Corona Writing Corona

One of the downsides of being a writer at the moment comes from receiving emails for writers. Since the Covid-19 lockdown, literary magazines, writers’ competitions and writers’ organisations have taken it upon themselves to provide a service by coaxing us into writing during the lockdown.  Whether it’s corona-themed issues, creative writing competitions for our suddenly increased output or sharing our dryly humorous lockdown stories, we writers should all be writing right now.

This unearths several problems.

First of all, lockdown does not equal free time. My academic and professional writing life, which involves mostly confinement with my laptop, has not changed at all. Student assignments are still coming in and writing deadlines are still looming. My non-work time has been filled, in addition to the usual jogging/walking, news and fiction reading and language studying, with Zoom calls to friends and colleagues and with standing in long queues outside of supermarkets. Finding the time for creative writing involves breaking some laws of physics.

Second, thinking is a big part of creative writing. The thinking part of my brain (I believe my brain also emotes and reacts without thinking) has been rather pre-occupied. If I were to etch out some time, probably from the one-subject-only newspaper reading, my thought space would be filled with the enormity of this all. Sometimes my head wheels are turning over the different approaches to the spread of the virus across different countries, and I suspect Britain is not doing the right thing, but I don’t know what the right thing is. Other times, my thoughts are wallowing in the sadness of what is happening, the loss of so many lives and the stories of some of those lives. I do express these thoughts, as I am now, but mostly in my journal, where I have the privacy to convey ideas in their raw form without having to find the bon mot.

This brings me to the third problem. You can’t turn creativity off and on like a tap. I find that my fountain of creativity is not only unpredictable at the best of times, but runs dry when I’m sad about something (which is different from being inexplicably depressed, where writing can be therapeutic – another time, another blog). I admire the war poets who could compose the most beautiful verses in the face of such fear and sorrow. Does the sadness I’m experiencing need to be explained or explored? We’re all experiencing it. When I experience it, I recoil from creative writing. In recent weeks, I’ve spoken to other writers about this and I know I’m not alone.

Fourth, other writers, mainly journalist, are writing about the virus. Whether it’s reportage on the science, analysis of what governments are doing or not doing, or those who tell us how the lockdown is affecting our lives, there are plenty of writers kept in work by Covid-19. I ask myself, what could I possibly add to the public discourse on this virus that hasn’t already been said? The real challenge for writers – journalists, non-fiction and fiction writers – is to not write about Covid-19 and get published.

That brings me to a solution to these problems, at least for now.  As an avid diarist, I’ve been writing most days in my journals. Only the subject matter has changed to the topic of the day – as it’s stuck in my head – details of the ways our town has changed, the joys of more birdlife around us and feelings about my existence/mortality and that of those around me (spiritually if not physically these days). Someday, as with a lot of my journal writing, these thoughts will find their way to a public readership, but in some other form – a story, a novel, an essay. Something will be created out of these recorded memories, but with the assistance of hindsight and reflection.

 

A Serial Killer Sister and Nigerian Fiction

In need of some dark comedy? Oynikan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer is, as implied in the title, comic, darkly comic at times. Yet, it’s not just comedy. I see it as dramedy, a character study that explores a sister relationship in a sexist and superficial world.

The narrator, Korede works as a nurse in a hospital in Lagos. She tells us from the start that her stunningly beautiful sister Ayoola is a serial killer. The reader might at first suspect an unreliable narrator faced with Korede’s nonchalance as she sponges up the blood, helping her sister to cover-up her third murder of a boyfriend in ‘self-defence.’ As the story develops, we see the plain but likeable Korede harbouring a crush on Tade, a doctor at the hospital, while Alooya enjoys the attention from social media once her latest boyfriend-victim is assumed to be ‘missing.’ Memories of the other victims mix in with a family saga involving the sisters’ recently deceased father, a brutish man and unfaithful husband. Korede’s dreams of being with Tade are scuppered when Ayoola drops by the hospital, turns heads and effortlessly charms Tade. This love triangle can only go one direction, and the reader fears that once again the gorgeous Ayoola will get away with murder.

