There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure

A few weeks ago I read a Guardian article that asked whether someone’s taste in books could predict dating compatibility. My first reaction was, “hell yeah!” If a bloke reads the same kind of books as me there’s a good chance we’ll hit it off. However the article contains comments from people who are extremely judgmental about others’ reading habits and this is where the whole idea falls down. First of all, frankly if a bloke reads at all, I’m interested, but mainly this pretentious distinction between “high-brow” and “low-brow” or “cultured” and “popular” art is a nonsense. What can you tell about someone who professes that Infinite Jest is their favourite book? That they may or may not have actually read Infinite Jest and that’s about it. What about someone who likes sitcoms? What if they are the same person?

Last week I was doing the “what shall I watch next?” thing, skipping from Netflix to Prime to iPlayer trying to settle on something and not quite feeling into anything. Netflix now has a suggestions button that will cycle through options based on previous viewing. The first few recommendations I had already seen elsewhere but then it came to Superstore, based on my viewing of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation. Both excellent shows. But I felt like if something was along those lines and any good, I would have heard of it already? Schitt’s Creek was recommended to me multiple times by multiple people before I finally tried and yes, it does live up to its reputation. But I had literally never heard of Superstore. However the ennui had set in by then so I gave it a try. I could see the similarities to B99 and Parks, but thought it was a bit derivative, bit too fluffy and slapstick in places. A few days later and I’m crying as Jonah comforts Amy as she’s going through a tough time. Later I’m on the edge of my seat as a natural disaster befalls the store. But wait, this is disposable fluff telly, right? Well like most tv these days it is well written and well acted. It does have moments of silliness but also surprisingly deep themes, like worker’s rights, healthcare and immigration, which, by the way America, what the hell is wrong with you? The character of Amy (America Ferrera) has experiences that chime remarkably with my own life. Not totally – I did get married young and had a very similar divorce journey but didn’t get pregnant at 19 and sadly don’t have a Jonah (Ben Feldman) but still I found myself thinking “wow, that’s me” on multiple occasions. It is light, it is fluffy, it is silly, it is low-brow but it is also very good and I am loving it.

The whole idea of this artificial division and associated judgements is class-ist. I remember when I was in my early 20s, taking part in a quiz with some university friends. A lot of the questions related to opera, classical music, theatre etc and I was clueless. It’s not that I’m not intelligent, or that I don’t have good general knowledge, its that coming from a working class background gives you a very different cultural upbringing than those from the middle or upper-middle classes. That isn’t to say that I had no exposure to culture, quite the opposite – but traditional Scottish, folk and popular culture, as “low-brow” doesn’t have the same status or likelihood to appear as questions in quizzes, but it is as rich and fully rounded and as culturally significant as “cultured” culture. At the time I felt ashamed at my lack of knowledge of high culture, but looking back I realise that knowing your Wagner from your Puccini doesn’t make you a better person, just as knowing your Coronation Street from your Eastenders doesn’t make you a lesser person.

I have always liked the lyric from the Franz Ferdinand song “Dark of the Matinee” (one of their best songs if you ask me)

“Time every journey to bump into you, accidentally
I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate
All the girls I hate
All the words I hate
All the clothes I hate
How I’ll never be anything I hate
You smile, mention something that you like
Oh how you’d have a happy life if you did the things you like”

It’s all too easy to pass judgement. It is easy to hate on things, criticise things and make fun of them. I’m no exception, I’ve definitely engaged in that myself. By nature I’m a cynical person and I have strong opinions about a lot of things, A good judgy session can strengthen bonds and cement “us” vs “them” which as social animals we need sometimes. But expressing dislike, criticism or judgement about a tv programme/book/musician shouldn’t be the same as making judgements about the people who do like those things. The times when I’ve found someone who takes a more positive view of things, who talks enthusiastically about an interest or who I share an obsession for something with have been the most life-affirming and uplifting experiences in my life, far outweighing any camaraderie gained from a griping session. The pleasure gained from sharing a passion, sharing joy is a beautiful thing.

As we experienced lockdowns though the COVID-19 Pandemic, most of us watched far more tv and films than we did before. The arts got very little government support during lockdown, yet people continued to create, often going to great lengths to either re-package their output for an online audience, or undergoing rigorous testing, isolation and distancing measures to produce something resembling normal to us. From my own viewing habits alone, I’m going to guess that a lot of the content that has been consumed over the past year has been of the lighter, fluffier, “lower-brow” variety. It offers escapism, gives us laughs and loves when we can’t be with those who make us smile or who we desperately want to hug. It serves a purpose and it serves it well. None of us should feel remotely guilty for that.

