The Secret To Survival

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

a week.

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.

3 thoughts on “The Secret To Survival

  1. I hear that in some European workplaces (German ones?), one of the perks of the job is having a personal life assistant who goes shopping for you, goes to your home to let the plumber in, collects your dry-cleaning, walks your dog, organises canapes for your cocktail party, restocks your magazine rack with the latest edition of UK Vogue and other Important Tomes, purchases music for you to keep your collection current (and, with any luck, funky) etc etc. You get the picture. Or rather they do on your behalf, get it hung on a suitable wall and provide you with the critique about it so you can wow your friends with your artsy knowledge. And while your assistant is busily tending to your idealised life, you get to spend more time in the office than you ever imagined possible and keep in touch with what the weather’s up to via your personal hand-held, virtual envirosimulator (pre-set by aforementioned assistant to replicate all your fave conditions – blustery, blueskies, cumulonimbus, whatever you desire).

    Ah, sounds idillic….

  2. Didn’t that used to be the job of Diplomat’s wives? Now, in this age of modernity, I believe that job is available too.

  3. The day you bought your groovy orange jacket at Paragon in New York couldn’t have been too bad. Felix was running around all of the store trying to find you the perfect one. I was giving you thumbs up, thumbs down… and you finally made the purchase (although it did take about an hour). You can do it, it’s not that hard. Honestly just shop for all your clothes in New York and Felix will run around like a monkey grabbing this, that and the other. Reminds me: do you want any jeans from Ludlow Street?

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