The Year in Books So Far

It’s been a funny old year, reading-wise. I was pondering why this might be so when it suddenly occurred to me that my algorithm for purchasing books has changed. As audio books are pretty much all I use these days, I’m mostly on the lookout for cheap kindle books with cheap whisper-sync options. I used to  have the monthly audible credit and audible’s regular sales to add into the mix, but my library of unread books reached a figure Mr Litlove must never know about, and so I’ve cancelled my membership until the TBR pile is tamed.  But still I find myself searching the amazon deals, an occupation which has taken me into a demi-monde of publishing that I never knew about before. Basically I had no idea so much crap was published. In all fairness there are probably some great books out there, but the amount of nonsense you have to wade through to find them is a little overwhelming.

So I think this explains why I’ve read so few good new releases this year. Two exceptions, however, go straight into the top ten. Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Jessie Greengrass’s Sight. I haven’t got much to say about them except that they were absolutely brilliant and made me excited about what the novel can do. They were both so astutely observed and chose intelligence over sensation.

In the big book category, however, I had two notable disappointments. The first was Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Last summer I listened to Swallows and Amazons and loved it, so this year I decided I’d try another children’s classic that I never got around to with my son. I should point out that I generally don’t choose YA or children’s books. But I’d loved Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke and enjoyed The Shadow in the North (though I never approve of killing off main characters – I blame J K Rowling for this trend which to my mind breaks a sacred trust with the reader, but that’s just my feeling). Northern Lights is objectively a terrific book. The plot never slackens and not a sentence is out of place. But… I found myself listening to get it finished, not because it had truly engaged me. I’m tempted to say it lacks psychological depth, but honestly, Swallows and Amazons hardly owes a debt to Freud. I don’t know what the matter was. The other big disappointment was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. On paper this sounded perfect – bookshops and mysterious authors with hidden pasts. In reality I lost the will to live less than a quarter of the way through. I don’t think the audio version did it any favours. Setterfield has the kind of style that I might classify as Goes On A Bit, and whilst some parts were beautifully written, others verged on the cringeworthy. Also, most characters had a tendency to be one-dimensionally mad, which I found tedious, and the gothic parts were just implausible. I expect lots of people loved this story: sorry.

On a cheerier note, I’ve done very well with memoirs, listening to three really good ones: Tara Westover’s Educated, Rebecca Stott’s In The Days of Rain and Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own. Westover pips Stott by a feather, but both were mesmerising. Religious fundamentalists make for wonderful batty parent stories, though I spent a great deal of time feeling furious on behalf of their children. It seemed to me that their behaviour had nothing really to do with religion; instead, what these books show is how dangerous people become when they decide they are unequivocally right and that all their conduct is uniquely blessed and sanctioned. The Claire Tomalin was a very different kettle of non-biblical fish. Tomalin’s life as an editor and biographer was a resounding success, but her private life was full of tragedy. Her journalist husband was killed in the Middle East crossfire, and of her four children, one died shortly after birth, another is severely disabled and one committed suicide at Oxford. Yet Tomalin’s account is remarkably low-key, sometimes to the point of sterility. I scoured the reviews afterwards, wondering what others made of this and the response in the mainstream papers was very positive. Other journalists applauded her absence of emotion. I didn’t need sob stories but for me one significant dimension of a memoir is an account of what life has taught its author about herself. Educated is fantastic in this regard. Maybe Tomalin couldn’t leave the biographer’s attitude behind, refusing to draw conclusions? Well, it was a fascinating book, if odd, and sometimes fascinating because of its oddness.

If there’s one category, though, that I’m doomed never to find a decent book in, it’s contemporary mass market. The curse of the sympathetic character has ruined most of them, and a strange contagious plot disease has weakened the rest. I was going to name and shame but I can’t be bothered. They’re not worth it and I should never have gone there. But what has really worked for me, and been perhaps the most bizarrely successful part of a generally bizarre year, has been a sentimental return to books I read and loved as a teenager. This all began right back at the start of the year when I noticed that Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels were going to be issued in audio book format. It’s tragic, I know, but this was my most anticipated event of the year. The Merlin novels always struck me in retrospect as a mirage. Mary Stewart’s other novels are okay, not great, and I wondered whether youth and enthusiasm had skewed my perspective. Not a bit of it. They are still outstanding – clever, powerful, vivid, stirring. I’m not sure how they would go down with younger readers these days, as there’s much more description and plot moves more slowly. But I appreciated the space this gave to the story to live and breathe in my imagination. They are not fantasy novels, though. They are much more about political power, and as such seemed to resonate for me with our 21st century plight in which power is used against the gullible and disadvantaged to get what the powerful want.

