The Words We Are Not Allowed To Say

The weather has recently turned hot and I don’t like it. Every year we get a heat wave that seems to be exactly what every one else has been waiting for and all I can do is close the curtains, lie down and wait for it to be over. I don’t sleep well, I feel groggy all the time, I feel like my ability to think roughly halves. And the worst is you can’t even complain about it. If you say something like ‘I hate this and I can’t wait for when the weather cools down so I can eat soup and wear a jumper and actually get some sleep’ people scowl at you, like your words could actually precipitate the onset of winter.

I was thinking about how we limit the things we talk about. For a people committed to the idea of free speech and the validity of individual opinion, we manage to find a lot of ways to stop people saying things that we don’t want to hear. The reason I was thinking about this was because recently, as you might have heard, the UK has been going through some really big, interesting political shifts. The EU referendum and the recent general election have meant politics are really in the forefront of a lot of people minds. But often when I tried to talk to people about it I heard the old cliché; don’t talk about religion and politics.

But how do you not talk about politics when you are living through politically significant times? Or, more pertinently, what motivates people to stop other people talking about politics? Or anything, for that matter. I am sure there is a whole spectrum of reasons why any one person might might seek to stop another person talking. Some people just seem bored by the whole subject. Talking about brexit with someone recently I was asked by someone at the table but not involved in our conversation to stop talking about brexit. He was just fed up of it. Someone else told me we should not be discussing brexit any more because it was a democratic referendum and now the question has been settled once and for all. This person, tellingly, was pro-brexit, and had been arguing against the results of the 1970’s EU membership referendum for the last thirty years. Interestingly hypocritical, right? And very revealing about why he might want to silence further discussion.

Good dialogue has to be open and it has to be honest, and we are not always very good at honest discussion. I think we are pretty good at expressing ourselves honestly a lot of the time (but of course not always) but the thing we seem to be a little poorer at is honest listening. Are you ready to hear things you don’t want to hear? Can you tolerate being disagreed with? Can you test your ideas against someone else’s without taking it personally? These things aren’t easy to do, especially with incendiary subjects and especially when it sounds like someone might be trying to take something away from you.

So is the question when do you stop arguing? My friend who wants the recent EU referendum to be sacrosanct and left alone but also wanted to argue against the previous one obviously can’t have been right in both instances. So which one was more right? Well, I think he was right to spend thirty years arguing against the referendum. You should never stop arguing. Our arguments should be inclusive, honest, respectful, but they shouldn’t end just because we are told they are over. Keep testing ideas out by butting them against opposite ideas, and keep adjusting your position based on what comes of those arguments. Honesty sometimes means hearing things you don’t want to hear and sometimes it means having to realise you have been wrong all along. But when someone proves to you that you are utterly, inescapably wrong about something, well that’s a real gift, and you won’t get it by silencing other people.

Orwell Quote

This is such a deep subject but I really believe we are improved by having better conversations and to have better conversations we need to begin by being better listeners. First, listening to other people, then by becoming better at listening to ourselves.

Anyway, I’m going to go and get some water now because even with the windows open and the curtains closed it is still way too hot and I am not comfortable and I don’t like it. I can’t wait for the cold weather to get here and I’m sorry if that’s not what you want to hear.

Also, before I go, I know that one of the reasons people tell me personally not to talk about religion and politics is because I can become boringly opinionated on these subjects. I know that, and I am working on it.

The Opposite of Spenders Regret

I never thought of myself as someone that gets low in the winter, never noticed any tangible drop in my mood as winter encroaches on the daylight and the temperature lowers, but there’s no doubt that there is an upswing in my mood when Spring arrives.

I was walking through the high street this week with my headphones on, just bimbling home with my hands in my pockets when a guy started waving his arms at me manically. When I stopped and took out my earphones he seemed almost surprised that he had managed to get my attention, but then he gestured at a girl stood next to him and she timidly asked if I had a minute to talk. She had a lanyard around her neck, a tablet in her hand and she was stood next to a display for a charity.

The thing with charity workers, in my experience, is that they are about the nicest people you could possibly hope to meet. I think it takes a certain kind of person to do that work. A fierce commitment to cheerfulness is probably the best way to endure being ignored by almost everyone you say hello to. And they are almost professionally obliged to tell you you don’t look your age when they ask for your date of birth. We all know it’s just part of the game, but it’s still nice to hear.

