The Unexpected Pleasure of a Social Fail

Last week I was invited to a publisher’s event in London and despite my terrible track record at attending such things, I decided I would go. There are plenty of reasons why I hardly ever attend, beyond my chronic fatigue. They all seem to start at 6.30 p.m., for instance, which is a dreadful time if you are a creature of habit and like to eat regularly. To arrive in good time, I need to leave my house about half past four, which is too early for tea beforehand, and then if one stays to the bitter end at 8.30, this means eating dinner at home around 10.30 p.m. which is even past my bedtime. Obviously other people find their way around this, but I admit it perplexes me.

Anyhoo, I boarded the train with my emergency supplies of a Marks & Spencer wrap, made it to London and walked to the venue which was just off Charing Cross Road. I visited the new Foyles as I had a a little time to spare, and found it very spiffy to look at, but a tad confusing in layout. Mind you, it’s definitely a step up from arranging books by publishers. Then I walked to the venue, eating half the wrap as I went (and trying not to drop lettuce into the folds of my scarf) and still arrived a bit early. I cased the joint, as the old gumshoes used to say, from the other side of the street, and saw people going in. At the door there was a young woman with a clipboard taking names, and I feared things were not going to go well when she could not find my name although I had written to rsvp. I had my invitation printed out in my bag, but it seemed she didn’t want to challenge me, just hastily added me to the bottom of her list and waved me on to coat check. The people in front were having their coats taken, and when that young woman never returned, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to keep my coat with me, which was a good decision in the end.

I sat in one of the alcoves in the bar, watching London publishing people arrive and flicking through the publicity brochure. This is when I realised I had made a mistake in not checking beforehand whether any other bloggers were going to attend. I’d been so sure somebody would be there who I knew, but as jolly partygoers poured in, I realised there was no face I recognised. They all knew each other though. They were doing that social clumping thing, where they separate into little, dense groups of furiously chatting people. When I finally saw a face that was familiar it took me a while to place it. Then I fervently hoped I hadn’t been staring. I think it was the owner of a book store who I met several years ago now, offering to create content for a website for the shop. This person was dead set against any idea of a website and we parted company less than pleased with one another. Yikes.

Well, half an hour had passed and I was very bored, and nothing seemed to be happening and I really had no desire to talk to the only person who might know me. And so I put my coat back on, slipped through the crowds in the room, and left without anyone noticing. Then I walked back to the station, got on the train and ate the other half of my wrap for dessert. It was one of those sleepy trains with the final few commuters of the evening all happy to nap in their seats or read. Across the aisle from where I was sitting an Indian gentleman slept through the first half of the journey and then when he woke up, he took a book from his bag. Inevitably I craned my neck to read the title and was intrigued when I saw it was a memoir by Michael Greenberg called Hurry Down Sunshine about a severe breakdown his daughter suffered. I’ve had it on my shelves for a couple of years without having read it yet (same old story!). Well, the gentleman saw me looking and smiled, and I smiled back at him and it was clear we both were on the brink of saying something but were a little too reserved. Ten minutes later, as the announcer said we were arriving home, and we were all shifting and leaning forward in our seats, we just started chatting (he was enjoying the memoir, though it was very sad, so maybe enjoy was not quite the right verb). And I had my bookish conversation after all.

When I told this story to Mr Litlove with the stated intention of blogging about it, he wasn’t sure I should mention it. I think this is because Mr Litlove is an alpha social animal, who would never be intimidated by a room of strangers and would find an easy, natural way to enter a conversation other people were holding. I do admire him for that. But that’s not me. I dislike parties, and travelling, and I fear being stuck in social situations I’m not enjoying. I was quite pleased that I took the decision to leave and to conserve my energy which is still in short supply and precious to me.

And it’s very intriguing why I should have found it easy to talk to the stranger on the train and impossible to talk to the strangers at the party. All I can say is that the train felt like a level playing field, socially. At the party, the people there knew each other already and I was at a disadvantage. And on the train, we had made a connection over the book; it was a tiny thing, barely perceptible, but it made all the difference. Something real had occurred, and the real is always simple to capitalise upon. When the connection is artificial, you have to work so much harder.

In case you’re interested, I had a bowl of cereal when I got home, to round off my nutritionally impoverished evening and I still managed to come down with a chronic fatigue relapse a few days later, which goes to show that evenings in London are probably still beyond me physically as well as socially.* But the experiment was interesting in all kinds of unexpected ways.

 

* And yes, Dark Puss, you are top of my list for when I am able to spend a bit more time in London!

The Things We Talk About When We Talk About TV

I have always been aware that Mr Litlove and I are opposites and generally this works out okay. We worry about different things, and can therefore count on one of us being sensible for the other in a crisis. Although our interests are wildly different, they both require space alone and time to indulge, and so we’re usually sympathetic to each other’s needs, particularly now we don’t have childcare to share out. But every so often, the deep-down difference in our natures makes itself felt to my surprise.

