Maps and memories

This is how we live now. 

I visited the island of Kos yesterday – I meandered down a street I remembered well and saw it in a new light. Locked up, shuttered and lonely – in a way it looked rather apocalyptic. Grey skies and empty streets. It was December and cold, well that’s what the date stamp said on the images stored in Google Map StreetView. I have been reading Jen Barclay’s new book Wild Abandon and imagining the lush bare pathways of remote islands, and wanted to look up some of places she writes about. Afterwards I wandered around Syros and watched the webcam – waving imaginary ‘hello’s’ to people I don’t even know.  May brings ‘Protmayia’ celebrated in Greece with flowers to welcome in the summer. Fresh picked petals signal rebirth and promise – with the bloodied frivolity of dancing poppies on the hillsides. Women gather to make circular wreaths for the earth, for the living and the dead. A rounded reminder of what comes to pass. 

I have been thinking a lot about what is lost from view now, in our limited sight from windows and short ventures from home. Much of this is what falls on the wayside, what may disappear from view and never return. The news and commentariat blooms with conjecture – ideas about travel post-pandemic world are flooding in; pundits are hailing it the end of cheap travel, the new dawn of aeroplane seating and 2 metre plexi-glass cases around sun loungers. After-the-pandemic is a place we don’t yet know the shape of, not just how we can navigate it, but when it is safe again to do so.

I miss the people watching that comes with travel. Even just the bare bones of it all; mapping out routes, making connections and taking it all in. The ease of discovering as the world kept spinning, offering to be seen in new ways. I worship the idolatry of movement, the luscious fog of anonymity walking through a departure lounge, catwalk to the world, all those people on the way to somewhere. Departing excitedly and arriving back not quite the same person who left. Cheap and infinitely thrilling, a candy floss that melts on your tongue and gone in an instant. 

So for a few weeks I have been playing around with some creative non-fiction ideas from notebooks half-written. Mykonos figures highly as a love/hate stopover on the way to somewhere else. People flock there looking for something Greek island pretty and take it any way they want; picture postcard, hedonism of the super-rich, shape-shifting at every turn. It’s a great place to pass through, criss-crossing the crowd of absurd absolutes.  It was fun writing this – escapism in the best sense. After all, that’s what travel is all about…

Mykonos: 7 hours in sunlight

‘It ends there. That is it.’ he says to his female travelling companion. He offers the words quickly to mediate her disappointment in case she starts yelling again. She is already annoyed at the crowds, the heat, the too tight shoes she was convinced would be fine for the cobbled streets, and now this. She throws up her hands at the reality of the most photographed spot of Little Venice or Mikri Venetia. Little being the operative word as each person turns and realises it is just a few hundred metres of jostling messy buildings opening out onto the water that give it this name. Barely space to walk side by side as the chairs and tables of cafe’s belting out tinny bossa-nova hem them towards the edge and the turquoise water below. ‘Ain’t nothin’ like Venice and we were just there!’ she hisses and stomps ahead. 

The sea throws up a wave that splashes the tourists who soak up Little Venice in all its minutia as they pose. Even at 11am there is talk of money. 

It is an interview of sorts – his soft Irish accent unexpectedly clashing against tanned skin set off by night-owl Ray Bans. ‘You know it will be a good summer – look around – it’s May and how busy we are already, you can make good money this year.’ he says to the two females at his table. He holds his hands open in a shoulder shrugging prayer as the girls cluck questions about the hours and how much of the tips they get to keep. The younger girl flicks her hair impatiently, and rattles her foot on the floor and says where she is at now, she keeps everything. He says ‘you know how it is, short summer long money, take it or leave it.’ He laughs and they don’t join in.  

