Back in January I wrote a post about new year feelings and how terrible 2015 had been. It was a year of disasters that trundled interminably onward, with bees dying, icebergs melting, and people drowning in the Mediterranean while governments gathered, nauseatingly late, to squabble over whether or not to save them. Everything was ugly and broken, and at some point in winter I wondered if keeping up with the news, and keeping myself sane, were perhaps mutually exclusive activities. Now and then, I would turn away from it all to watch movies, cook pasta puttanesca, and paint my nails to look like many little ghosts.
I had also written, in the depths of winter, that a commitment to the lighter side of life – the fun stuff, the messing around – does not mean that you are ignoring what is happening in the world. It’s the shield that you need to keep yourself in battle.
Then 2016 really got into its stride.
Humans in 2015: ‘we need to do something about all this really terrible stuff that keeps happening. We’re better than this’.
Humans in 2016: ‘same as last year but please send help everything is exploding’.
I had a shield but now I think I might need a full suit of armour, too. Right now I’m afraid to look too far ahead in life, and afraid to think too deeply about the things that have happened this year (but we must), and very afraid that life, if examined too closely, will turn out to be nothing except the desolate dreary night in Matthew Arnold’s famous poem, Dover Beach. He was afraid, too, when he wrote this honeymoon poem, his hope struggling against his fear:-
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
A world without help for pain is what I’m afraid is there to discover if you look too hard.
But then I think of the words that helped me up when I had previously neared rock-bottom (for entirely different reasons, at an entirely different time of my life). Hilary Mantel spelled it out for me in her novel Beyond Black: ‘this is our life and we have to live it. Think of the alternative’. I want to make this into a motivational poster and stick it up all over town (imagine a picture of a sunset with this, in comic sans, over the top). It’s so very dark, and so efficient. Such witchy mischief. Well, think of the alternative. There’s no glazing over the facts there.
These lines have been floating through my head every day lately. They have tugged at my sleeve, tried to get my attention (‘the world which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams…’). I almost fell asleep on the bus home one night, and then walking down my quiet street I heard, sailing out from an open window, dialogue from an old movie. In a cut-glass accent: ‘well this is all just a dream, ofcourse’.
It made me happy. A mysterious old black-and-white movie, the spacious RP accent, drifting out over the hedge on a warm evening, was a sudden, flawless illustration of how rich and various and full of joy the world can be, sometimes.
I know that we need, more than ever, to engage with what is happening in the world, and I believe in showing up, staying in the battle, participating – join a political party, find out what’s happening near you – and finding out about things until you understand them better. I am constantly tripping over my own ignorance in most matters, and as much as I used to hate it when my parents directed me to the bookshelves to ‘look it up’ when I didn’t know the answer to something (Me as a child: ‘I didn’t want to KNOW the answer I just wanted to ask the question’), as an adult I can see that learning about things helps. It really helps. With life. All of life.
I know all this, but I also know that the world will always be full of pain that we cannot find or help; the news will always be astounding and barbaric. I would sink if I thought about that too much. Over the years I’ve realised that to do any good, you have to keep yourself on an even keel. You have to remain sane. You have to believe that there are parts of life that are various, beautiful, new. So I’d like to present some very silly, nice, good things, as the first step in regaining some faith in this funny little world. It can – not often, but sometimes – lie before us like a land of dreams. It can also be full of cats, internet memes, irony, and pillow fights.
Let us begin.
Vote for This Cat, or Something.
There has been a lot of horrified/fascinated discussion in the papers of our new ‘post-factual’ politics, in which politicians attempt to whip up the masses by overtly appealing to emotion and dismissing facts, as if facts were but the playthings of our evil elitist establishment overlords (see Michael Gove’s ‘people have had enough of experts’, a transparent attempt to ape Donald Trump’s rhetoric). Over in Japan, they have quietly out-weirded everybody, with a politician called Satoshi Shima campaigning just, well, with a cat.
