This Was Exciting Six Weeks Ago

Way back in the mists of time, which is to say the very end of July, Mr Litlove rang me early one morning to say he’d just learned his job was coming to an end. The reason was ostensibly reorganisation of the company, and indeed there is going to be a lot of that, none of which would have done Mr Litlove any good. But there were also probably deeper, darker reasons between him and his boss which I will leave alone for now. Suffice to say that the very evening before this happened, I had asked Mr Litlove just how long he thought he was going to manage to hold out in his job, and whether he was ever going to fulfill his long-held interest in furniture making.

So even though the news was a bit of a shock, it didn’t take us long to figure out that now his company was actually going to pay him to leave – before a great deal of confusion and chaos took place – and give him a very welcome boost to his life as a fine woodworker.

At the time this was terrifically exciting and alarming and new. There were weeks when all we did every evening was make plans. What kind of furniture would he make? Were we going to covert the garage to a workshop? What sort of budget could we live on? We began to sketch out a timeframe in which Mr Litlove could experiment and also stockpiled ideas for adjunct businesses that might bring in useful income, like running a workshop, giving woodworking demonstrations in schools, designing plans for pieces of furniture, and so on. I promised to run the social media side of things, and will start a blog later in the autumn – which should be interesting as what I know about woodwork would fit on the back of a postage stamp.

And then we eased from this state into one of waiting. I couldn’t say anything on this blog until an official announcement had been made, and it’s taken this long finally to reach that point. We put a whiteboard up in the kitchen and added any ideas to it that occurred to us. We totted up finances lots of times, and I had one day when I sat at my desk thinking, no income for a while and no stable income for much longer, crikey. So like all gambles, we put a limit on it and decided that a couple of years should show Mr Litlove whether he was really suited to a craftsman’s way of life, and he could rethink at any point.

And still we waited. It’s become, I suppose, a familiar daydream now and although it is actually going to happen, it feels unreal. But we do hope this will be Mr Litlove’s last week in the office and from next week onwards, we can finally start. I say ‘we’ cavalierly as no one in their right minds would put a chisel in my hands. But I will do my research-marketing-publicity bit and act as a general encourager. Something that Mr Litlove is very worried about. ‘I love all of you apart from your Puritan work ethic,’ he told me, and I must say I was rather thrilled at the thought of having a strong, healthy person to exert my plans for productivity upon, when that work ethic has had to make do with a chronic-fatigued me for so many years. ‘I’m going to be very vulnerable to workplace bullying at first,’ said Mr Litlove making a sad face. ‘Oh!’ I said. ‘But all I….’ ‘And you,’ he continued, ‘are going to be vulnerable to sexual harrassment in the workplace. Let’s face it, there’s going to be a tough couple of months ahead and it’s not always going to look professional.’

It’s certainly not going to be life as we’ve known it, but I’m ready now for it to begin.

Two Go To Greece

Much earlier in the summer, Mr Litlove and our son decided they would like to have a boys’ bonding holiday together. They toyed with the idea of doing a patisserie course in France, and then our son said he really wanted to go somewhere they’d never been before. With me in the mix up until now, that left the rest of the world pretty much open. And so they decided they would go to Greece and travel round the classical civilisation sites.

greece 1

Once they’d booked their flights, Greece made headline news every day with its financial problems. Weeks went by when the banking system failed, and threats were made about the country’s ‘Grexit’ from the EU. Angela Merkel wasn’t happy, and facebook was full of pictures of Greek ministers signing off German debt after World War Two. A referendum took place on July 5th and I’m not even sure now whether it mattered. ‘It’ll all be fine come September,’ said Mr Litlove optimistically, and what’s really odd is that this summer has flown by, but June and July do seem a long, long time ago. I don’t doubt the financial crisis rumbles on, but my menfolk fly out on Wednesday and it’s been a while since I’ve seen an article on Yahoo about Greece (which shamefully passes as my news feed). I believe cash is once more flowing from the ATMs which was the only real worry for the tourist earlier in the year, when I was wondering if I’d have to sew euros into the hems of their t-shirts or something.