Thus encouraged I started poking about amazon’s bargain bins with my teenage years in mind. And I ended up listening to a lot of Joanna Trollope and Georgette Heyer. And they were fab! Really nice sentences, great plotting skills, credible characters. There were things going on at all points in the book which made me curious to see how the characters would react. No great middle-section wastelands where we must all tread water in anticipation of a twist. Honestly, when I was looking for an agent a couple of years ago – and a most depressing business it was – the vast majority were most keen to find a chilling psychological thriller with a truly original twist! I have read such books from the supermarket and they are laughably implausible. Why has this become the Ur-book of the new millennium? What does this say about our culture? Or, in all fairness the alternative must be considered, is this just what getting old looks like?

So currently, I am listening to Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds and Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones, both of which I am enjoying. And I’m theoretically listening to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, when I feel strong enough. It fooled me by having an opening page of terrific humour, but by the end of the second chapter there had been three tragic, tear-jerking deaths. I’m about five chapters in now and have lost track of the body count, and am afraid we might run out of characters. Be warned, Cranford is obviously the former name of Midsomer but without the jolliness.

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Litlove and the UFO

A couple of domestic incidents in fact, as quirk and whimsy seem essential qualities to balance out what’s going on in the world right now. You may remember a while back I wrote about my cats using next door’s delightful garden as the litter tray from Harrods? Well the campaign of intimidation continues. When the cats come sauntering into the kitchen with a particular look in their eyes we ask them where they’ve been, and they reply, ‘Oh just next door to do a poo,’ and wink at each other. Knowing full well that they annoy our elderly neighbours, they are doing what cats do and upping the ante.

About a week ago, Mr Litlove was just closing up the house for the night when he received an emergency text from our neighbour. Could he go round because Deedee was somewhere in their house and they couldn’t find her? Mr Litlove put his shoes back on and went round. Deedee had made the first stupid move by deciding to explore next door’s kitchen uninvited, and then our neighbour had compounded the stupidity by trying to chase her out. The result was a small black cat in a big dark house, coordinates uncertain. Mr Litlove hunted about to no avail, with our neighbour expressing disappointment that Deedee didn’t come when he called (as if!). And eventually they gave it up for the night, hoping she had left the building while they looked.

But by breakfast the next morning, Deedee had not returned home so Mr Litlove waited for the inevitable call about our miscreant child, which came about 9.30. Deedee had been found preening herself behind the dining room curtains and was now in the kitchen, and they couldn’t get her our. Mr Litlove went round again and was successful, for Deedee came rushing breathlessly into the kitchen, telling us excitedly that she had had a big adventure and been very, very brave, and maybe just a little bit stoopid. Then she wolfed a huge breakfast and rolled around in her favourite places until she calmed down. Mr Litlove returned having had to do a lot of apologising. and in need ot pretty much the same kind of therapy. ‘She kept making such strange noises,’ our neighbours had complained. Well, Deedee IS quite a chatty cat but she’s only really mastered the imperative (‘Stroke me!’ ‘Feed me!’ ‘Clear my path to the cat flap!’) so I suppose she probably was hard to understand. Mr Litlove looked grimly at Dexter and said that Deedee had gone one better than him, and what was he going to do about that? Dexter didn’t reply but in his eyes there was a faraway look. We live in mild dread.

As it turns out (and this will probably surprise no one) I live in a permanent state of mild-to-medium dread. Fed up with the perfect storm caused by perimenopause and CFS, I started working with the OHC, a clinic in London that specialises in ME/CFS, and I have finally had some tests. My big anomaly lies with my cortisol level, which is off the charts in places. What was really annoying was that I felt quite good on the day I did the tests and was of the opinion that they would come back fine. But high cortisol over a long stretch of time accounts for most of my symptoms. How to solve this problem? Well, that’s the million dollar question: it’s not easy. Diet, meditation, maximum rest and peace and quiet that sort of thing. I need to gain the sort of serenity I’ve never really possessed. Suggestions on postcards, please.

