Out Of The Blue

“When would you most like to have been young?” I asked one of my daughters a few months ago. I was curious to find out what she feels about this, given climate angst and the myriad of other global worries. She put her head on one side and gave the matter some careful thought. “Now…”  she said “because people understand mental health so much better than in the past.”

“What do you think?” she asked. I hadn’t prepared a response but thought wistfully of my teenage years—frayed bell-bottom jeans, clogs, broderie anglaise dresses, ponchos, Cat Stephens, The Moody Blues and Focus. Music and clothes were what immediately came to mind—call me shallow if you like. “The seventies,” I said. 

“Interesting…” I thought and parked the idea, intending to ask more friends and family what they would say. Maybe most people would end up choosing what they know? But just nine days ago before I’d a chance to follow up on this I found myself unexpectedly having reason to reflect on our conversation because out of the blue I became extremely anxious. And it was literally out of the blue. The sky was blue, the sea was blue, the woods were full of bluebells and I was on a walking holiday in Cornwall—a place I love—with a person I love. 

We’d had a tremendous week but on Friday I woke up with overwhelming feelings of panic and dread. All I wanted was to stay curled up in bed with the curtains closed. I couldn’t eat and struggled to explain to Mike that we would have to curtail our plans on this last day of our holiday. I felt stupid, self-indulgent, overdramatic and embarrassed but he was kind and accepted what I was saying although neither of us understood what was happening. I texted my beloved cousin Rita for support, and later in the day Mike and I had a short walk but I was still feeling awful—my stomach was a churning sea and my chest was a pressure cooker. The next day we drove home as planned with me still agitated, snappy and fragile. Anxiety comes with despair and even though I had only felt like this for a short time, my mind was racing and I feared that I would never again feel confident enough to be out and about, enjoying the freedoms that I normally take for granted. It was frightening. 

The next day I forced myself to go to my usual Sunday morning yoga class and found the stretching and distraction helpful. Maybe the mindfulness unlocked something as while I drove home I made a connection—the feelings I was experiencing were exactly those I’d had during a traumatic event that occurred nearly three decades ago when I was in my thirties. I was right back there with the same tight fears locked up and leaking out like corrosive acid. The worst thing about that previous episode was feeling that I couldn’t talk about it—I vividly recall in the midst of the worst stage having to go for lunch with some of my then-husband’s business contacts. I felt deficient and the idea that these strangers might think I was odd, filled me with shame. 

When I got back from yoga, I googled re-traumatisation and found a useful article. It was a relief to find that everything I read there fitted what I was feeling. Just as trauma distorts and limits the sufferer’s behaviour, so does re-traumatisation. It’s not just a feeling of stress but it has a significant impact on day-to-day life. It made complete sense as even though it had seemed to come out of the blue there were in fact various sensory triggers that were reminiscent of the original circumstances. 

I’m nothing if not proactive, and over the course of the week I’ve done many different things that have helped to hold the anxiety at a manageable level. No single thing does the trick but having lots to draw on has been vital—yoga classes, my Headspace meditation app, walking in the woods, audiobooks, listening to birdsong, knitting, sniffing clary sage and lavender on a hankie, concentrating on breathing, Rescue Remedy, baking some shortbread as a present, planting up pots for the summer, painting my toenails, and having some sauna sessions where I enjoyed both the warmth and eavesdropping—although the quality of the conversation wasn’t great and I learned more about mattress toppers and shared bathroom facilities than I ever wanted to know. I haven’t lost my sense of humour. And the cold shower afterwards was invigorating. I’ve also kept a gratitude diary choosing three things each day to write about.  It really does focus the mind on what matters. 

One of the things for which I am most grateful is that a counsellor agreed to see me at short notice for an initial chat to ease the pressure. She was recommended by a friend and with skill and astonishing rapidity she led me to make important connections between key events going right back to childhood—I left feeling much lighter and optimistic that I can make progress. She gave me things to work on and an appointment in a few weeks time. 

I’ve hesitated before writing about this as it feels more personal than anything I’ve posted before and some people will be discomforted by it. There’s a (very unhelpful) voice in my head that reminds me that I haven’t been in a war or accident but I also know that human emotions do not benefit from comparison. It’s not a competition. A few weeks ago I got a book out of the library—The Myth of Normal by the eminent Canadian physician Gabor Maté—and that was fortuitous as I opened it this week and just when I needed them, his words leapt out at me. He reminds the reader that the word trauma comes from the Greek for wound and says it’s hard to envisage an individual who has not experienced some kind of trauma/wound in their life. It is a near-universal human experience but the memory of one or more events can come to taint and dominate the present and the problem is of course that it can be very hard to know what to do about it. 

As it happens, and also by sheer coincidence, it is Mental Health Awareness Week and this year’s theme is anxiety. I was unaware of this until a friend pointed out the special programming on Radio 4 and I made time to listen to it. There is clearly a lot of work to be done—life can be particularly difficult for young men and services are inadequate; I recognise my privilege in being able to afford counselling. But I was encouraged to hear people speaking so openly about their struggles with anxiety and the after-effects of trauma. That is so different from my experience thirty years ago and it’s a huge personal step forward that this time I can say that I refuse to feel ashamed. It’s been an uncomfortable, intense week but things are definitely looking up—I am getting out of the blue. And I’m heartened by the wisdom of the younger generation. My daughter may be decades younger than me but she has clearly got her priorities right. 

