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Life in the big smoke

Books I’m half-way through at the moment

I always have several books on the go at once. I blame this on the fact that I tend to get very excited about new things, so the books I order off Amazon always outpace the amount I read. Hello piles of dusty books in the living room. This issue also applies to writing projects. I’m sure no other writers recognise themselves. Finishing things is easy, right?

Here are some books I’m reading at the moment. Some have sat next to the bed for several months. I am planning on finishing them one day.

The Medical Detective: John Snow, Cholera and the Mystery of the Broad Street Pump, by Sandra Hempel

The newest addition to the pile. Research for a project I’ve been working on for a while. It’s about cholera, more interesting than it might sound.

The Enlightenment Trap: Obsession, Madness and Death on Diamond Mountain, by Scott Carney

SO INTERESTING. It’s about a buddhist cult and the death of a man called Ian Thorson. He died of dehydration after spending months in an isolated cave with his wife and guru Christie McNally.

The book explores how Buddhism has been adopted by the West and its impact on the minds of people who’ve grown up in instant-gratification Western societies. I’ve read about the Diamond Mountain tragedy before and the tale ticks all the right boxes for me, religion, cults, the odd motivations behind acts of self harm, psychology, death and so on.

Edit (26.9): I’m now nearing the last quarter of the book. I wrote the above having read the first few pages and a very exciting blurb. And I’m left slightly disappointed, but perhaps my expectations were a bit too high. The description of the book made me think the story would have been interspersed with interviews, research and descriptions of what happens in the mind of people who go on long silent meditation retreats. I was expecting more psychology. Instead the book (so far) has been a bit of a true crime read with some paragraphs about Buddhism. It’s a bit of a let down. These people make bad decisions and then things spiral out of control. It’s depressing. So I’m giving the book a rest.

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilisation, by Thomas Homer-Dixon

I’ve been reading this cheerful little book before going to bed. It’s written by a Canadian academic and looks how societies break down. Homer-Dixon is fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire and looks at the different stressors (climate change, terrorism, financial crises) that might make our societies collapse. The books was published in 2006 and so far a lot of the potential problems he’s identified seem worryingly familiar.

Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13000 years, by Jared Diamond

I bought this book because an Amazon review said it had changed the reviewer’s worldview. It’s written by biophysicist, ecologist and anthropologist Jared Diamond and offers a multidisciplinary investigation of how human societies were formed and why some societies became more advanced than others.

It’s a fascinating take on the complete randomness of life and our current system of organising ourselves, our beliefs and our power structures. The book makes it seem blindingly obvious that chance, rather than some grand plan, lies behind the way we’ve chosen to live on this planet. It’s very interesting, but also seriously dense with a tiny font, which is why I’ve been plowing through it slowly for almost six months now.

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I know the list isn’t exactly jam-packed with what you might call feel-good reads. But these topics have in one way or another been on my mind for a while now, they pop up on a regular basis in the work I do and I feel the need to dig deeper. Considering I spent my teens wearing black and reading about serial killers it’s probably something of an improvement.

Do storms have an identity because we give them names?

Written yesterday

I’m in Humanities 2 at the British Library. There is a whiny noise, like a storm trapped in a chimney, coming from somewhere behind me. Perhaps it’s Gertrude. She’s brought snow, power cuts and flooding from across the Atlantic. Last night her gusts sounded like a giant’s fist buffeting the walls of my apartment block. All the storms have names now. This winter we’ve had Clodagh and Desmond and Frank. Now we have Gertrude. Perhaps she’s trying to join us here at Humanities 2 through an open vent. Perhaps the sound is just an asthmatic computer. It wasn’t even that windy this morning.

When I asked for my books at the counter they looked at the bookshelf at the far end, under the letter B. It still surprises me. Last time I came here regularly they always went to the shelf with the letter H stuck to it. I’m no longer the person I used to be. The cells in my body have changed. My name has changed. We change and stay the same. I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately, about losing it and coming back to it. I’ve been thinking about choosing it. We stay who we are through the stories we tell ourselves. Because of our Facebook accounts and our Instagram accounts, those stories are more permanent and visible than ever before. They hold us accountable to who we think we are. Do storms have more of an identity because we give them names? Do they get their own social media accounts?

I shouldn’t be writing about identity. I’m here to read about the London stone and to find out more about the foundations of London. I have a meagre haul of books. The only one I could find with the title “London Stone” is a pamphlet about a completely different London stone in Staines. I think it might be near Heathrow, but I’m not sure. It has the same name, but it’s not the right stone.

I’ve also picked up Daniel Defoe’s essay on the plague and Charles Booth’s account of the London poor. I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with this selection, but I have to start somewhere. Working in the library is like sifting through soil. Eventually a few golden nuggets will fall through. I love working here. It smells of books and dust. It quietens me. Even with Gertrude, or not Gertrude, whining in the vent.

