Secular stuff, a census for a century, and simple advice

Three things I learned or loved this month

Artful possessions (credit: Luca Laurence)

Twenty years ago a British artist gathered up 7,227 things he owned and spent two weeks methodically breaking them into pieces. In the heart of consumerist London – in a closed-down C&A store on Oxford Street – his paintings, hi-fi, clothes, love letters, cat food, passport, car and more became bits of metal, glass, ceramic, textiles. The pieces were sent to landfill until his only remaining possession was the boilersuit he was wearing.

The artist, Michael Landy, interviewed last year in the Financial Times, described it as “reversing the idea of production into a disassembly line”. In the act of destruction he was also creating something, of course. His two-week performance attracted some 50,000 visitors to the store, and led to works of photography and exhibitions.

Whatever you think about performance art – or about destroying things for art’s sake, in an age of environmental crisis – the work says something about our complicated attachment to material possessions. As Landy told the FT: “At the time I spoke about how I was witnessing my own death and also moments of elation and it being the happiest two weeks of my life.” 

Continue reading “Secular stuff, a census for a century, and simple advice”

Cartagena, community, and sixty-minute Sundays

Three things I learned or loved this month

Saturday stroll among the colours of Cartagena

Everything feels different or disjointed: the air oppressively warm; my knowledge of Spanish buried too many years ago to find the words I need; and it should be afternoon, but I’m the first to order breakfast. Eggs with tomatoes and onion, fruit, black coffee to shake off a six-hour time difference. 

Last week an overnight flight took me to Cartagena de Indias, a city of around 1 million on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, where men push carts piled high with mangoes through busy streets, where horse-drawn carts join traffic jams, where friends pose for selfies amid flags or pink umbrellas or street art. A dark history – a one-time slave trade hub, and one of three seats of the Catholic Inquisition in the Americas — but the city has since become a UNESCO heritage site, and tourists come nowadays for the colour, the nightlife, the nearby islands, the easy stroll along thick fortress walls.

Continue reading “Cartagena, community, and sixty-minute Sundays”

Despair as a teddy bear

How can we help: Exploring how and why we give, and how we might do it better

Bad things seem to pile up: the slow grind of dishonest politics, the sharp horror of war, the unfathomable end of life on earth barely registering on our front pages. You want to make the world a little bit better, but amid all of this, is there any point?

Much has been written already about the risk of burnout among activists, charity workers and healthcare workers. Many have repeated the advice to put on your own oxygen mask first, to practise ‘self-care’ (a term that I find off-putting for some reason, even if I agree with the concept).

But aside from looking after yourself (time off, getting into nature – whatever works), I wonder if it’s most important to find a kind of acceptance, to see despair as the inevitable other side of the coin. 

Continue reading “Despair as a teddy bear”

Feeling unalone, facing fears, and the questions of 7-year-olds

Three things I learned or loved this month

Lisa Taddeo’s 2019 book Three Women is widely described as a “bestselling phenomenon”. Columnist Caitlin Moran is quoted saying she would “probably re-read it every year of my life”. Now that I’ve read it, her praise doesn’t seem too far-fetched. 

As much as I was swept up in the real lives that Taddeo portrays – lives of complicated desire, sadness, sexuality, rejection, power, loyalty – I am fascinated by her process as a writer. She spent eight years on research (during which time she also had a baby). Twice, she moved to the town where the women lived to spend time with them; her husband moved with her. She was present at some of the events described in the book; she would meet one of the women immediately after her encounters with a secret lover to hear her recount the experience. Taddeo describes her role, in an interview on the Happy Place podcast, as a sort of “non-judgmental ghost”, present as lives unfolded. Each of the three women finds her decisions judged harshly by those around them; in giving them the full range to tell their stories, the author aims to challenge the quickfire dismissal most of us unleash on people we barely know. “I wanted people to feel unalone,” Taddeo says.

Continue reading “Feeling unalone, facing fears, and the questions of 7-year-olds”

Sticking around

How can we help: Exploring how and why we give, and how we might do it better

Planning ahead

A former colleague told me recently that he’s started mentoring a kid. It’s not just the occasional phone call or a few trips to the cinema, though: he has signed up to a programme that commits you to meeting up with the same child on three weekends out of four, for a minimum of two years.

How many of us stick at anything, consistently, for a full two years? It’s so easy to set good intentions, then find that other stuff – work exhaustion, family demands, travel plans, life admin – gets in the way. I’m hugely impressed by the volunteers who sign up for two years, but also by charities that aren’t afraid to require it of their volunteers, because they know that for vulnerable kids, consistency matters. 

