Getting to the bottom of things

Regular readers will recall that your gentle narrator suffers (the word is chosen with care) from bowel disease (see Busting a gut, Bite me, Home Economics, GAH! Michael Gove! and The loud symbols). I have been laxative about contributing to the blog over the last seven months, after being buried under an avalanche of work from which one arm now feebly waves, soon (I hope) to be followed by the rest of me. These two things may not seem related to each other, but my colitis is caused by work-related stress, which is also called work addiction (see I was flying from the threat of an office life and Exemplum Docet). Thus, I live in a little feedback loop, working at whatever pace I feel I can stand and then accepting whatever reward or punishment my insides see fit to respond with. I am eternally grateful to have the skills to work from home most of the time; a husband who finds my swollen stomach and disreputable underwear (of which more later) quirky and charming; and a toilet right next to my study (John Keay comments on the internal disorder of George Everest, whose ‘[r]ebelliious bowels leant an urgency to the working day’. Yes. Yes, I expect they did).[1] Giant Bear has even furnished the upstairs toilet with a comfortable wooden seat, a tasteful selection of bra catalogues and a thing called a Primal Stool that cost £20 but is worth its weight in gold (this is a similar thing: do scroll down to see the unicorn-poo advert). Bowel disease is misunderstood, difficult to talk about, jolly painful and surprisingly common; and work addiction is just everywhere and awful. While I wait for mountain rescue, therefore, here are some jolly facts about bowel disease and work-related stress.

  1. Bowel disease is the great leveller.

People with small children seem to talk about poo all the time: how often their babies poo; how copious, stinky and frequently produced their babies’ poo is; and how their babies sometimes manage to defecate so heartily that they get poo right the way up their backs in a single movement. I don’t have babies, but having colitis allows me to join in nonetheless.

‘Yup,’ I say, finishing my tea. ‘I’ve done that.’
‘When you were a baby?’ My childbearing friend is momentarily distracted by the menu, or possibly the child. ‘Or do you mean last time you went to China?’
‘Nope’.

  1. Working too much makes you a shitty worker.

My understanding of the strike that junior doctors undertook recently (the first such strike in my lifetime) is that they were protesting against two things in particular, captured (as is so often the case these days) in a hashtag: #notfairnotsafe. One, they argue that working longer hours as proposed (for a higher wage, but a lower overall hourly rate) implies that the ridiculous hours and shifts that they already work are not sufficient. Two, they argue that working longer hours will exhaust them and make them bad doctors. I don’t understand why there is any discussion to be had about this. We all agree that tired motorists are dangerous. Are exhausted doctors dangerous? YES. OF COURSE THEY ARE: TO THEMSELVES AND OTHERS. I have lost count of the number of mistakes I have made, documents I have deleted and spreadsheets I have cocked up because I was simply too tired to be competent. With the obvious exception of smug health-bastard Jeremy Hunt (Jim Naughtie has established precedent, so this is fine), nobody is stupid enough to think a tired doctor is a competent doctor, but nobody, in any line of work, should be working so many hours that they are too tired to do their job properly. I used to work four days per week; then, to cover for a colleague, I did two months of five days per week. I would have done better to stay at four days per week, because I was so tired that a. I caught a bug and had to miss two days’ work; and b. forgot to save my database and lost another two days’ work. Net gain: nothing.

   3. Number of times I have soiled myself since being diagnosed: four.

Once *just* after a Departmental meeting; once while sitting quietly in a chair, reading a book and minding my own business; once in China after some questionable fish; and this afternoon. When I went to Dublin for a week a few years ago, I packed twenty-one pairs of knickers by the simple method of counting seven pairs of knickers into the suitcase (‘Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday’) three times without realising I had done so. Do normal people even *own* twenty-one pairs of knickers? They do not.

  1. Being addicted to work means not being allowed to go cold turkey.

Some addictive substances (drugs, alcohol) are things that we have no physical need of, by which I mean that removing these things from our lives, while extremely difficult, is not damaging, but rather may have considerable health benefits. We may feel the need (physical, physiological, psychological, emotional) for another cigarette, drink, high, win or whatever, but we can live perfectly well without these things, just as we can live without smoking, drinking, drugs, gambling, sex or pornography. The most difficult addictions to deal with, I suggest, are those where cutting the destructive substance or behaviour out of one’s life altogether is not possible. If one is addicted to food or work, for example, one has to find some way of changing that relationship to make it healthy and sustainable: one cannot simply stop eating or working. I don’t think there are many therapists who, confronted with (say) a smoker would suggest that he or she learn to manage his or her relationship with tobacco: the emphasis and end goal would always and unquestioningly be to give up, totally and forever.

  1. Number of times I have thought, ‘that’s it. I’m going to die on the toilet. Like Elvis, except he had a cheeseburger to keep him company’: three.

Halfway through reading this post, my husband showed me a picture of the thing below (it’s a cheeseburger-shaped anti-stress ball) and said, ‘shall we get one, and keep it in the upstairs toilet?’

52. cheeseburger
‘Not suitable for children under the age of three’
  1. Bowel disease makes you feel really, really old

Were I so inclined, I could produce a Venn diagram showing the commonality between my life and that of a woman forty years older than me (let’s call her Daphne). Yesterday’s diagram would show that Jess walked (rapidly, happily) to the train station to catch the same train as Daphne, while Daphne’s great age forced her to make the journey on the bus; Jess has brought a copy of Silent Spring and some knitting to keep her occupied during the journey, while Daphne prefers the Telegraph and crochet; Jess has decided not to bring any food, while Daphne has a packet of mints, and so on. The only area of overlap is that both Jess and Daphne will spend a significant part of their day worrying that they are going to disgrace themselves because *there is no toilet at the station*. That’s very annoying, think both Jess and Daphne upon arrival, with enough time to buy their tickets, but not such a long wait that they get cold and cross. The train will be here in a minute, and once we get going I can use the facilities on the train. Imagine the disgust of both our protagonists (Jess says a curse word; Daphne does not, but her lips get very thin) when it turns out that *there is no toilet on the train either*.

My usual train trip is around 50 minutes, and fortunately there *are* some facilities at the other end. But, really: good grief. There is a person at the station (sometimes two!) to sell tickets to the Great Unwashed *and* a model railway shop. There must, therefore, be at least one toilet. Giant Bear tells me that there *is* a toilet, but that in order to use it, Daphne and I would have to queue up and then yell through the ticket window that we’d like to borrow the key, please. There is also nowhere for the staff on the train to relieve themselves; at least the ticket inspector can walk from carriage to carriage to distract himself (and maybe do a little poo in the corridor where nobody will notice), but no such luck for the driver. John Pudney said the following about toilets at stations seventy years ago, much of which still holds today:

For the ordinary run of early railroad passengers, there were no arrangements whatever; and patience was the only necessity. At early morning stops, men were wont to salute the sunrise, as decorously as they might, at the ends of platforms, while women stood in earnest conversation here and there, their long skirts providing cover even though the platform itself offered little by way of camouflage.[2]

  1. Being addicted to work is socially acceptable. 

While I think it could be argued that we have a society with a dysfunctional attitude to many addictive substances and behaviours (food, alcohol and sex spring to mind), the attitude to work goes beyond that into stark raving mad. We all talk about our ‘busy’ lives: it is entirely normal for women in particular to babble on about ‘juggling’ all the things we have to do, on top of earning a living, which somehow takes up far more time and energy than it should. I am no longer surprised to receive (and send) emails at 6am or 11pm; nobody apologises or even expresses surprise when it becomes clear that I work weekends; and while I was at the university, I once went into the office on Boxing Day and I wasn’t the only person in the Department.

  1. Bowel disease has ruined the following words forever: movement, regular, irrigation, stool. On the plus side, Andrew Motion is now a funny name.
  1. Bowel disease makes you feel that nobody will ever want to have sex with you again.