Even though the story is set in Nigeria and is authored by a Nigerian writer, for much of my reading I didn’t see it as ‘Nigerian Fiction.’ The story could have taken place in any urban setting in any country. Its themes of sisterhood and womanhood are universal. The characters’ names and references to national food and clothing serve as subtle reminders that we are in Nigeria. One minor exception to this comes from the narrator’s memory of the time a wealthy tribal chief came to the family home with an interest in the beauty named Ayoola. Korede protects her sister and prohibits any possible union between Ayoola and the chief from ever taking place. This mini-story is more of a reflection than a subplot, but does serve as a reminder of the treatment of women in countries like Nigeria.Braithwaite

Braithwaite’s novel might not fit into categories used by literary critics to describe Nigerian fiction. It’s not Colonial, Post-Colonial, Liberation or Nationalism, thematic categories filled by Nigerian male writers and known mostly outside of Africa through the works of Chinua Achebe. I’d like to think Braithwaite’s modern story is not so much about being Nigerian as it is about being human, about familial relations and the objectification of women. Such themes have long been accepted in the blindingly white Western canon without the need to label a work by its nationality.

Travels in the Time of Corona

We did consider whether we should go at all. Covid-19 had struck Italy hard, but at that time only the region of Lombardy was in lockdown. Still, northern Italy is just a 45-minute train journey from Nice, and how long would it be before France was in lockdown? Thanks to the European bus service of the sky, Ryan Air, we had rationalised that we could always come back sooner, only losing the money spent on cheap tickets. As we were going to our second home, we didn’t have to worry about the costs of cancelled hotel bookings. Everything would be fine.

We agreed before boarding our flight from Stansted that if anyone was sitting next to us and there were other seats available, we would move, spread ourselves out and play it safe. Sure enough, in our row of three, sitting next to me was a young man with the physical appearance of someone from the Wuhan. David and I moved, guiltily imagining the young man thinking we were paranoid, racists or both. Things were not off to a good start.

As we arrived in Nice, the final weekend of the centuries-old carnaval had been cancelled. Nice didn’t feel like Nice without coach loads of tourists or the buskers and pickpockets taking advantage of the increased trade. Concerts we had planned to attend were cancelled. The city didn’t have its usual buzz of people or vehicle traffic. Fortunately, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and clubs were still open with no talk of closures. Yet, we weren’t going to be foolhardy. We didn’t go to restaurants or our usual jazz clubs and mostly got our croissants at outdoor cafes – if you’re wondering, average daytime temperature was 16C.

corona2

While it was important to be cautious, we didn’t want to be sucked into the media hysteria. The information available from British and French health sources made the risks of contracting Corvid-19 appear small. Not wanting to be cooped up in our one-bedroom apartment every evening, we decided to go to the cinema – twice in one week. Before you think we were being foolish, English films with French subtitles (as opposed to dubbing) shown in the early evenings are not typically well-attended. At both films, the dozen or so in the audience spread themselves out while the fragrance of disinfectant hand gel hung in the air.

As the death toll in Italy was skyrocketing, the cases of Covid-19 and deaths were steadily going up in France. This was the unavoidable main topic at my French drop-in class, which I opted to attend because it was at the teacher’s home, usually with only a few students. Again, I was rationalising and trying not to be hypnotised by the wall-to-wall media coverage we were getting in two languages. As it turned out, there were only two students that day, and we both rubbed our hands with disinfectant hand gel at the start of class.

Living close to the Promenade, pleasant seaside strolls and jogs are de rigueur, but we also like our other walks. Problem – getting from our apartment to these picturesque walking paths in Villefranche-sur-mer and Cap Ferrat involves trams and/or buses. In that first week, we braved several tram journeys, keeping a safe distance from people when we could, and two bus trips with near-empty buses. Of course, we realised that others thought crowded buses would be too risky, especially the elderly, who were heeding the advice to stay chez vous.

