2018 – Books and Things

I always spend a few days at the end of a year thinking about the books I’ve read, and what I enjoyed and why. This year, I’m going to keep track of the books I’m reading as I go, making much more of an ongoing reflection than previously it has been!

  1. Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie – fast, entertaining read. Not her best, with rather less quirks of Poirot as I would expect (He doesn’t complain much about the heat in the desert and the impact it will have on the ‘little grey cells? Or how the dust will ruin his shoes? Hmmm). Much better than the run I was otherwise going to do…
  2. The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land In Between by Hisham Matar – The very precise writing in this memoir gives a very human and rational (perhaps too rational at times?) insight into experiences faced by those living under Gaddafi. Documenting the author’s journey to learn whether his kidnapped father is dead or alive, allusions to torture, controlled frustration at British politicians, and farcical interactions with Gaddafi’s son feature, with the author trying to come to terms with both the lack of certainty about his father and the fact he doesn’t fully belong in any one country.
  3. 13 reasons why by Jay Asher – Really didn’t like this young adult book at all. Tbh, I’m unsure why of my friends recommended it – but wish I could remember who so I ignored their recommendations in future… Tbh, screw anything that ends up broadly glamourising suicide in such a way.
  4. Among the Russians by Colin Thubron – Had higher hopes for this than it ended up delivering. Have really enjoyed lots of Thubron, and a fascination for both what was the USSR and what is now Russia. However, I found the writing a little too heavy at times, and was frustrated that much of this felt a little bit like “An English Man goes abroad and has some thoughts…”, rather than providing a more complete picture of the place and and people.
  5. Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon – Clearly on a bit of a detective theme at present in books. Not sure if it was this translation or the fact it was the first in a series, but wasn’t a big fan. Shall try to find a book from later in series before I give up on Simenon entirely.
  6. Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie – Can’t go wrong with a Ms. Christie novel when feeling slightly rundown and wanting a Friday lazy night read.
  7. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Wow. One of those books which suddenly gives you an insight into other ways of being. Wish I had watched it before.
  8. A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear – Anachronistic (language seemed off for the period) and seemed to spend too much time enjoying and showing off knowledge of Cambridge (and yet not bizarrely other arts of the country in which the UK was based).
  9. The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane – This book made this former country bumpkin fall back in love with the countryside again. While not quite being sure of the ‘inner journey’ the author is doing on through this book, the descriptions of the landscapes visited are glorious rich and vivid.
  10. Before She Met Me by Julian Barnes – Orindarily I love this author, but I couldn’t cope with this book. His way with words kept me reading to the half-way point, but having got just past the 100 page mark I couldn’t cope any longer and skimmed to read the end. Terrible and weird ending, really jarring representation of women, unenjoyable story – it’s a piece of his very early work and it shows. Avoid.

Doing hard things

Picture of a person jumping off a cliff with overlaying text
Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, this quote is frequently found in the wild, overlaying pictures of mountains, cliffs, and pictures of people jumping off things.

I hate this quote. In fact, I dislike a lot of ‘ inspirational’ quotes, and especially those which are found paired with pretentious photos of sunsets, beaches, or people jumping around in odd poses. But this quote in particular seems to be one of those that pops up all over the place, on top of pictures of mountains and difficult terrain.

A lot of my (possibly slightly irrational) hatred for this phrase goes back to a former partner of mine. A fair few years ago I was struggling with some bad mental health problems – the type of anxiety where you can’t even work out what to wear in morning, without melting into a crying wreck and where after trying 5 or 6 different outfits, you’d finally make your way out of the door, 20 minutes late, trying hard to hold your shit together while being certain that what you were wearing was wildly inappropriate, made you look horrendously fat and/or looked terrible. It was bad times to be fair. However, it didn’t seem like anything that new – for as long as I could remember I had been really rather scared of things: being thought of as weird at school, people finding out my family were a bit messed up, and not having enough money to live on when I moved out as a teenager.

My partner at the time was a fan of inspirational quotes. Quotes like “do something every day that scares you”. There were others – one about acceptance, one about letting go – but this is the one that stuck with me, as I lived so much of my life in fear and panic – and it frustrated me that he couldn’t see or quite grasp this, and told me fairly regularly instead that I needed to do things that scared me. He didn’t seem to see that even getting out of bed, and choosing what to eat for breakfast scared me.

