Archive for category Personal
OK, I take anyone else doing this kind of list (looking at you, Guardian) as a personal challenge. So I have felt compelled to put together my own selection. Now, seriously, I’m not claiming these are ‘the best books of the century’, that would be silly.
Rather, these are the books from the last almost 20 years that have had a real impact on me, that have stayed with me after I’ve read them, that have offered the most enjoyment, enlightenment, hope – whatever their genre.
When we get to the end of this century (if we do…) the list will look very different. And of course you will disagree with me, and be horrified by both omissions and inclusions, and that’s fine!
I went through the Guardian list and added some of their titles to my long list, but then deleted them again (I’ve annotated the titles below which do still overlap), because I realised that whilst they were good, I’d not given them a thought since reading them, I’d not gone out and bought all of the author’s other books, or prioritised a re-read. All of the titles below have led me somewhere, if you like.
I’ve only allowed myself one per author otherwise certain favourite authors would have squeezed lots of other excellent books out. I’ve listed them in alphabetical order of author’s surname, rather than ranking them because I can’t be doing with that, but I’ve picked out my top three, books I’ve already read several times and will undoubtedly read again, and that I’ve insisted everyone I know reads.
Here we go…
Cath’s top books of the 21st century so far (with all the above caveats and disclaimers):
Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho is my favourite so far of the brilliant and bonkers Rivers of London series. They’re a mad mash-up of fantasy and crime and are a delight. This one has a jazz theme which is probably why it has a particular place in my heart.
Viv Albertine – Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. This memoir from a key member of The Slits is just so fascinating, so funny, and at times so desperately sad, that even if I hadn’t been a fan of the band I’d have loved every minute of it.
Naomi Alderman’s The Power is brilliant sci-fi, powerful and chilling. Its ‘book within a book’ structure adds a whole other level, and the writing is superb. The Guardian called it ‘an instant classic of speculative fiction’ and noted how devastatingly it inverts the status quo. Put very simply, what if men were afraid of us?
Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Kwame Anthony Appiah is a Ghanaian-British philosopher, based at New York University, himself the epitome of cosmopolitanism. (His father was a leading dissident under the Nkrumah regime in Ghana, and his mother the daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps.) Appiah has written elsewhere about political and moral theory, and the philosophy of language and mind. This is a timely, accessible, and vitally important work.
Levels of Life. I haven’t loved the other things I’ve read by Julian Barnes, I’ve felt kind of detached from them. This one did get to me. The book’s three sections seem entirely separate but somehow they’re not, they’re connected in a marvellously subtle and moving way. And the third part will break the heart of anyone who has one to break. (Guardian top 100 title)
Robicheaux: You Know my Name is the 21st in James Lee Burke‘s series of novels featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux. It’s so dark, haunted and haunting. The Louisiana landscape and culture is a vital part of the narrative, and the eponymous hero is flawed and fascinating, a good man wrestling with inner demons as well as the bad guys.
Carmen Callil’s Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland is a gripping bit of WWII French history, with a very personal source. Callil (one of the founders of Virago Books) uncovered the story of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix after the death (possibly by suicide) of her therapist, his daughter. Darquier was one of the most repellent figures in Vichy France, a vicious and entirely unrepentant anti-Semite, a fraud and a crook. It’s not just his story, it’s the story of how the Nazi occupation enabled and legitimised the vilest views and the vilest people and its importance goes way beyond the family history it describes.
Cruel Acts is the latest in Jane Casey‘s splendid series featuring detective Maeve Kerrigan. Maeve is an engaging protagonist, whose internal battles (about status and authority, complex personal and professional relationships), both enrich and complicate the police procedural plotting. These books get stronger and twistier and more compelling as the series continues.
Ted Chiang’s collection Stories of Your Life and Others includes the story that inspired the film Arrival, one of my top films of all time, an extraordinarily beautiful bit of sci-fi. These stories are marvellous in their own right – proper philosophical, speculative fiction, with a particular interest (as in Arrival) in language. They’re diverse in style and approach, and whilst ‘Story of Your Life’ stands out, several others challenge it, for the strength of the concept, the beauty of the writing, and the emotional impact. (Guardian top 100 title)
Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters Club appealed to me straight away. A ’70s adolescence, and the musical references (Hatfield & the North’s album, which gave the novel its title, plus the protagonists’ prog rock aspirations) gave it immense charm for anyone who shared those reference points. Apparently, it contains a sentence of 13,955 words, which I don’t remember even noticing when I read it, though thinking back I can guess when it occurs. It’s not just funny and charming, it skewers the politics of the time, and confronts real, brutal tragedy.
I’ve been reading Stevie Davies since the ’80s, and Awakening is one of my favourites. It’s set in Wiltshire in 1860, just after the publication of The Origin of Species, and it’s about science, radicalism and the stirrings of feminist rebellion. It’s very moving, but also acerbically funny in its portrayal of the excesses of evangelical zeal – but the focus of the novel is on ‘sisterly love, jealousy and betrayal’.
Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes is family memoir and art history intertwined. I was lucky enough to hear de Waal talking about this story when he came to Sheffield University to present a gift of a piece of art called ‘fetched home’, the title taken from a poem by Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan on the subject of homelessness and displacement. (Guardian top 100 title)
When I read Emma Donoghue’s Room I could not have imagined it as a film. Of course, it was filmed, and brilliantly, with Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, and it’s hard now to disentangle the book from that film. But I do remember the experience of reading it, of how it did my head in, gradually understanding the world that’s being described, and its terrifying implications.
Fires in the Dark is not what one might expect from Louise Doughty, if one came to it from Apple Tree Yard. This one takes us into the dark heart of the Romani genocide, also known as the Porajmos (the Devouring). Doughty draws the reader into the rich and complex culture of the Coppersmith Roma in 1920s Bohemia, into the lives of one family and the kumpania to which they belong, and then shows how this world was targeted for destruction.
Helen Dunmore’s The Siege. I could have picked several other Dunmores. I nearly picked her last published novel, Birdcage Walk, but I honestly can’t untangle my response to that from my sense of loss at her death. The Siege stands outside of that, on its own. Its setting is the siege of Leningrad, and it makes that experience viscerally real and moving. (Guardian top 100 title)
Interpreters was Sue Eckstein‘s second novel, and sadly her last – she died of cancer in 2013. It takes us across several generations of a family divided by the past, by what’s hidden and what’s remembered. It’s about memory and loss, and the continued resonance of the last world war. This is subtly done, and has all the more impact for that.
Reni Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m no longer Talking to White People about Race is not a comfortable read for one of the aforesaid white people. Fair enough, I don’t expect to be comforted. What I want, and what Eddo-Lodge offers, is insight that I can translate into awareness that can inform what I say and do. Essential reading.
Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s debut novel, could have been designed to interest me. Jazz, and Nazi occupied France… It’s an extraordinary story, and problematic in some ways, as the Guardian review points out (it’s a very spoilery review, so avoid if you haven’t read the book and want to encounter it unspoiled!). But superbly written, and fascinating.
In The Bitter Taste of Victory Lara Feigel takes us into the ruined cities of Germany after the end of WW2, seen through the eyes of the journalists and writers (Hemingway, Gellhorn, Orwell, West and others) who went out there to try to figure out how to address the challenges of peace, and the complexities of guilt and culpability at all levels. A lot of the accounts Feigel presents were new to me, and truly compelling (and relevant to my research).
Will Ferguson’s 419 is a thriller, about the kind of scam where a Nigerian prince or such like emails you to say you can have millions if you just let them have your bank details, or send them a bit of cash up front to arrange the deal. It starts with a suicide, an elderly man in Canada. Then the action moves to Lagos and to the Nigerian Delta, and it’s all so much more complex than we might have imagined, as the scam finds its context in the messy politics of Nigeria. Riveting.
I imagine everyone by now has read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and/or seen the film. Quite right too. When you first read it, that twist takes you by surprise, but when you re-read you’re looking to see just how the writer sets that up so cleverly (rather like when you re-watch The Sixth Sense). It’s an excellent thriller, and it’s not Flynn’s fault if every publisher has jumped on the bandwagon and published endless sub-Gone Girls! (Guardian top 100 title)
In The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest, Aminatta Forna takes us to Sierra Leone, where she spent part of her childhood, and where her father was imprisoned and executed for treason. It’s both memoir and investigation, a search for truth, and it was a quest that changed her irrevocably.
Broken Harbour is the fourth in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, and is really remarkable. It’s an unusual series, in that the main protagonist shifts with each book, so that a secondary character in book 1 becomes central in book 2, and so on. This one is extraordinarily unsettling and quite impossible to put down.
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. OK, we all now know that this is J K Rowling. Reading the Harry Potters, one sees her growing as a writer, in confidence and skill, as the series progresses, and her post-Potter work has been excellent. The Casual Vacancy was terrific social satire (or if you’re the Daily Mail, ‘more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature’…), and the Cormoran Strike series (this was the first) is complex, often dark, often funny, detective fiction, with the thoroughly engaging duo of Strike and Robin. (The Guardian picked Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)
Notes from an Exhibition was the first of Patrick Gale’s that I read, and still a favourite. It uses the device of, literally, notes from an exhibition, a posthumous exhibition of work from throughout an artist’s life, which allows Gale to tell her story in a non-linear fashion through different voices from different parts of that life. What marks Gale’s work out, apart from the beauty and the skill of the writing, is his warmth and compassion for all of his characters, however flawed.
Boneland is Alan Garner’s very belated return to the world of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, published in the ‘60s, which I read as a child and which have stayed with me ever since. Stylistically, Boneland is closer to Garner’s later work, particularly to Red Shift. It’s dreamlike, fragmented, pared back, haunted and haunting.
Nicci Gerrard’s What Dementia Teaches us about Love is a memoir, a personal account of supporting a parent with dementia. But it’s more than that – it’s a manifesto for the campaign that Gerrard launched, together with Julia Jones, to improve support in hospitals for dementia sufferers and, crucially, to allow their carers to be part of that support, not just ‘visitors’ who can be shooed out as if they’re in the way. This is a tremendously moving book – so close to home that it was almost unbearable at times. But it’s inspiring too, and hugely important.
Sweet After Death is the latest in Valentina Giambanco’s series featuring Seattle Detective Alice Madison. She’s an excellent protagonist, steely and complicated. And there are passages of vivid and economical writing that made me think of Chandler (without being pastichy). It is one hell of a read, and the series gets stronger with each book.
Andrea Gillies’ Keeper is another dementia memoir, and an exploration of the nature of the disease. It’s often grimly funny as well as sad, but ultimately the latter predominates. Gillies scrupulously records her own naivety, in thinking that they could cope, that love would be enough. And – horrifyingly, given what she does record of her mother in law’s behaviour in the grip of the disease, she says that she held a lot back… There’s no comfort here, if one is caring for someone with dementia, although our experience was much milder, if equally sad, but there’s insight and understanding.
Lesley Glaister has never been afraid of going to dark places – often there is a strong element of the gothic, often there is murder and always there are terrible secrets. The Squeeze is no exception. It begins with two lives which would seem to have no possible connection – a teenager in Romania, dreams of University abandoned, struggling to provide for her family, and a married, Norwegian businessman. But connect they do.
Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann, is the history of a crime. What happens when some in the Osage Native American community in Oklahoma in the 1920s turn out to have lucrative oil on their land? Do they get to enjoy financial security? Are you kidding? This is a horrifying coda to the history of genocide against the Native American nations during the previous century, compellingly written and richly fascinating.
