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What I’ve been reading this month

Molly Ringwald’s translation of Lie With Me, by Philippe Besson, was one of those books which totally disrupted my day as I couldn’t help but read it in a single sitting. The short (148 page) book told the story of an intense romance between two teenage boys in France in 1984. It isn’t completely clear whether it is autobiography or fiction. It was completely transporting, evocative and immersive. By the end, I also found it deeply moving. It left me in a bit of a daze.

Find Me was the sequel to André Aciman’s much-acclaimed Call Me By Your Name (I read that volume in February). It was a rather different book, but no less successful. Find Me was narrated in sections by several of the characters from the original novel at five-year intervals, starting a decade on. The sequel had an altogether gentler, more philosophical tone than the original, which was fitting given that it was written from an adult rather than adolescent perspective. The novel intimately explored a series of romantic relationships, with a interesting musical thread weaved through the book. In all, I thought this was as good as the first book, even if it is very different.

Eradication was Nancy Leys Stepan’s comprehensive history of work to eradicate various infectious diseases, with a unifying thread of examining the life and work of Fred Lowe Soper. Stephan gave a great, sobering illustration of how many attempts at disease eradication have failed for essentially the same reasons. She also gave a balanced account of the dangers of eradication programmes, and in particular the opportunity costs. Stepan sometimes lost me in her discussion of the finer details of some of her examples, but nevertheless convinced me of her central thesis that “eradication campaigns should be exceptional and rare”. This was a great read.

Nuclear War in the UK, by Taras Young, was a bit of a niche title describing the public information campaigns the UK government has run in connection with preparing for nuclear war. It gave a fascinating account of the different approaches used over the years, the reasons that the government chose to adopt these, and the public response. Around half of the book was given over to reproductions of pages from various leaflets and information booklets. I would have liked the content to be extended a little to cover the ‘modern’ attempts at communicating similar info in different circumstances (e.g. 2004’s “Preparing for Emergencies” campaign), but that may have diluted the specificity of the book, and I thought this was great nonetheless.

As we’re in the midst of a general election in the UK, I thought it was a timely moment to read Philip Freeman’s new translation of Cicero’s Commentariolum Petitionis, published as How to Win an Election. This was a letter of no-nonsense advice from Quintus Cicero to his brother Marcus Cicero about how to win the consul election in which he was standing, written in 64BC. Reading this was a little cathartic: for all the many failings of our modern politicians, at least none of our candidates has killed and decapitated the corpse of their brother-in-law. That said, the exhortations for campaigning politicians to make promises they can’t possible keep felt depressingly contemporary (“Broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances so that anger against you will be minimal … but if you refuse to make a promise, the result is certain and produces immediate anger in a large number of voters”).

I read the Angus Turvill translation of Nagisa Tatsumi’s The Art of Discarding, a guide to changing one’s relationship with physical “stuff” to avoid accumulating too much. This was music to my ears, as I’m already an anti-hoarder with a strong preference for discarding stuff. The book was a little uncomfortably sexist in places, and could have used a little more emphasis on the environmental aspects of discarding, but I thoroughly enjoyed the slightly smug feeling this book engendered in me.

In 2016, Heathcote Williams published Royal Babylon, a 500-stanza poetic rant about the British Monarchy. I picked this up as last month I enjoyed Williams’s (prose) essay on Boris Johnson. There were similarities between the two in that Royal Babylon also serves as an extended character assassination with many astonishing anecdotes. However, a difference between the two was that the logical argument in Royal Babylon wasn’t clear to me. The book dealt mainly with the character flaws of individual members of the royal family which seemed an odd way to argue for the abolition of monarchy; much as it would be odd for the Boris Johnson book to conclude with a clarion call for the abolition of the post of Prime Minister. Nevertheless, this was an entertaining read.

Philippa Perry used her book How to Stay Sane to set out some simple psychotherapy techniques for maintaining mental health. This was something of an accidental purchase, as I expected a discursive and analytical volume, and got an instructional book of ‘exercises’, none of which I actually did. Nevertheless, while this wasn’t my cup of tea, I appreciated the clean and clear style of writing and the advice within seemed pretty reasonable.

