Sunday, 7 February 2016

In which I recommend (or not) the books I read in January

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
30 Dec - 8 Jan

Six different stories of six characters, their souls linked through time. Structurally interesting, but its structure is the best thing about it. A couple of story strands (one notary on a ship sailing to Hawaii, and one young musician writing to his lover during an apprenticeship to a syphilitic older musician) are compelling but the rest of the book is hugely underwhelming.

The Rise of Islamic State, Patrick Cockburn
8 - 12 Jan

I read this after The Writer, who’d bought it as an introduction to the beginnings of Daesh. As someone who knows a bit about the subject anyway, I wasn’t particularly impressed by this. It’s always tricky to write a book about a subject that’s evolving so quickly without it feeling dated - and this is no exception. There’s a huge focus on Iraq, where the writer’s previously spent a lot of time, at the expense of Syria; and not all of the text rang true, with a lot of exposition and not a huge number of references to back up what’s presented as fact. I’m sure there are other, better introductions out there if that’s what you’re after.

Capital, John Lanchester
10 - 29 Jan

TW gave up on this a couple of chapters in, but I really enjoyed it. Eight story strands are brought together along one road, Pepys Street, in South London, where the houses have skyrocketed in value just before the 2008 financial crisis. An investment banker worried that he won’t get a million pound bonus, a Polish builder and an asylum-seeking traffic warden are all drawn beautifully. Captivating, and an easy read, whilst holding a mirror up to current British society.

Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

I got about a third of the way into this and gave up. A story about a girl drifting in 1950s America, nothing had gripped me and the writing wasn’t strong enough to keep me going.

Animals, Emma Jane Unsworth

Two girls, their close friendship, and their even closer relationship with booze. Superficial and irritating. If you want stories about darkness and destruction and addiction, pick up a Bukowski, not an incredibly poor imitation of him.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

In which I think about walking in someone else's shoes

Prompted, by The Redhead: 75 words or more on "someone else's shoes".

It’s a favourite of those Facebook friends you were at primary school with and have no real idea why you’re still connected with given their over-fondness for “u ok hun?”, or Pinterest where the text is displayed on a background of trees and road, or wibbly blue lines.

At first glance, it’s not necessarily the worst adage: “Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes.” It’s not a bad thing to try and understand someone, their view of the world, the pressures they’re under and why they think and act like they do. The world probably could do with people being more open-minded, and less, you know, Daily Maily. We’d probably all be happier if everyone tried it.

One thing my new(ish) job has taught me is the importance of negotiation. It’s critical when you’re negotiating to really understand the opposing side’s position: what they say they want and how that can be completely different from the reality, the stresses they’re under from external forces, what they need out of the situation. To walk in their shoes.

But something else I’ve learnt is that, regardless of how well you understand the other side, you’re the one who can fight for you. If you’re lucky, you have a team rooting for you, but you’re its centre. You’re best situated to know what you’ve been through, the forces you’re acting under, what your position is, what you need.

By all means, go the extra mile to understand someone else. Be gracious. Absolutely be kind - the world gets grotty when we’re not. But don’t do it at your own expense, don’t be naive enough to expect the other side, with their own issues and desires and concerns to put themselves at a disadvantage.

Walk a mile in someone’s shoes. But take them off before they give you blisters. Finish the journey in your own.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

In which I consider a first impression

Another prompted post (but goodness, they make it so much easier to write). This one from The (utterly wonderful) Redhead: first impressions.

I’m a terrible one for making snap decisions about people, places and things based on gut reactions and very little information.

I’ve been known to be rather less generous about my snap judgments. On the tube, I’ll write off fellow commuters as shoving, smelly, and sour-faced; a party guest as a bore; a journalist as one of the drawer’s less sharp knives…

Sometimes the judgments are the right ones: my first impressions of the The Writer were a) tall, b) interesting and c) handsome, and given I went on to marry the man, they've since been borne out.

But sometimes (and I don’t doubt it’s probably the majority of the time), I’m not quite as on the money, to my own detriment: I put off reading Jilly Cooper for years, having dismissed it as chick lit (how wrong a gal can be). I didn’t eat Christmas pudding for years, mistakenly assuming something full of fruit and brandy wouldn’t be delicious (see above). And given that TW’s first impressions of me were everything he didn’t want in a woman (short, blonde, in PR), I’m lucky that other people aren’t so stubborn as not to revise theirs.