The Stone Circle is the latest in Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, featuring not a detective but an archaeologist, who’s drawn into criminal investigations whenever old bones are unearthed. Ruth is a brilliant character; she’s clever and funny, she’s not young or gorgeous or slim, but isn’t tortured about any of those things. The other characters are equally well drawn. There’s more than a touch of the Gothic, and the Norfolk landscape is much more than a setting, it’s a pervasive atmosphere. This series is a delight.
Thomas Harding’s The House by the Lake tells one hundred years of German history through one house, through its history during decades of staggering and traumatic change, different regimes and bureaucracies, and through the stories of the families who lived there. Harding’s family owned it once, but lost it when the Nazis took power. The Guardian reviewer said that ‘It is Harding’s great achievement that he has painted a large canvas of history, but done so with glinting individual stories. He has persevered in listening to those “quiet voices”.’
Jane Harper’s The Lost Man is another crime novel where the landscape – in this case, the Australian outback, where the scorching heat itself is a ruthless killer – is a powerful part of the narrative, almost a protagonist. Harper’s debut, The Dry, won all sorts of awards, and this is actually even better.
In An Officer and a Spy Robert Harris takes us back to the Dreyfus affair, the ripples from which spread out over many decades of French and European history – and still do. The focus is less on Dreyfus himself than on the young officer, Picquart, who despite being as anti-semitic as the next chap, had a sense of fairness and justice that was outraged by the framing of Dreyfus and by the refusal to right the wrong, even after the forger had confessed. Harris is always a great read, and this is a period of history and a subject that fascinate me (reading Proust made me realise how ‘The Affair’ was the Brexit of its day – dividing friends and families, into Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard, no middle ground).
Cold in Hand is the penultimate novel in John Harvey‘s wonderful series about Charlie Resnick, who fights crime on the mean streets of Nottingham. We had to wait a further five years for the coda to the series (Darkness, Darkness), but it was worth it. These aren’t stories of baroque serial murders, but of chaotic crimes committed by people with chaotic lives, and Charlie himself is a tremendous creation.
Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is a rarity – a novel whose protagonist has dementia. Maud is coping with her dementia in ways that were very familiar to me – writing herself notes that she then loses, rediscovers later and can’t remember writing, going to the shops and buying tinned peaches because she’s forgotten what she actually went in for. But mainly she’s preoccupied with the disappearance of her friend, Elizabeth. Through the course of the novel we uncover another disappearance, much longer ago and we also see Maud’s grip on memory and reality slipping more and more. This is reflected in her narrative voice – it’s quite a tour de force, touching and often very funny.
If this is a Woman is a tough read, as it should be. It’s historian Sarah Helm’s account of Ravensbrück concentration camp, all of whose inmates were women. Its history is less well known than that of many other camps, and Helm spares us none of the horrors inflicted upon the women, drawing upon the accounts of survivors, several of whom went on to testify at the Nuremberg trials. It’s vitally important, particularly as those survivor voices fall silent, to know what happened there. As the Guardian‘s reviewer said, ‘As you read this 768-page book, it never feels too long. You will the women of Ravensbrück to live’.
Never be Broken is the latest in Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome detective series. It’s probably the best, but I tend to think that of each new addition to the series. As Val McDermid says, ‘it isn’t all about the murders’ – it’s about social divisions, about mental health, about guilt and grief. And murder.
The Various Haunts of Men is the first in Susan Hill’s series featuring detective Simon Serailler. I read Hill’s earlier novels many years ago – Strange Meeting, In the Springtime of the Year and others – and having loved those, and loving crime fiction (that may have become evident already), I seized on these with enthusiasm and was not disappointed. Serailler is an interesting protagonist, and the supporting cast is well drawn. Hill explores issues of faith and morality, and her writing is always subtle and clever.
Mortality was published posthumously, after what Christopher Hitchens himself might have called ‘a long and brave struggle with mortality’ (he hated the rhetoric of ‘fighting cancer’). Mortality is a brief book – too brief, which has all sorts of layers of meaning in this context. It starts with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and explores what follows from that in a clear-sighted, unsentimental and unsparing manner. The thread running through it is what he calls ‘an arduous awareness’ and it’s ultimately uplifting.
Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney is undefinably creepy from the start. We know things are off, but not quite how, let alone why. We’re not yet scared but definitely uneasy… It comes with a ringing endorsement from the master of unease, Stephen King. The word that comes to mind is bleak – the bleakness of the landscape, the bleakness of a faith that focuses inexorably on sin, punishment and damnation, and the bleakness of the loss of faith. There is evil, and its pull is as relentless as that of the deadly tides. Is it a horror novel? It shares some tropes with that genre but there is an entirely deliberate ambiguity in the narrative.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go is about mortality and humanity. It’s dystopian sci-fi, thoughtful and horrifying. We take a while to realise what’s happening here, because the protagonists can’t tell us – they’ve been fed lies throughout their lives, and continue to be fed rumours and to clutch at seemingly hopeful straws. (Guardian top 100 title)
Cultural Amnesia, Clive James’ collection of brief pieces about various cultural figures (musicians, philosophers, novelists, politicians), made me feel incredibly un-well-read, but without making me feel stupid. Rather, I felt inspired to go away and read the stuff he’s talking about. It’s truly wide-ranging – people he loathes as well as people he admires, acerbically funny, which is not always easy to pull off whilst being erudite, and it’s a book that I will go back to again and again for enlightenment, for brilliantly pithy comments, and for the impetus to read stuff that I haven’t yet braved.
In Postwar, the late Tony Judt examined the history of Europe from the end of WW2 to 2005. Acclaimed as one of the best works on modern European history, its breadth is hugely impressive, and as reviewers at the time acknowledged, it’s an achievement that’s unlikely to be surpassed. (Guardian top 100 title)
11/22/63 is one of my favourite 21st century Stephen Kings. I started reading him back in the ‘80s, having been put off for a while by the schlocky covers his books had back then, and by a degree of snobbery on my part. I’ve read them all, I think, and despite having announced his retirement from writing years ago after a serious accident, he’s still producing the goods. (His latest, The Institute, is a cracker.) 11/22/63 explores the idea of going back in time to change a past event. Now what could possibly go wrong with that? (The Guardian picked his brilliant On Writing, which is also well worth reading.)
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death is, on one level, a Holocaust memoir. Otto Dov Kulka was deported as a child to Terezin, and from there to Auschwitz. It is also, ‘Reflections on Memory and Imagination’. It challenges Kulka’s own choice, ‘to sever the biographical from the historical past’, in his previous work as a historian. The book is ‘neither historical testimony nor autobiographical memoir, but the reflections […] of memory and imagination that have remained from the world of the wondering child of ten to eleven that I had once been’.
Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels were all published posthumously, as the Millennium Trilogy. Other authors have since expanded the series. Aside from being gripping and complex thrillers, they’re notable for two intriguing protagonists – journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and hacker Lisbeth Salander. Larsson can’t be blamed for the proliferation of pale imitations since these were published (and filmed), and he could be said to have launched Scandi Noir, which on the whole is A Good Thing. (Guardian top 100 title)
John le Carré has been publishing beautifully written, complex thrillers for decades now. Though he might be thought to be an establishment figure, given his Security Service background, he’s still fuelled by a righteous anger, and nowhere more so than in The Constant Gardener. This deals with the murder of an activist in Kenya, and the uncovering of corruption on a huge scale by pharmaceutical companies and governments. Based on a real case, le Carré says that his plot is pretty tame compared to what actually happened. (Guardian top 100 title)
Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is an interesting one to place, timewise. Published in 2015, it seems clear now that it was in fact a first draft of, rather than a sequel to, To Kill a Mockingbird. There were controversies about its publication, about whether Lee fully had capacity to approve its appearance. And the narrative itself was troubling, for those of us who’d grown up seeing Atticus Finch as a hero (whether in the pages of the book, or on screen as portrayed by Gregory Peck). In Go Set a Watchman, the reader who loved To Kill a Mockingbird shares the disillusionment and shock of Scout as her idealised version of her father is shaken and fractured. Like her, we move gradually to a deeper, more nuanced understanding. It’s about growing up, really.
Andrea Levy’s Small Island tells interweaving stories of Jamaican immigration to Britain, centred on 1948 but going back to the lives of the central characters (two Jamaican, two British) during the war years. ‘A thoughtful mosaic depicting the complex beginnings of Britain’s multicultural society’, according to the Guardian reviewer. (Guardian top 100 title)
I’ve read loads of Laura Lippman‘s books, all of her Tess Monaghan series (a young, female PI based in Baltimore) and most if not all of her standalone thrillers, most recently Sunburn. Lippman described this one as her first venture into ‘noir’ and ‘noir’ it certainly is. Her work typically features dark secrets but this one is steeped in them, and in obsession, desire, and violence. But she never forgets the humanity of her characters, as messed up as they may be, and the gradual revelation of who they are and how they got here keeps us gripped to the final page.
Black Water Rising is set in the 1980s, in Texas, and its protagonist is a struggling black lawyer who gets caught up in a conspiracy when he witnesses a crime. Attica Locke is a powerful writer, and the racial politics give it a fascinating context and added tension. There’s a sequel, Pleasantville, set 15 years later.
I didn’t expect Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass to be such a page-turner. I expected it to be enlightening and stimulating, sure, but it’s a huge achievement that it was genuinely difficult to put the book down. I wanted to find out ‘what happened next’, how through the centuries and the continents the human race grappled with the big questions of what it is to be good.
Wolf Hall was the Guardian’s top 21st century book. It doesn’t actually make my top three, but it’s a deserving choice nonetheless. Hilary Mantel is one of the most versatile writers around, and one never knows quite what to expect from her – at least until she began her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, since when all of her readers have been focused on the wait for the final volume. To read Wolf Hall is ‘to step into the stream of her irresistibly authoritative present tense and find oneself looking out from behind her hero’s eyes’ – a powerful and immersive experience. (Guardian top 100 title)
The Road is relentlessly grim but extraordinary. Cormac McCarthy forces the reader to inhabit this bleak world, and to accept how it works – ultimately to choose whether and when to trust. Whilst the notion of surviving in a post-apocalypse world is familiar in fiction and film, it’s unusual for the survivor group to have shrunk down to two, parent and child, which ramps up the tension and the terror. (Guardian top 100 title)
Ian McEwan’s Atonement is several novels in one. It’s a pre-war country house story about class and desire and adolescence. It’s a story of war and loss. And it’s the story of a story, about memory and guilt. There’s a revelation at the end which floored and shocked me but which on re-reading made perfect, desolate sense. (Guardian top 100 title)
Dervla McTiernan’s The Ruin opens with a scene that neither the reader, nor the young policeman who witnesses it, will forget in a hurry. And when we move forward in time the mystery of that scene, and its emotional fall-out, are still potent and compelling. The follow-up, The Scholar, features the same detective and I will be sure to read that as soon as I can.
Succession is the first in Livi Michael’s trilogy about the Wars of the Roses. Michael tells her story through a number of different voices, of major players and very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles. And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us. I would also highly recommend her earlier adult novels, and her children’s series about Frank the intrepid hamster…
China Mieville’s The City and the City combines the police procedural with ‘weird fiction’, with a murder investigation across two separate cities that happen to occupy the same space. It’s a brilliant and unsettling concept, and requires concentration from the reader to hold on to it as the plot develops. It’s worth the effort, the narrative works on both levels (which demonstrates Mieville’s focus and discipline). Is this an allegory, or as the Guardian‘s reviewer puts it, a ‘police mystery dealing with extraordinary circumstances’? Or both?
Scottish crime novelist Denise Mina’s The Long Drop is a venture into true crime, the story of notorious serial killer Peter Manuel. She meets the challenge of how to create tension when the outcome of the story is already known, focusing on bit part players, whose perspective is fresh and unfamiliar. The Scotsman’s review said that ‘Above all, it is a story about telling stories. Everyone is a narrator, everyone is literary critic, assessing and judging the veracity and the honesty of the stories that eddy through the book.’
Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman is, as anyone familiar with Moran’s writing will expect, proper funny, and proper rude (NSFW, seriously, and NSF public transport too). It’s proper inspirational too, made me want to stand on a chair and cheer, punch the air, as well as laugh (and, at times, made me cry because it’s not all jokey, there’s stuff that hits you where it hurts). The Independent said that How to be a Woman ‘is engaging, brave and consistently, cleverly, naughtily funny’. And Moran also makes the very important point that one can’t change the world whilst wearing uncomfortable undergarments.
I read one of Sarah Moss‘s novels (Cold Earth) a couple of years back and made a note to self to read more by her. Bodies of Light is a brilliant and compelling narrative, set in Victorian Manchester. It went to some dark places; at times I almost didn’t want to go on, I was afraid for the protagonists. There’s a sequel, Signs for Lost Children, and a related title, Nightwaking, which was published before Bodies of Light but can be read at any point in the ‘trilogy’. (BTW, Josephine Butler features in the narrative – if you want to know more about her, read Helen Mathers’ excellent biography.)
Thomas Mullen sets Darktown in 1948 Atlanta, and gives us a pair of fictional black cops – amongst the first of the city’s African-American police officers. These officers had many constraints to work within: they only patrolled African-American neighborhoods, could not arrest white people, and while they were given guns, it was understood that they could not fire them. This is a brilliant crime thriller with a context that makes every detail hum with tension. There’s a sequel, Lightning Men.
As one blurb for Audrey Nifenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife puts it, this is the story of Clare and Henry, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. It’s a fresh take on the kind of time travel paradoxes that make one’s head hurt – this makes one’s heart hurt as well. A sequel is in the offing, and Nifenegger’s second book, Her Fearful Symmetry, is excellent too.
2006, when The Audacity of Hope was published, seems so very long ago. Barack Obama was still a Senator, and hadn’t yet announced his campaign to be the Democratic presidential candidate. It is in many ways his manifesto and thus, as the Guardian reviewer at the time said, cautious in a way that his personal memoir, Dreams from my Father, didn’t have to be. It would be impossible to re-read it now, without hindsight and without the constant horror of the inevitable comparison between this eloquent, thoughtful writer and his successor in the White House. I don’t think I can quite bear to do so. But at the time, apart from setting out Obama’s political priorities and convictions it represented hope – the mad hope that there might be a black PoTUS, someone with integrity and empathy, and what that could mean for the US and the world.
I wasn’t sure which of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels to pick. And I could easily be talked into Instructions for a Heatwave, or her debut, After You’d Gone. But I settled on The Hand that first Held Mine. Her writing is always perceptive and subtle and in this novel she skilfully weaves together two different timelines – the 1950s and the present day – in a haunting study of memory and motherhood.
In Black and British, David Olusoga tells us of a ‘forgotten history’. To some extent this is not so much forgotten as ignored. No one is suggesting that in previous centuries our society was quite as diverse as it is today, but so much more so than it is usually represented – and every time a writer tries to represent the reality, which as Bill Potts says in Doctor Who is ‘a bit more black than they show in the movies’, there are howls of protest and shouts of ‘PC gone mad’. The history is there, and clear, and it’s absolutely fascinating. Olusoga presents so much that is new to me, even though I thought I knew a bit about this stuff, and some of it runs counter to assumptions that I might have previously made. It also brought back some very early childhood memories, of visits to the forts on the Ghanaian coast, places where slaves were held before they were loaded into the ships to cross the Atlantic.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes’ Tail of the Blue Bird is a whodunnit, set in ‘the Ghanaian hinterland’, where old and new worlds clash. And it’s a delight. The storytelling is shared between Kayo, the young forensic pathologist armed with all of the science stuff, and Opanyin Poku, the old hunter who is armed with proverbs and stories. Parkes trusts his story and its tellers to communicate with readers even though they may know nothing of Ghana, its languages and its legends. He’s a poet and that shines through on every page. He makes you see the colours, taste the food and the palm wine.
Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses is set in eastern Norway,and focuses on the events of the summer of 1948. Beautifully constructed, beautifully written. As the Independent‘s review said, ‘unawareness and awareness, ignorance and knowledge, innocence and experience chase each other’, both for the protagonist, and for the reader.
The first two volumes in Philip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials trilogy fall outside the remit of this list, but the third just makes it. The Amber Spyglass (Guardian top 100 title). I re-read the original trilogy some weeks ago, in preparation for the new trilogy (the first volume of which, La Belle Sauvage, is wonderful and the second is due any day now), and they blew me away all over again. This is boldly imaginative fantasy, philosophical and literary, without the narrative ever losing impetus. As Pullman says, ‘the only thing that is interesting about fantasy is if you can use it to say something truthful and realistic about human nature’.
The Naming of the Dead is the 16th in Ian Rankin‘s Inspector Rebus series. Rebus is as stroppy and infuriating as ever (but we wouldn’t want him any other way). The setting is the 2005 G8 summit, and Rankin weaves the events surrounding the summit (protests, the award of the 2012 Olympics to London, and the 7 July London bombings) into this story of murder and corruption.
I never expected to fall for Keith Richards. I read his autobiography, Life, because it had had such positive reviews, and obviously because of my interest in the music. But what surprised me is what an engaging writer he is. A lot of it is very funny indeed, and he writes beautifully, perceptively and passionately about music. About the people, particularly Brian Jones and Jagger, he can be harsh (as he often is about himself), but he’s often also generous and gracious. His attitudes to women may be relatively unreconstructed but he clearly likes them, rather than just wanting to have them. Reading about his wilder years, it’s pretty amazing that he’s still here, but I’m glad he hung around at least long enough to write this vivid account of an era and a career that one really couldn’t make up.
Sally Rooney is just getting started as a novelist, but her first two books have both generated an enormous amount of attention and praise. Normal People is her second – I’ve only read this once though I will undoubtedly go back to it (and will read Conversations with Friends, her debut). The ‘normal people’ of the title are, of course, not quite normal. Connell can pass for normal in his home and school environment, but only by hiding a lot of what he feels and thinks, and away from home he struggles to work out who he is and how he fits in. Marianne is regarded by her peers at school as weird, but comes into her own away from a damaging home environment. Their relationship is compelling and troubling – certainly not a conventional love affair – and Rooney doesn’t let us have a tidy or comfortable resolution.
I came across Liz Rosenberg’s Indigo Hill by chance as a Kindle offer, and loved it. It doesn’t seem to have been widely reviewed, although she’s a fairly prolific writer, with children’s books and poetry as well as novels on her CV. Indigo Hill is about families, secrets and memories – and it’s beautifully written (one might have guessed that she was a poet).
In The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Alex Ross writes brilliantly and beautifully about the century when ‘classical’ music got difficult. He demythologises without ever dumbing down, and has a gift for the description or metaphor that makes something difficult suddenly clear, and for illuminating the context in which this music was composed. It isn’t, despite the title, about all twentieth-century music – jazz and rock and pop don’t get much of a look in except where they overlap with classical. But one book can’t do everything, and in shedding light on music that is often perceived to be impenetrable, he’s doing something wonderful, particularly for those of us who want to open our minds to it and yet still struggle sometimes.
The Plot against America is Philip Roth’s 2004 venture into alt-history or counter history, where he proposes that the 1940 US election returned Charles Lindbergh rather than Roosevelt to the White House. Roth shows how the Lindbergh presidency allows prejudices – primarily anti-semitism in this context – which had previously been whispered or shared only with those of like mind to be spoken clearly and loudly and without shame. We see the tragic consequences unfold through one Jewish family (modelled on Roth’s own). Contemporary parallels are all too easy to draw… (Guardian top 100 title)
Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea gives us three stories, three protagonists, and then brings them together in the final part of the novel in ways that one could not have anticipated. With each story the tone changes, and Ryan skilfully takes us from lyricism to black comedy and everywhere in between. (I also loved his earlier The Thing about December. There too is humour and tragedy, and a lonely young man trying to work out how to be a man, how to be a good person, how to connect with the world and the people in it.) ‘Filled with love and righteous anger’, as the Guardian reviewer of From a Low and Quiet Sea puts it.
Philippe Sands’ East West Street weaves his own family history into the development of the definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity which were so crucial to the judgments at Nuremberg and to our response to such crimes in the decades that followed. He makes the connection with his grandfather’s home in Lemberg (aka Lwów or L’viv) which was also where Lauterpacht and Lemberg, the two Jewish lawyers who were so instrumental in giving us the legal framework, grew up and were educated – and who are Sands’ own antecedents too, in his life as an international human rights lawyer.
Looking for Transwonderland is Noo Saro-Wiwa’s memoir of her return to Nigeria. She visits places that I saw as a child in the north of the country (Jos, Kano, Yankari Game Reserve) as well as parts of the country I never knew (Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja). Her father, Ken Saro-Wiwa is a powerful (and unsentimentally portrayed) presence throughout, both at the personal level and in terms of the politics that led to his murder. Nonetheless the book is full of humour, and ultimately of a deep affection for the country, with all its chaos, corruption and division.
I don’t know where to begin with W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (Guardian top 100 title). Sebald is at the heart of my PhD thesis, and so trying to say something succinct when I’m so immersed is hard. It also means that a lot of the reviews annoy me quite a bit. I would probably have selected The Emigrants to represent Sebald’s work, but Austerlitz is the only one of his four ‘novels’ that falls within the twenty-first century, and it was his last – he died in a car accident not long after its publication. It’s about time, place and memory, and about a life that intersects with and is shaped by the darkest period of European history. It’s the most problematic of his novels, but endlessly, obsessively compelling.
Les Parisiennes is Anne Sebba’s fascinating account of the lives of women during the Nazi occupation of Paris, featuring collaborators and resisters and everyone in between. Sebba draws on some sources that I was familiar with but many more that I wasn’t, and weaves them all into a rich tapestry which shows how life in Occupied Paris was both normal and entirely abnormal at the same time, depending on who and where you were.
I was drawn to Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go at first just for the title. But then I was blown away by the opening chapter, and as the narrative pulled back from that minute detail, that moment by moment evocation of a man looking out at his garden, realising that he is about to die, the breadth of the locations and the expanding cast in no way diluted the power of the writing. I did not realise at first that I was reading it aloud in my head, the way I read a novel in French, rather than hoovering up a page in one go as I normally do. In this case it wasn’t in order to understand it, but in order to feel the rhythm of the text. This is a poem as much as it is a novel.
Owen Sheers’ Resistance is a cracking alternative history, where the Allies lost WWII, set in the Welsh valleys. It evokes something of Vercors’ Le Silence de la mer, or Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française in the portrayal of the interaction between occupying troops and the local population, but is also firmly rooted in the particular landscape and history of its setting.
Lynn Shepherd’s Tom All Alone’s is the second of her ‘literary’, postmodern crime novels. Her first, Murder at Mansfield Park, turned that classic upside down in a most entertaining way. I approached this one with caution because it riffs primarily on Bleak House, the best novel in the English language, and just as I am hypercritical of cover versions of songs I particularly love, so I am sceptical at least about anyone messing with my favourite novels. However, Shepherd recreates the atmosphere of Dickens’ London, even while she subverts his characters. It’s a gripping tale, darker – dare I say, bleaker – than anything Dickens could have published back in the day. There’s a slice of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White in here as well.