Campaign minion: ‘So on your campaign poster we’re gonna have your face, obviously, but we need something else, something to tell everyone what you’re all about. I’m thinking an image-‘
Campaign minion: …
Campaign minion: ‘But-‘
Campaign minion: ‘Which-‘
Politician: ‘Do it. Do it now’.
Campaign minion: [whispers] ‘you’re a genius’.
[long, lingering glance between them].
As far as I’m aware, the cat is not an autonomous political figure itself, and is merely being used as a gimmick who is coincidentally totally adorable with his squishy little face.
Getting to Know Your Local Community
I’ve recently joined my local community facebook page, which I assumed would be a great place to ask if anyone knows a decent heating engineer. How wrong I was. It’s a stream of bonkers conversations which occasionally flare up into intense arguments. Several members have posted pictures of ‘lost’ cats (read: a cat minding its own business on a doorstep) asking if they should take the cat home with them, and been urged by other members of the group to ‘leave the cat alone’.
There was a robust debate about the ethics of a local café charging an extra ten pence for a scoosh of raspberry sauce on a sundae (someone even used the phrase ‘that gets right on my raspberry ripples’, which I thought was excellent). If you go and check it out on any given evening, someone will have posted ‘so what’s going on outside Tesco?’ and someone else will have enigmatically replied, ‘it’s ok, I spoke to Jim, everything’s fine now, he’s at home, bit bruised, sad about his guitar getting smashed up like that but what can you do’. I urge you to join your local community facebook page. If it’s not crazy enough, then make it so.
All Dogs Go to Heaven
A phrase I’ve found very useful to have on hand at all times: ‘I’m crying because I saw a dog on the internet’. People just understand.
My New Favourite Thing is watching youtube videos of dogs re-united with their owners after going missing. There are so many of these videos, and every single one will melt you to a puddle. There is so much unconditional, unblemished, wholly committed love in each of their doggly hearts, I can’t believe we’re allowed to inhabit the same world as them and call them our pals. Dogs are like what humans could become if we could just let go of all our resentments and inhibitions, and also if we were being followed around by our own tails which we just couldn’t ever catch no matter how much we gave chase.
Desert Island Discs
A little gem hidden away in the BBC’s cupboard out back, Desert Island Discs has been going since about 1240 AD and includes interviews with every single famous person that has ever been. With the Radio Four Politeness Dial firmly turned up to 11, the interviewer (currently Kirsty Wark) gently intrudes upon the castaway’s innermost hopes and dreams; their childhood, their life’s work, their loves and losses. Tom Hanks in particular just floored me with his teary moment when he was explaining his lonely upbringing, which somehow seamlessly segued into his love of Dean Martin. I usually have this programme on when I’m cooking, so I’ll be pottering around frying some anchovies and suddenly get all emotional, holding a wooden spoon in my hand, hands covered in oil or flour, sending some ghost-hugs to the person being interviewed. If you’re new to the whole idea, I’d recommend starting with Gloria Steinem’s episode, in which she answers with such poise and warmth, and chuckles her lovely deep chuckle every now and then as if she finds all of life kind of hilarious.
Gloria Steinem: Feminist, author, activist, generally excellent
There is also this great exchange:
Kirsty Wark: ‘some people say, if you take all the differences away between men and women, you take all the fun out of life.’
Gloria: ‘each of us is, in fact, a unique miracle, of heredity and environment combined in a way that could never have happened before, and could never happen again, and we are all human beings, so […] to divide us into groups, by race, by class, by gender, is false. Why on earth would you put us in a box and give us a different label? It’s a deprivation, even for people in the best box, it’s still a deprivation.’
Good words, good people, and also, dogs. That’s a first aid kit for the soul.
(With apologies to the impossibly talented Kate Atkinson, whose novel title I have stolen here for the title of this post. Her book, When Will There Be Good News, is, by the way, amazing, and features Jackson Brodie, one of my favourite fictional characters of all time – a man much besieged by ex-wives).