The hoopiness of this frood is in doubt

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In two weeks’ time I shall be on the ferry to Spain, and I have to confess that I still don’t know where my towel is. I’ve taken everything out of the airing cupboard, the hall cupboard, the various boxes of cycling impedimenta, the suitcases and holdalls under the bed… And put it all back again, obviously. But no towel. At least, not the towel I was looking for. The airing cupboard was, of course, full of the things, but they were all the gigantic cotton bath sheet version, which won’t do at all. I did find two other microfibre camping towels. Neither of them are mine, but I’ve been offered a loan of one of them. I weighed them both on the kitchen scales to see which to take.

I also thought I’d lost my very lightweight fleece, but it turned up at the very back of the top shelf of my wardrobe. (It’s that shapeless brown object in the photograph.)

I found my hat and my waterproof (hmm, well, but it’ll do) and my Swiss Army knife and the bandana I bought in the cathedral shop in Santiago de Compostela the last time around. (This was easy. I knew where they all were.)

Also, I tried on all the walking trousers I’ve accumulated over the years. I have one pair that fits perfectly. Everything else is either too small (the ones I wore last time I did the Camino) or too big (the ones I’ve bought since). I’m going to take the ones that fit perfectly and the ones that are too big but don’t actually fall off.

And yes, one of the objects in that photograph is not like the others. Yes, that shoe box does contain shoes. No, I’m not planning on walking 110km in kitten heels from Hobbs. But I am setting off straight after a wedding, and I thought I might as well get everything down off the top shelf of the wardrobe at once.

Stationery Love at Jera’s Jamboree

I talked to Shaz over at Jera’s Jamboree about my finicky taste in exercise books, my abiding preference for paper diaries, and my unashamedly fannish choice of ink colour. In short, stationery love.

There’s a picture of a page of the first draft of A Spoke in the Wheel, too, if you’re really desperate to know more about that. Although I should warn you that it’s pretty much illegible, and I deliberately chose a page that doesn’t give away much of the plot.

Cherry trees again

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From a practice walk on Tuesday – this is what Cambridge looks like in the spring.

(Twelve miles, carrying 8.5kg. Nothing to speak of in the way of hills, unless you count the Castle Mound. I’ve obtained the items of kit that I wished I had last time – waterproof trousers, a silk sleeping bag liner – and have come to a decision about the rucksack question.)

Giving up, and giving up on giving up

This year I’ve been doing Lent differently; by which I mean that I’ve not been doing very much differently at all. I haven’t given up anything, partly in an attempt to disconnect the idea of virtue from that of self-deprivation, and partly to see if there’s any correlation between Lenten discipline and the seasonal depression that tends to land early in March and lift around Easter.

It turns out that not giving up meat, not giving up alcohol, not giving up coffee, not giving up tea, not giving up biscuits, and not giving up anything else, has made precisely zero difference, and March has been as much of a slog as it always is. This has, oddly enough, made me feel rather optimistic. It would have been annoying to discover that I’d brought all my misery on myself by trying too hard to be ‘good’. Next year I can do what I feel like doing and not worry about it. And I also know for next year not to schedule any social events during March, because I’ll either flake out and disappoint people, or turn up and then cry and embarrass them.

I keep meaning to write about the structure of the Church year, and how useful I find it. Firstly, there’s the way that it keeps turning on and on with or without my involvement. I can fail to get out of bed three Sundays running, work a weekend away, and then go on holiday, and when I come back I can still reorient myself by the colour of the altar frontal, the readings, and the anthem. And then there’s the fact that there is actually an officially sanctioned time for feeling dreadful, followed by a time of feeling a huge amount better and being thankful for that. That bit’s coming up soon. I’m looking forward to it.

A reader’s guide to Cambridge charity shops

The fruits of an afternoon's research

The fruits of an afternoon’s research

I have always bought books in charity shops, and, so long as charity shops, books, or I continue to exist, I always will. There wasn’t much spare money around when I was growing up, and besides, I have a perverse liking for things that are out of print.

In terms of books, charity shops are good for:

  • things I have a vague idea that I’m collecting (for example, Blue Peter annuals, or John Buchans in the red Nelson edition, which is the only thing that fits on the second shelf of my big bookcase);
  • last year’s bestsellers;
  • impulse buys.

