore it, probably. My first drafts always look like I loaded all my ideas into a blunderbuss and fired it at the screen.

Anyway, December looms. Back to work.

To Cut, Or Not To Cut

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About a month ago I was in a second hand bookshop in a little Norfolk town called Beccles. It’s a lovely shop, built into an old Victorian townhouse with book shelves lining the walls of the rooms that had at one point been bedrooms and kitchens and things. It was the second time I had been there. The first was about ten years ago when I went for a long weekend on a riverboat. The boat broke down on day two and so it became a long weekend of playing yahtzee and sitting in the pub near where the boat broke down. But we did manage one trip out on the boat before that happened and it was Beccles we managed to go to.

The first time I went I found a lovely old copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and the second time I went I found a battered old copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. It was just tucked away on a shelf of old philosophy books and it was so ragged and tattered and characterful that I had to buy it.

I tried reading Thus Spake Zarathustra when I was about seventeen. I bought a Penguin copy (a copy it turns out I still have, I have managed to move house six times without noticing I was bringing it with me each time,) and tried my hardest to read it, but it was way over my head. At seventeen I wasn’t quite ready for it. Years later I felt much more equipped for it. I had a slightly better understanding of who Nietzsche was, and what his books were about.

Second time around, I had a much easier time reading it. There are bits that really resonated with me, bits that I disagreed with, sentiments I shared, sentiments that I didn’t. I was much more engaged with it. But then half way through the book, I discovered this;


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In the second half of the book the pages are uncut. I have heard about this in old books before, but had never come across it. I recognised what it was though, as years ago I had had a job laying out pages for small magazines and pamphlets. Books are printed with many pages arranged on a big sheet of paper, which is then folded in such a way that all the pages are in the right order and aligned in the right direction. Then the edges are cut to make it into a book that can be read. Years ago, like when my copy of Zarathustra was printed back in eighteen-something-something, this cutting part of the book binding process didn’t always happen.

Almost all of the pages in the second half of the book are like this. It is, of course, impossible to read it in this state. In one way I quite like it. It’s a curious little anachronism and maybe even makes the book more interesting. On the other hand, I was enjoying reading it. I know I have another copy of this book upstairs and I could easily finish reading that one instead, but old musty books and just nice things to hold and read. The typesetting in particular is really nice. So the question becomes do I cut the pages, or do I leave it as it is?

I have had an offer from a very kind curator of antique books to cut the pages for me so that I don’t mess the book up too much. I do kinda feel, in a weird sort of way, that I ought to let him do it. I want to set the book free. When I bought it I was really into the idea that this old book had been through many sets of hands and I was just the latest in a long history of readers to encounter it. It’s certainly smelly and mucky enough to believe that this thing has been read hundreds of times. But with uncut pages it becomes clear that no one in over a hundred years has read past the half way mark. Some intrepid typesetter laid out all those pages letter by letter, and no one has ever read the words he laid out.

On the other hand uncut pages are a really nice quirky thing to find in an old book and it isn’t something you will come across all that often. The book isn’t valuable (at least I don’t think it is). I did some research on it and I think I paid a very fair £25.00 for it, so I won’t be devaluing a precious antique.

To cut or not to cut? I have put the book away for a while so I can think it over. A part of me, possibly an irrational part, imagines that Nietzsche would be annoyed with me for not doing it.