On Life, The Universe and Everything

No, I’m not talking about the Douglas Adams book. But I did recently read (listen to) the first Hitch-hiker’s Guide book and I really enjoyed it. Today, I’m writing about the comfort I’ve been finding recently in ideas about the universe.

When I’m feeling anxious, I’ve found that looking at the night sky helps me. (Though only if I’m feeling anxious at night, obvs.) The stars, planets and other galaxies make me feel so small, so insignificant. And this, for me, is a beautiful thing – my worries are meaningless and I should just try to enjoy life. I don’t need to be wracked with so much worry about Brexit or America because, well, human life is so fleeting. Which makes me happy; we should just try to be as kind as possible and stop worrying.

So yes, I like thinking about the universe. Recently, I think it is a response to everything that’s happening. I’ve been listening to a lot of The Infinite Monkey Cage (totally binge-listening) and I’ve just finished Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. It’s quite difficult for me, as somebody with a humanities / literature background, to understand so much physics. But if physics had been presented to me in such a way at school, I might have been more interested in it. So yes, perhaps part of the attraction for my current physics obsession is that it is, especially in comparison to literature, divorced from emotion: so much of what is happening in the world right now is reactionary and people thinking that they are right. But, in learning about the universe, I’ve found that scientists are far more likely to admit when they don’t know something. They’re mainly interested in being correct, not adamant about a particular way of seeing things. For somebody who has a background in forming an argument and sticking to it and, for somebody who is a perfectionist, this is oddly calming. And I think that the idea that we are all made of stardust is pretty yogic, but I probably shouldn’t say that.

I always liked looking up at the stars when I was a child. I had a book called I-Spy in the Night Sky and I had to tick off constellations as I saw them. The other evening, as I was walking home from work, and I saw a bright star in the sky. I took out my phone because I’ve now got an app that can identify stars etc. And it turned out that this bright shining object was Venus. I could see another planet with my naked eyes (okay, with my glasses). ‘Isn’t this amazing?!’ I wanted to shout to the other people desperate to get home. But I didn’t. Because human beings are weird. But it was amazing. It’s amazing to get a new perspective on life, to see things a different way. It’s amazing to learn about people working together, across nations, to further knowledge. Especially in 2017.

Ricocheting In Between

‘I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between,’ wrote Sylvia Plath in her journal. I am a person prone to depression and The Bell Jar is one of my favourite novels and ‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’ is one of my favourite short stories. But I wish this quote didn’t stick in my head.

I cannot write – or read – if I know I’ll be interrupted. I go deep into books and, shamefully, if I am big into writing something and my husband is home with me and he bounds into the room wanting to share something funny he’s seen with me, I feel annoyed. I wish I didn’t. I’ve been proud to wear the introvert flag ever since I heard the word. I always knew I was quiet. I liked getting on with my own creative endeavours. This is why the idea of “having it all” never appealed to me: what is the point of “having it all” if you have no alone time? No time to decompress, to read, to think without people badgering you? How could you get to the deep place to write and read fiction if you can hear other people being annoying? I had a lot of questions about why people would want a high-powered job, a husband, children and a full social life. What kind of life was that?!

And then life gets in and, rather than having the amazing realisation that I am an introvert, like most people, I had the realisation that I am, in fact, not as much of an introvert as I thought I was. I need time alone like other people need sleep, but I need to be up and around and seeing people and hearing things. I think the problem with Plath’s thinking in the above quote is that it’s too confined: she puts being outgoing with being happy – the key thing for a woman to be in the 1950s – and being introspective – the thing that lets her write – as sad. For Plath, her sadness was perhaps a little self-fulfilling. She was taught that motherhood would bring her happiness and that it, if it didn’t, it was a problem within her. Perhaps she was made to think that her introspective writings were a fault, a reason for her mental health problems.