Photos: Mike Poppleton

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Dodging Traps

We’ve got a bit of spare space in our garden and I’ve been thinking about growing some of our own food. With rising prices it makes sense and I’ve been fantasising about the bee-buzzy abundance of an English summer garden, ripe with raspberries, yolk-yellow courgette flowers, and sugarplum tomatoes. 

I’ve also been immersed in a useful book—Stephen Joseph’s Authentic. A professor of psychology, his writing has given me plenty to think about—fundamentally that you can only be happy if you’re true to yourself, and for that you need to know yourself. It’s not a new idea of course; Socrates advocated self-knowledge as the path to happiness, more than two thousand years ago. But it is remarkably easy to fall into traps where we deceive ourselves, and reading the book has prompted me to think about authenticity in my own life. 

The first thing that came to mind was my sewing project. That was when I tumbled innocently into the imitation trap. It started when I was enchanted by a display of patchwork quilts at the American Museum in Bath. They’d been crafted by early American settlers who sat companionably by candlelight, sharing local gossip and making skilful use of their limited materials. I was transported by this romantic vision and I was inspired too by the exquisite patchwork creations of a friend. So I set out to dye my old wedding dress and to make a patchwork cushion with it. I didn’t think it through but I guess what I wanted from doing this was the satisfaction of creating something beautiful, and for other people to admire my handicraft, as I do with my friend. Unfortunately I forgot that she’s calmer and more patient than me. And she’s much more visually astute. I also conveniently forgot that I’ve never liked sewing and am probably never likely to as I can’t cope with precision. The whole experience was absurdly stressful and the end result was awful. I should have heeded Oscar Wilde’s wry advice to be yourself because everyone else is taken. 

Another slippery trap is the fantasy trap. That’s when I lose touch with reality. At one time, I thought I would like to keep bees but I realise now I was carried away by imagining the delicious sticky, honey cake I could serve on a vintage flowery plate, and the dreamy hum of my own bees on a summer afternoon as they drifted around my cottage-garden lavender spikes and fragrant, floppy roses. But thinking is mere fantasy. The reality is often quite different. And the reality is that (a) I don’t want the responsibility of 30-40,000 tiny creatures (b) it seems like extremely hard work and (c) I don’t have a cottage garden. The key question has to be whether the positives outweigh the negatives, and for me I don’t think they would. Thankfully, I’ve avoided that particular trap but I was less wise in judging the reality of another kind of good life fantasy and spent several years, much energy and far too much money, trying to contain a pair of goats who were hellbent on eating my neighbour’s garden. I’m still not sure why I did that. I was of course younger and more energetic but I don’t think that the basic facts have changed. I don’t like mud, goats and chaos now and I didn’t like those things then. On the positive side, I do still remember how to trim a goat’s hoof—but there’s not much call for it here in suburban Southampton.  

And I mustn’t forget the hormone trap. Our biochemistry can at times do its best to override good sense, and love addles us. For about a year after Molly was born, my hormones tried to convince me that I really wanted another baby. But later with a clearer  head, I could see that it was just an oxytocin rush and a reluctance to accept that my reproductive years were over. It would have been madness. 

But perhaps the most insidious trap of them all, is the should trap. It’s where we get ensnared by all those things that we do simply because we believe they’re expected of us. The tangled threads that hold us in these traps are spun from early on, and continue into adulthood. We unconsciously absorb subtle messages about what we should do, what we should like and how we should think. They come from many sources—parents, teachers, grandparents, siblings, lifestyle magazines, other media… I was an avid reader and children’s books surreptitiously planted ideas in my head about how girls should behave, what a normal family looks like, and how to be good. The shoots grew and I watered them without recognising that they were weeds. It’s taken a long time to unpick a lot of these influences; to realise that they have deep roots, and that they seed freely and are not easily eradicated. The annoying thing is that often there is no real expectation from outside ourselves—it’s simply a misapprehension or an outdated idea that has taken root and bent us out of shape. 

I’ve come up with my own names for my personal collection of traps but the question remains—does it matter if I fall in? Does it matter if you fall into your equivalent but individual version of them? 

I don’t think it mattered so much when I was younger—we need to explore in order to find out about ourselves. But as I get older, it seems evermore important to use my time and energy wisely, and if I try new things then I risk falling into a trap. There are some things that I feel fairly clear about and will avoid. It’s feasible, for example, that I might surprise myself and enjoy going to a cricket match or a pantomime, eating raw oysters, appreciating opera, or reading science fiction. But as I’ve never had any interest in those things, the chances are that I wouldn’t get enough out of them to make it worth my time, effort and money. I prefer to spend more time on the things I know I really love: playing with words; reading about ideas; walking; theatre, and spending time with my special people. Walking the South-West Coast Path with the wind in my hair, diamonds on the sea and an ache in my calves I feel alive without compromise. Nonetheless, there is a balance to be struck between exploring and remaining authentic, and it’s summed up in yet another of Oscar Wilde’s witticisms. His tart retort to “Know thyself” was “Only the shallow know themselves.” I don’t want to stay ensconced in entrenched positions; that’s not good individually or for society. I want to have doubt—especially in a world of rapid political and societal change. It keeps us open to growth and exploration.