There is swelling (sometimes soft; sometimes tight and hard like a tyre). There is diarrhoea (yellow, mostly liquid and excitingly explosive). There is dehydration (headaches, itchy eyes), horrible stomach cramps, massive hair loss, brittle nails, tiredness that mere sleep cannot touch, and endless medical humiliations (pooing into little trays; enemas; strangers inserting Things into one’s special area in the name of Science). There are ruined clothes, from which the physical stains can be removed, but which I can never bring myself to wear again.[3] Finally, there is the terror that every tremor and gurgle in the abdominal region may be about to burst forth into the Bog of Eternal Stench, punctuating yet another day with what can only be described as arse-sneezes: hot, gritty crap that pebble-dashes the inside of the toilet in a splatter pattern strikingly reminiscent of the vomit one sees on the pavements outside student residences, except that this is yellow, streaked with blood and mucus, smells like the devil’s farmyard and CAME OUT OF MY ARSE.

These are the times when the unconditional love (and relaxed attitude to nudity) of an understanding and patient partner is better than all the peppermint oil and herbal tea in the world. Here is a little story I call ‘Disappointment’: the other day, Giant Bear came home from work, and without explanation, silently removed his shoes, tie, waistcoat, braces, shirt, trousers, socks and, with a certain sense of inevitability, his pants. Why, good evening, darling, I thought, ceasing to stir the dinner for a moment, and trying to remember if my own underwear was a. the kind that can be flung aside in a sexy fashion; b. not that kind, but at least stain-free and vaguely respectable; or c. in such a state that I’d have to bundle it up in my jeans and then attempt to kick both carefully into a dark corner. Just as I was about to spoil the moment by talking, my husband had a jolly good look at his pants, turned them round and put them back on again. ‘Had them on back to front all day’, he observed, and went upstairs to get dressed.

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[1] John Keay, The Great Arc (London: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 146.

[2] John Pudney, The Smallest Room (London: Michael Joseph, 1954), p. 75.

[3] Just as I am no longer able to eat English mustard because gaaaaaah.

A ‘small, mysterious corpus’

In her excellent book Ex Libris[1] Anne Fadiman writes about what she calls her ‘Odd Shelf’, which she defines as follows:

On this shelf rests a small, mysterious corpus of volumes whose subject matter is completely unrelated to the rest of the library, yet which, upon closer inspection, reveals a good deal about its owner. George Orwell’s Odd Shelf held a collection of … ladies’ magazines from the 1860s, which he liked to read in his bathtub.[2]

Fadiman’s own Odd Shelf is about polar exploration, a subject close to my own heart (for absolutely no reason whatever: I have no desire to visit such places and hate being cold), and I remain confident that we both own copies of F.A. Worsley’s book Shackleton’s Boat Journey and Scott’s Last Expedition (Captain Scott’s journals, recovered from beside his frozen body; see The fish that is black for Scott’s description of watching killer whales attempting to tip his dogs into the water). My own Odd Shelf is somewhat broader, and contains works on exploration of all kinds (see Why Don’t You Do Right?). These are books about men (and a few hardy women) who ‘went out to explore new lands or with toil and self-sacrifice fitted themselves to be champions … the conquerors of the great peaks.'[3]

My explorer books begin with Exquemelin, Bernal Diaz and Zarate chronicling the conquest of South America, continuing with nineteenth- and twentieth-century works by Mary Kingsley and Laurens Van Der Post, mid-century books by T.E. Lawrence (see No means no for Lawrence’s unhelpful responses to his long-suffering proofreader), Peter Fleming, Elspeth Huxley and Thor Heyerdahl, and finally modern writers such as Peter Hessler and Mariusz Wilk. I also have a book by Ian Hibell, a relative on Giant Bear’s side, called Into the Remote Places. This is an account of Ian’s journeys, cycling across various continents. Like Shackleton and Scott, Ian died in pursuit of exploration after being knocked off his bicycle while cycling across Greece; and, like Shackleton and Scott, Ian struggled to explain his need to explore:

I couldn’t explain to them the lure of travelling. You went to a place to get something, they reasoned.[4]

His Sudanese hosts are, I think, meaning a physical ‘something’; Ian might have agreed with them had they meant something less tangible. There is no real consensus on why or how exploration is necessary, or exactly what one is in search of. R.B. Robertson reports a group of whalers discussing their hero Shackleton (Mansell was present when Shackleton’s party arrived in Stromness, having been given up for dead), and again there is no consensus:

… we talked of Antarctic explorers, and the motives that take men down to that terrifying white desert, not once, but time and time again, to dedicate a large part of their lives to its ghastly waters, often to die there.

‘The motives of some of them are only too obvious,’ Gyle said. ‘Personal glory, kudos or ever material gain … others are real scientists who reckon that the knowledge they gain of the last unknown part of the earth is worth the agony of getting it … [and] there’s always a handful of man like Shackleton who keep coming down here as it were for the fun of it … they find … real comradeship. That’s a human relationship second only to sexual love, and a thousand times rarer.'[5]

Gyle may be right here in some instances, but many of the explorers in my collection travel alone, and are profoundly isolated even when surrounded by people. Robertson’s whalers suggest other theories: the unnamed Norwegian bosun argues that Antarctic explorers go south to get away from ‘up there’, and Davison suggests that, ‘Antarctica’s the only part of the world left where it’s still possible to look over a hill without knowing for certain what you’re going to find on the other side.’ Mansell, in some ways the hero of Robertson’s book Of Whales and Men, dismisses all these ideas. His explanation is, for me, the most convincing, and again refers to an intangible ‘something’:

‘Shackletons, and best kind of explorer … come here because they know there is something else, that man can feel but not quite understand in this world. And they get closer to that thing – that fourth man who march with Shackleton across South Georgia[6] – when they are down there than anywhere else in world. This island [South Georgia], Zuther Notion [this is how Robertson renders Mansell’s pronunciation of ‘Southern Ocean’], Antarctic continent – all haunted places …  [Shackleton] keep coming back to discover – haunted by what?’[7]

There are some issues with defining one’s Odd Shelf. Firstly, I differ from Fadiman in that I think I probably own too many volumes on the subject of exploration to describe it as a ‘shelf’; secondly, I read explorer books because I find them interesting as studies of human nature, rather than because they describe activities I wish to participate in. Fadiman’s essays ‘The Odd Shelf’ and ‘The Literary Glutton’ describe various trips she has made to the Arctic and Antarctic, whereas I have no wish to actually go to fifteenth-century Peru or similar. Finally, I think there is a difference between amassing literature on or in a particular area, and collecting porn: after Orwell, her second example of an Odd Shelf is that belonging to Philip Larkin, who nobody will be surprised to learn had ‘an especially capacious Odd Shelf crammed with pornography, with an emphasis on spanking.'[8]

I do, however, single out a few books for special status. These are books that I have worked on, contributed to, or am mentioned in. It is, thus far, a fairly small collection, as follows: Pilgrimage (written by my godfather, and dedicated to his godchildren); Edith the Fair: The Visionary of Walsingham by the late Dr. Bill Flint (I copy-edited the book, provided the index and contributed much of the transliteration of the Pynson Ballad in chapter 3);[9] two histories of Hertfordshire and an academic book about the philosophy of evolution, all of which I compiled indexes for; and Salmon by Prof. Peter Coates. My cameo here is in the acknowledgements, on a list of people ‘keen to talk salmon with me’. In my case, this consisted of providing Peter with photocopies of the relevant pages of Mr Philips, a marvellous book by John Lanchester in which Mr. Philips spends a diverting afternoon watching salmon-based pornography (it wouldn’t have been to Larkin’s taste, I fancy)[10] and a photograph of a salmon-skin suit I took at an exhibition of ancient textiles from the autonomous regions of China while in Shanghai (he failed to use this, the fule).