Maybe we should stop putting ourselves in boxes and think of ourselves not as wholly one thing or another. We’re complex creatures. Just because some of us deeply need solitude, for instance, it doesn’t mean that is all we need. We need lots of things. We can’t get everything we need from one thing, or one way of being. Maybe ‘ricocheting in between’ isn’t the route to madness, but a fuller life.

FFS, 2016

If you’re the sort of person who values intelligence and kindness, then this has not been your year. Just when you think that we have got to our lowest point, as a species, then a man who has befriended racists beats a qualified woman to a job he is totally unqualified for. Hill-dog has been vilified for deleting emails whilst Trump can say whatever the f*ck he wants and that’s totally fine. Lesson learned. If you aren’t a white man and you want a good job, then you better be perfect.

FFS, it is Brexit all over again. All sane argument has been removed and replaced by slogans, scaremongering and tedious sound-bites. ‘We don’t trust experts anymore’ / ‘Lock her up’. And people fall for it! There are some who want to blame this on the establishment but it is entirely the fault of the electorate. We get what we deserve. If we don’t demand more from our politicians, then this is what we get. To blame the establishment is essentially saying that people aren’t capable of making their own decisions, which they are. But they are seem to be coming from a place of fear. I have yet to hear a convincing actual argument for Brexit and have yet to hear the beginnings of an argument for making Trump the most powerful man in the world.

It’s funny, because ‘millenials’ (and we seem to be totally going with that word now) are often accused of being selfish. But I can’t think of anything more selfish than voting, as an older person, to make life slightly more like you remember when you were younger. By disregarding people who have fought in recent years for their right to marry each other, or study in a different country, or have free movement, people who voted out of fear of ‘other’ people are ruining their childrens’ and grandchildrens’ lives with their own tedious, life-long prejudices. Of course, I’m not suggesting that older people all voted this way. A lot of young people did and it’s bizarre.

I am conflating the two things here but they are, in many ways, the same thing. The ignoring of a whole sector of people (which started with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair copied it). That sort of politics (David Cameron, Hilary Clinton) looks old-fashioned, staid. And of course it does; professionalism and thoughtfulness does look old-hat next to chants of ‘lock her up’ or a childish insistence that we leave the European Union yesterday, mean judges.  So, congratulations, knee-jerk-reactionists of the world! What a worthy revolution you have fought.

P.S. – In British slang, Trump means fart.

On Sex & Death

Sex and death – OMG – are there any other subjects we think about more and talk about less? Faber have just released a new short story collection called, somewhat transparently, Sex & Death. Guess they don’t want to leave anything to the imagination, then…

Short stories are great for examining small moments of a character’s life – not entire, messy lives, but the tiny bits. So they are perfect for looking at sex and / or death. But, of course, they are written by literary writers who can be a bit coy. So, some of the stories seem to have little to do with sex or death. I suppose that you could say that some are about the death of a relationship, or whatever, but I do like a bit of wildness in my short stories.

One of the stand-out stories for me is ‘Evie’ by Sarah Hall, one of the book’s editors. It is memorable because it is so difficult (hard, lol) to write well about sex. Overly descriptive prose takes you out of the story because people don’t think like that when they’re having sex. It doesn’t seem realistic. In ‘Evie’, Hall’s protagonist becomes obsessed with sex, to the bemusement of her initially rather uninterested husband. He does not seem to care about her, but changes how he thinks about her now she has started acting differently. I think the fact that the sex scenes were memorable but I can’t remember any “sexy” description shows that she has achieved something.

Another stand-out story was by the book’s other editor, Peter Hobbs. ‘In The Reactor’ sees a man with a job in a fake reactor meet his new workmate. They have to spend all of their time in this fake reactor – the government have said that the power station is real but it isn’t, it’s all show. There is a lot of mystery in this story, which I enjoyed. Hobbs doesn’t tell us everything. The protagonist is there because he is paying off a debt to a big company, so I suppose it could be set in the near future. The ending also gives the reader a lot to mull over, which I enjoyed. I liked these two stories because they combined aspects of sex and death. These stories felt primal in a way that some of the others didn’t.

