April, 2016

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Books of every description

Real life has its uses sometimes. A recent conversation with a friend about an experience he had on a Sunday morning turned into an entire scene I wrote a few days later about a Stasi officer in East Germany. Will it survive the culling of words that will come later? Who knows? But it was fun to write and reminded me that there is not much that happens that cannot be used in writing. Some of it is simply more interesting and screams out to be used, if not now, then later.

I think the best fiction is based on insights into what it is to be human, in an almost infinite number of settings, some admittedly less plausible than others in what passes for the real world. Stephenie Meyer’s vampires and parasitic race of aliens might not be found in the world as I know it, but what her characters feel and do still reflects experiences I can relate to, even if I have never been in the same situation as they are placed in (obviously, given the whole vampire thing).

I love that there is such a wide range of writing out there, even if I have to accept that, even reading all day every day I would be lucky to scratch the surface of maybe 1% of published fiction. I’m trying to read some books that I would not normally pick up because they aren’t my “thing.” There has only been one absolute dud so far where the narrator’s voice changed so randomly and inexplicably that I simply had no clue what was going on after a while and moved on. Here’s some of the random books I’ve got through recently:

Remix by Lexi Revelling – supposedly dead rock star shows up again at the home of a woman who restores rocking horses. A good length for a book to speed through, and nicely paced throughout.

1984 – I last read this in my teens and had a second go in anticipation of going to see the accompanying ballet. The book was better this time round. I know it’s supposed to be based on the Soviet Union, but you could be forgiving for thinking it was also about working in any other large organisation. That made it almost amusing at times. And if you have a chance to see the ballet, go – it was simply stunning.

More books

Demon Road by Derek Landy. It’s meant to be for young adults, so that was fine. We always love going to see him at the Edinburgh Book Festival. His books are simply great reads. And funny. Funny is good.

Adultery by Paulo Coelho. Yes, it’s about adultery, but really it’s about a part of being human. Which Coelho seems to understand so well that every one of his books is remarkable in its own way. They have probably had the most lasting impact on how I view life than any other author and I have a whole shelf of his books. Only Jodi Picoult and my Mum share that honour.

How Much Land does a Man Need? by Tolstoy – Penguin brought out a large number of shorter books recently for only a pound each and they introduced me to some stories I had simply never come across. They are also great to have in a small pocket for the odd minutes when I am waiting for something or someone. This story was a reminder of what’s important in life – and what’s not. Funnily enough, LoLo was also reading it at school the same week that I read it and was surprised to find it on my bedside cabinet.

And then there are the audiobooks that fill my commute with reading time. And the non-fiction books I’m trying to work my way through at the same time.

I now have to speed up a bit because LoLo is counting the number of books she’s read this year and is currently on 15 or 16. Considering one of them was The Count of Monte Cristo, she’s not making it easy for herself. Unfortunately she’s winning so far this year. She’s even reading books from my pile and then telling me which ones I should read, as a result of which I’ve just started reading The Undertaking by Audrey Magee, which I picked up at a supermarket charity table for all of 50p. It does me good to pick up something on the off chance. I am rarely disappointed.

Return of the politics

It’s that time of the year when the postman has to work even harder than normal. Not Christmas, this time there’s an election looming in front of us. One in which 16 year olds can vote. Which is scary when you have a sixteen year old. Ours wants to understand what the different parties believe in. The various pieces of paper that arrive on a daily basis don’t really help much. Some of them don’t even make any grammatical sense.

Last year, Caroline Lucas, still the only Green MP in the Westminster parliament, came to the Edinburgh Book Festival. I had a ticket for the event, then a dance event came up that a certain daughter was desperate to go to. Unfortunately it was one that we both probably thought afterwards was not as good as a political talk would have been. I did, however, read Caroline Lucas’s book, which is about her experiences of being an MP since the 2010 election and her thinking on a range of subjects.

Caroline Lucas

One of the conversations we have been having at home is what you do when you don’t agree with everything a party or a person seeking election stands for. Which will always be the case to some extent. And what to do when the views that you most identify with are those of a party which might never win a seat. The proportional representation of the Scottish parliament is helpful there because there is a reasonable chance that at least one person from that party will end up being in the parliament. Caroline Lucas is one example of what can be done with only one voice in a parliament. And what cannot.

Here are some of the things I found myself agreeing with her on:

If we are to meet these more ambitious [climate] targets, we need a clear and comprehensive framework for action, based on a massive investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency; and carbon taxes (replacing the current policy of subsidising coal, oil and gas) to help take account of the benefits of preventing climate change and the costs of pollution, so that low and zero-carbon energy sources can be developed on a large enough scale to become commercially viable. We also need the right infrastructure to create a circular economy, based on reusing, repairing and recycling.

