I’ll Read That Again

I recently had cause to think about my relationship with reading when surgery for recurrent corneal erosion left me unable to use my eyes for a couple of days. I was grateful to have the distraction of audiobooks but they were no substitute for the pleasure of holding a physical book and it reminded me how back in 2015 I wrote about a different variety of reading disorder. That one lasted for five years and its onset coincided with the end of my first marriage. Books had been my constant companions up to that point but the upset drove my pleasure in reading into deep hibernation and it would not be coaxed out. I knew I had lost something precious but that bit of me was broken and I had no idea how to fix it. The timing was perverse as it happened just when I would most have appreciated escape from the jagged wreckage of everyday life and meanwhile the pile of peevishly discarded books kept on growing. One thing that surprised me was how even when I was happy again it took several years to get back to normal. I’d never heard anyone talk about this before but since then other people have told me they’ve had a similar experience after illness, bereavement or divorce.

In the end, the thing that shifted my block was re-reading an old favourite, The Light Years which is the first volume of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. I adored these books in the nineties and as soon as I started re-reading I was drawn back into a world of engaging characters and delicious mid-twentieth century details, sprinkled with humour and suffused with the author’s exceptional ability to write from a child’s perspective. I read slowly and tentatively at first, and then with heady pleasure until five novels and two thousand pages later I reached the end of the series and sobbed because Elizabeth Jane is now dead and so there will be no more. That was when I knew I was cured. 

Since then I’ve read hungrily, grateful to have found what I’d lost for so long and I make much use of both the local city and county libraries. They are impressively stocked which is fortunate as every week brings new recommendations from friends, attention-grabbing reviews, and random discoveries online. A conservative estimate puts the number of new English language novels published every year at around one hundred thousand.  With such an intimidating deluge of potential entertainment it’s tempting to plough ever onwards soaking up novel novels but as I discovered in recovering from my reading block, re-reading can be rewarding and it’s a shame to completely neglect it in favour of new works. As children we read books over and over again—for me it was The 101 Dalmatians, Little Women and Five Go to Kirrin Island—but as adults we tend to prioritise exploration. 

My thoughts on re-reading were consolidated recently when a writing tutor recommended The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. It’s an entertaining and informative read—the authors are bibliotherapists and suggest a range of novels for every imaginable situation including  guilt, exhaustion, existential angst, a lack of confidence, curing xenophobia, being a mother-in-law, constipation, moving house, and being in hospital. But the key thing I took away from it was the authors’ enthusiasm for re-reading. They recommend creating a shelf of ten favourite novels and re-reading them every five years or so. Put them all together on a designated shelf, they suggest, and they will trigger good feelings every time you go past.  

I like these ideas very much and so have given thought to the content of my own favourites shelf. There were six candidates that immediately jumped out and settled comfortably onto the shelf, secure in my long-held affection for them. Others had to contend with being compared, contrasted and gradually eliminated. It was a tricky task and I considered making the list longer—after all ten was just a number that had been suggested by someone else. But there was a discipline in having to stick to this number—it forced me to think about why I had included each one. Then there is the reality that if I am to stand any chance of re-reading these books once—twice—maybe three times or more, if I live long enough, then the shelf cannot bear too many volumes. Otherwise it will further complicate that original dilemma of whether to seek new works to admire, or to revisit old ones. 

One of the first contenders to be given serious consideration was John Lanchester’s Capital because it reminds me of my South London years. Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate is one of the few books that makes me laugh out loud, and both David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars and Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal hold poignant memories because they take me back to the precious hour after lunch when my three eldest children were at school and the youngest was in her cot having a nap. Then I would sit on my blue sofa and read in guilty, delicious escape from domesticity. And now that the youngest child is a thoughtful adult I recently cherished one of her recommendations—Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Either of Ian MacEwan’s Atonement or Graham Swift’s Last Orders could easily have made the leap onto the shelf based on the beauty and fluency of the writing, and in Notes From An Exhibition, Patrick Gale seduces his readers to Cornwall which I have grown to love in recent years while walking the South West Coast Path. A bang-up-to-the-minute contender was this year’s Booker winner, Damon Galgut’s The Promise which offers insight into South Africa where my husband grew up, and I have fond, raw, teenage memories of reading Far from the Madding Crowd at school. Then there was Agatha Christie’s 4.50 From Paddington which marked a juncture. At the age of eleven I spotted it on my big sister’s bookshelf and settled down to read, aware of this being the first time I had properly engaged with a book intended for adults. These are splendid books that I would recommend to anyone but in the end they were all rejected in favour of ten other books. These ten novels were each etched into my memory but several were no longer to be found on my bookshelves—either lost, loaned, or returned to their owner— and so I bought a copy of each of the missing ones and now all the members of my little blended print-family sit together on their own dedicated shelf. Until last week this space was occupied by boxes of Covid tests so the new arrangement feels like a considerable improvement.

I wanted my selection to be a true expression of books I love regardless of what anyone else might think, and so in making my choices I tried not to distort genuine preferences by seeking some kind of balance. I did my best to put genre, subject matter, classics vs modern, literary reputation, and author gender out of my mind when weighing up one book against another and so it was entirely unplanned that I ended up with an equal number of male and female writers. The settings are undeniably skewed towards the country where I have always lived but they do lead readers into the midst of London’s Chinese and Jamaican communities as well as transporting us to modern India and jazz-age America. There is, however, a complete absence of historical fiction, crime, Victorian classics, and science fiction which even though I’ve enjoyed books in each of those categories, does reveal something about my taste at its most fundamental. I’ve also ignored non-fiction or the choices would have been impossible. 

In the same way that I’ve heard people say, ‘These are my people’ when talking about friends, then these are my books. This blended print-family is in part an expression of identity and I love the fact that if you create a collection it will inevitably look quite different from mine. It’s a pleasing thought too, that like wine and friendships, the very best novels get better over the years.  But the collection is not set in stone and as I continue to read then some might get replaced. In fact I’m certain that’s something to aspire to. Who would want their enthusiasms to remain static for decades? Life is about growth and discovery and books give us the opportunity to meet people we’ve never met, see places we’ve never been, and explore new points of view. And one of the most interesting things about rereading is to see how treasured books stand the test of time. When first encountered you will inevitably have known less about life and have lived less of it. 

So here for what it’s worth are the titles to be found on my favourites shelf: 

The Light Years: Elizabeth Jane Howard

A Fine Balance: Rohinton Mistry

After You’d Gone: Maggie O’Farrell

The Hundred and One Dalmatians: Dodie Smith

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont: Elizabeth Taylor

The Remains of the Day: Kazuo Ishiguro

Small Island: Andrea Levy

Sour Sweet: Timothy Mo

The Great Gatsby: F Scott Fitzgerald

The Course of Love: Alain de Botton

I’d love to hear what you might put on your shelf, and why. As always you can leave a comment on the blog or if you’re having trouble posting you can email 60treatsandmore@gmail.com 

For now all that’s left is to wish you happy reading…and possibly…even happier re-reading. 

I Don’t Agree With Myself

I want to start today’s post with a story. It is completely true but as I don’t come out of it very well I must ask in advance for forgiveness. 

It happened about ten years ago and at that time I used to take regular walks in the woods with a friend. She was completely obsessed with dogs and one day she told me about a local family that was having a hard time. The mother had died leaving three teenage daughters, and their father was struggling to cope.  But as a dog-lover, my friend was particularly concerned about the family’s two giant poodles as they weren’t getting much attention, and she’d drawn up a list of people who were willing to walk them. She was pleased when I offered to help and she gave me the family’s phone number and told me to get in touch when I was free. 