“För att du är ensam…” On loneliness.

When I was 18 I went to live and work in Sweden for a year. Initially I lived with a family with 4 young children. Mid-way through the year it was decided that I would move to a different house, shared by several young adults. I remember vividly a conversation with the 7 year old daughter of the family. I was trying to reassure her (in Swedish, which was neither of our first languages) that I would still visit and see her often and wasn’t going to be far away. I asked her if she knew where I was going. She replied yes, and she knew why. Oh, I enquired, not fully sure of the reasons myself, why? “För att du är ensam…” she replied sadly. “Because you are lonely…”

To this day I’m not sure if the parents in that family saw something in me that I didn’t fully recognise yet myself, or if actually there were a multitude of other reasons for my move, but it struck at my very heart. Her gentle words and doleful eyes staring up at me, wondering if an adult could really be so terribly lonely, has stayed with me all these years.

I was reminded of it today when I came across this tweet:

I don’t follow the author, it was a retweet that showed up on my timeline, but I was drawn to it and that paragraph alone chimed so true for me that I started to cry.

Now before I go on, yes, we are in the middle of a global pandemic and things are pretty tough for everyone. I am ok. I am mostly doing pretty well, actually, considering. I have friends and family who are going through this pandemic whilst also dealing with cancer, depression, fraught relationships and/or unemployment. I am healthy and I have work and I live in Scotland where I actually trust our government to get us through this. I do not take these things for granted. But yes, I am lonely.

I have always been happy with my own company and do enjoy solitude. I am essentially an introvert and don’t seek the company of others often, sometimes indeed actively avoiding it. I don’t make connections with people easily or frequently. When I do I am either so overwhelmed that I babble about our common interests and don’t ever want to let them go, or get freaked because it happens so rarely and retreat into myself not wanting to ruin a possible friendship or more. I have always had a few close friends rather than been part of a large gregarious group. Since I left home at 18 to move to Sweden, I have lived away from my family, and over time, friends that I had or made have moved away too. It happens and is not unusual or tragic.

Unlike the article’s author, I don’t live completely alone. For the past 5 years, I have lived just with my 2 daughters, who stay with their dad regularly, usually 1 night per week and every 2nd weekend. So they keep me busy and provide that human contact, which I know so many people, especially now, don’t have. I am lucky in that regard.

Yet I am lonely.

The kids give a pretence of not-loneliness. They mask it and make it oftentimes bearable or forgotten. But it’s not the same. I of course love my girls and as they get older we can do more interesting things and have more interesting conversations but what I miss most is regular adult conversation. Not necessarily high brow repartee, although that would be nice, but just regular mundane everyday chat. A person, or people, to share some of my life with. The company of an 11 and a 7 year old is not the same as the company of adults, be they colleagues that you see every day or a partner that you come home to at night.

The pandemic, lockdown and social distancing has exacerbated the problem, but for me it definitely started a while before we were all forced into a world of quarantines and self-isolation. I’ve been separated over 5 years so that’s a part of it. I moved to mainly freelance work last summer, so that’s a part of it. In some ways, as my 7 year old Swedish friend noted, it’s always been within me. But now, without the possibility to seek out friendships and connections and interactions when I tire of my self-imposed solitude, it deepens.

The other day I missed flirting. I hardly ever flirt. I’m terrible at it. But once in a while the chance comes along and it’s fun. I miss the possibility of flirting.

It’s not all about romance or a relationship or sex. I’ve been single for 5 years. That’s a long time. I was cajoled by friends to try dating apps, but it’s not for me. As I said, I don’t make connections easily, I need time. I’m the kind of person it takes a while to get to know, and like. I’m great if you get to know me. I miss the possibility of getting to know.

Despite my introvertness, I enjoy meeting people. I’m actually fascinated by most people. I’m better 1-1 than in groups. I work a lot for Colleges just now and pre-pandemic I enjoyed meeting all the different students and lecturers and finding out about them and their lives. Now we are all online. I am let into the Zoom room just as the lecture starts and when it ends we say thanks and bye and the screen closes. No opportunity to discuss the news, the subject being taught that day, the funny thing that happened on the way here. I miss those small interactions and the possibility of more meaningful connections.

So what do I do? Too much time on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, certainly. Texts, messages, social media comments and occasional zoom calls exchanged with friends. It’s not the same. I read, I’ve always read, it is escapism, it allows me to experience a different time, place or be part of a different group of people. I watch tv, seeking out characters that make me laugh or that I can relate to. I have the radio on, or listen to podcasts, it’s a form of intimacy. But it’s not the same. When I am watching the West Wing and I wonder out loud, “Whatever happened to Elsie Snuffin?” No-one answers.