The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga has, apparently, become something of an Asian sensation. I picked up the English translation, which I think was translated by the original authors, which is the kind of achievement that could make anyone feel inadequate. The book was a sort of philosophical introduction to the psychological teaching of Alfred Adler. I don’t think I’ve read much about Adler’s ideas before, and so I found this exploration interesting. It certainly challenged conventional wisdom, though I can understand why others have rejected it as unhelpfully victim-blaming. The book is presented as a dialogue between a philosopher and a student, and the authors gave a vigorous defense of this approach in the afterword. Nevertheless, I didn’t take to this format, and found it intensely irritating at times. I would have much preferred a more traditional approach with a clearer explanation of the underlying evidence.

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference was an exceptionally poor form of Greta Thunberg’s persuasive arguments on the urgency of tackling climate change. The volume collected eleven short speeches delivered over eight months: as with anyone giving a series of speeches on an identical topics over a short period of time, Thunberg recycled whole paragraphs from speech to speech, making the book highly repetitious. There was no opportunity for Thunberg to air the detail of her arguments, as a short speech will naturally never dive deeper than key headlines. Thunberg is an inspiration; but unfortunately, this book was neither convincing nor satisfying.

I also continued reading the Faber Stories collection of short books this month.

The Shielding of Mrs Forbes was very Alan Bennett, including a rather wonderful line about “a death that might seem to have more to do with narrative tidiness than driving without due care and attention.” It was a story about the complexity of interwoven family secrets which started with a man continuing a clandestine gay affair on his wedding night and only ramped up from there. This was great fun.

The Inner Room was a Robert Aickman short story in which a young girl chose a doll house as a birthday present and creepy things ensure. I’m not quite sure whether I’d class this as “horror” exactly, but it was certainly weird, tense and atmospheric. I enjoyed it, but not sure I’ll remember it twelve months hence.

Thom Jones’s Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine was the atmospheric story of a young boxer’s fight. It concentrated mostly on the boxer’s thoughts in the run-up to the event. It had a driving plot and a cleverly building sense of tension, but it’s not really a story that stayed with me or taught me any great lesson.

Paradise, by Edna O’Brien, was a 62-page story in which a young woman had swimming lessons while on holiday with her much older and wealthier lover. It’s main theme seemed to be around the tension between meeting the expectations of self-entitled wealthy people and being one’s own person. This struck me as a little pedestrian, and the characters and scenery weren’t especially memorable. I don’t think this book lived up to the promise of its theme.

Claire Keegan’s The Forester’s Daughter was a kind of domestic drama set in rural Ireland about a woman who married a farmer “for want of someone better”. A dog features heavily, including a few lines which are somewhat bizarrely narrated from the dog’s point of view, but with a heavy dose of anthropomorphism (“His urge to roll in the cow-dung is almost irresistible but this is the type of house where they might let a dog sleep inside.”) This left me unmoved.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I Never Said I Loved You was an astonishing and unconventional autobiography by the journalist and actor Rhik Samadder, in which he covered topics including his history of childhood sexual abuse, subsequent lifelong struggle with mental illness, and his complicated but loving relationship with his mother. His adult romantic relationships were also discussed in some detail. Samadder’s writing was beautiful, with power, honesty and—perhaps unexpectedly—real humour. This was really very good, and certainly one of my favourite books of the year to date.

I was delighted this month to come across a copy of Archibald Colquhoun’s translation of The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino, a book I’ve never read before. I’ve always been a fan of Calvino’s writing, and it’s therefore no surprise that I devoured this macabre yet amusing and insightful fable. The story concerned a Viscount bisected in a battlefield injury whose two halves went on to lead two different lives, one evil and one virtuous, and whose paths eventually crossed. It was just unhinged enough to be both funny and gently thought-provoking.

