Performing a U-Turn (pretend like you knew where you were going all along)

We all have plans.

Those plans, the big ones, become part of our identity. “I’m the science-type who’s going to make a career in bio-tech.” “I’m the self-sufficient sort who is going to build my own eco-friendly house from scratch.” or “I’m the kind of l33t player who is going to be a World Champion in World of Warcraft.”

I have wanted to move to the USA since I went there as part of a University exchange program. It didn’t matter that I went to a podunk town in the middle of rural Ohio. I loved the place. I loved the wide-open vistas, the idea that I could go into a real wilderness, the way everyone was so open and friendly, and even the food — venison, steak, ranch dressing, refried beans (not all on the same plate!).

When I met P, I fell in love and we agreed to get married. Initially, he had to come to the UK as I had a better paying job. We decided he would get his British Citizenship (two-three years) and then we would move to the USA.

For the next seven years that was the plan. We shifted priorities, but that was always the end game. I would move to the USA. We delayed it when I got my breakthrough job as Digital Communications Officer (until that point I had nothing that resembled a ‘career’), as I knew I needed at least two years experience.

But, at long last, I filled out my visa application. I let my employer know I would be leaving in a few months. And… I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Delays can mean legal immigrants (yes, even those married to an American) sit on a waiting list for months and months. In our case, I had already been separated from P  for most of the previous two years due to ‘life reasons’.

A year of waiting for the visa slipped by.

Our relationship, until that point incredibly strong, began to suffer. Both of us were ‘living in limbo’, waiting for a decision that could come at any point. Both of us were struggling alone, dealing with loneliness, the difficulty of communicating across different time-zones, and (in my case) the impossibility of planning your life when you have no idea if you’re going to be around for a week or another year.

Then I got a new job. A great job, part-time, that would give me time to write and still leave me with enough money to cover our living expenses.

Friendships I had formed in the UK were reaching ten and twenty year anniversaries. The thought of leaving them behind became devastating, especially as I leaned on them more and more in P’s absence.

But this was the plan. We had to stick to the plan. We had invested years of our lives and thousands of dollars into the plan. No matter that we were unhappy, lonely, and that I was less and less sure about the benefits of moving to a place with little work and no public transport.

Until, one day, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had a bad week. I was sick, and then I got food poisoning. As I threw up, alone, I realised I was done waiting and being alone.

The realisation was both terrifying and a relief at the same time.

The realisation that we could just stop.

Of course, it would be difficult. Giving up on anything is hard. We had spent the last couple of years ferrying suitcases of possessions across the Atlantic. P. had put a lot of work into trying to create a home for us in the USA. Our families had to be told. It was emotionally difficult.

It meant giving up on a dream we had held for a long time.

But giving up was less difficult, and less devastating, than trying to hold on.

Sometimes, you have to change direction.

Maybe that is giving up on a long-term relationship.

Maybe that is giving up on a career you’ve invested years into building but that isn’t making you happy any more.

Maybe it’s giving up on the idea of becoming a World Champion WoW player, because, hey, you need to focus on your job.

And maybe it’s giving up on the idea of living in another country.

 

Home sweet… home?

We can sometimes overlook the importance of friendship and (dare I say it) community. In a world where people are uprooting themselves, travelling further and further, taking opportunities in other cities, countries, continents… we should remember what we lose when we travel far from home.

It’s something I lacked in the USA. I went out and about with my partner’s friends and family, of course. But friendships that have lasted five, ten, even fifteen years are impossible to replace overnight.

Coming back to Towcester — my childhood home — felt strange. I know all the streets, can wander easily around the water-meadows, and the fields behind Belle Baulk. I run into people I haven’t seen since I worked as a bartender and they wave and say hi. A decade has passed, but they still recognise me. I have friends here, and in the nearby cities. People that did not ‘run’ as far as I did.

I worked here, built relationships with fellow writers (Hi Miss Write! Hi Matt Holland!)

There are people here that would take me in if I became homeless, that share their wifi with me when my internet breaks down, that recommend my web-development skills to people they know. A network, some people close friends, and some people just to wave at me in the street. But I am known.

It takes time, so much time, to build a group of friends and colleagues like that. And the benefits go far beyond someone to have a drink with. Those people have found me work, helped me move, kept me sane. They don’t call it a ‘support network’ for nothing!

Of course, it’s easier now. Emails, blogs, facebook, skype… they all help keep you in touch with people far away. But the truth is: nothing beats face-to-face, and nothing beats that web of favours given and received.

It’s good to be back, although I hope it is temporary.

100 novels: The Golden Notebook

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about The Golden Notebook. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Golden Notebook

Buy The Golden Notebook on Amazon

This is going to be one of the most difficult novels for me to write a review about, because I’m still not sure I really understood what it was about.

First up, Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and The Golden Notebook is generally considered to be her most influential book. It’s also a ‘feminist classic’, although Doris distances herself from that title in her introduction, saying:

But nobody so much as noticed this central theme, because the book was instantly belittled […] as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war.

I have been in a false position ever since, for the last thing I have wanted to do was refuse to support women.

