Shelter from the Storm

Stormy Verandah.JPG
Wet bougainvillea, fallen trumpet vine, marble floor, Zakynthos, 26 June

While England bakes, Zakynthos bathes…

Storm started yesterday and has been going for more than 24 hours – feel like a character in Wide Sargasso Sea, though can’t actually remember if there is a monsoon-like storm in that book. It’s the heat and tropical greenery that is reminding me of the atmosphere of a novel I’ve not read for 40 years. Maybe also the shutters, which make the house dark.

Yesterday evening the electricity went off for a few hours and our kindly host walked round from his house to check we were ok. Sure, it’s just a storm, I said, ‘No, no, is no storm,’ he assured me. ‘Just a little rain…’ The thunder sounded like Greek Gods throwing mountains in the dark of the night. This morning he brought us that most English of gifts, an umbrella.

Like all people living on small islands, these Zakynthiots understand rough weather. The tiny white church on the rocky promontory on the far side of the bay was built, our host tells us, for sailors to head for when the seas were rough. Did those storm-tossed sailors pray there or find shelter from the storm, or are they the same thing? Light-house, bunk-house, sanctuary.

With rain driving in through the shutters before breakfast, we watched an episode of The Leftovers. That’s a holiday for you! A stunning box-set in bed, with Greek coffee. Stunning, as in hit on forehead with hammer.

Also watched an interview with Tom Perrotta, the author of the novel from which the series has grown. Tom co-developed the scripts with  Damon Lindelof  of Lost fame. They make a great team, if the first one and a half series of The Leftovers is anything to go by. I didn’t know about Tom Perrotta before I stumbled across the series by googling ‘best box sets for 2018’, in preparation for my holiday, but I am glad I’ve found him. Comes from the Syracuse school of writing and has been around a long time. In the interview Tom says he hopes people who find the story through the TV series will go on to read the novel.

Say but the word, Tom. After ordering his entire oeuvre online via Amazon, all now waiting for me when I get home, I cooked eggs which I bought up on the hillside yesterday in a tiny everything-sold-here-Super Market.

Giant inflatable pink flamingo pool-floats, anti-mosquito plugs, UHT milk, Buckfast Wine (Bucky! Here! Those monks have something to answer for…) drain plungers, jars of touristic honey, jars of marmite, The Harvard Business Review at nearly E17 a pop and many, many books by Victoria Coren, all in Italian. What more could a holidaying tourist want? Oh, billions of stuffed soft toys in green velour. This shop is one of the world centres for stuffed soft toys in green velour. The other centres are all the other Super Markets in the Vasilikos area of Zakynthos.

The HBR I could not bring myself to buy in the Super Market

The eggs were of fine quality, and had seemed an anomaly in that Super Market, small and farmyard dirty, they had been collected from the olive grove outside, where some of the olive trees had trunks a couple of metres round. I thought, those olives must have been planted by the Venetians four hundred years ago. Across the way a little from the Super Market, Dopia’s House sold home-cooked food including possibly the best Zucchini Balls civilisation has ever known. These, like the soft toys, were green and roundish and of variable size, but to my mind, a better buy than the velour turtles. (Only later did I read the sign helpfully placed by the Dopia House family. My ‘guess the age of the trees’ was way out).

1000 tree.JPG

But to return to Tom Perrotta and The Leftovers.  My fellow viewer and I watch an episode and turn to stare at each other in the opposite of a high-five, clutching hands, our eyes locked in shared amazement or mock terror. How they can make a box set that is so painful!

And later I ask myself – why am I looking for this stuff, un-answerable questions, in novels and poetry and boxsets? Is this what I read for? And mostly, it is. I want literature (and stories I may find in other media) to help me formulate these questions even if no answers are forthcoming: What are we? Why are we? How are we?

I don’t want escapism. Or if I do, I want to escape the storm by being somewhere where I can see the storm, really know it. I want lighthouse, bunk-house and sanctuary. I want stories, novels, poems, plays, box-sets to give me language and thoughts and lives about this difficult and troubling real life I live. What I am loving about The Leftovers is its unremitting insistence: there are storms and there are moments of calm, there is terror and there is love. And that’s all, folks!

There’s not much writing like this going on anywhere, and I’m happy to find it in any format. When can we watch the next episode?

And when can I have my next installment of Dopia’s Courgette Balls?

Currently reading : 

Where the World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean,  The Humourist by Russell Kane





Infinite capacity, bounded in a nutshell

My garden Sunday 19 May 2013
My garden Sunday 19 May 2013

I’ve just stopped gardening after two and half hours because though there is still masses to do and I’m really enjoying myself, I want to learn from my mentor, The Nellibobs, who has been gardening all week and given himself an excrutiating backache.

