Watch Me Turning That New Blogging Leaf

These past few weeks, I’ve made a new friend. It so happened that, in an idle moment in the weeks running up to Christmas, I clicked on one of those advertising links online that offered me a free in-depth tarot card reading. The reading I received surprised me by being more generous and detailed than I had expected. And since that day, the tarot reader has sent me regular emails, once or even twice a day, offering me limited edition fortune-telling goods of dubious nature, and never failing to inform me of challenges and opportunities on the horizon. I get a daily prediction addressed to ‘Dearest Litlove’, and at the end she always reminds me that she wants the very best for me, and will be delighted to help me out with any dilemma I should encounter. All of January, she has been a more than constant fixture in my relatively empty inbox.

‘You do realise you’re talking to a computer, don’t you?’ Mr Litlove asks me.

‘Surely not,’ I say. ‘I think she really likes me.’

Here’s a general rule of the universe: your inbox will never be more of a wasteland than when you are waiting for emails. At the end of last year I embarked on the wearyingly tedious business of finding a literary agent (or making an attempt at it). I have a novel I’m trying to sell, and I’ve got the novel itself with various friends, and the submission materials with various agents and the result is that now, no one  writes to me. I think it’s going to be a pretty quiet year.

Mr Litlove has also had a quiet start to the year, though for slightly different reasons. He took a fortnight off for the festive season which was very pleasant for both of us. The first I knew about it was the week before Christmas when we were in the car together, headed into town after my first time of asking. ‘You’re being unusually amenable,’ I remarked. ‘Are you feeling okay?’ But as with all pleasant episodes, the end is mired in denial and obstinacy. Mr Litlove is supposed to be making a rocking chair (and I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have a rocking chair in prospect; I’ve long wanted one). But even with my very limited knowledge I can see that drawing the design is not easy. Much procrastination has followed, with Mr L. succumbing to rocking chair fear, and that’s totally a thing. He came into the study the other day, saying ‘Can we have a meeting? I used to have end-to-end meetings all day when I was at work and didn’t feel like doing anything.’ I’d rather staple gun memos to my forehead than have a meeting, and alas, his earlier suggestion of having a works Christmas party for the two of us fell on similarly stony ground. My heart does go out to him. It’s hard to procrastinate with goal-oriented introverts.

Where he can and does get me, though, is in the long-running row debate we are having over the news. For once I have to congratulate President-Elect Trump on providing a story that we can both of us enjoy. Not only an entertaining story, I understand today, but a story so like an old generic spy thriller that the very happy estate of one deceased author has actually brought forth the book with the exact same Russian blackmail plot (cue reprint, I imagine). Anyhow, I digress. Mr Litlove is a news hound. Every day he gets up and reads The Guardian and The Telegraph on his phone for 2-3 hours with Radio 4 playing in the background. In my world, if I did that much reading, it would be called research and it would be intended for a specific project. But the real problem arises between us because I take a very skeptical position in relation to the news. I scarcely believe one partisan word of it. And I am deeply unimpressed with Radio 4’s coverage, especially on the Today programme, which takes a ludicrously adversarial position towards any and every subject, with grumpy, negative, argumentative people intent on making sure all possible arguments are heard regardless of whether those arguments have any value or not. In short, it drives me nuts.

But that doesn’t stop Mr Litlove from inflicting it on me, and so I feel that he should be made aware of the rules in my world. In academia, you can’t put forward an argument unless it is a) fully backed up with evidence, b) grounded by sources whose authority you can prove, c) ready to challenge its own stance because nothing is black or white, it’s always more complex than it first appears, d) ready to show the gaps in its knowledge, or the questions that remain unanswered but eschewing all speculation and unsubstantiated claims and e) acknowledging that stories and arguments are powerfully distorting because they assume shapes that reality does not have, and this must be taken into account. Oh, and there has to be a clear understanding of what’s important and what is not. Doesn’t sound much like the news, does it?