The week ended with Italy entering total lockdown. We went from slightly concerned to PANIC. My main worry was getting out of France before it would no longer be possible. I had to get back to the UK for meetings and to chair a doctoral exam. My second worry was not being able to get out with David, who was going to stay in Nice for an extra week to paint doors and window frames.

Fear comes in waves. We went from ‘let’s leave Wednesday’ – three days away – to ‘let’s stay here as planned but leave together on my flight in 10 days’ – then back to Wednesday or Friday – or maybe Sunday. Realising that we couldn’t really make up our minds, and that the news about the spread of the virus and the actions of governments were even less predictable than our brains, we held off on booking any new plane tickets. We agreed that whatever we did, we would go back together.

I soon learned from two of my friends back in the UK that people were panicking there as well. Both messaged me to let me know that supermarket shelves had been emptied of toilet roll. I could only chuckle, wondering why food and medicine seemed less essential.

For those last days in Nice, however many they were going to be, we focused on just enjoying the sunshine by day with walks around the city and staying in at night watching Netflix, doing crossword puzzles or me working on a writing assignment. We limited our socialising. We didn’t see our elderly or recently ill friends, but reasoned that it wasn’t unsafe to go to the home of two of our friends who had just arrived from Colorado, which at that point had only recorded two cases of the virus. We greeted our friends with Namaste and at the end of the evening tipsily waved goodbye. Strange not hugging or kissing friends.

A couple of days later, the death toll in France rose sharply, but mostly to the north of us, while the number of cases in our region doubled overnight. Tr*mp stopped all flights from Europe to America, except for those carrying US citizens returning home. As fewer and fewer people were flying between European countries, airlines were cancelling more and more flights. Ryan Air had still not cancelled our flights, but we knew that we couldn’t stay much longer. Fear was in the air. Half-empty trams echoed with announcements to cover your mouth with a cloth when you sneeze or cough and to keep a social distance – at this point defined as a one-meter space. Disinfectant hand gel and surgical masks had sold out.

The time had come to book a new flight back for both of us. A few days were cut off my working-holiday and 10 days were taken away from David, along with his painting duties.

In the days remaining, I fought off the sense of panic by meeting with girlfriends for an apero in a hotel bar. No hugs, no kisses, but plenty of hand gel and a distance of roughly a meter between us. The following day, I attended my French class – the only student this time. Of course, all we talked about was the virus and people’s strange and sometimes silly behaviours, ranging from Tr*mp’s flippancy to people hoarding toilet paper. I’m one of these people who often uses humour to hide my anxieties – from others as well as myself.

I was indeed anxious. One of us could get ill before our flight, and even though we could manage healthcare in French, it would be easier in English and in a health system that we know. In all of the times I’ve gone to Nice over these past ten years, it was the first time I was looking forward to leaving.

On the day before we flew out schools, universities, restaurants, cafes, bars, non-essential shops and cinemas across France had been ordered to shut. I joked on Facebook about leaving now that the cafes were closed.

As I packed my carry-on bag, I realised I wasn’t taking much back. In fact there was loads of space. Full of embarrassment at myself, I packed two rolls of toilet paper.

At Nice Airport Departures all the shops were closed except for a newsagent. No restaurants or cafes, except for one take-away coffee shop. At the gate, people were keeping a social distance, some of us standing or sitting on the floor in order to have a meter between us. That is until the gate opened and an undignified queue formed – suddenly safe spaces seemed unnecessary. I did wonder if everyone else was as anxious as me to get home.

We’ve been back in the UK for nearly two weeks now, and I still feel as if I’m travelling. I’m a tourist in a country where people only go outside for exercise or to the supermarkets that only allow 25 people in at one time and where customers are ordered to stand 2 meters from each other at the checkout.