‘Genius,’ Thomas Carlyle wrote, ‘is an infinite capacity for taking pains.’ Nellibobs is undoubtedly a genius in many aspects of life  but there’s no genius in the area called  ‘being sensible’, nor ‘opening his mail’. Not house repairs, either. No, nor social life except for Friday Nights. He’s limited himself severely, in order to go deep into the areas which really (X) him. But what does (X) stand for?

Shall we say Excite? Obsess? Move?

Genius areas for the Nellibobs are: his dog, Argy, his reading life, his habits and routines, smoking, his Su Doku (at one point, they reached 150+ per week. He limits it now to about 80), his teaching, a little gardening, and his Friday Nights. That may seem constrained until you know how much he reads, how much goes into his teaching. You can follow Nellibobs or someone very like him on Twitter @nellibobsfriday (he only Tweets on Fridays).

I was thinking of all this while reading Walter Isaacson’s fine biography of Steve Jobs. I know there are lots of things to be said against both Steve Jobs and Apple, but there was genius there and it did manifest itself in that infinite capacity way. For anyone trying to get something done in the world, there’s a lot to learn from that book.

And I have also been thinking of Richard Feynman as I watched two programmes about him on TV this week. Wacky, playful and fuelled by (X) Feynman said, as many of the  greats do, that the most important thing in life is love. I wonder how that connects to the infinite capacity for taking pains, which is a sort of love, isn’t it?

Yet we are creatures of the finite and to reach the infinite there are often terrible costs, as the Jobs story shows. Obsession, single-mindedness, demanded a sort of inhumanity, which in Jobs’ case  was not often mitigated by love, though  Isaacson makes a case for the occasional glimmer. At the end of the book, Isaacson wonders if Steve had to be so  unkind, so rough, so mean with people.

“This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not,” he replied when I asked him the question. But I think he actually could have controlled himself, if he had wanted. When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will. The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him. But it did,at times, serve a purpose. Polite and velvety leaders, who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective at forcing change. Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying he got them to do things they never dreamed possible. And he created a corporation crammed with A players.

As a leader of an ambitious Social Enterprise, which currently employs 70+ staff, I had to keep considering the cost of Steve Jobs’ genius. Most large human organisations, from the teams that built the pyramids onwards, have been  Army-model organisations. Many of them have a  ‘nasty edge’  when necessary and that is how they keep control and make sure that what they want to happen gets to happen.  Command and control structures  may be a good way to do battle, or build pyramids, or  spread the Church, or  create iphones. But we need new organisational shapes now, to do other things, such as liberate human potential, grow creativity, develop empathy.

As  an organisational model, I like ‘orchestra’, each person doing their genius thing, but sharing a score and conducted into one voice. And I like ‘garden’ where each plant gets the right space it needs to fully become itself and yet they all work together to create a whole experience. But there is a big ask here. In both these models so much more is asked of the individual than in ‘command and control’ and that ask is about becoming your genius.  It’s as if I want an organisational shape that’s like a book, where each poem or story has brought itself to be, but the whole thing fits together as one.

The problem then becomes recruitment, doesn’t it? How do you recruit people who come with their own discipline? How do I even have my own?

Feynman’s story  is very different one to Jobs’. In the BBC documentary Feynman’s physicist sister was such a loving presence and you could feel the good genius of the man, living beyond his death, when she said he was a ‘good brother and a good human being.’

Could you have a world of Feynmen? I’d like to try. And one of the keys there seemed to be play. Or pleasure. Which is why I’m going back out the garden now while there is still time. Ah, Nellibobs, your backache beckons.

Infinity on West Kirby Beach
Infinity on West Kirby Beach

The Social Animal by David Brooks ( Short Books)

It’s not short. It’s not a novel. It’s not perfect. But  hugely recommended and I’d love to hear  what people think of it.This book is compellingly interesting and even when skipping parts I never wanted to stop reading.

It’s a popular socio/science book but it’s more than that  – and approaching a novel, crossed with a database of interesting facts, crossed with an argument that facts ain’t it. And not just a novel but a novel of Tolstoyan, George Eliotesque proportions. As a novel it’s not good enough, but it’s not good enough on the grandest of scales, and a great effort is always worth this reader’s time. I loved it for that great effort to think something new about  all our old human stuff.