The older woman talks quickly and loudly, pausing in between sentences to smoke and tells them both about how she bought a flat in Athens and rents it out on airbnb to make more money in the summer. She is encouraging the younger one egging her on to agree to something. Then she says ‘No-one lives here in the winter after this all closes down’ and she flicks her wrist along the seafront. ‘Ghost town with no one but cats’ the Irish guy jokes.  The younger girl listens intently and let’s them chat while she applies eyeliner at the table in a compact mirror. He leaves and wishes them luck  and asks them to call him tomorrow. ‘Avrio, Avrio.’ They all repeat and laugh along nodding thanks with bared white teeth – wide glossy smiles as he leaves the money for their coffees on the table.  The girls’ smiles fade as he jostles across the street and jumps onto a moped, they sit for a while talking in hushed tones of softly accented English conspiratorially discussing the tempting sunshine of the season. They smoke and finish cups of espresso.  One says ‘So what if it’s rented yachts and all you do is smile, because he wants to show off his wealth and stupidity to friends. Sometimes I have to lie to my mother too – Mama, I tell her, it is all good money and glamour here in Greece.’ Slowly she places her hands on the coffee cup and looks at her friend. ‘It won’t be forever.’

This coffee shop could be anywhere in the world. All the talk about ambition and hope, wealth and sights to see. A swarm of high fashion week-ending girls from London take up a long table and order cocktails without blinking at the prices. Mojitos, bloody mary’s, that sickly looking orange wine fizz that seems to be having a moment. They talk loudly about work, fanning their faces with menus chatting about their busy-busy jobs  – vaguely hinting at dissatisfaction in the smattering of truth that falls in the cracks between the things they joke about; the bad dates and bosses and missed promotions. The midday sun beats down on them and the waitress fusses with the parasols until she is sent away with, ‘Oh we are fine love, soaking up the sun.’ More tourists file past the tables pushed too close to the sea, causing human traffic jams as they take selfies over the blue sea and white windmills stand redundant behind them.  

A pigeon suddenly swoops down to the girls table, diving its beak into the pot of nuts and snacks. The girls shriek and quickly pick up their drinks and phones, laughing as the bird scatters crispy coated peanuts across the table. A passing Chinese man wearing an eponymous Mykonos straw hat bravely intervenes and flaps away the bird with his hands. The girls try to thank him with loud gestures in between goggles and prods at each other gym-honed middles.  They don’t share a common language so he just smiles at them goofily, nodding and proud, playing the hero in their cocktail party. He saunters off with his fellow tour group all with matching red lanyards and little tiny keyring bottles of antibacterial gel clipped onto their bumbags. Formed into a pack and suddenly afraid of everything; bumping into strangers, touching hands and cutlery, glasses. Marble streets. Ancient rocks. Each other. 

After 10 minutes the pigeon-hero returns to the scene and in wild handed gestures he asks the girls to pose with him. One reticently hides behind her friends and the others smile as he holds up a phone to capture them in a selfie. Imagining him retelling the tale about the girls and the pigeon’s intrusion. He’ll take out his phone to prove it happened, showing friends and relatives his beaming face amongst the outlines of bold and bright holiday clothes and half-smiles of confusion on the young women’s faces. The whiteness of their teeth against the neon pinks of cocktail glasses. How far the girls try to lean away from him and his hum-sweat of excitement. They won’t mention this anecdote on Monday morning in the office or make jokes about it in the whatsapp group. Back at their desks, counting up the likes from the shared photos and planning another escape, a get-away needed to get through another week. 

A few streets away a model poses against the white plaster and blue dome of a church. Her tanned skin in the tiniest of lime green bikinis, legs elongated by a wide stance, hands in the air, she moves through a roster of shapes that contort her body. The photographer clicks while an assistant hovers to apply wet gloss on the model’s pouting lips – dabbing the sheen from her nose. Others stop and a crowd forms to watch the statue carved from tanned skin perform small miracles of shapeshifting. Elevating her chin to show white teeth, cheeks sucked in, arching her back to throw her breasts upwards, her toes on almost point, making the curve of her hips expand wider, waist smaller. The photographer snaps and she places her arms on the wall of the white background a canvas of pure snow in building form.  A few passers by are snapping their own version of the show to share later; ‘who is she? They mutter.’ The smell of high chemical lacquer and gloss is in the air. Tiny particles of manic luxury wafting towards me, I walk on.  

A young woman marches towards the windmills on high cork wedges.  Dragging the boyfriend to a predetermined spot where she stands still and makes demands of him. ‘Like this.’ she says. ‘Now I’m ready. Do you have the sea in?’ as she poses, also sucking and pushing her body this way and that,  he clicks.  They move close together, in reflex he gathers her under his muscled arm to show her. The girl swipes, zooms in with two fingers and dismisses. Again, she demands. 