Afterward: David’s original flight was cancelled by the airline and he is awaiting his refund. My original flight was also cancelled, but it was later ‘reinstated.’ I was informed of this reinstatement by a text message sent out two hours after my flight landed in Stansted. Like me, Ryan Air makes jokes when they’re nervous.

Schjerfbeck, really

Since the last International Women’s Day, I’ve blogged about, among other things, the historical violence against suffragettes, the exclusion of women from medical studies and the alarming rise in femicide. At the risk of appearing to downplay the plight of women, I’m taking a more positive approach to this year’s holiday, for which no one anywhere gets the day off work.

Last autumn I went to the Royal Academy of Arts in London to see their exhibition on the works of painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946). Who? Exactly – unless you’re from Finland. Not being from Finland, I hadn’t heard of her until the exhibition came along and received thunderous reviews in the press. The Guardian referred to Schjerfbeck as ‘Finland’s Munch.’ Other papers described her techniques in terms of Frans Hals and Velazquez and mentioned her being influenced by her contemporaries Cezanne and Picasso. All a rather blokey affair.

Yet, Schjerfbeck’s works have also been described as realism and expressionism, as haunting and melancholic and as pensive and intelligent. I went to the exhibition with these gender-neutral descriptors in mind, determined to judge the works devoid of comparisons to the male masters. Here are some examples of the paintings that moved me and made me feel that I had made a worthwhile discovery:

I especially liked the self-portraits made over time, drawing attention to the inevitable changes nature puts us through.

I suppose I could have written about this exhibition closer to the time, but as the weeks and months passed what seemed novel and intriguing simply become less so.  I wonder now if my mind had subconsciously compartmentalize Schjerfbeck’s paintings as being like this man’s and that man’s, and that I was no better than the arts reviewers in the newspapers. Asking myself to unlearn years of exposure to the male masters may have been a tall order. Yet, I’m glad I’m reacquainting myself with Schjerfbeck’s works and for having discovered many more of them online – she lived a long life and was highly prolific.

For those who say International Women’s Day serves little purpose and that men have the other 364 days of the year, without it, I probably wouldn’t have given Schjerfbeck a second chance. Happy International Women’s Day 2020!

It’s Killing Her

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about pandemics and epidemics. Let’s consider another epidemic. To quote historian Rebecca Solnit, ‘Violence against women is an epidemic that takes four lives a day in the USA and leaves millions living in terror or facing the torture of rape, beatings, stalkings, and abuse.’  According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK, 80 women were killed by a current or ex-partner in the past year – that’s a 27% increase on the previous year.

You’re welcomed to say that the Coronavirus (Covid-19) is a whole different thing altogether.  After all, the Coronavirus is a biological contagion with no known vaccine. Violence against women is a cultural contagion for which there are blindingly obvious cures.

There is another difference which struck me this week. Like many people around the world, I’ve been following the story of the British couple, the Abels, who were ‘quarantined’ on the Diamond Princess and then caught the virus. Before this incident, the Abels were strangers to me. But now, thanks to the Coronavirus, I know them by name – Sally and David Abel.

Aside from a few women celebrities, I cannot think of the name of one woman, previously unknown to me, who has been the victim of violence perpetrated by a man. On occasion these stories appear in the news, especially if a legal case is involved, but not for long before they fade away. Perhaps, it isn’t just the reporting, but the sheer numbers – to quote Stalin, ‘one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.’

I recently read Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, a revisionist’s history of the well-known killings. On the premise that there’s been vast interest over the decades in identifying the ripper, and there’s been little about his victims. Furthermore, what has been said about these women is by and large inaccurate. For example, they were not all prostitutes. Only one of the five women was a prostitute when she was killed and another had been a prostitute briefly in her past. A point also worth mentioning is that, contrary to popular lore, none of these women had been raped by their killer. Based on police records, Rubenhold concludes that these women were all killed in their sleep and only one of them in her own bed – the others were sleeping rough on the streets of Victorian London. I leave it to you, dear reader, to extrapolate the levels of misogyny going on there.Femicide 2

Since I started with Rebecca Solnit, I’ll conclude with her as well: ‘Even those of us who are not direct victims are impacted by living in a world where such gender violence is both common and normalized or trivialized, where any woman may be harmed because she is a woman.’