My daughter Molly was about fourteen and as we’d recently lost our own dogs she was excited to hear about the poodles and keen to meet them. It wasn’t long until a lovely summer evening presented us with an ideal opportunity. I rang the number I’d been given and one of the daughters answered. She seemed quite happy to hear from me. “Let yourself in at the back gate,” she said. “The poodles are in the utility room. You’ll find their leads and everything you need there.” About twenty minutes later we arrived and parked outside the house. It was surrounded by a high wooden fence and as we went through the gate into the garden the first thing we saw was a girl who was occupied in tipping earth from one plant pot to another and humming to herself. She had chin-length mousy hair and was probably about twelve.  As I strode towards her she stiffened and stopped humming. “Hello,” I said. “We’ve come to walk the poodles.” 

She stared wide-eyed at me, through her glasses. “We haven’t got any poodles,” she whispered nervously.  

“Yes you have,” I said impatiently deciding that she must have comprehension difficulties. “I spoke to your sister just now and she said it was alright. The poodles are waiting for us in the utility room.” 

“I haven’t got a sister,” she croaked, looking quietly desperate. I was just about to argue that of course she had a sister when I felt Molly tugging urgently at my dress. “Mum…it’s the wrong house,” she said. 

I often think back to the affair of the poodles as it’s a good reminder of how easily we can jump to the wrong conclusions. When faced with a set of facts that didn’t quite add up I did what people do all the time. I tried to make sense of it but unfortunately in doing that I fell prey to confirmation bias—I concocted a narrative that fitted my pre-existing beliefs. I’d set out purposefully at the end of a busy day, keen to do a good deed and unwilling to let anything stand in my way. The evidence I had was an unlocked gate, a garden, and a girl—just as I’d been led to expect. It therefore made perfect sense to me that the nervous-looking girl was simply unobservant. So unobservant in fact that she’d not even noticed that she shared her home with an older sister and two giant poodles. 

None of us is immune to confirmation bias and a few years ago the comedian Andy Hamilton made me laugh with a routine about people who recognise him but can’t place where he’s from—apparently a common hazard of being on TV.  He recounted that one day he was on the Tube and noticed that the man sitting opposite was staring intently. After a while the man leaned forward and said, “I know who you are…you’re that bloke from the kennels where I take my dog.” 

“No I’m not,” replied the famous radio and TV personality. 

“Yes you are,” said the man with absolute confidence. 

John Maynard Keynes is often credited with saying, “When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do?” It’s fortunate that Molly was nimbler than me in drawing a sensible conclusion about the evidence in the garden, and so it was that driven by her acute embarrassment I reassured the girl and apologised profusely as we made a quick getaway. The poodle palaver was easily resolved but it did make me wonder about other times when I’ve been convinced that I’m right.  And I’ve revisited these unsettling thoughts in the past few weeks while reading Daniel Kahneman’s latest book Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement. The Nobel Prize winning psychologist and economist is best known for the influential Thinking, Fast and Slow but in his new book he examines the many ways in which humans make unreliable judgements. We like to think of ourselves as deliberative and independent-minded but we’re unconsciously swayed by a number of common errors in thinking. 

It’s no surprise that people hold diverse points of view and have different thresholds for making decisions but what is perhaps more disturbing is how inconsistent we are within ourselves. Whatever area you think about, if the judgements are made by humans then they’re prone to inconsistency—politics, law, medicine, business and forensics, for example. Kahneman cites a review of 207,000 immigration court decisions in the US which found that judges were significantly less likely to grant asylum when the weather was hot. Another study found that criminal court judges were more likely to grant parole after lunch. If you should find yourself in any kind of court I recommend that you choose pleasant weather conditions and a contented, post-prandial judge rather than a grumpy, hungry one.  You might also want to find one whose sports team has recently performed well, and don’t forget to check that they don’t have backache. We are all affected to some extent by our emotions and environment. Further data comes from the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues at the University of Virginia who asked research subjects to judge written accounts of people displaying morally dubious behaviour. Those who were placed next to a messy desk or a smelly toilet made harsher judgements than those who were placed in a more salubrious environment. 

Another way to study reliability is to get people to rate the same thing on different occasions. Kahneman cites multiple studies that have done this including some where fingerprint experts changed their decisions in as many as 10% of cases. In a major wine competition, experts scored only 18% of the wines the same on the second rating, and these were usually the worst ones and therefore presumably the easiest to agree on. And I know that I’m not as steady and reliable as I might wish to believe. I only have to think about how I’ve reacted to various films. The first time I saw Vertigo, for example, I was indifferent to it. I was tired and fell asleep half way through. But a few years later, I watched it in a different frame of mind and couldn’t understand how I’d been so impervious to such a masterpiece. There have been many similar situations, all of which shifting makes me wonder who I am and what I believe. Can I ever trust my own judgement? 

Each of us can only exist in our own highly individual version of reality—affected by our environment, our emotions, the tendency to jump to conclusions, the information available to us, and much more besides. Kahneman hits the nail on the head—Put quite simply, it is hard to agree with reality if you can’t agree with yourself. We can improve things to some extent by being aware that it’s a problem, by challenging ourselves and others, by looking for more evidence, and by following the wise advice to sleep on it when you have an important decision to make. There’s one thing I can be sure about—if you’re anything like me there’s a good chance that by the morning you’ll have changed your mind.

Photos: Mike Poppleton 

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The Joy of Insignificance

Last time I wrote about walking the South West Coast Path. It never fails to move me and on a recent trip I was struck by my utter insignificance. My head may have been filled with ideas, emotions and memories that are important to me but they seemed so trivial when I watched the waves homing on the beach. Earth Day this week came with a reminder that our planet is 4.5 billion years old and so the sea has been doing what it does with regularity and reliability for an awfully long time. We need the sea for our survival but it is completely indifferent to us and will continue to crash into eternity long after you and me and the whole human race are gone. It doesn’t care about the pandemic. It doesn’t care whether I have vertigo, how I dress or what I write about. That made me feel very small and to my surprise it was quite a relief. 

This thought chimes with a book I read recently—4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. This got a lot of coverage in the press as the basic premise is intriguing. If we live to the age of eighty then we have around four thousand weeks on Earth and Burkeman poses the question of how to make best use of this time. If you haven’t read 4000 Weeks then I recommend it. It’s full of thought-provoking ideas and refreshingly it runs counter to the avalanche of predictable self-help guides that advise us how to live more positively and make the most of every minute—in fact his previous book was called The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

I’m still trying to make my mind up about some of the ideas in the book but I do relate to what the author calls cosmic insignificance therapy. It’s hard to come up with something that’s completely original—this one has its feet firmly planted in Buddhism—but he presents it in a new way. It’s basically the idea that I saw played out in the waves—that in the scheme of things our day to day worries are extremely insignificant. When weighed down by stress I’ve often tried to get a sense of perspective by reminding myself that in ten years time this won’t matter.  Cosmic insignificance therapy just takes that thought and gives it an infinitely bigger perspective. 

It would be easy to interpret this as nihilism. But Burkeman is not saying that nothing matters. He acknowledges that we need to feed the baby, and go to work to earn money to pay the rent or mortgage. What he is saying is that we don’t need to do something extraordinary in order to live a good life. 

The positive thinking movement tells us that we can be whatever we want. It instructs us to delete the word impossible from our vocabulary. But that can lead to measuring our worth by how we seem to others and consequently to bad decisions. Make a nice lemon drizzle cake and someone will suggest you apply to The Great British Bake-Off. Become self-employed and suddenly the sky’s the limit—your efforts could blossom into a trillion-dollar global phenomenon. If you like to play around with words then maybe you’ll win the Booker. At the very least you should be aiming to write a bestseller. There’s nothing wrong with any of these aspirations if they really are what you want but theYou Can Be Whatever You Want mindset implies a duty to do something extraordinary in order to have meaning. Burkeman says that can lead to feeling overwhelmed and argues that we should not underestimate the importance of the ordinary, achievable things we do. Take pleasure in sharing your lemon drizzle cake with friends, in bringing good values to your work, in writing something that a handful of people get something from, or in offering your shoulder for a friend to cry on. 