So I’m not too concerned that my first impressions of the new year have been somewhat underwhelming.

It’s been wet and windy enough to incite serious cabin fever, with depressing news dripping in on the broadcasts for days filling me with increasing anxiety about the return to work, and a tax bill large enough to put paid to brunch for the foreseeable. Not a vintage start, I think you’ll agree.

But in best best-foot-forward mood, I’ve decided not to let it get to me. Because first impressions can be so wrong, and the year might yet pleasantly surprise me.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

In which I receive a magical present

Following two prompts from Please Don’t Eat Jo, other people seem to be getting in on the act which is, frankly, marvellous. A text from Culture Vulture on Saturday showed a diary entry: "“Write about the best gifts you’ve ever been given” - in case you feel the need, consider this a prompt." I’ve gone fractionally off-piste, but I figure that’s allowed.

I’ll always remember the Christmas probably - alarmingly - about 25 years ago when the last present left under the tree when everything else had been unwrapped was enormous - nearly my height (then, not now. Although, let’s be honest, the difference is so slight it’s barely worth mentioning) of crinkly, shiny wrapping paper - and my name on the tag.

As a small child, the feeling of tearing off wrapping paper to be faced with something you hadn’t asked for, but fell in love with inside the time it took for your heart to beat, was pretty damned magical.

In front of me stood an exquisitely crafted dolls’ house. A three story, eggshell blue, Georgian townhouse. There were chimneys at either end, a roof papered so that it was covered in to-scale tiles, bay trees either side of the front door over which hung a perfect entablature. Through the white floor-height windows, I could see three a central staircase, and six rooms.

When Pa Blonde unhooked a clasp hidden next to the roof, the house’s facade swung open to reveal the rooms that had been wallpapered in flock patterns, or kitchen tiles. A staircase whose bannisters had been perfectly varnished. There were more delights to come when it was revealed that under the floors, papered to look like they’d been covered in tiny oak boards, ran copper wires: plugging in a drawing room lamp lit the miniature room with a glow of golden light.

There were window boxes of fake flowers, and fireplaces, and tiny pieces of hand-turned furniture - more for collectors than a small child who would go on, over the years, to fill the house with various members from a toy box full of mismatched Sylvanian families having endless domestic adventures.

It provided me with genuinely countless hours of utter joy over the years - and it’s still at my parents’ house, looking a little tatty around the edges where some of its pristine detailing has been loved off.

And while I loved for many years for the simple fact of what it was, since then it’s come to mean something more. Because now, I can begin to understand what effort it must have been to come home from work after ridiculously long days when a small child had already been asleep a good while, to head out to a cold, damp garage to painstakingly put together, piece by piece, board by board, wire by wire, glueing and cutting and measuring, a Christmas present that would inevitably - eventually - be grown out of. The love that it represents.

If love like that isn’t up there among the best gifts there is to give, I’m not sure what would be.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

In which I consider what the year has taught me

This is the second of Please Don't Eat Jo's prompts: something you've learnt this year.

2015 has taught me many lessons, but one, rather more profound than the rest, has stayed with me - and will, I think, always stay with me.

This has been the year that's really brought home to me that it's ok to want something, and to work really hard for it. But if, when you finally have that thing in your grasp, it turns out not to look like it did from the outside, it's ok to step away, to put yourself and your happiness first, and to understand that the view of something will never be the same from far away as it is when you have it in your hand.

I've worked incredibly hard this year. Probably harder than I've ever had to in my career to date. And midway through the year, I landed a job that I'd had in my sights for a while.

I had anticipated it being challenging and stressful. I had anticipated the hours being long. I had anticipated it being really, quite properly, in grand scheme of media handling, tough. But all of that I could quite easily have coped with. If it hadn't been for the other stuff.

Because other negatives that I hadn't anticipated came into play even before day one had properly started. And they grew. Quickly and substantially. My confidence in my ability to do the job well shook. My pleasure in the challenges turned.