I’m working with a nutritionist who is okay but a bit scatty. Before our first interview I filled in a 16-page questionnaire and wrote a medical and personal history worthy of a Pulitzer. In our first skype call it was clear she had read neither. When I told Mr Litlove he said, ‘You should have asked her if she’d like to take a moment to read through the papers.’ I stared at him and told him that was brilliant and it had never occurred to me. He said modestly that he had learned one or two little things in his 25 years of conducting meetings. The nutritionist and I are at a bit of an impasse as we must move to the next level of tests but are undecided as to what they should be. I think my hormones are all to blame and want to have my estrogen metabolism checked; the nutritionist is longing for me to have parasites (I so do not). I am supposed to get arbitration from my GP who, as a matter of professional dignity, will undoubtedly disagree with both of us. It’s too hot for any of it.

But like the good girl I am, I go to bed nice and early and lie there listening to audio books, summoning inner calm. A couple of nights ago, as I was doing just this, the most extraordinary noise suddenly erupted directly above my head. It sounded like the extractor fan had gone berserk, or an old strimmer in the loft had leapt to ghostly new life. It was the kind of noise that propelled me off the bed, exclaiming, what the hell is that? I called for Mr Litlove who normally has short shrift for the strange noises I hear, but even he found this one disturbing. He went up in the loft, where all was quiet, and then moved towards the back of the house, feeling the ceilings as the noise carried on in staccato bursts. I had just asked him if he thought it came from outside, and he had said no, when there was a knock on the door.

Mr Litlove went down and opened it and all I could hear was some guy saying he was so very, very sorry. And then Mr Litlove went for his shoes again. He called up to me as he went past – there was a father and son on our doorstep apologising because their drone had got stuck on our roof. Who could have guessed that? Apparently they’d been fitting it with new batteries when it had come to life, completely out of control, and flown madly away down the street. It was lodged on our roof and Mr Litlove offered our stepladder. He said the first time was amusing, the second time he would be shorter with them and if there was a third time, it was staying there. The father hastily promised we would never see it again. The next morning, they came back with a bottle of wine as an apology, which was very sweet and as I said, entirely unnecessary. I told them I fully intended to dine out on the story for weeks to come. It’s so 21st century to have someone at your door saying, please may we have our drone back.

Yesterday we were in the garden, trying to brush Deedee (don’t ask) when we heard the strange noise again. I looked up and high in the sky above us, twinkling in the brilliance of the sunlight, was the oddest contraption I’d ever seen, a fine metal cat’s cradle flitting about. We stood up and waved at it while it hovered uncertainly over our garden. And then it flew away.

 

Of Workshops and Kittens

So ages ago, I promised you the saga of Mr Litlove’s new workshop and now that he is finally in and preparing for Open Studios once again, I think it’s safe to employ hindsight. In the last episode of Tales From Litlovia, we had decided not to move house but to extend the single garage where Mr Litlove works. We found an architect in the village who drew us up a plan and said he knew a builder who was semi-retired but liked this kind of groundwork job. Let us call him Dave. We were now in, ooh let me see, early November? And Dave apparently had no trouble working over Christmas, in fact he loved to work over Christmas! So, terrific. I had fantasies of calling Dave in from the garden to have a spot of Christmas dinner and Mr Litlove, with great reluctance, started emptying the contents of his garage in readiness.

Never before had I understood the extent to which my husband is a pack rat. I mean no disrespect, after all, I myself have a handful of books about the place. But the amount of stuff that came out of that single garage was mind-blowing. Mr Litlove filled the entire conservatory to eye level and still it kept coming. Every stray piece of wood or metal that had ever passed below Mr Litlove’s pretty little nose had been squirreled away ‘just in case’ and we were looking at the fruits (or nuts) of twenty-one years of dedicated squirreling. The wood piled up on the lawn and was propped in great stacks against the garage wall. Mr Litlove was even surprising himself. But eventually the flow steadied and ceased and December came and the garage was empty and ready, and of course there were no builders.

Dave turned out to like working over Christmas so much that he went on a long and lovely Mediterranean holiday until a few days into the New Year. And then January came and went while they were working on a tricky job elsewhere. To look back now and think we were fussing about whether or not he’d ordered the steel in January. Ha! Finally towards the end of February the builders arrived, just as we were looking into the possibility of finding someone else to do the work. The first day they came there were three of them, likely lads one and all, but by the end of the first day they were reduced to two. Apparently, one had been sent home for having ‘too many opinions’ which was quite fascinating. Was it really the quantity of opinions that was the problem, or their content? I would have loved Mr Litlove to find out, but Dave was a talker and Mr Litlove was already drowning under a tide of anecdote. They went through Dave’s complicated romantic and medical histories and moved seamlessly into a chapter on Great Exploits. This featured, for instance, a story about Dave seeing off a burglar with stealth and one of his collection of sword sticks. I was admittedly cynical. But at least when I lay in my bath in the morning and heard the dulcet tones of Dave’s voice floating over the garden towards me, I knew it was a good day because the builders had turned up.

