Category: Reading

At the end of January I got the flu. I spent three days in bed with a fever, I hadn’t been that ill since we lived in Shoreditch. That was six years ago and I was floored by the swine flu.

We had a mezzanine in that flat and the only way to get up there was a rackety ladder. I was too ill to climb up the ladder and slept on the sofa downstairs. The flat was tiny, a small studio with a mezzanine, three narrow flights of stairs up and next to a train line.

I thought about that flat as I was laying in bed in January. I thought about how glad I was not to be living in Shoreditch where people from the bar downstairs sometimes made it difficult to get to the front door, where the cars and buses rattling by shook my whole nervous system until I started getting panicky in crowded places.

Before this winter’s fever got really tedious I started looking at my flu as a way of resetting myself. I did some mental rewinding and I downloaded The Lord of the Rings to my Kindle. I obsessed over the books when I was a teenager. I obsessed over the films. For a short period in high school I tried to dress like an elf.

What makes the books so special is that J.R.R Tolkien, this fusty old expert on Anglo-Saxon, had spent years creating a world, languages and his own mythology. You feel fully confident in the world and in the story because Tolkien made sure the stories rest on a solid foundation. There are hints of even more depth, of stories he has created, but decides not to tell the reader.

Reading the books was like catching up with old friends. Around the same time things started kicking off in the US and I was turning from my Twitter feed to Gandalf and Frodo having this conversation in the Shire.

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s father died when he was three. His mother died when he was twelve. His guardian made him choose between finishing his studies and marrying Edith Bratt, the love of his life. The objection was that Edith was older and a protestant. If Tolkien wanted to graduate from Oxford he had to break off all contact with Edith until he turned 21. He waited three years and on his 21st birthday he wrote Edith a letter. The couple got engaged in January 1913. The following year Tolkien enlisted in the army, he fought at the Somme, he was wounded, several of his friends from school died in the war.

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The story has a happy ending. John Tolkien married Edith Bratt, they had four children. Tolkien became an expert in Anglo-Saxon and was a popular lecturer at Leeds and then Oxford where he became a professor and hung out with C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings. He wrote the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and plenty of other stories. He invented languages. His love story about Beren, a human, and the elven princess Lúthien, was inspired by his love for his wife. When Edith died he had the name Lúthien engraved on her tombstone, he followed her 21 months later.

His generation went through a lot. They helped lay the foundations for the slightly more compassionate society we created after the Second World War. I guess that’s a long time ago, I guess we’ve started to forget. But we can be inspired by what some people who lived through the horrors did with their lives and then decide what to do with the time that is given to us.

All photos from the amazing British Library Archive on Flickr.

Everyday life Reading Thoughts

I recently finished a book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can?t Stand Positive Thinking by journalist Oliver Burkman. It’s a book which looks at something slightly controversial, how positive thinking can actually lead to us to become even more sad when life throws something unexpected and less awesome in our path. No matter how many positive thoughts we send out into the universe, life will still be outside of our control.

For someone who’s a control freak and would gladly like to make sure nothing bad ever happens, this book was actually something of a relief to read. It’s OK if things aren’t always awesome, it’s OK if you can’t handle life sometimes, it’s OK to have bad thoughts and hide under a duvet.


Image via Luisahr.

The book begins with a polar bear.

Try no to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.

The same goes for all those pesky negative thoughts. We try to suppress them. We’re told that they can even be harmful, since our thoughts supposedly become things. We’ve had several years of US new age philosophy telling us that if we only want something bad enough, if we can only stay focused and positive things will fall into our laps. That basically the universe revolves around us and our wishes. When I was younger I used to think this was pretty amazing. I don’t anymore.

In the US, which is a country filled with positivity gurus, churches and life coaches, people are unhappy.

Increased economic growth does not necessarily make for happier societies, just as increased personal income above a certain basic level, doesn’t make fore happier people. Nor does better education, at least according to some studies. Nor does an increased choice of consumer products. Nor do bigger and fancier homes, which instead seem mainly to provide the privilege of more space in which to feel gloomy, writes Burkeman.

Self-help books aren’t exactly helping either. Burkeman writes that some self-help publishers refer to something called the eighteen month rule, which states that the person most likely to purchase any self-help book is someone who, within the last previous eighteen months, purchased a self-help book.

