I have been back in Britain for nine months now and the friends I left behind
will soon be packing their bags to sail northwards, a year on. I can only eke
out the post-Antarctic trauma for so long. The things I hate about this world,
I always hated. The things I like, I always liked. Halley had a refreshing lack
of most of the things I hate, and indulgence of many of the things I love.
I hate shopping, clothes shopping especially. I find it really quite traumatic.
Unfortunately, I also hate never having anything suitable to wear. I hate choosing
music, especially at my house when there are visitors. The same fluttering fear.
Cooking for guests is also an anxious experience although I think I enjoy cooking
itself, when only me is eating it. I don’t much like bookshops or music
shops either. That’s a terrible thing to admit to I know. How could anyone
not like music shops or bookshops, second-hand stores with quirky staff and a
musty smell where you can get lost for hours? Ok, I take it back, I like bookshops,
and I love the idea of them, I just never know where to start looking or how to
know if something’s good when I do pick it. I stand behind the music store
statement though, at least with books you can quickly open them up to sample a
When High Fidelity (Nick Hornby) came out, three boys recommended it
to me with urgency. They said it explained the way men think. It was a true eye
opener. I loved the book, I really did, and the film (but that’s obvious,
it does have John Cusack in), but do people really put that much effort and thought
into creating compilation tapes? Does every song have to mean something, remind
you of somewhere? It makes me cringe to think in retrospect of the one and only
compilation (cd) I ever made. I kept a copy for myself and though I still love
every song on there, I can’t ever listen to them in order again.
Yet I love receiving compilations, they are wonderful wonderful. Listening to
them is like spending time with the creator, especially treasured if you’re
distances apart. And I love receiving books, as long as they’re good. I
used to find the pressure to read them a bit stressful but now I’m learning
to love my shelves full of yet-to-be-read material. And I love eating, always.
And wearing brightly splashed clothes, especially if I haven’t had to buy
them myself. So it’s not the product I hate, or even the consumerism, it’s
the acquisition process.
I can’t be the only one with this trauma; this must be why there are so
many guides. How to cook, book reviews, where to shop, how to dress, what to listen
to. But unless you have a clue about any of the names dropped for comparison,
these helpful texts are as intimidating as the process itself.
“What do you like to read?”, someone in the literary world asked me
recently. Of course, given his profession, he assumed that I like reading, that
everyone likes reading. I mean hell, I like writing so surely that’s a logical
step? Well, I do like reading, I think I do, but I find it hard work. I’m
quite slow and don’t allow myself much time. It takes months for me to finish
a book. And months means I lose the plot, get distracted, lose interest.
There are some books I’ve loved but I’m almost embarrassed to list
them. I can feel all those eyes staring down at me, down their straight, long
noses. I loved A Heart-Breaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers),
I couldn’t put it down. Equally, I was gripped, at the opposite ends of
the spectrum, by both the Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)and
The Secret History (Donna Tartt). Oh yes, One Hundred Years of Solitude
(Gabriel Garcia Marquez) was fantastic and I enjoy anything by Ben Okri. Which
means I’ve read two books by him. Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks),
that was another, In the Skin of the Lion (Michael Ondaatje), see I can
drop names (phew!) but I really am dredging my memory. And, high praise indeed,
I recently finished The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd) in less than
The thing literary folk have, that most of us don’t, is free access to excellent,
recommended, books. I felt ridiculous struggling when he asked what I read [“ee”]
but to be honest, I’ve not read enough to know. I thought he was asking
as a way of pigeon-holing me but it was actually just so he could give me some
freebies for the journey home. I left with Belle de Jour in my bag and have been
thoroughly enjoying every page.
Finally, I’ve realised what I need. I need my own human guide to surviving
in the city. You wouldn’t go climbing without an experienced mountaineer
at your side, looking out for your safety while you gradually become acquainted
with the various clips, ropes, slings and springs hanging off your harness. The
excruciatingly awkward and uncomfortable shoes (on rock), or boots and crampons
(on ice) controlling your feet. Well I wouldn’t. So it is, I realised in
a flash as I left Carnaby Street, with the city. No self-respecting guide would
have even let me go into Diesel in the first place. He or she would have known
that they don’t stock anything in my apparently huge size 32, and would
have saved me much futile energy. Similarly, they wouldn’t let me go into
shoe shops that only stock to size UK7 (I’m somewhere between a 7 and 8
depending on the day) and would know instinctively when I was ready to take on
the hell that are High Streets and shopping malls, guiding me initially to only
the relevant rails within very particular, well chosen, shops. They would know
my size, my style, my taste in music and books, and, most importantly, my shopping
threshold. Before even the hint of panic had set in, I would be quickly and mysteriously
magicked into a quiet space with a gin and tonic in hand, or a decidedly non-corporate
coffee shop. Better yet, they would just do the shopping for me. I guess I would
then never learn the skills and tools to do it myself but then again, do I need
The amount of time and energy we spend on just keeping up with the world is ridiculous.
Am I seriously suggesting jumping in wholesale and getting my own personal lifestyle
advisor? Of course not. I shall continue, as I do, to consult and steal from my
various friends who love music, cooking, politics, fashion, shopping, and books.
They will be my guides and I’ll, well, I don’t know what I’ll
do for them. I’ll tell them stories about stars. It’s well known that
the most important key to survival whether in desert, ice, mountains or ocean,
is to have a good team around you. I guess the same applies to the city too.