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…
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 while in the Hermitage 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).
Diporto Agoras, Athens: the first of many amazing meals.
Meteora, which has been on my List since I first visited Greece in 1997.
Sofia by night (arty shot, courtesy of just getting a replacement charger for my Proper Camera and no longer being dependent on phone photos).
Another amazing meal, at Manastirska Magernitza in Sofia. (Also the most extensive and bonkers menu I have ever seen.)
Veliko Tarnovo, where our time was sadly constrained owing to having to get our car out of chokey.
Bucharest Old Town by night. (Many of my photos are night shots, owing to our great difficulty in ever leaving places.)
Caru’ cu Bere, Bucharest, where we had both dinner and lunch, because it was that good.
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.
Brilliantly spooky cemetery in Arbore.
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.
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.
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.
The book(s): Shiver, Linger and Forever, Maggie Stiefvater
The place(s): Jinja and Kampala, Uganda
Sometimes you just have to read some escapist literature and look at some beautiful places, you know? I spent last week in Entebbe on a rather hardcore training course, where which involved a series of fascinating and challenging and intensive political discussions about various grim global issues, and by Saturday I was wrung out like an old dishrag, and so I got in a car and went to Bujagali, on the Nile about 8km north of Jinja, where I stayed in a tent overlooking the still and glassy Bujagali Lake, and did a day of whitewater kayaking from which my body is still aching, and was in bed with a book by 8pm every night. It was excellent, not least because it was 36 hours without internet and the various alarums and cataclysms that the internet brings into one’s life, and I would be lying if I said I was not bracing myself for whatever fresh disaster(s) had transpired in my internet-absence when heading back to Kampala early yesterday morning. (The killing of three Baton Rouge police, it turned out, which I caught up with on a staticky TV screen while buying coffee halfway between Jinja and Kampala.) Anyway it turns out that much of the world is still calm and beautiful and full of people just living their lives and its worth reminding oneself of that from time to time.
Well, what a fucking awful couple of weeks it’s been. There was the EU referendum and its results; there was (and indeed still is) the subsequent political turmoil in the UK: David Cameron’s resignation, the Tory orgy of bullshit and backstabbing that led to Johnson dropping out of the leadership race and Gove being eliminated and the UK being left with the unpalatable choice of May or Leadsom, but that’s OK, only members of the Conservative Party will get to vote, thus saving the rest of us from the agony of decision. The Labour Party is imploding; hate crime is increasing alarmingly; Nigel Farage made a speech mocking and insulting our European colleagues – the very people the UK will need to negotiate with regarding our post-Brexit position – and then promptly quit, again, like everyone else involved in this shameful farrago.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic: two more extrajudicial killings of African-American men by the US police (Alton Sterling; Philando Castile), and then five police shot after a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. In the immediate aftermath, an American friend commented that these tragedies can be best understood as stemming from the conflict between America’s idea of itself, its national mythology, and its current reality – and I see much of the same dynamic in post-Brexit Britain. People who are poor and disenfranchised and who feel powerless are always going to be susceptible to grand national narratives about their country’s “greatness”. It’s linked to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s warnings about “the danger of a single story”, and is partly why I am deeply wary, on a gut-and-bone level, of any discussion of national values, or indeed values at any level between the individual and the human.
And then we have the bombings in Baghdad, in Dhaka, in Istanbul; we have, as of the past two days, South Sudan seemingly returning to war. Starting with the Pulse shootings and Jo Cox’s murder, this has got to be one of the grimmest – if not the grimmest – 30-days-or-so I have ever lived through, in terms of sheer volume of incidents but also what they mean for where we are and where we’re heading. I’ve never had so many conversations with likeminded friends that end with us staring at one another in despair and disbelief: what do we do? What do we do? I don’t know what we do. I know that everything feels particularly broken and particularly hopeless at the moment. I know, also, that we don’t have the option to sit down, or to turn away, or to back off. I don’t know what comes next, and I don’t know what can be done to fix things, and I don’t know how to end this, and so.
I am home to vote, and I am home to vote remain, and I am glad to be here and to participate in this process but I also feel that the result of this referendum is less important than the narratives that have dominated it, and that is what really scares me.