Why are we so focused on happiness anyway, asks the book. Happiness itself has never been the goal of any major religions or philosophical movements. It’s only recently that we’ve become obsessed by being happy.

Burkman argues that it’s our struggle to feel happy that often makes us feel miserable. Instead of focusing on something we can’t force, we should embrace uncertainty, insecurity and failure. Or to quote sci-fi writer Aldous Huxley “the harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed”.

How happiness became compulsory

Where did all of this positive thinking come from anyway? Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her (excellent) book Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World that it all started as a reaction against Calvinism in the States in the nineteenth century.

John Calvin. Image via Wikipedia.

According to the Calvinists happiness was a bad thing, life should be full of toil and work and if you were really lucky (and had contemplated your sins a lot) you might end up in heaven (but that wasn’t a given because god had already decided who went where and nothing you did could change things). Perhaps not surprisingly this religion actually made people ill. The condition was called religious melancholy, or neurasthenia, and affected mainly women who became withdrawn and complained of various physical maladies.

Then New Thought came along and said man and god where the same and therefore thoughts could have an affect on the physical world, they were even able to heal. Now they couldn’t heal polio, but they were able to heal neurasthenia and suddenly lots of people started flocking to this new way of thinking. But instead of constantly having to examine their thoughts for any hint of sin, positive thoughts became obligatory to the believers. Negative thoughts became the path to illness and failure with only yourself to blame.

But what about visualisation?

 

Burkeman quotes some scientific studies that have shown that positive thinking and visualising a perfect future actually makes us less inclined to get there. Instead we relax into our everyday life thinking we’ve already achieved what we wanted to achieve and we stop doing the hard graft we need to do in order to get where we want to be. Compulsive positive thinking about the future also sets us up for a fall.

Reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety: when you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears won’t occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it … But … when things go wrong, they’ll almost certainly go less wrong than you were fearing.

But it’s OK anyway. Life is life. We just have to make the best of it. And perhaps even more importantly we need to realise it’s not just about ourselves and our dreams, but about the people around us. It’s about finding contentment in each day. It’s about relaxing into it. And this is something I’m still learning.

Finally, in the chapter about stoicism, Burkeman writes:

If your strategy for happiness depends on bending circumstances to your will, this is terrible news: the best you can do i to pray that not all that much will go wrong, and try to distract yourself when it does. For the Stoics, however, tranquility entails confronting the reality of your limited control.

Reading Thoughts

On Tuesday Madicken and I went to Ely. If you’ve already read her blog post about it this one won’t be much different. But I guess that’s what happens when two bloggers travel together.

Ely is a small town about an hour and a half north of London. It was very wealthy in the middle ages and then slowly turned into more or less a normal market town. It has one of the largest cathedrals in the UK, which is slightly unexpected as the town itself is a sleepy place which in some ways reminded me of my hometown and in other ways reminded me of the village in Hot Fuzz.

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Our first stop was the Peacocks tea room. You can’t really visit places like this without stopping somewhere for a cream tea.

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Peacocks was great and packed to the brim with little old grey haired ladies who all gossiped loudly. Here I’m waiting excitedly for my gluten free cream tea. It was quite a nerve-wrecking moment.

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Luckily the Lotta-friendly sandwiches and scones were great. Madicken was pretty happy with her scones as well. Too bad you’re always too full to finish it all.

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We walked around town and stumbled across a local park, which led on to the cathedral. For a while we weren’t really sure if we’d ended up on a set of Game of Thrones. It all looked pretty unreal.

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madicken

This was after me noticing a cool shrubbery-thing. “Madicken go and pose”. It’s nice to have photogenic friends.

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We weren’t the only visitors in town on Tuesday. Around the city were plenty of girls with funky hair, lace skirts and stripy leggings and guys with floppy black hair and black clothes. We’d all come to Ely to see Neil Gaiman speak in the cathedral.

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gaiman

I’ve been a fan of Gaiman since I was a teenager. I found some of the Sandman books in my local library and clumsily tried to imitate Death’s make-up. I loved Neverwhere, American Gods and Anansi Boys. And I thought, these are the types of stories I want to write. Now I’m not so sure anymore. Gaiman was clearly used to speaking to an audience of around a 1000. He’s a good speaker, tells funny stories and was very relaxed reading out and answering questions from the audience.