The sub-title  ‘a story of how success happens’ would have put me off , because I wouldn’t have said I am interested in ‘success’. And yet I bought it because I read somewhere that David Cameron and the Cabinet are reading it and I thought, rather irritably, I would see what they were  up to. When my husband saw me with it he said ‘I’ve already bought you that on the kindle because I knew you’d be interested in it.’

 That’s one problem with the kindle – you can’t see its books lying around.

So David Brooks has tried to write about what we know about being human from a scientific/brain scanning/psychology/business book point of view. And he has had the brilliant formal idea of  setting that info  within two life stories, the stories of Erica and Harold.

It’s a great idea, this clashing together of two forms and it worked well enough to  keep me reading to the very end and more than that,  to make me cry at the end, as if I were reading a novel.

Of course a greater novelist would have done it better. But when I tried to think of which greater novelist, only Tolstoy and George Eliot came to mind. Mr Brooks – that is one helluva compliment. There is no one  out there now who could do this.

Why not ?

I think that is something to do with the main intellectual content of this book, the scale of the project, the idealism.  Most contemporary novelists can’t do it because of what we  culturally believe, how we are, at the moment. You’d have to have some pretty large beliefs, sensibilities, a kind of free flowing willingness to think in different departments…a novelist  would need to be interested (as Marilynne Robinson is) in the very  small scale human, and also the grandest scale universal. But MR is working on a different level – deeper, deeper.  And so far she has not  been interested in what I’ll call the outside world. The master is Tolstoy. But who else? Who now?

There is a really moving account of thinking  in the chapter called Learning, around page 94. Everyone who has to write should read this.  Harold is learning to do creative thinking ( which this book might call emergent thinking – emergence, a wonderful concept that the  book explains very well).  David Brooks wrote this book in the same sort of way the Harold writes his essay. Sometimes that feels very exciting, sometimes clunky. The book is an experiment, and I like that.

The chapter on learning is a great tale for teachers and also for young people who are by and large not learning to write in deep language. We are losing our minds as we lose our language. The need to put the unthought  into  order, at the level of the word, the clause, the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter brings us FORM. That is the act of creation that written language offers. Brooks brilliantly captures that process – this is novelistic writing. Wonderful!

This brief note doesn’t do the book justice but it would take me half a day to write a decent account of what’s good so  take this as a flag wave that says ‘ Try this’. It is, in a funny, hidden, unconscious (?) way a sort of religious book. It’s in that field, though mostly not in that language. ‘Virtue’ might have been a better word than ‘success’. ‘The Social Animal, a story of why virtue matters’  would have been a less marketable title, but more truthful.

BTW – good that David Cameron and the Cabinet have been reading it. It has some very good ideas.

For the Record – No Fudge

I started a new notebook  a few weeks ago – a place to keep a record of  things I’ve been reading. This came about because Rob, one of our new interns, asked me during intern induction week if I still had time to read. This question floored me because I feared  the answer might be ‘no’. I think I answered ‘Mainly business books’.

(Business books – they are terrible aren’t they? I’d like recommendations for good ones. Are there any?)

 I also told him that I had done a huge amount of reading over the past 30 years, and was carrying a lot of it with me. This is true, but it felt a fudge as the words came out of my mouth.

Of course, like any devoted reader with nearly 50 years reading behind them, I am carrying a patchy, ill-remembered copy of all my best books round in my head. Books that have shaped me, changed me, and in one or two cases, radically altered the course of my life.  I can  refer myself to them if need be  e.g. to the opening of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, where you are standing alone on a hill at night and watching the progress of the universe…(blurry memory failure) and  you know that ‘consciousness of this majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human frame’. (Check it against the book, will you? It’s bound to be wrong.)

But I knew as I said it it was not the right answer. After I’d slunk off  from Intern Induction, I found myself thinking: I have that useful patchwork of stuff I love and depend on, but am  I really still reading?  The answer to Rob’s question needed to be ‘Yes! Every day! Loads of stuff. Especially new and old poems.’ Because however much you’ve got behind you, surely, you’ve got to make room for more ahead? And I had known for some time that I wasn’t doing that enough.

So… I thought, I’ll keep a record of what I do read, just so I know how bad the situation is. Hence the notebook. But entering up quotes and thoughts with pen and paper seemed laborious and slow, and because I’ve been enjoying Twitter during my Easter week off it came to me that I  could record my reading on an occasional blog, publicise The Reader Organisation, say things that are  more personal than if I was publishing a  Reader  Organisation blog ( and have something to tweet about…

So this blog is going to be about what I read, what I think about what I read, what I want to read, and what I think of my own reading habits.

I just hope I have time to write it. And no fudge. Thanks, Rob.