Shanghai, March '08 - 07
Salmon-skin suit, Shanghai museum, taken March 2008

The latest addition to this shelf is Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation, which I proofread for my friend and colleague, Tom Sperlinger.[11] I have written elsewhere about how we might assess the quality of a book[12] (see The search for perfection) and indeed why one might write or read a book at all. Speaking purely for myself, I write for an audience of one. On the back of Stella Gibbons’s Ticky (a very silly book that I thoroughly enjoyed on the train the other week, muffling my giggles between the pages in the hope of suggesting to the other passengers that I was suffering from a surfeit of sneezing rather than gin), she says, ‘I wrote it to please myself’. Tom is more speculative; he says simply, ‘I try to tell the story of the semester I spent at Al-Quds’. His book also engages with another topic I have explored in other posts: that of why we read (see House of Holes, among other posts). In chapter 5, which is built around Daniel Pennac’s ‘Bill of Rights’ for readers (the first item is ‘the right not to read’), Tom speaks of his struggle to get his students to read more:

Haytham was not the only student who often did not do the reading. Some of the students were taking six or seven classes at the same time and claimed they had too much preparatory work to do. Others saw the reading as peripheral; they wanted to come to class, write down the answers, and prepare themselves for the exam.[13]

The teaching Tom describes here is very different from my own foreign teaching experiences. I don’t teach literature to my Chinese students, but if I did, and if, as part of that teaching, I told them all to read a book or a short story, my sense is that the vast majority would read it (and several would read it more than once); specifically, I wonder what my (overwhelmingly eager and respectful) Chinese students would make of this chapter, and of the students’ reluctance to do what their teacher has asked. In his Q&A after reading from Romeo and Juliet in Palestine at Waterstones a few weeks ago, Tom described the intimacy of the classroom, and how there are things that can be said in that context that wouldn’t (couldn’t?) be said in any other setting. This chimes more closely with my own experiences in China, particularly with reference to sex education (see Open the Box, Some bad words, Please use power wisely and Shake it all about). This sense that the students aren’t holding up their end of the bargain, however, is something that I have only had in a few isolated cases (see No means no): Tom is describing a widespread mutiny, in which so many of the students aren’t doing the reading that discussion of their reasoning is a legitimate topic for discussion in class. A few pages on, Tom quotes Malcolm X’s Autobiography, in which he describes learning to read by the glow of a light just outside the door of his prison cell (the second time I read the book, having read it the first time as a proofreader, this moment reminded me of Chris Packham on this year’s Springwatch describing how he had read by the light of a glow-worm), and the hunger Malcolm X had for reading. Contrast that with my train journey home from Bristol after Tom’s reading: I was the only person in the carriage with a book. I would have been perfectly happy to chat (as often happens when I knit on trains), but the other passengers were all either looking at their ’phones or simply staring into space. There was no conversation, and apart from my own muffled laughter, the carriage was devoid of the sound of meaningful human interaction (the various mechanical beeps of the various mechanical devices don’t count). My chosen book was the aforementioned Ticky, which, in the quiet, conversationless train (and on the way home from an evening spent discussing a book), suggested a superbly ironic reason for which one might choose to read: to avoid conversation.

‘… hand me Bore Upon the Jutes – no, no, that is a Circassian grammar. Bore Upon the Jutes is what I require – no – now you have given me Notes on Early Saxon Religious Musical Pipes [see An unparalleled display of shawms] – I asked for BOREBORE UPON THE JUTES.’
‘I think you are lying upon it, Papa, there is a book just under your pillow?’
‘Oh – ah? is there? – yes, exactly so: I thank you. Well, no doubt you have your morning duties to perform. You may look in upon me again immediately before luncheon.’ … Doctor Pressure held Bore upside down and pretended to read.[14]

Naturally, my frequent train journeys are occasions on which reading is a wonderful way to fill time that would be otherwise wasted, but of course I don’t simply read to fill time or to avoid conversation with one’s fellow passengers (it seems so much simpler to just ask them to be quiet). I read because, among other things (and to misappropriate Nagel for a second time: see The fish that is black), I simply can’t imagine what it is like not to read (or not to want to read).

Nabokov used to encourage his students at Berkeley to read and re-read, as part of a search for detail. In a discussion of why we read, Nabokov might have answered that one reason for doing so is to cultivate the ability to find ‘bigness’ in that which is small. In the Q&A after Tom’s reading, I commented that, were I allowed to teach literature to my Chinese students, there would undoubtedly be a long list of forbidden books handed down from On High, and asked Tom if he would have felt comfortable giving the students The Merchant of Venice rather than Julius Caesar or Romeo and Juliet (I was also thinking of one of Tom’s students, who comments that ‘she stopped reading a book if she did not like the way it made her think’).[15] He replied that yes, that would have been fine, and other colleagues at Al-Quds were teaching The Merchant of Venice. On each of my trips to China, I have considered it my moral duty to take something dangerous to read, in the hope of being (at the very least) accosted at breakfast with the question ‘why are you reading that?’ So far, Alan Hollinghurst’s tale of drug-taking and gay sex in sheds The Spell, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, The Well of Loneliness, and The Joy Luck Club have all failed to get a rise out of anybody. I suspect this is because one has to have actually read these books to know that they are ‘dangerous’, but this is still very disappointing.

One of Tom’s courses at the university is called ‘Dangerous Books’, and the course description includes this sentence: ‘Why might a work of literature be considered dangerous?’ One answer is, of course, the circumstances in which one reads it (see The search for perfection). This year, my chosen Dangerous Book to flourish at breakfast is also an explorer book: Seven Years in Tibet. While Nabokov might argue that the devil is in the detail, in this case I think Margaret Atwood has it right in The Handmaid’s Tale: ‘context is all’.

————————————————————————————–

[1] Her book The Spirit Catches You and Fall Down should be required reading (the right not to read notwithstanding) for anyone considering medicine as a profession.

[2] Anne Fadiman, ‘My Odd Shelf’, in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 21.

[3] Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet (London: The Reprint Society, 1953), translated from the German by Richard Graves and with an introduction by fellow explorer Peter Fleming, p. 11.

[4] Ian Hibell and Clinton Trowbridge, Into the Remote Places (London: Robson Books, 1984), p. 96.

[5] R.B. Robertson, Of Whales and Men (London: Macmillan, 1956), p. 60.

[6] The ‘fourth man’ refers to the conviction, held by Shackleton and both of his companions Worsley and Crean, that as the three of them trekked across South Georgia, ‘we were four, not three’ (Shackleton’s words, as quoted by Robertson, p. 62). As Robertson tells us (p. 55) as part of a discussion about how little poetry (plenty of prose) has been written about Antarctica, the one outlier is a cameo by the fourth man in ‘The Wasteland’.

[7] Robertson, Of Whales and Men, p. 61.

[8] Fadiman, ‘My Odd Shelf’, Ex Libris, p. 21. While re-reading ‘My Odd Shelf’, I discovered a postcard pushed between the pages at the start of the essay ‘True Womanhood’ (pp. 45-53). Fadiman describes reading The Mirror of True Womanhood: A Book of Instruction for Women in the World (as opposed to the follow-up volume, A Book of Instruction for Women Floating Aimlessly In Outer Space) by the Rev. Bernard O’Reilly, and intended to convey the take-home message that ‘Woman’s entire existence, in order to be a sources of happiness to others as well as to herself, must be one self-sacrifice’ (Fadiman, p. 47). Fadiman’s response is to compile a list of the virtues O’Reilly values most, and ask her husband to give her marks out of ten in each category (p. 51). The postcard, which shows van Gogh’s Le nuit étoilée, Arles on the picture side, has Fadiman’s list and my marks from Garden Naturalist written on it, from just after our eleventh wedding anniversary. Naturally, the only sensible course of action was to yell at Giant Bear to run upstairs immediately and provide his own scores, which proved to be three marks lower overall. My main failing is apparently in the category ‘Avoidance of impure literature, engravings, paintings and statuary’, in which both husbands have given me a resounding zero.

[9] Dr. Flint died unexpectedly while the book was still in production and although we never met, I remember him very fondly for our first telephone call, in which I explained that, while I was delighted to take his book on, I was also about to be taking two weeks off in order to get married and have a honeymoon. There was a brief pause and a sloshing noise, followed by Bill announcing to me that, having known me for less than thirty seconds, he was ‘breaking out the gin’ in celebration of my upcoming nuptials. Thus did we warm to each other enormously.