The central theme she refers to is that of ‘breakdown’ or ‘cracking up’. In other words, what we now refer to as ‘mental illness’.

And yet, reading through The Golden Notebook, it is easy to see how people arrived at the conclusion it was about the plight of women; the way women are driven by mad by circumstance and by the double standards they are held to. She also, in her introduction from June 1971, mentions her belief that:

the whole world is being shaken into a new pattern by the cataclysms we are living through: probably by the time we are through, if we do get through at all, the aims of Women’s Liberation will look very small and quaint.

Alas, reading the book in 2014 we seem to be tackling many of the same issues: endless (confusing) wars, a complete lack of faith in any ideological movement, an absence of hope… and of course, the same old problems of racism and sexism.

The solution that the central character arrives at is to go mad; perhaps the only sane response in a world of increasing horror.

And yet, despite tackling issues still alive today, such as racism and sexism, the book does seem to be written from a time long long ago. An enormous gulf separated me from the central characters. Their obsession with the Communist Party, for a start. Few people I know would ever invest much time and energy into supporting a political party. We are too aware that they are all corrupt, all ‘as bad as each other’. We support certain aims, we accept that one might be slightly less evil than another about issues we care about. But on the whole, nobody really believes politicians care about the country, or the citizens of a country… let alone the state of the world.

So where are the solutions? We face a crisis in terms of climate change, with people already dying. We are so addicted to petroleum that we are prepared to blow up swathes of the country to extract it. And the level of inequality between the wealthiest and the poorest is such that the top 0.7% of people own 41% of the worlds wealth.

We can’t trust our political parties to sort it out, revolutions rarely work and have a high cost in blood shed and violence, and peaceful protest is ignored.

If there is an answer, I believe it lies in each of us striving to be better, to think outside our own circle of friends and family, to use whatever power and privilege we have to push forward our collective wellbeing.

In The Golden Notebook, however, Anna — and to a large extent Doris — is dealing with the failure of the dreams of peace and plenty that the Communist Party promised. In it’s own way, as well, it’s about the loss of teenage naivete. We all believe we can change the world when we are teenager, and then we grow up and find ourselves trapped in the same patterns of power that our parents dealt with. Yet I think, for that generation that came of age during the Second World War, it was a far more crushing blow.

In many ways, The Golden Notebook is a depressing, hopeless book. Several characters make reference to the silent despair of the majority, quietly going crazy all across London. Yet perhaps there is some hope, that complete breakdown and reformation is the only solution… and in that, the breakdown of Anna Wulf and Saul Green represents the greater breakdown of society. When they give each other the first lines of the next novel, it is the formation of something new.

I found the book tough going. The characters are not sympathetic. Doris accurately represents the part of mental illness that has you endlessly circling the same ideas and motifs, again and again… and again. By the third ‘affair with a married man’ you are frustrated and slightly bored with the whole scenario. And yet, despite that, I found myself unable to put the book down. It opened my ideas to a world very different from mine, and forced me to think about things that made me uncomfortable.

All in all, I would recommend The Golden Notebook to others, with the caveat that you probably won’t actually enjoy it.

Other reviews of The Golden Notebook

Man of the hour

This story was written for the terribleminds flash-fiction challenge. The aim was to smash two sub-genres together and somehow come up with a story out of the messy remains. My genres (randomly generated) were: Sci-Fi Humor/Satire and Superhero. (Many thanks to Burning-liquid for the image of the planet.)

Man of the Hour

His cape glittered in the light thrown off by the fire. To the screams of the crowd, the Golden Hawk smashed through a window of the burning school. A gout of flame exploded out behind him. Someone in the crowd fainted, whilst others quickly made bets on how many of the children the Hawk would rescue. The worst odds were on none, but those who bet the Hawk would manage to save all twenty were also playing a risky game.Ambulance sirens wailed and throbbed. Mrs Jones, wrapped in a dressing gown and wearing fuzzy cat slippers, launched into a long monologue about each of the children trapped inside — focused mainly on their predisposition to take her bin and move it halfway down the street on bin day.

Then, to gasps of wonder, the Golden Hawk reappeared. Children clung to his arms, his legs, his torso, like scorpion babies clutching their mother. His cape fluttered over them.

Bookies groaned as they counted the number of children, but started to pay out. Winners grinned and praised the Hawk. Paramedics rushed to get oxygen masks on the children. The Golden Hawk saluted as the photographers rushed to get their shot, then gently lifted the last child, kissed it on the top of its head and passed it to a reporter. Before anyone could ask any questions, the Hawk leapt into the air and zig-zagged away.


“I’m telling you,” Chambers said. “The reporters don’t give a damn how that fire took hold. All they are talking about is the same old, same old. Who is the Hawk? Where does he come from? Where does he go? What if he turns into a super-villain? They don’t care about the financial situation of the school, and how come it ended up with exposed wires and plywood so old it was turning into dust.”

The Prime Minister opened a bottle of incredibly expensive water and sniffed it dubiously. “I do wish we would hurry up and arrive at this Alpha Centuri 95-whatever it is.”

“Another twenty five years yet,” Chambers said. “And in the meantime, the deficit must be kept down. You know that, with all due respect.”

