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When dropped, does it ring true?

'rings true'

Would you recognise an authentic coin?

All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same. I know this to be a fact because in my line of work I read a lot of bad books – books that are so bad they aren’t even published, which is quite a feat when you consider what is published.

And what they all have in common, these bad books, be they novels or memoirs, is this: they don’t ring true.

– Robert Harris, The Ghost

The title, The Ghost, refers to the art of ghost-writing

I picked up the Robert Harris novel from a charity shop some time ago, and packed it in my suitcase when going to Madeira with my family, assuming rightfully that I wouldn’t be the only one to enjoy it. It’s a book about a ghost-writer, hired to write the autobiography of a fictional former British prime minister.

As one does on holiday, I read The Ghost quickly and obsessively over two days. Sometimes I fall headlong into book and allow it to absorb me completely, and that’s what happened. A book can be a safe place in which you can hide. A sanctuary away from thoughts of reality and feelings of supposed to. This is one of those books which you can just devour like that, and I did. Although on reflection, I still probably prefer Harris’ Pompeii or Imperium.

This quote though, about bad books, stopped me. I scribbled it down in my notebook wondering, what does it mean for something to ‘ring true’. Apparently, historically it was a phrase used to describe the sound of an authentic coin when dropped. Nothing to do with bells. It’s recognition of authenticity. Authentic, of course, being the word we use to differentiate things in a market place of fakery, look a-likes, and marketing charades.

Who would really expect a ghost-writer of a prime minister to stick to the truth?

But actually, does one ever expect the truth?

Thinking about biographies of figures with power, I’m reminded of reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography and how I was amazed at the detachment that he showed to his younger self. As I read, I despised the young Dalai Lama for being so unlikable, and I despised the older Dalai Lama for not writing about himself with more gentility. This is despite me having some awareness of Buddhist beliefs around attachment and impermanency.

One of the parrots was very friendly with… Master of the Robes. He used to feed it nuts. As it nibbled from his fingers, he used to stroke its head, at which the bird appeared to enter a state of ecstasy. I very much wanted this kind of friendliness and several times tried to get a similar response, but to no avail. So I took a stick to punish it. Of course, thereafter it fled at the sight of me. This was a very good lesson in how to make friends: not by force but by compassion.

-Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile

The belief that a story rings true, I think, has much to do with a feeling of connection. You must trust the author, and the narrator, not to hide too much from you. But at the same time, some truths feel too harsh. The protagonist in The Ghost doesn’t claim to write the truth, he knows how much more profitable an untrue, but flawed and human story is over something boringly reserved and factual. He knows that a cohesive story can be much easier to believe than a disjointed and incomprehensible truth.

It’s easy to forget how much we love our own narrative

As we learn, we match things into the narrative that we understand. Everything needs to link together, and our minds are often happy to make the connections within our subconscious without our awareness. If you believe you’re an idiot, then you will identify the things in the world that prove your belief to be true – the things that ‘ring true’ – and unwittingly discard praise for your competency. You don’t need to consciously wander around life thinking ‘I am an idiot’. It happens easily beneath the surface.

In a way, the brain’s modules are like specialists in a movie production crew. The cinematographer is framing shots, zooming in tight, dropping back, stockpiling footage. The sound engineer is recording, fiddling with volume, filtering background noise. There are editors and writers, a graphics person, a prop stylist, a composer working to supply tone, feeling – the emotional content […] And there’s a director, deciding which pieces go where, braiding all these elements together to tell a story that holds up. Not just any story, of course, but the one that best explains the ‘material’ pouring through the senses.

-Benedict Carey, How We Learn

We believe that which fits with what we already know about the world.

It’s intriguing then how readily we suspend our beliefs for entertainment. Fiction requires us to accept the unreal, for just a moment. This though is where craftsmanship comes in. We struggle when a protagonist acts against our beliefs, consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, or the fictionalisation of a world that does not obey our understanding of nature, but we’re also drawn to these dark protagonists and impossible futures. I know too well the discomfort of watching science fiction films with indigent, squirming physicists. For a story to ring true, we only need to believe it for the short amount of time that we’re absorbed in it, but to be absorbed, we have to believe willingly. Beneath the fiction, there has to be something we see ourselves in.

My truth is different to your truth

Inevitably, if our fundamental beliefs are wrong, then our narrative we’re trying to make things conform to is going to be skewed.

According to The Psychotherapist, there are certain things I believe, because at some early point in my life it was convenient to believe them. She calls this magical thinking. I understand these ideas to be logical and reasonable, but they’re innate. They came prior to my obsession with analysis. They came before language. When she questions whether my magical thinking is based on anything substantive, it’s not so surprising that I develop a tight defensive feeling in my gut.