Since we can’t avoid new things, and because we inevitably change, then here’s another question. How can I know what I want or think when I trip so easily into these traps? 

In his book, Stephen Joseph says that authenticity is not something that people have or don’t have; it’s not like a qualification you strive towards and get a certificate at the end. It is instead about the decisions you make in each and every moment, and how you make them. There are inevitably many things both personally and at work, that we have to do but might prefer not to. But being aware that they are a necessary compromise does at least mean that we are not being misled. And it helps to know what the traps are so you can side-step them, or so that you can climb out gracefully before you slip in too deep. Before launching into new projects or agreeing to requests, I’m trying to remember to ask myself, Why am I doing this? Am I teetering on the rim of the imitation trap …the fantasy trap…the should trap…are my hormones confusing me?

These thoughts gelled when Mike offered to dig up an overgrown patch of paving in our garden in order to make me a vegetable patch. My first reaction was enthusiasm. I thought of friends who serve delicious meals with homegrown produce, and generously distribute the surplus, I thought of how we should make use of the little bit of ground we have, and I imagined myself wafting into the kitchen wearing a straw hat and a flowing dress. I’m carrying a traditional trug full of newly-pulled carrots and plump pea-pods. It’s a perfect summer’s day and the birds are singing a congratulatory chorus. There is no mud on the carrots and certainly not on me, and somehow these vegetables managed to plant themselves in a weed-resistant bed and didn’t mind that we went on holiday and neglected to water them. Then I remembered the patchwork, the goats and the children’s literature.  Get real, I thought, and surprised my willing husband with the words, Thank you very much for the offer but I don’t think it’s what I want.

Photos by Mike Poppleton

Rushing to the End of Me

I had a birthday last week—it wasn’t a big one with a zero at the end, or even a half-hearted five but it did nevertheless feel like a landmark. A couple of people hummed When I’m Sixty-Four to me during the course of the day, and it was tempting to think that this must be the beginning of old age. But I quickly dismissed these thoughts as Paul McCartney was only fourteen when he penned the first version of the song, and what could he have known about ageing then. There was, though, something else about my new age that did rattle me. It was the knowledge that I am now just one year away from joining that final group on typical questionnaires and online forms—the catch-all, end-game 65+ category. It’s a sharp reminder that life is time-limited. 

Recently, I read Joan Bakewell’s reflections on getting older—The Tick of Two Clocks—and was struck (unintended pun) by what she has to say about spending her life in a rush. Why am I always in such a hurry? she asks herself. What’s all the rush about? I’m rushing from one thing to another but all I’m doing is rushing to the end of me

I completely relate to that and like Dame Joan, I have to wonder why I’m so intent on rushing rushing rushing to the end of me. Here’s an easy answer—many things are boring; get them done as quick as possible. But that can’t be right because the truth is that I rush through the tedious stuff so I can get onto the more interesting things. And…as soon as I get to them they redefine themselves as tedious, and so I hurry along to get to the more interesting things. It doesn’t make sense. I can’t even argue that I have a lot to do and must go fast to get it all done. There were many years when I was genuinely busy keeping all the family balls in the air but those days are gone. My time is largely my own—there is no compelling reason to rush. 

I try another tack—I hurry because I like to get things done and squeeze in as much as possible; I enjoy being busy and being productive throws a rope bridge across what could be an empty void. Live deep and suck out all the marrow of life like Henry David Thoreau said. Ah…but I don’t remember him saying that you have to rush, retorts my rational side. 

There may be no reasonable justification for incessant rushing but the question remains of whether it matters. It’s a deeply-ingrained habit, for sure. But is it a bad one? 

It’s easiest to maintain the status quo but once I get started I can think of plenty of arguments against a hurry mindset. The first is that it makes me careless. Generally speaking this is not a good thing although there is one situation where it has its compensations. Mike complains that when I load the dishwasher it looks as though I’ve hurled things in from the other side of the kitchen, and they come out dirtier than when they went in. There’s an easy answer to that one—I just leave it to him. But the second drawback of rushing is that I squander the present moment. I forget to enjoy it because I’m always thinking about the next thing. 

Then there’s the problem that rushing causes stress and that’s not good for anyone’s health. In the 1950s two cardiologists noticed that many patients presenting with cardiovascular disease were in a continuous struggle and unremitting attempt to accomplish or achieve more and more things or participate in more and more events in less and less time. They called it hurry sickness. It’s probably no coincidence that I’m uncomfortably familiar with migraines, insomnia and gastric reflux, and that these hangers-on have recently been joined by a new companion—hypertension. Fourth comes the problem of multi-tasking. Doing several things at once feels like it should be super-efficient but since you can only concentrate on one at a time you’re constantly juggling which is exhausting and not very effective. Fifth, rushing produces a feeling of shortage rather than satisfaction. There’s nowhere to go with the feeling that there’s not enough time—when you constantly fill it up with things to do then you’ll never get it all done. And sixth, rushing creates impatience and that’s not good for relationships. 

