Book review: Capital by John Lanchester

I read Capital by John Lanchester whilst away on holiday two weeks ago.

It was slightly ironic to be reading about London while lying in bed in a cottage in one of the most remote parts of the UK, but because of the smartphone blackout I was not tempted to check what was happening back home via text or social media, I really got into a book for the first time in ages.

I got into it because it’s very well written and thus easy to read. Lanchester has a simple writing style and the chapters are short. But the ambition of the novel was far from simple – it’s a state of the nation, a picture of the Way We Live Now… At times I was thrilled by how cleverly the characters, who seem different on the surface, are linked – initially it seems that the only thing they have in common is the London street they inhabit, but there are far deeper connections that the author reveals over time, which means that you do think ‘just another chapter…’ until you have to put the book down and sleep.

It’s not perfect. It’s not as clever or powerful as some of the tomes it perhaps aims to emulate, for example Trollope.  At first the characters feel like stereotypes, not very deep, but perhaps this is because they are so familiar. If you’ve lived in any major city in Britain you recognise them instantly. Luckily Lanchester gets right under their skin, and many of them turn from stereotypes into more complex characters, who are flawed but for some reason you will them to prevail as the story unfolds.

About 3-quarters of the way into the book I was thoroughly excited and I thought the ending was going to be amazing, but sadly it made me feel a bit disappointed, it was rather pedestrian compared to the thrilling complexities that the author had woven into the middle of the story. Without wanting to give anything away (because I do recommend this book, for a rattling good read) it felt like a bit of a compromise, the mystery which is the central theme of the book turns out to be more Murder She Wrote than Miss Marple.

Having said that, I really enjoyed this. And writing this review. There’s also a good review in the Guardian, which has interesting things to say about John Lanchester’s ability to get under the skin of his myriad characters and be omniscient.

Next up: Predatory Thinking by Dave Trott

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The Great Smartphone Blackout Challenge – update 1

Hello!

I know, I have failed to put up a review of a book but I have a good excuse (I hope). I had norovirus and I had loads of work and then I went on holiday for a week – get this – somewhere where THERE WAS ABSOLUTELY NO PHONE SIGNAL WHATSOEVER.

I lived without my iPhone for a week and lived to tell the tale.

I had a great time actually. I read (I have nearly finished two books so expect a review stat) and rode my bike, played with my baby, talked to my partner, and thought a lot. I thought with a better vocabulary than I have in ages, thought about more interesting things than I have of late, and felt refreshed.

I can’t say I felt more relaxed than usual because I was on holiday, so there was more than one factor contributing to how I felt. I’d need to do the experiment properly at home.

Since I have been home I have definitely used my social media apps less than I used to and I am keen to get back to reading my book.

So long for now.

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The Great Smartphone Blackout Challenge

I’m going to try challenging myself again. The last time I signed up for a challenge it was to do the Rapha Women’s 100 but due to circumstances beyond my control (weather and sickness) I wasn’t really up to it. I’m up to it now though – I’ve had a great time cycling for the last couple of months. I’m going to do a big ride before the summer is over – thinking of doing Arran in September, and I am going to cycle every day in Ardnamurchan when I am on holiday – but I’m going to give myself another challenge.

The new challenge is this. I’ve been tidying up recently and I came across a bunch of old diaries and notebooks and while it was funny and a bit sad reading about things from the past it also made me think of how much I don’t read, think or write any more.

At work I do loads of the above and it’s a relief to know that my brain hasn’t completely atrophied, but I don’t do it for myself anymore. I could say that motherhood is to blame, but it’s not. It’s a much older problem than that. Since I abandoned my academic ambitions about 5 years ago I gradually stopped reading as much. When I was doing my masters and PhD I read all the time, and not just the books I needed to read as part of my research. I read at least one novel a week, I read the London Review of Books, the Guardian, the New Statesman, The New Yorker, heck, I also read Grazia religiously.

Now I hardly read anything.

Actually, I probably read as many words but it’s all soundbites on my phone. I am a compulsive smartphone user.

There. I said it. I’ve come out. I’ve come clean.

I have to see what everyone is saying on Twitter. I have to see what pints people are drinking on Instagram. I have to know what time people’s kids went to bed on Facebook. I have to know what the latest Mumsnet controversy is.

Social media and smartphones are amazing. In a sense, the fact that I love them so much is great because I know how they work inside out and it makes me quite good at my job and, (tenuously) therefore, social media and smartphones pay my mortgage.

Far from wanting to bite the hand that feeds me, I don’t want to ditch my phone and my online friends completely. But I am thinking of imposing some rules on myself to try and free my brain before it’s too late. But I am afraid I am pretty bad at the whole willpower thing.

I was thinking I needed to actually go back to university and do a part time MA just so the discipline was there to get things done but a quick review of suitable courses reveals that in the 8 years since I did my MA fees have gone crazy mad! It’s somewhere between 5 and 12 grand to do a master’s these days. Mental!