‘Jeez, it’s just so expensive.’ an Australian says to his wife about the taxi fare that took them 10 minutes down the road to a beach club. Line up the euros for table service.  Cruise ship passengers segregated into mother tongue guided tours are identified with a national flag. They are taken around the narrow streets where boutiques and tat-shops jostle for attention. They congregate in a wide group at the holy grail of Louis Vitton and snap away, each taking it in turns to pose at the altar doorway of heavenly goods. 

Handsome men stand handing out cards for happy hour shots in blinding daylight, their eyes hidden behind sunglasses. A local tour guide is attempting to impart history to a group of distracted students; while he talks a few of them stare at the phones, others take photos and watch passers by.  The guide tries again and points to the houses on the street, patiently explaining how the houses can only be painted in four traditional colours; dark green, dark red, light blue or dark blue. He tells them his family lived here in the 1930s before the tourists came; the colours are significant, the dark green for the trees that are no longer here; blood red for the martyrs, blue for the light sky and the darkest blue for the deepest sea. He says that the modern colours used like grey and pink are discouraged, the town needs to stick to its traditions. He is losing a battle in the white light and heat, as the kids’ attention flitters and leans into doorways of shops selling t-shirts that splash slogans ‘Mykonos Champagne and Cocaine‘ and ‘Happiness is expensive

At the old port the pelican poses and snaps his beak at no-one in particular, by mid-afternoon the waiter tires of the constant chatter to encourage diners; he craves silence and dark rooms more than tips.  Groups crowd waiting for the Taxi Boats to return them to their ship; to safety in prepaid drinks and buffet meals – away from the menus and temptations shoved at them at every turn. Tomorrow they’ll set sail for another island, another country to tick off. But there is tension in the heat as three angry ladies shout in Spanish at two backpackers who have tried to slide into the queue snaking along the port. They poke fingers towards them as the ripening sun makes everyone twisty mouthed and short tempered. No-one understands where the line starts or ends. The two Greeks running the boat try to calm the tension but can’t decide who is right, so they shrug and let the passengers board in any order. The Spanish women shunt themselves forward. Pointy elbowed huffing, their parasols held aloft in protest. 

‘it’s actually much smaller than I thought,’ one says and another hisses back to ask why they keep getting lost.  He jeers ‘Where are we?’ to his friend looking at a map in his phone that seems to pin-point them in a different direction each time they consult it. The puzzle is lost on them. Tiny fragments of life remain tucked away from the eyes they look through to the screen. 

Just out of the jangle of flash boutiques in a quiet lane red geraniums in pots are flowering, overwintered by caring hands when the skies held grey promise and streets hushed empty.  Here where no one wanders washing lines are hung with children’s clothes and overalls. Older ladies are sweeping down the dead leaves and petals falling from the bougainvillea. Behind the flaking paint of doorways summer girls and boys count the wads of tips and stuff them in suitcases to take back home for the winter. The landlord raises the rents each year and someone is raking it in – despite the hissing no one seems to be able to say exactly who. There is an absence of ruins in this little town’s footprint – a Louis Vitton sign will be unearthed in the rubble in 300 years time, even then people may only vaguely remember how it all changed.  Now in the late afternoon, dark-skinned labourers line up to take shovelfuls out of the cement mixer and lay a new floor in a house that will be reborn and restored. Old ideas emptied out and rebuilt with new. Has any other point in history been so ripe for being rewritten? The plastic debris piles up in the port and a fisherman’s hut goes for E500 a night. 

Even the loudest crickets get drowned out by mopeds, quads and the pervasive repetition of generic bass drummed light disco. Each aural experience accompanied by smooth bassy and up-tempo nothingness. A woman elbows her way into being seen – her long bangled arm at the end of a patterned kaftan sleeve is punching and snaking skyward to feign enthusiasm for the anodyne disco-beat. The music becomes a canopy over the whole town which softens the international mingle of languages and currency.