[10] I had expected the university photocopier to spontaneously combust, but of course it only does that when one has an important meeting to go to and/or is wearing a long-sleeved top. Salmon was Peter’s contribution to a series of books, each on a different animal, to which the excellent Helen MacDonald (of H is for Hawk fame) contributed Falcon.

[11] Regular readers will notice that I haven’t bothered with my traditional faintly insulting pseudonym for Tom; this is because I want to link to a place where you can see all the details of Tom’s book, which is available for the outrageously modest sum of £9.99 (obviously don’t buy it from Amazon, though. Fuck those guys. I link to it merely to show that Tom has hit the big time: get it here instead). This would naturally make a nonsense of a pseudonym, had I bothered to come up with one (it would have been Voice For Radio, thanks so much for asking).

[12] There’s no need to take my word for it that Tom’s book is marvellous; Tom ‘It’s So Anodyne’ Paulin and John Berger loved it, too.

[13] Tom Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation (Winchester: Zero Books, 2015), p. 45.

[14] Stella Gibbons, Ticky (Guernsey: Alan Sutton, 1943), pp. 162-163. I have concluded that Bore Upon the Jutes, which Dr. Pressure is so keen to read, must have sprung from the imagination of Gibbons, as the first hit when put into Google is the quotation I have just given.

[15] Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet, p. 46.

Iron Get Hot Now

Giant Bear and I have a jolly sensible arrangement when it comes to housework, dividing the tasks between us based on a combination of practical considerations and personal preferences. Our thoughtful division of labour was recently endorsed by Woman’s Hour, no less: they had an online calculator thingy, which weighted the various tasks based on whether you enjoyed doing them, how often they needed doing, how gross they were, how many hours of paid work and childcare each partner did (both of these bought one out of a certain amount of housework) and so forth. This gave each partner a score, the important thing being not the raw number, but how it differed from the score of one’s partner.[1] According to the programming that accompanied the online calculator thingy, the majority of housework is still distributed along gender lines i.e. lots of men simply don’t do any (or if they do, they describe it as ‘helping’).[2]

One thing that isn’t taken into account in either our own discussions of housework or public discourse, however, is the additional burden of Inanimate Object Rage carried by the partner who does the majority of the housework. Hell hath no fury like Inanimate Object Rage. If a pet, partner or friend continually frustrates, ignores or forgets you, there is suitable socially-acceptable recourse: reasoned discussion, shouting if required, and possibly mild violence involving a rolled-up newspaper. Inanimate Object Rage, however, has no such acceptable means of expression. Smack, kick or threaten the cause of your rage, and it merely sits there, unmoved and more unwilling to do the job it was purchased for than ever. Consider trying to get a mattress upstairs; cardboard boxes that obligingly fold flat and tidy until you attempt to do something outlandish like pile them against a wall or put them in the car; shelves that stay up until you put something on them; drawers that don’t draw; can-openers that don’t open cans, but give you a sore hand and no lunch. These are all infuriating in their various ways, but are as nothing to the Inanimate Object Rage induced by having to use a tool that simply isn’t up to the job on a weekly (nay, daily) basis. Gather closer to the firelight, children. I am speaking of the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex).

Ironing is one of my jobs. Artificial fibres make me sweat terribly and Giant Bear has to wear a suit and concomitantly smart shirt for work, so to keep on top of all the ensuing cotton, I do at least half an hour of ironing every day, with the radio for company. Purchasing a new iron, therefore, is not a trivial task, and we put considerable time and thought into our choice. The appeal of the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) was threefold: one, the extra-long flex, which we hoped would be both practical when ironing and able to double as a weapon if it became necessary to strangle a burglar; two, the ceramic plate, which according to the instruction manual was going to be so silky-smooth and whisper-quiet that ironing would become an experience verging on the erotic; and three, the promise of gushing, moist, hot steam in greater quantities than ever before.[3]

My hopes, thus raised to unattainable levels, were cruelly yet gradually dashed. The iron disintegrated gently over time, like a lemon in a compost heap. This started simply enough, with a reluctance to get up to temperature, a slow but persistent leak, and a peevish disinclination to produce steam on request. As I wrote in the opening paragraph of my Amazon review, the steady pace at which the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) deteriorated was, in many ways, the most distressing thing about it. It worked tolerably ‘until it was just too late to send it back to Amazon; as this moment passed, some kind of shrill alarum that only the iron could hear sounded’, at which point it seemed to feel that it was perfectly acceptable to refuse to make any steam at all, and to ooze unexpectedly and messily onto the clothes like an infected eye. A week later, even when turned up to the highest setting (three blobs next to the terrifying, cryptic label ‘LINEN’) and full of water, the ceramic plate could be described as tepid at best.

My time was not totally wasted, however. I learnt two important things about the Amazon reviewing system: one, it isn’t possible to give no stars (I tried my best); and two, there are rules about the type and number of swearwords that can be used in a review (see Some bad words). The word ‘crap’, for example (as might be used in the phrase ‘FOR GOD’S SAKE, WHY WON’T YOU WORK YOU PIECE OF CRAP?’), is allowed, as is its somehow weaker sibling ‘crappy’; indeed, all the one-star reviews of this iron (and there are several) contain variations on this word. Any heartier Anglo-Saxon, however, is frowned upon, and will result in an email that begins,

We were unable [they mean ‘unwilling’, but whatever] to publish your Amazon review of your recently-purchased RUSSELL HOBBS 18617 EASY PLUG AND WIND IRON (WITH EXTRA-LONG FLEX) because it violated our policy on obscenities.

This comes from the keyboard of someone who has never debated with themselves whether breaking all one’s toes from kicking an object repeatedly might, when seen in the wider context of emotional release, still constitute a win. I surmise that this is a person who has either a partner or a parent to protect them from the twin burdens of housework and Inanimate Object Rage.

On a fundamental level, I object to the idea that I am encouraged to give my view on a product, and simultaneously prevented from deploying words invented for just such a scenario. The idea of allowing the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) to go un-reviewed, and therefore my aching thumb, throbbing temples and soggy, crumpled clothes to go unavenged, however, was even less acceptable. I am a professional copy-editor (among other things), and therefore must be able to compose a review that still conveys the full force of my displeasure without the saltiness so helpfully supplied by swearwords. Looking upon it as a professional challenge, I therefore removed all the profanity from my review. The word ‘fucking’, for example, was replaced with ‘stupid’ (‘the water reservoir is extremely awkward to fill and you have to keep tilting the stupid thing back and forth to see if it has reached the ‘maximum’ mark.’ Also, as one might read in an uncharitable review of a disappointing mail-order bride, there were no jugs included and the hole was extremely small). A complicated analogy involving a surprised banshee and several sex-based obscenities was replaced with a milder, more everyday metaphor, implying that the anguished squeaking sounds produced by the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) when asked to produce its much-vaunted ‘steam shot’ were akin to those I emit myself, when, under greater pressure than usual from my faulty and capricious bowel, I suffer the private agony of constipation. I also rewrote the section on the ceramic plate, in order to describe the Iron Get Hot Now indicator as a ‘lying weasel’, rather than ‘a deceitful fuck of an orange light’.[4]

Happily, the final section in which I evaluated the instruction manual and the extra year under guarantee (one receives this in exchange for a lifetime’s supply of spam) required no changes at all. The instruction manual contained a series of dire warnings regarding the horrors that might ensue from allowing this diabolical object into your home, which I share with you now in a spirit of public safety. Firstly, one should never leave the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) on when not in use. This was conveyed through a jolly drawing of a house with flames belching hysterically from the upstairs windows. Secondly, the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) should never be left with water in it. Water! In an iron! Were you raised in a bag!?[5] Thirdly, raising more questions than it answers, we are advised that children under the age of eight ‘must be supervised at all times when ironing’.[6] Similarly, keep an eye on freely roaming pets, as they can become tangled in the Extra-Long Flex; the manual remains silent on how it might be that nobody would notice the cord winding itself around the neck of an incautious cat or similar until it was too late. Finally, towards the end of the manual we find something for people whose level of laziness oscillates wildly. Too lazy to take your shirt off, yet somehow not too lazy to iron your shirt at all? This manual was written for you, my intermittently industrious friend, by someone who feels that the overlap between the kind of person who would attempt to iron clothes that had not yet been vacated and the kind of person likely to read an instruction manual from cover to cover is almost total:

Don’t iron clothes while they are actually on yourself or another person!

