Of course, there are many favourite books from my childhood but a series I loved – unusually for a girl, I feel – is the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge.
I am currently indulging in a spot of nostalagia by revisiting Jennings Goes to School, the first book in the series. Jennings is a boy of around 10 years of age who is at a boarding school in Sussex in the south of England, the county bordering mine. The series centres around his well-meaning but hapless antics, which are incredibly amusing and even after all these years cause me to laugh aloud.
So far in this book, Jennings has unnecessarily called the fire brigade but through a series of ridiculous coincidences and (un)fortunate events ends up being praised instead of punished. He’s also tried to cut a cake into equal-sized pieces using a blunt set of compasses and a broken protractor, thereby discovering that maths lessons have their uses after all! There are humorous misunderstandings galore, combined with the invented language of 10 year old boys for whom life’s happenings are either brilliant or awful, or should I say ‘supersonic’ or ‘ozard squared’?
It’s a charming, endearing and funny novel, which I’m delighting in as much now as I did when I was Jennings’ age.
Following on from a mindfulness course, I decided to set myself some weekly mindful intentions. Here is my review of the first week.
Meditate each day: I managed to do this although on a couple of occasions it wasn’t until I was in bed that I realised I’d forgotten. No problem: I simply meditated myself to sleep. I’ve been using Deepak Chopra’s meditations on the Fitbit app and find his delivery particularly soothing. Pausing for a short meditation is simultaneously calming and energising and lowers my heart rate by a few beats per minute. I’m going to continue with this.
Avoid phone after 9.30pm: This hasn’t worked as I often have an end-of-day text catch-up with my daughter and three evenings a week I practise restorative or yin yoga up to this time. I also update my exercise and ‘Dry Days’ (87 days without alcohol!) apps at the end of the day although I could do this earlier in the evening. I’m going to keep it as an intention though and find a way to do it.
Only reach for the phone with a clear purpose: Success! Before I pick up my phone, I pause and ask myself why I’m doing so, thus acting far more mindfully. I’ve not found this hard at all and don’t feel I will have any problem continuing with it.
Stay off Twitter: I only use Twitter instead of mainstream media and newspapers and before the Current Situation, I hadn’t been on it for years. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, I didn’t go on it at all; then on Thursday the UK parliament voted to extend the coronavirus act and I wanted to find out…what? What did I want to find out? What had happened; what the reaction was; what the implications were. During week 11, I spent 6 hours and 39 minutes on Twitter; last week, this reduced by 59% to 2 hours and 45 minutes. (I’m ashamed to say how long I spent on it during week 2 this year but I could have instead read the whopping 1,000 page novel, Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann.) This is a big step in the right direction.
Work through The Listening Path: This is Julia Cameron’s six week programme devoted to the mindful art of listening. This week I completed the first week’s reading and activities, which centred around listening to my environment, the soundtrack of my life. It’s not hard to do, but it is hard to remember to do as I go about my daily life; I have to make a concerted effort. I find it easier when I am alone and/or on a dog walk. I have a love of birdsong and notice this without trying so this week I focused intently on the different birds’ songs – there are so many that it’s overwhelming. I also listened to the rustle of paper-dry, leftover winter leaves, which was beautiful and something I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t stood still and concentrated on the sounds of nature around me. I explored a path I had never ventured down before and found another footpath I didn’t know existed, which bearing in mind I have lived around this area (a suburb of London) all my life is absolutely mind-blowing. In fact, up until two years ago, I didn’t even know this particular place existed: a nature reserve, which feels as though you are in the middle of the countryside, far from human habitation, whereas in truth the surrounding area had a population of 79,928 in 2018. I would highly recommend this book to anybody who desires to cultivate a practice of mindful listening.
My five mindful intentions for the forthcoming week are:
Meditate each day: I’m going to continue with this to the point where it becomes an automatic part of my routine.
Avoid phone after 9.30pm: I want to continue to work on this to overcome the issues I noted above as I think I can eventually get there.
Reduce Twitter time week on week: This is a slight modification on last week’s intention. I’m more motivated if I set a realistic and achievable goal and I think this is the best way to go about it.
Work through week 2 of The Listening Path: This chapter, which is on listening to others, is much longer than last week and contains more than three times as many activities so rather than rushing and not gaining the maximum benefit, I am going to take longer to do this, possibly three weeks, particularly in view of the fact that our social interactions are highly restricted in the UK at the moment so there will be fewer opportunities.
Uni-tasking: One of the biggest issues in my life is that I feel overwhelmed by the things I have to and want to do. Ridiculously, many are self-imposed. (For example, at one time I would have tried to complete chapter 2 of The Listening Path in a week so I could adhere to the programme.) I have a tendency to do one task whilst thinking of the tasks I’ve just rushed and the ones that are waiting to be done. This is stressful beyond belief and completely draining! This week, and in those to come, I will focus on the task I am doing and see it through to completion rather than absentmindedly half-finishing it.