Pale skin has grown red with visible straplines on shoulders and the plastic scent of sun-oil blossoms in the air as children chase each other across the beach and into shallow water. Waves start making a scene, splashing up and over the side on the harbour in the lilac light after sunset. The splashing prompts awkward mid step halting and stumbling over one another to take photos  – the wave curls over and kicks foam into the crowd.  Click click as another wave rushes over feet to leave puddles pooling on the concrete shelf. People blink with new eyes into their phones and still can’t see to capture it. 

Easter now

This is the first Easter I have spent in the UK since 2015 when I chased my then 4 year old nephew around the garden on an egg hunt. The air was warm and I think we all got sunburned while he found a basketfull of slightly melting eggs. We realised later that we didn’t quite find all the eggs and some laid undiscovered until the summer! So here we are at the Easter Weekend in the UK. I don’t even know what that consists of these days. For those people lucky enough to still be working I guess it’s a weekend off…although talk to anyone with children there seems to be zero real time off or away from responsibility in lockdown. We persist and try to make the best of it, telling ourselves this is all normal.  

I do love Greek Easter – the rituals and long days of sunshine and feasting but the Orthodox celebrations won’t be taking place next weekend. Greece’s lockdown continues and so far it seems to be showing good signs – very few infections, low death rate and a health system that has increased ICU capacity. So Easter here and there, like life, will be different this year. No big church services – no fireworks lighting up the sky to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection ‘Christos Anesti!’ – no shops full of decorated candles for the children and bakers windows full of neatly plaited Tsoureki. No red dip dyed eggs and smashing contests. Of course some of this will happen in households but without the big village celebrations and family gatherings it won’t be the same. 

The first Greek Easter celebrations we experienced were in Patmos, an island in the Dodecanese; I recall watching the town gathering in the square for church services, flags adorning the churches and then midnight fireworks and bangs that went on, and on, and on. The next night there was music and dancing and long tables laid out in the square to share the feast. The lovely couple who ran the hotel we stayed at gave us ornately wrapped tsoureki with red dyed eggs nested in the bread and explained the significance of each;  the bread made with butter and eggs, to provide a rich treat after fasting. Designed with three plaits that are braided together to represent the Holy Trinity—God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit and the red eggs blood and rebirth. All to be baked on the Thursday before Easter and only eaten after the midnight service on Saturday when the celebrations begin with feasting. Oh, and one can’t forget that delish Magiritsa soup made from sheep entrails – which isn’t actually awful – just a rather unique taste! 

Easter Candles

I’ll be missing the sights and sounds of a Greek Easter next week but making the most of what we have here and trying to stay positive. I struggle to hear anyone talking about ‘exit strategy’ when this is becoming more obvious by the day it is a long range crisis with an unknown human and economic cost. Whatever normal is again, it won’t happen for a long time. Accepting that is scary and we (the UK) seem to be nowhere near getting a grip on it. But given that we are all in this together, even if that is in our own separate human ways, there has to be good to be found and here’s a few things that I have found joy in: 

1- Baking: having finally located flour in the store I have made an apple and fruit traybake, choc chip cookies and some no-yeast herby focaccia bread. There is a high chance I’ll bake again today…and will need to step up the exercise! 

2 –  Planting seeds: loving my little kitchen window experiments, I have not been this excited to watch cress grow from seed since I was 5 years old! Herbs, tomatoes and courgettes might be taking their time. But all offer hope and/or acceptance that we could be here a while! 

3 – Walking/running: out in fresh air across flat fields and bridleway paths. Never have I been more appreciative of low population and wide open spaces. Also the weather freakishly glorious.

4 – Writing: just words, one at a time, piecing themselves together and forming fragments of the world we live in. No, definitely not a time to pen a novel from scratch or finish a dystopian masterpiece, but keeping going is key. Also was also great fun having regular video chats with other creative folk and attending virtual sessions of the StayatHomeLitFest!  

5 – Distraction: “I have seen the best minds of my generation lost to Netflix”™ Deborah Levy. Not to say TV is bad, but away from the news it can be uplifting and distracting in equal measure plus we all suddenly have the time to watch. Currently dipping into Unorthodox, but haven’t even watched Tiger King. Should I? 

In many ways what I am living with perhaps isn’t so different from what I had thought I would do after quitting a job.  It just hasn’t worked out in any way that I considered.  A month ago when I packed up my virtual desk we lived in a totally different world. The map has changed, the lines redrawn and exist in different place now, physically and mentally.