Wise words. Here are some even wiser ones: don’t buy this fucking iron.

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[1] I scored 28, Giant Bear 27.5. Viva la sposi!

[2] Man in Post Office (to the rest of the world in general, seeking approval/sympathy): She didn’t tell me she doesn’t do ironing until after we were married!
Woman in Post Office: You didn’t tell me you don’t do ironing, either.
Man in Post Office (incredulous): ME! Why would I do ironing? I’m a man!
Woman in Post Office (witheringly): You don’t do ironing with your Man Parts.

[3] I am reminded of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s porn star character Krysta Now from Southland Tales, who has the only decent line in the whole film.

[4] A proper Iron Get Hot Now light comes on when the iron is heating up, and then turns off again when the iron is up to temperature. This is weaselly distinguished from the deceitful fuck of an orange light on the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex), which goes on and off whenever it feels like it *for no raisin*. That’s stoatally different.

[5] That’s interrobang! Let’s rotate the board!

[6] Otherwise, they might collapse mid-sheet from a combination of insufficiently nourishing gruel and ironing at eye level (see footnote 3, Please use power wisely), thereby leaving your ironing undone and the iron itself dangerously liable to explode and set the upper storey of your house on fire. Nine-year-olds are fine, though.

Better together

I have written before about conflicting ideas of roles within relationships in young people (see Some bad words); the idea of a ‘normal’ introduction to relationships (see Punch drunk); and the place of relationship skills in sex education, as both student (see Shake it all about) and teacher (see Open the Box). I’ve argued (see Shake it all about) that isolating sex from the wider context of relationships is like teaching someone about baking by throwing eggs at them.[1] The over-arching argument I’ve been trying to make in all these posts is that good relationships and good relationship skills are enormously important, and something we don’t see enough of in wider society. Today, I’m interested in what makes a grown-up relationship work, in the context of the General Election.

Here is a brilliant video via Jezebel, showing parents talking to their children about ‘where babies come from’. My favourite things about this film, in ascending order of how much I love them, are as follows: the little girl in purple that says that God sends babies down to be born, particularly her epiphany face when her mother adds some basic biology to her basic theology; the kid and his mum who say ‘vagina’ back and forth to each other until he’s happy he’s saying it correctly; and another little girl in purple, who identifies the primary physical difference between her parents as her father having ‘bigger hands’ and greets her father’s pocket-based explanation of sex with a perfect Sceptical Toad[2] face and the comment ‘eugh’ (as well she might). Later in the video, however, this second little girl in purple, whose name is Melody, completely nails the whole of sex, marriage, parenting and any co-operative relationship in two words. Her father says, ‘when two adults want to have a child, they have to … ’ and Melody fills in the gap for him. She says, ‘work together?’

The upcoming General Election annoys me for many reasons; there simply isn’t the time to go into them all here, particularly since one of the things that has annoyed me is how long the campaigns have taken (urgh. Is there really a whole week to go?). Therefore, I will confine myself to just two Annoying Things. Firstly, the infantile tone of the debate. Some of the politicians that get interviewed speak as if that very morning they were issued with a mouth and ears for the first time, and are still having trouble negotiating the trickier elements of both listening to what they are actually being asked and responding in a meaningful way. These are people who speak in public, on a given range of subjects, for a living. Why are so many of them so terrible at it? Why do they recycle the same General Election Bingo terms until you could swear you had already flung the radio across the room, and the babbling in your ears is actually the rushing of blood? The lack of cross-referencing in the way some of these people speak about each other and about issues is breath-taking. For example, we are all perfectly capable of remembering the soft soap of the Better Together campaign, suggesting that it was better for both Scotland and the rest of the UK for everything to stay Just So. Regardless of whether that’s the case, we all remember the way the coalition attempted to frighten everyone into doing what they wanted. Skip forward to now, and suddenly the Scots are the enemy. I don’t understand the tactic of wheeling out Sir John Major (knighted for services to People With Boring Voices) to argue that the SNP are dangerous nutters who will flounce off to eat porridge and toss cabers the minute negotiations become strained, thereby destabilising the government whenever they feel like it. Does nobody remember any British history? Of the various parts that make up the United Kingdom, is Scotland really the country most likely to bully others into doing what it wants? I don’t recall Scotland having an empire spread halfway around the world, subjugating other nations, stealing their natural resources and eradicating languages and traditions, but perhaps it happened when I was in the aforementioned radio-based red mist.

I also think it’s bonkers to attempt to frighten potential SNP voters with the notion that the two main parties are ‘unable’ to work with the SNP. This suggests to me that independence would be vastly preferable to being effectively shut out of British politics altogether, by either Cameron or Miliband taking the huff. You’ll notice also that both leaders of the larger parties continually invoke Alex Salmond as the bogeyman representative of the SNP, because Nicola Sturgeon is likeable, professional and popular both sides of the border, so a. let’s pretend she doesn’t exist; and/or b. she’s not really in charge. Alex Salmond is standing for election in a Scottish constituency, but he’s been well out of the limelight since leaving office, isn’t the leader of the SNP and hasn’t been for six months. Despite that, and despite (for me) Nicola Sturgeon putting on a consistent show of leadership skills and general competence, yesterday on PM, she was asked a series of questions implying that Alex Salmond was secretly in charge. Why? This isn’t as bad as the way Hillary Clinton’s gender is used as a stick to beat her with (see The man doctor will see you now), but I doubt very much that a male political leader as popular as Nicola Sturgeon would be asked if he was ‘really the leader’ in this way.

My second Annoying Thing is the way in which so many of the politicians (particularly the men. Imagine my surprise)[3] feel they have to assert themselves by banging on about who they will and won’t collaborate with. Here’s something I’ve learned from my various jobs: I am very lucky to be able to choose who I work for and with (see Exemplum Docet and I was flying from the threat of an office life), and in being able to negotiate the balance of power within each working relationship. However, the majority of people get the colleagues they are stuck with, and have to make the best of it. That is because choosing a new head of department (say) is a collaborative process, and won’t/can’t involve absolutely every person who will be required to work with the successful candidate once they are in place. Similarly, MPs don’t get to choose who we elect. Once we’ve elected them, all the MPs in government, as part of a coalition or whatever, should show that they are grown-up people who respect the choices made by the electorate by working together. In any context, but particularly in the context of the Scottish independence referendum and how close it was, it simply doesn’t make sense for either of the larger parties to say ‘we won’t work with the SNP’, when the SNP members will have been elected by exactly the same democratic processes used to elect the person speaking. Yes, you will work with the SNP (or the Lib Dems, or UKIP, or the Greens, or Plaid Cymru, or whomever). If you don’t, you are denying the democratic rights of every single constituent that politician represents. Moreover, those potentially SNP-voting constituents are, I hope, smart enough to realise that ‘I shouldn’t vote for the SNP because the Conservative/Labour party is too childish to work with them’ isn’t sound logic. You may want to throw your toys out of the pram; you may not like having to work together, but in such a close election full of uncertainties, one of the few things we can be sure of is that whoever is in government will have to work with at least some people they find distasteful.

Finally, consider this: just as everyone else has to work with people they may not like much, everyone has to deal with disagreement within their relationships. Everyone. Imagine a coalition/collaboration between (say) Labour and the SNP. Imagine that partnership as a difficult marriage (see Delete as appropriate) and it becomes clear fairly quickly that, again, Melody is spot on. You won’t agree with your partner on every single damn thing and sometimes you will argue with each other. Our metaphorical spouses are going to be exhibiting classic Dysfunctional Couple Behaviour and arguing in public.[4] In a political context, again, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. A healthy relationship is not one in which the partners never disagree; that would be both weird and dull. A healthy relationship is one in which disagreement is expected, because you are both complex, passionate, grown-up people with your own opinions. A healthy relationship is one in which those disagreements are handled in a calm, mature and open way, probably involving compromise on both sides, but which ultimately makes the relationship better. Therefore, if political disagreements lead to more public debate, fine: the largest governing party will be unable to rely on an overwhelming majority who can be whipped to vote a particular way, but instead will have to actually persuade a bunch of people who don’t agree with them in order to get anything passed. In other words, they will have to do politics properly.