The notion of cosmic insignificance can be liberating and empowering because it brings a sense of perspective but it doesn’t address the human desire to make a difference. The wish to leave something behind by which we can be remembered is one of the forces that drive creativity. It’s a way to cheat the finality of death. With cosmic insignificance Burkeman argues that ultimately we will all be forgotten. Steve Jobs wanted to ‘put a dent in the universe’ but who will remember the iPhone in a thousand years time? 

Another book I’ve read recently puts a different angle on this. Every Family Has A Story: How We Inherit Love and Loss is written by the psychotherapist Julia Samuel. Rather than emphasising our insignificance she shows through case studies of families she has worked with, how interconnected we are. We each have our own story but we are part of many other stories too—our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, even those we never knew. Patterns get handed down unconsciously and unchallenged because we do not recognise that things could be any other way. Samuel says that when she works with people who are stuck and hurting she wants to shout at them It didn’t start with you or even your parents. Look at the untold stories, unprocessed injuries and losses that have been handed to you by ghosts of the past and find a way to deal with them now so you don’t hand them down to the next generation. This focuses on the problems we hand on but there are of course many gifts we can pass on, not least by finding a way to deal with problems from the past. 

Both of these books are interesting and while their ideas are not entirely incompatible they do throw up some conundrums. One makes me feel insignificant and liberated from other people’s opinions. The other burdens me with the weight of responsibility to do my best for the people I love and have an impact on. But perhaps those things are not so incompatible after all. The reminders to be true to ourselves, to value the ordinary and to be glad that we might have an impact that lasts through a few generations are all ways to live life well. The thing is that we will never know what our legacy will be, and one thing for sure is that the waves won’t care. I’m off to make a lemon drizzle cake, play with some words and have a chat with my daughter. That’s enough for today. I’m happy to be insignificant. 

Photos: Mike Poppleton

More Than A Walk

I’m on an open-top bus. It’s Monday morning and as we swing and sway round twisty Cornish lanes we look down at huge fields of daffodils. New green leaves emerge from winter twigs and in the distance the sea flashes diamond signals from Porthcurno, our destination. “We’re lucky with the weather,” we say to one another and to strangers at the bus stop. 

We’re on our way to start a day of walking from Porthcurno back to Newlyn where we’re staying. It’s five years since we started on the South West Coast Path, taking a couple of trips away each year and making gradual progress along the edge of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Last year we reached the half-way point at Porthallow. That’s just beyond Falmouth and 315 miles from where we started. I’m torn between wanting to devour the experience and yet not wanting it to end. Never before have I felt passionate about a sport or outdoor activity but this haunts my daydreams and pulls me back for more. And it’s so much more than a walk—it’s like an immensely absorbing book. The sea is the protagonist and every mile introduces themes and characters into the plot. At the end of each section I put my metaphorical bookmark on the current page and long for the day when I can pick it up again. The best books are enjoyable, gripping and memorable. They change us and this one is no exception. 

Through Dorset and East Devon, the Path was enchanting and I was infatuated though it was often tough with crazy rollercoaster dips and dives. By the end of those days I’d have aching legs and stinging feet, and I’d hate it. But by the next morning I was always forgiving and ready for more. I wittered on about how I loved it to anyone who would listen. Then, in the wilds of the South Devon cliffs somewhere between Prawle Point and Salcombe I saw another side of the walk—and of myself. 

All had been going well that day. We’d set out from Slapton Sands and after passing the ghostly remains of Hallsands village we reached Start Point lighthouse where we stopped for elevenses. But as we unpacked the flask and banana cake, my stomach lurched. The drop was precipitous and the rocks below looked particularly treacherous. I felt extremely uneasy so while Mike sat happily in the autumn sunshine drinking coffee and enjoying the view, I retreated until it was out of sight. I didn’t mention my discomfort as I felt foolish but as we walked on towards Prawle Point things got steadily worse. The path was alarmingly narrow and seemed extremely high. Up until this point on our walks I’d not been bothered by height as there had always been a barrier—either a stone wall, a wire fence or nature’s own tangled defence of gorse and brambles. Here there was nothing and the exposure made fear fizz inside me like soda. I tried to stay calm, plodding on using my walking poles and searching for positive thoughts—it wasn’t a wet day, my boots have grippy tread, and thousands of people walk this stretch every year. But it was no good. As I scrambled over huge irregular boulders and slid down onto yet more of the spindly path I was acutely attuned to every gust of wind, bump in the path and minor slip. Eventually my final filament of logic drifted off in the breeze and I crouched down next to a stone and sobbed. I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t go forward. I decided that this was where I would have to spend the rest of my days. 

At this point, Mike retraced his steps and was astonished to find me there. It took a while to explain my predicament as I couldn’t point or wave my hands about—I had to stay very very still. And while this was going on there was further humiliation when a young woman came JOGGING past, as relaxed and happy as it was possible to be. Thirty seconds later along came another one—equally cheerful and fast but quite a bit older. I guessed that it was her mother. 

I didn’t know and was in no mood for analysis, but what I was suffering was an attack of acrophobia or what mountain rescue teams call cragfast. It’s not unreasonable to have a fear of heights in such an exposed area but most people can control it. That day I discovered that I’m not one of them and I learned later that I probably have a processing deficit. We all rely on a combination of information from the balance-sensing organ of the inner ear and visual information from our eyes, but in a situation like this where there’s a big empty space below with no landmarks to provide orientation, most people shift to relying more on the information that comes from their inner ear, as well as feedback from the rest of their body about its position. People with acrophobia don’t do that and continue to rely on visual information, becoming confused and cognitively overloaded.  One helpful climbing website describes it as being captured by the empty space.

There’s lots of advice online about how to overcome an attack of acrophobia but Mike didn’t have access to that and he did remarkably well with no resources other than kindness and patience. I held onto his hand and edged along, complaining ungratefully until eventually after what seemed a very long time, it was over. As we walked through woodland towards East Portlemouth the firm ground had never been more welcome. 

After that day, I lost my confidence and was unsure whether I could continue on the great walking project. I stopped wittering on about how wonderful it is. But like childbirth, the intensity of the memory faded, and by the following Spring I was ready to try again. A couple of days into the trip we rounded a headland and with the familiar fizz of fear I saw that the path on the opposite side of the cove was both high and narrow. “I can’t do it,” I said to Mike, already starting to hyperventilate. “I’ll walk up to the main road and avoid it.” 

“If you really want to,” he said, “but I think you’ll regret it and it will only make it worse next time you get to another section like this.” I struggled between reason and panic but I knew he was right, and at last decided to do it but without looking up or down. It took all the concentration I could muster, to keep my eyes focused on my feet and not to glance to the right where I could hear the sea crashing on the rocks. For five maybe ten minutes, I just put one foot in front of the other until the path widened out and dipped down again. And it was OK. I was so glad that I’d done it. 

The fear still lurks there though, quick to wake up with the slightest prod and today on this Monday morning as I sit on the bus approaching Porthcurno I can feel it rumbling about. The guidebook has told us that this section is strenuous and rugged and the trouble is that it’s almost impossible to predict what will trigger the vertigo. It takes a particular set of circumstances with height, slope, mud, buffeting winds, and exposure all playing a role in the mix. You cannot judge those in advance from maps and guidebooks. 