There’s a seventh too—the impact on the next generation.  “I think I take after you, Mum…” said Molly recently. I had a brief glow of maternal pride and then she said, “…I’m very slapdash.” 

I’ve surprised myself with all these arguments against my rush, rush, rush mentality and I wonder whether you relate to this. But even if you’re of a calm, steady nature, I’m sure that you know people who hurry mindlessly. Because I’m definitely not alone—there’s a huge range of books, blogs, and podcasts all advocating the general principle of slowing down and being more intentional. I can see the benefits of serenity, and so I take the advice to focus on introducing just one change at a time. I try slow ironing…slow toothbrushing…slow walking…slow supermarket shopping…slow weeding…slow chatting…slow chewing…but none of it comes easily. They are all sabotaged by my insatiable itch to get onto the next thing. Then I discover something that is much more successful—slow showering. The warm water feels delicious, the soap smells fresh, and the shower tiles are rough under my feet like a Roman mosaic. I enlist an army of physical sensations to keep guard against the coming day as it tries to force its way in and at the end I pull the towel back and forth across my back. I think idly of a pig at a scratching post and finish by smoothing rose-scented body cream over my legs. It feels good to take care of myself and to remember to be grateful for this body that has served me well, producing four children, and carrying me around at top speed for decades with few complaints. My mind is quiet for a few minutes. I think this must be mindfulness. It’s a constant struggle, not squandering today by anticipating tomorrow. But it’s a start. 

Something’s Changed

I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve; that traditional moment for reflection. But this year I think that my internal software must have had an upgrade without me noticing because things feel different. Something significant has changed and I feel like a new version of myself.

In past years, I’ve been a dedicated fan of New Year resolutions; attracted like a moth to the glowing flames of optimism and by the allure of self-improvement. That may sound positive but the truth is that I singed my wings many times, setting out determinedly on 1st January with a clutch of wide-ranging commitments to myself, all carefully planned out—and all conveniently forgotten by 31st January. I was trying my best but sometimes the list stretched to eighteen items and I fear that I might have seemed comically earnest.  

It was almost inevitable that I would lapse as many studies have found that a very small percentage of people stick to their New Year resolutions. My start-of-year lists may have only ever had a brief gasp but I did once have a list that played an important and satisfying part in my life. I’m talking about the list I made when I was fifty-four and needing to reconnect with the world after a difficult patch—on it were sixty things that I wanted to do before I was sixty; some big and time-consuming, others small and simple. 

They filled in many gaps in my experience and were a way of pinning down things that I’d longed to do for years. I took horse riding lessons, read Middlemarch, went to Japan and St Petersburg, watched all of Hitchcock’s films, learned to identify birdsong, made a (rather awful) patchwork cushion, walked the North Downs Way, did a painting, went to the Glastonbury Festival, and much more besides. I’ve written about many of these things in 31 Treats And A Marriage but one that I’ve not yet shared is a trip that I made in 2018 to see New England in the Fall. There’s plenty of autumn colour in other parts of the USA but New England is a particularly good place to see it on account of the variety of deciduous trees and the natural beauty of the landscapes. We stayed in New Hampshire and while we were there we took a four-hour heritage Fall Foliage ride on the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad. As we chugged alongside the lake with the White Mountains in the distance, the colours were indeed spectacular. I groped for words to describe it all—peach, ginger, crimson, acid yellow, strawberry ice cream, lime, rust, gold, olive green, pumpkin, tomato red, sunshine, cherry, terracotta, auburn, mustard, apricot, chili red…it’s surprising how many were related to food. 

Half-way, the train stopped at Plymouth where lunch had been laid on in a converted wood mill. I sat with Mike on my left and to my right, a couple of American women who were deep in conversation throughout the first course. Then, part-way through the pudding, the one next to me put down her spoon and gave me her full, wide-eyed attention. “So what’s your total, then?” she asked. 

“It’s my first trip here,” I said. “I’m enjoying it very much. Wonderful foliage.” 

She looked blank. This was clearly not the right answer, and as she glanced purposefully towards Mike I wondered whether perhaps she was asking about husbands. “Two?” I said tentatively. 

She was not at all impressed. “Mine’s thirty eight,” she said proudly. Maybe she meant lovers. She did look as though she’d lived a bit. 

I wondered what to say next but she made it easy for me, ploughing onward and determined to make her point. “…our last trip, we did Switzerland and Germany, and before that it was Peru. My friend and I…” She gestured towards the woman on her right, “…we always travel together.” 

Realising at last what she meant, I tried to do a quick tally of all the countries I’d visited but had to admit defeat.”I don’t know,” I said limply. She looked deeply disappointed, and turned away. Later, on the train ride back I added them all up but couldn’t equal her total—even by splitting the UK up into Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Not even by cheating a bit and including England where I’ve lived all my life. Nor by including the Channel Islands which are Crown Dependencies and their status is so confusing that I justified shoehorning them in. Then I stopped as the totals game seemed a bit silly. 

This was not the first time I’d been prompted to consider what my list meant to me but I knew already that it was not about totals and ticking things off. It wasn’t a to-do list threaded through with obligation and guilt but was instead a could-do list full of promise and things to look forward to. Each treat was a defined and memorable beacon; an event that sat outside the indistinguishable sludge of everyday life. I am so grateful to that list—it was the crutch that got me through a difficult time. It also gave me the material and motivation to write a book—something I’d always wanted to do. 