 

The Queen’s English?

‘Brexit Day,’ as some are calling it, was just over a week ago. On that day, these signs were stuck on doors of all 15 floors of a residential building in Norwich, in the east of England:

Brexit Day poster

Aside from the blatant racism, which I don’t mean to diminish or trivialise, I have several linguistic points to make. Not in any particular order.

What is the Queen’s English? For the spoken language, which the moron who wrote this poster appears to be obsessed with, the Queen speaks RP (Received Pronunciation). It’s an accent of English with no regional associations. That’s because it’s a ‘social accent’ taught in certain private schools and reinforced in the homes and social circles of the upper classes. It’s an accent that clips its vowels and makes toast sound like taste. Today RP is spoken by roughly 2% of the British population. I suspect that the cretin who wrote this poster does not speak the Queen’s English.

The British Library website has 77 recordings of different accents and dialects of English from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (https://www.bl.uk/british-accents-and-dialects). I wonder how many of these British-English accents would be fully understood by the imbecile who wrote this poster.

English is not the only native language of Britain. There’s Welsh, Scots, Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Cornish to name a few. And the flipside of this – Britain is not the only country where English is spoken as a native or official language. If the idiot who wrote this poster wants only people whose ‘mother tongue’ is English to live in Britain, he or she would appear to be perfectly fine with people from Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Liberia, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea – among others.

The ignoramus who wrote this poster has a problem with people who speak foreign languages. Don’t get me started. During this week that saw Britain enter another dark age, the polymath George Steiner passed away at the age of 90. Steiner was trilingual, speaking French, German and English, and he once described his mother as ‘a Viennese grande dame who used to begin a sentence in one language and finish it in another without even noticing.’ Brexit hasn’t really happened yet – we’re in a transition period – yet, I’m already feeling nostalgic.

Steiner
Professor George Steiner

Not ready to say goodbye

Since June 2016, I have marched down the streets of London four times, Cambridge twice and Ipswich once. I’ve attended countless rallies and delivered thousands of leaflets. All in the hope of bringing an end to this lunacy called Brexit. Over the past three and a half years I have shifted in my goals from fighting to overturn the freak election results of the referendum to accepting  defeat following the last general election to where I am today with a new goal – I’m trying to stifle the feeling of ungroundedness and the anxiety that eventually comes with it.

Leaving the EU is stripping me of my EU citizenship and that seems remarkably unfair. The rug that has been pulled out from under me was more like a magic carpet.  Now there is only air between me and the ground and I can’t seem to land.

I have to visualise and remind myself that a sense of groundedness exists with my David, his family, our friends and with some of the things I do – writing, jogging, walking and of course meditating. Not to underestimate these attachments and therapeutic activities, but these last few years make me aware that outside of these inner concentric circles, I’m no longer living in a place where I feel I belong. This isn’t the first time. I left the United States in 1984 to live in Scotland, among other practical reasons, as an act of self-imposed political exile against Ronald Reagan and the many – even Democrats – who were prepared to re-elect him. Instead of wondering if the world had gone mad, I turned it on myself and thought there was something wrong with me.

Older, more confident, this time, it’s not me. The cult of pro-Brexitism has brought hate and isolationism to the foreground. Brexit has never really been about leaving the EU, or to ‘gain back control’ as the slogan claimed. In order to justify those sentiments, people had to believe a lot of lies about what the EU does and Britain’s place in it. I’ve toyed with the idea that millions of people were lazy when it came to researching and discovering the truths (it’s in another blog). While laziness might be a factor, I also suspect that those who voted to leave to varying degrees pretended to believe the lies in order to find a cause of, or someone to blame for, their own unhappiness. For some this unhappiness has been economic, for others it festers in feelings that our more tolerant, liberal society has been foisted upon them.