It was an unusual experience to find myself captivated by a book in which I struggled to orientate myself and untangle the plot. Sarah Winman’s Tin Man was an extraordinarily sensitive story of first love, loss and grief. It was narrated in sections by two middle-aged men reflecting on their lives to date, including their childhood friendship and teenage love for one another. I was completely taken in by the depth of the emotional insight and the delicate treatment of sexual identity, so much so that I didn’t really care that I struggled to follow the wider structure of the plot.

By turns amusing, astonishing and terrifying, Heathcote Williams’s Boris Johnson: The Beast of Brexit was an excellent essay. It was a full-throttle character assassination of a type which is rarely done so well. A powerful, passionate and somewhat persuasive argument.

In The Carer, Deborah Moggach set the scene of a family recruiting a carer, Mandy, for their elderly widowed father. Suspicions about Mandy’s behaviour grow amid an increasingly tense atmosphere, and it felt as though the plot direction was clear. However, a change in events turns this into a much more sensitive novel with far more character development that it first appeared. All things considered, I enjoyed this as a light and easy read, with an unexpected amount of depth and thought.

The Cockroach was Ian McEwan’s satirical novella on Brexit, a sort of reverse version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in reverse in which a cockroach became Prime Minister. The Brexit-esque policy was ‘reversalism’, in which the flow of money was reversed: people paid to take things from shops, and pay to go to work. I felt it was a bit subpar for McEwan: it was clever, in that many of the phrases and speeches were verbatim quotations of contemporary debate, but it was also a bit mean-spirited. Casting one side of a debate as self-interested insects wasn’t as illuminating as trying to understand their reasoning might have been.

Gotta Get Theroux This was a career-focused memoir by the television journalist Louis Theroux. It included rather thoughtful reflections on the complexity of the human condition, and discussion about the “non-binary” nature of people’s morality. In the current climate, it felt oddly brave to acknowledge that the subjects of Theroux’s documentaries, such as Jimmy Saville, could be both talented and have committed horrendous crimes. I enjoyed the book, but my opinion was probably coloured by my existing admiration for his documentary work.

Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has become something of a cultural phenomenon. It was a story about loneliness and social isolation in which, contrary to traditional expectations, the protagonist is a young adult with an office job. I was slightly disappointed by this novel, as I found the writing a little glossy and unreal, and somehow lacking depth and complexity despite a rather unconventional psychiatric subplot.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Fintan O’Toole’s book on Brexit, Heroic Failure, was exactly what I expected it to be as a reader of his frequent newspaper columns. He presented some interesting and well-argued perspectives on the drivers behind Brexit, including frequent references to 50 Shades of Grey. I didn’t find all of the arguments convincing, but I enjoyed O’Toole’s passionate argument and wit, and found myself seeing some aspects of the debate from entirely new perspectives.

In Catching Breath, Kathryn Lougheed taught me lots of bits and pieces about tuberculosis. Lougheed described the history of tuberculosis over millennia and made a case for it still being a pressing problem in the modern world, as I know only too well from my day job. Lougheed has the rare gift of being able to write well in a conversational tone, and with an added dash of humour, this whole text became thoroughly readable and engaging.

Kazuo Ishiguro is among my favourite authors, but I struggled to get on with When We Were Orphans. It was a sort of detective novel, where the protagonist goes off to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his own parents when he was a child. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I found the narrator thoroughly unlikable and a little irritating, which made the whole book difficult to enjoy.

I didn’t enjoy Jonathan Biss’s Beethoven’s Shadow quite as much as his other books because it seems clear that Biss wasn’t quite as passionate about Beethoven’s works as that of other composers he’s written about. But this was still an excellent essay. I particularly enjoyed his insights into the unexpected ways in which recordings of music have influenced the liver performance of classical music over the last century or so.

I’m not the intended audience for Mario García’s The Story: Volume I: Transformation, but I read it anyway. It was a hassle to buy because it seemed to be mobile only – but there now seems to be a print edition, so who knows what’s going on. It was a very short book in which García, a world-renowned newspaper designer, reflected on various projects he had worked on over many decades. It was interesting to read about his considerations when, for example, first introducing colour to newspapers, or first designing a newspaper for mobile phones. It left me feeling a bit tired and despondent about the future of news, as García’s vision is about as far from my own preference as can be: lots of “content management” and “melon slices” rather than properly absorbing narrative structures.