Unlike my New Year resolutions, I was fully committed to it, and by the time I got to my sixtieth birthday, I had experienced all the things I’d written on my list. By then, I couldn’t imagine life without a list and so I rewarded myself with a birthday present of a new one—seventy things to do before I was seventy. I gave this list a lot of thought, read it to my family, and settled down to enjoy the familiar anticipation. The first thing I did was to kayak along the Wye, and that was very enjoyable. I was glad to have done it. Then I went to the Sistine Chapel. Again, something I was pleased to have done. Then I went to Runnymede, the Royal Court Theatre, got to know two Sondheim musicals, and explored the Suffolk coast. But with the pandemic, something unexpected happened; doubts crept in. Did I really want to get to know three operas, learn some magic tricks, go segwaying, get wet in a monsoon, take a hot-air balloon trip, visit Vietnam, and learn the Charleston? Well, perhaps. But with the enforced hiatus I’d lost my motivation. I realised that I didn’t need a list anymore. Unlike the first list that provided a vital structure when I needed it, this one felt contrived. Instead of being a pleasure, I felt like I was going through the motions because I had a list, and so I took the paper version off the wall and quietly slipped it into a filing box. It’s there should I need it but it’s not an in-my-face, stuck-on-the-wall kind of list like its older sibling was. 

And so here we are at New Year and I have no list and no resolutions. I did consider choosing a theme for the coming year—I read a book recently that recommended themes rather than SMART goals. They’re more flexible, providing an expanse of space through which you can meander rather than having to stick to prescribed paths. I wondered what might be a suitable theme. Balance, maybe. Nuance? Trains? Making use of what I’ve got rather than looking for new and better?  Being kinder? The author suggested putting post-it notes on your computer screen, the bathroom mirror and the biscuit tin. I was briefly tempted by this approach but on reflection, even this feels too structured for the new me. 

 A friend emailed me this morning with New Year wishes and said, ‘ I hope all your dreams come true.” I thanked her but had to admit that I have no dreams. That risks sounding self-satisfied but that’s definitely not what I mean. There are things I am pleased to have done and there are many others that I could have done so much better or differently. The point is that many of those focused efforts are no longer relevant; the children run their own lives now and as I’m retired there are no longer any work-related aims. However alien it might feel not to have goals after all this time, I feel a need to accept things are as they are; I’m in a different phase of life. It’s comfortable but also uncomfortable as it begs the question that so many of us struggle with—what am I for? I don’t have an answer to that but I do know that I’m clearer about the things I enjoy doing and want to do more of those rather than exploring lots of new activities.  So for this year I just want to take things as they come and enjoy things for their own sake—being a wife, mum and friend; walking, reading, writing, practising French, cooking, and chatting. Anything extra like travel will be a bonus but there are definitely no totals. 

Wishing you a healthy and happy 2023 and if you’ve got any comments about resolutions, lists, totals or anything else, I’d love to hear. 

The Ghost of Esmerelda


One of the disadvantages of being a late addition to my family is that I never met any of my grandparents. None of them survived  into old age and so they were all gone by the time I was born. They weren’t talked about much—in fact I don’t ever recall my father saying anything about his childhood—and as my parents had moved many miles from their roots, there was barely any connection to this earlier generation; just a few black and white photos. These were kept in a bureau drawer, jumbled in with all kinds of other things and I’d occasionally open it and see my mother’s parents. Her father, Ernest, beamed, almost bursting out of his waistcoat with bonhomie while her mother, Hilda, stared at the camera, neither friendly nor severe, giving nothing away. Their world of London pubs, the Blitz, and masonic dinners was a long way from mine and I looked on them as a curiosity from another age. 

It was only after I had my children that I wished for more connection to my family history. After all, if you grow up knowing your grandparents, there’s a reasonable chance they might tell you stories about their parents and even grandparents, scooping you up in a continuity going back several generations, and providing a sense of where you come from. There was none of that in my family. I didn’t even know where my grandparents were born. 

By the time I’d become curious about this, my parents were dead and like so many of us, I regretted not having asked questions while I had the chance. So I took out a subscription to Ancestry and began to excavate my family history, starting with my maternal grandmother, the inscrutable Hilda. I was by then a harassed mother of four and as I was always in a rush, I was amused to recall one of the few childhood stories my mother told. Hilda would make elaborate party dresses but she always ran out of time, and so my mother and her sister would have to be pinned into their new clothes at the last minute. Many a party was spoiled by silent torture from invisible pins. Fortunately for my children, I don’t sew but I’m definitely of a slapdash, last-minute persuasion. It may have been a tenuous connection to my grandmother but it was better than nothing and I treasured it. 