She started going through her pitch, telling me about the charity and how it relies on wonderful, generous people like me to be able to do the good work that it does and I was all full of the joys of spring, feeling the uplift from that winter sadness that I didn’t realise I had been suffering through, so I agreed to sign up. There is always a moment of slight confusion when you agree to donate. In that moment, as she recomposed herself, I decided that as soon I was done signing up for this charity that I would go to Gregg’s to buy an iced finger and my mood stepped up two more notches.

I think there are three phases to talking to a charity worker. If this sounds cynical I don’t mean it to. I know that they have a hard time and there are certain strategies they need to employ. First they just try to get you to stop and acknowledge them, then they are polite and complimentary and interested in you in a practiced, scripted sort of way, but then if you agree to sign up with them all that lifts and you can share a genuine, close moment where the two of you are in it together, doing something positive and unselfish.

She asked me my title. ‘Is it Sir? Lord?’ I laughed. ‘I’m not a Lord yet,’ I said. When we had finished and I was all signed up for her charity I walked home. It was just after five, the bustle of the high street had thinned a little, and I had a bit more of a spring in my step. I had been in a good mood before but now I had a sense of pure, relaxed calm. Of having done something simple, but good. Of having made a fractional but positive difference.

People who think money can’t buy happiness just haven’t figured out what to spend it on. That same evening I bought the new expansion to a video game I like and all I felt was spenders regret. All I could think was that there was no way that could possible be the best use of my money. I never think that about the trivial sums I give to charities. About those, I think the opposite.

The next day I was walking home through the high street again and they were back in the same spot. She saw me coming and gave me a little wave. ‘Good evening, my Lord,’ she said. I stopped and we chatted again. She asked after my day, I asked after hers, and we made idle small talk like a couple of conspirators righting the wrongs of the world one small, monthly donation at a time. Then I put my headphones in and walked home through the fine spring afternoon weather.

January’s Reading

I read a little less than normal this January. Only three books. When I read I want to be as attentive to it as I can be, and when I have other stuff going on that is taking up a lot of my brain capacity my reading can really slow to a crawl. I’m sure it’s familiar to everyone but that sudden realisation that I have been reading for thirty minutes but have no idea what any of it said has been happening to me a lot recently.

But I did manage three books. The Pre-War House and Other Stories by Alison Moore, Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino and Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement

I read Alison Moore’s collection of short stories after reading her three novels, The Lighthouse, He Wants and Death and the Seaside. I love Alison Moore’s writing.  I read The Lighthouse years ago when it was short-listed for the Booker prize and it really made an impact on me. I couldn’t get it out of my head for ages after. All her writing has this quiet, whispery, haunting quality and the stories kind of get away from you as you are reading them. The writing is so delicate and so understated in places that it is only once you have finished reading that you realise what you just read. It is only once it has all gone that you realise it was unraveling. It’s an amazing feat. The pattern I adopted while reading her shorts was to read the story to its conclusion, and then read the last two pages again, just to take it all in. Highly recommended and a writer whose books will be must-reads for me from now on.

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino was supposed to be my light-hearted crime novel for the month. When I have a lot going on and I am finding it hard to relax I like a good crime novel so that I have something fun and easy to read. This didn’t turn out to be as light as I was looking for but it was still compelling and fascinating. On the surface it’s a story about two prostitutes who get murdered and the past they shared.  Under the surface it is a story about deceit (of others and oneself), the slow untangling of our own lives and the lies we tell ourselves along the way. It takes unreliable narrators to a new level, with three separate narrators in different sections of the book, none of whom come off as especially credible. So really good, but next time I want something junky to wile away an evening with I may not pick another of Kirino’s books. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be back to read more of her work in the future.

Lastly was Widow Basquiat. I found this in Waterstone’s purely by chance and bought it instantly. A long time ago I saw the movie Basquiat and loved it. I watched the movie more times than I can count. Basquiat was an artist living in New York in the eighties who died of a drug overdose. He was a black artist fighting for his place in a white world. This book was Basquiat’s story from the perspective of his girlfriend, Suzanne. It’s written in a chaotic jumble of scenes, thoughts and images all tossed together. But the picture of Basquiat and the world he lived in that emerges is fascinating. I started reading it on Friday evening and finished it on Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t put it down.

So that was my January reading. I hope yours was as rewarding as mine was.

Some Books I Read This Year

So as I sit here with my news years eve lunch of cheese and crackers (a mild goats cheese with some delicious red onion chutney) I’m going to scroll back through the 2016 shelf of my goodreads account and remember some of the books that I enjoyed the most this year.