I’m still mildly concerned about seeing the pair of them fly off together. They went through a bad patch about fifteen years ago when I could never send them off on an outing together without one of them returning in tears. ‘Oh come on,’ Mr Litlove protested. ‘That was only Christmas trees.’ Indeed, it was one of our traditions for a while that Mr Litlove should call me from the windswept fields of the farm shop to the north of our village with the sound of our son’s wails buffeting around in the background. I seem to remember shoe shopping didn’t go much better, but if they can steer clear of buying shoes or Christmas trees in Greece, they can at least avoid the old triggers.


I have also warned them that when it’s just the two of them, one of them is going to have to listen. On a driving tour, I think there may be quite a few conversations along these lines:

Son: What are we doing here?

Father: This is where we agreed to go next.

Son: I don’t remember agreeing.

Though that makes me feel quite glad to be staying home. Nor will I have to find missing items for either of them. It’s been an interesting weekend in that respect, as Mr Litlove discovered on Saturday that he’d misplaced both his passport and his driving licence. This did not make him happy. The passport turned up quite quickly, but the driving licence is still in the Domestic Bermuda Triangle. He has applied for another, and has some sort of substitute form with all his licence details on it. I don’t suppose anyone else has been in this situation, have they? Of needing to hire a car when their licence has gone missing? Mind you, if they have to take public transport, it’s not such a disaster, as I have vivid memories of a holiday in Corsica with Mr Litlove many, many years ago, when he would drive along enthusiastically pointing out houses with swimming pools, five hundred feet below in the valley.


I have picked out their holiday reading, though, and am putting together their first aid kit, travel essentials I think they may have gone without otherwise. And I’m rather tempted to dig out a once-famous photo of the two of them in the bath when our son was about 6 months old, and suggest they recreate it – though in the sea, as I don’t think a bath is appropriate any more. And I’m not sure what kind of a bath they’d need to accommodate two 6’4” men. Nope, really don’t want to think about that!

They’re both looking forward to it hugely, and Mr Litlove can barely contain his excitement having spent the weekend on the internet researching places they can visit, and enormous meals they might eat.

And what will I be doing while they are away? Oh a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. I have friends to see and catch-up chats on the phone, and with a bit of luck, I might get to hear my friend and co-ed at Shiny, our lovely Simon, give a paper on Elizabeth von Armin at the weekend. Wouldn’t that be fab? And I might just try and project a maternal ring of protection in the general direction of Greece, you know, just in case.

My Experience Is Not Your Experience

I walk into the supermarket. I know exactly where I’m going. I head to the shelves of books for sale and start flicking through them, trying to ignore the glare of the neon lights that fills my peripheral vision. And as I flick through I come to a conclusion: they all sound exactly the same. I call it the deadpan first person present. You know what I mean. Short sentences. The occasional long lyrical one thrown in to prove the author can do it. It’s pitifully easy to write. And quick to read. And I absolutely loathe it.

Gah! Yuck! Awful! Where on earth has it come from and why has it taken over mass market fiction so completely? This year I’ve had a lot of this sort of contemporary fiction sent to me and I’ve found myself increasingly unable to read it. It puts my teeth on edge, like vinyl wallpaper and crepe dress fabric. It’s a very particular and personal response, though, as I’ve never come across anyone else expressing the reservations I feel. After a lot of thought, I realise that what I dislike is the lack of musicality in language like this; which essentially means no affect to the words – no deep-rooted emotion. Oh it says a lot of stuff, and often it’s used in thrillers to talk endlessly about the crisis the female protagonist is going through, but it’s language which is dead behind the eyes.

Well, for me it is. As I was thinking about why I disliked it so, I realised that the world has changed enormously when it comes to reader response. When I read up about it in college, it was stuck in the realm of theory, because no one really knew what readers en masse thought. Nowadays, with millions of blogs and sites like Goodreads we’re awash with the opinions of readers of every shape and size. And what becomes clear is how bizarrely picky we are.

