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The OH GOD HELP ME UNDERSTAND THIS reading list

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In the past couple of weeks I have read:

  • 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:

And here are some reading lists or syllabi that I’m working my way through:

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.

Written by Jess

November 21, 2016 at 6:41 pm

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Tho’ much is taken, much abides

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(Washington DC)

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.

Written by Jess

November 9, 2016 at 7:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Reading ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ in transit

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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.)

Written by Jess

October 25, 2016 at 5:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Reading ‘Crooked Kingdom’ in Freetown

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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.)

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Pre-rain…

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During rain…

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…and post-rain. Makes for some spectacular sunsets.

Written by Jess

October 16, 2016 at 5:56 pm

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Reading ‘Mount!’ in Hargeisa

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Hargeisa traffic.

A photo posted by Jessica Gregson (@clotidian) on Sep 26, 2016 at 5:25am PDT

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…

I bless the rains down in Africaaaaaaa

A photo posted by Jessica Gregson (@clotidian) on Sep 25, 2016 at 5:42am PDT

 

Written by Jess

September 26, 2016 at 1:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Reading ‘The Sixth Watch’ in Charles De Gaulle

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The book: The Sixth Watch, Sergei Lukyanenko

The place: Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris (for the next two hours or so, anyway)

*

No need for yet another airport photo, really, especially as I am wall-eyed with tiredness after three hours of sleep and possibly the most stressful check-in process ever experienced (still in the queue for bag drop twenty minutes before my flight was due to depart, along with many other disgruntled fellow passengers: thanks Air France at Heathrow), so instead I refer you to the above photograph, taken in early December 2011 from the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Until that point I’d almost entirely used my Kindle for free Project Gutenberg downloads, but for some reason, while actually in the Hermitage, I was overwhelmed with avarice and took advantage of Amazon’s then-very-generous provision of free 3G access worldwide to purchase and download the first three Night Watch books. I enjoy the series very much, despite an extremely dubious Scottish setting in one of the books, and Lukyanenko’s rather touching habit of writing books that are definitely, totally, 100% for real the final book in the series … and then cracking and writing another a few years later.

*

August was a particularly peripatetic month: Comoros to Kenya to the UK (Glasgow, London, South Wales, as ever) to Greece, Bulgaria and Romania for an epic and over-ambitious road-trip with a friend. Highlights of the trip included getting our hire-car clamped and towed in two separate incidents in two separate Bulgarian cities on the same day, and accomplishing a number of travel goals: two new European capitals (Sofia and Bucharest – the latter, in particular, is criminally underrated), and two places on my Travel  Bucket List (monasteries in Meteora and Bucovina).

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Diporto Agoras, Athens: the first of many amazing meals.

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Meteora, which has been on my List since I first visited Greece in 1997.

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Sofia by night (arty shot, courtesy of just getting a replacement charger for my Proper Camera and no longer being dependent on phone photos).

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Another amazing meal, at Manastirska Magernitza in Sofia. (Also the most extensive and bonkers menu I have ever seen.)

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Veliko Tarnovo, where our time was sadly constrained owing to having to get our car out of chokey.

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Bucharest Old Town by night. (Many of my photos are night shots, owing to our great difficulty in ever leaving places.)

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Caru’ cu Bere, Bucharest, where we had both dinner and lunch, because it was that good.

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It’s only been a week, but I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve already forgotten which monastery this was: I think Suceavita, but it could also be Moldovita. Travel fail.

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Brilliantly spooky cemetery in Arbore.

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Every other day of the trip was blazing sunshine, but pretty much as soon as we entered Transylvania it was all creeping mists and sinister pine forests and (probably, invisible in the mist) vampire-filled castles.

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Cluj-Napoca, journey’s end, and temporary home of an old friend I hadn’t seen since Juba, who fed me tripe soup and Cluj cabbage and walked with me for 12km around the town, catching Pokemon.