I’ve read most of Anita Shreve‘s novels, including her last (she died last year) The Stars are Fire. But it had been a while, and when I thought about her work, the one that I knew had to be my choice was The Last Time they Met. There’s a link between this and an earlier work, The Weight of Water, in the central character, Thomas Janes. The Last Time they Met uses a reverse chronologicy to unravel the story of a relationship, and past and present are interwoven skilfully as in so many of Shreve’s books. This one is particularly heartbreaking and I still remember the sense of shock at its ending.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Guardian top 100) tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black American who died in agony of cancer in a ‘coloured’ hospital ward in 1951. This is about medical and scientific history – but also about race. Henrietta did not know her cells were being taken, nor did her family – and there’s a murky history of black hospital patients being treated as experimental subjects without informed consent. Billions have been made from these ‘HeLa’ cells, which showed extraordinary capacity to multiply and were used around the world to develop new drugs. But Skloot tells the story not just of ‘HeLa’ but of Henrietta’s life and death, and of her surviving children, and their struggles after her death.
I love Patti Smith as a musician, but I think even more as a writer. Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, and her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, is warm, and funny, and touching, and a vivid portrait of the cultural life of the city. In her later memoir, M Train, she talks about life post-Mapplethorpe, life with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (ex MC5), and of the losses that marked those years (not just Mapplethorpe, but brother Todd, and Fred). Again her warmth and humour permeates every page.
Ali Smith’s Hotel World is glorious. It’s clever (a Guardian reviewer said that ‘I have never seen the tenets of recent literary theory … so cleverly insinuated into a novel’), but it never felt to me that it was ‘look at me! look at me!’ cleverness, just virtuoso writing with heart and humour and humanity. The Guardian picked her novel Autumn, which I haven’t read, but will.
Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark (Guardian top 100 title) finds hope in activism, and in the notion of the Angel of alternate history. This is based on the angel Clarence in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a man in despair sees what the world would look like if he hadn’t been born. We may never know what difference we made, or might have made. If the threats that we perceive at present come to nothing it will be easy for us and others to say, see, we were over-reacting. If not it will be easy for us and others to say that our words and actions failed to achieve what we hoped. We could just as well say in the first instance that we helped in our small ways, collectively and individually, to defuse that threat, and in the second that things could have been worse. Because we won’t have Clarence to show us the effect of our acts, all we can do is to do the best we can.
Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon is an eloquent and rigorous account of depression. It comes from his own experience of this crippling illness and he tells his own story here, with painful honesty, but also explores the nature of depression, in terms of the science, the sociology, and how it is treated. ‘That Solomon has shaped a richly eloquent testament from his own seasons in hell kindles something like hope’.
I’ve read most, if not all, of Cath Staincliffe‘s work – her Sal Kilkenny PI series, the Scott & Bailey and Blue Murder novels, and her stand-alone titles, which, whilst they centre on a crime, are more concerned with the ripples from that crime as they spread out to victims and perpetrators and families. The Silence Between Breaths is a superlative example. I shall say nothing about the plot, but if you remember to breathe whilst reading it you will be doing better than I did. It’s gripping but also compassionate and moving. I’d highly recommend also The Girl in the Green Dress.
Another of the posse of brilliant young female crime writers whose books have given me so much enjoyment this century is Susie Steiner. Her detective is Manon Bradshaw, who made her debut in Missing, Presumed. What marks Steiner and her contemporaries out is the emphasis on character, rather than just on plot. Manon is a brilliant protagonist, but all of the secondary characters, whether colleagues or victims or their families, are subtly drawn too, with humour and empathy. There’s a sequel, Persons Unknown, and a new Manon title out next year.
The Hillsborough tragedy had a huge impact on me, even though I wasn’t there, and knew no one who died there. That afternoon and evening, watching the casualty count rise, trying to understand, are still so vivid in my memory. Since that day I’ve blogged regularly about it, as the fight for truth and justice for the victims and their families went on. Adrian Tempany’s And the Sun Shines Now is both a personal account of that day and what followed, and an exploration of the broader picture in contemporary football.
Rose Tremain is an author I’ve loved previously (I have read The Way I Found Her, Restoration and The Road Home, all of which are excellent). The Gustav Sonata is utterly compelling and beguiling, subtle and beautifully written. The Guardian reviewer called it ‘a perfect novel about life’s imperfection’, which is quite an accolade. The setting is Switzerland during the Second World War, which allows an exploration of the notion of neutrality. This quote, which comes towards the end and gives nothing away of the plot, goes to the heart of things: ‘We have to become the people we always should have been’.
Of all the Sarah Waters novels that I have read, Night Watch in particular stayed with me (The Guardian picked Fingersmith). It’s another tale told in reverse, but the Blitz is at the heart of everything that happens here. Gradually, as the story unfolds, we understand the characters, war and world weary, and the puzzling events that open the novel.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Guardian top 100 title) begins as a historical novel, telling with extraordinary and brutal power of the live of slaves in the American deep south. We’ve been here before, or so we may think. And then Whitehead swerves into a different kind of fiction altogether, without leaving behind the real stories of slaves, masters and abolitionists, but allowing us to see it afresh, from a different angle.
Having read Oranges are the Only Fruit, I thought I knew a bit about Jeanette Winterson‘s upbringing. But whilst that is moving and even devastating, it doesn’t convey the full awfulness, the full damage of that childhood and adolescence. Why be Happy when you could be Normal? pulls no punches. But it also has passages of great joy, particularly as the young Jeanette gains access to books, libraries of books, that open up new worlds to her. The story of her later life is devastating too, but throughout there is humour and self-awareness and compassion. One of the finest memoirs I have read.
And my three top books of the century are:
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve read it several times and its impact never lessens. It’s personal, in a way, in that I lived in Nigeria at the time and during the events that she describes. The central characters begin in a period of peace and plenty, academics, privileged members of the wealthy Lagos business community, and ‘expats’. Gradually, as the country descends into pogroms and civil war, everything they have is gradually taken, their homes, their comforts, their food, their security. It’s an intensely powerful narrative – and it’s also about who gets to tell the story.
I love Kate Atkinson‘s work, her Jackson Brodie crime novels and, well, all of it really. But Life after Life is in a class of its own. Her writing is so perceptive, so piercing, often very funny, and often heartbreakingly sad. It’s a contender for my Desert Island book, in that I could conceive of reading it over and over again (alongside the Bible and Shakespeare).
Jon McGregor is an extraordinary author – If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things breaks my heart, no matter how often I read it. Reservoir 13 is not a detective novel, despite the familiar opening scenes – a missing girl, a community in shock, a search. The reader becomes part of the rhythm of time and the seasons which continue to pass whether or not we find her. The voices and lives of the community interweave – life and death, grief, betrayal, loss, love, warmth, joy. The cliché is that when something terrible happens, ‘life goes on’. That’s what Reservoir 13 is about.
So there we are. It’s a very personal list – it reflects not only my general preferences (history, crime), but my particular interests (French World War II history, West Africa, music). So literally no one else is likely to pick the same 100 titles. And nor will I, if I repeat this exercise twenty years from now…
If this list turns you on to an author you didn’t know, or a book you hadn’t tried, I’d love to know, and will be absolutely delighted. If I include things you hate, or think unworthy, that’s fine, but no need to tell me, there’s plenty of room for your tastes and mine. Nothing on this list is here because I think it ought to be here, I’m not trying to prove anything, just to share some of the joy I’ve found in reading in the 21st century.
This post has been many months in the gestation. In my head, it started off as a more abstract and metaphysical musing about the nature of dementia, at least as I have encountered it, about how what made a person that person fades, gradually, until it has virtually disappeared, and yet they are still here. As a recent contributor to a discussion in the Guardian described it, ‘death on the installment plan, as every day another little piece would flicker out of existence’. But there are other things that must be said as well – the anger at how our health service and social care – and in particular the failure to join the two up effectively – can fail those rendered helpless by the disintegration of their mind and memory.
The title is borrowed from a series of pieces of 21st century music, by American composer William Basinski, which I have loved ever since a friend introduced me to them a few years after they were released in 2002/03. Basinski had magnetic tapes, recorded in the 1980s, which he wanted to transfer to digital format. But the tapes had deteriorated, so there were gaps, and cracks, which increased as he continued to play the tapes. The original recordings can be heard, but faint, distorted, broken up, fragmented. And somehow this is intensely moving. When I first heard it, I felt the general sadness of loss, of gradual loss in particular, not a sudden shock and wrench but the knowledge that something is slipping away that was and still is precious. And when I saw this happening to someone I loved, that title and the memory of listening to these albums came back to me.
And the idea of loops, of course, resonated with us. The endless loops of conversation: Where am I? You’re in hospital, Mum, you had a stroke. Oh. When can I go home? When you’re stronger. Where am I? round and round again… As the disease progressed the loops got shorter, until all that was left were the questions and our answers disappeared into the fog.
Basinski was not thinking of dementia when he created these pieces. They’re dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks in New York, which Basinski saw from the roof of his apartment in Brooklyn, the morning that he had completed the project. But as D H Lawrence said, trust the tale and not the teller. That Basinski associated the work with 9/11 does not prevent it from being also a powerful and poignant and heartbreaking account of a very different kind of loss.
There are as many different experiences of dementia as there are sufferers – and carers. I can only speak of our own, but there are elements in what we experienced that will be shared by many. Over the months since she died we have been gradually able to overlay the images of her the last time we saw her conscious – bewildered, afraid, unable to understand what we were saying to her, unable to smile, unable to recognise the photograph of her beloved little cat that we had brought as a gift – with the woman we had known before. That woman was funny, fiercely independent, interesting and interested, a traveller, a gardener, a musician, a teacher, a fan of detective novels and TV series, a lover of good food and wine. Dementia took all of that, little by little by little, but as we organised her funeral and started to get cards and letters from people who’d known her before, we saw her re-emerge from the shadows, heard the laughter that so many people had mentioned, literally heard her voice on a recording amongst the other members of the choir she sang in for many years.
But as we recovered some of those joyful memories, I thought about some of what had happened in the last year of her life, and I got angry. On her behalf, but also on behalf of the many, many people who suffer from dementia. Many are less fortunate than she was – she had the funds to choose (or for us to choose on her behalf) the kind of care she needed, and to not have to put up with sub-standard care (in fact, the carers who supported her in her own home until her stroke were wonderful, as was the care home that she moved to for the last six months of her life). She had family who were close enough at hand to be involved in her care, who were free to come over at short notice when needed, to spend time on hospital wards to talk to medics on her behalf. But despite all of this, and despite the loving and patient care on the wards from nurses and health care assistants, there was something terribly wrong.
If I could go back, knowing what I know now, I would interject in every discussion about her medical care and about options for discharge, to remind people that, whilst she had been admitted to hospital following a stroke, she had dementia, and that any decision about her care in hospital and about what happened once treatment was over HAD to take account of that. She could not cooperate in her own care. She removed the feeding tube that the hospital had inserted to ensure she did not aspirate and contract pneumonia, because she did not understand why it was there, she only knew it was unpleasant and uncomfortable. She tried (and occasionally succeeded) in removing the surgical collar that was needed after she fell and broke a couple of vertebrae in her neck – again, she did not know why she was wearing it, blamed the collar for the pain of the fracture. Her carers – at her home and in the care home – took her dementia into account. Staff on the wards largely did (they brought her food even if she’d said she didn’t want any and didn’t rush to take it away when she said she’d finished, understanding that seconds later she’d forget that she’d finished and have another go… ).
