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31 things I learned in May 2020

1: We’re actually decent people in a crisis – and stories claiming otherwise do harm.


2: A monk’s cowl is “meant to be impractical – you can’t run in it for instance. It slows you down and you can’t do much in the way of work as a result of the long sleeves.”


3: “While the rest of us headed into lockdown worrying about whether we had enough toilet roll and ketchup, the super-rich were desperately trying to recruit live-in staff.” I’m not usually partial to cheap reverse snobbery, but that article had some zinging lines in it.


4: Paul Collier’s critique in The TLS of the UK Government response to covid-19 is the best I’ve read to date (though admittedly I’m trying to avoid reading too much on covid-19 outside of work). I don’t agree with the detail of all of his conclusions, but I think he brings important issues to the surface.


5: “There are many modern thinkers who emphasise the individual’s dependency upon society. It is, on the contrary, only the cultivation of interior solitude, among crowded lives, that makes society endurable.” So said John Cowper Powys, apparently. I tend to agree.


6: “In Europe, bunks on a night train have traditionally been set at ninety degrees to the direction of travel, like the teeth of a comb. In America, the custom was to place them lengthways, so that your body, when horizontal, slotted into the train like a bullet in the breach of a rifle.” I could have lived my entire life without this delightful bit of trivia ever coming to my attention.


7: “The hope is that almost all of us will download the app, that we will be diligent about using it if we develop symptoms, that the detection of identifiers will be reliable, that the subsequent risk calculation will be more or less accurate, and that we will, by and large, self-isolate if the app tells us to. Crucially, the strategy also requires easy access to tests so people can be rapidly alerted if a contact who had symptoms turns out not to have had the disease.” I’m a covid-19 app sceptic: I don’t think the uptake will be anywhere near 80% of smartphones (as is hoped) and nor do I think that there will be comparable compliance with isolation advice given by app and that given in a human conversation. Twelve months from now, when this post is published and the app has proven to be a rip-roaring success, you can comment and tell me what a fool I am for posting such silly predictions.


8: Moving a Bank Holiday to a Friday makes it more difficult to know what day it is. Lockdown and the consequent intense but irregular working pattern already made it hard enough for me.


9: The details in The Economist‘s cover images sometimes pass me by.


10: “Stay alert will mean stay alert by staying home as much as possible, but stay alert when you do go out by maintaining social distancing, washing your hands, respecting others in the workplace and the other settings that you’ll go to.”


11: Gillian Tett’s observation that “Americans are wearily used to the idea that 40,000 die each year from guns, and many accept this as the price of freedom” helped me see grim fatalism as one response to the lifting of the covid lockdown: the polar opposite of the safety first, fear-driven response that many pundits predict will dominate.


12: “Britain is so preoccupied by the virus that it is devoting far too little attention to its Brexit negotiations, increasing the chances that an on-time Brexit will also be a bitter Brexit.” I’m fairly confident that, despite current bluster, the Government will end up asking for an extension of the transition period. (This post is rapidly turning into “31 predictions from May 2020” rather than 31 lessons…)


13: Will Self’s article on the mechanics of freelance journalism, published in the reputedly low-paying TLS, opened my eyes to the basic realities of that profession.


14: My local petrol station is now charging less than £1/litre.


15: “Senior Conservatives have called for all MPs to be allowed to return to the House of Commons as they become concerned Boris Johnson is struggling in the deserted chamber in his encounters with new Labour leader Keir Starmer.” Bless.


16: Uncertainty about the safety and effectiveness of contact tracing apps is growing. The Economist has a published a leader on the topic: “They are an attractive idea. Yet contact-tracing apps are also an untested medical invention that will be introduced without the sort of safeguards that new drugs are subjected to. Inaccurate information can mislead health officials and citizens in ways that can be as harmful as any failed drug. Governments should proceed with care.”


17: “The most important breakthroughs in medical interventions – antibiotics, insulin, the polio vaccine – were developed in social and financial contexts that were completely unlike the context of pharmaceutical profit today. Those breakthroughs were indeed radically effective, unlike most of the blockbusters today.” This is obvious when you think about it, but I’ve never really thought about it before.


18: Multi-person iron lungs existed.


19: Chloe Wilson, who I’ve never come across before, seems to be quite a writer.


20: Cereal taught me the Korean idiom “when tigers used to smoke,” meaning a very long time ago. And also the lovely saying “deep sincerity can make grass grow on stone.”


21: Vitamin String Quartet covered the whole of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album and somehow this news has passed me by for the best part of four years, even though I like Vitamin String Quartet and love Random Access Memories.


22: “A local leader characterises PHE’s response to the crisis as ‘carry on covid.'” It seems that even The Economist has now concluded that Public Health England is “unlikely to survive the crisis.”


23: This video introduced me to several new terms unique to the world of antiquarian book repair (though Slightly Foxed taught me the meaning of ‘slightly foxed’ some years ago!)


24: Itsu’s katsu rice noodles are lovely, even if they are basically a posh pot noodle.


25: Going for a drive to test one’s eyesight is, according to the government, an acceptable reason for deviating from “stay at home” advice.


26: How different artists approached drawing the SARS-CoV-2 virus.