The full article mentioned above can be found here, and is a beautiful read:

Books and bookshelves

Books and bookshelves have been in the news a lot recently, whether it be reports that we are reading more during lockdown, recommendations for which books to tackle during lockdown, or even whether we will ultimately fail to finish those books we finally attempt during lockdown. As we peer into people’s homes on Zoom etc, the bookshelves frequently in the backgound have been coming under scrutiny, leading to the inevitable advice as to how to arrange your shelves to impress.

I am a reader. I am as fascinated by other people’s bookshelves as it is possible to be. I look at the rows and stacks in envy. I would love a wall filled with shelves groaning with books from floor to ceiling.  I don’t have that. I have a couple of smallish bookcases, the biggest one shared half with my kids, the others spread where I can squeeze them into my small house. The majority of books I have read in my life, I don’t own. As a child and teenager I made frequent use of our local library, then once I had read through that I graduated to the central library in town. Some (I hope) are still at my parents’ house. Many other books have been borrowed from friends and handed back. Some belonged to my ex and remain with him. In the past 5 years or so I have read on a mixture of physical books and kindle. I don’t mind either. I’m not a purist, a book is a book. The kindle has several advantages over physical books, especially with the aforementioned small house and lack of shelf space. Recently, though, a few things have happened that have made me think about the books I do and don’t own.

One day, my youngest daughter (6) picked up my kindle and asked what it was for. I realised she never saw me read. I only do it after she’s in bed or when she’s away at her dad’s house. Then my older daughter was bored one day. She devours books the same way I did at her age, but she had read through all hers. I told her to have a look at my shelves. She was at once astonished and confused. She had never thought she could touch my books, never mind actually read them. We talked about which ones might be suitable for her now, and which might be more appropriate in a couple of years. It then struck me that many of the books I would naturally introduce her to, I don’t have in my possession to give her. 

Maybe because there weren’t shelves to peruse or maybe because we don’t share similar tastes, but I didn’t read any of my parent’s books either. Despite my parents also being avid readers, we didn’t have shelves full of books around our house. My dad is also a frequent library user, and my mum has always had a complex system of rotating books around various friend circles. I have no idea how she keeps track, but when a friend comes for coffee, a carrier bag full of books will be produced from somewhere and exchanged for another bag. So books were around, but not available to me, or shared or discussed.

I have also, in recent years, been making efforts to fill the gaps in my literary knowledge. I decided I couldn’t call myself a reader if I wasn’t familiar with some of the classics. That’s probably not true, but I have a perverse working-class guilt thing that I’m not well read enough to call myself educated and I feel embarrassed when I don’t get a reference or recognise a quote. Although I have always read, I avoided some of the more literary writing because I feared that it would be boring, like the books we had to read at school, or above me and I wouldn’t “get it”. However, I can’t keep blaming my school or my parent’s lack of bookshelves forever, so it was time to take matters into my own hands.

I’m sort of focusing on modern classics first, because the reasons given above still niggle at the back of my mind and classic classic still seems more like homework. I started with Kerouac, meandered through a few other Beats, went on to David Foster Wallace, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Joseph Heller and have just finished The Catcher in the Rye. I think I’ll linger with Salinger for a while. It’s comfortably Beat-like and have found that, like music, although I will always support women creatives when I can, in my vastly female-dominated home and work environment, I crave the masculine voice and perspective, the male presence, so will escape away with my male writer friends for now until I can see the real ones again.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all high-brow stuff. I’ve also read a fair few lighter books, some non-fiction and even some books written by celebrities who have something interesting to say. Oh and a few textbooks too…

I want my daughters to grow up surrounded by books, theirs and mine, and not get shelf envy when they go and visit friends and family. This is hard to do with electronic books, so I’ve been trawling 2nd hand bookshops to buy some of the volumes that I’ve read on kindle in order to have a physical copy and to look out for classics that I’ve not read yet. It’ll take me a while and I may have to evict some other possessions in order to fit them, in, but slowly and surely, one day I will have my own wall of groaning bookshelves. Let’s hope we’re not still in lockdown Zoom land by then…

In the interests of transparency and because you may be as nosy as me, here are my current bookshelves. I do have an order in with a 2nd hand bookshop online but couldn’t wait until that delivery to post this.

Mainly Fiction 1

Mainly Fiction 2

Big books on the bottom!

Mainly non-fiction and old study books

Current study books