So I need some willpower. Here are my rules.

  1. I am allowed on the social media apps between waking up and 8.30 in the morning, and again at night between 6.30 and 8pm.
  2. The only use outside of these times permitted is to share something relevant to work or to use Strava when I am out cycling. Or to use Instagram where appropriate. Or if I am waiting for something and I don’t have anything better to do/more interesting to read. But in that case I should read a newspaper app or articles I have favourited but not read on Twitter.
  3. The other rule is that I have to read a book at least every fortnight and write about it here.

That’s a scary rule. But it’s cheaper than doing another master’s.

So, you heard it here first. If I haven’t posted a book review here by Saturday 24 August then you have the right to have a go at me.

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What William Morris teaches us about creativity

OK, so I have quoted William Morris before.

He was ahead of his time – and behind the times – in lots of ways. A lot like the rest of us.

But I was recalling the ‘useful and beautiful’ quote the other day and was looking at other things he said and came across a few things we should all bear in mind as we go about our work. Apologies for these quotes being out of context and for using them for my own ends…

Let’s start with ‘useful and beautiful’.

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

In my previous article, I thought this was a good rule of thumb for content strategy. It’s very powerful. Keeping things useful and beautiful is a simple approach. It means you have to understand what’s useful and beautiful to your target audience, which takes a bit of work. Simple is often quite difficult to achieve.

“A good way to rid one’s self of a sense of discomfort is to do something. That uneasy, dissatisfied feeling is actual force vibrating out of order; it may be turned to practical account by giving proper expression to its creative character.”

We are all creative people. Our creativity is not exactly stifled but definitely stalled by the distractions of life. For me, I will play with my iPhone or watch rotten TV and then feel sorry for myself when I could have been doing something. Do something and feel better. Protestant work ethic perhaps, perhaps it’s just human nature to need to make things, express ourselves.

“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.”

Let’s make stuff and be remembered!

“The true secret of happiness lies in the taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”

This is a must for all planners/strategists as well as creative people in general. It’s people watching, reading lots of different genres, watching films and popular TV shows… Exploring cereal packets and inspecting shopping malls.  Life is rich. You don’t have to go far to be an explorer and learn from your travels.

“Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.”

This is a sticky one. I work in a very modern industry. But I don’t like lots of things about it. I’m keen to change it. We all have the power in us to make things better, turn that hate into positive change.

“Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers.”

This is so true. ‘Why are we doing this?’ ‘Why will this solve the business problem?’ are the two most empowering questions creative and strategists can ask. So ask them, people!

“It is the childlike part of us that produces works of the imagination. When we were children time passed so slow with us that we seemed to have time for everything.”

The creative adult is the child who survived, as someone else paraphrased later. (i.e. me.) I miss those days which lasted forever and I did drawings and wrote stories and made up interminable structureless plays. But time is just the same. I might have more things to do than I did then but I can still make time.  We all can.

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Things I need to stop doing before I go back to work

This time next week I’ll have finished my first day back at work. Admittedly I am only going in for one day next week and I probably won’t have the chance to do any proper work, but the week after it’s going to be For Real.

I’m feeling quite excited about it because I will get to talk to adults all day about lots of different things, make some important decisions (more important than, say, what to have for dinner), eat my lunch without making YUM YUM YUM noises, and go to the toilet with the door closed.

However, I am quite scared about going back and the reason is that over the last 8 and a half months I have developed some undesirable habits as a result of spending all day every day with a baby.

I am going to spend the next 6 days going cold turkey on the following so that my employers can expect great things from me:

Bursting into song

Unfortunately I’ve only just realised I’ve been doing this. God knows how long I’ve been doing it for, and with whom. They were obviously too polite to mention it.

I realised I was doing this on Sunday when I was walking down the road in Edinburgh with my partner and I said to him, ‘I’ve got La Cucaracha stuck in my head,’ and I proceeded to sing it in a Vic Reeves club singer stylee. I got from the billboards at Haymarket to the corner of Grove Street before I realised what I was doing.

A variation of this is when someone mentions something like, ‘It’s raining,’ I will sing a song about rain. Usually in a silly voice.

I fear that my daughter thinks this is the correct way to express oneself. I hope I haven’t done her any permanent damage.

Overindulgence in social media

Like I said in a previous post, for the stay at home mom, an iPhone is your direct connection to the outside world. You socialise with other mums on Facebook, you post desperate questions on forums in the middle of the night, you watch Twitter like a hawk to see if anything interesting is happening. Your iPhone gives you a sense that you are part of the rest of the world.  Whenever your baby is asleep, or happily playing, you sneak a peek at what’s happening out there.

When big news breaks out, like Margaret Thatcher dying, you wish you had colleagues to say, wow, Margaret Thatcher has died, to. Instead, you Tweet people, comment on their Facebook and blog posts, and pretend you are at your desk at work talking to human people.