He was promoting his latest book The ocean at the end of the lane, which apparently started out as a short story that turned into a novelette that turned into a novel. It was written for his wife Amanda Palmer and according to Gaiman, not planned out like most of his other stories. I started reading it yesterday, it’s too early to have formed much of an opinion, but so far it feels quite different to the earlier books I liked so much.

In the end we had to hurry back to our train and couldn’t stay to get my book signed. It seemed like the signing was going to go on late into the night. The full moon was out and it was the perfect end to a perfect day.

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After I came home Gerry got back from a day of driving fast cars around a race track south of London. He was pretty excited and couldn’t stop talking about it for about thirty minutes. Then he promptly fell asleep and my head kept buzzing with fast cars and old cathedrals and it got late and then later until I finally fell asleep.

Reading Travel

You might have heard of star crossed lovers Héloïse and Abelard. I stumbled across them as I was researching lighthouse lamp inventor, engineer and physicist Augustin Fresnel (long story). There was only a hint of a reference to them in the book I was reading, suggesting the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris became a tourist destination in Victorian times because people wanted to see where Héloïse and Abelard were buried.

Their story is an interesting one. In the 1100s Héloïse d’Argenteuil was famous for both her beauty and intelligence, she was a writer and a scholar. Peter Abelard was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, theologian and logician. He fell in love with Héloïse and convinced her uncle (who was her guardian) that he should be her teacher. He also moved into their house. Héloïse and Abelard began a love affair which resulted in her becoming pregnant.

After that there the story gets a bit confusing, perhaps because I don’t have much knowledge of 12th century morals and rules. Héloïse went off to stay with Abelard’s sister, had a baby boy whom she called Astrolabe (isn’t that an awesome name). When she returned Abelard and Héloïse were forced to marry. The marriage was meant to be a secret in order to not damage his career.

Héloïse then went to stay in a convent, this led to some more confusion and misunderstandings, with her uncle thinking that Abelard had abandoned Héloïse. He decided to avenge her and restore his own honour. He did this by hiring some lackeys, breaking into Abelard’s room in the middle of the night and cutting of his man parts.

You might think that would have been the end to the love story. After that Héloïse went to another convent and Abelard became a monk. The pair continued to keep in touch through letters with Héloïse writing:

“Then there is no more left but this, that in our doom the sorrow yet to come shall be no less than the love we two have already known.”

Perhaps not super romantic, but quite interesting.

Some of their correspondence can be found online.

Reading Thoughts

Everyone! We’re off on holiday* on Monday. I’m going to load up my kindle with plenty of mystery books, thrillers, detective stories, scary stories. I need your help. What would you recommend?

*Actually it’s sort of a working holiday. We will be doing work (but mostly fun work) and we’ll stay at the summerhouse in Finland. So it’s as close to a holiday as we’ll get at the moment!

Reading Travel

The air is heavy with rain. Apparently tropical thunderstorms have been forecast for later in the week. I can’t wait.

The days have rushed by lately. I don’t really know why. I don’t feel like I’ve been working too much, but perhaps I have. Perhaps work has somehow taken over and pushed out everything else. We did the show in Dalston over the weekend. I cleaned the flat. This week I’m winding down, doing all the little things that need to be done before we fly off to Finland next Monday. Holiday. The summerhouse. Finnish summer nights. I can’t wait.

I’ve been reading a lot as well lately. Looking through thrillers and mystery novels on my Kindle and downloading random books off their best-sellers’ list. That’s how I stumbled across Rachel Abbott’s Only the Innocent, a self-published best seller. I finished the book, even though I pretty much knew where it was going after the first couple of pages. A review somewhere summed it up, the book was screaming for a second pair of eyes. Although perhaps it doesn’t matter because Abbott is topping the Amazon charts. She’s found a way to hack the system or she’s come up with a marketing strategy that makes sure her books sell. Clever.

I’m currently working my way through Lucy Clarke’s The Sea Sisters, which is a much nicer read. The name intrigued me and the book is a lovely mystery about two sisters, one dead and one living. It’s also about the sea and it is making me want to escape to Cornwall and spend weeks writing in a beach hut.

Cue some drooling over Airbnb places in Cornwall. Like this lovely fisherman’s cottage, or this house close to the museum of witchcraft (!). Or perhaps a rather primitive looking tree house (but it is an actual tree house!).

Image by Griffin Keller.

Everyday life Reading