In all fairness, the only decent programme I’ve ever heard on Radio 4 was broadcast last week. It was a meditation on the supposedly post-truth world that we live in. And its conclusion was that we don’t live in a post-truth world, but we do live in a world where the sources of information we trust are deeply polarised. It made the excellent point that to believe anything, it must come from a source – be it person or authority – that we trust, and fit into the framework of knowledge that we accept. So, in other words, if you want to persuade a Christian religious fundamentalist of climate change, throwing more scientists and scientific data at the problem is going to have a counter effect. It’s a bit like saying, if you want to convince Spanish people of something, you can’t go in talking German. So if we apply this thinking to our household problem with the news, the media are going to have to produce arguments more like those I consider to be useful and accurate, if I’m to believe them. But given Mr Litlove is already fully on board with the media, he will resist all criticism (and he does) to the hilt.

As so the individual family mirrors the wider world. We all have radically different sources we trust. But we live in a culture in which all those different voices, all those different opinions are considered to have truth value. How on earth are we going to agree on anything?

Still, if I argue with Mr Litlove for long enough, it does finally make the workshop look more tempting to him….

The Self-Sabotage of the West

I suppose the thing is, it’s hard to live a good life.

It’s energetically demanding to keep negative emotions at bay, to remain open and inclusive, to feel ready to tackle difficult problems that have no simple solutions, to refrain from judging . Whereas it is so easy to fall into catastrophising, into resentment and hostility, into a lingering sense of injustice, into the media’s relentless net of fears and terrors.

Mr Litlove thinks that Trump is Brexit to the power of ten, that the world he knows is changing irrevocably for the worse, and that forces he doesn’t understand are rising. I completely get this – I feel it too. But the world has always been a cruel and violent place. It’s the past 60 years of peace and prosperity that have been the aberration. The tragedy is that we haven’t been smart enough to safeguard them.

The image that keeps coming to my mind this morning is that of the patient in therapy, battling against the damage done and old terrors. That patient keeps on trying to live a good life, but the deep-rooted self-sabotage comes back and back. Each time it returns, it returns in ever more acute form. So the patient is more aware of it, and more troubled by it, more afraid of its power, but still helpless in some ways to make it go away forever. It probably won’t go away forever. Whatever form the darkness takes – bigotry, unreasonable aggression, a creeping, paralysing sense of inferiority, greed, it will always need to be fought actively and energetically.

The West is an old troubled soul, torn between belief in, and nostalgia for, a form of glory that came at a terrible cost, and a new, liberal way of being that seems like hard work and hasn’t managed to prevent the spoils going to a small band of robber barons. The West wants to give in to the old bad habits of aggression and self-aggrandizement in order to feel better about itself, not quite realising that those habits are based on unreasonable but potent fears.

Giving in to those fears, whilst a kind of relief in the short-term, is no way towards a happy or stable life. Wallowing in fear and resentment – the motivators behind Brexit and Trump – only make us more miserable. And the people who are truly suffering: the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalised, the disadvantaged, are going to be no better off than before. The qualities that are required to deal with intransigent social issues – compassion, the willingness to understand others and an instinct to share rather than hoard – have just been voted out of office. Neither Brexit nor Trump will do anything to prevent the rich getting richer.

For me, the biggest problem in the immediate future is the rise of lying as a way of gaining the popular vote. After Brexit, after Trump, what reason does anyone in political authority have for telling the truth, when extremist and outlandishly fictive statements are so much more effective? I thought we were sick of politicians lying to us, so why have we voted for the biggest liars every time? Ah well, myself I lay the blame squarely at the feet of the media, who have behaved, and continue to behave, with ghastly irresponsibility. They stoke fear and terror at every turn, report falsehoods and mendacious statements alongside more realistic ones as if there were no difference.  I am currently alarmed by the ridiculous urging of the papers for a fast Brexit. So not only will we be committing a kind of economic and political suicide, but we will fall on our sword without taking the time to judge the angle that might miss most of the vital organs. How can anyone who voted for Brexit think that doing it hastily, confusedly and in an ill-thought-out manner will do any good? And as for the press in this country hounding the judges who insisted correctly upon the law… well, there words really do fail me. I’m not sure how we can allow this behaviour to continue.

