Gaining My Politics

Books that have shaped my world view

The date today is 1st October, 2020. It is the first day of Black History Month in the UK. Two days ago, Trump and Biden had their first televised debate of the US election. The Coronavirus pandemic has now been ravaging the planet for almost a year. About 4 months ago, George Floyd’s death saw people all over the world standing up for the Black Lives Matter movement. My personal life has also been a series of challenges this year, with events that deeply shook my sense of self and my place in this world.

In short, it has been quite a year. My cultural and political allegiances have been pulled apart and pushed into a new shape I can’t see clearly just yet. And lately, it has got me thinking about the books that have shaped my politics from a young age up the present. Some of these books are the result of deliberate searching; others simply fell into my lap at the perfect moment. Books are like that – they only come along when you really need them. They only show their true worth when you are ready to receive it.

What follows is an account of some of the books that have made me the political being I am today.

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Noughts & Crosses, Penguin Random House Children’s UK

I read Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses series at the age of 16. It was a year of bookish consumption and gluttony. I read hurriedly and greedily, skipping from book to book. From classics of the literary canon (Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Persuasion) to modern classics, revolutionary titles, fantasy and teen fiction. None of them imposed on me by a curriculum.

I read Blackman’s entire series within a couple of weeks. (I should point out that I am not a fast reader, so that’s pretty monumental by my standards – you will find this to be a recurring theme in this blog.) I think it would be fair to say that the speed with which I read may have undermined the messages I should have learned from it. But as a teenager, I was far more interested in the action itself, rather than the politics that was undeniably the driver to it all. What I remember most about the story isn’t the incredible overturning of racial stereotypes. What I remember most is the tension and the sexual awakening of the character’s lovers – a tragic Romeo and Juliet narrative.

But whether I realised it or not, this book was teaching me so much more about politics – race and terrorism.

Crossfire is the fifth part of the series, only published last year (2019). I have not read this latest addition.

Seventy-Two Virgins by Boris Johnson

Seventy-Two Virgins, HarperCollins Publishers

This book was part of that same year of voracious reading, when I spent most lunch times with my nose in my book rather than talking to my peers. I come from a Conservative family and at the age of 16, as is the case for many young people, my politics mainly consisted of parroting what I heard my parents say. At that time, if someone asked who I would vote for, I would probably have said Tory, although I couldn’t have told you why. At that time, all I really knew about Boris Johnson was that he seemed like an affable clown that got stuck dangling over London once, while abseiling to advertise the London Olympic bid. But my dad would say he was very smart, in spite of that, and that he liked Boris. So that’s why I picked up this book from my school library when I came across it.

My mature political (and staunchly liberal) leanings colour my remembrance of this book. But at the time, I did not see what I would now, that it was undoubtedly affirming damaging racist stereotypes. At the age of 16, I read it with the eyes of a child and the shallow political identity one gains from parents through osmosis.  I did not read with depth or with agenda. I learnt a few things about the process of parliament and was presented with some opinions on terrorism.

But really, Johnson’s novel did not leave much of a mark on me. I hope I am being true to my recollection when I say that this is simply because the writing did not inspire me. My reason for recounting it now is because I sat here thinking about which books have brought a new perspective into my personal political landscape. And as awkward as I feel in sharing this, I read a book written by our current Prime Minister during my formative years, so it would be obtuse of me to omit from this account.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin Books Ltd

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four in the summer I turned 17. At that age, my A-level English Literature studies had introduced me to what the syllabus termed “Critical Reading” – i.e literary criticism. We were quite deliberately encouraged to start reading with greater context and to consider alternative viewpoints. It was during these lessons I first heard the word Marxism. I was still without the understanding that would allow me to generate real life responses to what I read, but it was a beginning.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was perhaps the first novel I read with real, if immature, political awareness. The ideas this book related were truly mind-boggling, incredible and terrifying. Language as a weapon and a tool of oppression. As an adult, I have seen some of these tactics in practise and I am fearful for the path that lies ahead for our global political landscape.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale, Vintage Publishing

Once again, this book came at around the same time as those previously recounted – I read The Handmaid’s Tale in its entirety on one November night at the age of 17. I vividly remember staying up to read this book through the night. I could not put it down until I was done, and I mean that quite literally. To this day, I cannot recall another novel that has so captured me.

The Handmaid’s Tale is characterised by taboo. Both the topics under discussion and the actions of the characters are driven by the things we “should not talk about”. The role of women in society is painfully distorted, with particular attention on the function of sexual intercourse and menstruation.

