My Bookshelf

It’s been a long time since I shared some of the books I’ve read and loved. For the last few years, I’ve made a point of noting down, just on my phone’s notes app, the books I’ve read with a brief review.

There have been too many times when people ask me – what are you reading? Any recommendations? My response used to be a stunned silence while I was racking my brain for the names and authors, but now I can share my ideas and tips with confidence. I’d recommend you give it a go! I’ve also been noting down films, theatre and gigs but I’ll save those for another post.

So here are a few recommended titles for your perusal.

Chernobyl – Serhii Plokhy

Like many this year, I watched and enjoyed the TV series about the Chernobyl disaster. Diving much more deeply into the event itself, the people involved, and the short and long-term effects, this absorbing read comes highly recommended. A Ukrainian who lived in Minsk at the time of the accident, Plokhy makes a more or less chronological account of the events both technically accurate and gripping. I couldn’t finish quickly enough.

A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin

Another TV series I have enjoyed over the last few years (as have many people…) is the epic Game of Thrones saga. I decided to finally read the original books this summer, hoping for an engrossing holiday read. I was not disappointed. I read the first four volumes over the course of my summer travels and loved every moment. The depth, complexity and thematic richness of Martin’s text is remarkable. Also, I enjoyed how the violence and other naughtiness was much less distracting when in book form. You just know the ending is going to be better in the book…

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

I read the original Handmaid’s Tale some years ago and was in equal parts riveted and disturbed by the dystopian classic. I was therefore eager to read the newly Booker Prize winning follow-up. I enjoyed how the story was an unashamedly hopeful fable, a gripping escape tale, and a family saga. Highly recommended, though make sure you read the original first.

Dreamers – Snigdha Poonam

I was lucky enough to visit my sister in India earlier this year. I was recommended this fascinating read to help me understand something of the quandaries facing young Indians – the world’s largest generation. Poonam captures their hopes, fears and frustrations effectively through this non-fiction account of various lives across India. I would encourage anyone to read this to understand India today, including the rise of Hindu nationalism and Modi. Yet it is also a very human story of individuals, making their personal struggles very real.

Notes on a Nervous Planet – Matt Haig

I’m an unashamed Haig fan, enjoying both his fiction and non-fiction work (and his social media presence). This book of short essays, poems and thoughts is a wonderful book to read and to share. Talking about anxiety is so needed in our lives and Haig does a great job of making clear things we’ve all experienced, as well as offering wise and common sense advice.

Factfulness – Hans Rosling

Another book looking to counter some of the anxiety we’re facing as a society at the moment is Rosling’s fascinating non-fiction book ‘Factfulness’. Rosling breaks down many of the negative and counter-productive assumptions we make about human progress and development, showing us we have reasons to be hopeful about the future. The book is excellent at making clear where the big problems still are and what progress has been made. A must read!

Uncertainty

Certainty is easy I think. Not easy to find, but perhaps easy if we hold it. If we know what we think and believe then we have a security which is unshakeable and real, often reinforced by the people around us who share that certainty. This can make us, and has made me, feel a measure of contentment which is hard to find in our busy world.

Recently, certainty has been harder for me to reach. The relative contentment of my twenties giving way to a more listless and wandering heart in my thirties. It’s hard to point to reasons, but I wonder if my earlier contentment was in part based on expectations, on patiently waiting for something that would seal my certainty and hold me fast for the rest of my life.

The fact that the people around me were, for want of a better term, conventionally progressing through the stages of life (marriage, kids, promotion, cat…), led me to expect the same I think. When these stages didn’t materialise, or looked different from expected, some of that certainty began to change. Almost like I had stepped off the conveyor, or perhaps onto a different conveyor entirely.

Partly this was because I literally stepped out of my comfort zone in moving country half a decade ago. As I reflect on what led to this decision, I feel peace about it, like it was definitely the right thing to do, yet I also feel that in ditching the beaten path I’m a bit lost in the woods.

Not that the woods are unpleasant. I am fortunate to be in a stable and prosperous stage in my life in so many ways, feeling successful and valued in my decade-long career, yet I just find it difficult to know what next.

It’s often discussed how we millennials were raised with the dual expectations of continual success and personal happiness. These things seem hard to reconcile sometimes, and the way I’ve often viewed is that in my extra-curricular life I can pursue the personal part and in my job the success part. I think the lines are more blurred than that in real life. To be honest, those blurry lines are making themselves apparent everywhere and perhaps that’s the origin of some of this uncertainty.

Whether it’s the ongoing Brexit mess, the divisions over nationalism and liberalism, personal and political, everywhere it seems people are seeking certainty and security in one extreme or other. I feel caught in the middle, in the grey and blurry, both personally and politically.

