On finding unexpected connections

I seem to go through phases of reading certain types of books. For a long time I was deep into the Beats. Then I forayed into filling the gaps in my reading of modern classics – Catch 22, Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, some Hemmingway, some more Salinger. Then in response to the Black Lives Matter movement I read several books on that theme – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I like to immerse myself in an era, a genre or a milieu, finding the structures of it, seeing all the elements interplay, exposing the commonalities and highlighting the differences. Now, it seems, I’m taking a turn at autobiographies and memoirs. Two that I’ve just read back-to-back have thrown up some unexpected connections between individuals that I wouldn’t have expected to have much in common, which got me thinking more broadly about the connections between us all.

The memoir train started because my older daughter is learning about World War 2 at (home)school. She had spotted my copy of Anne Frank’s Diary on a shelf some years ago and had expressed an interest. Now that she’s a bit older (11) I figured it would be ok for her to read, but wanted to do so myself first, just to be sure, to jog my memory and also so that I’d be better equipped to discuss it with her. Around the same time, I was on the Waterstones website ordering her a thesaurus and I spotted that they had Barack Obama’s A Promised Land reduced and Mikel Jollett’s Hollywood Park in paperback. I had been meaning to buy Jollett’s book since it came out, so both got moved into my basket and arrived a few days later. While I was waiting for them to arrive, I finished Anne Frank, handed her over to my daughter and up popped an email from Bookbub (if you are a reader and aren’t signed up to this already, then check it out – daily personalised ebook offers usually for a few quid each) letting me know that Janey Godley’s memoir Handstands in the Dark was on offer. Well that would bridge the gap nicely.

Ok, maybe an explanation of who those people are is required. Not Anne Frank or Barack Obama, I assume you all know who they are…

Mikel Jollett is the lead singer of The Airborne Toxic Event, one of my favourite bands, I wrote about seeing them here and here but definitely saw them one more time then that. In recent years the band haven’t been quite so active, but Mikel has become prominent as a political commentator on Twitter. Jollett is based in California, and while I haven’t “met” him – despite various attempts I have met almost all the other band members but not the man himself – I have, however touched him and had his sweaty t-shirt pressed against my face. Don’t worry, it’s all part and parcel of being front row at a smallish gig. In any case, we have connected, in a manner of speaking. We have been in the same place at the same time and are connected by not only the music but shared interests in writing, literature, politics and possibly more. We would have a shared frame of reference.

Janey Godley is a Glaswegian comedian famous for her “Trump is a C*nt” sign on one of his Scottish golf courses a few years ago. I first came to know her work on an appearance of Have I Got News For You, and more recently she’s been entertaining us during lockdown with voiceovers of videos, most notably of Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid briefings. We both live in Glasgow but I haven’t met her, or knowingly been in the same place at the same time. However, all Glaswegians, adopted or native, share a special camaraderie and we would certainly have a shared frame of reference.

In his book, Jollett writes about his life born into a cult, living with addicted and mentally ill parents, his chaotic, impoverished and often violent and neglected childhood. So far not much I can directly relate to, although it makes for fascinating reading and is beautifully written. Later he writes about finding his way in a middle-class world, having to mask, suppress or hide his working class background. He attends a prestigious university and finds himself a fish out of water. Here I can definitely relate. As the book goes on, I find more and more commonalities between us. Our shared frame of reference gets wider.

Godley’s memoir recounts her life growing up in Glasgow’s east end in the 1960s and 70s. It too is a life of extreme poverty, surrounded by people struggling with addiction and violence. There is abuse, albeit of a different type. I didn’t grow up in Glasgow but I worked for a voluntary sector organisation providing advocacy to children and young people with disabilities all over the city for 8 years. A lot of my work took me to the east end. I grew familiar with Shettleston, Parkhead, Haghill and Bridgeton. I spent many hours on the number 19 and 41 buses to Easterhouse and all stops along the way. I saw the poverty and abuse that still persisted in the early 2000s-2010s. Kids who had never been near the City Centre, whose whole lives were contained in one postcode. Older siblings caught up in gangs, groomed or selling themselves on Glasgow Green. Kids driven to stealing phones because there was never any food at home. Kids sent to young offenders prison because they wouldn’t admit that’s why they stole. The shame of poverty still hung in the air. Kids in wheelchairs who had worn out shoes because they weren’t deemed worthy of spending money on. So many disabled children in inadequate housing. Families worn out from fighting for things they should have been entitled to. It may have been 40 years after the time Godley was writing about, but, all too sadly, we would have a very wide shared frame of reference indeed.