We start out across the dunes and up across the cliffs. It’s easy and exhilarating to be out on the path again for the first time this year.  “Strenuous?” we say after a couple of hours and agree that the book has got it wrong this time. We stop for tea and a superior chocolate chip cookie looking down over a golden beach that is deserted apart from a woman whose footprints create an A-shape of modern art in the sand, and a man who appears to be naked.

We set off again and I catch the raw juicy scent of wild garlic. On my way down a rough set of steps I see a thin tangle of light-brown rope which rapidly uncoils and does a disappearing trick into the bank. Its colour and markings tell me that it’s a young female adder. Headland follows headland and all is going well. Then I fall over in a boggy patch and shortly afterwards the rock clambering starts. We’re high up and it’s unsettling. “Don’t look down,” I say. It seems to go on for miles although from time to time it relents into wooded sections where I enjoy the view down to the waves. At one high, narrow point I pass a man and he says, ‘My wife doesn’t like this. She gets vertigo.” And I spot her edging along, bending inland like a windswept sapling. I guess I must look like that too. I stop to wait for her at a wider section by a large steady boulder and we share experiences. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. One foot in front of the other. 

Eventually the drama recedes and we descend into the pretty harbour village of Mousehole. A chaffinch poses in a bush and sings its heart out. All feels right with the world. 

But of course all is not right with the world. Summer may be about the reds, the pinks and the oranges but here in the Spring I see blue and yellow everywhere. The path is sunny with prickly gorse, shiny celandines, clumps of wild daffodils and pale shady primroses accompanied by dabs of sapphire speedwell and even some early bluebells. The blue and yellow is in so many hearts and heads. It’s in the Ukrainian flag hoisted high on a church tower, and in the harbour at Porthleven. In a quiet cove I see a sign that reads Please Believe These Days Will Pass. I don’t know what the writer intended but my thoughts turn immediately to the war and the people under siege in Mariupol. Last week like tens of thousands of others we applied to host a Ukrainian family. We don’t yet know when or if that will happen but right now we have space in our house, and spare time. So much is unknown and I feel afraid. What will they be like? What traumas will they have experienced? Am I up to the challenge? But I have to remind myself that this is not fear. What they are suffering is fear. And it’s a good time to invoke the lesson that helped me on the coast path. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. Put one foot in front of the other and just do it. 

Photos: Mike Poppleton and Lynn Farley-Rose

Blue and Yellow

“How are things with you?” asked my friend as we chatted recently. “Oh you know…OK…” I said. “But I’m finding it ever so difficult to write my blog. I’d really like to do one for February but the truth is I’m stuck.”

“Why don’t you write a blog about it being hard to write a blog?” she said. That bit of encouragement got me thinking. I played with ideas ranging from boredom to persimmons, and from a self-help treatment for insomnia to a curious conversation overheard on a cliff. But I couldn’t make any of it work. It’s hard to engage with the small topics when the news is full of weighty issues like global warming, the fall-out from the pandemic, Government incompetence, and the energy crisis. And then this week a nightmare was unleashed with Putin’s attack on Ukraine—war in Europe on a scale we have not seen for 75 years and hoped never to see again. 

My son has lived in Latvia for the past nine years and through him our family has been reminded often of how much the current Russian leadership is feared in the former Soviet Bloc states. In the past few days we’ve kept in close touch via our WhatsApp family group and he is profoundly angry. “Make no mistake,” he says, “Ukraine may not be a perfect state but this is an entirely unprovoked attack. Ukraine is fighting for the civilised world.” He is full of admiration for the bravery currently being shown in Ukraine. Yesterday morning he shared a video of the President, Prime Minister and other cabinet members staring earnestly in what looked like an amateur recording, telling their people from a city under bombardment that they were still there and would continue to fight for freedom. The direct gaze of these men facing out such horrific events brought me and no doubt millions of others to tears. Tears for their commitment and for what they and others will suffer. 

We’re only just starting to come out of a pandemic that has rocked the world and while this has been a time of turmoil and suffering, this week’s bad news stories are completely different. Covid was—give or take the important arguments about it arising from mankind’s encroachment into the animal world—an unplanned phenomenon. The invasion of Ukraine is a calculated act of human evil. There were things that we could do to feel useful in the pandemic and precautions we could take—maybe you have memories from the early days of offering help to neighbours through the many hastily-assembled community groups and of wiping supermarket delivery items with disinfectant and putting the mail into isolation for several days. With the Ukrainian violations, ordinary people can only watch as events unfold. It’s awful to feel so angry and yet so helpless. 

As it happened, we were in London yesterday following a birthday theatre trip with my younger daughter on Thursday, and a day of DIY and hall painting with my elder daughter on Friday. It was easy to get a number 88 bus from Clapham Common to Downing Street and so that’s what we did. We joined the demonstration in support of Ukraine taking place under the penetrating gaze of General Montgomery’s statue in Whitehall. 

The crowd grew rapidly from noon onwards with great splashes of blue and yellow. People wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags and many had cheeks daubed with face paint. The colours of the Ukrainian flag represent blue skies above the yellow fields of grain, a reminder of two essentials of a good life—freedom and bread. There was no raised podium and I heard snatches of impromptu speeches in English but couldn’t make out much of what was being said. And I heard other speeches in what I assume was Ukrainian. I  understood none of the words. But the sentiments were clear. We were all there for one reason. There was sadness, outrage, desperation. 

“Save Ukraine,” shouted a man we could not see, and the crowd volleyed it back in a rally of support, over and over again. There was also plenty of “Putin Out Putin Out” and  “Cancel SWIFT Cancel SWIFT.” A police officer told me that Johnson was at work in Downing Street, just a matter of yards away. 

I saw a young woman carrying a placard that read, “I’m Russian. I’m against the war.’ She looked drawn and tense. “May I take your photo?” I asked. “Of course,” she said, standing still to pose. “I am so sorry,” she said sadly. “So sorry about Russia.”

We have to hope that Putin has miscalculated. And we have to hope that the protests of Russians at home will gather momentum. My elder daughter went on from Whitehall to see a play at the Bridge Theatre and reported that at the end, after the cast took their bow, they made an announcement, sharing the statement made by the director of the Moscow State Theatre who has resigned her post saying she can no longer take a salary from a murderer. She’s a courageous woman who will probably lose her career and possibly much more. Anyone who protests in Russia is very brave. They risk being beaten by the police to the point of brain damage or death. Many Russians of all ages are innocent victims as Keir Starmer said this week. Young conscripts are fighting. They have been lied to and if they knew the truth their reaction would be horror and bafflement. Countless young people say that their generation does not want this war. They know it is immoral and that it will ultimately harm their own country—quite simply they are not in tune with Putin’s ambitions to turn the clock back. Media organisations are being silenced but on the positive side, it is near impossible to stop social media and Putin who is famously technophobic may well have underestimated the potential that it has to undermine propaganda and promote cohesion. 

Whitehall was busy yesterday with the usual parade of buses passing through, mostly in regular London-red. But I looked up just as a couple of non-conformist buses went past. One was white with adverts all over for GoPuff which offers home deliveries of thousands of items including food, medicines, cleaning materials, electronics and baby essentials, in as little as fifteen minutes. The next bus was blue, and advertising a different company offering much the same service. We’ve become used to getting what we want, more and more quickly. We love to feel that we are in control of our lives. But one thing we cannot summon up with a phone app is peace and rational leaders. This week’s monstrous events have brought a powerful and terrifying reminder of that. 