And I continued the Faber Stories series this month, with Akhil Sharma’s Cosmopolitan. This was a modern, calm, gently funny short story than was also utterly forgettable.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Maybe I’ve not been in the right frame of mind for reading this month, or maybe I’ve made some bad selections. Either way, nothing has really blown me away.

The blockbuster book of the summer, David Nicolls’s new book Sweet Sorrow, was a beautifully written story of teenage first love, set against a background of an interestingly complex family breakdown, and a (slightly tiresome) summer children’s production of Romeo & Juliet. Despite the evocative and often funny writing, it all felt a bit too long to me, and perhaps a little too saccharine, even by Nicholls’s standards. I didn’t feel as absorbed by the world of this novel as I have by most of Nicholls’s other books.

Hannah Fry’s Hello World was an enjoyable a well-written lay summary of the strengths and limitations of computerised algorithms as applied in real-world settings. I particularly enjoyed the concise clarity of the book combined with occasional wit. I didn’t personally feel like this book gave me much new insight to the topic, but I think that is a reflection of having read a reasonable amount in this area before, and this book being aimed at an audience perhaps newer to the topic.

Lots of friends have been praising Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo recently, so I thought I would give it a go. It was a fun romantic novella set in the late 1920s told from the point of view of a straight-talking young woman from Malaysia crashing up against the buttoned-up sensibility of folk in England. The central character was great fun, a really entertaining and endearing creation, but I found some of the language a bit uneven and perhaps a little anachronistic—or, at least, not in keeping with my expectations of the language of that era as someone who knows very little about it.

It’s hard not to feel a bit fed up of politics at the moment, but I nonetheless picked up Isabel Hardman’s Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. This was a sympathetic portrait of the work of MPs, arguing that they do a poor job of legislating partly because they spend so much time on casework clearing up the fallout of previous poor legislation. Sometimes, Hardman overdid the sympathy—”MPs do not needs the complex motor skills of a surgeon”, so it’s fine for them to drink taxpayer subsidised alcohol over lunchtime—and it made me wonder a little about her motivations. All things considered, I found this to be less analytical and solution-focused than I’d hoped.

In Brotopia, Emily Chang related deeply shocking experiences that women have had in Silicon Valley jobs, and made a compelling case for change. I would have liked there to have been more discussion of the underlying societal drivers for the appalling behaviour. I also felt that Chang’s concentration on viewing the lack of diversity in tech companies through the sole lens of sexism occasionally produced odd results. For example, there is a section where she talks about horribly racist groups on social networking sites, and her conclusion is that this would have been less likely to have been tolerated if there were more women in the company… which may be true, but perhaps other types of diversity in the workforce might have helped more. This book opened my eyes to a problem that I’ve probably paid too little attention to in the past; but I don’t think it was necessarily the best form of the argument.

I seem to be on a bit of a musical thread to my reading at the moment. I picked up Jonathan Biss’s Coda, a 30-odd page essay on his relationship with composers’ “late” works. I’d forgotten how well Biss writes, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading his clear and enthusiastic account, with some really inventive turns of phrase.

I found Stephen Johnson’s How Shostakovich Changed My Mind somewhat less engaging, but then it’s a very different type of book to Biss’s. This was a memoir that wove a tale of the influence of Shostakovich on Johnson’s life, from helping him through mental illness to getting him into music journalism. I felt I missed out largely because I’m not very familiar with either Shostakovich’s work or Johnson’s journalism, and there wasn’t much that this book could do to make up for that lack of background.

I also read one more book in the Faber Stories collection this month: Three Types of Solitude by Brian W Aldiss. I’m afraid this came across to me as three pretty forgettable bits of science fiction, which isn’t really my favourite genre to begin with.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Jeanete Winterson’s Frankissstein blew me away this month. It was an astonishingly imaginative modern-day re-exploration of questions raised by Frankenstein. Frankissstein told an imaginative story of Mary Shelley’s 19th century creation of Frankenstein, woven together with the 21st century story of a fictional transgender doctor, Ry Shelley, who explored the surprisingly intersecting worlds of artificial intelligence and cryogenics. But really, Frankissstein was a book which revisited the questions about ethics and humanity raised by Shelley two centuries ago and asked them again in the context of modern scientific progress. I found this completely breathtakingly brilliant, and it left me with a lot of food for thought.