In Godley’s book there here are gangs, not cults, but the similarities and overlaps with Jollett’s book and life were striking. I never would have imagined that a Californian rock star and a comedian from the east end of Glasgow would have quite so much in common, or that I would find so much in common with either of them. Even little things, like they both take to running to cope with the harshness of their lives and to take back what little control they can. I get it – running is cheap and can be done anywhere, so perhaps isn’t too surprising, but it was interesting to see layer upon layer of common threads woven through each life story.

It made me wonder what other two apparently random people might find themselves connected? I can’t remember when I first heard of the “Six degrees of separation” theory – the idea that any two people in the world are linked through a chain of no more than six acquaintances. At first it seemed unlikely to me, but then I thought. I’ve lived in Scotland, London and Sweden. I have family in Australia and Sri Lanka. That already extends my first links to a good spread around the world. I have friends from places as disparate as Finland, Malawi and the US. That covers even more of the globe. Maybe it’s not such a crazy theory after all.

I love it when I meet people and we have something unexpected in common. Finding that shared interest or experience reminds us of our common humanity. People are people, after all. We may be different ages, nationalities or come from different cultural backgrounds but if we allow ourselves to look beyond preconceived expectations we will find something that will make us yell, “really, me too!” and share a profoundly beautiful moment together. I adore those moments.

Indeed thinking back to this time last year, it was both horrifying and fascinating to see just how quickly COVID-19 spread from a localised outbreak to a global pandemic. News reports in the UK focussed on China, then Iran, then Italy as it crept ever closer to us. The virus doesn’t travel by itself, it travels from human to human, from person to person as they move from place to place. International travel, full flights and packed commuter trains help transmission, but it still spreads around the world one person at a time. We have been told to isolate ourselves for almost a year now, while we as humans, in all continents, have never been so connected by a single event. We are not only experiencing it as those who lived through previous pandemics or significant global events like the world wars, but thanks to technology we are able to witness others, share our stories and have more of a collective experience like never before. We all now have Covid as a shared frame of reference, for better or for worse.

So in short, Janey Godley, Mikel Jollet and I are connected by only a few degrees of separation. I’m just about to start reading Obama’s book, I wonder how many degrees between he and I????

“It’s not MY fault!” Setting an eco-example.

Over lockdown my girls have been on a nature documentary kick. It started with Gordon Buchanan and his “…, family & me” series covering arctic wolves, polar bears, black bears, brown bears and cheetahs. Then we moved on to David Attenborough, first his Perfect Planet series then The Blue Planet and now Blue Planet II. As part of Blue Planet II, they include some segments explaining how human actions have impacted the marine and coastal environment. My older daughter (aged 11) remarked, “ok, this is the bit where they say it’s all our fault.” The younger one (aged 7) full of indignation, retorted, “It’s not MY fault!”. She’s right. It is the fault of those of us who have lived longer than a mere 7 years.

Coincidentally, two of my friends have recently expressed a desire to live more plastic-free lives, and I’ve had a few conversations with people about reusable sanitary products. Perhaps as a consequence of lockdown and people re-evaluating their lives, perhaps we have just reached a critical mass of public opinion and that which used to be the domain of hippies and fringe groups is now mainstream, but either way it can only be a good thing that we are taking this more seriously.

I had a chat with my girls about what we do already, and how we could do more. (I’ll post some links to sites at the end)

They were both clad in reusable cloth nappies. I am a huge advocate for these. Not only do they reduce landfill, they don’t have any chemicals on baby’s bottom and they look super cute.

I also used cloth wipes instead of disposable ones, and still have a hands & faces set (bum set was separate!) handy for snacks, mealtimes or any other grubby occasion.

I’ve been using reusable sanitary products for years now, a mooncup and cloth pads. Again, I can’t recommend these highly enough, waste-saving and much nicer against the skin. The mooncup does take a bit of getting used to, but it is definitely worth persisting. While browsing for starter kits in preparation for my older daughter I came across Hey Girls, a Scottish company that donates 1 product for every 1 you buy, I bought some stuff for my daughter and thought I’d give their period pants a try as well, I must say I was impressed and might buy a few more.

Other health-wise we buy toilet paper and tissues from Who Gives a Crap, who make it out of sustainable materials, plastic-free wrapping and use profits to built toilets in developing countries. Win win win. For a fourth win, I have a referral code that gets us both £5 off, hit me up if you want in on the winning. We recently made the switch to bamboo toothbrushes which I was a bit unsure about, but they’ve been absolutely fine and the kids love them.

