Sunday, 28 April 2019

THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE: A TALE OF THE LAKE DISTRICT by James Rebanks

I have never read a book so dripping with privilege.  I read it weeks ago and it still makes me feel cross every time I think about it.  

It started off on a bad note, in the Introduction, where he tells us: 
If we want to understand the people in the foothills of Afghanistan, we may need to try and understand the people in the foothills of England first
That 'we' made me mad - the implicit assumption that everyone reading this book has the same frame of reference and must be British.

And mentioning Afghanistan is a particularly bad move.  The book is about his life as a shepherd in the Lake District.  He struggles to make ends meet, because sheep farming in that context is fundamentally not economically feasible.  Whereas other people when they are in situations where their preferred life is now longer economically feasible (e.g., in Afghanistan because of conflict, or in Chad because the Lake is disappearing due to climate change) then those people just have to SUCK IT UP and do something else.  In his case, however, the Lake District has been heavily funded by the Government and by independent philanthropists who have chosen to fund non-urgent needs, he is able to carry on with his preferred lifestyle.  And not only does he get to carry on, but he feels free to moan about it too.  For example, he appears to disdain tourists  Here he is on his grandfather, who he typically agree with:
I don't think he understood that those people had another perception of ownership of the Lake District. He would have found that as odd as him walking into a suburban garden in London and claiming it was sort of his because he liked the flowers
Tourists don't claim to own the Lake District because they like the flowers but because IT IS THEIR TAX DOLLARS THAT ALLOW IT TO EXIST.  Even worse, here he is on such unimportant matters as the environment:
I can remember officials from ‘the Ministry’ (of Agriculture) coming to talk to him about the ‘biodiversity’ in our hay meadows and what they expected him to do to manage those meadows for the flowers and birds in return for the subsidy they paid.  After an hour and a half of observing him nodding and agreeing to everything they suggested, they departed, and I asked him what they wanted.  He said, ‘No idea  . . . The secret with them daft buggers is to say yes to everything they want, and when they’ve gone carry on regardless’
WHY IS BIODIVERSITY IN QUOTE MARKS????  So in short all of Europe gets to fund him while he does whatever he feels like.

There was also tons of showing off about how his family has been doing this for centuries, and so he is so rooted and that is so wonderful.  It reminded me of Theresa May disdaining 'citizens of nowhere' as if you are somehow special because none of your ancestors have had the gumption to get up and go anywhere.  I bet you he voted for Brexit.  I can't wait to see what happens to the Lake District when that EU funding for agriculture disappears.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

HAPPINESS BY DESIGN: FINDING PLEASURE AND PURPOSE IN EVERYDAY LIFE by Paul Dolan

I decided that in 2019 I would for the first time in my life start reading self-help.  Let's not go into why, as this is allegedly not a confessional blog.  Now this is not my first self-help book of the year, but I can't immediately find the the other one, so here we go.

Dolan begins with an analysis of how he got over his stammering problem.  Basically, he learnt not to put so much focus on it 
Stammering less has helped, of course, but paying less attention to it matters much more.  What applies to my stammer applies to all the possible causes of your happiness and to all that you might do to be happier.  Your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention.  What you attend to drives your behaviour and it determines your happiness.  Attention is the glue that holds your life together. . . The scarcity of attentional resources means that you must consider how you can make and facilitate better decisions about what to pay attention to and in what ways.  If you are not as happy as you could be, then you must be misallocating our attention.
Making a statement about 'all the possible causes of your happiness and all you might do to be happier' is pretty ballsy.  Most interesting to me was his argument that most of us don't typically know what actually makes us happy, because we have a lot of judgments about what 'should' make us happy in the future, or 'should' have made us happy in the past.  He feels you have to learn to listen to yourself day-to-day:
You can trust your own experiences more than your desires.  You might think that being the next Lady Gaga will make you happy and attempt to achieve it but then find that all your experiences along the way are miserable ones.  It’s uncertain what your experiences of fame would be like if you were to attain it and so if you aren’t experiencing pleasure and purpose along the way, you are giving up happiness now that might not lead to more happiness later.  Keep your eye on the happiness prize by tuning into the feedback from your experiences.             You can also trust your own experiences more than your projections.  Whatever you choose to do, you will only ever experience your choices, not the other options involved in the decisions, and so you won’t spend anywhere near as much time thinking about what might have been as you think you will. 
I followed his advice about keeping a diary for a couple of days that just lists your activities on those days and score from 1-10 how pleasant or purposeful they were (i.e., how happy they made you).  It was indeed quite illuminating.  I have also found this focus on attention to be quite helpful for example when in a queue; the idea that I can choose whether or not to focus on the irritating queue (rather than my podcast for example) is quite liberating.  In general though, he argues: 
We don’t really allocation unconscious attention in any meaningful way – it just gets allocated without us having to make any real decision about what is attended to.  But, as we shall see, you can consciously select the environments that your unconscious attention can roam in.  Although you can’t consciously dictate how your dug runs around a field, you can choose which park you take it to.  We are a lot like dogs in how we react to situational triggers. 