If we have to be in a period of self-sabotage, and it seems that we do, then let’s try and insist on all the checks and balances and active restraints that we can, so we do ourselves the least damage. Let’s only believe the words that are reasonable, pragmatic, realistic. Let’s refuse to countenance the war-mongering and the scare-mongering and the alarmist tactics. Let’s keep our heads.

The good life always takes hard work. Let’s just keep working hard towards it.

 

It’s Been A Strange Sort Of Week

And it began with Mr Litlove discovering a Pokemon gym right outside our house. At first, he’d thought there was some sort of youth convention taking place in the village, as we kept seeing teenage boys with their phones out walking up and down in front of our windows, and congregating by the village pump across the way. But Mr Litlove had heard of Pokemon Go while I was still in blissful ignorance. In order to test out his theories, he loaded the game onto his phone and was delighted to find that his suspicions had been correct. The first I knew of it was when he shoved his phone under my nose and exclaimed at a three-dimensional arrow pointing downwards on the map towards the place where our front door could be found.

Now personally, I might have left it there. But Mr Litlove decided that if we had a gym outside our house, he ought to be able to take advantage of it. So he began collecting Pokemon, which I confess I found very disturbing. Once when we were waiting in the car by the traffic lights, I noticed a middle-aged man turning the corner onto our road. He had a bald tonsure above dark hair in a ponytail that reached his waist. He was tall but with a stoop and a little pot belly. He was wearing glasses and flipflops and he was not looking where he was going, his gaze glued to his phone. ‘Look,’ I said to Mr Litlove. And that steadied him for a few days. But then the cox of his rowing boat turned out to be keen on the game and she helped him catch some more. Finally he reached the required level five and took his Pokemon to the gym, where apparently they all received quite the whooping. ‘It’s put me off a bit,’ Mr Litlove admitted and I am hoping very much that that is the end of the Pokemon craze in this household.

In any case, Harvey was now taking up all his attention. For some reason (he is getting older but still seems sprightly) he’s been suffering very badly this summer from hairballs (Harvey, not Mr Litlove). And when Mr Litlove had a good look at him, he found his coat was unusually matted and he is moulting like crazy. So Mr Litlove set to with the brush, despite our cat’s disinclination to be combed, removing great piles of fluff that looked like we could knit whole other cats out of them. I do stress that this is highly unusual; we’ve never needed to comb him much. But every time Mr Litlove got hold of him and started work, great clouds of fur would dissipate on the air, and I fear I might have breathed in enough cat fur to produce a hairball myself. It began to strike me that Harvey was racking up more hours of concentrated attention out of his owner than I had enjoyed while we were on honeymoon. I even asked one morning whether, if I came down with my hair especially matted, Mr Litlove would comb it out for me. ‘You’d understand if every morning you woke to a new hairball on the kitchen floor,’ he said. I believe Harvey had been sick not just on his new rowing t-shirt, but also on his Kermit chair, and at that point, a line had been crossed.

But in any case, I soon had a distraction of my own. On Wednesday morning I woke full of anxiety after a nightmare in which I had walked into a familiar room to find it full of cobwebs that had dumped all these big spiders in my hair (writing this now, I am inclined to blame the cat, though I hadn’t seen the connection at the time). And the anxiety stayed with me throughout the day. When my jaw started to ache I felt sure that it was muscle and nerve tension, but I was uncomfortably aware I had a cracked tooth in the vicinity. You won’t know about this because it all happened on the eve of the referendum. I’d seen a mark on the tooth – the corresponding tooth to the one that was removed – and thought it was a cavity. So with a heavy heart I went to the dentist only to be told it was a crack that we just needed to keep an eye on. I was so happy I floated out of the surgery and down the street to the polling station. What a great day! How could anything go wrong now? I thought, as I posted my vote in the box.