Because of course, they hardly ever did. See you Wednesday! Dave would say cheerily, by which he really meant, see you next Monday. Maybe. And when they were here, I had never before seen a wall rise so slowly. Dave placed a brick at a time as if arranging jewellery in a shop window. The plants in the garden were growing quicker. Where are Polish builders when you need them? I would wail, and then amuse myself by sending emails to friends in America, telling them I’d found the perfect crew to build that Mexican wall of theirs. March came and went.

Now March was an interesting month on many levels. I think it was the first ever month of my life in which I had to enforce a news blackout because watching it was beyond painful. i did some stockpiling, mostly the heavy duty eye gels that get me through the day, all of which come from Europe. of course. But also tinned tomatoes and sardines and loo roll because Annabel said it was a good idea. Little did I know then that it was all a rehearsal for next October. Brexit seems to me to be a problem caused by insufficient reality checks, and the inevitable outcome of trying to push through a bad idea whilst pretending it is a good one. You know when you were a kid and you told a lie to get out of a tight spot? Only the lie just made the situation worse and worse until you knew the truth was going to come out and then you really didn’t want it to? Well, that’s pretty much where our politicians are now. The overinflated fantasy of Brexit is going to run around on the uncompromising rocks of reality at some point, and there’s a scale from bad to apocalyptic along which it might land. Well, my friends, reason and compassion are the only things that can save us in this life. However much people might love their outrage and anger and hatred, they get us precisely nowhere.

But on a brighter note, we did find one solution to a vexing problem.  You may remember that we had new kittens last spring? Dexter and Deedee. Well, last summer Deedee developed an alarming health issue.  She began to scratch great wounds in her fur and to develop odd swellings – in her eyelid, on her cheekbone or a paw. The two seemed to be related but we weren’t sure how and at first there were all sorts of frightening diseases that might have been its cause. When she was old enough we sent her for blood tests, and these fortunately came back clear. There is always amusement to be had even in worrying situations. I will never forget the moment when the vet rang up and, on Mr Litlove answering the call, asked cheerily, ‘Am I talking to Deedee’s daddy?’ This threw Mr Litlove somewhat, but once over the first shock of paternity, he took to the role quite willingly.

Deedee the fearless adventurer

So after all this, we understood that the problem was an allergy of some kind, but what it was we couldn’t discover, and regularly Deedee would puff up with what the vet called her ‘comedy leg’. Well, finally at the end of winter we made her a ruinously expensive appointment with the consultants at the vet school in Cambridge. They initially prescribed a special diet – kibble made of pea and venison, if you please which had Mr Litlove shaking his head in disbelief. In Mr Litlove’s cat philosophy, Whiskers is the food of the devil but any other cheapo options really ought to be fine. Now of course the cats adore this kibble and refuse anything else. But that didn’t do the trick. Finally, Deedee had a course of steroids, and these cleared the problem up immediately and – I am touching wood fervently here – so far she hasn’t had it back. Will we ever understand what happened during those ten months? I doubt it, but I can’t tell you the relief to see her fully-furred and normal shaped again. She is such a darling little cat.

And so, thus distracted, the workshop crawled towards completion. Finally over Easter towards the end of April, Mr Litlove could get the electrician in and, the great moment he’d been waiting for, his new machines arrived. This turned into a lovely party, as the lorry driver’s tail gate bust and he had to hang out with Mr Litlove and the electrician all morning until his brother turned up to fix it. The lorry driver had voted Brexit but was going to live in Thailand later that year with his Thai wife. I just mention this in passing. Finally by the end of April Mr Litlove had his new workshop and was very pleased with his expanded space. In fact, I fully expect curtains to appear at the windows and a little plaque with the number ’10A’ upon it. Oh, but of course there was one more thing – the new bi-fold doors that are to go on the front. Mr Litlove swore blind to me that there was no way he could order them until he had the exact measurements to send. He finally got around to doing that in May.

We’re still waiting for the doors.

 

Real Hope For Dark Days

It’s a sore trial living in the UK at the moment. After three years of the shambolic Brexit debacle, in which zero progress has been made, we’re now forced to witness a leadership contest that showcases the most dismal collection of candidates – more of a police line-up than a beauty parade. Worst of all, Boris Johnson is supposed to win, which makes me feel like I’m living in a piece of Dadaist theatre except they tell me it’s really happening. How a man who has been sacked twice for lying, who caused chaos in the Foreign Office and wasted millions as Mayor of London, who basically has no principles and is known to be lazy, self-serving and ready to give up at the first obstacle can possibly become Prime Minister beggars belief. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t sat here laughing at Trump all this time. Anyway, enough. It’s just depressing to acknowledge what the plausible leaders of our country now look like.