In this grey place though, I think some things become clearer, even if one of those things is not the future. The really important and vital things in life become crystal clear sometimes in these circumstances. Things like community, like laughter, like family, like vulnerability. These things transcend my current quandaries and in fact help me to make sense of where I am and where I’m going.

Because that’s another interesting thing. I’ve begun to wonder if uncertainty is actually what we should expect. What we should learn to accept and even use. Uncertainty can mean that we are cautious as we don’t know quite what to expect. Gentle with others wandering through the trees with us, who are dealing with their own questions. Brave enough to make our own paths through the trees when there is no clear way forward. Patient to wait for the next thing, rather than rushing through.

Uncertainty is perhaps more real than certainty. Not that holding fast to beliefs, ideas and plans is bad, but that when you hold so tight you can’t deal with questions or challenges then maybe you’re actually cutting yourself off from others and new opportunities.

Holding fast to an expected life plan to seal your certainties similarly cuts you off from opportunities and experiences. I’ve been blessed with unexpected twists and turns, which I’m trying to learn to be thankful for and to embrace the uncertainties.

(Sort of) Arabian Nights

On a recent trip to Morocco, I read the book ‘In Arabian Nights’ by Tahir Shah.

Through this remarkable book, many of the things my friends and I were noticing about the culture we found ourselves experiencing came into focus.

Marrakesh feels like an assault on the senses. Every narrow alley and bustling square is filled with market stalls, donkeys, motorbikes, and every kind of person. From gormless tourists to hippies, traditionally dressed bedouin and berber to innumerable Moroccan traders seeking to entice everyone else into their shops crammed with goods.

It can be an uncomfortable place – squeezing through impossibly tiny spaces, having menus and goods thrust at you, not to mention the catcalling my female friends experienced. In his book, Shah talks about the formidable Moroccan women who rule the roost at home, but it’s an unpleasant realisation that many men see western women as completely different.

Interestingly, the favourite name that the sellers called at me was ‘Ali Baba.’ For a rather pasty Englishman I found this quite hilarious. Ali Baba is one of the characters that we in the West associate with the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ – the collection of tales told through generations in the deserts of Arabia and North Africa.

In legend, these stories would be told around the campfire to keep the minds of shepherds and merchants alert as they travelled the trade routes and pilgrimage trails, all the way from Baghdad to Timbuktu. Each story is viewed as a vessel for some lesson or message, passed on from a time before writing.

The historical art of storytelling still holds sway over many in Morocco. You can see how the past in much closer to the surface in the crumbling, donkey-filled streets of Marrakesh. We are very good an sanitising our cities in Europe. In some ways, the markets of Morocco have not changed for a thousand years. The goods made and sold, the leather and metal and wood, have been made for generations.

‘In Arabian Nights’ is in part the search for the story ‘in the heart’ of the author. It is also a panorama of life in Morocco for an outsider, albeit one who speaks the language. You can see in its pages the way that superstition and stories permeate the streets of this ancient kingdom, like the sun streaming through the geometric roofs of the covered markets.

One of the highlights of our trip was a tour with a local guide to the local countryside. We visited the High Atlas mountains and the desert, rode on camels and wandered through abandoned villages. Talking with our guide, we learned about how Moroccans pride themselves on their religious tolerance, as well as their Muslim heritage. Our assumptions were challenged, even as we were acutely aware of our whiteness and foreignness.

Shah discusses the phenomenon of mass tourism in his book. How the locals are very happy for the money tourism brings, and thanks to the high value they place on hospitality, are wonderful hosts. Our riad had it’s own cook, who was one of the most wonderfully kind and caring people we met. She prepared us delicious food and copious amounts of refreshing mint tea.

I can’t help but worry that Morocco is being spoiled by tourism, yet at the same time something about the country seemed remarkably ancient and unchanged. Shah talks about ‘rivers of words’ flowing below the streets and the sands of the country, deep enough that they are untouched by the modern world. These rivers link Moroccans together and back in time to their ancestors.

The love that bonds the people to each other, to their community, and to their past, goes beyond our Western conception. It is tied up with obligation and family in a way that our individualism has turned away from. Undoubtedly their are negative aspects to this and it was very noticeable how different, often negatively, gender relations were on our short visit. Yet the bonds of love and community seemed so much stronger, so much deeper, than we experience. It got us thinking about how new our ‘western’ way of life is. How so much has changed so fast. What have we lost?

I can’t recommend this wonderful book highly enough, but you should be sure to read it in Morocco. Let the rivers of words and the ancient charm wash over you and see what you learn.

 

beauty in the ordinary, even amidst the frost and snow

I don’t know about you, but I find that it’s all too easy to close in on yourself in these wintry times. To sit around and feel small. To feel like after the feasting of Christmas, already fading into memory, that there is nothing to do but plan adventures in the far-distant summer.

That is how I feel at the moment. Like the coming weeks are merely obstacles between me and the next dose of escape from normality.