So he also gives other advice about how to prompt yourself to be happier without relying too much on your intellect or your willpower.  (e.g., setting up defaults for your behaviour; norms of people around you; etc).   I'll end with a fun /chilling story he told.  There is this fisherman with a very relaxed life.  A business man asks him why he doesn't expand his business.  What for? asks the fisherman.  So you can hire more people, says the businessman.  What for? asks the fisherman.  So you can be rich, says the businessman.  What for? he asks again.  And the reply, as you've probably already guessed is: so you can retire and fish and be relaxed.  

Monday, 15 April 2019

A SEASON IN SINJI by J.L Carr


I always like to read a book from the country I’m visiting.  The Gambia I was surprised to learn doesn’t seem to have much of a literary tradition locally so I was reduced to reading something not by a Gambian but at least in Gambia. 

It’s about a Yorkshire farm boy who is sent to the Gambia with the RAF.  He spends a long time waiting in the training camp, and when his group is finally called:
The others turned their back and pulled blankets over their heads as we’d done so many times before.  No-one wanted to know us now we were for the mincing machine.

There is heavy emphasis on the fact that no one wants to go, which I found interesting.  It makes me wonder if other books of that war I’ve read have largely been written by educated people, who got to be officers, and who while they weren’t enjoying the war were at least not enjoying it from the officers mess.

The farm boy has a good friend who is more upper class.  This is a new experience for him:
I expect there were folks like him on The Vale but they were the sort we didn’t mix with.  My grandad grouped them under the general heading of Parasites and, on Sundays, Abominations, chiefly because they came roaring in fast cars to The Lamb.
His friend is vividly, tragically evoked, and I want to go ahead and call him his ‘friend’.    Wikipedia does not suggest that JL Carr was guy, but this novel sure does. 

The friend is seeing a girl before they leave the UK, and she is ‘stolen’ from him by an officer. (The girl barely features; she's clearly a plot device to move us on to the people we actually care about, i.e., the boys).  Then this same officer ends up being sent to the Gambia with them.  Don’t ask me exactly how, but it all ends up in a crescendo of a cricket match.  The farm boy is a great believer in rules, in community, and in cricket.  Here he is in the training camp, playing the local village teams:
I’d have continued to the hundred on one or two of these occasions against the horrible bowling of the village veterans but, during the War, it was put about that it was unpatriotic if you stayed long after fifty
Things get super  unpatriotic in the Gambia.  I can’t exactly describe to you how, as much of the book was lost on me as I don’t really know the rules, but in summary: he’ll never feel the same about cricket, community, or the rules ever again. 

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole


"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

This brilliant and true observation is an epigram from a Jonathan Swift essay, and is the basis for the title of this hilarious and strange book.  (As a side point, the essay itself is called: Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting.  I love this.  Clearly he wrote this in a time when there was less competition for user attention.  It’s like the least specific, least click-baity title I ever heard).

The key character is Ignatius J Reilly, and given that the plot is patchy at best it is this character that is the whole joy and energy of the book.  Ignatius is an unemployed obese man who lives with his mother.  He is however not idle.  As he puts it:  

“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

He also has lots of advice for others:
“I suspect that beneath your offensively and vulgarly effeminate fa├žade there may be a soul of sorts. Have you read widely in Boethius?"
"Who? Oh, heavens no. I never even read newspapers."
"Then you must begin a reading program immediately so that you may understand the crises of our age," Ignatius said solemnly. "Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians, too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books."
"You're fantastic."
"I recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he's found himself. His morality is rather rigid, also. I rather respect Batman.”

He wonders through a number of different jobs, each ending more catastrophically than the one that went before, and ends eventually fleeing being confined in a mental hospital:

“Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel,' Ignatius belched, 'Do not crush me beneath your spokes. Raise me on high, divinity.” 

He has a lot to say on belching, and particularly about his pyloric valve, about which both you probably, and the other characters in the novel (definitely) do not want to be informed.

I found this wonderful book in the Gambia, at one of those free book exchanges they sometimes have in hotels (Note to self: 4 books not enough for 7 day holiday).  I was shocked to find something so not-rubbish, right there between a thriller in Norwegian and some chicklit in a pink cover.  I loved it.  I was sad to learn it almost did not get published.  The author had it rejected multiple times, (Simon & Schuster were particularly way off the mark, finding it “pointless”), and eventually killed himself at just 31.  It was his mother who doggedly pushed for publication, taking around an old mimeographed draft, till she eventually got the attention of Walker Percy, who realized how wonderful it was.  It went on to win the Pulitzer, which must be cold comfort for his mum.