And, of course, I loved Ali Smith’s story which closed the collection. ‘Metaphysical’ isn’t really a story as such, but two separate, almost flash, pieces that don’t seem to be linked. In one, a man with dementia confusedly leaves his hospital and goes for a nighttime walk. When he rambles to people the next day, they naturally don’t believe him. What if he really did do what he said? The more I think about it, the more I love this story.

There were more I liked but I don’t have time to go into them here. Sex and Death has stories from a lot of great short story writers and they address the themes we are, often unwittingly, obsessed with.

A (Married) Skeptic Visits a Wedding Fair

To be clear, I’m not a skeptic of romance or love; it would be very difficult to be one of those, seeing as I did get married less than two months ago. But ours was a low-key wedding and I was happy with that. To be honest, I would have been happier with less. But, anyways, my sister-in-law to-be is marrying my brother in the spring, and she wanted to go to a wedding fair. She said there would be alcohol. Sounds good, I said.

When we loosely planned our wedding this year, I avoided things like this. They surely add stress to an already stressful time and, honestly, I was sure that I wouldn’t fit in. I didn’t think I was girly enough. I never dreamed of being married, but I did dream of finding somebody to spend my life with. I found the hen night type things forced and slightly uncomfortable. The bride is supposed to be blissfully happy and all eyes are on her. The groom is allowed to turn up, happy but nervous. The bride has to perform. I can’t perform what I can’t feel, so I couldn’t pretend that I’d be excited (or even slightly bothered) about flower arrangements or veils (which I am sure represent hymens). We only decided to get married on a whim and it was lovely but my favourite bit, to be honest, was sharing a pizza together, still nicely drunk, at the end of the day.

So this annual wedding fair was interesting. I went in feeling a bit like a social anthropologist but was surprised at how much I enjoyed myself. I’d been given a few of these bridal magazines before my own wedding and stared in disbelief at the 18-month checklist of wedding planning things to do. And, on this side, the day didn’t disappoint. There were representatives from country houses and the Sri Lankan tourist board and wedding insurance companies. Teeth whitening stalls and a wedding band who kept playing ‘She Loves You’, which I wooed along with like I was an actual person in the 60s (not quite).

We made jewellery. I made a brooch with a smiley face on it because why not? I also made a pearl-like bracelet. I realise that I haven’t worn either of these items since, but it was nice to be creative in the midst of all of the people selling stuff at you. I tried some okay prosecco and some nice cava and wondered if the man handing out the drinks was judging me for how many shot glasses I tried.

The ‘dress-yourself’ tips were to be expected and something I was in two minds about. I am becoming less bothered with what I “should” be doing and “should” be wearing. Why should we always try to look young? Though this was towards the end of the day when I was feeling sleepy and grumpy and I show this by making sarcastic comments about things people are paid to give advice about.

And, of course, in our goodie bags were low-cal tasty food because who wants to be a fat bride?! I was actually at my heaviest when I got married because my husband is a good cook and I wasn’t moving around much. There is a lot of importance based on how you look as a bride. You are supposed to be you at your most perfect, your most glowing. Clothes and make up are fun, and I enjoyed doing my own make-up on the day, but I think that this is a throwback to the days when this was the actual highlight of a woman’s life: it was all, essentially, cleaning from that day on; endless cleaning and worrying about your husband leaving for a less domesticated model.

I did have some problems with weddings and obviously still do but, oddly for an atheist like me, the person with a stall speaking the most sense was a lady from the Church of England. She said that a lot of people focus on the wedding and not the aftermath, the actual marriage-ness of marriage. She gave my sister-in-law a candle and seemed authentic when she wished her well.