We were watching The Good Wife – the first season, as I’m on average six years behind the curve when it comes to television and films – and in this episode, the legal drama concerned a wife and a mistress who were wrangling over the body of the man they shared, as he was being kept alive on a life support machine after a motorbike crash. One wanted to turn the life support off, the other to keep it on. Thrown into the discussion was testimony from a doctor who’d witnessed a patient suddenly revived and healing after twenty years of comatose inaction.

So naturally, I expressed my feeling to Mr Litlove that I would never want to be maintained in a vegetable state. That if the lights go off, then that’s it for me and no regrets. A bad virus gave me thirteen years of chronic fatigue syndrome, and I can’t imagine what the payoff would be for twenty years in a coma. Not worth considering in any case.

‘So what about you?’ I asked.

Mr Litlove didn’t say anything; he just scanned the ceiling for a while with his eyes.

‘Oh my Lord,’ I said. ‘You want to be kept alive, don’t you?’

‘Well,’ said Mr Litlove, batting his eyelashes, ‘if I wasn’t being any trouble.’

‘I think you might be a little bit of trouble.’

‘Well,’ said Mr Litlove, still batting, still reasonable, ‘if I wasn’t in any pain.’

‘No pain, for sure. You’d be dead.’

I still can’t quite believe he’d want that, I mean, who would want to exist in a vacuum of thought and sensation, with no relationships, no creativity, no feelings to access? And then I thought of Mr Litlove on the weekend, and how he works his way through hours of seven-minute-long clips of The Graham Norton Show on youtube in order to be in exactly that insentient state… and I suppose it came a little clearer.

As for The Good Wife, I absolutely loved the first season, but having reached the end of the second just last night, my admiration is waning a teeny bit. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s essentially the story of Alicia Florrick, the wronged wife of a politician caught in a damaging sex scandal. Alicia has to return to work as a lawyer in order to support her two teenage children while Peter is in jail, but then he gets bail and comes home and wants to get back into politics. (I don’t understand the American system – he’s state attorney, which somehow seems to be political.) The question in the first season is whether Alicia can forgive him for what he’s done to them all. She’s remained loyal on the surface, partly out of the paralysis of shock, partly because she wants to do the right thing by her family. But you can see that forgiveness is almost beyond her. In this second season, it’s looked as if the marriage is healing, until we reach the end when a new revelation splits them up again.

The thing is, I understand the television series requires oodles more conflict in order to keep going. But the lovely purity of motivation that powered the first season seems to have gone. Now it looks as if Alicia never really forgave Peter, that she was always holding out for a good reason to leave him. She has no statute of limitations on past misdemeanours, and she seems to think that people are good or bad, with any fault or crime putting someone beyond the pale in her life. She’s also become very controlling, which sure, is a response to having been put out of control through no fault of her own, but it also speaks to the litigious nature of American legal practice, and it never works as a life strategy.

Anyway, I’ve watched two seasons in a row and it’s probably just time for a break. I need a new box set!

Medical Misadventures

On Friday, Mr Litlove fell off his bike on his journey to work. He was rounding a corner when the bike slowly slipped from under him, and it wasn’t until he was on the ground that he saw the sheet ice. A couple of builders working nearby came over to check on him, but by then Mr Litlove was back on his feet and brushing himself down and being thankful he hadn’t broken any bones. He’d bruised his ribs and his hip, though, and when he limped in on Friday evening after work, he was clearly a man who had sustained injury and wanted some sympathy. Need I say more?

‘So you won’t be going rowing in the morning, then?’ I asked him.

Mr Litlove’s eyes slid away from mine. ‘I expect I’ll be fine,’ he said.

And so of course, the stubbornness of the male being unparalleled, he was up at 6 am and off to the river. And then we went out to lunch, so it’s possible that he overdid things a tad because by Sunday he was very stiff and sore indeed.

I was expecting a skype call with our son that morning. He has an essay paper to do this year and I offered to lend a hand, given that he’s not written one in several years. The topic is science communication, which turns out to be rather fascinating. It’s a jolly good idea for the public to have some notion of what science is up to, but as with all these vague mission statements, things become tricky when we actually get down to nuts and bolts. How much information do we need to have any sort of useful judgement about current developments in science and technology? Who needs to know? And who is going to tell us in the ‘right’ way? When scientists talk about public understanding, what they often mean is public appreciation – getting the power of mass influence behind their research in order to secure more funding. Whereas what often happens is panic or aversion thanks to sensationalist and inaccurate media stories.

Let me give you a little example of some of the issues involved. Back in the 1950s a medical researcher, Alice Stewart, started to collate the figures on infant deaths by leukemia in women who had been x-rayed during pregancy. The statistics spoke for themselves; up to a child a week was dying from the disease and the mortality rate was almost 40% higher in children whose mothers had been x-rayed. Stewart published her findings in the Lancet in ’56, in the British Medical Journal in ’58 and yet the Medical Research Council absolutely refused to accept her conclusions. Stewart was a lone female voice without the backing of a large organisation. Doctors were in love with the technology, which they believed could only be useful. They were unwilling to take any one else’s word on a problem they had not identified themselves – the more authority at stake, the more unwilling people are generally to admit mistakes. And finally, they believed that as doctors they were always healing people; they simply could not hear the opposite. Too many cherished assumptions needed to be overturned and so for the next 25 YEARS doctors continued with the x-rays, and thousands of children died.