Not long ago, I was at an author event where Sophie Hannah was speaking. She told us about a reader who had come up to her and tackled her about a detail of one of her books. In it, the protagonist had driven a car three weeks after a caesarian section. Given that no one could possibly drive for at least six weeks after such an operation, the woman said, it had put her right off the book. Oh, Sophie Hannah had replied, really? I drove two weeks after mine.

If I ever visit Goodreads, it fills me with terror for the human race, for much the same sort of reaction. I remember reading a review of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Sisterland on it. The reviewer had had a complete tantrum over the fact that a character engaged in a sexual act fervently wishes her partner would hurry up. Whoever would do such a thing? the reader fumed. How impossibly rude! She had hated the book after that, given up on it and put it aside as a badly written novel. It was an extraordinary response in many ways, not least because the character in the book is committing adultery at the time, and whilst she enters into it willingly, she is assailed by guilt as the scene progresses. All the context for this event had been removed when the reader read the passage; some idiosyncratic trigger had been sprung and irrational but powerful feelings had taken over.

I think to some degree or other, no reader can really escape this sort of reaction. It’s very human – and equally human to blame the book rather than our own crazy emotions. The greatest incidence of such trigger responses seems to be around this issue of likable or sympathetic characters. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read reviews that bewail ‘horrible’ people in books that haven’t struck me as horrible in the least. And I’ve read enough books myself with characters endlessly justifying their behaviors (which annoys me) or responding in ways I think are odd, to know I do the same thing.

What it boils down to is, I think, that understanding my experience is not your experience remains one of the hardest laws of reality that we ever have to get our heads around, right up there with getting the fact that people can only give love in their own fashion, not in the way we might want to receive it. When characters in books react in ways that are alien to us, or in ways we think are wrong, or in ways that awaken old memories of hurts and slights, or in ways that are simply not borne out by our own experience, we become distanced from them. They are – quite literally – not sympathetic any more.

Margaret Heffernan in her brilliant book Wilful Blindness, goes deep into the psychological research around this desire for the familiar. We marry people who are like us, we are friends with people who are like us, we search out views and opinions that confirm our own. And mostly, we hate to think this might be true. ‘Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently,’ she writes. In one experiment, subjects were led to believe that they shared a birthday with Rasputin, and subsequently they ‘were far more lenient in judging the mad monk than those who had nothing in common with him.’ Trivialities matter. Since 1998, over 4.5 million people have taken Implicit Association Tests that measure bias, and especially the sort of bias we aren’t conscious of having, the kind that makes white doctors friendlier towards white patients than black ones. No point in being complacent – more than 80 percent of us are biased against the elderly. Nobody comes out of this particularly well, even if, as Heffernan insists, we all want very earnestly not to feel these ways.

Well, our book reviews are pretty clear that we are all full of foibles and prejudices, and that we are pretty hard on fictional characters who don’t match up to the internal yardstick. It’s an intriguing thought that books give us one representation of human nature, and book reviews give us another, more revealing, one. Reading is a trick way of looking into a mirror, because we read in the most private part of our minds, well away from witnesses and onlookers. Stories tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the lives in their pages. And what does my own irrational dislike of some innocent writing style say? I’m not entirely sure. But I do know I still have residual fear towards people whose emotions I can’t read, or who are saying one thing while feeling another. I love reading because stories do go beneath the surface, on the whole, they do show you the whole picture. I think I’m irritated beyond all proportion by stories that don’t have emotional depth, while this currently fashionable style is a way of depicting women in crisis who don’t make the reader feel like they’re ‘whining’ or ‘moaning’, which gets a very bad press. But that’s only my reading of the situation… and we all know that’s just personal.