Looking back it’s a) really odd to think how long ago that all was now and b) fascinating how far I’ve come, and how much has changed

There was a sudden realisation a few years ago that I had beaten the worst of the anxiety – that I could mostly handle the times I felt panicked, and not let it get the better of me (how this happened is probably a topic for another blog post). Then came a tremendously busy period in my life – a few years containing lots of house moves (including one from Cambridge to Manchester), a move away from freelance work, and then getting engaged.

I’m just settling back down after that intensely busy period, and I’ve just has the realisation of *quite* how far I’ve come and how much things have changed. The goals I’ve set myself for 2017 are things that I could never have imagined myself doing before at all. Fear would have crippled me on even one of them – let alone all. The current list stands at:

  • Completing a triathlon
  • Running a half marathon
  • Taking control of my finances
  • Starting to learn to play the violin
  • Curing my arachnophobia
  • Learning how to record a podcast

These may not sound scary to most people but they very much are scary things for me. I was terrible at P.E at school, and that had basically been the pinnacle of my exercise career. Added to which, during my 20s I started having joint problems – problems that left me reliant on a walking stick at times, and even now can leave me for a week barely able to get up stairs. As for anything to do with money? Well I grew up having none, so adopted an ostrich like approach to anything related to finance.

To some degree – the activities I’m doing this year still scare me. But I can’t get over the difference about how they would have felt a decade ago. And that’s for two key reasons.

Firstly, I’ve dealt with the anxiety. I no longer get the completely crippling, panic inducing anxiety of my past. I’m no longer sobbing about the idea of working out what to do in an evening – not wanting people to hate me for saying no – or completely incapable of dressing myself.

And secondly, life has changed. I’m in a (relatively) stable job that I enjoy, and living with a partner who can help me on the days when my joints decide they aren’t going to work, and who is willing to stand next to me while I try to get close to a spider (that in my mind is obviously going to jump up and kill me).

As such I’m now in place where I can try things that are harder. Like trying to run 20-odd km, or trying to cycle on the road (where else am I going to get the triathlon practice?), or turn up at my new violin teachers house and accept that I know nothing and will look and sound like an idiot at first (and yes, if I had told 16 year old me that in a decade and a bit I was going to be trying to do a triathlon and learning to play the violin I’d have laughed at how middle class I was going to become).

And the thing I find most interesting? The realisation that what I feel now is much more aligned with the ideas of ‘feeling the fear’ that many comfortable and well-to-do types have – often those who tell you to ‘do something every day that scares you’, or to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.

There really are many different ‘levels’ of feeling terrified of doing a thing, and you still are scared trying new things – but the fear is different. For instance, I still get a bit concerned before a long and difficult run – because I don’t know what will happen the other side. My body may seize up and I may struggle for a few days. But I no longer work in bars or as a shelf stacker, so if I’m physically less able for a few days, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not going to risk impacting my ability to earn enough money for rent or food. If I mess up when I try to make a podcast – its not going to be the end of the world. People (for the most part) won’t suddenly think far less of me.

Feeling this different type of fear –the type of scared where you force yourself into doing things that are hard for fun or for a challenge is something that comes with comfort. You have to not be draining yourself emotionally with worry about whether you’ll have enough money to make your next rent payment, knowing that your health is in reasonable shape – be that mental or physical – is hugely helpful (or in my case, knowing I don’t have to rely upon my body for my job any more), and knowing that partners, friends, family, and bosses will be understanding if there are any problems is beneficial also.

I feel very lucky to now be able to do things that I considered impossible years ago. I’m just mind blown to find myself in a place where they are far easier to do than even the basics were a few years ago.


(I wish I had a list of good resources for anyone who comes to this blog post and who is experiencing anxiety or struggling, but sadly I never found any. It would be great if people could post any good resources they know about in the comments section)

Monthly roundup: January 2016

Between being broke, dealing with a huge load of work, and dealing with the fall out of a move half way across the country, it was a month when I didn’t go out much. That’s not to say it was dull by any stretch of the imagination.