A day after that conversation with my former colleague, I got a handwritten thank-you letter, out of the blue, from the kids’ charity where I’ve been volunteering on and off for some years. It was completely unexpected, and also unnecessary – like many other volunteers, I do it because I enjoy being there, because I love what the charity does, and because I’ve grown to feel proud to be part of a lovely little community. (Other volunteers include primary school teachers who give up their Saturday mornings to spend more time with excitable children; another, a writer, recently turned up directly off an overnight flight from the USA – she could easily have skipped that session, but said volunteering was the highlight of her week.)

Continue reading “Sticking around”

Storytelling, solidarity, and smiling strangers

Three things I learned or loved this month

Small dog, big smiles

The hero’s journey is trotted out regularly in discussions on storytelling (and, therefore, also on advertising, campaigning, fundraising, and so on). The protagonist goes on a journey to fulfil a desire or answer a call to action; overcomes the enemy; returns home a changed person. Even if we don’t know the theory, we’re all aware of the formula somewhere deep in our bones. 

Into the Woods: How stories work and why we tell them, by former BBC/Channel 4 producer John Yorke, picks this formula apart, exploring each element and providing a few more clues to watch out for in any narrative. The three-act or five-act structure; the inciting incident, midpoint, crisis and climax; the central character who must face his or her opposite.

Some of it is almost gloomily formulaic: in a Bond or Hitchcock film, he writes, the crisis is nearly always a high-octane, 25-minute sequence at the end, set in a unique location, and almost always on territory that’s alien to our hero.

Continue reading “Storytelling, solidarity, and smiling strangers”

Everyone’s a philanthropist… once we get around to it

How can we help: Exploring how and why we give, and how we might do it better

“Instantaneous generosity”: it could be good for you

A family friend told me recently that he and his wife, both writers, wanted to get into philanthropy. It’s not something I often hear, outside my professional bubble. Giving makes you feel good, so why don’t more people do it regularly? 

Partly, I think, because there’s an assumption that philanthropy is only for the very wealthy.

Donations from the likes of Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos get heaps of attention. The scrutiny is important. But it also means that the central characters in most philanthropy stories are business moguls, sports champions and Hollywood stars – no wonder the field can feel as distant a prospect as owning a superyacht. 

Continue reading “Everyone’s a philanthropist… once we get around to it”

Microseasons, mentoring, and a marriage mix-up

Three things I learned or loved this month

February: not so springy

We think of the natural world as following a four-part rhythm, but spring, summer, autumn, winter don’t always quite fit. A freezing cold March doesn’t feel like spring, and November can be “all wrong for autumn”, as the American writer Kurt Vonnegut observed. Instead, he suggested, there are six seasons in the year, including a ‘locking’ season in November and December to lead us into winter, and an ‘unlocking’, in March and April, before spring unfolds.

I came across Vonnegut’s six seasons last week, as part of a writing workshop inspired by Japanese microseasons – an ancient tradition in which the year is divided into 24 periods, and sub-divided into 72 even shorter ones.

Continue reading “Microseasons, mentoring, and a marriage mix-up”

A labour of love: the infodemic managers

How can we help: Exploring how and why we give, and how we might do it better

Collage, 3 March

Scrolling through Twitter can be an emotional rollercoaster: the good, the bad, the very ugly. One thing that’s especially hard to shake right now are the posts from exhausted doctors and nurses, begging us to understand that hospitals are overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, begging us to take distancing rules seriously. Read the replies to such posts, and you’ll see the fake-news army chipping in to claim that the death rate has in fact not risen, that Covid is just like the flu, even that medics are lying about what’s happening before their eyes. 

A small but globally dispersed force has been armed to take on such untruths. Among them is a friend of mine, Debora, who is one of the 135 or so recently trained and certified by the World Health Organization as an ‘infodemic manager’. 

Continue reading “A labour of love: the infodemic managers”

Kwa sababu ya corona

Eid celebrations, Kigoma in western Tanzania, back in 2012

Every week my Kiswahili teacher asks me what I’ve been doing, and each time my answer comes with what’s become a useful phrase: I stayed at home, kwa sababu ya corona. I didn’t go to the office, kwa sababu ya corona. We can’t go to restaurants now, kwa sababu ya corona. My new phrase explains a lot: because of the coronavirus.

His reaction is always similar: a look of surprise and a shake of the head, as he concludes: Maisha ni magumu Uingereza: life is difficult in England. In Tanzania, my teacher says, people aren’t wearing masks and they aren’t avoiding crowds. Life is as normal because there is no corona in the country. 

Continue reading “Kwa sababu ya corona”