Lockdown library

How is everyone?

It’s been a bit of a time hasn’t it? I keep feeling like someone took the snow globe of my life and gave it a good shake. Things have settled now but nothing is quite how it was before.

Confession time, though: I haven’t really minded lockdown. Of course I’m immensely privileged to be able to say that, but after the initial few weeks of crippling anxiety, I’ve been ok. Now we can see friends again, I’m quite enjoying the slower pace of life. It certainly suits my body more – something to think about in the future, I suppose.

That being said, the past four months seem to have spanned a few years. Thinking of the things I watched or read in those early weeks feels like remembering the distant past. I think time has taken on a strange detached quality, but I’m more content than usual to just let it pass, to observe rather than try to harness it.

Maybe it’s because I’ve filled the time with enough books for several years. I’ve read and and and read There have been some novels – An American Marriage was exquisite and hauntingly suited to the moment – but mostly I’ve been reading nonfiction. Malcolm Gladwell featured strongly, and Matt Haig’s books on mental health really resonated with me. I keep lending them to people with a ridiculous urgency, but they feel so important to me.

If not now then when will I read the tomes I’ve long eyed? So I finally read Sapiens (it’s not great, really, is it?) and I’m finally tackling a shameful gaping hole in my knowledge with a hefty book on the history of Africa since independence, which is fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. On the To Read pile is another about the Middle East and one about the Troubles – other cheerier subjects also feature – so at least I’ll come out of lockdown more informed than I went in.

Books, both in the reading and the buying, have been my singular joy in these disturbing times. I have become a person who reads the book section of the Saturday paper (incidentally, please buy the paper) and who has a list of books I want to order. Sometimes I feel guilty that I am adding to the pile much quicker than I am getting through it, but why feel guilty about the little things that bring you happiness when the world feels big and scary.

A day with a book leaves me much less anxious than a day in front of the telly, even though in the midst of a panic attack telly is often the only thing that can help. Reading makes the good part of my brain, the part excited by information and not by feelings of doom, light up and push aside the part that feels like a spinning top.

With my job being literally, as friends like to say, to do the news, there have been a few times during the pandemic when I’ve half considered packing it all in to become a librarian. I wouldn’t really, but I hope that as things return to a new kind of normal, I remember that solace can always be found in a book.

In the meantime, I can be found at Foyles, building my lockdown library.

Isolation with Nora

It started with Heartburn. The novel, you understand, by Nora Ephron.

It had come my way as a recommendation from a friend, as a book perfect for These Times. And it was. For three glorious days I was transported out of myself and lockdown London and into the life of Rachel (Nora) and the 1970s on the East Coast.

I really did, for the first time, forget about The Situation.

I finished the book and moved on. I read other things. But nothing else compared, nothing had the wit and style and compulsive energy of Nora’s writing. I was hooked.

So I sought her out and, deep in a writerly love affair, ordered the full collection of her writings. I liked that it is called The Most – not the best – of Nora Ephron. It is a tome, and the description fits her: she writes effusively. The most, she is.

I’m aware that it would be more proper to refer to her, as one does with writers, by her last name. But her nonfiction – she was a journalist and essayist much more than a novelist – is intensely relatable. Reading her this week, she has kept me company, has been my friend. She isn’t Ephron, she’s Nora.

And here’s the thing: I’d quite like to be Nora, too. Minus the divorces.

She is smart, witty, pithy. She digresses from her point. She is acerbic. With a phrase, she has conjured an entire personality.

She is honest, wise. She does not shy away from the hard topics: divorce, feminism, family, death. On love, she is mercifully quiet.

Wouldn’t it be something, to be as gutsy as Nora? I thought she must have acquired wisdom with age, but many of the essays in the book date from the 70s, when she was in her 30s. I guess I have about a decade to learn to put it all out on the field. We’ll see.

She writes about journalism, and you can tell how she despises much of the news industry. But she loves it, too, perhaps even better for knowing its flaws. I don’t know a single journalist who doesn’t feel the same way.

Her description of a mid-century newsroom is enough to make me nostalgic for things I never knew. It’s also enough to make me very glad I missed it, too. But it reminds me of why I do what I do: the excitement of a break, the thrill of holding people to account. I have much to learn.

And then there’s New York. It’s the backdrop to her writing, seeping through all her stories. She is, unarguably, part of the Manhattan elite. She hangs out with New York Times food critics and artists from the Village. It’s glamorous and creative and gossipy.

No doubt it’s also unattainable. But Nora’s New York chimes with my long-harboured desire to disappear to the Big Apple – for, I don’t know, six months, a year – and just write and meet interesting people and in some way live outside myself. Just for a little bit, just to see.

Of course you cannot, in fact, live outside yourself. If I were to disappear as above, I would still be chronically anxious – and being several thousand miles away I would likely be acutely anxious too. And yet I can’t help but feel the shock would force me to write, and cope, and be more gutsy. To be a little more like Nora, but without her inexplicable antipathy towards the New Yorker, my one true love and another cause of my ridiculous obsession with the place.

Just as Nora can’t let go of the ideal of being married, I can’t get over the ideal of the city, or rather, myself in the city. She is, like I say, very relatable.

And like all writers, she writes about writing. We can’t help ourselves. It makes me like her even more.

I often worry that while writing comes naturally I don’t really have anything to say. It should, I fear, be the other way round.

So I am going to try to remember Nora’s maxim, learned from her mother, that ‘everything is copy’.

Everything is copy. Even, it seems for me, Nora herself.