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[1] The kid in the video I mention in the second paragraph who describes having a child as ‘sperm egg collide blah blah blah’ is the closest read-across to our current sex education, except we don’t bother with the ‘blah blah blah’ part.

[2] Also the eponymous character of my first children’s book, Sceptical Toad Goes to School. 

[3] Contrast that with the group hug between the three female party leaders during the TV debate, and the way various female politicians talked this morning on Woman’s Hour about co-operation and working to change British politics as a whole.

[4] ‘I don’t care if you like the own-brand chickpeas better!’ <flings can into trolley>

What a lovely pear

I wonder how long it will be before class is determined not by income, one’s father’s occupation, school or socio-economic group, but by simply placing a load of foodstuffs on a table and seeing which ones a given person can name; which ones they can use correctly in a meal; and which ones they eat regularly themselves.[1] My mother maintained that she once heard a large lady get out of a taxi in Henley-on-Thames and accost a passer-by by braying at him, ‘my good man, is there any butter in this ghastly little town?’ In my mind’s eye, the lady in question is tall, bold about the nostrils, and voiced by Penelope Keith. While we were living in Henley-on-Thames ourselves, my mother picked up the habit of referring to builders and other assorted tradespeople as ‘little men’. I found this most confusing (as indeed any child familiar with the work of B.B. would). The men in question were rarely little, and yet I instinctively reach for both this awful term and my Penelope Keith voice whenever I have to deal with ‘little men’ myself.

Recently, we had some repairs made to the roof of the railway room, by a local builder named Tom. He came to survey the damage before starting work, which meant actually coming into the house. This seemed to discombobulate him, and he insisted on taking his shoes off and carrying them apologetically as we went in and out of various rooms to give him a decent look at the relevant piece of roof. We are not a ‘shoes off’ household, as anyone could tell from a cursory glance at the carpets, but he seemed more comfortable this way. Tom turned up a few weeks later, startling me by being on time and on the day we had agreed, accompanied by what I will refer to as a sous-builder. They set to work, fortified with horrible tea (I bought it specially, of which more later), and were finished by lunchtime. This meant that they came into the kitchen (each clutching their shoes forlornly) at exactly the same moment as Giant Bear came home for lunch. Lunch that day was avocado on toast because OF COURSE IT WAS.

The previous day, while purchasing the aforementioned horrible tea, I was suddenly overcome by a wave of reverse snobbery. Why, I reasoned, should I assume that builders must want builders’ tea (i.e. as strong as possible, with milk and two sugars)? We did already have some black tea in the house, but I somehow felt that neither lapsang suchong nor Earl Grey would get the job done. And yet it seemed so silly to buy more tea, when we already have an entire cupboard dedicated to it: black, red, green, white, pink, orange and various shades of herbal in both bag and loose-leaf varieties, as well as two filters, a tea-ball and three kinds of hot chocolate. For guests so bewildered that they can only stammer ‘Whatever you’re having?’ we have the Mystery Jar, in which any lone or unidentifiable teabags are housed, and subsequently fed to the indecisive (see Indecisive Cake). We are also in possession of no fewer than six teapots of varying sizes, and, bearing in mind that the house usually contains two people at most, twenty-six mugs. In the end, I bought a box of builders’ tea[2] anyway, but stashed it out of sight so as to conceal the fact that I had bought it specially. Halfway home, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps they might prefer coffee, but by then it had started to rain and I had to take my chances. A few hours into the roof-repairing, we reached the moment of truth.[3]

‘Can I make either of you a cup of tea, Tom?’ I asked casually (or so it would seem).

‘Yes, please,’ he rumbled. ‘Milk and two’. I had an apple tisane[4] and we were all faintly embarrassed. A couple of weeks later, we attempted to purchase an avocado in Sainsbury’s and discovered that the man on the till had never seen one before and didn’t know what it was. Giant Bear said helpfully, ‘it’s a kind of pear’. This did not improve the situation.

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[1] I recently came across a restaurant review online, consisting of a single star and the following plaintive sentence: ‘They made my risotto with long-grain rice. Need I say more?’

[2] When we lived together, S used to refer to this as Normal Boring Tea (also called Ordinary Tea, like Ordinary Time); my friend H calls it Normalitea.

[3] This phrase actually comes from bullfighting, and refers to the moment when the matador makes the final stroke, attempting to sever the spinal cord by plunging his sword between the shoulder-blades of the bull. In doing so, his whole body is exposed to the horns, and if he does not hit his mark, he will be horribly gored. Truth indeed.

[4] My beverage of choice when watching a Poirot.

‘I was flying from the threat of an office life’

One of the joys of working for myself is that I spend so much more time with my books. We dedicated much of last Saturday to purchasing second-hand books[1] and much of Sunday to making space for them by removing other books. The result is a leaner, tidier book collection, and the reclamation of an entire shelf. Some of the books that will be leaving the house are those that we have, somehow, acquired two copies of: The Once and Future King (see The search for perfection), the complete works of Tennyson and Alan Hollinghurst’s Stranger’s Child were all in this category. Others have been read, and found wanting, such as The Ginger Man (a dreary book about dreary people), Fingersmith (enough with the plot twists! Enough, I say! I no longer care who any of you are!) and The Story of O (<snore>). Still others have been mined for information that was useful at the time, but for which we have no further need, mainly deadly music-related tomes left over from Giant Bear’s degree.

There is a final category of books bought on a whim, and which must be reassessed on a case-by-case basis when one is feeling less frivolous. This group includes some of the more obscure works in our collection, such as Anatole France’s book Penguin Island[2] and G.K. Chesterton’s absurdist anarchist novel The Man Who Was Thursday, which I was forced to read on the Eurostar after the only other book I had packed was stolen. A thief of questionable motive picked through my handbag, spurning my purse, passport and ’plane tickets to Shanghai[3] in favour of my beige hardback copy of Stella Benson’s bonkers satirical allegory I Pose, which I was a mere sixty pages or so into. The novel contains only two real characters, the Gardener and the Suffragette (Stella Benson was one or the other at various points in her life) and I have been unable to replace it, making this one of only two books that I have left unfinished through circumstance rather than choice.[4] He or she also stole my bookmark.

Giant Bear is a co-conspirator in my need to collect books that, at first glance, may not have much appeal. For example, this Christmas I received exactly what I had asked for: a copy of No Easy Way by Elspeth Huxley. Elspeth Huxley wrote one of my favourite books (The Flame Trees of Thika) and, along with Karen Blixen and Laurens van der Post, is responsible for my love affair with Africa-based non-fiction. Unwrapping it on Christmas Day, I enthused to the assembled family that this was just what I wanted. ‘It’s a history of the Kenyan Farmers’ Association!’ I said (surely more than enough explanation?). The physical book itself is instantly engaging: the front and back inside covers contain maps, as every good book should, and at the bottom of the contents page is the following intriguing note:

The title No Easy Way was the winning entry in a competition which attracted over six hundred suggestions. The winner was Mrs. Dan Long of Thomson’s Falls.

Also in the ‘purchased for the flimsiest of reasons’ category is Corduroy by Adrian Bell, another beige hardback, and which I bought because I was secretly hoping it might be a history of the trouser. Bell is the father of Martin Bell (foreign correspondent) and Anthea Bell (translator of the Asterix books); he was also a crossword setter for the Daily Telegraph, and I see from Wikipedia that when he was asked to compile his first crossword he had less than ten days to do so and had never actually solved a crossword himself. None of this means he can write a book, of course, but the opening lines of Corduroy saved it from the Capacious Tote Bag of Death:

I was upon the fringe of Suffolk, a county rich in agricultural detail, missed by my untutored eye. It was but scenery to me: nor had I an inkling of what more it might become. Farming, to my mind, was as yet the townsman’s glib catalogue of creatures and a symbol of escape. The true friendliness of the scene before me lay beneath ardours of which I knew nothing.