Written by Jess

September 8, 2016 at 10:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Comoros

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Yeah yeah I know it always seems like I’m on holiday but ACTUALLY I think you’ll find that I have latterly become a master of the microbreak. This time it’s Comoros, Country Number 102, according to my (admittedly somewhat idiosyncratic) list, and which I’ve been fascinated by ever since I read about the country on a Precision Air in-flight magazine back in 2011. I was supposed to be doing a short trip to Somalia around now, but it was cancelled and so I took the opportunity to take a quick trip to somewhere a) within a single flight of Nairobi, b) that I hadn’t been to before, and c) that didn’t require a visa in advance. That narrowed it down to Malawi or Comoros, and Comoros won.

I can’t remember the last time I visited somewhere that felt so remote and (pleasantly) isolated from the rest of the world, but bloody hell, it’s nice. I’ve even managed to break out of my rut of frantic escapist reading, first with Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded (which was brilliant), and then Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me: And Other Essays. Like any good feminist of the internet age, I’d read the titular essay, or an abbreviated form thereof (and if by some miracle you haven’t, it’s here), but the rest of the essays were new to me, and provided immense amounts of food for thought and rage. One excerpt, from “Woolf’s Darkness”, struck me as particularly on the nose, in these Brexhausting, Trumpocalyptic times:

My friend Chip Ward speaks of “the tyranny of the quantifiable,” of the way what can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot: private profit over public good; speed and efficiency over enjoyment and quality; the utilitarian over the mysteries and meanings that are of greater use to our survival and to more than our survival, to lives that have some purpose and value that survive beyond us to make a civilisation worth having.

The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named and described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism. Ultimately the destruction of the Earth is due in part, perhaps in large part, to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters. The revolt against this destruction is a revolt of the imagination, in favour of subtleties, of pleasures money can’t buy and corporations can’t command, of being producers rather than consumers of meaning, of the slow, the meandering, the digressive, the exploratory, the numinous, the uncertain.

I read this passage and I highlighted it because it felt important and true, and I still think that it feels important and true, and I can rally around this sentiment when it’s attached to things I care about, which – I gather – are pretty much the same as the things that Rebecca Solnit cares about. And yet what happens when it’s attached to things that you revile? Isn’t that where we are now, with Gove’s self-serving – but seemingly accurate – claim that Britain has had enough of experts, and the similar rhetoric now being deployed by Trump supporters? The left can bring out all the facts and figures they want, they can arm themselves with elegant, evidence-based arguments, and it does absolutely nothing at all, because the weapons we’re bringing to the fight can only be turned against us. The other side is impervious to them. They’re going with their gut, and I have to believe that what they feel in their gut is just as strong as I feel in mine. Listen, you could assemble all the imaginary facts in the world that point to immigration having a negative economic impact, and they wouldn’t sway my belief that immigration is something that I want more of – because the things that I value in immigration, things like diversity, and equality of opportunity, and people having the right to free war and persecution and come to places where they can stay alive and prosper: these are unquantifiable. I can only assume that the Brexiteers and the Trump supporters feel the same way, and that’s why I have a horrible feeling that it will be President Trump, come November.

And that isn’t what scares me the most – though I recognise that that’s my own privilege talking, at least in part. I deeply, deeply wanted the UK to remain in Europe, and I deeply, deeply want the US not to elect a fascist president, but – barring Trump enacting a full-scale nuclear war, which, terrifyingly, can’t be ruled out – I won’t be too much worse off in material terms under any outcome. That’s not the case for a huge amount of people. But even if the UK had voted to remain in the EU, even if the US chooses to elect Hillary Clinton in November – the feelings of the Brexiteers and the Trump supporters aren’t going anywhere, and if Trump loses in November, those feelings – of being disenfranchised by a liberal elite – are only going to get stronger. I don’t believe that anyone anywhere in the world right now has the first clue about what to do to bridge this yawning chasm that runs through Western society.

…and yeah, look at that, a big old Brexit-and-Trump rant, right there in the middle of my paean to the Comoros. Here, have some pictures of beautiful things instead.20160729_113545

Lac Salé, a salt lake at the north end of Grande Comore

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Ylang ylang, picked right off the tree by my driver

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Maloudja Beach. Not even the most beautiful beach I saw while there.

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Trou du Prophete

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One of the many weddings we accidentally crashed.

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Bouni Beach.

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Lobster lunch, Chomoni 

Written by Jess

July 30, 2016 at 6:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized