(First in an extremely occasional series.)
What to do when you’re feeling out of sorts: get out of doors, yomp through fields, look at green things, distract your tedious internal monologue with beautiful views and how much your legs hurt.
One of the things on my Bucket List*, or Life List, or whatever, is to walk Offa’s Dyke, a 177 mile path that more or less follows the England / Wales border, roughly following the site of some ancient Anglo-Saxon earthworks erected by Offa of Mercia to keep out marauding Celts. Conveniently enough the path goes right past my parents’ house in Monmouth, and so yesterday morning, optimistic and foolishly unprepared, I lit out for Pandy, 16 miles away across the hills. IT WAS GREAT.
Things that happened on my walk:
- I was so poorly prepared that I didn’t even bring water (sure there’ll be a shop on the way, I thought. Reader, there was not a shop on the way), which resulted in me drinking from streams and at one particularly low point, a trough in a field. However it’s now 24 hours later and I don’t appear to have cholera.
- Shortly before halfway, I was feeling particularly delighted by my progress and the swing in my step, whereupon almost instantly I tripped over my own feet and fell right onto my knees in the road, tearing my leggings and skinning and bruising my knees (and also coming within inches of knocking myself out). In some ways this was less than ideal, but it did allow me to stagger the rest of the way being very impressed at my own hardcoreness. (I also did not have the stomach to look at my own wounds, and so WhatsApped a blurry photo of my bleeding knees to Nine (in Malaysia) and Clare (in Mongolia), who had to take me firmly in hand when we were on holiday in Georgia in 2011 and I sliced open my knee on falling over on a bridge made of knives: despite my mildly hysterical insistence that I could slap some savlon and a band-aid on it and it’d be fine, they both insisted that it was not fine and summoned a policeman who summoned an ambulance who summoned a policewoman on a segway (? – I may have confused the order of events there) and I was taken to hospital to VERY BRAVELY have my knee stitched up with no anaesthetic. Anyway Nine and Clare’s very scientific internet diagnosis was that it was probably fine and so I staggered stalwartly on.
- I was menaced by sheep! Normally on walks I am wary of cows, just because they are very large and could probably do you a bit of damage just by leaning on you, even if they didn’t mean it – however this was the first time I had encountered sheep that didn’t flee in fear but instead RAN TOWARDS YOU shouting aggressively. I stood my ground and they stood theirs and I was permitted to pass through their field unmolested, no doubt because they sensed my relatively recent return to vegetarianism but I have no doubt that were I still a carnivore they would have butted me to death.
- I passed a whole load of austerely picturesque country churches, including one in Llanvihangel-Ystern-Llewern that was clearly well-attended for Sunday services, organ music emanating from within, cars parked along the road outside and people roaming the churchyard, leaving flowers on graves. From my heathen citydweller perspective it’s easy to forget that quite a lot of people in this country still take their religion seriously, in a quiet and quotidian way.
- I passed a castle! White Castle in fact, which boasts connection to two of my favourite historical-figures-as-represented-by-literature, i.e. John of Gaunt (thanks to Anya Seton’s Katherine, I imprinted on him at a young age) and Owain Glyndŵr (who features centrally, albeit deadly, in Maggie Stiefvater‘s Raven Cycle). Less heroically, Rudolf Hess apparently used to go and hang out there painting and sketching while awaiting trial.
- Two miles before the end of the route, I suffered a brief sense of humour failure when Offa insisted I get offa** the nice path I was on and instead haul my weary and bleeding and parched body up a massive hill. HOWEVER! At the top of the hill there was the village of Llangattock Lingoed, and in that village there was a very decent pub, and in that very decent pub there was a pint of soda water and lime, which I promptly inhaled, AND ALSO a friend of my aunt’s whom I had probably not seen for about fifteen years, conjured up as if by magic. The universe is very tricksy sometimes. Both the drink and a shouty conversation about Brexit and Trump were sufficiently reviving to make the remaining two miles to Pandy a relative breeze.
*I’ll have you know I had a Bucket List before they were cool (or indeed called Bucket Lists), let alone before they were uncool again.
**Sorry not sorry.
Oh yeah that’s right I have a blog! Hi. It’s already more than halfway through January (aiiiiieeee hoooowwww whhhhyyyyyy) and we’re hurtling towards annihilation what with the Trumpocalypse officially beginning on Friday, but what the hell, here is the complete list of books I read in 2016.
- Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance, which was an interesting perspective, despite its fairly comprehensive takedown by various American friends of mine, as well as in media outlets – most recently this, in New Republic, which a friend sent me the other day;
- Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is beautiful and angry and searing and erudite and basically everyone should read it right now, seriously step away from the internet and sit down and read this book and think about it for several days;
- The View from Flyover Country, Sarah Kendzior, which is ALSO brilliant and introduced me to many, many new perspectives and ideas, which is quite rare for a book (not because I am totes brilliant and original or anything like that – though, obv, I am – but because the reproduction of ideas in the internet age has become so pervasive that it’s not often you stumble across something that really changes the way you look at things), and which contains this jewel of a quote: “When the most you can ask from your society is that it will spare you, you have no society of which to speak” – which I basically want to scribble on fliers and stuff through people’s letterboxes or daub on walls or skywrite for everyone to see;
- Chavs, Owen Jones, because I was like: wait a second, self, how come you’re focusing so much on the US disaster and so little on your own? I read The Establishment a while back, which was great, but this is possible better: angrier, smarter, more incisive, and alarmingly prescient for something that was written in 2011.