But when it came to preparing her for discharge, it was as if the need to free up a bed, once no further medical treatment was required, overrode other considerations. We get it, we really do, we know the NHS is overstretched, we know that hospitals can’t have beds taken up long-term by people for whom they can do nothing more. Nevertheless…
We were told how much her mobility was improving, and that with extra help for a while (equipment and additional carers) she would be fine at home. And so she was discharged. We were given a date for discharge, and a time, so planned to get there (we’re an hour’s drive away) well ahead, to sort the house out and get her shopping done. But she was delivered home much earlier and so we arrived to find her sitting, bewildered, on the sofa (where we knew and her carers knew not to let her sit, because it was so difficult to get her up from it). She had no idea how long she’d been there. We quickly realised that we, and she, were in a nightmare. We were as terrified as she was.
She would be alone for most of every day (carers came four times a day). She had forgotten, after a month in hospital, how to use her TV remote and could no longer read. She would be incontinent and thus sitting in her own waste for hours. She would be unable to change her position in the chair or the bed and thus would be at risk of pressure sores. She would be at risk of falling from her chair if she forgot that she could not get up, and tried to do so. She had forgotten how to use her ‘red button’ alarm and so if she fell would lie there until the next carer visit. She would be shouting out for help, hour after hour – she had no sense of the passing of time, and so would be convinced five minutes after a carer had left that she had been alone for hours already.
She had been promised physiotherapy, and the assumption seemed to be that she could learn, and get better at the limited means of mobility possible for her. But since the dementia took hold, she had been unlearning. Unlearning skills she had had for years, like how to dress herself, how to make a cup of tea. Her discharge took no account of this.
When the carers arrived they shared our alarm and dismay and decided that it was an unsafe discharge and that she should go back into hospital. Next day when we rang to see how she was, the nurse on the EAU said brightly how well she’d done on the rotunda and that she’d be ready for discharge soon. We headed straight over and prepared for a fight.
We pointed out that if one of us had had a stroke and lost mobility, and was discharged to live alone, we would of course be worried and miserable. But we could do something about the situation – ensure that books, radio, TV remote were within reach, keep in touch with the world via phone or laptop and talk to family and friends. We could look at the clock and know how long it would be before someone would visit. She had none of those resources.
We argued, we insisted that we could not accept her being sent home. And eventually someone said to us, what do you suggest then? And we said, well, we rather thought you might be able to offer us some advice and guidance on possible solutions. And just like that, we were put in touch with the social worker and the Age Concern contact, and were given details of suitable care homes, and within a few days, were arranging her discharge to a dementia specialist care home.
We’d never promised her that we wouldn’t ‘put her in a home’. But even if we had made that promise, we’d have broken it. What mattered was that she was safe, that someone was there 24 hours a day to take care of her, that they were able to keep her comfortable. And the language of ‘putting’ someone in a home is inherently prejudiced – we found the best care home we could for her, and we worked with the care home manager and staff to meet her needs as well as we could, just as we had worked with the carers who came to her home. We have no regrets about that – only about our naivety in our dealings with the hospital and our failure to remind them at every stage and in every discussion about her dementia.
The other thing that rapidly became apparent to us was that with every hospital admission, the dementia gained ground. This is borne out by statistics from John’s Campaign:
- One third of people with dementia who go into hospital for an unrelated condition NEVER return to their own homes
- 47% of people with dementia who go into hospital are physically less well when they leave than when they went in
- 54% of people with dementia who go into hospital are mentally less well when they leave than when they went in
John’s Campaign‘s raison d’etre is pretty simple – the belief that in all hospital settings, for patients with dementia, ‘carers should not just be allowed but should be welcomed, and that a collaboration between the patients and all connected with them is crucial to their health and their well-being’.
In that grey area, where someone may be deemed to ‘have capacity’ to make decisions, but at the same time is unable to hold on to even simple information, let alone weigh up pros and cons, the family (if the patient is fortunate enough to have family/carers who are able and want to be involved) must be seen, surely, as a tremendous benefit for the hospital.
John’s Campaign applies to all hospital settings: acute, community, mental health and its principles could extend to all other caring institutions where people are living away from those closest to them. In the time since the campaign was founded, over 1000 institutions have pledged support and a lot of progress has been made – but there is a lot yet to be done.https://johnscampaign.org.uk/#/about
If a patient with dementia has no family to speak for them, to ensure that their dementia is taken into account in all decisions about their medical and social care, how can we provide them with advocates? As Nicci Gerrard said in a recent article, dementia is our collective responsibility. You might not have encountered it yet. But odds are, you will. It’s in all of our interests that we recognise the scale of it, recognise what’s needed to keep people with dementia as safe and as comfortable as possible, that those of us without dementia speak up for those who have it, who can no longer recognise or articulate what they need. They may no longer be able to articulate their needs, or explain the reasons for their anxiety or distress, but the anxiety and distress is no less real for that – and all the more heartbreaking to witness.
A good place to start is in collectively facing up to the fact that it is in our midst and that each year hundreds of thousands of men and women are living with it and dying with it. If not you, someone very near you. If not now, soon.
Support, Information, Advice
If dementia is now a part of your life, there are places you can go for support and advice. I’ve already mentioned John’s Campaign. I found the Alzheimer’s Association forum, Dementia Talking Point, very helpful on all sorts of practical issues, and often very reassuring.
Some books that I found both fascinating and useful. Several of them at some point made me laugh, and all of them without exception, at some point made me sob.
- Nicci Gerrard (founder of John’s Campaign) – What Dementia Teaches us about Love
- Andrea Gillies – Keeper: A Book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordsworth and cake… (Andrea Gillies took on the care of her mother-in-law, who was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. This is a journal interwoven with an investigation of how Alzheimer’s works)
- Emma Healey – Elizabeth is Missing (a wonderful novel, whose protagonist is a woman with dementia, who can’t always recognise her daughter, but knows that her friend Elizabeth is missing…)
- Robyn Hollingworth – My Mad Dad: The Diary of an Unravelling Mind
- Wendy Mitchell – Someone I used to Know (Wendy was diagnosed with early onset dementia some years ago, and writes a truly remarkable blog about her life with the disease. Her experience is very different to that of my mother in law. But it’s a rare and invaluable gift to hear someone explaining so clearly what it’s like have dementia, and a joy to hear of the rich life she can lead even now.)
I wouldn’t have expected, even a few months ago, to have been sailing up the Danube on a luxury floating hotel. But my 90 year old father, who is partially sighted and deaf, needed a companion for his chosen cruise holiday, and, well, someone had to step up to the plate. Someone had to take one for the team. And it was fabulous.
The chances that I’ll ever be able to do it again are remote but if I could, I would, and if you can, do. (Riviera Travel, highly recommended (no, I’m not on commission…) – everything fantastically well organised, and the boat fantastically well appointed).
We arrived in Budapest on Day 1, too late to do any more than enjoy looking at the city lights as we had dinner. And then the real magic thing about a river cruise – you nod off to sleep and when you wake up you open the curtains to somewhere new.
Ezstergom, once the capital of Hungary, and now known for its basilica, the top of which apparently is and must by law remain the highest point in the country. Then onwards, and from Hungary to Slovakia, and its capital city, Bratislava.
That November afternoon as we sailed on up river it was unseasonably warm, and we sat out on the sun deck. The river was so quiet, all we could hear was the low hum of the boat’s engines, and the splash of the cormorants’ wings as they skimmed the water. I can’t remember when I last felt such peace.
On the cabin TV there was a channel which just showed the view from the camera on the front of the boat, all day and night. I took to leaving it on as I fell asleep, loving the tranquillity. (It was also reassuring when we were going through some huge locks, and things got a bit bumpy).
The first view of Bratislava from our mooring point was less than prepossessing, but the old city is beautiful. And part of the fascination of these cities that once lay behind the Iron Curtain is the juxtaposition of utilitarian concrete blocks from the Communist era with the rich baroque heritage. Many of the plaques in Bratislava commemorate the Second World War rather differently to those in Western Europe, mainly recording the heroism of the Red Army that liberated them from the Nazis. But others record the corrective to that simplistic version of history, as with this memorial to Anton Petrak:
For a history buff with a particular obsession with WWII and the postwar period, this stuff is obviously richly fascinating. And our local guide added to the story, with his parents’ memories of the Prague Spring, and of how after the fall of Communism the country split (‘without so much as a referendum’, our guide said, in one of many ironic Brexit references during the trip).
I’ll go back to Bratislava, if I can, and explore properly.
Onwards. En route, on the sun deck again, we glimpse a castle on the shoreline, Devin castle.
We slip quietly into Austria. Next stop Durnstein. We’ve lost the sun now, it’s a bit misty in the morning, which means the photos don’t do justice to the cruel crags above the village, and the ruined castle. (According to legend, Richard II of England was imprisoned there, and his loyal minstrel Blondel found him by singing outside the fortresses of Europe until he heard Richard joining in. Well, I did say it was a legend).
Durnstein is gorgeous, beautiful old – really, really old – buildings, and a fabulously ornate church. Back to the boat for lunch and on to Melk Abbey.
No photos allowed inside, but a really fascinating tour of a very imaginatively organised museum within this still functioning Benedictine abbey.
Next day we are moored at Linz. We’ve been forewarned that we’re going to be double parked, so we don’t fling open our curtains in the morning inadequately clad, only to see the passengers on another boat staring back. Another misty morning.
Some of our group go for a tour of Linz, but we board a coach and head off to Salzburg, which is just as fascinating and picturesque as I would have imagined.
It’s also my first sight of Stolpersteine, literally stumbling stones, plaques set into the cobbles of the city, commemorating those of its citizens who were murdered by the Nazis, usually adjacent to the houses where they lived. There are over 70,000 of these across Europe, and whilst some cities have rejected this particular way of commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, the project has prompted them to find alternatives, ways of giving back to those people the names and the homes and the stories that the Nazis took from them, along with their lives.
These two Stolpersteine commemorate Catholic priests who were murdered by the Nazis. Father Gottfried Neunhauserer died at Schloss Hartheim, used by the Nazis for their T4 euthanasia programme, and the place where thousands of prisoners from Dachau, Ravensbruck and Mauthausen were taken to be gassed. He’d been a patient in Salzburg-Lehen mental hospital from 1920, and was taken to Hartheim in 1941 where he was murdered.
Brother Jakob Furtsch was murdered in Ravensbruck in 1943. He’d been expelled from his abbey in 1942, and went back to his home town, Neuensee, where he was arrested as a dissident and deported to Dachau, then to Ravensbruck.
We also saw plaques for Rudolf Erich Muller, a Catholic convert arrested as a Jew in November 1938, deported to Vienna and then to Theresienstadt where he was murdered, and Karl Rinnerthaler, a school janitor, who died in 1948 due to the injuries he’d received in various prisons, after his arrest in 1942 as a member of the illegal Austrian Revolutionary Socialist resistance group.
So through chance, in just a small area of the city, we encountered these stories which convey so much about the Nazi horror. A victim of Aktion T4, a worker who took part in resistance activities, a Jew and a Catholic dissident.
We’d sailed straight past Vienna on our way to Linz, so now we head back there.
Obviously, there is no possibility of doing justice to Vienna in the time we have, though our guide is (as they all have been) well informed and does a brilliant job of showing us as much as we can in the time. I will have to come back some time.
That evening we have a classical string quartet performing on the boat. Yes, they do play the Blue Danube waltz (I guess it was a contractual obligation) but also some Mozart and Haydn. I quite fancied a bit of Schoenberg but there you go… More seriously, it was lovely, and well pitched for the audience. (My father has fond memories of a previous Danube cruise where there were such concerts on board most days, as well as musical outings in several of the cities they visited, including one in Vienna with the orchestra all in full 18th-century costume. )
We’re on the last leg now. Onwards to Budapest. But the low water levels which have been causing problems for river traffic means that we aren’t going to get there in time for a proper visit, so instead we dock again at Esztergom and get a coach to Budapest, whilst our boat carries on (less heavy laden!) without us, to meet us again for our last night on board after we’ve toured Budapest.