Except you’re not really…  Nothing beats being out there in the world. I’ve got new insight into the importance of social media and the things that can be done with them – but I’m hoping that my reliance on them will decrease once I am out there again.

Incapacity to make conversation

‘So what have you been up to?’ is a question I don’t really like because I don’t really have a good answer. It’s not that I haven’t been doing anything, it’s just that looking after a baby is quite a subtle experience. It’s a bit like one of those long running northern European serials where nothing much seems to happen and then boom! the whole point they’re trying to make hits you and you feel very gratified for all the hours you’ve spent reading the subtitles and admiring their sweaters.

So when people ask me what I’ve been up to, I usually say, ‘Not much. Lucy can do this now, Lucy can nearly do that. We went to the park yesterday.’ I simultaneously feel triumphant and a bit foolish.

I’ve been getting used to in-depth mum conversations about sleep and poo and weaning and so on. And I can talk about what the big thing on Twitter is today. I can sometimes remember the details from a Guardian article I read on my phone. But the idea of making conversation with grown-ups not in a baby group setting slightly scares me… I will try and get some practice in between now and next week.

If you do happen to find yourself talking with me, don’t ask me what I’ve been up to, ask me what I’m going to do.

Goldfish-like attention span

Part of the conversation problem is the fact that when you are with a baby it’s hard to concentrate for very long on anything.  I had all sorts of plans for this blog while I was on maternity leave and you know how many articles I’ve written here since I’ve been off…

However, rather than the blog, the main casualty of this attention problem seems to be the threads of conversations. I have been in many chats where two or three hours later I will remember the thing that my friend and I started talking about before we were distracted by something and I want to phone them up and answer their question,  ask them what happened next, or get the number of their really great plumber or whatever it was we were talking about. It is quite frustrating.

Not finishing sentences

I don’t even have to be distracted by the baby to forget what

Not finishing anything

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Training for the Rapha Women’s 100 (1)

So, as I said the other day, I’m planning to cycle 100K on July 7th. I’m going to have to be fit enough to do that so I’m following a diet and fitness regime that so far has involved no cycling, and eating rather a lot of chocolate.

However, the weather has been frightful so I’ve not actually been able to go out for fear of falling off my bike. It’s very slippy out there.

(That’s my excuse at least. I did break my elbow falling off my bike a couple of years ago and I’d hate that to happen again.)

Instead, I am getting fit, strong and flexible by doing gyrotonics and also Bikram yoga.

Gyro is an exercise system that is taught one to one and involves lots of stretching and stuff attached to pulleys and weights. It’s based on ballet, pilates, swimming and yoga. I’m finding it really good for my alignment (getting rid of a dodgy hip in the process) and also building core strength.

Bikram yoga is something I did as a bit of a dare but have got hooked on. It’s a series of 26 yoga postures, done twice each. In a room heated to 40-odd degrees. It sounds mental and it isn’t the easiest class to get through but I strongly recommend it.

A Bikram studio opened near me and recently did a 20 days for 20 quid offer. My friend (who had a baby on the same day as me) persuaded me to go. Now we’re both addicted, we’ve been going for about 6 weeks and are about a stone lighter each and bendy as fuck.

I also make myself cycle over University Avenue when I go to Bikram. It’s a fairly steep hill (albeit short) so I do feel like I’m getting a bit of practice for my 100K route (tbc).

So whilst I’m not actually cycling much I do feel like I’m doing a bit of work to prepare myself for the challenge. I’m hoping April will be more clement weather-wise and I’ll get out on The Bike of Discovery at least once a week for some proper rides.

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Rapha Women’s 100

I’ve decided to do the Rapha Women’s 100 on the 7th of July.

It’s a virtual event. There’s no ‘thing’ to register for, nowhere set that you have to go. The only organised aspect of it is knowing that other women will be riding 100 kilometres at the same time as you.

It’s therefore a social event. Participants are encouraged to tweet, Instagram, Facebook and blog about what they are doing on the day and during the run up to it.

I’ll do it because I would be anyway. I’m slowly getting my fitness and my body back after having a baby and I reckon I will be fit enough by the beginning of July. It’s good to have a target to train for.

It’s an interesting one because I think it will be quite popular despite it being something people just have to do themselves. There are a few sponsored participants who are blogging about it but on the whole it’s down to us to talk about it and feel part of it.

I like it because I wonder whether there could be many other ‘events’ like this that could work quite so well. Would it work as well, for example, if July 7th was ‘Go for a Run Day?’ Would runners run if it wasn’t a race? If the only challenge was the day and the distance? And choosing the route?

I like it that there’s no registration pack. No race number. No sponsorship money to collect, no Justgiving page. Just me, my bike and some friends. And the knowledge that out there, somewhere, other women will be doing the same.

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