Just today, I saw a washing machine by the side of the road, destined for some landfill. Apple, we found out last week, expects our expensive devices to last three to four years before needing to be replaced. There has to be a better way to use the planet’s resources. I am often struck by one small example of what we could do differently. In Germany, most bottles are not just recycled but reused. There is a deposit on each bottle to encourage their return (creating also a small income source for some of the homeless who find a good number of bottles left lying around the cities to bring in a little money), but the culture is that bottles are returned to the shops, put back in crates and sent back to the brewers. It’s just what everyone does. Here, we at best smash them up to be melted down and the glass reused. In Germany, even plastic bottles are reused. These are small things which we could do differently. We used to think that requiring people to wear a seatbelt was impractical. Who now would not automatically belt up as soon as they get into a car?

One of the main drivers of climate change is consumerism: or as Professor Tim Jackson memorably summarised it, buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have to create impressions that don’t last with people we don’t care about. We know this. We want, as individuals and as a society, to live more natural lives, and spend more time on the things that matter: family, friendship, community.

The Greens are sometimes accused of being naive and idealistic. There were certainly elements of their 2015 manifesto that made little sense to me (I did think, however, that it was the best written by a long way), but there is also a lot in what Caroline Lucas says that is sensible, practical and entirely realistic. Just not as short-term as some of the other parties. There is also an understanding of human nature in her thinking which doesn’t always come across in the larger parties’ approaches to difficult issues:

In politics, when you strip away the rhetoric and dogma, the media-driven anxieties, the artificial divisions and the rest of it, you are left with people’s essential decency. Our world is so large and complex. It can be hard for individuals to find the right way to their own truths. The natural reaction is to deal with abstracts – ‘asylum-seekers’, or ‘scroungers’, or ‘addicts’. But when people actually meet a refugee, hear their stories, their ambitions, their gratitude to Britain for providing a place of refuge, they no longer want them out. They are more likely – in that typical British way – to start a petition to allow them to stay. When your own job is at risk, when you know people who want to work but can’t find any, or who are sick or disabled and trying to lead a decent life on the meanest pittance the state can devise – then the myth of the army of scroungers soon evaporates.

Some of the stories of the dysfunctionality of the British parliament were truly staggering to an outsider. The refusal to use electronic voting which would save hours of wasted time, MPs being shoved into the ‘right’ lobby by their party’s whips, not even knowing what it was they were voting on, not to mention the archaic conventions which seem to matter so much to some MPs. But if change happens one person at a time, some of it is starting with Caroline Lucas. She can be my MP any time. I might not agree with her on everything, but I know she would have thought about the issue. And that she would stand up for what she believes in.

What I currently think

Here’s what I currently think. It might be different tomorrow or next year or in a decade. I think that’s called learning. Or being fickle. Or maybe just wrong.

  1. Time is not the issue. Energy is. If I can learn to work better with where I get my energy from and where and how I use it, I will have all the time I need.
  2. We think that money is the issue more often than it really is. Millionaires can be miserable, some of the happiest people I know have the least money.
  3. Loyalty is a good trait. But like most things, it can go too far. Sometimes we do have to say goodbye, walk away.
  4. Most big changes we make are after a break from the norm. And when we do something about it straight away.
  5. Every big change is different from how we imagined it would be.
  6. Good people lie sometimes.
  7. Just because someone has a fancy job title doesn’t mean what they say is worth listening to
  8. Idiots are the biggest energy-sapping source known to man.
  9. Sometimes it’s me that’s someone else’s idiot.
  10. It’s unlikely that I’m going to be either the best or the worst at anything. So I’ll just do the best I can.
  11. Just because someone says something from a pulpit doesn’t make it true.
  12. The people we look up to are rarely the ones who did what everyone else did.
  13. Sometimes we can disagree and both be right.
  14. Sometimes we can disagree and both be wrong.
  15. You should absolutely 100% choose school subjects based on the teacher.
  16. That phrase about death and taxes is wrong. Nothing is certain. Even taxes change. And Jesus cheated on the other one (this is based on the view of my then 4 year old daughter – ‘why did he get a second go?’ Funny the things you remember.)
  17. Saying no is a really good idea more often than we say it.
  18. A high proportion of us think we are better than average at everything. Statistically, this is unlikely to be true.
  19. Reading is always a good thing to do more of.
  20. Nobody suffered from watching too little TV.
  21. There are a lot of people out there doing a lot more good than I am. So what’s my excuse today?
  22. Nothing I have ever accomplished has been on my own. But the mistakes are all mine.
  23. Good parents didn’t become that way by accident.
  24. A good principle is not responsible for my unwillingness to abide by it.
  25. Sometimes we do the wrong thing for all the right reasons.
  26. Try applying the wisdom of perfect hindsight to myself before to someone else.
  27. Some people will like us for the wrong reasons and some people will dislike us for the right reasons. Not just the other way round.
  28. What matters is what will be on our gravestone – our relationships.
  29. Most of my fears are groundless.
  30. Creating something is the most incredible thing we can do.
  31. Writing a book is like raising a child. More work than anyone else will ever know and we will only remember the good bits afterwards.
  32. We judge each other all the time by the cover we see. It doesn’t mean we are right.
  33. The factor that matters most for success in something is whether we care about it. Everything else we can figure out along the way.
  34. Maths is not as important as our teachers told us it was.
  35. We tell our children things which we know from our own experience are not actually true. This approach might be worthy of reconsideration.