At the demonstration Mike and I stood close to a sturdy middle-aged man who was holding a guitar. He strummed it vigorously for about five seconds, then stopped only for the Ukrainian national anthem to take over, blaring from a hidden speaker in his clothing, distorted and crackly. It was followed by We’ll Meet Again. Although the significance of the Ukrainian anthem was obvious I wasn’t so sure about Vera Lynn. But as the words boomed out, familiar and clear despite the crackling, I changed my mind. It’s about people being separated from those they love by events outside their control. Just what so many of the Ukrainian families I was standing alongside must be experiencing. Fundamentally it’s about the important things—family, love, people, hope and justice. For months now I’ve had a hand scribbled note pinned above my desk—Choose to be kind. Needless to say that’s a work in progress but now more than ever when so much else feels out of control it seems worth striving towards in all kinds of day-to-day small-scale situations. 

Being at the demonstration of support did a little to assuage my total feeling of helplessness, even though it was infinitesimally infinitesimal. It was good to stand with others, like-minded on this issue, and to remember that most people are good. Also to know that my son was in a similar demonstration hundreds of miles away outside the Russian Embassy in Riga—family, love, people, hope, justice.

This post has been outside my comfort zone. I’m much more used to writing about the boredom, persimmons, insomnia, overheard conversation kinds of things that I mentioned in the first paragraph. But I can’t ignore this and hope I’ve struck the right tone. Much more importantly, with demonstrations taking place in cities around the world I hope that news of the deluge of support reaches the Ukrainian people. They need to know they are not alone.* They need to know that we know they are fighting for the civilised world. 

*Donations are a solid way to offer support. Until this week I never expected to be donating money to an army but this website has reliable suggestions.

No Time

I’ve recently returned from spending Christmas in the Peak District and although there are many parts of England that tug at my heartstrings, this is definitely one of my favourites. We had a happy pre-Christmas weekend at home with the grown-up children and as they set off to spend the holiday with partners’ families, we packed the car and headed north with walking boots, waterproofs, a pile of books, and a box of festive provisions from Waitrose.

Our accommodation was a small stone cottage. We were opposite the village pub and yards from the duck pond and as the country teetered on the edge of new restrictions we found that we were just a few miles from Eyam, otherwise known as ‘the plague village.’ It was here in the summer of 1665 while the Black Death was rampaging across the south of England, that a local tailor took delivery of a pile of cloth samples from London. His assistant and other household members soon got sick and died and it became clear that the dreaded plague had come north—it had been carried by fleas in the cloth although it would take centuries for this mechanism to be understood. The initial outbreak died down quite quickly but it created fear and when it resurfaced in the Spring, the rector William Mompesson took decisive action. He persuaded the community to quarantine itself in order to protect nearby settlements and under the new restrictions no-one was allowed in or out of the village. Outsiders left food and other essential supplies by the boundary stones which had holes bored into them where villagers left their payment of coins disinfected with vinegar. There was nowhere for the residents to go to escape the disease and by the end of the year 267 out of 344 people had died.

We walked to Eyam across the fields. It’s a pretty village and although its history is tragic, it is undeniably fascinating especially given our contemporary challenges. There are sober information boards outside some of the houses listing the people who died there during the quarantine. At Rose Cottage an entire household of nine died, and similar stories are repeated at adjoining houses. We learned that church services were held out of doors and people had to bury their dead in the garden or in the fields. I would like to have visited Eyam Museum but it was closed for the Winter.

This visit took place on the last day of our holiday and while I’m normally quite ready to come home at the end of a trip, this time I felt reluctant. And it wasn’t just because of the cosy cottage and the atmospheric, misty walks with ghostly sheep and ancient drystone walls…there was something else. The unusual thing about this holiday was that we were unchained from time. Apart from a candlelit midnight mass at the ‘Cathedral of the Peaks’ in a nearby village, and a couple of family calls on Christmas Day, our time was unstructured. I’d given up wearing a watch earlier in the pandemic and the cottage’s lone clock was stuck unhelpfully at 9.37. My elderly phone spent most of its holiday on charge under the bed upstairs, and as a result I generally had no idea what the time was. This was quite a shift from life at home where we have a clock in every room and I’m constantly aware of time’s presence. 

There was once a time when Christmas was all about the deadlines. I would carefully follow Delia’s advice on turkey timings, roast potatoes and bread sauce in order to make sure that we could have our lunch and still have a walk before the light faded. But this year the day unfolded at its own pace. We packed a flask of tea and some hunks of panettone and set off late morning to walk a section of the Monsal Trail, a disused railway line that runs between Bakewell and Buxton. It was bitter and the cold gnawed at the base of my fingernails. We stood near the Monsal viaduct looking down at its five graceful arches and later perched on a damp bench gazing at a sweeping valley and a former cotton mill as we polished off our tea and cake. When we got home we cooked a festive meal. I no longer eat meat so there were no turkey timings to worry about. I’m not sure what time we ate—the preparations took as long as they took and although it wasn’t the normal shape of Christmas Day, I enjoyed it very much. 

In the days leading up to Christmas Eve we’d explored the ravishing spa town of Buxton and charming, pudding-obsessed Bakewell but since then everything had closed so there was no temptation to cram in as much as we could which is our usual holiday style. And with day-to-day appointments and obligations on temporary hold, we lived cyclically, getting up when we’d had enough sleep, going to bed when we were tired, and eating when we were hungry. Cyclical. That’s closer to how people lived before clocks began to rule our lives. The majority of people worked on the land, living according to the seasons, starting work when it got light and stopping when it was dark. But with the Industrial Revolution came factories and fixed working hours. This continued with the introduction of the railways when for the first time it became necessary to standardise time across the country. Clocks had originally shown the hours but gradually they became more accurate, slicing time into ever smaller sections with quarter hours then minutes and seconds, creating a tyranny and transforming our habits from cyclical to linear. I’ve spent a lot of my life rushing so as not to fall foul of immutable appointments or bus, train and plane departure times, and wonder whether the seventeenth-century inhabitants of Eyam ever hurried and felt stressed by time.

According to a study by the Oxford English Dictionary, the word time is used more often than any other noun in English—a clear indication that we are obsessed with it. I’ve certainly found it profoundly relaxing to take a break from its stranglehold. This particular situation was related to being on holiday but it has implications for everyday life too, not least because when you remove the pressure of time you’re more likely to experience flow. This term refers to the mental state you enter when you’re so absorbed by an activity that you lose track of time and are completely in the moment. It was named in 1975 by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi who died a couple of months ago, and it’s one reason why it’s so pleasurable to immerse yourself in activities like writing, painting, making music, or playing sport.

During lockdown I frequently noticed that I felt more relaxed than usual and I heard many other people say the same. I might have felt differently if I’d had health issues, employment worries or young children to home-school but for me it was a truth and it made me reassess the time pressures that shape my normal life. Some are commitments that cannot be removed or pared back, and there are of course some that are irresistible pleasures. When it’s our turn to host a family Christmas, for example, we will do so with great pleasure but aside from these exceptions I want to keep in mind that some time pressures are unnecessary and can be challenged. Sometimes it’s good to let things unfold at their own pace. It makes me think of a conversation I had with a friend recently. She is planning to walk some of the Camino in the New Year and I asked, “How far will you go each day?” “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll just take it as it comes and see how I feel.” I like that attitude very much. 

Wishing you a healthy and happy New Year

Photos: Mike Poppleton

Getting Used To It

A couple of years ago as I was driving home late at night I tuned into my local radio station and happened to catch an extraordinary interview. The woman talking was eighty-three and she was neither a celebrity nor anyone else with a book to plug. The fact is that she wasn’t well-known at all but the incredible thing about her was that she claimed never to have been outside Southampton. Even more remarkably she said that she had hardly ever ventured beyond Hedge End, the area where she lived. She sounded extremely content with her life and explained that as she had everything she wanted locally, she had never needed to go further afield. “And what’s more,” she added with a proud flourish, “my husband died three years ago, and he never went outside Southampton either.” I didn’t have to think for long to realise that just that week, I’d already been outside the city three times. 