Despite this, the daylight is already fading once we have the chance to walk around the city. We look around Heroes’ Square, and then on to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic/neo-Romanesque terrace which provides a wonderful vista of the old city, as the lights come on. Then we’re back to the boat for a gala dinner, and a performance of Hungarian folk music and dance to mark our final evening.
We didn’t get to see the Shoes on the bank of the Danube due to the rescheduling of that final day. Our Hungarian tour manager couldn’t speak of this, of its history and meaning, and of the fact that people still leave flowers there, without choking up. I will record it even though I didn’t see it for myself.
Film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer created this memorial on the east bank of the Danube. Many Hungarian Jews were murdered even before the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944. But in those last months of the war, as the Red Army surrounded Budapest, the murder of those who remained was regarded as an urgent priority, hampered by the fact that they could no longer deport to the death camps. So, with the help of the fascist Arrow Cross militia, 3,500 people, including 800 Jews, were taken to the banks of the river, ordered to take off their shoes, and shot, so that they fell into the river.
This trip has been full of such contrasts. The picturesque alongside the reminders of genocide. The Communist concrete blocks alongside the baroque. If I get the chance to come back to these cities, it’s these contrasts that I will want to explore. I want to find the Stolpersteine in all of these cities, as I sought out the plaques on the walls of Paris that tell of resistance and persecution. In these cities that embody our notions of culture, of beauty, of civilisation, people were rounded up, herded into ghettos, deported to camps and murdered because they were Jews, or Roma, or gay, or communist, or because they opposed the murderous ideology that would destroy people because of who they were. That history is ever more vital, as so many European nations seem to be drawn to nationalism and xenophobia once again.
It was poignant to be in Europe on the centenary of the Armistice, and to recall that the young men in those three nations who would be commemorated would have all fought against ‘us’. I thought of this again watching Kevin Puts’ opera Silent Night at Leeds Town Hall, which portrayed the 1914 Christmas truce through the voices of German, French and Scottish soldiers.
And I thought, with sadness and anger of how our union with all of those European nations is portrayed as something that oppresses and exploits us, rather than something from which we gain immeasurably, economically and culturally and in so many other ways. And I so wanted to dissociate myself from my government (and opposition) and from so many of my compatriots as our tour managers and guides made reference to Brexit, ironically, regretfully, in bafflement and in hurt.
So if I can I will go back, to Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna, and wander around in the way I enjoy, looking for the places where history bubbles up into the present.
I’d also love to go back on the river though, to recapture that sense of peace.
October 1990, I’m expecting my first child. After a straightforward pregnancy, we’re now getting slightly anxious that the baby is overdue and no signs that he/she is going to make an appearance without intervention. I’ve got a NCT birth plan and everything, but once the process of induction is underway that goes out of the window. I work my way up through the hierarchy of pain control, barely bothering with the gas and air, quite enjoying the pethidine until it ceases to really touch the edges of the pain. Epidural now, that does the trick. Blissful moments of peace. But still no baby, so we’re now looking at a Caesarean, and I’m conscious but pain-free as they lift him out of my belly.
Pain and exhaustion and bliss all at once. A few weeks later, at home with our son, and he’s crying all the time. Really, all the time. Nothing seems to make it better. I don’t know whether there’s something wrong, or I’m doing it wrong, but then at the 8 week check-up at the GPs, we find out that he’s lost weight. The baby books are full of reassurances that you shouldn’t panic if your baby hasn’t gained as much as the charts say, but none of them tell us that we shouldn’t panic if he has lost weight. Next day I’m at the maternity hospital for a post-C-section checkup and hand the baby to a nurse whilst they examine me. My consultant sees him and tells us to go to the Children’s Hospital A&E. Now. Don’t go home first. We head straight there and the baby and I don’t leave for a fortnight.
The consultant is baffled, but we’re taken care of and I’m looked after when I go down with a tummy bug a few hours after we’re admitted. And soon they’ve got the baby on medication and he’s starting to recover – turns out his adrenal gland either never kicked in when he was born, or stopped working, and so those hormones need to be replaced artificially. He also has to have a minor op to correct vesicoureteric reflux which is causing recurrent UTIs (one of which may have triggered the adrenal shutdown).
Once he’s settled on the meds he’s a different baby. We have a regime of medication, and an emergency kit to inject him if he has an accident or something that might provoke another shutdown, given that his meds are just keeping him at normal hormonal balance, not fight or flight levels (we never used it). He’s got regular outpatients appointments to check on his progress, and when he’s eighteen months old he goes back into hospital and is taken off the meds to see how he responds. Amazingly, his adrenal gland kicks straight in, and whilst no one can fully explain what went wrong and then what went right, he’s now a healthy small person, albeit with one kidney that’s just at the lowest level of functionality. The hospital keeps on monitoring him for several years, and whilst we continue to be anxious for a while, gradually we learn not to be. We are, as he is, incredibly and for ever grateful for the NHS staff who spotted that there was a problem and then put in place all the resources to solve it.
That is the most dramatic #NHS70 story we’ve got. But our reliance on the system has continued. It saw us through the birth of our daughter, a problematic delivery after which I needed a blood transfusion (which, ironically, is the reason both why I so much wanted to donate blood myself, and why I can’t). Between the four of us we’ve sampled pretty much all of the various outpatient clinics at the Children’s/Royal Hallamshire/Northern General. Appendicitis, type 2 diabetes, asthma, hypertrophic cardiac myopathy, hypersomnia, depression, and all the usual ear/chest infections, minor injuries, plus breast screening, smear tests, bowel cancer screening, blood tests, diabetic check-ups, retinal neuropathy screening… We’ve had help from a panoply of GPs, practice nurses, consultants, registrars, hospital nurses, physiotherapists, healthcare assistants, surgeons and counsellors.
We’ve got so many reasons to be grateful – we know that the system is over-stretched, we know that there’s a problem where medical treatment and social care intersect (or should), and of course not all consultants, nurses, GPs, healthcare assistants or therapists are as helpful, as good at listening, as each other.
But whilst it’s under-resourced, and whilst the quality of treatment will vary from area to area, from person to person, and from medical condition to medical condition, some things are constant.
We’ve had our share of worry – from the paralysing terror of losing a baby to the niggling anxiety that this lump or that twinge might presage something serious. But we’ve never had to worry about whether or not we could afford to get that niggle checked out. We’ve never had the fear that the cost of treatment would drive us into debt. We’ve always known that it’s there for us.
It’s original core principles were:
- that it meet the needs of everyone
- that it be free at the point of delivery
- that it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay
Those principles have been expanded upon over the last seventy years, as society has changed, and as our understanding of what ‘the needs of everyone’ might entail has deepened. But fundamentally, what we as a family have called upon when we needed it is the NHS as Nye Bevan envisaged it. It’s met our needs. It’s been free at the point of delivery. And it has never, ever, given a damn about our ability to pay.
To those across the pond who talk of NHS death panels whilst so many of their citizens avoid seeking medical help for fear of the medical bills – check your facts, and check your privilege. If your citizens really understood what we have here, they would want it for themselves, and they would be willing to pay for it through taxation, if they knew that they would never again have to fear the cost of treatment.
To those closer to home who want the service to die the death of a thousand cuts, to point to its deficiencies as evidence that it doesn’t work, to privatise it bit by bit until those core principles no longer mean a damn thing – know this, we will fight you every step of the way. We have something precious and we won’t let you take it away.
To the NHS, and all who work within it, thank you, we love you. And Happy Birthday.
a chance for all of us to be more open about mental health – to talk, to listen, to change lives.
The responses I received to that blog post were uniformly supportive and understanding, and reinforced the message of Time to Talk Day, that so many people are struggling with issues of mental health – their own or that of people they are close to – and are grateful and reassured to find that they are not as alone as they might feel.
Since I wrote that blog post it hasn’t been plain sailing. I didn’t really think it would be.
It’s a part of me, I think, that propensity to slip into the pit. I stay out of it mainly by being busy enough, with lots of things I care about and that bring me joy, but not so busy that I succumb to anxiety and sleepless nights and feelings of panic. I know the signs now, and can usually take preventative steps before I start to slip.
That holds true – but I was overwhelmed for a while, not long after writing that piece, and needed a lot of help (not just self-help) to get through. I was lucky to find a wonderful counsellor who worked with me for almost a year to help me to develop strategies to relax, to allay panic, to feel more confident when I went into what I knew would be difficult situations. Some of those strategies were physical – putting my arms on the table rather than crossed defensively, with my hands open rather than clenched, and popping into the Ladies and standing, feet a little bit apart, hands on hips, shoulders back. A little bit like…
Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy argues that “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can boost feelings of confidence, and might have an impact on our chances for success.
I can vouch for this. When you feel under attack your instincts are to drop your shoulders, to make yourself small (less of a target), to protect yourself physically, which stops you breathing so freely, which in turn creates or increases a sense of anxiety. If you stand like Wonder Woman you’re changing your breathing – it’s an expansive posture. Now, no one is suggesting that you swan into whatever situation it is that you’re dreading, and take up that stance. That’s a hell of a sassy stance, and it might be counter-productive. But a few minutes, in private, standing, and breathing, can help you get through what follows.
I used these approaches as survival techniques in an ongoing crisis rather than as a long-term strategy to enhance my confidence. To be honest, outside of that situation, I didn’t lack confidence in the workplace – I knew I was knowledgeable, experienced, capable, intelligent and a good communicator. I just didn’t know it right then.
That situation is long over, and I have had no serious brushes with depression since it was resolved. But it contributed to my decision to retire from work, rather earlier than I might otherwise have done, and it’s made it harder for me to look back with pride and pleasure at my achievements throughout my career.
I can live with that. I’m doing other things, things that I am unequivocally proud of.
What is becoming a bit of an issue is anxiety. I’m more or less continuously anxious these days. For me it’s a physical sensation, a tightness in my chest and throat, there most of the time with particularly strong twinges at seemingly random moments. And of course at 3 am – or 5 am – things look ‘worse and worse and worse’…
Fleur Adcock – Things
There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.
The tightness becomes almost painful, there’s a weight on me that’s affecting my breathing. I can feel my heart thudding, racing, skipping beats.
The uselessness of it is infuriating. Of the things that are on my mind, there are some about which I can take sensible action – but not at 3 am. And often it’s a carousel of worries, round and round, from one to another, from real things that I might be right to be concerned about, to general forebodings, to things that any sensible person would not waste a moment’s panic about, round and round, on and on…
I’ve tried my usual ‘how to get back to sleep when the thoughts come crowding in’ techniques but they aren’t really working at the moment. I have yet to meet a relaxation tape which hasn’t made me want to throw it across the room and then stamp on it very hard indeed. Right now, the one thing I’m trying which is working – at least in the daytime – is to visualise the particular worry that’s constricting my breathing right now as a thread that I can let go of and watch it float away.
I know I’m not alone with this struggle. But I also know I need to get better at coping with it, because anxiety at this level – and the sleepless nights that go with it – can push me into the depression that I dread. It can also stop me doing things that I need and want to do.
Why am I sharing this? Because I know I’m not alone, and you need to know that too. Because we can maybe share our experiences, share the strategies that have worked for us, give each other a virtual or a real hug when we meet, remind each other that this too shall pass.
I know that my depression and my anxiety are minor irritants compared to what so many people have to deal with. But the walking wounded, those who probably aren’t on medication, or using mental health services, may be missing out on so much joy, on the possibility of pleasurable rather than dread-filled anticipation. And the world is missing out too, on the energy and passion and talent that we can give in so many fields, or could, if we weren’t lying awake every night with a heavy weight of anxiety pinning us down and sapping our strength.
The simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl
We need to remember that, and this:
As you look around you, in a lecture or a meeting, at a party or a gig, there will be people there, talking and laughing and making decisions and relating to those around them, who are or have been in the grip of depression or anxiety, who are struggling with or have struggled with obsessive compulsive behaviour or eating disorders, who are experiencing or have known the intense highs and lows of bipolar disorder. You’ll never know, unless they dare to share it with you.
It’s time for change. It’s time to talk.
‘Finally the tables are starting to turn…’
Listening to Jumoke Fashola singing Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution’ as I write, and it almost feels like we could be at one of those moments when things do change, when the weight of our fury, unexpressed or suppressed for so long, can bring about real and lasting change.
Ask me in a few months or a year, and I may have to acknowledge that, despite my 60 years, I am still hopelessly naive and idealistic. But today it feels like the tables are starting to turn.
There are of course plenty of voices raised against us. There’s talk of witch hunts. There’s talk of how of course this sort of thing was fine 15 years ago. There’s talk of how this is all down to the collapse of the established moral order (because feminism) in which men and women could mix happily (it’s unclear whether the argument is that such things didn’t happen then, or that women knew their place and didn’t make a fuss about it). The women who speak up are labelled as pushy, ruthlessly ambitious, or as having a political agenda (derailing Brexit, undermining the Party, whatever). Or we’re just belittled as ‘squawking and flapping‘.
Let’s remind ourselves of what a witch hunt was. It was when the powerful in society attempted to pin the blame for bad things on to someone who was isolated, who was weak, often old, and almost always female. Not quite what’s going on here. Some are invoking McCarthyism (always linked to the witch hunt since Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) but again that’s not really what’s happening. In the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities investigations and trials, powerful people were encouraging the denunciation and punishment of those who were rumoured to or indeed actually did have links to left-wing politics.
Now the anonymous spreadsheet does have a whiff of injustice about it – the inclusion of extramarital affairs suggests a ‘moral’ agenda which is really not relevant to the issue of sexual harassment. This is likely to be more of a distraction than anything else. Its cowardly anonymity is in sharp contrast to the accounts we are hearing daily now, where women are going public about their own experiences, their own hurt and humiliation and damage, and about exactly who did that to them.
These women aren’t plotting with each other to overthrow the patriarchy, or to revenge themselves against men who’ve done them wrong. They’re only linked to each other by that common experience, and they’re only powerful now because they have given each other the courage to speak about that experience, and because there are so many of them that they can’t be silenced or ridiculed into shutting up. Not any more.
And let’s nail this nonsense about how ‘a hand on the knee’ was perfectly fine 15 or 20 years ago. My working life goes back to the late 1970s, and although such behaviour was very much more common then, we weren’t ok with it. Really, we weren’t. If we didn’t say anything it was for the same reason that people don’t speak out now – because we were less powerful than the people who were harassing us. In the mid-’80s people did talk about sexual harassment in the workplace. It was most definitely a thing. From the very early ’90s I was a harassment officer at a University, dealing with complaints of sexual and racial harassment and of bullying, so I’ve heard all the excuses.
‘It’s just banter’. ‘It was a compliment.’ ‘She’s so over-sensitive.’ ‘Yes I said that, but that wasn’t harassment.’ ‘It’s all a fuss about nothing.’ ‘It was all consensual.’
It happened, and we had policies to deal with it, and people to support the complainants, and we ran training sessions for line managers so they were aware of those policies and support structures.
Workplace harassment is about power – always. Whether that power rests in seniority, in majority, in gender, age or ethnicity, the harasser holds power and uses it to get what they want, to silence, and to punish if they don’t get what they want.
As is the case in other types of violence against women, sexual harassment is
inextricably linked with power. Whether the perpetrator is abusing a position
of power by harassing someone they see as less powerful, or whether the
perpetrator feels powerless and is using sexual harassment as a means to
disempower the target of their harassment and thus increase their own
power and status in the workplace. Several studies have found that
perpetrators of sexual harassment tend to be in a position of power over the
target of the harassment. The disempowering impact of sexual harassment
was a recurrent theme in union members’ responses to a TUC survey on
sexual harassment. Shame, humiliation, and a sense of being undermined
professionally were all cited by respondents.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that the stories which are coming out now are for the most part stories of workplace harassment. They are stories about actors auditioning for film roles, writers meeting with TV executives to talk about a script, journalists meeting with politicians. Even if the place where it happened is not a workplace per se (a bar or a restaurant or a hotel room) the context is that of someone doing their job, or trying to get a job.
None of us are really surprised that the women who are finally telling their stories – stories they may never have told anyone before, or only shared with a few close friends – are labelled as pushy. Any woman who speaks out, any woman who disagrees publicly with a man, any woman who challenges a man is pushy, strident, aggressive. I know this. In my almost forty years in the workplace, I’ve often been the only woman on a committee, and I rapidly discovered that if I wanted to be heard, I had to be determined, I had to not be deterred by being interrupted or talked over, I had to raise my voice (increased volume rather than higher pitch – heavens, mustn’t be shrill…). So I’ve been told, over and over, that I’m pushy, strident, aggressive.
If we stand up for ourselves, that’s what we get. If we don’t, we are assumed to be compliant and complicit. In reality we are engaging in a constant process of evaluating and avoiding risk. Looking for escape routes, for allies, for witnesses. Warning each other. Assessing at what point and how loudly we protest or refuse. Wondering what that protest or refusal may cost us.
There’s a clip circulating on Twitter of the magnificent Jo Brand on HIGNFY telling the blokes about how we feel under siege, how the constant, if low-level pattern of harassment wears us down. From the looks on their faces, I’m not sure they really got it.
I suspect very few men do and that’s because their experience of life is likely to be so different to ours, but also because we don’t often tell them what it’s like for us. We don’t tell them because we’re embarrassed, because we fear we may be blamed (what were you wearing? were you drunk? why did you share a taxi with him?), or because ‘our’ man might feel obliged to go and be manly and challenge our harasser to some kind of duel… And it’s no good asking them to imagine it happening to them, unless we make it clear we’re not asking them to fantasise about Lupita N’yongo or Romola Garai stroking their knee without asking permission first – we’re asking them to imagine someone they don’t fancy, someone they’re intimidated by, someone who has power over them – someone like Weinstein, trapping them in a hotel room and pinning them down, using physical as well as social power against them. We’ve been telling each other, for years (watch out for that one, a bit handsy, NSIT, etc) but now we’re telling men. Some of them are listening.
Some of them, of course are worried. Worried because they know damn well that even if they’re not and never have been as monstrous as Weinstein, they have crossed the line in their behaviour towards women, and they are wondering whether and when those women might speak out.
Charles Moore is worried for a different reason. He acknowledges that this is all about power. And he sees this as a moment when power has shifted.
This scandal shows that women are now on top. I pray they share power with men, not crush us
I think he’s being over optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on your point of view). I don’t think the patriarchy is history. It’s pretty resilient, and I think it will survive, overall. But I do think something has shifted. Some men are questioning their own behaviour, and some are questioning their own failure to challenge the behaviour of others.
What we’re asking for, really, isn’t so very radical or scary. It’s that men treat us as if – just imagine! – we are real people, as real as them, whose wishes and intentions, whose fears and hopes, are as real as theirs, and who can make choices, even choices that don’t suit those men. If over half of the world’s people are being subjected to varying degrees of harassment, abuse and assault because of their gender, isn’t that something about which we all ought to care? And if all this is happening in the context of equality legislation and harassment policies and so on, one can guarantee things will be so so much tougher for women in countries where there are fewer protections and a culture that reinforces prejudices against them.
The thing about speaking out, when you’ve spent so long not doing it, is that it can be exhilarating, liberating, intoxicating. We’re not going to be shutting up any time soon. And that has to mean that we – the privileged, who have access to power and the means of communication – speak out for the many girls and women who can’t.
Cause finally the tables are starting to turn
Talkin’ bout a revolution
Well, someone forced me to do it. In so far as they challenged me to do it. Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on. Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:
So, 60 books in 60 days, starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September. This is the final instalment of my reading diary, covering the final four days, along with general reflections on the project, and a full list of everything I’ve read.
25 September. Day 57 – Reading Christopher Hitchens’ cancer memoir, Mortality, I am reminded of a good friend, Jos Kingston, who was diagnosed with an inoperable tumour in 2004, and died in 2007. Reading his words, I was struck that it could have been Jos talking:
To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not? … People don’t have cancer: They are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. … Whatever view one takes of the outcome being affected by morale, it seems certain that the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else.
I recall Jos saying that she wasn’t fighting cancer, she was negotiating with it. That if she adapted her lifestyle to conserve energy, reduce stress and maximise general health, it might allow her for as long as possible to enjoy the things she’d always enjoyed – walks in the countryside near her home, music, books. That worked for her, for much longer than the medics might have anticipated.
I think also, of course, of another dear friend, Tim Richardson, who didn’t manage to confound the initial predictions of ‘how long’, despite chemo. He too wrote about his experiences, and he started the charity, Inspiration for Life, which I chair, and which raises funds for cancer research and treatment.
Mortality is a brief book – too brief, which has all sorts of layers of meaning in this context. But I need not have worried about it being gloomy fare. It starts with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and explores what follows from that in a clear-sighted, unsentimental and unsparing manner. The thread running through it is what he calls ‘an arduous awareness’ and it’s tough to read but somehow uplifting.
In total contrast, I’m now reading Harlan Coben’s Home. This is a late entry in a fairly long-running series, and I’ve read nothing previously by him (though I did see a French film a few years back which it turns out was based on one of his novels, Tell No One). He’s one of the super best-seller thriller writers to whom I might not normally be drawn (though see my earlier caveats about not being snooty about so-called genre fiction, which at its best is a long way from merely generic) – but it was a Kindle freebie so worth a punt at that price. It’s a nice blend between a hard-boiled Chandleresque style, often quite funny even when being pretty brutal, and a more nuanced focus on emotion, trauma, grief and love. The women are utterly beautiful, the men fit and handsome, and most of them are unimaginably rich, but it’s not without subtlety, nonetheless, and Coben certainly insists that you keep turning the pages, not just to find out the twists and turns of the plot but because he’s made you care about the characters. I’d happily read more of his.
Also finished Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. It’s set in eastern Norway, and focuses on the events of the summer of 1948. Beautifully constructed, beautifully written. As the Independent‘s review said, ‘unawareness and awareness, ignorance and knowledge, innocence and experience chase each other’, both for the protagonist, and for the reader.
Next: Stevie Davies’ Awakening, and Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland.
I’ve read several of Davies’ novels in the past, most recently Into Suez, and always enjoy her writing. Looking for Transwonderland is a memoir from the daughter of murdered activist Ken Saro-Wiwa of her return to Nigeria after a decade.
26 September. Day 58 – Stevie Davies is always a fascinating writer, and this is set in a fascinating period:
Wiltshire 1860: One year after Darwin’s explosive publication of The Origin of Species, sisters Anna and Beatrice Pentecost awaken to a world shattered by science, radicalism and the stirrings of feminist rebellion; a world of charismatic religious movements, Spiritualist séances, bitter loss and medical trauma.
It’s very moving, but also acerbically funny in its portrayal of the excesses of evangelical zeal:
Even dear Mrs Spurgeon confesses that she keeps a close eye on Mr Spurgeon whenever he seems apocalyptically inclined.
Spurgeon (and dear Mrs S) are not the only real historical figures who feature here, but the focus of the novel is on the two sisters, and on ‘sisterly love, jealousy and betrayal’.