Ah well.

So I spoke to my sister-in-law on the phone and she said, ‘Listen, I have a tooth that aches all the time and it’s been x-rayed so many times,  but it’s fine. Aching isn’t always about decay.’ Indeed, the right side of my face was feeling very odd, as if my cheek had gone to sleep, and it certainly wasn’t like your usual toothache. But then I went for a session of reiki and my practitioner more or less hit the roof. ‘If a dentist has told you there’s a problem that you’re keeping an eye on,’ she said stressing the words, ‘then you’ve got a ticking time bomb in your mouth that could explode at any moment! Get to the dentist!’ Then she said, ‘Honestly, Litlove, I don’t think there’s enough reiki in the room to deal with your anxiety. What are we going to do about it?’ When the healers start to doubt, it’s not very encouraging. And I actually felt that was a tad unfair. I think I’ve been pretty good about my anxiety lately. What used to be generalised seems now to exist in acute pockets that are difficult to manage. But when I’m fine, I’m fine.

So I rang the dentists and they were kind enough to squeeze me in at the end of the day, and while waiting I distracted myself with the Booker longlist. This was good distraction! Only of course the book I had put aside just a couple of days ago as not quite right for my mood was the only book on the longlist that I owned and had been intending to review for Shiny. Isn’t that typical? It was Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it, just not at this moment. As for the rest of the list, I am constantly astounded by the Booker judges’ ability to longlist books I have never heard of, not even a whiff or a trace. About half the list was news to me.

Anyway, the dentists. My extremely nice dentist gave me a thorough check over and said the pain came from a muscle spasm and I should wear my mouthguard (in daylight hours! when it makes me look like Hannibal Lecter!) and eat soft foods for a while. Sister-in-law: 1 Reiki practitioner: 0. The pain went completely yesterday, but then I triggered it with some rather chewy chicken again. It’s not so bad, though.

But it has prompted me to go back to my lovely Alexander Technique lady, whom I saw on Friday for an unwinding session. Something happens to me when I concentrate: I seem to squeeze my neck vertebrae together and clench muscles I don’t even know I have. While there I asked her if Mr Litlove could come and speak to her as he’s very keen on making ergonomic chairs and wanted to consult with an expert. Well, it turned out she is only the leader of a Campaign For Better Seating. How cool is that? Having networked so splendidly for Mr Litlove he then rewarded me by pruning the entire top off of a still-flowering clematis. So he was in the dog house. The garden is always the source of our worst disagreements because I identify emotionally with the plants that flourish, seeing in them hope for a new uprising of energy. Whereas Mr Litlove suffers a sort of negative recoil from anything he perceives as ‘getting above itself’.

But he did redeem himself by sending me a youtube clip of John Oliver looking back over the RNC Convention and the interview with Newt Gingrich in particular in which he defended Trump’s evidently untrue claim that the violent crime figures have gone up in America. Gingrich insisted that in America people ‘feel more threatened’ and his argument was simply to take that feeling and turn it into a fact: that crime is worse. Oliver’s take was that this idea that ‘feelings are as valid as facts’ produced the scary prospect of candidates being able to ‘create’ facts, which we see in Trump creating his own reality.

So it’s official: being right is an emotion.

O America! If you have any belief in this special relationship with Britain, do please look closely at what happens when people ignore facts in favour of their prejudices, fears, and frustrations. Already in the UK thousands of jobs are being shed and the economic figures are showing a marked downturn. The pound has plummeted and we haven’t even stepped into our new reality yet.