I hope you don’t mind me just listing the books that I thought were great without going into too much detail about them. I feel like I could try and explain what it was about them that worked for me but I think too much would get lost in the attempt. That personal connection to a book that comes as much from inside the reader, their mood, the place, the time, is hard to pin down. But great books are great books, and these were the ones that meant a little something extra to me.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes was excellent. A story of a conductor in 1936 Russia, trying to balance art and expression with the dangerous politics of the time. I also really enjoyed The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan. This was about a young sheriff who is tasked with looking after an elderly criminal with a violent past and the unsettled relationship that forms between them. I also read No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (the first Cormac McCarthy I have read, but there’s certain to be a lot more). Both those books now occupy the same little bit of my memory, since they have very similar settings and tones.

So what else? Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama was a random purchase and ended up being the perfect accompaniment to a two week break from work that I took in March. This gigantic Japanese crime novel is about a detective who has been moved to the media department and ends up embroiled in an unsolved case that has been dredged back up. Reminded me a little of The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.

My Mr Bs Reading Year turned up some really fascinating books. My personal bibliotherapist selected Martin John by Anakana Schofield for me, which was one of the most unsettling reads I have had a for a long time. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt were both excellent as well. In fact, The Sisters Brothers now lives in that same bit of my brain as The Ploughmen and No Country For Old Men. While I think of it, The Ploughmen was a Mr Bs Book too.

Two of my favourite writers had new books out this year. Dave Eggers Heroes of the Frontier was wonderful and I loved every word of it. It’s the story of a woman and her two kids travelling across Alaska in a camper van, trying to leave the past behind and figure out a future for themselves. It was sort of chaotic and calm all at the same time and the ending was perfect. I adore the ending. Also Alison Moore’s new book Death and the Seaside took a look at unethical social science experiments, which is a subject I have been fascinated by ever since I first heard about stuff like the Stanford prison experiment and Stanley Milgrim. I love Alison Moore. All her books have this haunting, whispery quality. Very quietly spoken books. I also read her second book He Wants and am currently reading her collection of short stories.

So there you go, a bunch of cool books that I read this year. I have a massive to-read pile on the go so 2017 should get started with some decent momentum. I think hidden in books seems like a sensible place to be.

Happy new year.

A New Found Sense of Possibility

I have had a very good end to the year. A short story that I wrote called The Sudden End of Everything won first place in Glimmer Trains New Writer Award. This, coupled with being short-listed for The Bridport Prize in the short story category, has made this an amazing year for me. Glimmer Train will publish the story sometime in 2017. This is the first time I have had something published since I started, which feels like a very long time ago now. I’m kinda wishing 2017 away a little because I want to see it. I want to hold it in my hands.

Earlier in the year I wrote a post about how I was giving up on independent publishing and took my books and short stories down off of Amazon. It hadn’t been successful and I realised that that wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, that I had an ambition for traditional publishing. When I took those books down it was to refocus my efforts but honestly, I never actually expected any success. I love writing. I have done for a long time. What I get out of writing, the act of sitting down and putting out some words and seeing what comes of it, is something that I find so satisfying, so personally useful, that I wouldn’t stop doing it for anything. But when I took my books down from Amazon I figured that was all I would be left with. Personal satisfaction. The ambition to publish stuff, and ultimately to publish novels, always felt unreasonably lofty. But unreasonably lofty goals are the best kind.

So as soon as I took my stuff down from Amazon I felt like I had to write more and that I had to submit more. So I did. I wrote The Sudden End of Everything quite quickly and started sending out what I had to different places. I aimed high. I think this is a good strategy. Aim high and then slowly lower your sights. But a Bridport Prize short-list and a win at Glimmer Train, I never really expected any of that. I went from no writing credits to a couple of fantastic ones. Winning Glimmer Trains New Writer Award was astonishing. I spent the following weekend walking around in a kind of daze, certain that there had been some kind of mistake. That it surely couldn’t actually be happening. But then the contract arrived and for a few weeks every time I was having a hard time, when I was feeling low of stressed out, I treated myself to reading it again.

So next year I will be taking the draft of the novel I wrote this year and finishing it off and I will do that with a new found sense of possibility. I’ll be writing more shorts and sending those out too. And you know what the best part is? I’m going to continue with what I was doing, because there might just be some value to it after all. I think as a writer it is easy to be discouraged and it is natural to look around at what other people are doing and think that maybe that is what you should be doing too. That you need to shift away from what is important to you and onto what appears to be successful elsewhere. This year has given me some confidence about sticking to what feels right.

I hope you all have a good end to this turbulent year as well.