What did I watch?

I’m aiming to see 52 films in 2016 (for no particular reason than that I didn’t watch enough in 2014 or 2015 due to life getting in the way). No Internet and no heating in my new house meant that curling up under a duvet with a friend, eating take-away, and watching films seemed like a great way to spend time, so I seem to have made great steps towards meeting this goal.

The Last Time I saw Paris – costarring Paris as itself. I struggled with the gender politics of this, with a plot that basically boils down to a woman being sacrificed so as to enable the redemption of an unsympathetic male character, the same character who having flirted with one woman, ran off with her sister, and upon deciding he felt bad about his now dead wife, despite his role in her death, was subsequently allowed guardianship over his daughter with no real questions about his suitability. Nope.

True Romance – great fun. Although the only woman in the film being little more than a plot device and an excuse for a tremendously gratuitous violent scene, clearly designed to arouse a certain type of individual, wasn’t quite my cup of team to be honest. But there were enough other amazing moments in the film to make up for that. Including the Sicilian scene which just made me remember why Walken is amazing.

Kind Hearts & Coronets – a gloriously fun yet cutting film commenting upon the class structure (as it was/is?) in Britain. Who can imagine a better looking, more polite, and logical mass murderer?

Easy Rider – I’ve heard so much about this film, but I really struggled with it. It’s very pretty to look at, but I couldn’t accept that Wyatt and Billy in any way represented freedom or liberated individuals. Myself and a friend did keep ourselves entertained by shouting “FREEDOM” and “MURICA” at the screen at random intervals. This was more fun than the film.

Gone in 60 Seconds – you have 72 hours to steal 50 cars. What’s the best use of time? Oh yes, a heart to heart with your brother, going to see your mother that you haven’t seen for years, and engaging in some banter with the cops. Part of the “make Michelle watch Nic Cage films” plan that a friend of mine has, it was enjoyable, even if I spent the whole film moaning about the stupid project management of the car stealing process, and worked out the big finale about 30 mins into the film on the basis of a single line.

Chinatown – what a thoroughly depressing film. Brilliant, gorgeously shot, and I may now be slightly in love with Nicholson. However, I couldn’t help but find myself comparing it unfavorably to film noirs of old though…

Double Indemnity – Too much melodrama and odd acting. And I just checked out after MacMurray falling for the female lead in a stupidly quick time.

Princess Bride – always an incredible film to watch. However, the person I was with merely thought it was a ‘good film’. I may stop talking to them.

Transporter and Transporter 2 – No-one ever needs an excuse to watch Statham run around, hit things, and have his car explode. Realised part way through Transporter 2 that a friend of mine literally wants to be Statham, which will keep me amused for weeks.

The Big Short – I didn’t know what to expect from a film about the banking crisis, but I am really so glad I saw this. I loved how it managed to make an incredibly dry topic into something that is hopefully able to be understood by more people – aided by a guide to banking for normal people, delivered by cameos breaking the 4th wall.There were points when it did seem a little smug, notably a line delivered by Pitt that is simultaneously one of the pivotal moments of the film, but also seems a little heavy handed.

One thing did jar. In a film talking about a ridiculously macho culture, with few female characters, it was decided to have Margot Robbie sat in a bathtub drinking champagne to explain subprime mortgages to the viewer, and yet built in no male equivalent? Yeah, that’s problematic. I’m not against stupidly sexual and suggestive shots. I am against them just being of women.

What did I read?

I’m also aiming to read 52 books in 2016 – although I think this one may be a little harder to hit. With the whole ‘no heating’ thing, sitting down, staying still (without the associated body height of friends that you get when watching films) and reading wasn’t high on the to do list.

Activism or Slactivism – I think it’s really easy to dismiss actions dismissed as slacktivism, but I got very frustrated that this book seems to start with the idea of liking something on facebook, and then jump straight to the Arab Spring, seeming to equate what emerged from these as a result. It also helped crystallise some of my thinking – although largely in opposition ot it (ie. There was no mention of who drives the agenda when activist groups do wht they do online), and that’s useful. If problably not the point of the book.