Good friends bought a copy of Sam Savage’s Firmin for my birthday earlier in the year: if they hadn’t, I would never have picked it up for myself, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed it. I suppose that makes it the perfect present! It was a short novel narrated the eponymous rat who lived in a book shop in 1960s Boston. Born to an alcoholic mother, Firmin taught himself to read and ultimately became well versed in human culture despite an obvious inability to communicate with people. This may sound like the premise for a children’s book, but in fact it made for a charming commentary on the human condition. It was rather moving in it’s own way – and also had plenty of wit. I enjoy authors who employ just a dash of madness to illuminate different ways of looking at the world, and this is most certainly along those lines.

Graeme Simsion’s “Don Tillman” trilogy, concerning a scientist with a probable diagnosis of autism, concludes with The Rosie Result, which I enjoyed this month. The final volume concentrates on Don’s relationship with his son, and was a rather heart-warming way to wrap up the series.

10% Happier was a memoir by lovably self-important American newsreader and reporter Dan Harris, who suffered a panic attack while reading the news on TV. In his capacity as a religion correspondent, he got to meet a lot of people with interesting viewpoints on life, and he ultimately came to find that meditation helped him to become a calmer and more compassionate person. There was nothing earth-shattering in the book, but I did find it witty and occasionally somewhat insightful. It was a fun, light read.

The Swimming Pool Library, written by Alan Hollinghurst and first published in 1989, focused on the relationship between a pair of gay male aristocrats in the 1980s. The older man asked the younger to write his autobiography, and in so-doing caused the younger to reflect on the differences in the lives of gay men in the periods in which they both lived. The novel felt very dated to me, and the way in which both characters were obsessed with sex felt reductive. The descriptions of sexual acts, no doubt deeply shocking in the 1980s, had somewhat lost their impact in 2019. All things considered, I didn’t particularly enjoy this book: I think this is possibly just the wrong historical moment to read it, when the 1980s are too recent in memory for this to seem like a truly historical account, but too far away for the book to feel current and relevant.

I picked up Mark Manson’s bestselling The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and rather regretted it. I’d read that it was better than the title suggested, but it seemed to me to be nothing more than half-baked misinterpretations of ancient philosophy written in a snarky tone and filled with unnecessary swearing. It wasn’t for me.

I also continued reading the Faber Stories collection this month.

The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes contained three short stories published in the 1920s, all of which took the form of diary entries about rejected love. All three made me laugh out loud, with some brilliant turns of phrase.

Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly was a story of a Zimbabwean community uprooted as part of the effort to clean up a township in advance of a visit from the Queen. The story focused on a woman who had “lost her wits and gained a pregnancy”. Gappah created a vivid world with so much packed into it that I was a little disappointed that the story ran to only 41 pages.

Mrs Fox by Sarah Hall was a short story told from the perspective of a man whose wife unaccountably turned into a fox. This was far too magical and unreal for my taste, and I found it difficult to understand the characters’ lack of emotional reaction to this quite extraordinary event. I suppose it was an allegory for something, but I’m afraid the meaning passed me by.

Sally Ronney’s Mr Salary was the story of a woman in her 20s, her dying father and her older lover. It was told mostly through dialogue, which felt flat and false to me, and the whole story left me unmoved. But people who know much more about literature than me constantly praise Rooney’s ear for dialogue, so perhaps I’m just on the wrong wavelength or something.

In The Victim, PD James tells the story of a man plotting and carrying out the murder of the new husband of his ex-wife. This felt weirdly pedestrian to me given the subject matter. Maybe there is talent in that, but it made for a surprisingly dull story.

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A flying visit to Copenhagen

As snobbish as it may sound, I’m not typically a RyanAir kind of person: I prefer the sort of travelling where I’m treated with civility and allowed to relax with my own thoughts or a good book.