Why do I think this way? Why when I have just had a day with colleagues I love? With students I care about? Why, when I have beautiful people around me? People to eat and drink and laugh and talk with?

Looking through some pictures this evening, some good and some very ordinary, I am reminded of the generosity of community and friendship I have received. I am receiving.

I need to learn to be more grateful. To them and to God for his goodness. To recognise that beauty in the ordinary, even amidst the frost and snow.

That is my hope.

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2018 on Film

So I have finally got around to developing some film shots from 2018 and I wanted to share a few of my favourites. Shooting film has been a relatively recent development for me and I just love the excitement of seeing what you’ve got (and which shots you forgot you even took.)

Shots on Kodak Ektar 100 with my much-dropped Canon SLR.

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Obligatory shot of the Brooklyn Bridge – it doesn’t capture just how sweaty I was at this point.

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Beauties on a throne of hay

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Wood wandering with Anna in autumnal Prague.

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My favourite Father-Son duo – Jake and Sam.

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Luke & Anna

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Jessica in Summery Prague

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The Brooklyn Bridge

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Day drinking with Karly in Virginia

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With the sister at Luke & Anna’s amazing wedding

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Still wandering

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Anna & Ellie

What to Write When You Don’t Know

I enjoy writing. I really do. I like the way that we can weave these artificially constructed letters and words together to make something fun, moving, entertaining or beautiful.

That’s why I started this blog. I just wanted some incentive to write. I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about; I just thought I’d try it and see what happened.

On the whole, I have enjoyed writing about travelling and ‘growing up’ and just life. Yet recently, just having the page hasn’t been much of an incentive to write. The last post was almost six months ago.

Why haven’t I written anything in a while? Well, busyness and laziness both play their part. It’s hard to make time for something like this when life is so full that extra time feels like it has to be downtime. But I think I’ve been forgetting something I’ve written about here before – writing is restful.

Yes, being creative with words is restful for me. Creativity is vital for us all to rest, in whatever form that takes.

It’s all too easy to ‘switch-off’ and binge. Whether on food, TV or even sleep. Rest like this doesn’t reach all the way down into my centre. Doesn’t calm those stormy depths of my soul which can lead to me feeling so exhausted.

Choosing to spend an entire weekend in PJs with the TV remote is sometimes needed, but doesn’t help me to process or make-sense of all the things that are inevitably playing on my mind.

Big things like ‘where am I going?’ or ‘how can I be more fulfilled?’ and smaller things like ‘what do I need to say to them?’ or even ‘what am I going to cook this week?’

So here I am.Β  At my keyboard. Typing. Attempting to turn letters into something that makes sense. Trying to help my swirling thoughts attain some kind of coherence.

I need to keep reminding myself that I have a reason to write. I have thoughts that won’t leave me alone. Hurts big and small which need to be faced. Things that need to be addressed, even if it feels like chipping away at an Everest of uncertainty.

I know that writing about these things, whether publicly or privately, can help. So I’m reminding myself to try. To pick up the pen, to make time, to marshal my thoughts and my words into something that might just make sense. That might just help me to calm those stormy waters.

So if I haven’t posted anything in a while, ask me why. Remind me to try. Ask me what I’m thinking about. If I say ‘oh, I’m OK’ then press on, because I’m probably just putting off something. Aren’t we all?

Composition in Valletta

A little poem I wrote a while ago.

 

Ancient walls the canvasses

for shafts of light

and beams of sound.

 

Streets leading you

(corks under the table when necessary)

and chasing around corners.

 

Wine by the glass

more wine?

Also olive oil.

 

Naked eyes and also through a screen

sunsets witnessed and ignored.

Searching (probably for a bathroom.)

 

Have you tried the rabbit?

The mussels are good too.

Buses and horses past tables on the pavement.

 

Shrines to the fallen light the way

justice will not be silenced

they will be remembered.

 

Talk more than skin deep

listening for a while too.

Where is Malta again?

 

I’m ready for some more travelling.

 

 

Breakfast with Holly

“You call yourself a free spirit, a “wild thing,” and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.”

You know the situation, we’ve all been there.

You’ve just been let out of the police station on suspicion of passing messages from a convicted mobster in jail, but rather than staying safely put you decide to take a flight to Rio with the ticket your Brazilian not-quite-fiance gave you, even though your not-quite-fiance has just broken it off, owing to the aforementioned crime. Hmmm.

Not really the most universal of experiences is it?

This is one of the climactic scenes of the classic film version of Truman Copote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’ A film, that for me, has always been overshadowed by the undeniably iconic performance Audrey Hepburn gives as Holly Golightly. When I recently decided to watch the film for the first time, pretty much on a whim, I was expecting an experience of style over substance, really just interested in ticking the film off my list. I was pleasantly surprised therefore when I was struck by the timeliness of the film and the thoughtful questions it poses about how we view our lives and relationships.