Madame Bovary – I couldn’t decide if I was more angry with the way men treated Emma in this book, or with Emma for her romantic outlook and unsatisfied attitude to her life. Either way, any attempt to blame the books was clearly ludicrous.

What did I attend?

UKGovCamp 2016 – UKGovCamp is always a highlight of the year, and this was no different. Lots of fun, meeting old friends and making new ones, experiencing a very cathartic #FailCamp session run by @blangry, listening to the philosophical musings of @johnlsheridan, and generally being challenged to think.

What did I write?

Nothing that is published. Must try harder.

What am I looking forward to in February?

I’ve started reading ‘A Year in Magical Thinking’ which has already made me cry, and plan to write about open data, and something about democracy and campaigning. Deadpool and Zoolander 2 both come out, and there should also be a trip to an Escape Room. Pretty excited tbh.


Coming out. Again

You don’t come out just once. You come out many times over the course of your life…


[I wrote this for National Coming Out Day, but have been rather ill since I drafted it, so only just getting around to posting it.

I was asked to write this piece by a friend of mine when I was trying to explain to her how coming out isn’t a one time only kinda thing]



You don’t come out just once.

So many people presume heterosexuality as being the obvious default that for someone who isn’t attracted to/only to people of the opposite gender, there are always people who don’t know, people who are making incorrect assumptions about your sexuality. On a regular basis you have to choose whether or not to correct them. Whether or not to come out. Whether or not it’s worth it this time.

The first time I came out I walked hand in hand into a place of work with a woman I had kissed the previous night, where I was met with colleagues telling me they had seen me the night before, that it was hot as hell, and asking if this meant I didn’t like boys any more. I hadn’t been kissing a girl for any reason other than the fact I fancied her, but I didn’t have the words to really explain this (other than that simple statement), nor did I have the words to say much more than that I liked both men and women. I learned how to express my sexuality quite effectively though as I spent the next few years with men trying to convince me and said woman to have a threesome with them.

Was it worth it? Yes. Despite the hassle I got afterwards, it was worth it as it was the first time I really admitted in public that I liked both women and men. I found something very empowering in making the decision to own my sexuality at that point in my life…

Then there was the time I was forced to come out. A man I had been dating for a while had been told by a friend of his that I had slept with women in the past, and he wanted to know if this meant I was promiscuous. By this stage I was older, wiser, and far more able to explain that sleeping with a woman rather than a man provided no insight into how promiscuous I was.

Was it worth it? Well, I didn’t really have a choice. I didn’t think it was really any business of anyone else at the time who I had slept with in the past, and had clearly made the decision not to get to tell the guy I was dating at the time too much about my past. It did however have the benefit of pointing out to me that I should probably end my current relationship…

Another time I came out was while talking to mental health professionals when trying to get treatment for depression. The woman I was talking to asked about my sexual and romantic history, so innocently I provided it, mentioning both male and female ex partners. She raised her eyebrows about these, and told me it may be indicative of an underlying instability. I was more than a little angry about this, ranted to a few friends as soon as I left the room, but wasn’t in a place to do anything about it. Given the response, which also made me close down about being open about any other parts of my life history, made me feel that someone was trying to interpret my sexuality as a sign that there was something wrong with me, it certainly didn’t feel worth coming out this time.

And then there was the time I mentioned a girlfriend to my father. And the last time I consciously mentioned an ex girlfriend to my work colleagues because for some reason at the time it felt important. And… And…

I can’t count how many times I’ve either had to or chosen to come out to different groups and individuals. And I know that I’m not alone in this – it’s something that many of my non-heterosexual friends have experienced. When you ‘come out’ the first time, it may be that you tell someone significant – be that close friends or family – but it is far from the only time you will have to own your sexuality, and correct other people’s preconceptions.

And each time takes the same calculations about whether or not it is worth it this time, whether or not you’re in the place to deal with possible questions, and how important it is to be true to yourself measured against any possible negative judgments or repercussions.

Although time makes it easier– and for me at least, so does the fact that I’m lucky enough to have been born in a country where my sexuality isn’t illegal – there are still too many instances when I slightly hold my breath as I casually drop in mention of an ex girlfriend when in conversation with people who aren’t aware, those who are newer in my life and haven’t known me when I’ve been dating a woman (the last significant woman in my life was pre-university).