Image by Mario Calvo.

Some winter kindness

This is the time of the year when life speeds up. There are markets to do and mail-outs to send out, articles to write, t-shirts to fold and Christmas presents to buy. Sometimes just staying warm seems like enough of a challenge. When it rains it’s worse. The damp here is the real problem in the winter. It’s not like home where, in my mind, it’s dry cold, the sort of cold that makes your nostrils stick together, where the snow itself is cold, hard and sticky. Home where it’s dark at three in the afternoon and there are mountains of snow piled up on pavements, in gardens and alongside the houses. But this all in my mind. It’s not like that anymore, the winters are warmer.

Here in London it’s grey, sometimes sunny, but mostly grey. I’m spending some of my time helping Gerry with the pre-Christmas rush. I’m writing long lists and rushing around, but I should remember this is the time of the year when you need to slow down. It’s the time of the year for blankets, books and hot tea.

I’m trying to read, but the books I choose are exciting and speedy as well. I finished Cecilia Ekbäck’s Wolf Winter yesterday. It’s a book written in English by a Swedish author about Lapland in the 1700s. It’s a murder mystery, there is magic and snow. I liked it, but the more I write the more distant I feel from the novels I read. It’s a good book though, seek it out if it sounds like your cup of tea.

Today I might to do some more writing of my own. I’ve set myself a target of 500 words per day. Just 500 slow words. In this busy period I’ve not been writing every day, but that’s OK too. I figure during this cold time of the year when the news reports are full of fearful things kindness needs to come first. So I’m going easy on myself. I hope you are too.

Image by Sirma Krusteva.

Feeding the fire

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog over the last few weeks. I’ve gone through an introspective period, when it’s felt more important to look inside, to read and to feel, rather than to broadcast. Sometimes it’s important to feed the fire.

I find it easy to get wrapped up in doing and will only pat myself on the back if I’ve been active and producing work. I forget how important those quiet in-between periods of soaking up new knowledge can be.

Last weekend I took a bus to central London (a place I normally avoid) and walked to the National Gallery. I chose the rooms at random and walked up to pictures that spoke to me. After about an hour the noise of the people, tourists and families, started to get tiring so I went to the cafe and read for a bit.

Later in the day I walked to one of my favourite places in London, Foyles Bookstore on Charing Cross Road. I spent most of the afternoon browsing, stopping at the fiction section and moving on to philosophy and psychology, picking up books that seemed interesting.

Bookshops are magical places. The smell of paper soothes me. I wonder if being surrounded by so many words somehow acts as an insulation to everyday life. Instead of spending all that time in my head, I pick up a book, I read someone else’s thoughts and it stops my mind for a moment. It’s meditative. I move on to the next book and get a flavour of someone else’s thoughts and feelings.

In my more new age-y moments I wonder if the books and the paper also insulate me from the stress of London. They act as a dampener, shutting out the noise, pollution, the electromagnetic signals, the stress and the adrenaline pumped people on the streets. I escape into bookshops and libraries every now and then. And right now I hunger for the fuel they offer me. It will be autumn soon. Perhaps this is nothing more than a hang-over from my school days, it’s the time of the year when I need and crave new knowledge.

Image by Joshua Earle.

So… how’s the writing going?

I thought I’d answer a question I get asked sometimes these days. I’m asked this because I’ve told some people (a few people, too many people!?, people on this blog) that I’m working on a book. It’s really nice that friends ask me about my writing, but that doesn’t mean I’m not pretty bad at answering the question. In my head I sometimes still equate saying I’m writing books with saying that I’m planning to become an astronaut or that I’d like to join a circus.

So how’s the writing going then? There are three answers to this question.

1. I wrote a book. My first fiction book. It took me about a year to write. A couple of months ago the publisher I’ve worked with in Finland turned it down. It stung a bit, but I wasn’t surprised. I had known that the book wasn’t really good enough. It had problems. It was a bit of a Frankenstien’s monster of a book, lots of different ideas and experiments stitched together. It was very much a first attempt at writing fiction. I learned a lot writing it. I’m moving on.

2. This spring I joined Charlie’s and Amie’s first writing bootcamp. This month I’ll be finishing my first novel in English. It’s been a great experience. I’ve learned a lot. One of the best things is having gained access to a writing community where I can get and give feedback. I still don’t know what will happen with this book when I’m finished. Perhaps nothing, perhaps I’ll publish it on Wattpad. Maybe one day I will find a good editor, someone to design me a nice cover and put it up on Amazon.

3. I’m not really done with my first fiction book yet. Some of the characters refuse to leave me. I think there’s some life in them yet and I’m planning another outing for them. A better one. A better story. Let’s see how it goes.

The main thing is. I’m writing. I’ll keep writing.