“Of course, of course,” sighed the Prime Minister. He carefully poured the bottled water into the cat bowl on his desk. Jessie, his Russian Blue, jumped onto the table and started to lap the water. “The bloody deficit. I just don’t understand why we had to sell off the whole of England to make a repayment on it.”

“We owed twenty-five trillion pounds to the Chinese,” Chambers said. “And they cashed their IOU.”

“Yes, but I thought one of those, you know, African countries owed us a pretty penny or too.”

“The previous government,” Chambers said. He poured himself a glass of port. “You know that too, sir, with all due respect.”

The Prime Minister brushed down his suit. “The Hawk won’t satisfy them forever,” he said. “We need to get something else in there. The Sentinel has been asking difficult questions again.”

“You didn’t answer them, did you?” Chambers said, horrified.

“Of course not,” the Prime Minister said. He scratched Jessie on the head, and watched her eyes crinkle up. “But all those children died when they reached the hospital. Some mix-up with the paperwork or something. They ended up going in for a heart bypass, and then half of them caught some kind of super-bug and the other half starved to death. We need more nurses, Chambers!”

“Well, if you’d bloody privatised it when I told you to, it wouldn’t be our problem, would it?”

“They public wouldn’t go for it,” the Prime Minister stood up and paced uneasily. “Look, Chambers, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking…”

“Bad for your health, sir,” Chambers said with a frown.

“Well, here’s the thing. If we sold off England to pay our debt to the Chinese, how come the Chinese still had to head off to Xerion Han 45-whatever it was?”

“Oh,” Chambers said. “Because the Chinese owed three hundred trillion to the Japanese.”

“But the Japanese are on their way to—”

“Delta Five, yes, I know. You have to understand, sir, that the debt situation on Earth had become very complex.”

“All I want to know is…”

“Hmm?”

“Who exactly is left on Earth?”


Ricardo Brandon threw his champagne glass at the wall.

“No, no, no!” he said. “I want England to be a hedge maze, get it right! The biggest hedge maze in the world! And I want lions in it, real lions mind you. Not ones made out of bushes.” He glowered at the map in front of him. “America… you might as well leave Las Vegas alone. Good memories. But get rid of the other cities. Actually, build me a palace in New York. We can go there on the weekends.”

The butler bowed and hurried out to make sure the servants were aware. With a staff of five hundred, it was difficult to co-ordinate people across the whole of Bandon’s vast estate, but the butler couldn’t help feeling pleased. Thanks to his position, he’d been able to stay on Earth when almost ten billion people had been evicted.

Brandon sat down in his leather chair and stared gloomily out of the window. He’d won. He was the richest man in the world. In fact he was one of the only men in the world.

Then he brightened up. He had an outpost in Alpha Centuri 957, and had set up a Real Estate company there. He phoned them now.”

“Hey Brian, how’s it going? Just wanted to check up on the profits.”

“Great news sir,” Brian replied. “Profits are up 12%!”

N is for… Nature Reserves

The letter NThis post is part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge.

If you’re anything like me, you occasionally need to go outside. Not just for five minutes, not just for a breath of fresh air: but properly outside. If I don’t spend at least a few days each year wandering around some beautiful landscape I get cranky.

One of my dreams is to reach a place financially/professionally where I can spend a significant portion of each day outside in the sun (and rain!). In the meantime, a long weekend here and there has to hold me over.

Sadly, it’s not always easy finding the kind of open space that lets you ‘get away from it all’. Green space is at a premium, but thankfully there are a few places that are looking after land in a way that is beneficial for wildlife (and what’s beneficial for wildlife is usually beneficial for people).

Want to find a nature reserve or national park near you? The following organisations all have protected green space across the UK that you can visit.

The Wildlife Trusts
The RSPB
National Trust
Natural England

What’s your favourite place to visit for some stunning scenery?

A Shire

I will tell you a story about a shire. The terraced houses clustered tutting over the fag ends in the street below. The pubs spewing out crowds who shout at each other in slurred accents that carry the illusion of a memory of wealth. The shrugged shoulders of green hills holding silent traces of a first night, skirts hitched up, eyes filled with stars, a discarded condom anonymous graffiti to a moment in time. The honourable great house, sold now to a Russian to pay for a string of fast cars and a decade or two of dilapidation. The kids sloping through the quiet streets in aimless pale imitation of their urban counterparts.

Pretty little houses standing empty five days in seven, the teenagers not staying in to admire the Aga, but drawn to the council estate where a father cooks up a massive round of bacon sarnies dripping with butter and ketchup and serves it to the group giggling over the hyper-violence of the latest triple-A. Libraries are shed like leaves, curling into ash and swept away by a cold wind from the South. Old men, faces lined with years of regret, stare silently into the frothy pint from a dingy little bar in a side road that few remember. History curdles in the middle of the day, polite words drift against the buildings in sloughed off heaps of pleases and just fine thanks and you?

Fragments of pottery dug up every planting season, a school stuffed to the seams and decked out with sharp-toothed railings. Worried eyes flicking to the BBC news, and pausing every now and then to follow the birds as they swoop ecstatically against the sky and shriek warnings to any who will listen.