By comparison, this story brought to mind a woman that I’d met just a few weeks earlier when I was staying in a South African hotel. She was on holiday and was eager to engage me, a fellow traveller of a similar age, in conversation. Where was I from? Why was I there? What did I think of it all? I answered as best I could and asked her some questions in return. She told me she was Canadian and that she liked to travel. She had been to many countries. This was the fortieth one and during this trip she would be swelling her total further by going to Botswana for a safari in the Okavango Delta. I enthused—I’d heard about the stunning wildlife there particularly the birds. She nodded and leaned in closer. “I’ve been to all these countries,” she confided, “but do you know…I’ve only had one National Geographic moment. It was in Peru. I came out of the lodge where we were staying and saw a flock of flamingoes on Lake Titicaca.”

These two women had clearly had very different experiences of life. And yet one expressed great happiness with her lot and the other was proving rather hard to please. 

I like to think that I see the best in things and make the most of my experiences. But actually although it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge, I know that I too can be hard to please. The first time I browsed through Netflix I couldn’t find anything I wanted to watch. I was paralysed by too much choice and ended up selecting something I didn’t like much, then dozing off and waking up feeling thoroughly grumpy. Since then there have been a few wonderful finds when I’ve been grateful for the astonishing variety available, but I have to admit there has been an awful lot of dissatisfaction. And when I graze through Spotify I click, click, click, rarely listening to the end of the track. It’s far too tempting to move onto something new or to scratch a musical memory itch from years ago. It’s all there for the taking. It’s all so easy. It’s all so different from my music-obsessed teenage years. 

In my small town there was just one record shop and the elderly owner had a very scanty knowledge of modern music. She was also a little hard of hearing and several times when I placed an order, the LP that arrived wasn’t what I’d asked for at all. So after a while I gave up on that and resorted to a different tactic. When I had enough saved for a new album, I’d scour the mail-order ads at the back of NME, cut out the order coupon and send it off in the mail together with a postal order. The wait would be tantalising and it was often several weeks before the flat, square, cardboard package would arrive. But when it came it was enormously exciting and I don’t ever remember being disappointed with it. 

It’s curious that while so much choice should make our lives better, it often has the opposite effect. Rationally, of course there’s a great deal to celebrate about the fact that many things are now available on demand. But the trouble is that we’re human and so nothing is completely rational and straightforward. When we get used to having things then we take them for granted and that’s when the problems start. 

Taking things for granted means that they no longer give us the same degree of pleasure that they once did—it’s what psychologists call hedonic adaptation. Our brains get a pleasure hit from novelty whether it’s a new pair of shoes, a new sofa or a new holiday destination but when we get used to things we are liable to be seduced into a search for the next new thing. Unfortunately that pleasure is often short-lived and before we know it we’re on what Daniel Kahneman calls the satisfaction treadmill where we get used to a particular level of satisfaction or happiness and what once felt good enough will no longer do. The net result is that not only do we need the new stuff in order to feed the hedonic adaptation but it has to be even better in order to get the same degree of pleasure. It’s an addiction and the more there is to choose from, the more expectations rise. When the reality falls short we move onto the next big thing that promises it will enhance our lives, change them or perhaps create a National Geographic moment. Perversely, there are likely to be more disappointments in a world with many choices, than in one where there are few. 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I can’t help wondering what would happen if the Hedge End woman were to travel to forty-one countries. Would she start to take it all for granted like the National Geographic woman? Not necessarily of course as we are all so different but I wonder whether she would continue to get as much out of her current simple pleasures like watching the birds in her garden and having a natter with neighbours in the corner shop. 

I’m not suggesting that there is a moral imperative to appreciate things. It certainly seems a shame not to get the most out of abundance if we are lucky enough to have it, but it is not a duty to do so. So why does it matter if we get ensnared by hedonic adaptation and stumble unwarily onto the satisfaction treadmill? I think there are two main reasons. The first is that it doesn’t seem to make us happy. The psychologist Barry Schwartz has researched this subject extensively and in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, he argues that too much choice is actively contributing to rising levels of unhappiness and clinical depression in affluent countries. And secondly, I would argue that it fuels aggressive consumerism which leads to overconsumption, waste and so much else that is threatening the health of the Earth itself. 

So if hedonic adaptation is indeed a trap then it’s useful to see it coming so we can take a side-step. Given human nature, we’re unlikely to avoid it altogether but simply being aware that it happens helps in recognising it for the false friend it is. If it whispers to us that the new car, coat, bag, online service, phone, or travel destination is not what we’d hoped for we can tell it to shut up and try to focus on what is good rather than what is less than perfect. We can remember that it counts amongst its allies an army of marketing executives all trying to boost its profile so that we can contribute to their targets and bonuses. We can tell it that an upgraded version probably won’t fix things. And we can remind it that nothing is perfect—even the Okavango Delta. I can be pretty confident that the National Geographic woman would agree with me on that point.

Photo by Roger Brown on Pexels.com

The Power of Space

In recent months my reading has included several books with Power in the title—The Power of Habit, The Power of Strangers and the Power of Moments. I didn’t consciously choose them because of the P-word—they just happen to cover topics I wanted to explore. But this approach to naming does seem to be a popular way to attract attention and convince your reader of the irrefutable benefits of whatever it is you want to espouse. And so today I am writing about something I want to uphold and explore—The Power of Space.

This topic has been simmering away for months now, co-existing with the resumption of a near-normal, post-pandemic life and it’s been making me feel vaguely uncomfortable. But it was forced to the forefront of my mind last week when I had a particularly busy day. A few years ago, before our lives changed and we applied the brakes, this would have been nothing out of the ordinary. There was my morning writing session, a Pilates class, visiting a friend in a care home about an hour’s drive away, shopping for food, and cooking a birthday dinner for a family member. Individually, each of these activities was pleasant and stress-free. There was nothing onerous about any of them but as the day went on I felt increasingly oppressed, depressed and at odds with myself. The problem was that they were jammed up against one another, leaving no breathing space between. 

This was once my normal pattern. For many years I was genuinely busy keeping all the family balls in the air. I’d rush, grab a quick lunch, rush again, and nearly always find myself running late as I fought against the pressure of time. I often felt overwhelmed but I didn’t have enough insight to recognise what was causing it. Now those days are gone. The children have grown up and my time is largely my own. But the old habits are deeply ingrained and it took the pandemic to give me a new perspective. To make me stop and reassess. To recognise that while I subscribe to Henry David Thoreau’s sentiment, “Live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” he never said that you have to fill every moment. 

We’re encouraged to be busy. If you ask someone how they spent their weekend and they reel off a list of activities, they will no doubt sound more fascinating than someone else who went for a walk and did a bit of daydreaming. I like being busy. I like variety, I like spending time with friends and family, and I like getting things done. It’s satisfying. But the pandemic unexpectedly provided a lot more space, and I’m finding that I don’t want to let it go. I want to do more daydreaming. I want to do a lot more daydreaming. 

Contrary to popular opinion, daydreaming isn’t wasted time. Our bodies may be resting but our brains are not. Suspend focused attention and your mind will wander, switching into what’s known as default mode network (DMN). It processes memories. It also makes unexpected connections which can generate creative ideas or come up with solutions to problems. We’ve probably all had the experience of having a solution turn up when you didn’t even realise you were thinking about it. It often happens to me when I’m out for a walk and never fails to feel like magic. 