Perhaps this is just a coping strategy – an attempt to get my dangling feet back on the ground – but I will only permit myself to say goodbye to the EU as a British citizen. In a year’s time, this will be enforced by laws and regulations. What the Brexit elite at the helm of this operation cannot take away from me is my Italian heritage, my second home in France, my abilities in romance languages or my spiritual connection to some European countries and their peoples. This time, I won’t flee into self-imposed political exile.

 

Memories of Sultan Qaboos

Nizwa, Oman, spring of 2015. I was circling the university car park looking for a space. The car park was packed. This wouldn’t have been unusual at 8 in the morning, but this was 4 in the afternoon. I wondered if there was some ceremony or conference going that I didn’t know about. The bewildered foreigner once again.

When I eventually stepped into my department’s offices, the Omani admin workers were all gathered in one room speaking excitedly in Arabic about something. One woman in the group appeared to be crying. I saw one of my Jordanian colleagues in the hall and asked what was going on. Full of ennui, she rolled her eyes and explained that on television the previous night Sultan Qaboos spoke to his nation from Germany to say that his cancer treatment went well and that he would be home soon. This broadcast created such a stir that people stayed at work the next day just to talk about it.

In the days that followed, Omani flags went up all over campus and throughout the small town on Nizwa. Large companies and banks hung posters and displays welcoming the Sultan back home. The great man’s image appearing gigantic showed him seated in full traditional clothes, an Omani boomerang-looking sword, the khanjar, his beard more white than grey.

It’s hard to imagine in our cynical times a country where its leader is genuinely adored and worshipped and where political satire is non-existent. Sultan Qaboos was rightly admired for taking his country from illiteracy and poor health to public education and modern hospitals, from dirt roads to highways. Above all else, while neighbouring countries have had to deal with wars and terrorist attacks, Oman has remained at peace.

These decades of peace have been in part circumstantial. Oman doesn’t have the abundance of gas and oil that its neighbours have and hasn’t been fought over or exploited by foreign interests. The country has also stayed out of the fray by the simple fact that it practices Ibadi Islam and is neither Sunni nor Shiite. In Western newspapers, Oman often appears on colourful maps as grey. Taking advantage of this neutral greyness, Sultan Qaboos often played the part of arbiter and intermediary in the region.

What Sultan Qaboos brought to his beloved country which cannot be denied him is the country’s reputation of holding to many of its traditions and at the same time being one of the most socially progressive societies in the Middle East. Oman has modernised, but even its capital Muscat does not have the commercial glitz found in Dubai, only a few hours’ drive away. Where I lived in the town of Nizwa, every Saturday morning the goat market is held and people from neighbouring villages come to barter and bid in ways their ancestors did centuries ago. But this is not a backward country by any means. Not only do the local women drive cars, they also hold public office and managerial positions. It still is a male-dominated culture and many of the laws and customs are discriminatory, but they’ve made huge advances under the paternal gaze of Sultan Qaboos.

Just over a week ago, this ‘father of the nation,’ who has been in charge for nearly 50 years, died peacefully at the age of 79.

When I departed Oman over four years ago now, I typed these thoughts into my journal:  ‘It’s good I’m leaving now. I don’t wish to be in Oman when the much-loved Sultan passes away, leaving behind a country not only in mourning, but more worryingly, a country vulnerable to radical conservative takeover and upheaval.’

The people of Oman are in my thoughts today.

 

Watching flames through a firewall

As apocalyptic stories from Australia are already starting to play second fiddle to Trump’s war games, Harvey Weinstein’s trial and Harry and Megan’s flashy fugae , happenings down under and across the world are continuing to play out – even if we stop watching it or reading about it.