Being present in this day to day is my only option; the prospect of getting other work has diminished vastly, any plans of travelling, volunteering or setting up a new venture are in flux and for the first time in my life I don’t have a fixed point to race towards. Yet in all this chaos there is calm, stillness, patience. In this state of now I am being really thankful for everything I have and can exert control over. 

For now, everything else will have to wait.

What next?

No, it doesn’t end like this.

We have all seen the movie – you know, the one where the crazy zealot shouts ‘The END IS NIGH’ and then the virus breaks out and the zombies chase us, dragging their limbs and we RUN for our lives? I am refusing to believe that is how this one ends.

Decisions I made in the past few months have been side-lined, become irrelevant and obsolete. In a matter of weeks, like everyone, I have become obsolete from the things I recognised from my ‘old’ life. Everything is happening very fast, very swiftly changing and impacting us all in devastating ways. The shock came slow at first watching the news, fear creeping in at distance from ‘over there’. Hand wash, hand wash – antibacterial gel – shortages in the supermarkets. Watching as the world closed down borders and streets, shutting down, retreating and reducing life to its very basic necessity. Not knowing if we all acted soon enough or too late. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? History is always a fine judge.

The news cycle edged us towards a new language of pandemic and we all now stay home, stay safe and save lives.

I think we are in shock.

Collectively in tiny units; of family, friends and islands and nations – each one now looking for small ways to act and do-the-right-thing. In this there are little glimmers to remind us all of the power of connection and community; the joy of a video call, looking out for neighbours, a smile and wave from 2 meters apart – all of these have huge positive impacts on the day to day.

In countries all over the world homes have become offices, schools, sanctuaries of isolation – huge populations are adapting. What can come of this is simple – now everyone is knowingly or otherwise remaking their lives in very uncertain future. Staying safe in a world that has new boundaries and risks, the way we all collectively go from here is the big question.

In the first few days holed up in a random cottage in the UK, I wondered if we’d done the right thing. Greece quickly became less of an option given the warnings against travel and carrying the virus to an island with an at risk population. (Answer: there isn’t a ‘right’ thing now) I worried if our loved ones would be safe where they were at home. I worried about friends coping here and in Greece, urging them to stay safe and healthy. The economic worries are huge – only time will let that unfold. 

Before this I wondered if I needed to make myself undone and somehow the world has done it for me.

So without a plan I am turning my isolation time into reflection. Today I read a poem about driving along the USA interstate and paused as my imagination turned the poets’ abstract words into mountains and highways, the window down and the scent of dry Nevada air pouring in; sagebrush and gasoline.  If I could calm worry then this was how – we’d have to live like this for a while; scared, anxious, grieving – somehow trusting and coping. Words can form a big part of granting power to human experience – to transport and transform, bear witness and give voice to these times we live in. This is a good thing to ease worry – write it out. It can be a kind thing. A relieving thing. A hopeful sign that we will learn from this – politically and humanly.   

When this is over, and it will be one day, we will see people and countries we know and love again – the ones that for now I can make do with conjuring up in my mind like a far off place a long time ago. 

I might look back to the before-covid-life and realise that I didn’t know how good  it was, when without hesitation one could feel the pull from the broad earth like a magnet and follow it – tasting and touching everything as you went. Believing that it was open with possibility.

And maybe after the silence – then we’ll know how to change it all for the better.

31st January 2020

Is it a day we expected or pretended wouldn’t happen?

The EU Referendum changed everything in 2016. But what if I said Brexit changed my life for the better? 

The news coverage of the final day of UK MEPs sitting in the European Parliament in Brussels was a strange culmination of the past 4 years of angry politics. There was dignity and fond farewells with our friends in Europe, the singing of Auld Lang Syne. Yet, there stood a man who had dedicated 27 years of his life pushing an agenda of division that he wants to claim as his own victory – I found myself having pity for tyrants. Especially when they are waving tiny Union Jack flags and being cut off from speaking. Pitiful. Couple that with watching a confused Anne Widdecombe not knowing when to stand and what to wave and when to shut up. This was the embarrassing worst of ‘Great’ Britain.  