Charity shops are not so good for:

  • things that have only just been published, though you occasionally get lucky;
  • rare or specific books, though you occasionally get lucky;
  • things you need within a tight timeframe, though you occasionally get lucky.

I spend less time in charity shops than I used to, mainly because there are none within walking distance of my office – at least, not if I want to get out and back and spend a reasonable amount of time actually in the shop all within my lunch break. However, there are always Saturdays. I’ve lived in Cambridge for getting on for three years now, and have explored a reasonable portion of the city in that time. There are two streets in particular that have an abundance of charity shops: Burleigh Street and Mill Road.

Charity shops fall into two broad categories. There are the carefully curated, and the undiscriminatingly chaotic.

The latter are, of course, by far the best for books. You never know what you’re going to find; you pick up things you’d never heard of because you are intrigued by the picture on the spine or because the title reminds you of something you were looking for six months ago. You never find what you’re actually looking for, but the chances are you’ll find something else worth reading.

In the carefully curated category, by contrast, you will find two stingy shelves of books, whose contents will be unremittingly boring, and suspiciously similar to those in every other carefully curated charity shop in the street. If you’re looking for last year’s bestseller, this is the place to go. If not, it won’t take you long to scan the shelves and decide there’s nothing to keep you there. (You will also find some inoffensive and deeply boring clothes, and the ones with an ‘Atmosphere’ label will probably cost a pound more than they were originally sold for in Primark.)

A more promising subset of ‘carefully curated’ is the specialist charity bookshop. There are two of these in Cambridge – the Oxfam bookshop on Sidney Street, and Books for Amnesty on Mill Road. The great advantage of these is the fact that the books are arranged in a coherent and logical fashion, and, if you know what you’re looking for, you can be in and out within three minutes.

However, the chances are that you’ll pay a similar price to those charged by specialist second-hand dealers. Which is good for the charity, of course… up to the point where you don’t buy the book because you didn’t want it that much. And of course, if you don’t know exactly what you want, the choice can be somewhat overwhelming.

My two favourite shops on Burleigh Street are Oxfam and the RSPCA. Oxfam has  a vast range of all sorts of stuff over two floors. The books are helpfully arranged by category, and there are plenty of categories, and there is plenty of variety within those categories. The last thing I got in there was a book of poems by Luci Shaw, and the thing before that was A Murder Is Announced. It’s also, so my father informs me, good for Ordnance Survey maps.

The RSPCA doesn’t have such a wide selection, but what it does have is of good quality. I picked up the bulk of my Buchan collection there. The British Heart Foundation tends to have interesting books. Like all BHF shops, it’s crammed full of too much stuff, both second-hand and the hideous ‘new goods’, but it can be worth fighting your way to the back left-hand corner. I wouldn’t go out of my way to any of the others, and have resolved never to give books to the Scope shop, which sends them (so one assistant told me, at least) for pulping if they haven’t sold after only a fortnight on the shelf.

Mill Road has the Sally Ann, which is a spacious shop with a lot of stuff in it, and another Oxfam, this one affably scruffy. The YMCA is comparatively new. It has hardly any books, but I did get A Book of Escapes in there.

It is worth going beyond the railway bridge, if only for the RSPCA bookshop. This is less like a charity shop and more like something you’d find in Hay-on-Wye. Books everywhere, stacked on the top of shelves, on the floor. Penguins, Pelicans, Viragos, old hardbacks, old paperbacks… It’s wonderful.

I don’t recommend going round all the charity shops in one day. There are, after all, only so many books that can be loaded into a bike basket before the steering goes all skew-whiff.

We’ll turn it around

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I’ve spent quite of lot of 2017 being ill. The boomerang virus has hit me three times since New Year’s Eve. At the moment it’s manifesting in a hacking cough, set off by a) singing anything longer than a bar and a half in one breath; b) laughing; c) breathing in cold air. Previously it’s made itself known in extreme lethargy, fever, sniffles tending to nosebleeds, headaches, lack of sleep, a sore throat, and a cough. Not, fortunately, all at once. Or, at least, not for long.