So, I actually had a fairly nice time at this Wedding Fair. I’m glad I didn’t go before my own wedding because it would have stressed me out. The problem with this type of thing is you can see the myriad ways your wedding day could be and, hopefully, this doesn’t lead to disappointment. It was sweet to see people looking so nice in the dresses they tried on; they looked self-conscious with all the people looking and I would be too, but they looked lovely and authentically happy, not putting on a show, as I felt at my own dress fittings. And I thought it would all be quite bad-natured, competitive and about putting women down for their weight or how they look or if they aren’t being perfect enough, which is something I’m increasingly aware of. But I had quite a nice day, all told.

Pottermore, More, More

Has Harry Potter ever really gone away? We’ve had three mini-books, a play-script, an illustrated Chamber of Secrets, a Fantastic Beasts movie and a headline-making What’s Your Patronus? quiz in this year alone. Not to mention that I have fallen hard for the Witch Please podcast and I have recently started listening to the audiobooks read by Stephen Fry. As I was thinking about this post I received an email from Pottermore advertising new writing about the wizarding world in North America. In short, I feel far more Harry Potter-ed that I did when I was a teenager waiting desperately for the next book to come out.

Perhaps all of this childhood nostalgia has come at the right time. People who grew up with these books, us “millennials”, have less money and are far more likely to rent or still live with our parents than previous generations. We don’t have savings. This austerity has little to do with having no money, and everything to do with a bunch of uninterested rich people thinking that, because they feel that they worked hard, financial success is as easily achievable for everybody else. We don’t have money and a lot of us feel powerless, particularly at the moment.

I read a study that said people who grew up reading Harry Potter were more inclusive and open-minded than people who hadn’t read Harry Potter. Maybe we’re re-reading and re-living because at the moment it seems, to conflate fact and fiction, like the dark wizards are winning. The ones obsessed with what is essentially blood purity have been given power, or at least a green light to act in certain ways. People are being told to blame their troubles on the “Other” (why, yes, I do have an English degree). In Britain, it is proposed that businesses will have to tell the government all of their foreign nationals who work for them. They are, essentially, being asked to hand over their wands.

It is telling that, with Voldemort and his cronies, Rowling made a lot of parallels, not only with the obvious fascist governments, but with Thatcher’s government. The divisiveness now is unnerving and the future looks bleak. We have degrees but no mortgages (though, that was never a real goal for me). We have been to university and we understand our own systematic lack of power. We have understanding and we have Twitter and we have the stories we used to read.

So give me children’s stories about magic and power because there is none of that for people my age (and, P. S. – it isn’t because we don’t work hard). Give me Harry and his friends who are shocked by the word “mudblood” and who fight against prejudice and stupidity. This isn’t only nostalgia for a simpler time, it’s nostalgia for hope and tolerance.

(Also, they’re good stories).

A Name Change

I got married and changed my name. To a lot of people, this is stressful enough and, to be fair, there are a lot of people I still need to inform. And I got married six weeks ago. (:p) But this takes on a whole identity crisis status when you’ve been trying to make a name for yourself as a writer. Now, admittedly, I haven’t dented the writing world yet, but I have published some things, mostly online, under my old name. No-one calls me Katharine, unless they’re loved ones who are annoyed with me, so Katharine Lunn always felt a bit removed from me, even though it is my actual name.

My brand new husband and I walk past a certain house a lot, and have made friends with some very friendly cats who live there. Being us, we have given the cats names. We found out the other day what their owners actually call them and the disconnect is strange. One we gave a man’s name to is actually called a woman’s name. It’s all very confusing (the cat in question has a lot of fur…). But it made me think about how different names change the way you see the world.

So, I suppose it’s like that. I don’t want to explain about maiden and married names every time I submit a piece of writing, and my name isn’t so far removed from my former name. But I prefer this name more. It’s more me. And that cat’s name will never by Daisy… So welcome to my new blog! I’m intending to post once a week about various things that take my fancy.