In 2016 waking up to the sly resignation of Cameron as he stood at No.10 was a shock. We spent the day at a friend’s wedding, me trying to not stare everyone down silently accusing them of being leave voters. This was then just the start of the worst human aspect the campaign and future elections fed on: division. Us and them, leavers and remainers, Britain and the EU, racial, cultural and religious divides were back out in the open. Despite suspecting that they had never really gone away, it was suddenly here in media fury, debated on street corners, in the bile pit of twitter, commented on loudly in pubs and on every kitchen table in the land families were divided (my own included). Families divided not only by opinion but in the scariest way; by questioning their very future in a country they had called home and as of June 23rd 2016 no longer felt welcome in.   

Who knows what forces shift a change in circumstances – sometimes it is a series of things; building up to create momentum and for me the EU referendum came as a warning saying don’t wait. The sudden notion that I would not get to live in Europe was like a midnight lantern flickering, a beacon that went off and for me lit up some dark corners that I’d disregarded in favour of safer options.  The reasons stacked up and making it happen, even temporarily was quite honestly about asking and being brave. We were fed up of the commuter life in London, the endless churn of material goals, steadily filling up a house with things that did not bring us joy or even felt like a reward. What if we couldn’t retire to Europe when we were 65 (or 70?!) anymore, what would we do?  What was it all for? Before the UK left the EU we promised to at least try and after many years of holidaying in Greece it seemed like the right place to start. 

We have zipped between the UK and Greece since 2017, a divided life, the best of both. But always a happy, fulfilled, if sometimes complicated life.  When people ask how we live they are always intrigued. One woman I met on a plane exclaimed to me. “Blimey you’re not daft, that’s the best way to live!” Every day I have been an EU Citizen I am humble and thankful for what it allowed me to explore and experience. I have met wonderful strangers, many that became friends. Some are now grappling with residency, insurance and future red-tape they didn’t foresee after years of just being accepted. Imagine if we didn’t go to explore Greece, that we hadn’t just turned up there to see what happened. That we hadn’t had the freedom as EU Citizens to try a new life – explore new countries, to wander without restriction. That is what future generations will not know – the freedom to try lives and ways of living out. 

Now on the 31st January it is really here. The day the UK leaves the EU – I think it’s sad, emotional, disappointing. Others will pop champagne and sing songs that remind them of a land that never was. We are obsessed with the idea of the UK’s glory. Yet this is such a false romanticism – I cannot celebrate how sh*t Britain was for the generations before me. I am four generations from a poorhouse – three short lines away from a widow sifting tobacco in the docks in Tyneside, three long blood lines away from a family of Irish potato pickers who too poor for the ship fare to the New World came to Scotland in the famine, spreading out across the North East wherever there was work; coal miners, smelt workers, joining a family of itinerant cloth makers all the way from Norfolk, lasses sent ‘in-service’ and lads learning trade in the forge, heavy industry, driving busses. No-one in my family left the country before WW2 – they only ever travelled the across the Channel wearing uniforms and staying alive long enough to see snippits of the world from the bars of a window in a prison of war camp. Oh they were the days, Nigel. Glory days.  

Are the things that matter where you are from or where you are headed to?Migration is happening on global scales previously unknown from one place to the next, whether circumstances are forced, war, famine, persecution or for an opportunity for employment or are tempted by the whimsy and freedom to retire or start over again. These are different parts of the complex debate. At a very human level citizenship and identity are about otherness and belonging – us and them, and complications of offering and being granted freedom – with terms. When you close freedom down, like everything, it is a prison which impacts the poorest in society.

Of course I keep having the same conversation recently and people reassure me I can still move to (insert exotic EU city here) you could get a job there, so why are you worried? Nothing is going to change. But that isn’t what FoM really is about – freedom is a way of crossing borders without question, following opportunity, an idea, a love, a promise of a job, seeing the life offered in other lands, trying them out – seeing what fits. Who all of this affects most are the ones freedom could offer most to. Rich lives don’t have borders like the rest of us. A golden visa in Greece costs nothing; someone said this to me with a flick of the wrist as if £250K was the price of a coffee. True story.