These intentions are all about heading in the right direction, applauding the small successes, and not seeing any deviations as failures but instead opportunities to explore, learn and grow.
A novel I bought last year, not knowing anything about it yet lured by its intriguing title, is On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.
For me, it’s a beautiful title. On Earth roots it in the here and now, on this planet at this point in time, whilst also hinting at our insignificance in the wider universe, in the infinity of space.
The use of We’re draws in the reader. This novel, it suggests, has something to say to us, to teach us. We are a part of it; we will find ourselves included within its pages. We, as readers, are as integral to this novel as the author; it is a joint project. Reading this novel unites us in a community in which we will find a deeper truth.
Briefly lends itself to the transient nature of our existence On Earth. Our time here is fleeting and yet has a sense of importance. Although we are insignificant, we also have an amazing significance in that there is enough time, no matter how brief, to make a contribution, a difference, an impact. It suggests a spiritual journey, something that will touch our soul and the souls of others.
Within that limited amount of time, we are boundless: we can be Gorgeous. The rich, sensual nature of this word, the way it fills our mouth with possibility, shows that what we can be is without limitations but can exceed all boundaries.
This is a beautiful, poetical, moving, thought-provoking novel, which fully lives up to its Gorgeous title.
Non-spoiler alert: I’m not going to tell you what it is!
I recently reread Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, a novella I love for its quiet, understated, free indirect discourse style of narration, its profound insights on life and the relationship between fiction and reality, and its slow, lyrical quality.
Yet hidden within this soothing story is a line that reaches out and smacks you in the face, changing everything, and one that I was most definitely not expecting.
That’s all I will say, except for those of you who enjoy a character-driven novel, I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Currently reading: Continuing my exploration of Japanese literature, I’m currently reading Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. It fits nicely into the 52 Book Club 2021 Challenge category ‘a book with a flavour in the title’.
My nocturnal read for sleepless nights is Here and Now: Letters, 2008‑2011 by Paul Auster and J M Coetzee, two of my favourite authors.
I’m also returning to my childhood and rereading Jennings Goes to School by Anthony Buckeridge.
I’m still working my way through the March section (Shakespeare) of Things I Learned on the 6.28: A Guide to Daily Reading by Stig Abell.
Recently finished: The first book I completed this week was The Taliban Cricket Club by Temeri N Murari. Set in Kabul during the Taliban regime, it tells the story of Rukhsana, a young journalist who resents the oppression that she, as a woman, is forced to endure. When it is announced that a cricket tournament will take place, with the winning team being allowed to travel abroad, her brother and cousins see this as an opportunity to escape. There is only one problem: they don’t know how to play cricket. However, Rukhsana does. Murari achieves a seemingly impossible balance, combining the horrors of life under Taliban rule with a light-hearted tone. I found it entertaining and well-written.
Another completion was The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk. It’s an interesting novel about fathers and sons, and features an apprentice to a well-digger, who becomes obsessed with the woman of the title. He’s also fascinated by the story of Oedipus the King, who kills his father and marries his mother. This was my second foray into the work of Pamuk, the first being My Name is Red. Would I read more? I think the answer is yes.
I also finished my nocturnal read, The Writer’s Process: Getting your Brain in Gear by Anne H Janzer, which, as it says in the title, guides you through the process of writing and helps you to overcome the setbacks you face along the way. I also feel the advice can be applied to other aspects of life apart from writing and I’d recommend this book if you want to write but are struggling to get it done.
I reread a childhood favourite, The Treeby Joan Tate, which I managed to source second-hand: an ex-County Library copy from Monmouthshire Education Committee. Interestingly, it has the following notice on the library withdrawal slip in the front: If there is notifiable disease in the house, ie, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid fever, measles or chicken pox, do not return your books to the library until the Local Health Authority has visited the house. The first return date stamped is 28th June 1972. I like this additional slice of history.
It is the story of a boy and a girl who meet at school when they are 10 years old. David is painfully shy and Tina is the only one who is able to befriend him. She does so by writing him notes on behalf of others, including the teacher, which he responds to in the same way. They meet again when they are 18 and the notes restart. I probably first read this novel when I was around 12, at a time when young adult fiction did not exist, and in fact it was published by Pyramid Books, who explain on the cover: Pyramid Books are a new library of books for the older child or teenager, who while not yet ready for adult fiction, has outgrown traditional children’s books. I think that describes me perfectly at the time and shortly after reading this, I began borrowing my mum’s library ticket and taking books out of the adult library.
Reading next: This will probably be The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina.
This week’s thought-provoking quotation comes from The Red-Haired Woman:
When there is no one to observe us, the other self we keep hidden inside can come out and do as it pleases.