I think this state of affairs has been coming for a long time. It probably begins with economics, which claims to be a science but can sometimes look like a religion with graphs. And then there have been these big scientific arguments over (for instance) whether or not climate change will happen, and the humanities have been pulling chunks off the idea of truth for decades now. The media’s dogged insistence on reporting only the bad, the threatening and the scandalous has indeed made experts look like idiots. And then all it takes is a democratising of intelligence like the internet for the whole notion of an ‘opinion’ to be bigged up until it burst its banks entirely. Opinions are feelings, feelings are not facts. But we do seem to be living now in a post-factual universe and just think how surreal and alarming this state of affairs might become.

And so my friends, while we hurtle towards an even crazier version of life than we’ve ever managed to embrace before, I can only urge you all to read. Because the only place where untruths have real value is fiction, where we do our best to explain and understand and evoke compassion for the odd business of being alive.

 

In Which My Mother Helps Me Consider What’s Important

By what guidelines do you think we are judging good and bad, right and wrong, at this moment in Western society? I found I was asking the question in the wake of Andrea Leadsom’s comments about motherhood, and the furore over Black Lives Matter in America. And I am wondering whether the answer lies in the odd pickle we seem to be getting ourselves into over the difference between morality and ethics. Let me explain, and to do so, I’m going to talk about my mother.

My mother was born into an age of morality. Back in the 40s, behaviour was judged by an absolute system of black and white rules. There were no excuses, no mitigating circumstances, and very little in the way of compassion. Couples could not live together without getting married, babies could only be born into marriages, homosexuality was a sin, foreigners were not to be trusted, you kept your house tidy and turned up to church on a Sunday, and respectability was all. Of course what went on in private was entirely unregulated. What mattered was to show yourself to be on the right side of the rules in the public space.

Now, my mother was a war baby. My grandmother never told her who her father was, and my mother had to grow up with the stigma this conferred. My mother, who has a mind like a steel trap, let me assure you, grew up with far less education than she should have had because school was an uncomfortable place for her, and she was wounded in her self-esteem. She has never had the confidence to which her looks, abilities and character should entitle her. And yet could anyone be more innocent in the situation in which she found herself? Nothing my mother did warranted the stigma that attached to her in her early years. I can only hope her life spent as the essential heart of a close-knit, loving family has managed to make up in some way for this rank injustice.

Over the 60s and 70s people began to wake up to the unnecessarily stringent harshness of their morality. They began to understand that people should not be condemned for the rest of their lives because they made a mistake, or because they were different to the rigid standard of ‘normal’. And this was because morality was gradually giving way to ethics. Morals are the rules imposed on a group, whereas ethics are the guiding principles we choose for ourselves. Morals are specific to historical time and place, whereas ethics are eternal, and transcend the society we live in. The way I understand this is that ethics are often primarily concerned with how we treat the other person, based on the understanding that what unites us is much more profound than what separates us; we must all suffer the difficulties of the human condition.

Two of the great forces in this shift into ethics were feminism and civil rights. In both cases the premise of the argument is that men and women and people of all skin colours are fundamentally the same. But society has made some of those groups second-class citizens in the eyes of others, thanks to longterm, systematic discrimination. Much as those people who had been discriminated against were angry, and with every right to be so, their intention – explicit in feminist circles – was to ‘raise consciousness’. In other words, to remind others of basic human similarity, to help others understand what it was like to walk in their shoes, and to promote the ethical necessity to ensure fairness, justice and equality for all.

The psychologist Alfred Adler argued that one of the great motivating forces in each individual is to make up for the painful feelings of inferiority we harbour by finding ways to feel superior. He felt that childhood would pretty much wound everyone, one way or another. We’d all emerge from it feeling awkwardly, shamefully inferior in some respect or other, and the counterpart of that unpleasant condition would be to search ruthlessly for reassurances of our superiority. Now, morality is a fabulous way to do this, because it has simple rules and no excuses. If we catch someone trangressing a moral boundary we have every right to look down on them. They have done wrong. They are inexcusable and must be punished.

