Where was I? Mid-winter 2019

When I first left my job as a lecturer I imagined that I would quite quickly want to start writing for this blog – to begin noting down all the thoughts and sketched essays that seemed to have been running through my mind for so long. But, in fact, I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself drawn away from writing and from reading. Without conscious intention, I  kept finding that another day would end during which I hadn’t opened my laptop, and had only read sporadically and erratically; instead I was drawn to making and to listening.

This has continued for the months of the autumn and early winter, although more recently I have found myself wanting to return more to words. I have just posted 2 pieces of new writing, both of which came from invitations by people whose company and intellectual stimulation have been so much appreciated this year. Why I choose poetry. I. M. Tom Leonard (1944-2018).

So I don’t have much more I am ready to post, but I wanted to do an end of year round up of things I have enjoyed and appreciated these last months, in case anyone reading here is looking for things to drift into during these weeks of hibernation. There are many things, particularly poetry- and cultural theory-related, that I am going to keep back with the aim of trying to write about those in more detail later. But for recommendations of things that are immediately satisfying – many of which, I recognise, are mainstream recommendations that are already enormously widely known – see these:

I began 2019 by a chance listening of Rebecca Stott on Private Passions, and thereafter was drawn over and again to Andreas Scholl’s recording of ‘I am a poor wayfaring stranger’, which is so beautiful. As is Stott’s voice reading her In the Days of Rain. I find lots of voices difficult to listen to, but hers was lovely. As is Bríd Brennan’s reading of Anna Burns’ remarkable Milkman: highly recommended. I also listened to a lot of podcasts this year. I find it quite hard to find recommendations for these that aren’t true crime (not for me), but these were thoroughly excellent:

  • Shade Podcast, a relatively new podcast which I found completely absorbing. Being about the politics of creativity from a mixed-race perspective, it is essential listening for white people; I have learned so much and made so many new discoveries as a result: see particularly Stance podcast, which is fantastic. Over the course of listening though, Shade has also made me notice (the fact that I needed this prompt is a measure of my white experience) things about my own present and future circumstances as the mother of a child who is half (with apologies for the crudity of speaking in fractions) Welsh/white and half Moroccan/Sephardi Jewish. I appreciate Lou Mensah’s nuanced and intelligent thinking enormously, and I also just find her style very warm and an easily engaging listen.
  • I listen to podcasts often while cleaning the house, and tend to circle through a small collection of regulars that in series might not always hit the mark, but which have individual moments of true brilliance and audio magic. I have cried with laughter several times while listening to Adam Buxton, and been overcome by waves of gulpy empathetic sobs while listening to couples try so hard to understand each other on Esther Perel’s Where should we begin? Her gentle – or otherwise quite forthright – guidance in this endeavour, which she takes rightly seriously, is just remarkable. Krista Tippett provides many moments of gratification in On Being while I have absolutely loved going back to the archives of In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, a real high in public broadcasting. I also enjoyed some of the audio Guardian long reads; this is one on the Anthropocene (about which more to come in the new year).

Much of my more recent reading time was absorbed by all the poetry collections submitted for the Saltire poetry prize – you can read my notes on the shortlisted authors on my Instagram feed. This was a real pleasure this year. Early in the year I read various bits and pieces, including Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, which includes this wonderfully succinct and precise observation on modern subjectivity: ‘selfhood has grown and gained a foothold, become increasingly distinct and affecting. Previously barely marked, prone to being blurred, subjugated to the collective. Imprisoned in the stays of roles, conventions, flattened in the press of traditions, subjugated to demands. Now it swells and annexes the world.’ Not being immune to this process myself, I was absorbed, as were many other people, by Philippa Perry’s The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, which has lots of sound advice on raising children, but is really a book about being alive alongside other humans regardless of the formalised categories we put on that experience. I liked it, and was surprised by how emotional it made me. It has a secure place in my collection of sage parenting advice, the most pertinent of which though is still, ‘there are no “solutions”; the whole thing is just easier if you’re in a good mood’. On the subject of growing up, reflecting, changing, becoming a parent – all these experiences of shift that can cause both melancholy and relief – I have to recommend Sarah Lightman’s gorgeous graphic memoir, The Book of Sarah, which draws its way through theological exegesis, self-examination and means of remembering and archive. It’s wonderful.

I was quite surprised to be absorbed by Maisie Hill’s Period Power. I felt this book was fighting against itself a little bit – it was a little prone to self-sabotage, swapping out seriousness of intent (which it has in plentiful supply) with passages of quite skittish assumptions about its readers’ cultural references and preferences, reminiscent of the more irritating parts of the Guardian’s online columns. But I appreciated its encouragement to noticing one’s moods and inclinations over the course of a month. Of course, it seems to feel obliged to celebrate the ‘spring’ part of the month, where we all apparently feel wonderfully outgoing and ‘go getting’, but this book in fact helped me to recognise that the ‘spring’ is when personally I am prone to weeping and self-doubt; autumn and winter are my happy seasons. I think it’s a decent read perhaps especially for anyone who menstruates, but again, I’d want to say it has things that will interest anyone engaged by emotional landscapes.

More directly, and ultimately with more lasting significance I think for me anyway, I ended the year reading Jeremy Seabrook’s Mother and Son, and there is a book that is searing about the claustrophobia of family relationships. But more brilliantly, Seabrook, as always, is remarkable at putting his finger – like Tokarczuk – on what has changed, and what that means. A striking archivist of the working-class experience.

I’ll end by recommending the documentaries on Nina Simone and on Joan Didion (and the hilarious series Derry Girls) on Netflix and by looking to a collection of online journals that provide an embarrassment of riches; riches that I hope to mine more consistently in 2020 as I return to writing: Blind Field. amberflora. The White Review. EcoTheoReview.