Yet I also love a bargain. When I saw a couple of weeks ago that RyanAir had sub-£20 fares available from Edinburgh to Copenhagen for a weekend when Wendy was on nights, I found it impossible to resist. Living in Newcastle, I had actually never flown from Edinburgh before. However, Wendy and I had been re-routed there once when an inbound flight from a weekend trip was cancelled, and it had seemed remarkably straightforward to transfer from airport to East Coast Mainline and home, and I assumed that would work almost as smoothly in reverse. The assumption proved accurate, and so last weekend, I found myself aurally assaulted by fanfares, exhortations to buy scratchcards and special offers on cheap perfumes as I jetted across the North Sea.

It was a flying trip in another sense, too: I arrived at Kastrup airport in the late afternoon. By the time I had caught the train to the central station, Københavns Hovedbanegård, and walked the 20 minutes to my Sydhavnen hotel, the sun was setting—and my flight home was little more than 24 hours away. But no matter: I had really only come from a cheap-ish day out.

Early the following morning, after a quick breakfast at Joe & the Juice at the Fisketorvet mall (there go the hipster credentials I never had to begin with), I strolled along the east bank of the harbour. I have visited Copenhagen only once before, and while that longer trip allowed get around more of the city, even crossing the impressive Øresund bridge to Malmö, it was during the winter. As I wandered by the water, I was a little struck by how much livelier Copenhagen was during the summer, with seemingly much of the city out for a Sunday constitutional, and much of the rest taking out boats on the sparkling harbour waters.

I eventually found myself at Operaen, Copenhagen’s famous opera house. On my previous visit, I had seen this only from across the water: it is more impressive close up. While architecturally rather different in style and scale, the waterside situation and protruding roof reminded me of the Senedd in Cardiff. If I’d taken anything other than a horrendous selfie, I’d insert a picture here to prove my point; but you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Doubling back on myself, I crossed the river to the tourist hotspot of multicoloured buildings that is Nyhaven. This was much less pleasant in the summer: it was so crowded with tourists that it was difficult to walk along! Although, my winter visit here had been rewarded by a bird depositing it’s “lime” on my jumper: the lack of that experience this time around was a welcome variation.

I made my way down to Tivoli, the theme park and pleasure gardens celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. Although a little more compact than I expected, this was a real pleasure: Tivoli has done a wonderful job of maintaining its heritage while also modernising enough to attract a modern audience. This is something that I think we struggle with in the UK, as “heritage” often seems to be misconstrued as “old fashioned”. There was nothing old-fashioned about Tivoli: the beautiful old surroundings were integrated into the modern experience in a way that didn’t fetishise them as being part of an old world.

I was also struck and pleased by the integration of classical music and dance into the entertainment at Tivoli. The stunning pantomime theatre, with its incredible mechanical peacock tail curtain, is used for several-times-daily performances of ballet with a live pit orchestra, attracting very large crowds (far larger than the small seating area in the picture!)

As I sat in these beautiful surroundings sipping a gin and tonic, I couldn’t help but reflect on how different the experience was to that one finds a Blackpool Pleasure Beach: a similarly aged theme park, with a similarly bold heritage, with a similar number of visitors annually. For all the charm of Blackpool, it’s hard to imagine finding quiet garden to enjoy a relaxing gin and tonic. And while Tivoli’s famous wooden Bjergbanen rollercoaster and its looping steel Daemonen would fit perfectly alongside Blackpool’s Grand National and Icon, a notable orchestra’s performance being heavily promoted as a prime attraction seems unlikely at the Pleasure Beach.

This strikes me as a little bit sad, because I think it reflects how the performing arts (and perhaps arts more generally) have moved away from being part of the centre of British culture in a way that clearly hasn’t happened in Denmark. Given the UK’s stellar history in the field, it seems a shame that dance and orchestral music have become a little removed from our daily lives.