I was flying from the threat of an office life. I was twenty years old and the year was 1920.

I say ‘death’, but of course all the books found wanting (and/or unwanted) will be going to the second-hand bookshop already mentioned, where no doubt somebody will love them; this is not death as a long and quiet night, then, but a brief flicker between incarnations. Some, however, really are deceased. Regular readers will recall that I admitted to weeping sentimental tears over the corpse of my original copy of The Once and Future King (see The search for perfection). I couldn’t bear to put it on the compost heap or in the recycling, so in the end it went into the woodburner. On the subject of book-burning, I quote the following relevant passage from my novel (see also Seven for a secret never to be told and The lucky seven meme). This is taken from chapter 23, which is called ‘The Rectory Umbrella’ for reasons that need not detain us here. I quote it because in real life, I reserve a fiery death for books that are too precious to compost, whereas in the book, it is only the most objectionable volumes that perish this way:

Father amused himself greatly by building a bonfire at the bottom of the garden (now the vegetable patch) and burning the more objectionable books like a Nazi. Titles burnt at the stake included the following:

i. City of God. Father has never forgiven St Augustine for the Angles/angels debacle.

ii. The complete works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Anything with elves, wizards or other imaginary creatures, countries or languages had better watch out when Father is in a book-burning mood. Not even The Hobbit was spared.

iii. Several hundred miscellaneous science fiction paperbacks. Father sorted the wheat from the chaff by declaring that anything with a lightly-clad alien female, a sky with too many moons and/or any kind of interplanetary craft on the cover was doomed. Despite passing this initial test, Fahrenheit 451 was on the endangered list for some time. However, ultimately it was spared due to the weight of irony pressing on Father’s soul. I imagine this in the form of God with His holy thumb pressed against Father’s eyeballs, like the creepy doctor in The House of Sleep. However, this assumes that Father keeps his soul in his eyeballs (more likely bobbing gently in a jar in the shed, or pressed between the pages of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

iv. The Thornbirds. This was condemned to death by unanimous vote. Mother was reluctant at first, because of Richard Chamberlain. He’s obviously as gay as the day is long, but it didn’t seem quite the right moment to say so (esp. as she would probably have said ‘you know, at this time of year the days are getting shorter again, aren’t they?’ Wretched woman). As an elegy, Father read aloud the bit where the father and son die in a bush-fire, in a small, sarcastic coming-together of fathers and flames. If any of us had needed a final nudge, the utterly stupid moment when the son is crushed by a giant pig would have done it.

Looking through my records, it has been several months since I last added anything of substance to my own attempt at a quirky book that someone might take home with them on a whim. However, the more time that elapses between me and my own escape from the threat of an office life, the more likely that is to change.

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[1] ‘In my view, nineteen pounds of old books are at least nineteen times as delicious as one pound of caviar.’ Anne Fadiman, ‘Secondhand Prose’, in Ex Libris (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 148.

[2] For the benefit of any readers assuming (as I did, in my ignorance of Anatole France and all his works) that this title is metaphorical in some way, I should explain that it really is about penguins, until page 39 when the archangel Raphael turns them into people. This is not an unqualified success and the penguins are disconcerted by their new shape (‘They were inclined to look sideways’).

[3] My purse contained multiple currencies (I was on my way from Britain to China by way of Belgium and France), and yet mere money still failed to hold his or her attention.

[4] The other is Absalom! Absalom!, which was the only casualty in a freak handbag-based yoghurt explosion and had to be thrown away.

The loud symbols

This afternoon, having been unexpectedly relieved of an index I was about to start, I finished reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris.[1] This was a Christmas present from me to myself, along with a festive jumper purchased in the post-Christmas sales, when, like a calendar in January, suddenly nobody wanted it. David Sedaris and I are strikingly different in many ways, in that I am not a middle-aged gay man and have so far failed to publish eight books and embark on an international career of signing those books and/or reading them aloud to people. However, on reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, I discovered that we have four striking things in common.

One: we share a mild obsession with owls (see Owl Chess and Strigiphobia). I keep my non-fiction books in my office, and they are (naturally) arranged alphabetically. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is on the bottom shelf, with three books by Oliver Sacks on one side and Suetonius[2] on the other. Ideally, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls would be next to a book by or about an explorer, most likely (for alphabetical reasons) Scott of the Antarctic, had he survived to write such a volume (Let’s Explore the Antarctic with Not Quite Enough Information, perhaps). The owl used as an exploratory device appears in silhouette on the spine, perched on a floating hypodermic as he contemplates the strange, metaphorical wilderness: a treacherous landscape, all highs and lows. There is also a parliament of owls[3] in my favourite essay of the book, which is called ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’.[4] It opens with a consideration of the phenomenon of the owl-themed gifts that Sedaris and his partner Hugh have amassed over the years:

This is what happens when you tell people you like something. For my sister Amy, that thing was rabbits. When she was in her late thirties, she got one as a pet, and before it had chewed through its first phone cord, she’d been given rabbit slippers, cushions, bowls, refrigerator magnets, you name it. ‘Really,’ she kept insisting, ‘the live one is enough.’ But nothing could stem the tide of crap.[5]

I mention this as a counterpoint to the well-chosen nature of the three Christmas gifts already listed, but I do have some sympathy with the purchasers of the various owls and rabbits, because buying presents is hard. I’m delighted when, in the run-up to Christmas, someone I feel we ought to buy something for (but who already seems to own everything they could possibly need) lets slip in everyday conversation that they like, say, the Very Hungry Caterpillar. We were given an owl for Christmas ourselves: a small white one, designed to perch in the branches of our Christmas tree. In a lovely Biblical metaphor, there was no room in the tree and instead we had to put him on the escritoire, where our tiny knitted magi had completed their arduous journey across the music room.[6] They toiled along the top of the piano, clung to the light-fitting for a few dangerous hours, and finally arrived in safety to stand in a semi-circle with the tiny knitted Mary, tiny knitted Joseph and tiny knitted saviour.[7] Behind them, the owl, a head taller than all the knitted figures, loomed menacingly, while we tried to pretend he was one of the uglier angels.

Two: David Sedaris and I have both had a colonoscopy. He is bullied into his by his father, whereas mine was a medical necessity (see Busting a gut), but a colonoscopy is a colonoscopy. His is described in an essay called ‘A Happy Place’, and mine was so completely uneventful that I haven’t bothered to write about it at all.[8] Three: neither of us owns a mobile ’phone, as described at the beginning of his essay ‘A Friend in the Ghetto’. Four: he has a love of subtlety and nuance in words. Here is an example, from an essay about keeping a diary[9] called ‘Day In, Day Out’:

Some diary sessions are longer than others, but the length has more to do with my mood than with what’s been going on. I met Gene Hackman once and wrote three hundred words about it. Six weeks later I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm and filled two pages. And I really like Gene Hackman.[10]

What I like here is his choice of ‘watched’, rather than ‘saw’. ‘I saw a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies to me that he happened to glance across and see the centipede killing the worm, and that (the two-page write-up notwithstanding) the event itself was comparatively brief. ‘I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies something both less and more passive: less passive in that this sounds like something that went on for some time, and which he chose to pay close attention to, possibly crouching uncomfortably over the battle so as to describe it with accuracy; and more passive, in that he didn’t intervene to save the life of the worm. Giant Bear and I watched A Hallowe’en Party last night, an Agatha Christie mystery in which a girl is drowned in an apple-bobbing basin after she boasts that she once witnessed a murder. Again, the ‘seer’ and the ‘watcher’ are quite different. Compare ‘I saw a murder; I saw him die’ with ‘I watched a murder; I watched him die’. The seer’s glance happens to fall onto or into something (the carriage of a passing train, for example, as in another Agatha Christie story, 4.50 from Paddington), whereas the watcher has stopped what they were doing, and is emotionally involved in what he or she observes. Finally, it seems clear that even though ‘observed’, ‘looked’, ‘noticed’, ‘witnessed’, ‘saw’ and ‘watched’ are very close in meaning, they are still different enough that ‘I observed a murder’, ‘I looked at a murder’ or ‘I noticed a murder’ simply won’t do.