It took a while to sink in that, even though it seemed the very opposite, circumstances were actually within my control - probably because I had wanted the job for so long that it felt like failure to admit that it wasn't what I thought it would be.

It was over the course of the next months that I came to understand that the job was never going to morph to fit my pre existing-expectations: either I would have to change, or I'd have to let the job go. It took some soul searching. Was I making a great mistake? Did I just need to give it more time? Would stepping out now mean an irrevocable dent in my career?

The answer to all of those is still maybe. But ultimately, it was more important to me to spend the (long) hours at work doing something not only worthwhile but that I enjoy, that I can take pleasure and satisfaction in. And learning that stepping away isn't a failure if it makes you happier.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

In which I am surprised

I've lost the writing mojo recently. This post follows a text message from Please Don't Eat With Your Mouth Open containing a prompt: "75 words on the last time you were truly surprised".  It's a little over word count, but it at least forced me to put words on paper. Hopefully with a few more nudges like that, I'll be back in the habit.

It took a moment to sink in when she said it.

"We thought you were great, and we loved that you showed genuine enthusiasm for the role..."

Here we go - but the field was very strong, and we've decided to offer it to another candidate.

I'd had the sinking feeling in my stomach since I'd walked out of the room. I was desperate for the job: a meaty one, working on (and I'm biased but,) some of the most interesting and important issues available in my press handlingesque sort of field in an institution I've wanted to work for since I can't remember when.

So the out of body experience I'd had in the interview three days beforehand had been wildly disconcerting. I had heard myself give answers that weren't the ones I'd prepared, that I wasn't happy with - and worst, following a train that I didn't seem to be able to stop once it had started.

I'd walked out of the building with a sinking heart, and by the time I'd reached the flat - having replayed every word in my head - I'd come to the conclusion that the hour had been an unmitigated disaster, and that I'd thoroughly embarrassed myself in front of the interviewing panel.

By the time The Writer got back home, it had become such a catastrophe that I'd cried into his chest.

"You don't know," my boss at work had said the following morning when I answered her question about how it had gone. "You might just be terrible at assessing your own performance."

If only.

When the email came through asking me to call, I took a few breaths and steeled myself. Ah well. Just a job. not the be all. There'll be another one.

"So we'd love to offer you the job. When can you start?"

A pause. A moment to descramble my thoughts. A (failed) attempt to stifle baffled laughter.

Sometimes, you don't get it right, you don't read the situation, you can't assess your own performance. And that's for the best.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

In which I dream

No one tells you that in the run-up to your wedding, you'll have nightmares. It's something the magazines and websites merrily omit as they flog you increasingly expensive trinkets and tchotchkes, and try to convince you that without this season's on-trend pudding room, your wedding will be a thoroughly damp squib,

I didn't expect it at all.

I was relatively (it's all relative...) laid back about the planning process, if dictatorially organised (no, the two aren't mutually exclusive). I thoroughly enjoyed planning our wedding. Given the nature of my current and previous jobs, a big event with lots of moving parts isn't out of the ordinary - and I didn't even have the pressure of Sky's live news feed at this one (the Sky journo was off the clock for the day).

But my outward lack of stress about the process only seemed to exist in my conscious mind - and no one had told my subconscious.

Because for months - in fact, since we started planning last May - I had increasingly intense, increasingly negative dreams about the whole thing.

The started pretty infrequently, maybe once every few weeks, and were relatively innocuous: bridesmaids not wearing the right dresses, the flowers being wrong.

But with less than a month to go, they became constant, night after night, throughout the night. My dad wasn't there to walk me up the aisle, natural disasters, The Writer deciding he couldn't go through with it...

One night, I woke up at 4.45am having scared myself awake after a series of particularly tricksy dreams and listened to my heart try to thump its way out of my body.

And it wasn't just me who was unable to control their subconscious: it became something of a ritual that TW and I got up in the morning and shared the previous night's terrors. Our own form of PTSD therapy, where PTSD happened to be Pre Tyingtheknot Sleep Disorder.

I'm half tempted to pitch a piece about it to You and Your Wedding. It's only fair that other people know to expect it amongst the table plans and dress fittings. Shame I didn't start a draft earlier: I could have made use of those sleepless nights...

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