If the author of the email I received had known me a little better, he might not have recommended to me the autobiography of a comedian. A book published in 2017 no less. An autobiography by someone younger than my mother.
I have never seen The Peep Show, and if you had asked me a few days ago the first names of the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb I might have shrugged, and then frowned. The frown clearly conveying my general feeling about people who try and manipulate me into laughter. It’s not that I have a low regard for all comedians, or all humour, it’s merely that I feel reluctant to join in.
I don’t know the author of the email’s views on comedy. And they aren’t relevant. What I do know is that the author of the email introduced the book as one that he’d strongly resonated with. The main topic being that of masculinity. Actually, he sobbed. Within the first chapter.
My curiosity woke up. Since I’m abroad I’m currently reading on my ebook reader, which has the delightful option of downloading a preview of any book. I figured I would read the preview, make an informed decision that the book wasn’t for me and then move on to something more… pretentious.
I read the preview and bought the book with a couple of taps. Then I finished the book, only really diverging from it when faced with the whine of the dog who needed a walk and the big, brown eyes of the non-English speaking six-year-old trying to express his need for me to play volleyball with him in the garden, Puss-in-Boots style.
First, Robert Webb knows how to write. Second, he has a story to tell. Third, he’s got the guts to tell it.
Fourth, his story is the story of all of us. How we grow up with certain beliefs, dictated by the society our parents and grandparents were raised in, and inadvertently pass down to our children. Despite the simple fact that these beliefs tear us through when grief hits, when loneliness clings or when we become afraid.
I promise I am not being wilfully dense about this. I don’t know what the words ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ have to offer. Avoiding them, we still have a massive language of more precise words to describe individuals and their behaviour which somehow manage not to come pre-loaded with a steam tanker of gender manure from the last century.
‘How Not To Be A Boy’ is a book about screwing up. I can’t imagine anyone not relating to something within its pages.
This book was translated by David Shaw from the original German. It was a very kind gift from Lady Patricia
This book was bought for me, as a gift. Under my own impulse, I would have left it on the bookshop shelf after looking with mild amusement at the rather good doodle style illustrations that do an excellent job of explaining the science. Giulia Enders’ sister, Jill Enders, is the one to thank for these. However, the book ended up on my bookshelf.
Six months later, in search of something a bit different and reasonably light to read, I picked it up.
I consider myself more interested in the brain, how I think and feel and how I can change all this to make me a happier, more content, likeable human being. I prefer to think of things in terms of psychology than biology. Probably due to an unnecessary grudge against my school biology teachers. Giulia Enders however introduces the gut in a manner that would have been acceptable to both me and my biology teacher when I was fifteen. Apparently, my stomach is really much higher in my body than I imagined. And my small intestine really does agree that a siesta – or at least a bit of relaxation – is a good idea after lunch. Enders also points out what I feel I should have recognized as the obvious: we feel not solely with the brain in some mystical fashion, but because it keeps us alive.
Anyone who suffers from anxiety or depression should remember that an unhappy gut can be the cause of an unhappy mind. Sometimes, the gut has a perfect right to be unhappy, if it is dealing with an undetected food intolerance, for example. We should not always blame depression on the brain or on our life circumstances – there is much more to us than that.
Giulia Enders, Gut
There was also a chapter on the cause of various intolerances and some fascinating (and sometimes icky) detail on all the living creatures – bacteria, yeasts, fungi, worms – that you may or not want to be living in your body.
It’s a super easy to read book. The bit on bacteria goes on a while, and you might lose focus at this point, but the pictures and the sometimes unexpected but clear explanations of how we work make it worth reading and easy to digest.
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.”
My parents are combining two, fully furnished, over-crowded houses into one house.
You might think that having all my belongings here would be an inconvenience. Especially if you have even seen me move to a new house. However, the impact of me having things seems to be negligible. I might own a few tables, my gorgeous desk and many books, not to mention a few items of clothing, and enough kitchen equipment that we could easily run our own Great British Bake Off, but this has negligible impact.
Yesterday morning the father and I set out in the big van to go and collect some more of the furniture. The day was always going to be chaos for me as it involved me switching beds. However, the father assured me that we would be fine when it came to packing up the books from the wonderfully big living-room bookshelf. He’d packed six suitcases for them.
I couldn’t hide the scepticism from my face. Six? Last time I measured my books in suitcases I could fill eight of them. And I know that I have a lot of books. Half my allocated space in the roof is a combination of mine and my sister’s books. Then there’s the 6.6m of books on my bedroom wall. And the Ancient Egypt collection which is currently in my wardrobe. But my parent’s bookshelf in the living-room takes up most of the wall, only just fit in the large van if tilted, and has only one place it will fit in when it finally gets into this (smaller) house.
We had to resort to cardboard boxes.
Understandably, this morning, before we take the big van back to get more furniture, I’m hiding. My own room is chaos. I swapped beds yesterday and the bed drawers in the new beds are smaller than the ones in the old beds. Today I think we’re going to switch over my wardrobe. I’m trying, very hard, to accumulate the smallest furniture so that I can put up my easel without causing a major problem in getting to bed. It is a very nice bed.
Ideally, I wouldn’t be here at all. I’d run away somewhere with sunshine. The furniture lifting would be done by The Midget, with her muscles that make many men look weak, and The Blacksmith with his, which make the Midget look weak. And should I be passing by, then I’d be sat on the floor in front of the bookshelf half engrossed in reading something. Lovingly putting books on the shelf.
But reality is that there are two dining-room tables, multiple sofas, too many wardrobes, cabinets and pictures and me. Reality is that I am here and the Midget isn’t. It’s my muscles which are the ones that ache.
Amazingly the Mother is taking this all in her stride. She’s flourishing in the chaos.
But I’m reading Ruby Wax’s A Mindfulness Guide For The Frazzled.
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.
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.