27: Dr Bonnie Henry has had some shoes made in her honour. And they sold out quickly.


28: A month ago, I don’t think I could have confidently defined ‘pangram’. Now, I’m coming across them everywhere: there’s been a running feature in The Times diary column, they feature in Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan which I’m currently reading, and The Browser recently recommended an article about them. My current favourite is ‘amazingly few discotheques provide jukeboxes’.


29: The Twentieth Century Society made me aware that tax incentives promote new construction over refurbishment, which is part of the reason why perfectly sound buildings are often demolished rather than repurposed.


30: It’s been lovely to have a day off and go for a walk with Wendy. COVID-19 work has run us both ragged recently. I’ve also had my first takeaway coffee in several months.


31: According to anonymous sources talking to The Sunday Times, “Boris has always been clear that he doesn’t ever say sorry,” “these stories about Boris being fed up with the job are all true” and “the chances of Boris leading us into the next election have fallen massively.”

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What I’ve been reading this month

Six books to mention this month…


I Choose Elena by Lucia Osborne-Crowley

A 2019 essay on the lasting effect of trauma on Osborne-Crowley, exploring the effect that a rape at knifepoint when she was fifteen years old changed her life.

This was a deeply personal and powerful account. Osborne-Crowley reflected on the influence literature had on her recovery, including Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels which the title references. She also reflected on the personal circumstances which she believes underlie the reason the experience had such a profound impact on her life, in a section that knocked me sideways.

This will stay with me.


Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

This was a newly published book by first-time author Tomasz Jedrowski. It followed a boy growing up, coming to terms with his sexuality, and falling in love against a background of political and social turmoil in late twentieth-century Poland.

I picked this up because I had read that it heavily featured James Baldwin’s classic Giovanni’s Room, which I have only recently read, and I was interested to see how this work would use that one. It turns out that it played a central part in the plot.

Jedrowski is an exceptionally talented writer who brought new emotional insight by referencing themes like social acceptance, shame, guilt, perseverance, and vulnerability in various aspects of the characters’ lives. There were, for example, complex emotional parallels between rebelling against an oppressive political regime and rebelling against a heteronormative society.

I really enjoyed this book and thought I got a lot out of it. The experience of having recently read Giovanni’s Room led to me reflect quite a lot on the different influences the same book can have on different people’s lives. Giovanni’s Room clearly meant something different to someone exploring their nascent sexuality in a country which suppressed homosexuality compared to what it meant to a straight 30-something in the UK in 2020: this made me reflect much more deeply on that point, and how much what we all take from books depends as much on what we bring to them as what is in them.


Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

I picked this book up entirely on the strength of the cover, so all credit to designers Sara Wood and Steve Marking.

It was a book about Ava, who left Ireland at the age of twenty-two to teach English in Hong Kong. She befriended a banker, Julian, and then a lawyer, Edith, and much was made of the trio’s diverse backgrounds, financial situations, and approaches to life. At heart, this was a love story. Dolan’s writing was sharp and witty and was the real star of this book.

What could we need more during these strange times than a warm and witty love story? It was modern in a way that will date quite quickly (lots of commentary on iMessage typing indicators and ways of working at Starbucks), but it was still lovely.


Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead by Milan Kundera

I don’t think I’ve read anything by Milan Kundera before. This was forty-three pages first published in English in a collection called Laughable Loves in 1974, and now republished as a standalone volume in the Faber Stories collection. Regrettably, the volume doesn’t credit the translator of the original Czech; from a bit of web searching, I think it was probably Suzanne Rappaport.

The plot concerned a man and a woman who previously had a sexual encounter when he was 20-ish and she 40-ish coincidentally meeting again 15 years on. Narration alternated between the two of them for each of the fourteen chapters.

There was a lot packed in here: the plot may have been straightforward, but the melancholy atmosphere, the lost love, the detail of the imagery, and the reflections on aging and changing and mortality elevated this to something more than a simple narrative. Kundera packed more into these forty-three pages than many authors I’ve read recently fit into a full-length novel.


Intruders by Adrian Tomine

This was an 81-page graphic novel (or, I suppose, graphic short story—but that doesn’t seem like it means the same thing). First published in 2015 in the collection Killing and Dying, I read the 2019 standalone Faber Stories volume.

Graphic novels aren’t really my cup of tea, but I enjoyed this, nonetheless. The book followed an American soldier returning home between his second and third tours of duty. The tale was a clear allegory for war abroad: without the consent of the new occupant, he secretly visited (and ended up defending) an apartment which he previously occupied. This choice made me think a lot about the authorial intent: was this a narrative device to make us think about war differently? Was this a reflection of the mental state of the solider? Was it a bit of both?

The blurb called it a ‘disquieting evocation of a post-traumatic life’, but I’m not sure that fits with how I read it. I found it a little too fantastical to be read as a realistic evocation of anything, but it did make me reflect quite a lot on the psychological impacts of war.


Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

This was Haig’s 2019 book about the effects of various aspects of modern life on mental health. I like Haig’s writing, so I enjoyed this book. Haig mixes his first-hand experiences with discussions of the evidence base which made for an engaging but light book, with quite a bit of wit.

I don’t think I learned a huge amount from this book, but I enjoyed Haig’s take on the topic.

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