The narrow mind is always defensive, it’s a case of self-preservation.

I’m trying to pay more attention to the feelings that accompany my beliefs. Emotions acts as deep knowledge, and feel more concrete than can be written in words.  I’m a bit apt to haphazardly believing them wholeheartedly to be the truth and the only truth when I’m caught by them intensely. When emotions drown you like a tidal wave, it’s difficult to have any other perspective.

We learn how to stay alive through trial and error and extrapolate. What ‘rings true’ is, at heart, is the sound of conformity.

On holiday I swapped The Ghost for Paulo Coelho’s The Spy. The similarity of the titles amused me. The two books though are very different stories. The Spy is a fictionalised account of the life of Mata Hari, an exotic dancer in early 20th century Paris, who was executed for being a German spy. She was escorted into a woodland by a couple of nuns, and then shot by a firing squad. Years later, the prosecutor of the case confided to a journalist that, “Between us, the evidence we had was so poor that it wouldn’t have been fit to punish a cat.”

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Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

football

Football pitch, taken in Nitra, Slovakia.

I don’t ‘get’ football. I imagine I never will. That moment when the whole crowd stands up with an almighty roar – I find it disconcerting. The gestures, the singing, the sense of belonging with a weird bunch of fanatics, no, I don’t get it.

I’d go further and state that I find football alienating. When people are getting all pent up about which team scored against whom, I’m wondering if I’m the only one who hasn’t lost the plot. When football funks last not minutes but hours and days (and since my family support Leeds United, sometimes years) I’m not going to pretend not to judge you. I find that eccentric bouncing off walls after a rare win similarly annoying. My favourite result: 1:1. You can’t complain that nothing happened, there were two goals, but it’s also (mostly) an emotionally neutral result. Pretty forgettable.

I don’t, despite my family’s joking, hate football. I always enjoyed playing football. I’d say I’m crap at it, but in my short history of playing for a team I was part of a defence which kept a clean sheet in every match we played. I admit I was about nine at the time and didn’t play often. At a similar time in my great footballing career, alongside another friend, I made a case for us girls being allowed to play football to the primary school headmistress. We won the right to play and chased down the pitch with great glee.

However, what was always clear was that the Midget was simply better. She was faster than me, despite being a head shorter, and could coordinate the ball going into the back of the net. She also remained interested.

And my sister’s interest fuelled my mother’s interest. And my father dutifully paid attention. And so began a family love of football that involved everyone except me. The Saturday afternoon division began when the Father decided that he wasn’t paying for me to attend another match after I’d spent the entire 90 minutes plus teaching myself to read back to front and upside down with the assistance of the program. It escalated as the Mother became more obsessed. I enjoyed the Saturday afternoons left to my own devices, but dreaded the emotional implosion that would come through the door in the evening.

Why am I thinking about all this now? Because I’ve been reading Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. It’s a book about obsession, and his obsession happens to be football.

I recognise the truth of the fact that in a good football match, where both the team and the fans have bothered turning up, you can close your eyes and feel what’s going on by the sound and motion of the crowd. The Mother talks about this as you might a religious experience. Perhaps, if I could allow myself to shut my brain off and just join this, then I do believe that I would feel some great sense of belonging. After all, it’s not ‘You are Leeds and I am a fan’, but ‘We are Leeds’.

Instead it all makes me mildly anxious.

I’m fascinated though with the concept of belonging. It is a weird need which so many people I meet seem to struggle with. If football stands in for religion or village communities and satisfies a basic human need, who am I to argue with it. In a way, I have a deep respect for football’s ability to create a sense of belonging. I just can’t be part of it. For unknown reason, I’m not wired that way.

But I enjoyed the book, Fever Pitch, probably because as much as it talked about score lines and players to whom I cannot relate, it also tackled masculinity, depression and identity. Nick Hornby blended his mental patterns with the character and history of his own, intimate relationship with Arsenal, and allowed him to write how he felt. Quite an achievement when feelings are so tricky to truly grasp.

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Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania by William Blacker

Sheep herding, Romania

When friends in England were mastering the latest computer technology, I was learning to mow. ‘This’, as I wrote to a friend, ‘is what I call progress.’

On a hill, just outside an old Romanian village, I’m sprawled out on the sofa, reading Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania by William Blacker. I giggle causing my friend to glance up from his own book. This is what happens when you’re reading a tale of an Eton educated Brit falling – quite haphazardly – in love with Romania in the 90’s and its peoples. You laugh at the absurdities.