It’s all too easy to be switched on all the time. We get bombarded by things that hijack our attention and demand a response. It seems so natural to reach for our phones as soon as we wake up but it’s at the cost of staring at the trees outside, watching the clouds and enjoying the warmth of an early morning mug of tea. It’s at the cost of being still and demanding nothing of oneself. I’m grateful that when I was a child, boredom provided plenty of scope for uninterrupted daydreaming. I’m grateful that I wasn’t shunted from one after-school activity to another. I think that would have induced something similar to the suffocating oppression that I experienced last week. 

I’ve also begun to appreciate the value of space in other contexts. Mike listens to a lot of Scandinavian jazz and points out the spaces between the notes that give it a reflective quality. And a different kind of jazz musician, Miles Davis, famously advised his musical collaborators, “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.” He was always looking for the ideal balance between the space from which the music emerges and the notes that we hear. Less is more. And I recently watched a couple of films by the director Wim Wenders. He muses on space. In Paris, Texas the camera lingers on a desert scene just slightly longer than you expect. Nothing is rushed. The space poses questions and invites you to create your own interpretation. It’s the polar opposite of a hectic Bond movie.

There is of course, a place for both. Too much space…not good. Too much activity…not good. I’ve had a number of conversations recently with friends and family who have talked about their wish to find a new kind of balance as a result of the pandemic. So I know I’m not alone in my thinking. And that means that even if you don’t feel this way yourself, there will almost certainly be people in your life who are struggling to work this out. Mindful activities like meditation or tai chi can help but for me at the moment, it’s a daily walk in nature that’s important. Together with my early morning tea ritual, some empty space in my diary and time unhitched from technology. 

Space is freedom. Trust it. Give it time and see what emerges. 

That’s the power of space—it’s the freedom to be yourself.

Photos: Mike Poppleton

Key Connections

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

We learn a lot through the interests of our friends and family, and it’s in this way that I’ve developed a second-hand familiarity with the Baltic states. Ten years ago my son went to Estonia, initially as a TEFL teacher and the following year he moved to Latvia where he’s stayed ever since. During this time he’s become very fond of the region and has amassed a lot of knowledge about its history and culture. So I wasn’t surprised when he sent a message to our family WhatsApp group, to tell us that thirty-two years ago this week, the Baltic Chain was formed. This was when people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formed a human chain, holding hands across 420 miles and connecting the three capital cities of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. For fifteen emotional minutes on August 23rd 1989, two million people joined together in a peaceful protest against the illegal Soviet occupation of their countries. It was one of the earliest and longest unbroken human chains in history and contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the restoration of independence to the Baltic states.

Two years ago on the thirtieth anniversary of the Baltic Chain, Hong Kong organised its own version—a chain of 210,000 people standing in line across thirty miles, protesting against the extradition bill and demanding democratic elections. Over the years there have been a number of other chains gathering humans together and uniting them in support of a wide range of causes, and the biggest of these took place in Bangladesh in 2004. More than five million people joined hands across 652 miles to protest against the Government and to demand new polls. 

Watching an old news clip about the Baltic Chain and reading about these others, I was struck by the power of peaceful protest but I also started thinking about the individual people who were in that chain. Some would be standing next to friends or family, but many would have strangers on one or both sides of them. And I wondered about the associations between them. Perhaps as they stood there waiting for the signal to join hands, some had chatted and discovered that they knew people in common or had other points of connection. 

Like most people, I’ve stumbled into a few extraordinary coincidences in my own life—the sort of things that would sound ridiculously contrived and far-fetched if they appeared in works of fiction. And one of the strangest happened when I was waiting in a queue—a chain of sorts. It was 1977 and I was in my first term at London University. I’d spent a few weeks living in a hall of residence in Tooting but when I was offered the chance to move to one in the King’s Road, there was no competition between the locations, so I handed in my keys and skipped off to Chelsea. It didn’t take long to realise that I’d forgotten to remove my padlock key from the key-ring but although it was annoying, I figured I could get another one easily enough. A couple of days later I found myself at Euston Station on a Wednesday afternoon, in an enormous, slow queue of students, all waiting to get student railcards. For some reason that seems ridiculously inefficient now, the process of getting a railcard required you to turn up in person on a specified day and wait your turn. There must have been hundreds of us there, from all the colleges of the University. There were the well-known ones like UCL, LSE, Kings, Queen Mary, and Imperial and many more colleges that later got swallowed up in mergers—Queen Elizabeth, Bedford College, Chelsea, and Westfield—as well as a number of medical schools, art colleges and others covering specialist subjects like veterinary science, theology and pharmacy. With no smartphones to distract, people fell into conversation. I turned behind to a pleasant-looking young man, and asked where he was studying. “Chelsea,” he said which was quite a coincidence given the number of colleges represented there. “I’m at Chelsea” I said. “Where do you live?” When he replied, “Malcolm Gavin Hall,” I couldn’t stop myself from asking the inevitable but nosey question, “Which room are you in?” Somehow I knew he was going to say “335” and he didn’t disappoint. “Oh,” I said, “I’ve just moved out of there. That was my room.” Quick as a flash without missing a beat, he delved into his pocket and brought out some keys. “This must be yours,” he said, handing me my padlock key. It was as if I’d been programmed to ask the right questions, and it happened so easily and smoothly, that I thought maybe the universe intended us to work together to find a cure for cancer or at the very least produce some children. But instead we just had a nice chat. And that was it. A couple of times over the next year, we bumped into one another, and now I can’t even remember his name.  

The thing that surprises me most was that we discovered that we had this connection in common. How often do we meet people and if we only knew which questions to ask, we would uncover all kinds of ways in which our lives overlap. How often do we pass people in the street that carry all of these delicious surprises inside them. That stranger sitting opposite on the train…the woman at the supermarket checkout…the homeless man on the street corner…the refugee in the news footage. We may be closer to them than we think. The first time I remember coming across the idea of connections was when my mother used to repeat the words of a popular song from her childhood; I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales. It dates from 1927 when the prince, later Edward VIII, was hugely popular. I’d get her to repeat it and was fascinated by the idea that an ordinary person could be so close to a prince. And then there’s the notion of six degrees of separation which is so well-known and somewhat murky. It was first proposed in 1929 by the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in a short story called Chains. He was suggesting even then, that although there were great physical distances between people, their social distances were shrinking as people travelled and technology brought about improvements in communication. He believed that any two individuals could be connected through a network of, at most, five acquaintances. The phrase six degrees of separation became popular after John Guare’s 1990 play and the film that followed. A common criticism is that such a theory is unlikely to encompass connections to isolated groups of humans, such as those in the Amazon jungle but I don’t want to get bogged down here in the arguments for and against this proposition as they are many and complicated. However, several large-scale studies using emails and instant messaging to track connections between people have found that the average number of degrees of separation did come out at six, and according to network theories there are mathematical reasons why this should be so. 

In keeping with the theme of online connections, I was intrigued to discover that there is a website called Six Degrees of Wikipedia that will tell you what degree of separation there is between any two of the fifty-four billion Wikipedia pages. I started with the pages for Mother Theresa and Jack the Ripper and in less than two seconds it had told me that there are two degrees of separation between them and two different routes that connect them. Then I tried exploring Wikipedia connections between Abraham Lincoln and Adele and discovered that they are separated by three degrees and that there are over seven hundred routes that connect them. I could have played with this for hours trying out increasingly unlikely combinations but as I had this blog to write, I forced myself to stop. 