The TV adaptation came along a few years ago and the book’s sequel, The Testaments, was last year’s joint Man Booker Prize winner. The ardour I hold for the original text meant I was very nervous about whether these more recent incarnations would hold up. Thankfully, they do.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlyn Moran

How To Be A Woman, Ebury Publishing

Skipping forward several years now, to the age of 25. At this time, I undertook a rather deliberate search for feminism. It took me some time to be confidently and vocally feminist and I can cite Caitlyn Moran as part of that journey. In this biographical work, Moran discusses her own journey to womanhood. She references Germaine Greer (author of The Female Eunuch) several times, but not with the blind adoration of a sycophant: with perspective that felt refreshing and personal. One of such references is how Moran came to stand on a chair and shout, “I am a feminist!” I did this when I went for a walk in the woods not long ago. I said it loudly and proudly and it felt freeing and wonderful.

There was a time when I was not so loud and proud. I used to fear being labelled as “one of those girls” (deciding to call myself a woman rather than a girl is another recent development). By which I mean being labelled as “difficult”. Accusations get thrown at people who call themselves feminist: man-haters that don’t truly believe in equality and can’t take a joke. With any political movement, the individuals that make up the whole can hold vastly different ideas. Political movements evolve, splinter groups form with ideals and goals of their own that might be at complete odds with the rest, but they are all under the banner of Feminism. There are people in this world who call themselves feminists that are doing more harm than good, people I would strongly disagree with.

But what I mean when I say “Feminism” is equality. They are, to my mind, synonyms. But Equality, with a capital “E”, is very busy these days, with so many kinds of injustice to overcome. So we separate the issues under subtitles that allow us to focus our attention on one at a time. Intersectionality, which I learnt about it in the next book, is a more recent term that asks us to consider all the factors that result in inequality concurrently, because only in this way, so advocates believe, can we make real positive change.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started on this title earlier this year (aged 26). But I know that I was prepared to find it difficult. The title sets up the reader for confrontation and, as a general rule, I don’t do well with confrontation. Furthermore, although I, like many a modern person, believe myself to be an advocate for equality and anti-racism, it is rare that I, or people like myself, truly partake in a subject that makes one’s own history culpable in a present that continues to favour white people over black and brown people. Being born into this modern era of what we might casually call racial equality is a convenient lie. We have made strides forward, absolutely, but to imply that there isn’t a lot more work to be done is to massively undermine the continued difficulties experienced by those with darker skin tones in Western society.

This book astutely points out what is already obvious in our society, if only one takes the trouble to think – really think. Eddo-Lodge’s observations were difficult for me to listen to. As a modern young woman, I flatter myself with the traits of liberal and open-minded, but as Eddo-Lodge identifies the ways in which I am privileged – which I am, undoubtedly – it forced me to confront some things I had always managed to hide from my conscious mind. At times, this book made me feel defensive, but subsequent analysis of that feeling left me with guilt and troubled clarity.

Discussing race is something I have always found difficult. I am, after all, white, and there is a reason that Eddo-Lodge says she is “no longer talking to white people about race”. I do not want to be one of those white people who shies away or undermines the race conversation. But neither do I know how to approach such a difficult topic with the sensitivity and historical knowledge it deserves.

As I have grown older, experienced more, met different people to myself, I have repeatedly found myself wanting. Wanting, primarily, in education. British history is not a pretty one, but we are not told about it at school. We are not told about the times we were the aggressors, rather than the victims or heroes. We are not told about the cultures, the peoples we invaded, destroyed and plundered. I am still reluctant to look for the evidence myself, fearful of the guilt and horror I will find. But reading this book was a step in the right direction.


It is highly tempting to carry on naming books and delving further into my own psyche and the texts that have surely influenced me in all kinds of political topics. But, when we boil down the essence of what literature, what writing is for, it is to offer a new perspective on the world that we might not otherwise have come across. To write is to be political. To read is to be political.


Other books of political note from my reading back catalogue (click on highlighted titles to see my review):

  • The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes – Russian Communist Revolution
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien – Chinese Communist Revolution
  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford – Colonialism
  • Smoke by Dan Vyleta – Industrial Revolution, Classism
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez – Feminism
  • The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer – Feminism
  • The Seasonal Quartet by Ali Smith (Autumn (2017), Winter (2018), Spring (2019), Summer (2020)) – British Politics, Brexit, WW2
  • On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder – Democracy
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Russian Communist Revolution
  • Reunion by Fred Uhlman – World War 2
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty – Racism
  • The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler – World War 2
  • Regeneration by Pat Barker – World War 1, Mental Health
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – World War 2
  • What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe – Classism
  • A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – Feminism, Writing
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben – Environmentalism
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers – Environmentalism
  • The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – Gender Identity
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – Mental Health, Sexuality
  • Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – WW1
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – Feminism
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen – Mental Health
  • Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig – Mental Health

Inspired at Midnight

Aside

Burst of creativity at midnight! Writing writing writing. Ow my hand. Must get thoughts down on paper. Keep writing writing writing.