The wealthier you are the more worlds can be opened easily. It is a closing down , a new boundary approach – and it’s scary. Nobody is saying you can’t move here or there – they are saying if you do you must be able, qualified and soluble, able to assimilate. Wealthy, wanted. Like us.

Even a few weeks ago we took the ferry from Dover to Calais – a trip I know now is my last as a proper EU citizen. It was so simple – lunch in Calais and back in time for dinner. We had it so good and never realised. Only history will be able to tell how this one ends. 

I imagine an alternative universe where there is another me walking a different corridor, in another job and in realising tomorrow the UK will have officially left the EU and I never spent that time there, now it’s all too late, I’d probably slyly scan my phone for price alerts for flights to Greece. Wishing, waiting, wanting…

Like I said Brexit might have been the best thing to happen to me.

A year in reading

There are infinite ways to measure how a year has been; it is personal and political, happy and sad, reflective, impatient and meandering, but always full of change. When December rolls around it becomes the time of year we tally up the weight and value of our lives; of what matters, how we live and how the tiny passing molecules of our very being barrel into the world like wild thoughts at 4am in a sleepless half-light. Ideas as brief and fleeting as our lives, only to quietly disappear again into dust. 

What can I say today as we wake to the result of the UK Election? Hope is buried under a stark polemic fought through social media memes and half-truths spun round an axis of soundbites seeming to offer little change. So I say nothing. But even as the 2010’s are ending I find myself thinking it is too early, too raw to grasp what will define this decade and what hope the next brings us. 2024 is a long time. 

So instead I want to reflect on reading this year. What I have enjoyed, devoured, struggled with and unlearned. See if any of my book recommendations resonate so you too can dive into words to not only escape, but to find what holds the fabric of our very human and messy lives together, the universality held in those pages. 

I cannot recommend highly enough the collection of mastery that is Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers; edited by Kit de Waal and features a big contrasting cross section of writers who identify as working class. From the familiar Malorie Blackman, Stuart Maconie, Lisa McInerney and Louise Doughty to new (to me) work from Lisa Blower and Tony Walsh. The great thing is that this anthology offered a few writers their first published pieces so includes new names that you may not have heard of yet but really need to; weep as you read Loretta Ramkissoon’s ‘Which Floor?’ and Riley Rockford’s ‘Domus Operandi’ – amazing unique voices gathered to shatter the middle-class mainstream of publishing. 

Kerry Hudson’s memoir Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns – is a must read for understanding the heartbreaking immediacy of poverty in the UK. Kerry narrates a vivid childhood spent moving around B&B’s and council housing, from Scotland to the North East and Coastal Towns. It is a succinctly crafted narrative that uncovers the deadening effects of austerity policies that have and continue to inflict misery on families. Not an easy tread but an absolutely vital one. If you haven’t read any of Kerry’s writing before also make sure you dive in to her other work, Tony Hogan and Thirst. She is also crafts an excellent Twitter feed as well as masterminding this years’ Breakthrough Festival for all marginalised aspiring writers. 

How to be Champion by Sarah Millican – because sometimes you need a funny woman to tell you it’s all going to be okay and it’s never too late to learn new tricks, like stand up comedy! 

I had a little Sarah Winman phase reading Tin Man which has a beautiful poetry and sense of place to it, it is a short novel about  loss and grief on the changing streets of Oxford. I followed it up with her earlier work from 2011, When God Was A Rabbit. More magical realism than I usually enjoy but still very well crafted and a real decade spanning family saga, with a beautiful narrative following siblings through childhood and adulthood events. Very immersive and well plotted with superb characters. 

Torch by Cheryl Strayed, just because Wild was so good and this is her fiction/memoir-ish novel of her mother’s death. Moving and raw with that spirit lifting prose she does so very well. 