I had found myself uncomfortable with the fact that I knew nothing about Romania, especially since I was going to be spending so much time talking with Romanians, so I loaded Along the Enchanted Way onto my e-book reader and began to learn.

There’s something special about reading about the land you actually see when you look out of the window. I read Victoria Hislop’s The Island, when I visited the island of Spinalonga – an old Greek leper colony – and the mixture of reading and seeing had convinced me of this fact. As the sun peeked up over the hills of Romania, I passed the goats, heard the donkey braying, saw the sheep being herded down the road, saw the women chasing their cows with their sticks, saw the stacks of hay in each garden, alongside rows of bold red tomatoes. At lunch time I lay on the sofa and read about what I was seeing.

On our first evening in the countryside, we were warned, strenuously, to keep to the path, beware of the sheep dogs which won’t hesitate if they think you’re trespassing on their flock’s territory. I nodded convinced, I’d read about how these dogs are trained to hold their line if wolves attack. I’d learnt that a herd of horses can keep off wolves over night by putting their heads together to form a circle and using their hind legs to kick out. I’d learnt how the dogs were trained to position themselves around the flock, with the shepherd in the middle to coordinate their aggressive defense.

I read about tensions between populations (Saxons, Romanians, Hungarians, Romani Gypsies) and love and history and tradition, and I listened, because all around me were Romanians speaking of Romania. The primary and secondary evidence educating me with a complete visual, kinesthetic and auditory experience. We drank milk brought up fresh from the village, and bought watermelon from the van which passed by calling, “Pepene, pepene!”

I delighted in it all. The book itself is an entertaining read, brought to life for me by the colour of the people I lived beside.

 

Additional reading: Prince Charles and the Half-Gypsy Kid

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More books I’ve just finished reading (June/July)

books

They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

The Light Fantastic, Masquerade and Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Two were borrowed from the Short Aunty and the third was from the local library.

If things start going wrong, find yourself a comfortable corner and a Terry Pratchett. Even I, with my ‘special’ sense of humour, find them funny. There’s probably a lot more I miss too, there’s so much crammed into each page.

A most important question was: what name should she call herself? Her name had many sterling qualities no doubt, but it didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. It snapped off the palate and clicked between the teeth, but it didn’t roll off the tongue.

The trouble was, she couldn’t think of one with great rotational capabilities.

Catherine, possibly.

Terry Pratchett, Masquerade

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Picked up in a charity shop.

Same characters as the film, same events, same setting, lots of chocolate. Completely different story. Which was surprising. I can see why they changed it for the film – made it a little lighter and sweeter – but perhaps the book was a better portrayal of life and particularly single mothers. I don’t know.

There’s something pretty about the writing itself. The style suits the setting, but it’s not overly flowery and doesn’t get in the way of the story. I’d read another book by Joanne Harris. I have Gentlemen and Players waiting on the bookshelf.

The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

Borrowed from the Mother.

When life gives you lemons, check which sort of lemons they are because there’s no such thing as ‘just a lemon’. Read more of my witterings on this book.

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

Borrowed from the Mother.

Last November I read a book by Stephen Grosz which contained the following:

My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss.

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s book is about coming to terms with this sense of disorder and working out how you interact with friends, family and colleagues so that you and they can accommodate your grief and bring it to a place of acceptance. What struck me most about the book was Sandberg’s repeated self-admonishing of her previous attitudes to people suffering to grief. There was a beautiful sense of humility at play, which is, I guess, a gift of grief.

Don’t Stop Me Now by Vassos Alexander

Borrowed from someone who pretends not to love running.

This is a story of how podgy middle-aged man became super obsessed with running, crazy sort of running, like ultra-marathons and up and down fells. It did persuade me to go out in the rain one Friday morning for a pre-breakfast run.

Running’s one of those things I think you need to do for a few months before you start to enjoy it. I first ran because someone decided to close the gym for refurbishment. I fared better than Vassos Alexander on his first run. I got more than 200m and didn’t lie to any old ladies about it.

Once you can put one leg in front of another for an extended time, however slow, then you need to go somewhere exquisitely beautiful (Yorkshire moors for example) and run cross country in a warm (but not overly hot) sunshine. At worse you ache and sweat a lot in gorgeous scenery. At best, you fly. If you can do that, I don’t see how it could be possible not to love running.

The book made me laugh. It was full of inspirational stories from various elite athletes whom Alexander had interviewed, which perhaps gave the book as a book more credibility, but it didn’t really need them because I felt Alexander’s own story was funny and informative enough.