Here are the articles I’ve liked (or, in some cases, “liked”) enough to post on FB:
- Please Stop Saying Poor People Did This, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd on Jezebel;
- My Fair Trump, Alexandra Petri for The Washington Post (a much-needed comic voice amidst the trashfire);
- A letter to America from Leslie Knope. Knope 2020!
- Post-Truth Nation, on the Huffington Post;
- The magnificent Sarah Kendzior again (if you read one thing, read this);
- Steve Bannon tells the Hollywood Reporter (via CNN) that “it will be as exciting as the 1930s”, which is totally 100% not sinister at all right?? RIGHT?!?!?
And here are some reading lists or syllabi that I’m working my way through:
- From the New York Times, Six Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win.
- From the Guardian, Inspiration in Dark Times.
- From Savage Minds, Teaching the Disaster, which linked to…
- …Trump Syllabus 2.0, and…
- … The Black Lives Matter Syllabus.
And so. I read and read and read because I don’t know, yet, what else to do; I read because, as absurd as it sounds, the simple act of gathering and synthesising and analysing knowledge is a featherlight counterweight to the post-truth, post-reality political climate in which we’ve found ourselves enmired. I vacillate between thinking that I’m taking this all too seriously, and that I’m not taking it seriously enough – because that’s what it feels like when you’re in a position of privilege, to see these political changes and to think 1930s Germany and then, again, immediately: no, of course it’s not that, not again. It’s a sign of my privilege to believe us better.
I thought I would be writing something different today; I thought I would be in DC to see the first election of a female president. Instead, I was bitterly, crushingly wrong about a popular vote for the third time in the past year and a half, and here we are. Here we are.
I was at a friend’s election party last night, but I left around 11pm when it was becoming clear what the outcome would be. As I waited for two ubers that didn’t show up, I ended up talking to my friend’s concierge, a Zanzibari Muslim, who was clearly only just holding it together, talking about how glad he was that he’d just renewed his passport. Ended up walking the half-hour back to my airbnb, and passed one woman openly sobbing on the street; on my way to the election party I’d shared a lift with another woman having a panic attack. I am trying to keep in mind that, had Hillary won, a large portion of the country would be feeling as terrified as many Americans (and citizens of other countries) are feeling now, but it doesn’t help much.
- Here is HRC’s gracious concession speech.
- Here is a full breakdown of the exit polls by gender, age, race, education, income etc. Makes it pretty clear that despite all the talk of Trump being the candidate of the disenfranchised white working class, it was wealthy white voters who won this: Trump wasn’t an anti-establishment vote; he was a protect-my-privilege vote. (Which is a possible explanation for why the polls got it wrong: I suspect that wealthy white voters are more likely to lie about their support for Trump, because they have some awareness that it’s something they should be ashamed of.) (Also interesting to note the difference in income breakdown among Brexiters, which really was swung by the white working class.)
- Here is a list of organisations that support women, immgrants and the environment, and that oppose bigotry, which will need a whole load of support over the next four years.
- And finally, here is Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, the final lines of which kept running through my head on my walk home last night. Because words matter, poetry matters, curiosity and exploration and beauty matter, and they always will.
…Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
The book: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James
The place: squished into a fake leather chair at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
I write this from the comfort of my Glasgow bed, but the wonky photo above was taken somewhere in the mists of Sunday morning, stuck in transit at CDG after my flight was five hours late leaving Freetown and so I missed my Glasgow connection and had to be rerouted via Birmingham, arriving home nine hours later than scheduled. Oof. I don’t know why but my departures from Freetown seem to be particularly fraught with mishaps; to recap:
- When I missed my flight due to poor Sea Coach timing (entirely my own fault) and made the terrible choice to forego the $500 payment for a charter boat to the airport, insisting instead on going by road, which turned out to be a three-hour drive rather than the 90-minute drive I’d believed it to be, via six ebola checkpoints, allowing me to arrive at the airport just in time to see my plane take off and turn around for a disconsolate three-hour drive back to Freetown;
- When I had my passport stolen and needed to rebook a flight in order to get an emergency travel document from the UK High Commission and then on the very morning of the day on which I was intending to get an afternoon flight I was going through the process of getting a replacement passport only to be informed by the clerk in charge that a mysterious flag had appeared on my file, which he was not sufficiently security cleared to access, resulting in him having to call London to get someone who was sufficiently security cleared to open it and read it to him, cue much silent panic on my part that finally my extensive travel to dubious places had caught up with me and I was going to be denied a replacement passport and would have to live in Freetown forever (it was fine; said flag turned out to be, basically this woman sure loses her passport a lot, what an idiot);
- When Brussels Airlines cancelled my flight and didn’t inform me, meaning that I only found out when trying to check in for my flight the day before; Brussels Airlines were then completely uncontactable to multiple friends trying multiple numbers on multiple continents on my behalf, and the only way I could reach them was via bloody Twitter (Twitter! The outrage!) whereupon they told me without apology that yes my flight had been cancelled, no they didn’t know when they would next be running a flight out of Freetown, byeeee! (This was in the aftermath of the terror attacks on Brussels Airport, so I have some sympathy – but also, like, two weeks after, whereas Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi burned down and remained functional, so said sympathy is limited.)