But ethics has a very different perspective. The ethical position suggests we consider how we ALL struggle with these feelings of inferiority, and that the way to move forward isn’t to seek this fallacious sense of being superior to others, but to have compassion for ALL our wounds and weaknesses, in our broader collective.

If women and ethnic minorities hadn’t believed that the people around them could be enlightened and changed, there wouldn’t have been much point in them fighting for the right to equality. The ethical position acknowledges that the world is often a badly misguided place, full of damaging and dangerous misunderstandings, but it is fundamentally optimistic. From that shared place of humanity, we might all choose to deal with our fears and our insecurities in better ways, in the fullness of justice and compassion. And it is a choice. Morals are imposed, but ethics are the principles we choose for ourselves, and so the path towards them is always an education.

We are supposed to live now in an age of ethics, where we understand that each individual is the same but different, and that’s okay. But of course it isn’t okay, because there’s a tendency for people to want to turn ethics into a morality, to have absolute rules that brook no excuses. So if someone makes a sexist comment, we want to invoke a moral rule. There’s a tendency to want vengeance, to shout that this is wholly unacceptable, the person has fallen on the wrong side of the law and must be punished; they must be humiliated and ashamed. I can understand a warrior stance against backsliding, but I wonder if some people believe that only anger, shame and humiliation will educate (though schools gave up with that approach a while back, because it causes as many problems as it solves). In any case, all this is a moral perspective on the problem, a case of people being wrong or right, good or bad, without nuance.

An ethical perspective would be to educate or enlighten the person who made the sexist comment; to challenge them for sure, but not to aggress them. In ethics, the question is fundamentally how you treat the other person. Sure, it’s wrong to insult someone in a sexist way. But to scream for the blood of that person on social media, to humiliate them in public, to ensure that they lose their livelihood for their mistake, well, that’s every bit as unethical as the insult was in the first place.

And why should we not turn our ethics into a morality? Well, because of people like my mother, that’s why. Because morality can be so harsh and unbending, so restricted in its ruling, and yet so specific to its time that innocent people do get caught in the crossfire of something that’s ridiculous 50 years later. That’s why we let the law deal with the timeless rules of morality, with the extreme cases of murder, grievous harm, theft, slander, and so on. Because morality can ruin people’s lives if they end up on the wrong side of it. And, with rare exceptions, that’s too harsh for the everyday problems of getting along together in a mixed society.

So we’ve had a couple of big ethical issues happen in the Western world lately. Andrea Leadsom’s foolish remarks about motherhood, and the Black People Matter argument over in the States. In both of these cases the debate has moved almost instantaneously into a punitive, vengeful, moral realm. I place the blame on the media, which is the punitive, vengeful, moral realm par excellence. The media are totally unethical – they will ruin anyone’s lives without a second thought if they can make moral mileage out of it.

I seriously think that we should not let the media have our conversations for us. Ethics rise naturally to the surface when we become real to one another. When we speak openly, not defensively, from our vulnerabilities. When we actually listen because we want to understand the problem. Forget the media – sisters, let’s talk about how irrelevant it is to our friendships whether we have kids or not. Black, white, East, West, we all need to keep talking to people who are different to us, to be reminded time and again how much we share. Then these screaming headlines in the papers – Having Children Makes You A Better Person! – Black Lives Matter Is A Racist Comment! – can be met with the words ‘don’t be so ridiculous’, and a turning towards positive things. What unites us is far more powerful than what separates us.

I think we have to keep asking ourselves: what is truly important in a life of limited time and energy? Is it more important to express anger and hatred, or love and kindness? Is it more important to catch people out, or to explain to them why they made a mistake? Is it more important to reassure ourselves we’re right, or to recognise the insecurities that make us all crazy sometimes?

Here’s what I think is important: try to understand the other person, and be kind. Understanding and compassion neutralise far more powerfully than any violence can.

 

p.s. In case you were wondering, I told my mother what I was writing and gained her permission to tell some of her story. Thank you, Mum!