If you don’t know the film, a brief summary of the plot is as follows. Holly Golightly is a good time girl living in New York, ‘a phony’ perhaps but a good one. She parties the week away in her sparsely furnished flat, with an adopted stray cat named ‘cat’ (because why should she name a cat that she doesn’t own?) The plot revolves around her pursuit of rich suitors, with the aim of being able to provide for her younger brother Fred who is about to get out the army. It is also about her life intersecting with her neighbour, writer, kept man and possible gigolo, Paul Varjak.

What struck me most when watching the film is just how modern the story seemed. When I say modern, I mean how relevant the questions it poses are. While we may not have the glamour and charm of Audrey Hepburn, we all face questions about the future. We all have to think about how we view ourselves and our relationships. Holly is confronted with her fear of being caged, changed against her will, by entering into a loving relationship. She is held back by her fear in a way that so many in my generation seem to be all the time, myself included.

We look to the future and see bright possibilities, if not rich suitors then new jobs and relationships we might gain. We feel that our lives have not really started, extending adolescence well into our thirties, always looking for that opportunity that will make us suddenly truly ‘grown up.’ We complain about the mundanities of ‘adulting,’ seeking to be wild and crazy to avoid responsibility, while also having a desire for stability and a longing for ‘normality’ in one form or another. We fear making the wrong decision, anticipating future regrets before we’ve even done anything.

Like Holly, we are presented with a dizzying array of entertainments and distractions, an endless stream of possibilities for our future. Like moths fluttering between flames, we are drawn hither and thither by the different future lives and future selves we might have or become.

In my case, I know that I am torn between desires for my future. Desires for relationships, for home, for dreamed of careers and wealth, and for stability. I often find myself thinking thoughts along the line of ‘when will my life begin?’ The decision about where to live has taken up a lot of my thinking, as I know that my instinct is often to move on, looking for new places and experiences. This desire is tempered by another thought along the lines of ‘staying is good.’ I worry about making the wrong decision and fear the consequences in a way that is honestly irrational.

Holly Golightly seems to have a similar struggle at the heart of her character; stay or keep running. Commit or flit away. In her case, it takes a decisive intervention for her to see that staying put might be the best decision, for her to see that she can stay and still be the joyful, fun-loving person she has been for the whole film. In her case, she also sees that a loving relationship doesn’t have to be a cage. That she can be free and honest with another in a way she never could be with her rich suitors. A danger of always moving on to the next thing is that our relationships become increasingly shallow.

All these swirling ideas, dreams and goals that we experience all the time can become, like they did for Holly, a cage we build for ourselves. We can end up tripping up as we stumble from one thing to the next. We nave no roots or even fear becoming too attached to where we are. While holding out bright hopes for our futures we are actually overcome with fear of failing. Of making the wrong choice.

Like Holly, I am glad to have people around me (though not currently any writer/gigolos) who tell it like it is. Who see me and my dreams, encouraging and cautioning me. Pushing me to stay, pushing me to go, reminding me of the bigger picture. That is what Holly needed and it’s what we all need.

We are a generation brought up to believe we can do anything, be anybody, see everything. Yet we are also a generation with unprecedented levels of anxiety for ourselves and for the future. We need people in our lives who can put this self-belief and this fear into perspective, helping us to live lives free from fear.

We need to remember that making ‘sensible decisions’ can be joyful and freeing, just as making crazy choices can be liberating and exhilarating. We should make sure that we have people around us who can wisely push in either direction.

Photo Journal: MALTA

Some photos I took in beautiful Malta, quite simply one of the most photogenic places I have ever been.

All shots are on Kodak Ektar 100 film and were taken using my beat-up old SLR.

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My travel companion was also pretty photogenic.

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Below St Elmo’s Fortress in Valletta.

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Waiting for the perfect wave.

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Valletta.

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Above the cruise ships in Valletta harbour.

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Honey-coloured stone is everywhere in Malta.

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Mdina old town.

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Mdina

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Mdina

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Dingli cliffs sunset.

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Golden Bay.

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Exploring above Golden Bay.

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The sunset at Dingli cliffs.

Malta

Valletta, Malta

26/10/17

 

Ancient walls the canvasses

for shafts of light

and beams of sound.

 

Streets leading you

(corks under the table when necessary)

and chasing around corners.

 

Wine by the glass

more wine?

Also olive oil.

 

Naked eyes and also through a screen

sunsets witnessed and ignored.

Searching (probably for a bathroom.)

 

Have you tried the rabbit?

The mussels are good too.

Buses and horses past tables on the pavement.

 

Shrines to the fallen light the way

justice will not be silenced

they will be remembered.

 

Talk more than skin deep

listening for a while too.

Where is Malta again?