I was planning a list of all the new year’s resolutions I will never make. Joining weight watchers. Making a bucket list. Giving up drinking whisky for breakfast. My point being that the world is bad enough without adding to the surplus of misery that sloshes around at this time of year.
And then it felt like midwinter really got going, in its dirge-like relentlessness, and in keeping with the mad weather and the daily stream of bad news, I had a few faithless moments of acting mean and childish for no good reason. I kind of ignored this. I went to parties and wrapped presents instead. The lingering feeling that everything was grey around the edges – and perhaps a tinge of shame that I wasn’t acting quite like the great person I would like to be – kept me company, until Christmas day. Then two books came in to my life, in the way that books tend to do, much more serendipitously than people. Books arrive with purpose. To tell us things. Or cheer us on. Or show us how to cook a great macaroon so we can pretend we are called Audrey and live in Paris.
The first was Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel (inevitable aside: She’s amazing, Thomas Cromwell lives, etc). Take this for a perfect bit of prose for this time of year:
“Night and winter: but in the rotten nests and empty setts, she can feel the signs of growth, intimations of spring. […] It is a time of suspension, of hesitation, of the indrawn breath. it is a time to let go of expectation, yet not abandon hope”.
There’s a great blurb about this book here, in which Claire Armitstead writes of Mantel that she shows us authors “have a responsibility to find forms and words for experiences that for most of us are beyond articulation, beyond belief”.
Authors (and all other kinds of artists) as keepers of our collective miseries and wonderings is a heroic idea, and one that Alom Shaha talks of in the other excellent book that came my way, The Young Atheist’s Handbook. It’s a fascinating exploration of his rejection of religion in favour of science, and it has the endearing capacity to be thoughtful and brave in its appreciation of the good that religion does. He states that he is more an agnostic than an atheist (despite the commercial title). However, here is firm in the belief that novels can function in the same way as religious tracts: “Books gave me “a whole cognitive and philosophical toolkit for unpicking the world, making sense of its inexplicable moving parts” “. He writes of loving books too much to be ‘sufficiently eloquent’ about them. Know how he feels.
Foremost is his assertion that it is possible to live a good life without a ‘god’ telling you to, and it was this idea that picked me up and gave me a shake. He writes, in a chapter on romantic love, that he came across a one-line poem in a book of Magnetic Poetry that simply said: ‘I tell cows about you’. It sums up, for him, the euphoric madness of being so smitten with somebody that you will happily lean on a fence, straw dangling from your mouth, extolling the many wonderful habits and delightful features of your loved one to a benign, avidly listening, mightily insensible cow.
He writes of the sadness of romantic love being bludgeoned by theology (people of different faiths being kept from each other, for example) but much bigger than this is his assertion that it is more wondrous and enthralling to realise that humans have the capacity to love each other deeply, treat each other kindly, approach the world with curiosity and tenderness, take good care of animals and refrain from killing each other without any religious sensibilities to guide us.
It’s a beautiful idea, and in my opinion, true. Shaha talks of the possibility of ‘fulfilling our potential as a species’ as a worthy reason to try and better ourselves, individually and collectively. (Even – especially – without any reward in heaven/accordian-and-eternal-flames in hell waiting for us).
Which brings me to the last bit of that little scrap of Hilary Mantel’s prose, above. It continues on from the indrawn breath and waiting feeling just before the new year: “This is our life and we have to lead it. Think of the alternative”.
A fittingly black kind of optimism for this time of year and for someone feeling like they definitely haven’t been their best. She’s right (as is Shaha) – if you believe that there is nobody watching you from on high, there is no judgement or alternative, then what are you left with? Fulfilling your potential because it’s just better that way. Being better because… it’s better. If that wasn’t sickeningly proselytizing, here is my new and improved set of New Year’s Resolutions:
1. I vow to have at least one rogue glass of champagne with a salmon-and-scrambled-eggs breakfast one day this year.
2. Eat more. What? I like eating. I like eating macaroons.
3. Improve kitchen dancing. One lone moon-walk at a time.
4. Most importantly, and less flippantly: Be kind to people. No matter what. Way, way, waaaay harder than it may at first appear to be.
5. Wear madder clothes. 2012 was the year in which my sequins-and-lycra quota just wasn’t high enough, frankly.
6. Read more books. That’s never not going to be a good thing to do.