Posts Tagged ‘books’

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hello again hinterland

January 27, 2015

So this is the first time i’ve blogged here for nearly half a decade. Since I last wrote I’ve had five addresses, including one in America for a year. I’ve been married, moved further down the northern line than I ever thought I would, I’ve had two kids, and many, many rants about the inequalities that appear once you’ve become a mum. Without doubt, I’ve been busy.

And yet I look back at the posts here and wonder just how I managed to pack it all in. Becoming a mum has been transformative in so many ways. But it has pretty much killed off the rich hinterland I so clearly cultivated in the pre-baby years. I haven’t been to the cinema or a gig since my boy was born two years ago; nor have I made it to a seminar, working breakfast or conference. I feel a bit ashamed about this, but also defensive: it’s not that I’ve been sitting on my hands, or drinking endless cappuccinos with my new yummy mummy friends. Having two small kids is relentless, thankless work, as others have described better than I could ever hope to.

There are so many things I’ve gained and learned since becoming a parent, but the brutal severance with my hinterland is the loss I felt most keenly as I searched for my new place in the world with a baby in tow. In the early months I devoured novels during the endless night feeds. The Goldfinch, The Signature of All Things and A Hologram for the King will forever take me back to a zombie-like place caught between sleep and wakefulness. Don’t ever ask me to explain the plot lines, I won’t remember. But beyond these mammoth night-time reading/feeding sessions, my world contracted. Days became a series of 15-minute slots alternating between feeding, changing, bathing, cooing, rocking and then feeding again. As time went on patterns changed but the punctuated nature of time remained. So too did the geographical shrinkage of my world: I rarely ventured a mile beyond my house, all the more so once the second babe arrived.

Don’t get me wrong: I am (finally) deeply happy in this new world, which brings wild joy as well as visceral frustration. But I have missed my hinterland. So now my heart is beating a little bit faster at the prospect of returning to it. I have finally found a way of leaving my children for two days a week that doesn’t leave me an emotional wreck. And so suddenly here I am with time on my hands to read, to think, to talk. I am greedy with it, devouring books and articles at a rate that suggests I am probably not taking them in properly. But I want more, more, more, and I feel full of ideas and possibilities in a way that’s eluded me for a few years now.

These emotions have made me realize that for me, this re-engagement with my hinterland is about nurturing my soul. Exploring all those things that interest me beyond paid work (and indeed the unpaid work of parenting), reconnecting with stuff I like to watch or read or imagine when no one’s looking or judging – this is the stuff that makes me feel alive. It makes me feel connected to ideas and people who are different to me, who enrich my life and challenge me to look at the world through fresh eyes. Looking after my hinterland is my little stand against the relentless encroachment of paid work upon life more generally. It is also my present to myself after the two most challenging years of life so far. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

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round about a pound a week

January 25, 2009

i’ve finally tracked down a new copy of Round About a Pound A Week from the marvellous Persephone Books, and spent a very enjoyable evening reading it on Friday. Written in 1913 by the Fabian Women’s Group, it tracks the lives of the ‘working poor’ of Lambeth in minute detail. The project came about as the result of the Fabians deciding to investigate the impact of additional grants for food being given to families upon the birth of a new child. Actually, the book itself hardly dwells on the impact of this specific measure, instead looking at housing, relationships and food (Maslow’s basic needs – there wasn’t scope for much beyond them for these families). The over-riding message is of the impossibility of living on such tiny wages.

So much struck me about this book that I can’t fit it all into this one post. So for now, two things in particular stand out that challenged the assumptions around poverty in 1913, and that remain deeply pertinent today. First, Maud Pember Reeves (the principal author) ridicules the doctors and officials who suggest that women need to be educated about the wonders milk can do for their kids. Women knew this all too well – but managing the household budget when it was so meagre made it an utterly unrealistic choice. Women were already going without – as, often, their children were too – and there was no room to cut spending on other items to purchase milk.

Second, Pember Reeves notes with interest that almost every family in the study put a notable sum of their weekly budget into the burial club. Rationally, this seems crazy: much better to spend every penny possible on keeping the children alive in the first place. But, she notes, the ‘disgrace of a pauper funeral’ meant that £11,000,000 every year was paid in pennies by the poor to the burial clubs. Pride was in operation here and the book takes issue with the middle class moralisers who refuse to see the importance of a decent burial. I am sure that the usual stuff the papers cover about trainers, big TVs and the rest is something of a modern-day equivalent.