I have enormous amounts of sympathy for those who have genuine, well-thought-out reasons to support Brexit that don’t fit with the dominant narrative. Had there been a strong and coordinated Lexit campaign, it might have swayed me: the EU is by definition a capitalist institution; I am generally in favour of devolution of power down to the lowest possible level; if the discussion around exit had focused on how to better serve the most vulnerable in society, whether British or otherwise, I would have listened. I might have been persuaded.
Instead, the Brexit campaign has coalesced around the cruellest, most selfish, most inward looking aspects of our society. As Billy Bragg said recently, I totally understand that not every Brexiter is racist, but every racist will be voting for Brexit. Those leading the movement have cannily pressed every button, tweaked every dial to ratchet up those aspects of our culture that make me most ashamed. Brexiteers talk about taking our country back, about regaining sovereignty; they hearken back to a gloriously cartoonish and imaginary past. I am normally allergic to anything that smacks of patriotism, but you know what, here are a few things that make me proud to be British: the Kindertransport. The resettlement of 27,000 Asian Ugandans in the 1970s, after they were expelled by Idi Amin. The fact that one of our most beloved Olympians is of Somali origin, and our national dish is chicken tikka masala, and that we have always been a country that looked out, and that welcomed in. The Brexit campaign talks about taking our country back, but actually they’re threatening to take away what I love about this country, what I think makes it great.
Plenty of people have put more time and effort than me into enumerating the reasons why Remain is the sensible choice. Here’s Hugh Hancock on the veracity of both sides of the debate, and here’s Ben Goldacre on reasons to stay, and here’s a crowdsourced map on EU investments in British Infrastructure, and and and. But it’s not about reasons, and it’s not about debate, and it never has been, and that cuts both ways. I’ll admit it: my voting choices are generally based on values and narrative, and that’s what has me actually, literally, sick to the core about this referendum: important as the result is, more horrifying to me is what a result might tell us about the values of the British electorate, and what they see as their dominant narrative. What scares me is less the idea of a Brexit in itself, but what that signifies in terms of the choice of the electorate. The Brexit campaign has been based about racism and xenophobia, and irrespective of whether the majority of people voting for Brexit share those values, a success for Brexit will be a legitimisation of that narrative – a narrative than I’d always thought was marginal and minimal, but which has turned out to be more mainstream and pervasive than I’d feared, running like a faultline through the heart of the UK.
This vote isn’t just about itself; it’s about our idea of our country, what we think it is and what we want it to be in future. Whichever side wins will be seen as a mandate for a particular strain of politics, and anyone who doesn’t see that is naive to the point of utter lunacy. There are ways that the UK could have a progressive policy towards immigrants and the poor and the disabled and the disenfranchised outside of the EU; there are ways that we could have stronger public services and increased redistribution of wealth outside of the EU, but my god, none of these things are on the table. Michael Gove isn’t going to take the imaginary and factually incorrect £350m a week we’ll save from not being members of the EU and use it to sprinkle magical solely-British-staffed hospitals around the country like fairy dust. A vote for Brexit will do nothing but make this country smaller, and meaner, and poorer – not just financially, but socially and culturally and in the ways that really matter.
I’m really, genuinely frightened of what happens after this referendum: what a Leave vote will signal for British politics; what a Remain vote will spark in terms of backlash. The campaign for this referendum has been the most destructive and divisive political process that I have experienced, and I don’t know how to repair the damage that has already been done.
I don’t like telling people how to vote, because I don’t like it when people do it to me. I just hope that when people go to the polls tomorrow they hold in their heads an idea of the country they want this to be, and that they’re open and honest about that means. And I hope that we remain kind to one another in the aftermath.
It’s been one of those weeks that leaves a person feeling stripped back to raw feeling. Nine days ago, Omar Mateen murdered 49 primarily Latinx people in a gay club in Orlando. Five days ago, Tommy Mair shouted “[put] Britain first” and murdered Labour MP Jo Cox. Look: it’s not the death tolls of these acts that horrify the most – though of course they are horrifying. But both of these acts are also stories, and they gather together a sad little collection of ideas about who we are, who we want to be, who we think we are, what matters to us, what and whom we love, what and whom we fear.