I searched online for birth, marriage and death certificates, as well as census entries and as I did so, I became increasingly perplexed by Hilda. Not only was she inscrutable but she was also proving to be extremely elusive.  It took a while to work out what was going on, but eventually I uncovered a trail of secrets and false information. I think my mother would have been surprised to discover that Hilda was really named Esmerelda and that she was quite a few years older than she claimed to be. On the other hand, maybe those things are not that unusual; people are often coy about their age, and it’s not uncommon to go by another name. But I do think my mother would have been amazed to find out that Hilda was already married when she met my grandfather. And I think she would have been absolutely astounded to discover that Hilda had four children from this first marriage. When she fled to London in 1919, newly-divorced and leaving no forwarding address, she took her youngest child Winifred with her but left a boy and girl behind in Brighton. There had been another little girl, Phyllis, but she had died several years before from gastroenteritis. By the time she ran away with Ernest, Hilda was already pregnant with my mother, and they later had two more boys. So although my mother went through her whole life thinking she was the second of four children she was in fact, the fifth of seven. I think she would also have been stunned by the news that her parents did not get married until 1943, by which time she was twenty-four. This was done in secret as presumably everyone assumed they’d been married all along, and I surmise that with bombs falling all around them, it seemed wise to put their relationship on a secure footing. 

When I felt I’d found out as much as I could, I wrote an account of the key events in Esmerelda’s life and distributed it around the family. More recently, when the 1921 Census was released online I checked it and saw that she’d stayed true to form. There in her entry—one simple line—were four false items of information; her first name, surname, age and marital status. Oh Esmeralda! I thought with a mixture of fondness honed by growing familiarity, and indulgent exasperation at her elastic attitude to the truth. 

Because I never met Esmerelda, it’s been easy while rummaging casually through her secrets, to think of her as nothing more than a fictional character. And I can’t help feeling uncomfortable about that and wondering if in exposing the basic facts, I’ve betrayed her because what I can’t do is to put flesh on the story and understand her life. I can come up with plenty of theories about why she left her children: she was ashamed at being named the guilty party in her divorce…she was scared of her first husband…she was emotionally frozen after the death of baby Phyllis…she was lonely while her husband was away in the war…she fell helplessly, crazily in love with Ernest… 

Any or all of these may be true and I’ve no way of knowing. But what I do know is that my own mother was full of fear and insecurity and often lacked empathy, and that this in turn impacted on me. Michelle Obama talked recently about her fearful mind. She says she’s always had it and calls it a life partner she didn’t choose. I’ve always had a fearful mind too and know I didn’t choose it. I’m sure that none of us do. In his book It Didn’t Start With You, Mark Wolynn argues that we all carry unresolved traumas from previous generations. We may not know where they come from but they live with us like ghosts and show up in our deepest fears. As St Augustine said, the dead are invisible; they are not absent. I’d never given this much thought before—after all, my family has not been directly affected by atrocities like the Holocaust or racial segregation which have quite rightly gained attention in relation to intergenerational trauma. My family’s upheavals have been more domestic in nature but these can still leave long-lasting scars. I suspect that Esmerelda was stressed, conflicted and secretive as a mother and that this contributed to my own mother’s problems. But then again Esmerelda herself didn’t get off to a good start as she was the youngest of ten and her father died six weeks before she was born. What kind of mothering did she get from an impoverished widow in poor health? There is currently a lot of research in epigenetics which is investigating how trauma might become biochemically encoded. Thinking like this reminds me that as humans we are all links in our own family chain and we involuntarily inherit all kinds of encumbrances. It makes me more empathic towards my parents, and at last I feel able to forgive some of the mistakes they undoubtedly made.

These days I spend a lot of time in my writing room and value having emotionally sustaining things around me. I’ve placed three photographs on the window ledge. The first one shows my mother—a dreamy bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding with Esmerelda standing behind in an awful hat and looking inscrutable as usual. The second is a photo of me on my fortieth birthday, and the third is of my two daughters, arm-in-arm. Four generations of women. I love to see these photos; our birthdates span a hundred and nine years and none of us knows all of the others but despite that and with all the uncertainties, the one thing I know for certain is that we are inextricably connected and always will be. 

Not Finding My Way

Recently I spent five days in the Pennines on a writing course. The tuition and companionship of my fellow writers were exceptionally good, and on the one evening with no scheduled activities, a group of us set off to visit a local pub. I’d been to that area ten years previously and remembered a similar outing then. This time we took the scenic route through some overgrown woods, stumbling over roots and rabbit holes in the twilight and when we reached the cosy old pub it was good to find a quiet corner where we could sit and chat. At the end of the evening most people decided to take a taxi back to our accommodation but I was keen to walk and persuaded three of my new-found friends to keep me company. “It’s much more direct going back,” I said, “I’ve done this before. We just go along the main road; it will only take ten minutes.” Half an hour later as we held our sides, puffing and cursing to the top of the biggest hill I’ve ever seen, I had to confess that I’d got things wrong and there was still a way to go. Not only had I been under a misapprehension about which pub we’d spent the evening in, but I’d also thought we were in a completely different village. Taking the woodland route had thoroughly confused me. It was ironic that my course was called Writing Place and yet I clearly didn’t know which place I was in. But then again that’s nothing new—the tiresome truth is that I’ve spent my life in a state of perpetual disorientation. 

I’ve mostly kept this to myself as it makes me feel stupid and I’ve thought that no-one else could understand how I find it impossible to judge distance or direction, or to visualise where one place is in relation to another.  I like to think I’m reasonably intelligent but my brain goes blank and simply won’t cooperate on anything to do with navigation and direction. I’m fine once I’ve thoroughly learned a route but am quickly disoriented by detours, and I’ve learned that unrehearsed short cuts are a waste of time after countless misadventures. For my first couple of years of driving in London I used to go everywhere via Kew Bridge because it was a landmark that I could reliably recognise—even when it was miles out of my way. These days, I’m almost guaranteed to turn in the wrong direction when I come out of a door, and even though I’ve lived in Southampton for more than eight years I still have to take a deep breath before driving into the centre as I frequently get confused despite using sat nav. When I get myself lost it’s annoying and sometimes scary but at least I can sort it out on my own. The bigger problem comes when I get others embroiled in wrong directions or by massively underestimating when I tell them how long a journey will take. That’s awkward and embarrassing. For years I’ve passed it off jokingly as the consequence of living at the top of a hill when I was young; that does inevitably reduce your directional options. But it’s clearly not the answer and it’s been a relief recently to read a book that provides the key to understanding my disorientation. It also raises some important issues that have implications for us all.

Wayfinding: The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way was published in 2020 and is by the award-winning science writer Michael Bond.  The front cover has quotes from The Sunday Times, Telegraph, New Statesman and Scotsman, each of which simply says ‘Fascinating.’ And I agree. In the early chapters he summarises what is known about the neuroscience of navigation and describes various kinds of brain cells that work in conjunction to help us know where we are and to plan where we’re going. Place cells, for example, allow us to recognise physical features in the environment whereas grid cells are dynamic and fire in particular patterns as we move. But what really made me sit up was the chapter on Developmental Topographical Disorientation (DTD). There in print was confirmation that I am neither alone nor stupid. It seems that lots of people share my profound inability to navigate but that most of us keep quiet because we’re baffled by it and embarrassed. Now though, we have reason to thank a neuroscientist named Giuseppe Iaria who is based at the University of British Columbia. He identified and named DTD, and  estimates that 1-2% of the population struggle with the infuriating problems that I recognise so well—being incapable of making a mental representation of our surroundings even in places we’ve known all their lives, struggling to find our way around buildings and even getting disoriented in our own home—all of this in people who have normal memory, perception and attention. Iaria’s research has found the majority of sufferers to be women but it’s not yet clear whether this is a robust finding or whether it’s simply that women are more willing to admit to it. He is currently pursuing the theory that people with DTD have unusually poor connections between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex; two regions of the brain that are involved in navigation—and this explanation certainly fits with my experience of being directionally derailed—it really does feel as though I have a broken wire. I’m delighted to have a physiological explanation even if it’s still tentative and now at last I can stop believing that I’m not trying hard enough. 

Despite the frustrations, I try to keep a sense of humour and discovered a forum for people with DTD. I was grateful that it was online as I could imagine the stress that might ensue if a group of DTD sufferers all had to get to a physical location in order to meet. Many of the posts made me laugh and groan in recognition. I particularly related to what one woman said—When people do the “you know where…..is?” I just agree and pretend I know what they’re talking about. Saves time and frustration. I do that. Then I nodded in solidarity with a man who said that he’s lived in the same town all his life but when asked for directions by a stranger it’s easiest to say that he doesn’t know because he’s a visitor himself. And I smiled when a woman mused ominously—I often wonder what happened to the people who asked me for directions… 

It’s worth bearing in mind that when you ask a stranger for directions then you stand a 1-2% chance of asking someone who is going to quite unintentionally get you lost. More seriously there are good reasons why we can all benefit from recent discoveries in the science of spatial navigation. After the age of sixty-five our spatial skills get progressively worse but it may well be that if we keep our brains engaged in navigational tasks then this can act as a defence against Alzheimer’s. There is no current consensus but it’s a field of research that’s exciting some neuroscientists. The argument is that the first areas of the brain to show signs of the disease are those where spatial navigation is driven and if you keep them in use then this might help to stop them shrinking. 

Sat nav and GPS apps don’t help the situation and may even be actively damaging our health as these days we frequently arrive at places without any real idea of how we got there. Following the blue dot on our smartphone or the voice in our sat nav does not engage the place cells in our hippocampus or the decision-making circuitry of our prefrontal cortex—the technology makes people lazy about creating a cognitive map in the same way that the use of calculators has dulled our ability to do mental arithmetic. In Wayfinding Michael Bond has some advice about how to counter this. He suggests that we should put our smartphones away sometimes and try to orientate ourselves in the real world around us. Follow your curiosity, he says, and deliberately take a different route rather than just the ones you know. I’d certainly have trouble with that but think it’s worth trying provided I stick to days when I have plenty of time to get lost. But I do like another of the suggestions for what he calls attentive navigation. When you’re going somewhere new, he says, use GPS to get there and look out for landmarks on your way. Then switch it off for the journey back. I’ve already tried this a couple of times and although I’ve made a few wrong turns I can also report some success. I don’t think I’m ever going to know what it’s like to have a cognitive map but overall the exercise has boosted my confidence and I thoroughly recommend it. Do let me know if you have personal experience of DTD. I’d love to hear about it. 