The working poor that Pember Reeves studied remain a woefully invisible part of our population today. The equivalent of a 1913 pound is roughly £370 a week now, or £19,250 a year, according to the IFS. Meanwhile the official poverty line is set now at £332 a week for a two parent, two child family. Half the kids living in poverty have parents in work, and our study of ‘Just Coping’ families in Kent indicates that up to a sixth of the kids living there experience conditions that, while unrecognisable to the children of the 1913 study, are still characterised by terrible housing, miserable environments, limited and unhealthy food and deeply unstable or unrewarding work for their parents.

The book didn’t stop at describing the lives of the families – although simply that description, in such detail, had a massive impact on the social reformers and politicians of the day. The study also made recommendations that influenced policy around child benefits, free school milk, and health visitors. I think it’s time to do another study like Pember Reeves’…

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not sure Britain’s broken yet…

January 10, 2009

picture-1for a while I’ve thought there’s a fundamental misalignment between two of the key strands of Cameron’s brand of Conservatism. On the one hand, they talk of a civic renewal – not exactly rolling back the frontiers of the state, but rather a notion that communities can do more for themselves, and better, than bureacratic, uncaring public services. On the other, they espouse a view that Britain is broken. Here, the analysis is that societal norms are evaporating, and that this leaves our young people in particular lost in a sea of individualism without a sense of a clear moral or social compass to guide their behaviour. The two just don’t sit comfortably with me, seeming to present two very different views of British life today.

A brilliant and insightful book I’ve been reading recently has made me think again about this stuff. The Comfort of Things by anthropologist Daniel Miller explores the meaning of the relationships people have with material things – their houses, computers, ornaments, clothes – and argues that through exploring this, we can understand more about how individuals relate to the world around them. Part of his analysis is that it is true that there are fewer social norms to guide behaviour these days; but that this does not automatically lead to the conclusion that all that can remain in the absence of society is a set of fragmented individuals.

Far from it, he argues. His book shows us that it is a constant, lifelong project for people to seek to create meaningful relationships with others, and with things, in order to make sense of the world. People’s definition of a ‘full’, rather than an ’empty’, life seems to be determined by the degree of success they have in creating such relationships. As well as being a set of stories about the resourceful way in which people make meaning, his book also suggests that anthropologists, accustomed in the past to studying ‘cultures’ and ‘societies’, may find they need to shift their ethnographic eye to households, networks of relationships, and those very intimate interactions between each of us and the world around us. In other words, it’s not that society’s broken, but that in order to see it, we need to shift our focus to individuals – not as atomised beings but as fundamentally social and engaged with things beyond themselves.

Anyway all of this is probably to read far too much into Miller’s work (you can read his own take on the book here); this aside, I can’t recommend it enough as a read that leaves you feeling touched and moved, and hopeful about human nature.

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mindapples: a wonderful idea

November 29, 2008

A good friend of mine is kickstarting a debate about mental health via the rather lovely concept of ‘mindapples‘ – asking people to talk about what their mental equivalent of 5-a-day is. It’s fitting for an idea like this, that *just makes sense*, that Mindapples is beginning to generate all sorts of interest.

I find it oddly moving to read other people’s submissions. There’s a Theodore Zeldin-esque quality* to what people say: we gain new insights about aspects of people’s minds and emotions that usually remain hidden. Making these things public leaves us readers with a warm glow about being human (well, that’s what it does to me anyway).

Visit the website to find out more, and to submit your own 5-a-day. A has asked that we all share our own 5-a-day, so for what it’s worth, here are mine.

  1. Having my hair stroked
  2. A teenage-length phone call with an old friend
  3. Telling someone they are brilliant and amazing
  4. Exploring new stuff – ideas, places, people
  5. Reading in bed with tea, in blissful silence

If I could have a sixth it would have to be some combination (but not together) of porridge/wine/coffee…

* to illustrate what I mean, I can’t resist posting Zeldin’s chapter headings in my all-time favourite book of his, The Intimate History of Humanity:

  1. How humans have repeatedly lost hope, and how new encounters, and a new pair of spectacles, revive them
  2. How men and women have slowly learned to have interesting conversations
  3. How people searching for their roots are only beginning to look far and deep enough
  4. How some people have acquired an immunity to loneliness
  5. How new forms of love have been invented
  6. Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex
  7. How the desire that men feel for women, and for other men, has altered through the centuries
  8. How respect has become more desirable than power
  9. How those who want neither to give orders nor to receive them can become intermediaries
  10. How people have freed themselves from fear by finding new fears
  11. How curiosity has become the key to freedom
  12. Why it has become increasingly difficult to destroy one’s enemies
  13. How the art of escaping from one’s troubles has developed, but not the art of knowing where to escape to
  14. Why compassion has flowered even in stony ground
  15. Why toleration has never been enough
  16. Why even the privileged are often somewhat gloomy about life, even when they can have anything the consumer society offers, and even after sexual liberation
  17. How travellers are becoming the largest nation in the world, and how they have learned not to see only what they are looking for
  18. Why friendship between men and women has become so fragile
  19. How even astrologers resist their destiny
  20. Why people have not been able to find the time to lead several lives
  21. Why fathers and their children are changing their minds about what they want from each other
  22. Why the crisis in the family is only one stage in the evolution of generosity
  23. How people choose a way of life, and how it does not wholly satisfy them
  24. How humans become hospitable to each other
  25. What becomes possible when soul-mates meet

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radical roots of the everyday

November 26, 2008

I had a long train journey yesterday, and despite the free wifi on offer, I decided to indulge myself and read solidly all the way home. Despite definitely bordering on impossible to read (thanks cultural theory), I have been feeling quite excited by Philosophising the Everyday.

The basic argument is that far from being ‘ordinary’, the everyday is full of radical potential. John Roberts (the author) looks back at the roots of ‘the everyday’ in Marxist thinking, the writings of Russian revolutionaries such as Trotsky, the work of the early psychoanalysts and the French situationists of the 1950s and 1960s (no wonder it’s not exactly an easy read). In doing so he challenges the more recent cultural theory that makes the everyday all about consumption, routine, and the unextraordinary stuff of life.

For many of the thinkers Roberts examines, the everyday was the place where culture and politics come together. For Trotsky, it was where the revolution is defended and deepened. For Marx, it was the place where thought, action and consciousness were forged and where they interacted with the potential to lead to transformation of society.

I haven’t finished reading it yet, but two passages in particular that stand out for me:

‘The everyday is once thought of as empty, featureless, and repetitive, but is now the source of extended collective engagement, intervention, and transformation’

and this one, from Maurice Blanchot:

‘The everyday is no longer the average, statistically established existence of a given society at a given moment. It is a category, a utopia, and an idea, without which one wouldn’t know how to get at either the hidden present, or the discoverable future of manifest beings.’

The reason I like this last one is that it seems to hint at how we need to understand the everyday in order to understand how societies work, and how they might be transformed. Just as Freud saw the language his patients used, and the behaviours they exhibited as maps to their inner world, the everyday has within it the clues to the transformation of society at large.

This has all sorts of implications for how we go about understanding the everyday – through ethnographic approaches, through what Walter Benjamin called the ‘arts of propinquity’ – photography and film – as well as how we go about connecting these understandings with the forms of agency and consciousness that Marx was so interested in. More on this once I’ve finished the book…

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fables and myths and allegories

October 17, 2008

I keep on forgetting to do this when I go into a bookshop, but I think it’s high time for Aesop’s Fables to have a revival. I have found a rather sweet online site that has all of them, as far as I can tell – and usefully summarises the lesson from each of them on this page. While I’m at it I ought to buy another copy of a book of the Greek myths. I used to have a glorious picture book of them when I was little – it contained a picture that I can still remember in graphic detail, of Prometheus as he was chained to the cliff, in agony as the eagle came and ate his liver every day. The peculiar joy of a kid observing something unimaginably gory…

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in the air

September 23, 2008

when i was on holiday JW was kind enough to print out a bunch of articles he thought we’d find interesting while zooming through european countryside on german trains… one of the ones he brought along was Gladwell’s piece on how big ideas are not rare but actually often ‘in the air’ – being developed simultaneously by many different people around the world. Geniuses are not unique sources of insight, but extremely efficient at gathering and synthesising insights…

as ever, I enjoy his writing and I’ve gone back to his thoughts several times in the last month as I speak to a wide range of people about the bauhaus idea, which is uncovering a slightly startling degree of alignment, at any rate about what the problem is. but i am left with a question about whether his arguments apply more to scientific discovery than to artistic expression. as I think he says at some point in the piece – you can pool as many Salieris as you like and you still won’t get Mozart’s requiem.

i’ve got no idea how this argument might apply in my world. but i was amused the other day to meet up with someone who pulled out a book from his bag about the end of economics as we know it… just as I was putting my own book, Paul Ormerod’s The Death of Economics (brilliant, coming up soon here), back into my bag. still, it doesn’t take malcolm gladwell to tell me that there are a lot of people wondering about whether economics as a discipline is a bit screwed at the moment…