History 2.0

Growing up, there were times when I think my generation could be forgiven for thinking that history was something which had all happened before we were old enough to care about it. The world wars were something we read about in books, we missed the 60s, were too young to remember much of the 70s and the 80s were all about music, with the nagging doubt that someone might decide to drop a nuclear bomb on us – Alphaville did not help assuage that concern with the line in their song ‘are they going to drop the bomb or not?’ And then at the end of the 80s, the Cold War was over just as we were becoming adults. We were even told it was the ‘end of history’.

George Santayana wrote that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’

Imagine living in a time when politicians say the following:

‘The police should patrol and secure Jewish neighbourhoods.’

‘The black-haired Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce, adulterating her blood and removing her from the bosom of her own people.’

The second was written by Hitler. The first – actually about Muslims rather than Jews – was from Ted Cruz, the US presidential candidate who is supposed to be the acceptable Republican alternative to Donald Trump. Trump, we know, would ban all Muslims from entering the US. What Cruz is calling for was called ghettos in the 1930s. And yet he seems to consider this a perfectly acceptable proposal to make.

Trump, then. Just a series of media-grabbing headlines, saying things he would never carry out in practice? Who knows? But the level of popularity he seems to have, despite everything he has said, makes me wonder if we have really learned so little from history? And this article on Trump’s views on the use of violence against people who disagree with him is not something I ever thought I would hear – repeatedly – from someone wanting to hold elected office in a democracy. Of course it is not the same as Hitler and his Brownshirts and the apparatus he built up to exert control. But it’s on the same continuum of hatred, demonisation and dehumanisation.

And then there is Europe.


The Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia, was the home of the Prague Spring in 1968, the uprising against the Soviet model that had been forced upon it. The phrase Arab Spring, decades later, got its name from that mass protest thousands of miles away. And now we have the current Czech president, Milos Zeman, attending in 2015 the mass military parade in China that would have been replicated in his own country under Soviet control. And saying on a previous visit to China that he had gone there to learn ‘how to stabilise society.’ I cannot imagine his predecessor, Vaclav Havel, a dissident in the Soviet era, praising the brutally suppressive Chinese policies that “stabilise society” and had already been experienced in his own country. The Czech Republic is not alone in prioritising business interests over human rights. I’ve written previously about the actions of the Metropolitan Police when a Tiananmen Square survivor protested peacefully during the visit of the Chinese president to London.

One of the features of dictatorships is the need to control the media. We saw it in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. North Korea continues the practice, as does China, and even in the era of the internet, they are able to censor what information is made available to their citizens. Just this year, Poland changed its laws to give its treasury minister the power to appoint the heads of the major media outlets. This, we were told, was to ensure the media are ‘impartial, objective and reliable.’ How state control ensures the first two of these is a mystery to me, although East Germany solved the ‘objective’ part by defining the term differently from how you and I would use it. The Polish prime minister even used the classic defence against criticism of the law which restricts press freedom by saying it was an ‘internal matter.’ This was the same accusation the East German government made when Hungarian authorities started allowing East German citizens to cross the border into Austria – ‘This is a direct intervention into the internal affairs of the German Democratic Republic.’ (They had their own definition of ‘democratic’ too.)

And I don’t think that the UK is a shining example in any of these areas. Our government’s dismal response to the refugee crisis, courting the current Chinese dictator in the interest of more business, and our finance minister’s attacks on the BBC through its funding model.

And everywhere I look, people are wanting to build new walls to separate us from someone.


Perhaps this is why I’m finding re-reading 1984 both so fascinating and so troubling. It seems we might, in common with previous generations, have learned too little from the past after all.