27 September. Day 59 – finished Noo Saro-Wiwa’s memoir of her return to Nigeria. She visits places that I saw as a child in the north of the country (Jos, Kano, Yankari Game Reserve) as well as parts of the country I never knew (Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja). Her father is a powerful (and unsentimentally portrayed) presence throughout, both at the personal level and in terms of the politics that led to his murder. Nonetheless the book is full of humour, and ultimately of a deep affection for the country, with all its chaos, corruption and division – its ‘jagga jagga’, as they say there.
Treated myself to Jan Carson’s Postcard Stories. It is, as the title says, a series of micro stories, each sent in postcard form to a friend, from various Belfast locations. There were originally 362 postcards, and 52 have been selected for the publication. They are funny, poignant, surreal, sometimes all at once. I do like the idea of teeny tiny stories, almost more than most ‘proper’ short stories which I find sometimes fall disappointingly between two stools. Cath Staincliffe, whose long-form fiction I’ve been enjoying for years now, publishes some flash fiction on her website, along with poems. And then there’s MicroSFF on Twitter.
And on to Giorgio Bassani’s Italian classic, The Garden of the Finzi Continis. Published in 1962, its setting is Ferrara, Italy in 1939, as racial laws begin to affect the lives of two Jewish families. There’s something of Sebald here.
This is the most oblique of Holocaust books. These Jews are affluent, educated, assured, assimilated. They are part of the fabric of Ferrara life and have been for centuries. And yet you know. That’s the saddest thing of all: right from the beginning, you know because the narrator knows. You know they will all be blown away “light as leaves, as bits of paper”; while they don’t. And at the end you, like him, will be bereft.
I’ve been meaning to read this since a fellow student spoke very powerfully about it at a postgraduate colloquium earlier this year, and I’m so very glad I have done.
Off to New York now, in 1943, but there’s no hint of the shadows that linger around the garden of the Finzi-Continis. This is Breakfast at Tiffany’s, another 20th-century American classic that I’ve somehow missed out on reading until now. I’ve not seen the film, either, so although my image of Holly Golightly is inevitably influenced by that of Audrey Hepburn, I’m not conscious of other differences between book and film. I was intrigued to read, however, that Capote himself favoured Monroe rather than Hepburn in the role.
28 September. Day 60! Yes, by midnight tonight I will have finished reading my 60 books. No sweat, no pressure.
Just finished Jennifer Johnston‘s The Captains and the Kings. This was Johnston’s debut – in which the ‘turbulent history of 20th-century Ireland’ is background to a story of loneliness and isolation, of youth and age. It’s beautifully written, somehow out of time so that the past – the First World War in which Charles Prendergast fought, and the brother who died at Gallipoli, his shadowy wife, his distant parents – has a firmer reality than the present, such that I wondered when it was set. There’s a reference to ’55 years ago’ though, so the narrative is contemporaneous with the book’s creation. It’s a very simple story, in a way, and one where tragedy seems inevitable, but no less powerful for that. I am certain I read something by Johnston years ago, but cannot remember which – perhaps Shadows on the Skin, or The Old Jest?
On to my final book. Laura Lippman is one of my favourite crime writers, both for her stand-alone novels, and for the wonderful Tess Monaghan series about a Baltimore PI. This is her most recent novel, Wilde Lake.
And it’s excellent. Although the plot is complex and twisty-turny, what drives the novel, as always with Lippman, is character. Families, secrets, memory and the tricks it plays.
The present is swollen with self-regard for itself, but soon enough the present becomes the past. This present, this day, this very moment we inhabit – it will all be held accountable for the things it didn’t know, didn’t understand.
The things we don’t know, the things we don’t understand.
A great way to finish this challenge.
And that’s it! I guess I could take some time off from reading for a while now, but hey, that’s never going to happen.
From the moment when I could read for myself I’ve read hungrily, ravenously. I’ve read like it’s about to be made illegal, like I might suddenly lose the facility and words return to the mystifying symbols they were when I was 3 years old.
I read fast, like a hungry person eats. If I didn’t read fast, I could never have read 60 books in 60 days, of course. Do I sometimes miss things, details and subtleties, because I’m racing through – yes. And sometimes I wish I could slow down not just so that I can better savour the book I’m reading, but because I don’t want to run out. When I was young, I frequently ran out of ‘my’ books – Puffins for the most part, wonderful classics of children’s literature – and headed for my parents’ bookshelves where I encountered adult classics (such as Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Morte d’Arthur) and read and understood what I could, re-reading as I got older and could reach a fuller and richer appreciation. As an adult, packing for holidays pre-Kindle, I would fill a case with books, realise there’s no room for shoes or toiletries, discard some books and then squeeze them in somehow, because I can’t bear the thought of ending up stuck in a holiday cottage in the rain with nothing to read. A serious case of abibliophobia.
Even as a child I read critically. I read Enid Blyton, because her books were ubiquitous, but because I was also reading Leon Garfield, Rosemary Sutcliff, C S Lewis, and so many other truly fine writers, I was aware of what she lacked that they had, and I read her in the way that one might read a trashy novel on holiday because it’s the only thing to hand.
But I’ve never rejected something purely because of its genre or a schlocky cover (the latter did put me off Stephen King for a while, but I gave him a try and was instantly and permanently converted). That would have ruled out so many of the books and writers that I have loved. I have, though, chucked many a book aside, straight into the charity bag, if its prose clunks, its dialogue is rigid with cliché or its characters are flat and tedious stereotypes. But everything in this list, in all its rich variety, was rewarding to read.
So this last 60 days has been a blast. It’s been a source of pressure, particularly when I’ve had unexpected periods when reading has been impossible, and I’ve panicked about falling behind. It’s been a discipline – in the interstices of the day when I might otherwise faff about on social media or the like, instead, I’ve been reaching for a book, and I hope to keep that up, albeit in a less extreme form. But most of all it’s been a delight, and writing about the books after I’ve read them has been a pleasure too – it was something I wanted to do to ensure this wasn’t an arbitrary exercise, reducing the books to a number, or even just to a list, and also to force me to pause each time I finished a book, think about it, gather my thoughts and write them down before picking up the next one.
Anyway, here’s the list:
- Kate Atkinson – Case Histories (2004)
- Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
- Julian Barnes – Levels of Life (2013)
- Giorgio Bassani – The Garden of the Finzi Continis (1962)
- Alan Bennett – Untold Stories (2005)
- Sam Bourne – To Kill the President (2017)
- Frank Cottrell Boyce – The Unforgotten Coat (2011)
- David Boyle – Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance (2017)
- T C Boyle – Talk Talk (2006)
- Andrea Camilleri – August Heat (2009)
- Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffanys (1958)
- John le Carré – The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life (2016)
- Jan Carson – Postcard Stories (2017)
- Jane Casey – The Last Girl (2012)
- Ken Clarke – Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir (2016)
- Harlan Coben – Home (2016)
- Stevie Davies – Awakening (2013)
- Roddy Doyle – Two Pints (2012)
- Helen Dunmore – The Betrayal (2010)
- Helen Fitzgerald – The Cry (2013)
- Aminatta Forna – The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest (2003)
- Jo Furniss – All the Little Children (2017)
- Patrick Gale – The Whole Day Through (2009)
- Valentina Giambanco – The Gift of Darkness (2013)
- Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze (2017)
- David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017)
- Jarlath Gregory – The Organised Criminal (2015)
- Mohsin Hamid – The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
- Jane Harper – The Dry (2017)
- A S A Harrison – The Silent Wife (2013)
- Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms (1929)
- Christopher Hitchens – Mortality (2012)
- Andrew Michael Hurley – The Loney (2014)
- Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
- Jennifer Johnston – The Captains and the Kings (1972)
- Andrea Levy – Uriah’s War (2014)
- Laura Lippman – Wilde Lake (2016)
- Peter Lovesey – The Last Detective (1991)
- Ben Macintyre – Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman (2007)
- Hilary Mantel – The Giant, O’Brien (1998)
- Daphne du Maurier – Julius (1933)
- Livi Michael – Succession (2015)
- Caitlin Moran – Moranifesto (2016)
- Sarah Moss – Cold Earth (2009)
- Fay Musselwhite – Contraflow (2016)
- Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood (1952)
- Nii Ayikwei Parkes – Tail of the Blue Bird (2009)
- Michelle Paver – Thin Air (2016)
- Per Petterson – Out Stealing Horses (2005)
- Caryl Phillips – The Final Passage (1995)
- Philip Roth – The Plot against America (2004)
- Donal Ryan – The Thing about December (2013)
- Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012)
- Elif Shafak – Three Daughters of Eve (2016)
- Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Project (2014)
- Ali Smith – Hotel World (2001)
- Tom Rob Smith – The Farm (2014)
- M L Stedman – The Light between Oceans (2012)
- Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata (2016)
- H G Wells – The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)
I didn’t plan what I would read. I started by raiding my Kindle and the ‘to read’ pile by my bed, and adding books that friends recommended or lent. The selection was mainly based on being not too long, not too hard, and not read before – so it’s pleasing to see the variety in the list above.
- Exactly 50% of the writers are women.
- 80% of the books are fiction, of the remainder one is poetry, the others are history or memoir.
- 58% of the writers are new to me. And what’s best about that is that I will want to follow up most of those, to read all of their stuff.
- The earliest book on the list is the H G Wells, from 1896. Slightly to my surprise, over a third are from 2016-2017 and over half from 2010 onwards. I guess this fits with the bias towards new-to-me writers.
- Just over half of the writers are from the UK, 9 from the US, 4 each from Australia and from the Republic of Ireland, 2 each from Italy and from Canada, 3 from West Africa, one each from Pakistan, Norway, Turkey.
Stories can make you fly, and over the last 60 days I’ve flown to Pembroke castle in the 15th century, rural Ireland in the 1780s, Wiltshire in the 1860s, Oklahoma in the 1920s, Kanchenjunga in 1935, Ferrara in 1939, New York in 1943, Norway and Switzerland in wartime and the immediate postwar period, Leningrad in 1952, the Caribbean in 1958, Romania in 1989. I’ve flown to an archaeological dig in Greenland, to the Ghanaian hinterland, to Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Oslo and Seattle and Chicago and New Jersey and Sicily. And into more speculative areas too, dystopian near futures and a mysterious island in the Pacific… That’s what reading can do for you.
Thanks to everyone who’s supported me in this, who’s lent or suggested books, liked/retweeted my blog posts and updates. I hope that some of you will now have some books to add to your ‘must read’ list – I’d love to know if so, especially if you read and enjoy something you might not otherwise have thought of.
And thank you most of all to Alan, Ali, Aminatta, Andrea C and Andrea L, Andrew, Ben, Caitlin, Caryl, Christopher, Daphne, David B and David G, Donal, Elif, Ernest, Fay, Flannery, Frank, Giorgio, Graeme, Harlan, Helen D and Helen F, Herbert, Hilary, Jan, Jane C and Jane H, Jarlath, Jennifer, Jo, John, Julian, Kate, Ken, Laura, Lesley, Livi, Margaret, Margot, Michelle, Mohsin, Nii, Noo, Patrick, Per, Peter, Philip, Roddy, Rose, Sam, Sarah, Shirley, Stevie, Susan, Thomas, Tom, Truman, and Valentina
With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss – you are the mathematical calculation that plots the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin. You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head, which will remain with you till the day you die. These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone. (Caitlin Moran, ‘Reading is Fierce’, from Moranifesto)
The world of literature … offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything — other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart. (Mary Oliver)
The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. (Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby)
So, ten years time, 70 books in 70 days? Challenge (provisionally) accepted!