Mr Litlove And The X(chromosome)-Files

Mr Litlove had his minor eye operation last week, and it all went off just fine. For the week or so before it took place, whenever he wanted sympathy, he’d put one hand over his eye and present a trembly bottom lip. This was effective enough in itself. When he did emerge from the eye clinic, the miracle that is laser surgery meant that he didn’t even have an eye patch. And yet….the drugs they had given him to enlarge his pupils were pretty potent and with his ears a little downturned from the general unpleasantness of hospitals, he looked exactly like Puss-in-Boots from Shrek.

puss in boots

Love me! Something BAD just happened.

For the rest of that day and most of the next, the only real side effect was the difficulty he had with bright light, not surprising with pupils the size of gobstoppers. But good news! He could still watch television.

I was a little…unnerved, however, to see him heading past me later that first afternoon with the DVD of the Sex in the City movie. As one of my friends once remarked, he is very keen on his alpha male stereotypes and not what you might call a bridge brain.

‘You’re going to watch Sex in the City?’ I asked.

‘Well you enjoyed it,’ he replied.

And I had to admit I thought: this should be interesting.

A little later, when I’d finished some work I was doing, I went through to see how he was getting on. He’d reached the part where Carrie Bradshaw gives a Christmas present to her assistant of a real Louis Vuitton handbag and she practically squeals the place down.

‘This is getting surreal,’ said Mr Litlove. (Ha! I thought) ‘That is the ugliest bag I’ve ever seen.’ (Not surprising; he has strong opinions about women’s clothing, for instance, he thinks Ugg boots are particularly aptly named.) ‘Look at it, it wouldn’t go with anything!’ (Okay, that was more metrosexual of him than I’d expected.)

I settled down to watch for a while, and tried to wipe tears away discreetly. But I really did have other things I should be doing. So I said I’d leave him to it.

‘We can’t be far off the end,’ he said.

‘There’s quite a bit more to go.’

He shook his head in disbelief. ‘It’s amazing how they can make such a long film in which nothing happens!’

Nothing happens? Carrie gets jilted at the alter, Miranda splits up with Steve and reconciles with him, Charlotte gets pregnant, Samantha does a whole host of Samantha-type things, there are fashion shows and holidays abroad and a lot of angsting over emotional intelligence-based life decisions, but, no, nothing happens. Several more hours passed before I saw him again.

‘So what did you think of the film?’

‘At the end?’ said Mr Litlove. ‘When Carrie and Big make up in that walk-in closet he’s supposed to have built for her?’


‘I just couldn’t understand how he’d got it out of the space. He must have bought the next door apartment, too, and knocked a wall down.’

On the whole it was much as I expected; he could have used subtitles. Well, life moved on and I thought no more about it, would have forgotten it entirely except that the next day, as I passed the television and Mr Litlove in front of it, a familiar face caught my eye. I looked again. Yes, it was Kirsten Stewart….in the snow…and wasn’t that boy supposed to be a werewolf?

‘Is that really one of the Twilight sequels you’re watching?’

Mr Litlove started guiltily. ‘I was just curious,’ he said.

How curious?’

For a little while I got quite excited about the potential storyline: man goes into hospital for routine eye operation, but emerges with a whole new gender perspective. You could sell it as The Snow Queen meets What Women Want. But after that there were no further cinematic surprises. Whenever I walked past the television, there were men shooting each other on it, or comedy panel shows.

Yesterday evening, Mr Litlove asked me if I had a topic for a blog post yet. Since I am ethically committed to warnings, I said, ‘Yes, you.’ He winced. ‘Now don’t be like that,’ I said. ‘Your loyal fans love hearing about your exploits, and I thought I’d tell them about the weekend of chick flicks.’

‘That just showed how low I was,’ Mr Litlove replied, gruffly.

And yet, I’m not entirely convinced. Mr Litlove was wearing his rowing gear, as he’s been competing all this week in the town ‘bumps’. Having caught up with the boat in front of them on the course and bumped, he was wearing the traditional branch of willow. But he hadn’t just stuffed it down the back of his shirt, he’d twisted it into a delightful laurel wreath, and being Mr Litlove, he’d managed to make the leaves particularly perky.

Maybe he’d learned a little something, after all.