Anyone else make wavy hand gestures when they’re trying to think of the right word? Like a composer and my words are the musicians…

…but somewhere in the midst of the string section, a violin is a fraction out of tune. A word not quite right. But you’re in the middle…

…of a movement. Can’t stop the orchestra. Can’t stop the flow of ideas attempting to rush from the box of skyblue ideas boucing around…

…inside, too filled with energy to stay consecutive, the words all too excited, trying to get to the front of the line that’s heading…

…down the nerve endings of your arm towards a second fluid blue box at the end of your hand, from which a river is flowing, streaming…

…cascading from line to line on the paper.

Then it stops.

What Do Your Books Say About You?

This morning, I got to do something I haven’t been able to do in a long time. I woke up on my day off, turned on the light, picked up a book from my bedside table and read. The luxury of simply reading for the love of reading is one I have struggled to find time for since university.

What do your books say about you? (I don’t mean behind you back.) The books currently sat on my bedside table could tell you a lot about me.Bookshelf


The Unknown Unknown, Mark Forsyth

Where did I get it? Received this in the post, adorned with a post-it, which read, “Thought you might enjoy reading this. Granny x” After receiving said delightful little package, I rang my Gran. She said it reminded her of my blog, the way I ramble, tangents veering off.

The tagline reads: “Bookshops and the delight of not getting what you wanted.” Do you know what a good bookshop is? Forsyth does. I haven’t been in a good bookshop since I was in New York and my wonderful aunt took me to a little treasure trove, where I discovered Verlyn Klinkenborg.

While I would happily tell you more about this little beautie, I’m concerned I might ruin the joy of an “unknown unknown.” It took less than an hour to read, and made me laugh out loud several times. Clever and witty without trying to be. Delightful in its purposelessness.

Bookmark: A page torn from my notepad at work. It is the beginnings of a short story I started writing during that last useless hour of a work day. Between half 4 and half 5, when no one really does anything but wait for the day to end. The Twilight Hour.

I have since continued writing the story on the computer at work – typing gives the impression of doing something productive – and I’m hoping to extend this into a collection of short stories. Might post a snippet on here at some point.


Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

Where did I get it? Waterstones, Oxford.

This is one of the classics that follows you around. One of those epic, brick-like monstronsities that act as an adequate book-end until you work up the courage to dig in. Our friend Forsyth puts it thus in The Unknown Uknown:

“Tolstoy, Stendhal and Cervantes, these men follow me around. They stand in dark corners and eye me disapprovingly from beneath supercilious eyebrows. And all because I’ve never got round to reading their blasted, thousand-page, three-ton, five-generation, state-of-a-nation thingummywhatsits.

I’m taking on this monster. About 6 months in and I’m half way through. The adventures of the deluded knight, Don Quixote and his hapless copanion, Sancho Panza. It makes one giggle in a “Droll, Cervantes, very droll” kind of way. But there’s also the odd Dick Joke, which is nice.

Continue reading

The Perfect Pen

As a writer, I have certain conditions in which I like to work. According to my new writing guru, Verlyn Klinkenborg, creating conditions for your own creative process will only become barriers in the long run.

“Anything you think you need in order to write –
Or be “inspired” to write or “get in the mood” to write –
Becomes a prohibition when it’s lacking.
Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions,
With anything, starting from nowhere.
All you really need is your head, the one indispensable requirement.” (80)

As much as I see the reason in VK’s “short sentences”, I am struggling to follow through on this. There is a specific pen I like to write with. I recently lost that pen and bought a replacement today. Thankfully, it is stocked in most highstreet stationers. What’s so special about this particular pen? Well, for starters, it is the perfect shade of blue. I find page upon page of black biro a depressing spectacle. Blue offers a far more pleasing aesthetic, but it is not too bright of a blue as to be overstimulating… As I’m writing I’m starting to see how picky this sounds. But I shall continue anyway. In addition, this pen has remarkably little resistance on the page. My hand can glide along each line and a beautiful river of letters transfers effortlessly onto the crisp white paper.

page 1

And it’s not just the pen. I don’t like starting a new notepad. I like being able to flick through previous pages, read the occasional paragraph and think, “Man, I write some good stuff.” Those previous pages are a comforting, midnight-blue blanket of prose. Those paragraphs give me the confidence to turn to the dreaded empty page and begin. As a result, there is an old notepad I refuse to throw away because some fantastic essays began in those pages.