An American man of Afghan Muslim origin walked into a gay nightclub with an assault rifle and killed 49 people. A white British man with links to white supremacist groups murdered a serving Member of Parliament. Depending on where you stand, these stories will look different to you, the precise way that the strands are woven together: race and religion, sexuality and gender, mental health – but more than that, about freedom and connection, about individual versus collective rights, about the role of swivel-eyed demagogues in fomenting fear and misery … and about the amount of responsibility we bear for one another.
In the days after Orlando, memes proclaiming that “love always wins” flooded social media, and they made me angry. I am not, by nature, an angry person, and it’s not an emotion that I enjoy, but there was something about this anger that coruscated, that felt sharp and fine and like a tool that could be used for a specific purpose. The exhortations to love felt wrong, this time. I didn’t say anything: I am not particularly queer, myself; I have never experienced, and probably will never experience the gut-level fear that comes from being a core member of a marginalised and widely-hated group, without a cloak of privilege to hide behind – and so if holding up a banner of love was of comfort to my LGBTQI friends, it was not my place to take that away. The murder of Jo Cox, however, felt like something that more mine. That it happened in my country, that it happened, arguably, as part of a political discourse with which I am involved – it felt personal; it still feels personal.
A few days after Orlando, a friend posted a link on Facebook to this story, about a planeload of people expressing their condolences to the grandmother of one of the Orlando victims, as she travelled for the funeral. It made me cry, because of course it did. It made me think, as had a number of different things I’d seen or read in the aftermath oh, look: people are good, after all! It was a comfort. And then I thought: wait a minute. It is easy to be compassionate in the face of an elderly woman’s grief. Only the most pernicious hatred can stand up in the face of that. (Westboro Baptist Church, I am looking at you.) But … do I really believe that this whole planeload of people are flawless LGBTQI allies? I do not. There will be people on that plane who opposed marriage equality because they just weren’t comfortable with the idea of it. There will be people on that plane who use the word ‘gay’ as a pejorative, who laugh at homophobic jokes, who wonder aloud why transgender people don’t just use the bathroom that matches the body they were born with. These are not good people. They’re not bad people, either. They’re just people, like the rest of us.
This is the thing that is hardest to grasp, I think. I don’t believe in evil, and I don’t believe in saints, but even if I did, they couldn’t account for more than the tiniest, skinniest sliver of the world’s population. And so here we are, you and me and the other 7.4 billion of us, according to Wikipedia, wallowing about in a great tepid sea of sometimes-awesome-but-often-a-little-bit terrible. This is not news! We know this already! We are constantly buoying ourselves up and letting ourselves down and buoying ourselves up again. But I wonder if this is one of those things that’s much easier to believe about ourselves than about each other?
Here are some things I know:
- When confronted by someone’s pain, most people behave with compassion. See: the grieving grandmother on a flight to Orlando. See: the body of Alan Kurdi. Put a face on an issue and it becomes harder and harder to turn away from it.
- We’re becoming more and more polarised. We don’t always adhere to the same lines of demarcation (religion or sexuality or nationality or politics or, simply, out ideas of ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people), but we all draw them. And so it’s harder and harder to find the faces that match the issues that aren’t our own. We’re echo-chambers; we’re mirror spheres; we bounce our own way of looking at the world back and forth between us.
And this is where it comes back to love, perhaps. This is where I was wrong, perhaps, in my initial reaction against love always wins. I had been seeing love as something passive, something inward, something that we lean into, take comfort from, something that draws us together with the people who are already like us. It can be all of those things. But it can also be a tool. It can be a weapon. It can be something we take and craft and use. It can be something flung outward. It can be a firework, it can be a depth charge, it can be something carved into a goddamn mountainside. Love is acceptance, but it’s also wanting things to be better. It’s wanting people to be better, to live up to themselves, to be kind, to reach out. It’s looking for that face in other people, but also being that face itself. It’s about being more human for one another.