And because I’ve realised it does matter to me that I don’t feel I’m having to hide a part of who I am, and because most people do still tend to default to presuming you are straight unless you say otherwise, and because I plan to keep meeting new people, people who don’t know that I’m attracted to both men and women, I guess I’m going to have to keep on coming out.


Waving goodbye to July

What a month July was – I’m not sure I’ve had such a busy month for a very long time… lots of travelling as part of work (doing NHS Citizen stuff), but also lots of seeing friends in different places such as managing to see my best friend in Manchester, and fulfilling a life long desire to stroll up the Champs-Élysées for breakfast after lots of jazz.

I still managed to do a bunch of reading though…

Things I read

Tanglewreck – Jeanette Winterson
“Today lies on top of yesterday. And yesterday on top of the day before, and so on down the layers of history, until the layers are so thick that the voices underneath are muffled to whispers”

You can rarely go wrong with a good children book – and this is an OK one. Gorgeous concept, but I’m possibly a bit too old and too ‘sciency’ to buy into the idea of time travel as portrayed here.
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
It had long been on my to read pile – but I found that I really need to spend some time just sat down with it as the largely stream of consciousness writing style meant it wasn’t a book to pick up and put down. It explores some of my favourite themes – interactions between individuals, understanding/acceptance of decisions made, reinterpretation/subjectivity of perspectives, and mental health. The ending made me itch with frustration as I wanted greater resolution…
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
Time, age, and introspection seemed common themes for books in July. I loved the period of time the book could span due to the tale told, always from a single perspective. Reading through an individuals slow stepping their way towards forgiveness – you can read this as a book about faith, or you can remove the religious aspect entirely and read it as being about family, relationships, and human interactions.


Things I did

  • Building Digital Democracy event in Parliament – interesting afternoon. I wasn’t convinced by everything that was being presented as being new/interesting/valuable, but certainly a step in the right direction of getting digital and parliament talking to each other more. Wednesday lunch time is rarely a good time for a Parliamentary event though.
  • Turkish baths, champagne, and chinese in Harrogate – there is a place in Harrogate where you can do 3 of the best things ever. You can go to Turkish baths (bathing, heat, cool water, all surrounded by amazing architecture), and then eat chinese and drink champagne after. Possibly the best evening of my life.
  • Open Government Partnership launch – I’m very pro greater openness in Government, so was very happy to be at the launch event for the next national action plan. It was excellent to be involved in conversations about ‘open data’ going beyond just openness in terms of licensing. Anyone who has heard me rant about this over the last few years will know *quite* how happy I was to hear others talking in these terms in this meeting…
  • Wikimedia UK Volunteer Strategy Gathering – conversations about communities, community building/empowering, strategy, and open knowledge, genuinely fit into my idea of a good time on a Saturday. I may be somewhat of a nerd though… I’m not convinced by the processes they are currently proposing, nor their focus on committees and advisory boards, but we shall see what happens next!

Things I saw

Fast and Furious 6 and 7 – Incredible. For all the wrong/right reasons. 7 was the better of the two – if only for bonus Jason Statham, The Rock pulling a gun from a Predator drone having literally flexed a cast off his arm, Vin Diesel and the amazing car jump to hook a bag of grenades onto a helicopter. Oh and a glorious scene where a car is driven through multiple towers in Abu Dhabi. And the bit where the team parachute out of a plane in their cars. It’s ludicrous. But so much fun.

Green Hornet – An absolute farce and terrible film that was perfect for a giggly evening in with pizza. Will NEVER watch it again, and will never recommend it.

The Man Who Knew Too Little – Mildly amusing. Not recommended

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off– Hard not to see the appeal for many. A giggle and a backward glange to an idealised teenage day that no-one ever actually had, and to a person none of us ever were.


So, roll on August – a month of more travel, lots of planned films, and hopefully some time to actually see some exhibitions. I plan to actually settle down and get back into reading something non-fictional as well, and I have the feeling I have some proms tickets for something…