Anyway it was all, as ever, fine in the end, and I made it home (to find myself locked out of my own flat, but let’s draw a veil) and am now enjoying late-autumnal Glasgow, which is always (sometimes) a joy. I don’t know how I’ve got so lucky this year but pretty much every time I’ve been at home the weather has been glorious, and now is no exception.
(Not much to say re. the book other than it is brilliant and dense and fascinating and bloody and richly deserving of the Man Booker.)
The book: Crooked Kingdom, Leigh Bardugo
The place: Freetown
So I’m guessing that 2016 is just the year when I’m going to read almost nothing but young adult fantasy, and that’s OK. I have been berating myself for failing to read anything more ~challenging~ or gritty and realistic, but honestly, 2016 is serving up quite enough challenge and gritty realism on the political stage, and so escapism it is.
Anyway ARGH this book is so good. I read Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy last week, and while I liked it a lot, it didn’t quite do it for me. But Crooked Kingdom, and its predecessor, Six of Crows, are right in my wheelhouse. It’s partly that I just like the protagonists more (even though, objectively speaking, they are far worse humans); and partly that it feels like Bardugo has just rolled her sleeves up, hunkered down, and waded into the thick of this story with great relish. (What an alarmingly mixed metaphor.) I am about a fifth of the way through Crooked Kingdom, and already prematurely traumatised that this is only a duology and there will be no more books after this one is finished. Who even writes duologies any more?! Monsters, that’s who.
Freetown is allegedly at the end of the rainy season, but it hasn’t felt very endy the past couple of days, and both yesterday and today I’ve been drenched in sudden downpours that have blown up out of nothing. As I was walking back from lunch today two enterprising young men pelted up to me with an enormous Africell umbrella that they had liberated from somewhere, and escorted me down the street until the rain slackened off. (I tipped them both handsomely for their efforts.)
…and post-rain. Makes for some spectacular sunsets.
The book: Mount!, by Jilly Cooper
The place: Hargeisa, Somaliland
The first Jilly Cooper book I ever read was Polo, back when I was 13 or 14, on trip with my parents: I’d run out of my own books, my mum had just read Polo, I was entranced by the rather saucy cover, and my (wonderfully permissive) mother lent it to me. I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say that it was a revelation, but I did almost immediately go back and read Riders and Rivals, the two books preceding Polo in the series; when I was 15 and went on a three-month student exchange to Germany, way before the age of the Kindle, I very, very carefully selected the three books that would give me the best bang for my buck in terms of page-count and emotional pay-off, and Rivals was one of the three. (The other two, if I remember correctly, were Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, and Robert Harris’s Fatherland, which is a rather disconcerting glimpse into the heart and soul of 15-year-old Jess.)
All of which is to say that I have been a devoted Jilly Cooper fan for about twenty-five years now; I have read the entirety of The Rutshire Chronicles (though, oddly, none of her other books), and so Mount! was one of my most hotly anticipated books of 2016. (The other, Tana French’s The Trespasser, came out at almost exactly the same time, and they were both magically delivered to my Kindle on the same day: Jess of 1991 would be astounded at the extent to which the future has conformed to her most heartfelt wishes.) I’m about halfway through it now, and it is exactly what I hoped it to be: lots of lavishly-described shagging, a multitude of terrible/brilliant puns, and a cast of charmingly vile and ridiculously glamorous characters, some old and some new. I don’t know how I would feel about Jilly Cooper’s writing if I were coming to it fresh as an adult, and there are certain aspects of it that I just have to put firmly out of my mind (the wall-to-wall Toryism and mockery of the left; the rampant lack of political correctness; the fact that the delectable and irresistible Rupert Campbell-Black is modelled on someone who looks like this) but as a long-time fan, it has all the comfort value of a warm bath or clean sheets or some similarly domestic metaphor.
And actually one of the nicest things about Jilly Cooper’s writing is something that I haven’t really thought about before, perhaps because I didn’t need it so much: it makes the UK, and particularly England, seem rather appealing. Not from a social perspective, of course – quite the opposite – but the way that Cooper lovingly describes the English landscape has gone some way to thawing my frozen and Brexhausted heart. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as alienated from and despairing about my country as I have over the past few months, and I have found myself asking myself why I choose to live somewhere so antithetical to my values – the fact that I live in Scotland does help, but I am still English by background, and so it’s nice to be reminded, by way of Jilly Cooper’s rhapsodic paeans to the English countryside, why I chose to move back in the first place, twenty years ago.
Hard to imagine a landscape more different than where I am now, though it did at least rain yesterday…