After a while of sitting and relaxing, I was a little startled to look up and find myself confronted by children in solider’s uniforms, complete with bearskins. I began to wonder if I had drunk more than I’d clocked, but it turned out that this was the Tivoli Youth Guard, a formation of 8 to 16 year-olds that parade around and ‘guard’ some of the prominent monuments and buildings. While these are much sought-after and prestigious positions for the children involved, I have to confess to feeling a little uncomfortable about the whole thing. I suppose the whole thing felt a little reminiscent of tens of child abuse scandals reported in recent years. Perhaps the fact that I couldn’t watch a parade of children without a slight uneasiness might also reflect an innocence lost in British culture, or perhaps just within me.

After a quick visit to Tivoli’s Wagamama (there go those hipster credentials again), it was time to leave the comfortable surrounds of Tivoli, hop across the road to Københavns Hovedbanegård and begin the journey back to Newcastle. My bargain summer day-trip was sunny and relaxing, but also perhaps a little more reflective than I had expected it to be.


The pictures in this post are all my own.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Sylvia Plath’s Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom packed far more food for thought into 40 pages than many writers manage in 400. The plot involved a young-ish girl sent on an ominous train journey by her parents. It was spine-tinglingly creepy, and the discomfort was only heightened by the clear allegory to the path our up-bringing bringing sets for each of us. I actually read this twice, as I couldn’t help myself from flicking back to the start almost as soon as I’d reached the end.

“It is worse, much worse, than you think” was the opening to David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth: and the next 310 pages proved his point. This book explained the current position of the world with respect to global warming, and how much worse the situation is going to get as a result of damage that has already been done. I found this text both arresting and illuminating. It was one of those rare books that completely changed my understanding and frame of reference on a topic. And yet, it was also a reasonably easy read by virtue of the engaging style of writing.

Lorrie Moore’s Terrific Mother was a short novella in which a 30-something women was caught up in a simple accident which resulted in the death of her friend’s baby. This caused her to spiral into a deep depression, at the nadir of which she decided to marry an academic. She was whisked off to Italy as a spouse on a academic retreat, and fell for her American masseuse. Despite the heavy subject matter, especially at the start, this was written with an oddly true-to-life lightness and a certain sense of wit. It was 76 small-ish widely spaced pages long, very easily read in a single sitting, and that felt like exactly the right length for the story.

Amateur, Thomas Page McBee’s short autobiographical account of training for, and taking part in, a charity boxing match as a transgender man, was thoughtful and reflective. McBee’s exploration of boxing was fascinating: it’s a sport I’ve never engaged with in any meaningful way, yet one on which that I held a passively negative view. McBee’s exploration of boxing and the reasons men fight educated me and allowed me to see more of the nuance behind the sport. The discussion of masculinity was interesting too, particularly given the particular perspective McBee can bring as a transgender man.

A River in Egypt by David Means was a 34-page story covering a father’s thoughts during and after taking his infant son for a sweat test to diagnose Cystic Fibrosis. I thought Means did a great job of capturing the broad tumult of thoughts that people experience in situations like this: the complexity and frequent tangents felt true to life.

In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald J Robertson gave some historical context to Marcus Aurelius’s writings, and also drew some interesting and insightful comparisons between the practices advocated by the Stoic philosophers and techniques of modern psychotherapy. I appreciated that Robertson discussed differences as well as similarities and that the analysis went beyond superficial description of the longevity of the ideas. I thought that some of the more imaginative parts of the book didn’t quite work, but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

I was a bit disappointed by Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me. It was a story about a the experience of a young couple who buy a human-like robot. I felt that there were too many ideas stuffed into the novel: resurrecting Alan Turing, a counter-factual social history of the 1980s, and technologically advanced and life-like robots. There were lots of interesting ideas hinted at, but none of them particularly well explored. The characterisation was very thin by McEwan’s usual standards – I didn’t really feel that I understood the motivations of the central human characters. It all just came across as bitty and confused to me.

I struggled to the end of Merve Emre’s What’s Your Type? this month, a book which promised to be a history of the cultish Myers-Briggs personality test, but turned out to be an interminably dull biography of Myers and Briggs. I don’t think I took anything useful away from this.

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