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The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

Sicilian lemon grove

Lemon trees in Sicily. Many of the traditional lemon groves are abandoned because maintaining them is labour intensive.

Next time I pass through Savona, I need to stop and find myself a candied chinotti. It’s a type of citrus fruit used in the perfume industry and candied in panettone.

I told a friend that I was reading a book about the history and farming of citrus fruits in Italy. He laughed. But the more you see a land, the more you want to understand it. It helps that the book flows with a personal narrative and delighting anecdotes.

Perhaps I enjoyed the book more because I’ve eaten Amalfi lemons, lived a few weeks on the outskirts of Palermo and wandered lost, in the rain, through abandoned lemon groves. Perhaps it helps to have drunk homemade limoncello.

Surely it helps that I know what a citron is. When I was in Sicily last winter, I ate a slice of one. This beast is somewhere between a lemon and a rugby ball. Its skin isn’t smooth. You can’t find it in our supermarkets, and its juicy centre is pitifully small. Imagine the earth, with its small core, thick mantle and rough crust. The segments are the core, the pith is the mantle and the yellow surface rough with character. The juice is incredibly sharp. You eat it, and the thick white pith, with salt.

Before visiting Sicily, I’d never heard of this fruit. Along with the mandarin and the pomelo it’s one of the oldest citrus. The rest of the citrus family (which is much more extensive than just oranges, lemons and limes) is descended from these fruits.

I made lemon sorbet yesterday afternoon.

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Other books I finished reading in May

books

They say never judge a book by its cover, but I have to disagree.

Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers edited by Don George

Much of the time, I’m oblivious as to why I travel. I know when I’m exploring a new place, being introduced to someone new and then having that incredible conversation where they open up and surprise you with their insight, I get a kick. I also know that I’m drawn to the sea, the mountains, forests and early morning sunrises across distant horizons which make the worship of the sun seem common sense. Sometimes, when I’m alone especially, the world feels like it’s trying to show me something more than my little human brain can comprehend.

“And I’ve begun to understand the purpose of travel; a few days of seeing the world in a different way gives us the confidence to face whatever waits for us at home. Even Mountains.”

Aliya Whiteley, An Alpine Escape

And yet travel is a lonely business. It’s often a quest to find that supposed ‘self-love’, happiness to be oneself and take comfort within that identity. Sometimes it’s a quest to define oneself, by comparing oneself to what one is not. Whatever the quest, it’s a quest that in the urgency of routine seems impossible. It requires a fresh perspective.

“Looking back, I think my trip to India was in part an attempt to cleanse myself of the need for her, to find an alternative route to peace or else a definitive reason to give up the search. This was a tall order, and it didn’t work, thank God – that woman is now my wife.”

Stephen Kelman, Mumbai: Before the Monsoon

The magic of travelling perhaps is a mixture of recognising oneself, the sacredness of the world, and what it means to belong.

And in those quiet moments of sunshine on park benches, reading how other people tackle the same mental agility course as I do is somewhat therapeutic. Hearing their stories of the wondrous and the exotic reminds me of the value of my own.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo

Reading this book lead to a fascinating conversation with a couple of fellow nomads about the difficulties in balancing the need for connection with the traveller’s urge for novelty.

“When we feel socially connected, as most of us feel most of the time, we tend to attribute success to our own actions and failures to luck. When we feel socially isolated and depressed, we tend to reverse this useful illusion and turn even small errors into catastrophes – at least in own minds.”

Perhaps everyone struggles with loneliness, but perhaps with travellers, it’s an expected condition. The isolation of being the only person like you, who knows you, who has felt for you, is one that a traveller should expect. You’re an alien walking amongst a tribe. You do not fit. You are a novelty. You do not belong. You are special and wondrous, but you cannot be understood.

And the more I think about it, the more I feel that the antidote to loneliness is being seen. Many conversations through instant messengers, or cheerful exchanges amongst strangers can’t do more that act as a distraction. Sometimes you need to be seen as you are. You need someone to be willing to look.

Sometimes, with travelling, you find the odd stranger who does look. I had coffee with a young man in Poland who used the silence between sentences to listen and see. He let there be space, a crack that allowed the light to get in.* Then there was a conversation I had with a woman who saw my fingers twiddling with my necklace, leant forward and asked what it meant to me. I hadn’t known the answer until I told her. In these moments, there’s a real connection.

But it can never compare to the level of connection that comes from someone who really knows you, knows you at your very best and at your very worst, accepts them both and is willing to know more. And that’s precious.

 

 

*The Leonard Cohen obsession continues.

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