And beyond the raw materials, the environment has to be right too. Firstly, excellent light. Not yellowy, low-energy lamps, whose rays fail to chase away the darkening sky as you toil into the night.  Of course, a desk and comfortable chair are a must. And then there’s the noise factor. Everybody likes to work differently. Some people want absolute silence. Others blast heavy metal through their headphones. I need the right amount of ambient noise. Not silence, not heavy metal, but somewhere in between. I want friendly chatter, but not raucous laughter. A reassuring, indistinct melee of noise. I want to hear that buzz of life that reminds me there is existence beyond the realms of the word counter. The ground floor of UEA library was my perfect work zone. Having visited some local libraries recently, I can now say I miss university more than ever.

I am currently battling with drama school applications and that means Personal Statements. Yes, that dreaded task has rolled around again. There is already a post dedicated to my hatred of this task – the whole concept in fact – so I shan’t rant any further. What I will say is this: I have just acquired a visitor’s pass to Reading University library and a brand new pad of paper. I now sit with an old notepad, a new notepad, borrowed wifi and my favourite blue pen. Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

And so, with a hint of panache and some abbreviation, I can now say…

P.S. You Are My Bitch.

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Book Review: “Several short sentences about writing” by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Several Short Sentences About Writing

by Verlyn Klinkenborg

book 1

“The question isn’t, can the reader follow you?
That’s a matter of grammar and syntax.
The question is, will the reader follow you?” (128)

I’ve never written a book review, but I think it goes something like this: a brief description of subject, author and intended audience; list good and bad points; and a couple of pithy quotes.  I shall largely adhere to this format.  Though do forgive me if I find the implied rules of this genre too confining for my wild artistic tendencies.

So, to begin: a brief description of subject, author and intended audience

This is a book written for writers by a writer about writing.

Too brief, perhaps.

While this text is applicable to writers of any experience or style, I think it is particularly useful for those at a turning point in their career as a writer – professional or otherwise.  You might be taking on a new genre, or adapting to an alternative medium – you wouldn’t write an internet blog like you would a private diary entry, for example. Or you might be moving from school to university, or university to the working world, and experiencing the imperative to evolve as a writer as well as a person. It is this last writer to whom I particularly recommend this book.

I have personally struggled with the step up from school to university writing. It is a transition that leads to anxiety. Be more mature, be more sophisticated. Be “better”. While university is the place to improve and mature, a better writer grows, not by anxiously reaching, but by exploring and experimenting. Don’t be bogged down by the “rules” of writing as they were dogmatically put to you in the early years of education. Respect the rules, of course, but don’t be afraid to challenge them. Verlyn Klinkenborg is emphatic on this point. “And yes, you may begin a sentence with ‘but.’” (119)

(From here-on, I shall refer to the author as VK. Younger readers: feel free to insert drinking puns.)

A revised brief description: this book is for the reader who is struggling to find her voice.

good and bad points

I am loath to tritely fulfil this requirement.  I shall rather offer a few points of interest:

On VK’s style: he really does practise what he preaches. Expect many short sentences about writing.

Don’t be precious about clichéd notions of “what it is to be a writer”. In fact, don’t be precious about clichés, full stop.

“A cliché is dead matter.
It causes gangrene in the prose around it, and sooner or later it eats your brain.” (45)

He isn’t a romantic. There will be no coddling.

VK follows the recent trend of using “her” as the generic pronoun in his text. I’m trying it out. I still find it odd on the ear, but then perhaps I’m antifeminist.

His style isn’t for everyone. He makes no exceptions and allows no excuses.  But he does not patronise you.  His is a clear, forthright voice.  He does not seek to trick or beguile, and though witty at times, his humour is curt at best. Some may find him abrasive, others, refreshing.

At times you will feel like you are back at school. But, as I have already discussed, re-examining the confining and sometimes misleading rules of English school teaching is crucial. This is how you extinguish anxiety and allow your own voice to emerge confidently.

and a couple of pithy quotes.

How about just one:

“You’re holding an audition.
Many sentences will try out.
One gets the part.
You’ll recognize it less from the character of the sentence itself
than from the promise it contains – promise for the sentences to come.” (101)


Reference:

Klinkenborg, V. Several short sentences about writing (New York: Vintage Books, 2013)

Further Reading:

“Several Short Sentences About Writing” Reviewed by Vinton Rafe McCabe (New York Journal of Books, 2012)