We use soap bars and I use a shampoo bar, although I’ve yet to switch the girls, somehow we had several bottles of kids shampoo I want to use up first. I still use bottled “bubble bath” and haven’t really looked at alternatives there yet, it’s a bit complicated by the fact that 2 of the 3 of us have eczema so some of what we use is prescription, some is just tried and tested and doesn’t irritate our skin so we’re reluctant to experiment too much. It’s probably next on my list to investigate, though. I tried FitPit deodorant and just didn’t get on with it, so I’m afraid I gave up, not having limitless funds to try out relatively pricey products that don’t work. However, a friend posted on Facebook today asking for some plastic-free toiletries and got some good recommendations so I will maybe hitchhike on those and try again.

One of my favourite things is our fruit & veg boxes. We are lucky and have 2 local farms that offer both pre-made and self-selection produce for collection or delivery, locally grown where possible and largely plastic-free.

We also get our milk delivered in glass bottles which get returned to be used again, saving many plastic bottles. I have a code for these guys too if you are local to the Glasgow area – get in touch!

Elsewhere in the kitchen, I have some reusable cloths instead of disposable kitchen paper, we have reusable sandwich wrappers for picnics or packed lunches and I save leftover food in wee tubs rather than using cling film. I recently got a dishwasher and just started using Smol plastic-free dishwasher tablets, which they post to you regularly. They also do laundry tabs and other stuff but I’ve not tried any of these yet. There are people who insist that you can clean your whole house with only white vinegar and baking soda, I haven’t put that to the test yet, and the cupboard under my sink is very much full of chemical-ridden plastic bottles. Another area I’d like to address, but just haven’t got round to it yet…

For home energy, I am with Bulb, which promises 100% green energy and has a clear, simple price plan and payment structure. Guess what – they have a referral code too, which get us both £50 off our bills, so you really should do that, for my sake, for your sake, for the planet’s sake, for goodness sake!

As individuals, we can undoubtedly make a difference, but we should bear in mind that we can only do so much. All of our individual personal circumstances will impact our abilities to make significant changes – health, wealth, location and available time all make it more or less easy to make that effort. It has been easy for me to avoid excessive air travel, because I haven’t had the means to afford foreign holidays. Many argue that a vegan diet is the best action one can take for the planet, but I am allergic to all nuts and soya (and eggs) so veganism and even vegetarianism would leave me with a particularly restricted diet. I chose to put my efforts elsewhere. It is easy for me to use a fruit & veg box service because I have two locally. Comparing eco-credentials can quickly slip into judgement and one-upmanship. We should be mindful that everyone is working within different parameters of financial, physical and social factors and applaud anyone who makes any kind of effort, no matter how small. In fact during these pandemic times, making even a small change can feel even more significant, as we wrest back some control over our lives, our connections to others and the world we all live in.

We should also remember the role that governments and corporations play in pollution and CO2 emissions. Buy wisely, consider where your investments go – check where your pension funds are held and vote for those who will hold states and companies responsible.

My parents and grandparents live(d) a much more ecologically sound life than we do, without a 2nd thought and without any handwringing or endless internet searches for the best coconut scourer. Growing their own vegetables, composting, buying quality and taking care of things so they last, repairing things rather than replacing. It needn’t be complicated.

So what are your top tips for living an eco-friendly life? Share and spread the love.

Some links to companies that I’ve used:

Tots Bots cloth nappies: https://www.totsbots.com/

Cheeky Wipes reusable wipes & more: https://www.cheekywipes.com/

Mooncup: https://www.mooncup.co.uk/

Hey Girls sanitary products: https://www.heygirls.co.uk/

Who Gives A Crap toilet paper & more: https://uk.whogivesacrap.org – ASK ME FOR A CODE!

Roots of Linwood Fruit & Veg boxes: https://www.linwoodtrust.org.uk/store/category/5_fruitveg-shop/

Barnhill Boxes Fruit & Veg: https://barnhillboxes.com/

McQueen’s Dairies – milk & more: https://www.mcqueensdairies.co.uk/ – ASK ME FOR A CODE!

Smol cleaning products: https://smolproducts.com/

Bulb home energy: https://bulb.co.uk/ – WHAT, ANOTHER CODE? YES! £50 EACH NO LESS, YOU KNOW YOU WANT IT!! GET IN TOUCH!

Anything But Plastic – shop with good range of products, self-explanatory: https://www.anythingbutplastic.co.uk/shop