So far, the connections I’ve talked about here lie beneath the surface, undiscovered—but in my recent book The Interview Chain, the connections were clear to see, as each interviewee passed me on to someone that they know personally and admire. At twenty links it may have been somewhat short of the two million in the Baltic Chain but it did nonetheless travel 23,000 miles back and forth, traversing three continents and gathering up diverse experiences on its way. It started from a casual conversation on a boat on the Thames and one of the most surprising things was discovering how quickly from there, the links led me to events I had read about in the news. By Link Two I was talking to someone who had been at the Climate Change Negotiations and by Link Three my interviewee was giving me personal experiences of the Calais refugee camp. Later links led me to first-hand accounts of Kabul under the Taliban, the Rwandan genocide and the Ferguson Uprising. 

I’ll say it again—we are closer to other people than we might think. And with all the extra things that we need to understand about the modern world, that’s more important now than ever before. 

Sensational

As we emerge blinking, from months of Covid hibernation the world is full of surprises. I’d convinced myself that a home-based, introverted life was just fine. Plenty of reading, writing and thinking time—needs must—and in the initial enthusiasm of online living I made a few virtual visits to museums and galleries. But now that real-life options are opening up again I’ve enjoyed a few trips and the things that have made the biggest impression have not been what I anticipated. 

It started with a visit to Salisbury Cathedral. The afternoon was of course, contained within the new normal of pre-booking, masks and social distancing but there was still plenty of freedom to be found and as I wandered around I became aware of a feeling bubbling up—the quiet excitement that comes from meandering in an unstructured way and landing like a butterfly on unexpected, interesting things. It was a pleasure I’d never been fully conscious of in the past but it felt familiar and it was only through its long absence and welcome reappearance that I came to recognise and value it. Some landings satisfy because they entertain or inform but other encounters are sensory and you simply need to be there to have them. There’s no amount of reading or online browsing that can summon up the sensation of feeling very small as you stand in the nave and look up at the delicate, cavernous ceiling; nor can it enable you to touch the ancient chill of the marble pillars. In my wanderings I came across what is said to be the world’s oldest working mechanical clock. I stopped and listened. Then I lingered to read the remarkable story of how it was discovered in the cathedral clock tower in 1928 by an observant horologist named Mr T. Robinson. He’d gone into the tower to inspect the current clock but spotted the priceless medieval treasure which had been cast aside and forgotten, decades before. And oddly, one of the best things about my visit was finding that the dusty, musty smell unique to churches was still alive and had survived the gallons of antiviral liquids that must have threatened it in recent months. I’d never realised how evocative that smell is but the primitive parts of my brain greeted it like an old friend. 

A few weeks later I went to Shaftesbury in Dorset. Its most celebrated street is Gold Hill, made famous by Ridley Scott’s Hovis adverts and against all expectations I had to agree that it is unequivocally charming. At the top of the hill is a renovated sandstone cottage that’s home to a small museum of local history, run by volunteers. Once again, it was a delight to drift around and absorb random bits of information. I was particularly interested to learn that button-making was an important cottage industry in Shaftesbury and at the beginning of the nineteenth century it provided a livelihood for around four thousand women and children in the town. They twisted linen around a thin disc of sheep’s horn and then decorated it with fine embroidery. But mechanisation gradually forced the industry into decline and the final straw came when John Aston exhibited his button machine at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Widespread unemployment and poverty drove more than three hundred families to take advantage of assisted emigration schemes and they went off to start new lives in America or Australia. As we were leaving the museum we stopped and had a conversation with a friendly pair of volunteers who were packing up for the day. They asked what we’d thought of the exhibits. “Three hundred families…” I said, “that must have been devastating for such a small town.” We all nodded. Then we stood, not talking for a while. I’m not sure whether it was because we were empathising with the sad local history or just that small talk comes less easily after months of lockdown. But we soon perked up again and I appreciated the unexpected Zoom-free joy of having an enthusiastic to-and-fro discussion with strangers. 

Gold Hill in Shaftesbury

Then this month it was our fifth wedding anniversary and we celebrated with a day out in Oxford. Over lunch in the roof-top restaurant at the Ashmolean Museum we raised our glasses and surprised the young waitress by telling her that it was our diamond wedding. She was gratifyingly on the ball and recognised that we don’t look quite old enough to be marking sixty years together. That would have required me to marry Mike when I was two years old and he was six. We explained that as we married one another later in life, then we will never have big anniversaries so for the moment we celebrate the months instead. Then we went on to spend the afternoon at the Oxford University Natural History Museum. 

The building is magnificent with a striking roof of glass and cast iron, reminiscent of grand Victorian railway stations, and as with Salisbury Cathedral you have to be there, gazing up, to appreciate the light and the scale. It opened in 1860 and influenced the design of London’s Natural History Museum that opened its doors to the public twenty-one years later. All around the walls are pillars, each a different variety of British stone, and painstakingly labelled in a bygone spirit of public education. There are one hundred and twenty six in all. There are also stunning statues of influential scientists, thinkers and engineers, many carved by eminent Pre-Raphaelite artists. Darwin, Galileo, Aristotle, Newton and Prince Albert are all represented but however much I might sigh it was no real surprise that there is not a single woman amongst the original busts and statues. In 2010 the museum began the process of addressing this by adding a bust of Dorothy Hodgkin who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for her work in crystallography. 

The huge ground-floor gallery is informative and modern but it’s also true to its roots. Its stories evoke the excitement and wonder that Victorian scientists must have felt as they made new discoveries and challenged existing views of the world. Indeed the newly opened museum was the site of an infamous, furious debate between Thomas Huxley arguing in favour of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce arguing vociferously against the idea that mankind is descended from apes. And I could not ignore the contrast between the Victorian industrial confidence of this building and the little cottage museum in Shaftesbury with its tales of families made destitute by that very same Victorian industrial thrust. There was much to think about and I enjoyed wandering around, imagining myself in a crinoline and soaking up the atmosphere as I stopped by displays in no particular order—craggy fossils, a giant Japanese spider crab that is the stuff of nightmares and measures over three metres across, and a sad display about dodos. Close to the entrance is a stuffed North American black bear, its glossy pelt so thick that it was as much as I could do not to sink my hands into its depth. Years of ‘Don’t Touch’ signs had conditioned me and so I didn’t, but later I read that visitors are encouraged to touch many of the exhibits here including the bear. I wish I had. But I did stand eye to glassy eye with an aardvark and then had a conversation with Mike about when and where to meet for a cup of tea. It took a little while to realise the incongruity of having such a mundane discussion while standing on opposite sides of a life-sized cast of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Nearby were the skeletons of an African elephant and a giraffe, both fully-grown and huge in their own right but dwarfed by the prehistoric animal. Upstairs were displays of insects. There were tiny fleas and ticks, and big beetles so exquisite that it was hard to believe they were not enamelled. I moved my head from side to side to get the full iridescent splendour and the label informed me that one in three of all insect species is a beetle. 

According to the Museums Association there are around 2,500 museums in the UK. These include many specialist collections curated by enthusiasts of subjects as diverse as magic, pencils, fans, motorbikes, telephone boxes, radios, and dentistry—a treasure trove with something for everyone. Top of my list is the National Railway Museum in York which I’ve visited several times. You can climb aboard a few of the vintage trains and there’s no online substitute for that. But it also makes me sad because the workmanship and quality of the fittings is so far removed from the 7.25 to Waterloo. I also love the American Museum on Claverton Down in Bath, where you can see the stitch bumps of quilts sewn in the Civil War and where the smell of traditional gingerbread seeps out of the old-fashioned kitchen and pervades the basement. 

Tocks and ticks, dust and bear pelts, gazing upwards, fellow enthusiasts, and simply wandering and wondering what will intrigue the imagination or stimulate the senses next. It’s good to be out in the world again.