Slightly Quiet

You can say many things about me that won’t cause offence—impatient, slapdash, scruffy, clumsy, tone-deaf, illegible handwriting, directionally challenged…all of these slights feel unimportant. They will skim the surface and barely leave a mark. But there’s one personal comment that until recently cut really deep and I would have said—please, please, p-l-e-ase don’t ever call me quiet. It’s a simple word that is inoffensive when applied to a train carriage, a dog or a summer’s day and yet for many years I had an intensely uncomfortable relationship with it stretching right back to early childhood. We lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone else and when I went out with my mother she’d do a lot of chatting. I’d stand holding her hand in the butcher’s shop, in the street and in the queue at the Home & Colonial Stores thinking that the grown-ups were unbelievably boring and wondering if they were ever going to stop nattering. I was shy and thought I was being well-behaved but far from praising my resignation, when they did take notice of me these unthinking adults would often say, Isn’t she quiet!” followed by a tinkly don’t mind me for making personal comments kind of laugh. That’s how I remember it but while that may have been what they said, we all know there is often a chasm between what people say and how we hear or interpret it. What I heard was she’s got nothing to say for herself and so by implication believed they were saying she’s not very interesting—what a funny little thing. I grew up feeling that being quiet was something to be ashamed of. 

With a dash of maturity and lots of practise, shyness gets easier to disguise but the fear of being exposed does not go away and even as an adult, if anyone calls me quiet or shy it lands with a painful thud. And so I was interested to read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  She firmly challenges the misconception that introverts are always serious and aloof with nothing much to offer. Phew. I’m grateful for that and clearly many others are too, as the book has sold more than four million copies—no doubt to plenty of introverts since according to her estimate that applies to about one-third of us. 

Of course I already knew—you can’t get to your sixties without learning a thing or two about yourself—that I need a lot of time alone in order to feel well-balanced and happy, and that therefore I’m towards the introverted end of the scale. If I got my energy mostly from being with other people then I’d be towards the opposite end where the extroverts do their partying. But reading the calm, non-judgemental words in the book made me recognise how I’ve spent much of my life in denial about my natural social preferences—guiltily trying to squeeze in a bit of solitude here and there and feeling that I have to justify it rather than stating that I need it. And feeling that there’s something missing in me because I prefer one-to-one conversations rather than struggling to make myself heard in a large, confident group. Cain’s argument makes perfect sense to me—we develop these insecurities because Western society has a strong bias towards extroverts—admiring and idealising people who are gregarious and comfortable in the spotlight while underestimating the strengths that are often associated with introverts such as self-motivation, listening skills, empathy, and reflectiveness.

Perhaps that balance is changing, though, and if so then we have lockdown to thank. When Susan Cain wrote her book in 2010 she could not have imagined that within a decade we would all be participating in a huge natural experiment that had us confined to our homes for months with the perfect opportunity to reflect at length on our social preferences.  Like so many others, I found it was a great relief to step back from striving for the extrovert ideal, and suddenly the media spotlight swung round to illuminate the joys of being an introvert. There were countless articles that patiently explained how it’s not that introverts dislike being with other people—speaking for myself, there are lots and lots (and lots) of people whose company I LOVE—but rather that we reach the point of being socially satiated and overstimulated more quickly than extroverts and need to retreat to some solitude in order to recharge our batteries. And there were also many debates about the validity of these labels, and points made about us all being different. Not all introverts are shy, for example, and we all respond individually depending on the situation, our mood and the people we’re with. This attention is good as whether we are introverts, extroverts or classification sceptics, we have to deal with people of all types and the more we understand about one another the better. 

My impression is that the post-pandemic world has embraced some fundamental and positive social changes. Covid brought us into daily contact with mortality and this has certainly made me less inclined to squander my time on things I don’t want to do. I believe that many people feel similarly and are able to be more honest with themselves. Then too, there is the newly fashionable status of introversion and I have a hunch that this has made people more willing to admit their vulnerabilities and connect better. I was at a talk recently and got chatting in the break to a nice man who paused a few minutes into the conversation and said, “I’m shy’. He looked perfectly normal, even confident, and the admission didn’t seem at all inappropriate whereas once it might have seemed weird.  “I’m shy too,” I said and immediately felt released from the fear of social judgement. We had a lovely conversation. It was much more satisfying than small talk of the weather and where do you live variety that leaves little impression on either participant and means you have to start all over again next time you meet.  

Something similar happened this week adding further evidence to my hunch.  I received an email from a writing society that I’ve been on the point of joining for some time but have hesitated to pursue as they are a large group and hold their meetings in a lecture theatre. I’ve been put off by other experiences of sitting alone in the midst of an established group, making dreaded small talk and then going home feeling considerably more miserable than when I started. It’s back to that thing about being better in one-to-one situations or small groups. Anyway, the email said that the group was holding a coffee morning and the convener thoughtfully included the words Some people (like me) may be shy, so please try to include everyone. That was all the encouragement I needed so I went along. And I wasn’t disappointed—it was thoroughly enjoyable. I talked to some people as I was queuing for coffee and then sat down next to a friendly-looking woman. “This is my first time here and I’m a bit shy,” I volunteered. “Me too” she said enthusiastically. And we both smiled. 

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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