The beginning of the end, and the new

Exams are over. I have finished my degree. I am still in complete denial because I can’t believe I will never again get a book out the library or get lost in the social science building. It’s taken me a week of sleep and relaxation to process that in itself, and now somehow I have just three weeks to reconcile myself to the fact that I am leaving Warwick. I am trying not to think about it too much, because doing so is just too hard.

Eyes firmly on the horizon then. I realise that I haven’t written here about what I’m doing next. Provided all goes well and I bag myself a 2:1, I will be taking up an offer to do and MSc in the Theory and History of International Relations at the London School of Economics. Lots of people are telling me how exciting this is and how great it will be, but for now I am too caught up in the worry of finding new carers and having to make new friends and missing the Warwick gang like crazy to get too excited. Once the practicalities are sorted and I’ve got over the exam-induced academic fatigue, though, I will be able to look forward to it, and once I’m thrown in to the course I’m all but guaranteed to enjoy it. Or at least I hope so, anyway.

The good thing is that the course combines international relations, my favourite part of my undergraduate degree, with history, an interest I put on hold after school. The bad news is that LSE recently cancelled the module I was most looking forward to, on the Middle East, which means that despite years of waiting I will never get to properly study the region I am most fascinated by. Hopefully this summer I will be able to read about it in addition to actually preparing for the modules I will be taking. I am also counting on my best friend’s history essays to get me back up to speed with the discipline (thanks Soph!).

Before all that, though, I have a reading list of random interesting books to get through, including a selection of feminist work. I’m currently reading Germaine Greer’s latest, The Whole Woman, which I am agreeing and disagreeing with in equal measure. Perhaps when I have finished, it will provide a good topic for a post here.

I’m looking forward to writing more in the next few weeks in preparation for a week back at the Guardian in July. Most importantly. though, I am soon off to Ibiza to help the wonderful Fran celebrate her hen do. I’m very excited and am sure I will come back with stories to tell – although maybe not here!

So yes, I’m nervous about the future, but when you think about it, this is only the beginning.

Lessons from the year

My second year at university saw success on three fronts: more work, more reading and more writing. Somewhere along the way, I learnt quite a bit; about myself, journalism and politics. And so, having, like a lot of journalists, bemoaned the advent of the ‘listicle’ (which I still maintain should not be a word), I present you with the highlights of these lessons.

  • There is absolutely no point in reading an entire book that you don’t understand just because it’s required reading (in my case, political theory from the 18th and 19th centuries). Find one that explains the core text in intelligible English and save time, boredom and exam season stress
  • On a related note, John Rawls is god’s gift to politics students
  • Planning essays is the best way to revise
  • My academic interests lie in security studies, human rights, justice and feminism. I am probably a constructivist but I believe in moral imperatives
  • It’s probably high time I transferred my essay-planning skills to pitching articles (by which I mean: knowing what my point is before I start)
  • There is nothing as gratifying as reward for hard work
  • There is nothing as uplifting as well-loved friends making you laugh on a bad day
  • No matter how inconveniently-timed the urge to read a novel or write something is, do it and don’t feel guilty for not doing other things. You’re probably learning more than if you were writing an essay and the inspiration is fleeting
  • My heart lies with 20th century American novels, the Guardian, New Yorker and New York Times, and inexplicably compelling internet think-pieces
  • I am not an aspiring journalist. I am a journalist
  • Not to overdo things. Take a break if your brain is no longer absorbing information. Lie in if you know that extra hour will help you function at your best
  • Coffee is wonderful
  • I write best between 11pm and 1am. I do not know if this is a blessing or a curse but count me in for the night shift
  • Old friends are precious. So are new ones
  • General elections are simultaneously banal, depressing and riveting
  • Being open about my disability is, with the right people, very freeing
  • I do and don’t need a plan. I wish I knew what I wanted to do after university and what the best course of action would be, but I’m happy to take the time to work these things out – as I am always being told, I have plenty of time

Not bad for a single academic year. And at least I spared you the GIFs.

My writing challenge

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Thanks to essays and exams, time and brainpower have been in short supply. But how I have longed to blog! Yet now, with my second year at university finished and with all the time in the world, I am apprehensive. Should I gaze backwards and cover all the things I missed, or simply start again here, on the 7th June? Despite having much to say on the outcome of the general election, I think the latter option is best; old news is a contradiction in terms, after all.

In exactly a month, it will be my second day of my internship at the Guardian. I am unbelievably excited to be immersed in one of journalism’s most revered institutions – and one of the few in the UK with a strong liberal bias. The people who work there produce top quality writing, day-in day-out, and the newspaper has been involved in some of the most important investigative journalism of the recent past, from the Wikileaks War Logs, the Black Spider Memos saga and phone hacking to the Edward Snowden affair. What a record. To be able to spend three weeks there because some of them quite like my writing is pretty special. It’s also a special time for the paper itself; with Alan Rusbridger stepping down as editor-in-chief after 20 revolutionary years, the Guardian now has its first female editor (all the more reason to love it).

I hope that by the time I start there, I’ve got back into the swing of journalism. To this end I have made a daft promise to myself (and anyone else who cares): I am going to blog three times a week. I have never written so regularly, but after the boredom of exams my brain is up for an interesting challenge. In addition, I am going to try to be published elsewhere as often as possible, so if you happen to know any friendly (or mean) editors looking for a freelancer, please do let me know! This three blogs a week challenge seems a bit like climbing Ben Nevis to my current academia-boggled self, but I know that with practice it will become easier and more enjoyable. I am also reading as much as I can; the very best kind of writing prompt.

So this is post one of the challenge. The next one will surely appear soon.