A couple of things are going on here. First, there’s the media’s coverage of these events. In ‘media’ I include social media and other spreaders of news – real and manufactured. These outlets inhabit the edges of the entertainment industry and will only repeat the same story so often. As the affects of climate change are becoming as common as the buddy movie, the media and their audiences quickly move on.

Of course, unlike the buddy movie, climate change is real and frightening. With that comes another reason why media coverage is waning and audiences are retreating. It’s what author Margaret Heffernan calls wilful blindness – there are things that we refuse to see. Taking insights from a range of people involved with deception, including whistleblowers, criminals, politicians and psychologists, Heffernan points out that people turn a blind eye to ‘avoid conflict, feel safe, reduce anxiety and protect prestige.’ To some extent the media is reacting to our putting on blinkers.

The other factor at work here still involves the media but runs deeper than that. Climate change deniers have gone into full throttle this past week to distance the catastrophes in Australia from man-made climate change.

When looking at neoliberal policies of recent decades, Naomi Klein points out the tremendous tax cuts to the wealthy classes and their corporations. Offsetting climate change involves investment in the public sphere – ‘in new energy grids, public transit and light rail, and energy efficiency.’ Given the scale of such projects, they couldn’t happen without raising taxes on the wealthy. Klein also points out that many green initiatives, such as ‘buy local’ to reduce CO2 emissions, clash with corporate free trade details.  Klein comes to this conclusion:NaomiKlein

‘In short, climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. To admit that climate change is real is to admit the end of the neoliberal project. That’s why the Right is in a rebellion against the physical world, against science.’

The fires in Australia is the story of our day, the one the media has grown tired of or sees dwindling profits in, the one neoliberals don’t want us to engage with, and the one story that we ignore or play down at our own peril.

Some things I learned in 2019

Please forgive this listacle – at least it’s not another top 10 of this or that. As I try to sum up 2019 in a way that doesn’t sound as bleak as the way it ended, I offer these thoughts of some of the year’s more enlightened  moments.

  • Are Alain de Botton and Slavoj Zizek really philosophers of our time? I’ve learned more this past year from Kenan Malik of the Guardian/Observer and Hasan Minhaj on Netflix.
  • I’ve learned a great expression in French – la poudre de perlimpinpin. Great, largely because of the way it sounds, ending /pɛʁ lɛ̃ pɛ̃ pɛ̃/. I’m told it’s onomatopoeic and meant to sound like abracadabra.   It’s the French equivalent of snake oil. I was talking to a French person about Trump and Johnson at the time.
  • Unconscious bias – it’s become a buzzword. Like many, I’ve had awareness training through my employer. It’s made me more aware of myself, especially the myopia of my younger self, and gives me a handy phrase that sounds less caustic when describing the ways of others. Yet, I’m still left flummoxed at the receiving end. That is, I can’t stop it from happening to me. But this year I’ve learned to expect it and acknowledge that I can’t change it.
  • With the help of YouTube, I’ve learned how to remove a car battery without getting electrocuted, how to take in trouser legs and the difference between Italian R’s and Spanish RRRR’s.
  • Before this year, when it came to politics, I would have said that some people are ignorant and latch on to any populist that comes along. As 2019 appears in the corner of my screen for the last time, I now believe that those people aren’t ignorant, but they are politically lazy, wanting someone else to think for them and not bothering to fact check. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, these people have just as much a right to vote as we do.
  • Selling a collection of short stories is more difficult than I had imagined. It might even be harder than the research, soul-searching and writing and rewriting that went into the stories in the first place. I’m reminded of Salman Rushdie’s words of advice to Milan Kundera when he said that 50% of writing is strategy. Saving Spike and other stories is available at Amazon.

During 2019, there were loads of other things that I learned – surely, I must have –given my daily consumption of newspapers, magazine articles and books and other things I’ve probably gleaned from television, radio and conversation. And then there’s writing – I’ve learned, as I always have from writing. Apart from my obsessive journaling, I couldn’t write without an audience in mind. Thank you, readers, for being that audience during 2019. Best wishes to you for 2020.