Consequently, I’ve spent quite a lot of 2017 wrapped up in a blanket and occupying myself with things that haven’t needed much energy. In what is perhaps not a coincidence, I have fallen hard for Yuri!!! on Ice, which is a very sweet and optimistic anime about figure skating. This despite my having had no prior interest in either anime or figure skating. It just seems to appeal to the same part of my brain that likes epaulettes and grand opera and dark chocolate. And Ruritania.

It’s probably also significant that Yuri!!! on Ice takes place in a universe where there’s no homophobia and where the sport system can be trusted. By contrast, I have spent the last year writing in a universe where sport chews you up and spits you out, and several years before that writing in a universe where homophobia is depressingly and devastatingly real. So perhaps I just needed a break.

There are parts of my brain that think it is absolutely appalling of me to be watching anything at all light and fluffy (not to mention admitting to it in public) when As We All Know The World Is Going To Hell. (There are other parts of my brain that don’t like my admitting to liking anything at all, including epaulettes, grand opera, and dark chocolate, because that’s really embarrassing, apparently. And another one that’s pointing out that I promised myself several years ago that I’d never apologise for my reading or watching material, because if an English Lit degree doesn’t give you the right to read what you like without feeling guilty about it, what does? Brains, eh?)

The thing is, it’s not as simple as that. In the same way that one can’t (at least, I can’t) read The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau without reflecting that Rudolf V is actually a pathetic excuse for a king who deserves everything he gets, and wondering whether there’s a Ruritanian Communist Party, it’s difficult to watch Yuri!!! on Ice without acknowledging that, sadly, Russia doesn’t work like that, and China doesn’t work like that, and probably skating doesn’t work like that either. Which makes for some genuinely interesting fanfic; but I’ve been reading a lot of fluff, too.

It’s a constant push and pull: between escapism and realism (but how real is the realism?), between optimism and pessimism; the tension between the world as one would like it to be and the world as one fears it is; the question of what truth looks like in fiction. I feel the urge to complicate the simple stuff; and to give the miserable stuff a happy ending; to question whether an ending that an author clearly intended as happy is as happy as all that; and to  It’s a question with which a consumer engages as much as a creator. Actually, I find that the lines are blurred, and that I’m arguing with something with everything I write: some other book, something someone else said, adding another layer to the debate.

On which subject: I’ve got back into the editing process for A Spoke In The Wheel this week, after spending all of January too knackered and too scared to look at it. It turns out that it’s neither as bad nor as miserable as my mind had made it out to be. (Again, I say, brains, eh?) And I find myself wondering, now, where it falls on that continuum between realism and escapism. I’ve tried to set it in the real world, where zero hours contracts and sexism and burnout exist. I’ve got a friend checking it at the moment for errors in my portrayal of the notoriously dreadful UK disability benefits process. It’s fairly cynical about sport, or, at least, the narrator is.

But I find, re-reading it, that on the whole it’s hopeful. And I’m glad about that. Apart from anything else, it occurs to me that if we can’t let ourselves imagine a better world, we’re unlikely ever to get one.

Postcards from a journey through burnout

I’ve been thinking a lot about burnout this year. I’ve been there a few times. It’s a known hazard of being brought up in an activist family. It’s a known hazard of being a member of an organised religion. It’s a known hazard of working for a trade union.

It’s what happens when you’ve signed petitions until your email inbox is nothing but Avaaz and 38degrees, and when you marched against pretty much everything, and when your weekends have disappeared into doorknocking or leafleting or selling flowers of solidarity, and you’ve bought fair trade, and you don’t own a car and you haven’t travelled by air since 2007, and you can’t remember which of the cereal brands you’re meant to be boycotting, and buying cheap stuff is exploitative and buying expensive stuff is extravagant, and the personal is political, and the political is personal, and you’ve voted, and you’ve badgered several other people into voting, ruining your relationships in the process, and after all that the world is still a mess and you’re still feeling guilty because you haven’t fixed it.

For example, this was me in 2012:

It was all very well when I was fifteen and had no life and was all idealistic, but these days I do not have the energy to be any more political than I am paid to be, and I am sick to the back teeth with everyone else’s Causes, while simultaneously feeling guilty for Not Caring and therefore obviously being a Horrible Person. I don’t think I have any causes left myself. I am so tired of them all.