Science needs to be in the public eye, because keen public observation keeps people more honest. And the general public is a useful moral barometer, reacting strongly when science moves into territories where ethical issues are complex. But then we have to think about the scares over the MMR vaccine, which were sparked by one set of results that have since been called into question. The real problem is in the calculation of risk, which we are not encouraged by the media to do with any pragmatism. And anyhow, when our health or that of loved ones is at stake, it’s hard to be cool-headed.

I have an interesting calculation of risk of my own underway at the moment. Last week an invitation from the NHS popped through my letterbox to attend a cervical smear test. Oh joy. It’s not the test itself that bothers me, it’s the inaccuracy of the results. One in twenty women screened will register a false positive and have to go through an unpleasant medical procedure in consequence. One in twenty is a lot. On any given day, assuming a 50/50 gender split, ten women will read this blog who have been scared and treated invasively for no reason at all. I’m tending to agree with Germaine Greer on this one.

I readily confess that I am not good with medical procedures – a touch phobic, for sure. And I am terrified by the prospect of falling ill again, having so recently regained (most of) my health from the worst of chronic fatigue. Am I sensible about this? No, of course not. I had a bad viral illness and it took me 13 years to get over it. How could I possibly be sensible after that? But I know for sure that the stress and anxiety over the test and a false positive result would result in another stretch of chronic fatigue for me. More months lost to illness, when I’ve lost too many already.

Don’t worry; I am the least reckless person you’ll ever meet and I daresay I’ll go and talk it through with my nice doctor. But I have a little fable involving Mr Litlove to tell you about. When I expressed my displeasure at the arrival of the summons, Mr Litlove sighed and clearly wanted to say something he thought better of.

‘You think I should go and have it, don’t you?’ I asked.

‘Well yes, I suppose you should just get it over with,’ he replied.

‘You men should try it once in a while. Some sort of unpleasant, embarrassing test with an uncertain outcome. Something that involves shaving your balls and having them weighed or some such. How many men would do that?’

‘Oh don’t make me laugh,’ said Mr Litlove, clutching his sore ribs. ‘Please don’t. It hurts.’

‘And that reminds me. If those ribs are no better on Monday morning, you should go to the hospital and get an x-ray.’

The look on his face was transparent. It said: NO WAY.

‘Casualty won’t be too bad on Monday morning, I expect.’

‘My sister’s coming to stay on Monday,’ Mr Litlove mumbled. ‘I’ll ask her.’

Back in the day his sister was a GP and now works in academia in public health, none of which to my knowledge has gifted her with x-ray vision. But this is typical. He’ll tell me soon enough what to do, but he’d rather walk around with cracked ribs than go to a doctor. What has understanding science got to do with our behavioural choices, I wonder?

 

 

 

 

 

Best Books of 2014

I thought I’d read quite a few books this year, and a lot of newly-published ones, too, and yet the best-of lists remain full of titles I haven’t got around to, or have never even heard of. So while my wish list takes a battering, here’s my chance to return the favour. I know I ought to wait until the end of the month but something about this time of year just provokes the urge to tot up the balance sheet. It’s been an excellent reading year, as what follows will show.

 

mrs hemmingwayBest literary fiction of 2014

Alice McDermott – Someone

Jill Dawson – The Tell-Tale Heart

Naomi Wood – Mrs Hemingway

Jane Smiley – Some Luck

Heather O’Neill – The Girl who was Saturday Night

 

 

sisterlandBest literary fiction of 2013 I only got around to reading in 2014

Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries

Curtis Sittenfeld – Sisterland

 

Best fiction recommendation I gave Mr Litlove

Monique Roffey – Archipelago

 

izasBalladBest literary fiction in translation

Magda Szabo – Iza’s Ballad

 

Best general fiction

Liane Moriarty – Little Lies

Patricia Ferguson – Aren’t We Sisters

 

Best historical fiction

Laurie Graham – The Grand Duchess of Nowhere

Elizabeth Fremantle – Queen’s Gambit

 

Best books that made me laugh

Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Project

Rebecca Harrington – Penelope

 

stay up with meBest short stories

Tom Barbash – Stay Up With Me

 

Best crime fiction

Eva Dolan – Long Way Home

Frances Brody – Death of an Avid Reader

 

the last asylumBest memoirs of 2014

Joanna Rakoff – My Salinger Year

Barbara Taylor – The Last Asylum

 

Best memoir of any year

Hilary Mantel – Giving Up the Ghost

 

Best non-fiction about mental health issues

Christine Montross – Falling into the Fire

 

RiddleOfThe LabyrinthBest general non-fiction

Richard Benson – The Valley

Margalit Fox – The Riddle of the Labyrinth

 

What a year for the women! Only two male authors made it onto the list this year. But a formidable year overall. Before Christmas I might mention a few stinkers too, and the books I liked least this year. You have been warned.