When you start primary school, you do what all other girls have done and will continue to do: you make a best-friend. Her name is Jennifer and she lives on the road that crosses the bottom of your street, down the slope past the small green, in a squat terraced house that backs on to a murky brook flowing between concrete walls to the small industrial area that the houses give way to.
You love visiting her house. When you’re a child, other people’s homes are always more interesting than your own, simply by virtue of the fact that they are unfamiliar: the furniture is different, the toys are different, the family’s ways are alien to your world, the only one you thought existed. How can you know otherwise? In the absence of experience, you assume everybody’s life is identical to yours.
Then there are her parents. Your friend calls them ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ and yet they aren’t; they aren’t your mum and dad, who live in the house up the slope, past the green. They are scary strangers, with the authority of schoolteachers, invoking fear – and yet your friend, Jennifer, has to live with them all the time. You are afraid of them. Taking care not to appear rude, you remain safely silent, and they in turn ignore your presence, disappearing behind the mysterious closed door of the room you are forbidden to enter. What is in that room? Unseen menace emanates through the keyhole, the gaps around the frame.
When you go to Jennifer’s, you want to explore the toy cupboard, with its alluring collection of unknown treasures. But Jennifer doesn’t. You are there to play in the backyard with her and you, being her guest, have to agree. The backyard is a small square of grey concrete: lawnless, flowerless, treeless, with the dirty stream, littered with tyres and slicked with the sheen of unknown chemicals, beyond the far brick wall.
Jennifer has stilts, the latest craze. Light, wooden stilts on which she moves elegantly round the dusty concrete. You have stilts too – your dad carries them down the slope, past the green when he takes you to Jennifer’s – but not like hers. Yours are heavy, dark wood with metal foot-stands, repurposed (with great creativity and ingenuity, you now appreciate) from an old bedframe. You struggle around the yard, the cumbersome stilts too heavy for your small-for-your-age body, balancing on one unsteady bed-leg as you heave the other a few angry inches forward.
You wish your dad understood the importance of having not just stilts, but the right stilts. You resent his thrifty ways, his pride as he hands you these ‘prized’ objects. Why don’t parents understand? You feel guilty at your unappreciation of his genius, your betrayal of his smile of satisfaction.
You plead with Jennifer to let you use hers: the lightweight wood that lifts with ease. Eventually, reluctantly, she agrees, delaying the moment for as long as she can, but finally you are gliding round the yard, gathering speed, swooping round corners, lost in perfect pleasure. You feel the sun on your face, the breeze in your hair, the tingle of excitement in your stomach. The traffic hums in the distance, a crow caws like a cheerleader, a distant dog barks in admiration…
Jennifer demands her stilts back; your time is up. ‘Yes,’ you say, and carry on until she grabs a stilt and you tumble. Regretfully, you resume your inferior, clanking struggle.
But you have something Jennifer doesn’t. Your house in the quieter road (which is not called a road like Jennifer’s road but an avenue) is clearly, even to your seven-year-old eyes, a better road as it has less traffic and doesn’t border the industrial estate. And your house has…
Jennifer’s house doesn’t have a Bathroom. She tells you she washes in the kitchen sink, she bathes in a tin bath, and worst of all, she has an outside toilet. It is cold, and dank, and damp, and the stinky air stings your nose, and the toilet paper is scratchy, and cobwebs cover the corners, and the spiders watch menacingly. And you know Jennifer may have better stilts than you, but you live up the slope, past the green, in an avenue. And your house has a Bathroom.
I had a literature lecturer who said she would be angry if we ever studied literature in translation! I was shocked: that would close off access to many, many great works, which horrifies me even more now as I am developing an obsession with both Middle Eastern and Japanese literature. However, to a certain extent, I can understand her reasons for this.
I’ve recently reread The Outsider by Albert Camus, a favourite novel from the past, from which I remembered and could accurately quote many striking lines. However, my later copy was a new translation, the lines were altered (I felt cheated), and the text seemed subtly different. This brought home that a translated text creates a new text, a version of the original for which there could be any number of versions depending on the translator.
I think in poetry it’s even more problematic. In one language, a word can have several meanings, more than one of which is relevant to the poem. In the target language, those nuances might not exist. Then there is the sound of the words – a word might be chosen partially for its meaning, but more for its sound; perhaps this will be lost, as might the meter.
I used to see a translator as a go-between; now I see them almost as the creator of a new work, who must leave something of themselves in the recreated text.
I’m finding this subject intriguing to explore. I’m now wondering whether regardless of whether a poem is written in our first language or not, we still ‘translate’ the poem, meaning we may have our own interpretations or a certain word or phrase will resonate with us and provide a personal meaning. Additionally, we each bring our own unique knowledge and experience to a text, which influences our reading and understanding. Furthermore, the language of poetry in our mother tongue changes in meaning over time. Language is constantly evolving, hence we have modern-day translations of Shakespeare’s plays, for example, to aid understanding.