Religious readers may note that the title ‘The loud symbols’ is a play on the words of psalm 150 (‘the loud cymbals’). I have appropriated verse five, which in the King James translation reads as follows: ‘Praise Him upon the loud cymbals: praise Him upon the high sounding cymbals’. Translation is a wonderful place to look for word-related nuance. In the NIV, for example, this verse becomes ‘Praise Him with the clash of cymbals: praise Him with resounding cymbals’; other translations also introduce the word ‘clash’ or ‘clashing’ at various points and use ‘sounding’ or ‘resounding’ rather than ‘high sounding’. This may seem like a small difference, but it is no such thing. The onomatopoeic ‘clash’ is not a word you can sneak into a sentence without anybody noticing; moreover, it suggests a rather pleasing omnivorousness in the tastes of the Almighty. It doesn’t say ‘Praise Him with restrained Church of England cymbals’.[11] The unmusical, splashy word ‘clash’ implies to me that God is more interested in hearing us praise Him, with joy, sincerity and abandon, than He is in how well we do it. As Thomas Merton said,

If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His toleration of the pictures that are painted of Him and of the noise that proceeds from musical instruments under the pretext of being in His ‘honor.’

I’ve written elsewhere about nuance (see A bit like the rubella jab), and how a lack of it can mean that we misunderstand events or people, or appropriate a single incident and use it symbolically to make sweeping statements about huge groups. Jane Elliott[12] argues that the insidiousness of sweeping statements about entire groups is at the root of all prejudices, and that these prejudices are learned and perpetuated generation on generation, as shown in her now seminal eye-colour experiment (also called ‘Eye of the Storm’), and that a middle-aged white man who experiences prejudice for fifteen minutes gets just as angry about it as someone who has experienced it since they were born. As I have written elsewhere (see The fish that is black and Punch drunk), it is a natural human tendency to attempt to simplify the world by dividing things into groups, and then making a statement about all the things in that group. It seems to me that such an approach, and its need to over-use and under-interpret symbols is the enemy of nuance. The recent attacks in Paris, for example, are both specific and symbolic. Charlie Hebdo was chosen as the target because of specific cartoons, but also because the magazine and its staff can be used to symbolise ideas: free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to satirise whomever and whatever we like. In other words, it is an act that encourages us to choose sides: people who think like this, as opposed to people who think like that. As soon as you accept that people can be symbols, hurting those people can start to seem abstract, remote and meaningless, as if two anatomically-correct puppets used in a trial for a sex scandal were jostled around in their overnight container mid-trial, and found the next morning in a compromising position wholly contrary to the testimony of the people they represented. I am not trying to argue that symbols don’t matter; rather, I suggest that they are a means of simplifying (and therefore dehumanising) a particular group, by lumping them together in a way that seems convenient, rather than correct.

Defending a deity (any deity) against satire is a piece of thinking that has become scrambled somewhere. Just as God does not need those who believe in Him to tell Him that He is great (see The uncharitable goat), God does not need those who believe in Him to stick up for Him like a bullied child in a playground. If one follows the thinking of religious extremists whose idea of constructive criticism is to kill a load of people, it seems that they wish others to be frightened into doing like they do, without much caring whether they think like they do i.e. an ‘outside only’ change. That is how the terrorist do; they don’t make a nuanced, cogent argument for their own point of view (i.e. an argument that might persuade people into changing their insides as well, to thinking like they do and doing like they do). I don’t know why this is, but part of my argument here is that, while people are all different from each other (nuance), they also have things in common that help us connect with one another. Terrorists seem very different from all the people I know and their actions are baffling; nevertheless, I think it is important to try to find explanations for them. The best theories I have come up with are as follows. One, terrorists may enjoy the idea that people fear them; it may make people who have hitherto felt like minor characters suddenly feel that they deserve to be centre stage. Two, there may be an element of ‘I am in blood stepp’d in so far’[13]; in other words, once part of such a group, turning back seems as difficult as going on, particularly if the group provides structure, brotherhood, purpose and camaraderie: they may enjoy muttering the terrorist equivalent of ‘By my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you’[14] before embarking on a new and brave mission, like shooting unarmed people or kidnapping schoolgirls. Three, they may think that fear is a more effective tool than persuasion. Four, they aren’t able to make a cogent argument for their own point of view, because their point of view is not built on argument, but their own fear: fear of other large, undifferentiated groups that they understand only dimly, as a series of stereotypes. Terrorists, in other words, are frightened people, and one of the things they are frightened of is nuance. We do, therefore, have at least one thing in common with them.

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[1] Best Book Title Ever.

[2] Best Name for a Steamed Pudding Shop Ever.

[3] I also received A Compendium of Collective Nouns for Christmas. Most of the collective nouns I thought I could be sure of have at least two alternatives, and ‘a parliament of owls’ is no exception: one can also have a wisdom or a sagacity. The book notes thoughtfully, ‘A collective term for owls does not appear in the old books, which as we’ve seen were mostly concerned with game animals. And, of course, owls are solitary creatures’. They then speculate that the term is taken from Chaucer’s poem ‘A Parliament of Foules’, and remind readers of the parliament of owls in The Silver Chair. Best Christmas Present for a Word Nerd Ever. Mark Faulkner, Eduardo Lima Filho, Harriet Logan, Miraphora Mina and Jay Sacher (2013), A Compendium of Collective Nouns (San Francisco: Chronicle Books), p. 142 (see also page 140 for the corresponding illustration).

[4] Understanding Owls is a book, and so strictly I think the title of the essay should read ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’. The typesetter hasn’t rendered it so, but, just as the index I was hoping to do has been outsourced to someone in India who can apparently produce an index for a complex multi-author academic work in a week for less than £250, it may be that the person who did the typesetting didn’t even think the repetition of ‘understanding’ was odd. I freely admit that compiling such an index would have taken me at least twice as long and cost at least twice as much; however, my finished index would actually have helped the inquisitive reader to Find Stuff, and offer some thoughts on how the different topics might relate to one another i.e. it would actually be an index, rather than a glorified concordance and a waste of everyone’s time.

[5] David Sedaris (2013), ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’, from Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (London: Abacus), p. 176.

[6] Both the escritoire and the music room sound very grand, but I promise you they aren’t. The escritoire came with the house, and we eat in the kitchen, thereby rendering what would otherwise be a dining room useless. We call it the music room because we keep the pianos (one real, one Clavinova), all the sheet music and Giant Bear’s collection of trumpets in there.

[7] The baby Jesus is knitted onto Mary’s arm, so he was (of necessity) a bit previous.

[8] I have also never written about my sigmoidoscopy, a similar arse-based medical intervention. That is because, unlike the colonoscopy, for which one is knocked out, the sigmoidoscopy is done without anaesthetic (i.e. they gave me gas and air, which just made me throw up the nothing that my stomach contained). It’s bad enough that I had to go along with a complete stranger inserting a monstrous chilly tube into my Special Area, never mind talking about it as well. I also wasn’t allowed to wear a bra, presumably so that the needle could judder into the red zone over ‘100% Humiliating’ for as long as possible.

[9] Regular readers will recall that I also kept a diary in younger days (see Broken Dishes, The dog expects me to make a full recovery and He had his thingy in my ear at the time), but since I no longer do so I haven’t listed this as something we have in common. The man writes in his diary every single day and carries a notebook with him at all times, for God’s sake.

[10] Sedaris, ‘Day In, Day Out’, Owls, p. 227.

[11] <ting>

[12] See her here in the early 1990s on Oprah. It’s not an obvious place to find her, but she’s magnificent.

[13] Macbeth, Act 3, scene iv, line 135.

[14] I say this to Buy it Now items on Ebay. Also, Best Line from a TV Show Ever (with ‘Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!’ a close second).