It’s just as well, then, that books can offer genuine hope and solace. If you have inadvertently glanced at the online comments on the Guardian website lately and lost all hope in humanity, I have two books that will restore it. Growing Pains by Dr Mike Shooter and Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy are both non-fiction accounts of lives spent helping children to find their best and most promising selves. Mike Shooter is a child psychiatrist in the NHS, Kate Clanchy teaches English in a multi-cultural comprehensive, and they have brought much joy and inspiration into our house lately, with narratives that are a patchwork of fascinating case histories.

Growing Pains is the story of Mike Shooter’s career listening to adolescents (and their families) in crisis. He begins the book with an honest account of his own depression and his early work in medicine. It’s one particular encounter, at 2am on a terminal ward that changes the course of his life. He is following the Senior Registrar – ‘aloof, taciturn, straight-backed’ – to check on a Mr Dobbs, who is dying of an aneurysm. They find, as one might expect, a terrified man.

Simon sat on his bed and asked him if he was frightened. Mr Dobbs nodded; he was beyond words. Then Simon, straight-laced, Simon, the man we thought more suited to a brigade of guards than patient care, took him in his arms and rocked him to and fro like a baby, while Mr Dobbs sobbed into his shoulder.’

The next morning, Simon is absent and Mike Shooter is asked if he’ll talk to Mr Dobbs instead. He is so afraid of the prospect that he goes to see the Dean of the Medical School instead, to tell him he’s quitting. But the Dean, a wise old soul, says no he isn’t; he’ll make a good doctor one day, but he’s depressed. ‘And the worse you feel about yourself, the harder you work to prove you’re wrong. You’ve been fighting against what you really feel for years. This was bound to happen. Mr Dobbs was just the final straw.’ The Dean arranges for him to see a psychiatrist, and over the course of the next few years, the treatment Mike Shooter receives makes him realise that this is the field he wants to dedicate himself to. The ability to ‘see beyond [the] patient’s symptoms to the human being behind them’ was the rule he wanted to follow.

Well by now you might be able to see beyond the words of this review to the readers behind them – the only problem we had with it was that it kept making Mr Litlove cry. And if Mr Litlove cries, then I cry, that’s just how it goes. I need to stress that these were not tears of sadness, but the more complicated throat-tightening tears of beauty and humanity. And I should also stress that this is not at all a manipulative book. Dr Shooter never dwells on any part of his story and in consequence the narrative was not harrowing, despite the subject matter. It was inspirational, in the most grounded and humane ways. One of the stories that stays with me still concerns another middle of the night emergency call that summons Dr Shooter to a household in crisis.  An eight-year-old child, Danny, is threatening to kill himself. When the doctor arrives, the child is on the landing, his pyjama cord around his neck, the other end tied to the banisters, and his desperate, angry, fearful parents are hypnotised by the situation. Mike Shooter’s response is to come in as if everything were normal, exclaim at the lateness of the hour and express a strong need for a cup of tea. He asks if Danny would like a snack before bedtime, and the spell of craziness is dispelled by the autopilot of ordinary hospitality. Everyone comes and sits around the tea tray in the middle of the living room where it becomes apparent that the man is the mother’s new partner whom Danny is rejecting and that ‘they all wanted to change things but didn’t know how to do it without tearing each other apart’ A problem with which I imagine we are all familiar, and where salvation can come so much more quickly with someone calm, kind and firm to help.

Kate Clanchy’s book also focusses on individual students as they struggle and triumph on the battlefield of education and the stories she tells are just as fascinating, whether it’s the way the word ‘gay’ has signified in classrooms across the years, or what the parents of excluded children are up against when they try to get their kids a fair educational deal. Kate is also a poet and her poetry club becomes one of the major features in her stories, as she finds it can be a real liberation for all kinds of children, including those who have English as a second language or who suffer from dyslexia. She tackles knotty subjects like selection in schools – both streaming in classes and the nightmare parents face when trying to decide what school to pick for their children. And she talks about the pleasures and pains of teaching English.