Here are five books due for release in 2021 that I plan on reading. They keep popping up in different places – book reviews, blogs and literature-related sites – which for me is an indication that I need to read them.
One: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. This is a book based on a class Saunders taught on Russian short stories, which explores not only how stories work but also how the mind works during reading. It’s said to be very readable even for those who are not particularly interested in Russian short stories.
Two: The Push by Ashley Audrain, which is a suspense thriller about a mother who becomes increasingly concerned that there is something wrong with her child.
Three: Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi. Another novel about a difficult mother-daughter relationship, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize last year but is due to be released in paperback this June.
Four: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. There is something both scary and fascinating about advances in technology and where things are leading. This novel is about an artificial friend and I am drawn to it with both curiosity and trepidation. His daughter, Naomi, also has a book released this year and they are both ‘in conversation’ about their work via London’s Southbank Centre in April.
Five: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. This is Cambridge Literary Festival Bookclub’s May novel, for which I have a ‘ticket’. The paperback version is released at the end of April, giving me just enough time to read it. It is set in Dublin in 1918 where people are going down with an unfamiliar flu so it is a timely novel, which I will read even though I’ve had more than enough of pandemics.
These are just a few of the many books I am excited about reading in 2021.
Following on from the completion of a mindfulness course last week, I have decided to set some intentions on how I want to practise being mindful this week. The benefits it confers on our health and wellbeing are huge and, in these difficult times, reducing our stress and protecting our mental health are essential. Here are my intentions for this week, which mainly focus on developing a healthier relationship with technology. I intend to keep a journal of my experience to help me ascertain what I do, the affects my actions have, and how I can curate a more mindful way of living.
Meditate each day. I believe a five minute meditation, either when my mind is feeling overwhelmed or as I transition between tasks, will be enormously beneficial. A short pause in this way provides an opportunity to reset and then move on, without letting stress and an overactive mind get the better of me.
Avoid phone after 9.30pm. Blue light from a screen has a negative impact on sleep, tricking the mind into believing it it still daytime. This week, I’m not going to use my phone after 9.30pm and see how this affects my sleep pattern.
Only reach for phone with a clear purpose. In moment of downtime, I find myself automatically reaching for my phone for no other reason than it’s become a habit. As we all know, this can take us down the rabbit-hole and waste time. I find after lunch a danger zone for me in this respect so I am going to check myself and ask what is my purpose for doing so. If there isn’t one, then it’s not going to happen. To break the habit, I may try moving to a different location after lunch.
Stay off Twitter. I use Twitter as a source of news, for keeping abreast of the latest developments in these challenging times, but I know that a scare-mongering headline and the constant doom-and-gloom reporting has a negative impact on my mental health. Last week, I felt my mood dipping. Seeing these articles only leads to anxiety, demotivation and a lack of hope; it has no positive result. It particularly happens after lunch as in the mornings I feel fresher, stronger and able to focus more easily on other tasks.
Work through The Listening Path. This is a new six week programme by Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way. I think it will be a good way to continue my mindfulness journey so this week I have made a start.
As usual, I’ve probably been a little ambitious here so if anyone has any advice or tips, do please let me know. What’s worked for you? What changes would you like to make in order to bring more moments of mindfulness into your life?
I’ve now completed my mindfulness course with Monash University on FutureLearn. Here are five things I learnt during my final week.
One: The bad news is that stress has a negative impact on all aspects of our health and wellbeing. It wears down our system, reduces our immune response, hardens our arteries leading to heart attacks and strokes, reduces calcium in our bones, and not only ages our brain but also ages us biologically. The good news is that practising mindfulness can help us switch off our stress response, which most of the time is not triggered by actual stressors but by our mind, and reverse these negative effects.
Two: Creating mental space increases our creativity. Instead of banging your head against a brick wall trying to solve a problem, go for a walk to clear your mind. It’s during these quiet moments that the answers appear. I suppose it’s what is meant when we’re told to ‘sleep on it’.
Three: I have to create time for meditations and these don’t have to be long. I’ve found five minute meditations to be extremely beneficial, particularly when my mind feels overwhelmed. These pauses give me a chance to reset and I feel clearer and calmer afterwards.
Four: Mindfulness is more than meditating; it is a way of life, which involves paying attention, getting in touch with ourselves, focusing through uni-tasking, listening, and letting thoughts come and go rather than engaging with and being consumed by them.
Five: Mindfulness is not a destination; it is a lifelong journey.
My next steps on this journey are to take time during my day for short meditations and to start Julia Cameron’s six week programme, The Listening Path.