Pat Barker is like a gift of an accomplished writer that keeps on giving. I started with her first novel, Union Street from 1982. Composed of a collection of interrelated narratives of Geordie women living on the same street. It holds nothing back with the brutal opening section detailing the abuse of Kelly, which binds and divides the characters it takes you into the heart of female working class lives, centering on how they cope and keep families together. Yet, contrast this with Barker’s latest offering The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of  Homer’s epic poem focuses on the cost of war to women through the story of Briseis, Achilles’ concubine. Brilliant narrative which lifts the tale into something modern and pressing; how women create their own spaces in times of struggle. Also on a similar theme of Greek mythology is the wonderfully poetic Circe: by Madeline Miller

Other highly things I have loved this year and recommended: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – slick, epistolary narrative capturing a relationship broken by a injustice in a race and class divided contemporary USA. Very now.
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott– intriguing tale of the downfall of Truman Capote, told by the enigmatic women he betrayed. Pretty dazzling and slanderous!
Ordinary People by Sally Rooney; I wanted to love it. And it some ways I loved her way of capturing her generation. But I found it frustrating in parts – still worth a read.

I have read so many brilliant (and some not so,) short stories this year. One highlight for me has been The Hotel by Anne Enright;

Deborah Myer’s living memoirs parts one, Things I don’t Want to Know and two, The Cost of Living have brought me endless joy and I anticipate reading the third with a thrill- her candidness is to be admired.

Of course there is a Greek theme here too. Discovering Brenda Chamberlain’s writing has been an absolute gem. Her relatively unknown artistic  life and writing deserves much more attention – Rope of Vines has made me realise that there is a real place for women writing about the 60s dream on Hydra. Her version should be read before you think too long about Leonard Cohen and the masculine free-love narratives of artistic freedom. Her voice is of its time and provides a valuable counterpoint  – one of isolation and self-reliance, and holds a spirit of adventure of such rarity in sparse prose making her worthy of much more praise. I have just picked up the first full-length biography of Brenda Chamberlain by Jill Peircy to uncover more about her.

Compliment that with Mabel Bent’s Chronicles; rough sketch diary entries of her travels across teh Greek Islands in the 1890s. Mabel accompanied her husband Theodore on several explorations to then unknown islands. As some of the first travellers to experiencing Greek hospitality, festivals and freezing cold temperatures. The entries cover her perspective of bartering with locals and arranging boat rides, meeting women and ‘introductions’ to many well connected families along the way. It is another world of Empire and her journals are often bizarre and scathing commentary on the food and places they stay; administering medicines, adhering to customs, trading clothes and ideas. An interesting read, especially as it wasn’t written by Mabel with the intention of ever publishing it.   

After my visit to Sifnos I cought up on Sharon Blomfield’s Sifnos Chronicles, in two parts – which are lively, atmospheric pieces capturing her experience of being a Canadian visitor to the island, frequently returning again and again to capture a place she has fallen in love with and wants to call home. A heart-warming meandering immersion in Greek life when you need an escape . 

I have also fallen deeply in awe of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing. It was a book I had on my radar for a while, and for whatever reason had carried it around for longer than I’d wanted (when you are a nomad like me, that takes some doing as I shed possessions like a pigeon does its feathers). It  blew me away. An original narration, unique voice and heartbreaking not-quite-coming-of-age fiction that takes you into her bleak world and spits you out again – changed. 

An unexpected joy was Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello, translated from Italian by Alex Valente. A moody and atmospheric tale of a missing girl and a murdered boy, hinged on a domestic drama with psychological implications. Elia lives in the rural Italy of abandoned industry and despair, his father is suffering mental illness and the tale entwines crime-noir and a coming-of-age tale. One to read quickly and devour its twists and turns. 

My list starts building for 2020 reading – still having Ducks, Newbury Port by Lucy Ellman and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments to devour over Christmas. I hold good intentions for keeping my head down in books so send me your top tips to breeze into the new decade!

I was just listening to author Louise Doughty on Radio 4  – she was talking about where she researched the settings of Platform Seven, her latest thriller. She talked about how she inadvertently found inspiration revisiting her past. Stumbling into Peterborough Station at night and finding these crossing places of transport hubs as waiting rooms where we all become anonymous. I thought about how much of my life has been spent in train stations and airports joining passengers staring at information screens silently waiting; all on the way to different places in their lives belonging neither to the place they came from, or the place they are going to. In limbo for a while, I realise now I have for too long been a lone figure waiting for something to happen.

So now I realise I want the next decade to be less waiting and more movement, less indecision and more action. Only now I see that all rests with me. Here is to a beautifully imagined 2020!