I have been back in that place this past year. It probably dates back to before the general election in May 2015. I have felt so burnt out, so powerless, so useless, and it’s been particularly difficult because of the way that things have been falling apart. I’ve been feeling that I should be doing something and knowing that there is very little I can do and that nevertheless that’s no excuse for not trying. Filling the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, and all that. So you keep going either until the world is fixed, or until you fall apart, whichever is the sooner. Guess which is the sooner.

I think it might be a defence mechanism. I think it’s what happens when your body works out that the reason you won’t rest is because you care, so it stops you caring.

In August, trying to channel a version of myself who wasn’t exhausted and jaded and burnt out, I wrote this to myself:

you are loved, you are enough
even though you don’t know how to be an activist and an introvert
even though you think you have probably had it with activism of any sort anyway
because so much activism seems to have become about telling people that they aren’t enough and they don’t do enough
and however much you do it’s never enough
because guess what, you can’t fix the world by yourself
and you’ve learned enough to know it’s not your job to bully other people into fixing the world with you
even though you stopped volunteering to do stuff ages ago and the desire to volunteer for stuff has yet to re-emerge and maybe it never will
even though you can’t tell how much of this is predictable August head-stuff and how much is real
and you fear that everyone will think it’s head-stuff while it’s been co-existing with being OK, actually
this thing goes two ways and you’re allowed to be the one who says NO
and do you know,
yes, the thing that is right is often costly and challenging
but!
a) not always, sometimes it can be easy
b) just because something is costly and challenging does not mean that it is right
and you can’t make something right by making it harder
you are loved, you are enough
[and no, this is not a trick designed to make you get up and start doing stuff just because you’ve been told you are enough as you are]
[you think you’ve met that one before]
if you stayed in bed forever you would be loved, you would be enough
and I’m not even going to tell you that you won’t stay in bed forever
because I don’t want you to think that this is in any way conditional
you are loved, you are enough
you are loved, you are enough
that’s it.

And yes, of course some of it was predictable August head-stuff and I feel better now. And at the same time I do not want to get into that state again.

A few weeks ago, having been recovering gradually through September and October, I wrote this on Twitter:

I have been feeling guilty for most of my conscious life for not fixing the world.

Logically, one has to stop fixing things well before all the things are fixed, perhaps before any of them are.

The question is, how to stop feeling guilty about stopping.

Because eventually, you reach the point where you have to stop because you’re feeling burnt out and exhausted.

Perhaps so much so that you can’t imagine ever wanting to start again. And yet your sense of worth is tied up in fixing things.

Meanwhile the rest of the world carries on fixing and breaking things, depending on your point of view, and always wants you to help.

 

This is where I’m trying to break the pattern this time: to move my sense of self-worth away from what I do or don’t do, and towards the simple fact that I’m human.

I was giving myself permission to stop trying to fix things, to accept that there are certain things that are basically unfixable, that there are certain people’s opinions that won’t be changed, that push push push all the time doesn’t work. That even if I’d managed, for example, to get to the Stop The War march, the war wouldn’t have stopped.

The next day – obviously feeling better for having got all that out – I continued the conversation with myself, and wrote in my diary:

I think that if I am ever to fix anything it will be by writing fiction. It is the way that I share the ways in which I fix myself. And I can’t fix anybody; they have to work it out for themselves; and fiction helps us make the jump, because we have to put in the work.

It made more sense at the time, but what I think I meant was this: fiction – reading it, writing it – has been instrumental in helping me understand that I am human, and that being human is enough. Whether I’m writing, whether I’m working, whether I’m falling apart, being human is enough. Who knows, maybe that will stick. Maybe that was my last burnout. Maybe next time I’ll remember to stop before I fall apart.

In the meantime, I’m going to avoid putting the same pressures on myself, and on anyone else.

Telling people that they’re not doing enough to fix things, or that they’re trying to fix things the wrong way, is not going to get things fixed, or get them to do more.

Or, if it does get them to do more, it won’t last long, because it will hasten their inevitable burnout, and things will remain unfixed.

Guilt is not a sustainable motivator.