There are so many stories I love, I don’t know which to tell you about. But just off the top of my head, there’s Allen, a large, capable boy more suited to open spaces, but bright and interested in English literature. He was that mythical beast, an adolescent boy willing to talk about emotions, and as such he stimulated real class discussion. It just so happened that this class was one in which Kate could exercise her own judgement to some extent and choose the books that would best inspire her students (not something that happens these days). Twenty-five years later she looks him up on Linked-In and finds out that he runs an engineering business and is a self-made millionaire, He in turn remembers her lessons as a place where ‘I learned who I was.’ ‘English:’ Clanchy writes, ‘the lesson where you laugh about sex, and argue about war, and talk about jealousy. English: where you grow up.’ The problem is that English, like poetry, does not ‘WALT’ well. WALT stands for ‘We Are Learning To’ and has become the staple of ‘formative assessment’ which the government likes a lot. It comes from the best of motives, Clanchy explains, the desire to open up a learning process that might appear hidden or opaque. But what works well for a science lesson is altogether harder to pin down in the arts and humanities. The consequence has been that WALT dominates lesson plans and the non-WALT aspects of education, like artistic creativity and all that nebulous maturation process get left out of the curriculum.

The stories in both books inevitably bump up against politics because both authors are working on the cliff edge where the vulnerable and the economically-nonprofitable clash with government funding. But these are not polemical books. They are about thoughtful people who are really good at their jobs understanding the pressures on all sides and doing their best for children, however that shakes out. Listening to these books has made me think a lot about what’s wrong with the world today, and for my own part I think it boils down to an insufficient engagement with reality. I blame the media mostly, for their two-note grizzles of sentimentality and outrage, emotions that reliably sell papers, but which have made us all happy to be ignorant. It takes terrific courage to face the truth of our lives, and mostly we are invited to side step that reality and find someone else to blame. Or we end up letting ourselves be sold ideals of perfection and purity that are equally dangerous.

What I loved about these books is their authors’ readiness to talk about getting things wrong. Clanchy produces such an admirably nuanced description of Cheyenne, a poor working class child who spent her time pushing Kate’s middle-class buttons and stalking her children, whom Kate could not truly like. And I loved the story in which Mike Shooter is called to deal with a psychotic break in an adolescent who has been wrongly placed in the adult ward. Hassan escaped his nurses and ran around the grounds of the unit, talking in Somali and scooping mud and grass into his mouth. Shooter thought it possible that he was just terrified and involved in some kind of prayer ritual he didn’t understand, so he called the Somali elders from the community to come and advise him. After a few minutes they turned on him. asking how he dared call himself a doctor and telling him to get the boy some medication. It’s not about mistakes – if you’re a human being engaged in something you care about, you will be making mistakes. They are inevitable. What these stories show is that it’s about the process – the process of finding out what’s wrong and of learning and becoming more self-aware in consequence, possibly the most important process that we are called upon to practice on a regular basis and which we avoid and fumble and foul up out of embarrassed pride or some weird, punitive notion that it ‘shouldn’t happen.’

These have both been terrific books, loved and admired equally by myself and Mr Litlove. They have made us laugh and cry and feel deeply in touch with both the difficult business of growing up and the authentic hope embedded in the care of people like Mike Shooter and Kate Clanchy that we might actually make it. For they have a lot to teach adults too, as a quick glance around the political candidates for Tory party leader can tell us. They’ve made me want to have a completely different kind of identity politics, one in which gender, skin colour, race, religion, none of these thing matter, but where the identity is question is that of a grown-up and it’s an identity to which we all aspire.

Decades of capitalism have encouraged us to stay children with the goal of becoming spoiled children. I think it’s given us very complicated feelings about people who are able shamelessly to make a fool of themselves in public, and that sometimes such people can be used to assuage us about our insecurities. This is an indulgence – something that makes us feel better in the short-term but worse in the long-term. What we need is to admire the grown-up again, the sensible, grounded person who doesn’t make a fuss about things, but who won’t sit passive when they could offer help. The sort of person who, currently, says the wise, placatory thing on social media and is totally ignored. We need the kind of grown-up who has a strong moral compass and a great deal of compassion, who has emotional intelligence, self-awareness and the courage to look reality in the eye, even when it is ugly. The kind of grown-up who can sit with people in emotional distress and not make it about themselves. We need more Mike Shooters and Kate Clanchys, basically, and the fact that they have written these books shows that such people are out there, it’s just that we so rarely get to hear about them. For me they’ve been a properly optimistic antidote to everything going on in the news, and the embodiment of an aspiration that is as difficult as becoming rich and famous but infinitely more desirable.