Throwing the book

I started this blog to support my efforts to get writing. It was a week before England’s second lockdown began. Like a lot of people, I believed I had a book in me. And I thought the pandemic would provide the room to write it.

I’ve done a lot of things during the pandemic. I got into the habit of long midnight walks. I worked out, and then I stopped working out. I got into Pokémon cards, podcasts, audiobooks and crypto. I watched the Adam Curtis documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head, countless episodes of Friends, and the third series of Succession. I’ve been hooked to social media.

I also got engaged. I moved from one newspaper to another. I reunited with (real) friends between lockdowns. I’ve felt happy and ordinary between the dark moments.

I’ve done a lot of things during the pandemic, yes, but not much writing.

A new idea for a novel came to me a couple of months ago. Let’s call it a ghost story. Late last year, I learnt of a new competition for first-time novelists. I planned to write thousands of words a day to meet the competition’s deadline in April. My present word count? 1,300. Every sentence is a room but I can’t always find the key.

I could have added more words tonight. Instead, I watched the first episode of Euphoria with some microwaved popcorn and went on a walk in the rain while listening to Foreverland, a book about marriage by Heather Havrilesky. And then I wrote this.

Quote of the week

Writing memoir can be cathartic or traumatic, and often it’s both. Like all writing, it’s about 90 per cent thinking, 10 per cent actual writing. Walking helps

Christie Watson, author of The Language of Kindness, quoted in The Times
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Hidden in London

A disused platform at Charing Cross

To Charing Cross, where my friend and I are due to meet for a tour of the Tube station’s disused tunnels with Hidden London. Not wanting to be late, I arrive 45 minutes early and pass the time in the Waterstones at Trafalgar Square. The air outside is cold; I can see my breath.

A tunnel beneath Trafalgar Square

I took my first Hidden London tour in October 2016: the lost tunnels of London Euston. My girlfriend and I took in the station’s historical information imparted by the brilliant guides, the vintage advertising posters and, of course, the marvellous tunnels and ventilation shafts.

I was hooked. I’ve since toured Aldwych and Down Street, with a ride on the Mail Rail at the Postal Museum thrown in for some variety, and now Charing Cross.

When I get weary of the noise, the order and the restrictions placed on the surface of the city, I long to return to these tunnels.

A vintage Tube train at Aldwych
Overlooking a Tube platform at London Euston from a ventilation shaft
Equipment stored in a tunnel at Euston
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Failures of the Euro 2020 final

View of the Wembley pitch during the Euro 2020 final

I’ve been going to football matches for 20 years. The Euro 2020 final, played at Wembley between England and Italy, was the first time I’d feared for my safety – and that of others – at a match.

So I was consoled by Baroness Casey’s review of the events that day in July. She noted a “collective failure” of organisations, which might have led to significant injuries or death. The crossbench peer made a series of recommendations in the report, which the FA has fully accepted.

The Euro 2020 final was a potentially glorious national occasion that turned into a day of national shame. Our team of role models were in our first major final for 55 years. However they were let down by a horde of ticketless, drunken and drugged-up thugs who chose to abuse innocent, vulnerable and disabled people, as well as police officers, volunteers and Wembley staff, creating an appalling scene of disorder and coming perilously close to putting lives at risk.

Baroness Casey
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Mind the gap

It’s ten years since I left home and went to university in London. I’ve started thinking about who I was then, after my gap year.

I was essentially forced into taking a gap year. King’s College London had rejected me and I wanted to try again.* To complicate matters, my parents moved me and my brother to Grange-over-Sands in Cumbria. That felt a long way from Bolton and my mates.

First on the agenda was getting a job. My brother and I went round Lancaster handing out our paper-thin CVs in every shop. Shockingly, none were interested in my A-levels in English, philosophy, religious studies and law.

We ended up getting zero-hours contracts at a hotel near our new home, working in the restaurant. The kitchen in the evenings was a pressure cooker. It was perfect training for the Daily Mail newsroom, where I would eventually start my journalism career.

For several reasons I was not happy around that time.

The breakfast shifts were tough. On Sundays, TalkSPORT had a programme about fishing that began at 6am, when my radio alarm went off. My heart ached to the opening soundtrack, Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys. It’s about longing to run away from your troubles on land – in my case, a moribund long-distance relationship (she’d gone to uni in Bournemouth). But instead of tasting the salty tang of seaspray from my vessel, I was soaked in the filth of the hotel sink. I was often on potwash.

The other day I was listening to an old Spotify playlist I’d made containing every song that had ever meant something to me. I was working out. I’d skipped a few tracks when Fisherman’s Blues started playing. I looked around. I squeezed my eyes at the cat who’d come downstairs to see me.

I thought about how different things were now. I’m engaged. I’m in therapy. I devour audiobooks. We have a garden. I work in a job that ten years ago would’ve seemed an impossibility.

Without wishing to oversimplify things, it got worse before it got better, and then it got a lot worse before getting better again. Now I take the waves as they come.

*I got into King’s at the second time of asking.

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Shortchanged

I wonder if, years from now, we’ll look back at this time and marvel at how strange it was – the masks and the social distancing, the working from home, the going on furlough or losing your job, the fear of the outside, of what could happen, because nothing like this had ever happened. The isolation, the loneliness, the unimaginable loss. Or will our lives, years from now, be largely the same, so it won’t make sense to dwell on “how things were”? Many restrictions were removed in England on Monday July 19, so-called freedom day. But as cases remain high, it feels like nothing has changed at all.

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Quote of the week

Now all these fucking Zoomers / Are telling me that I’m out of touch? Oh yeah? / Well, your fucking phones are poisoning your minds, OK? / So when you develop a dissociative mental disorder in your late twenties / Don’t come crawling back to me

Bo Burnham, 30, from his Netflix special, Inside

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On the road again

Becoming emotionally attached to a football club is a risky game. They can let you down. They can be mismanaged. They can fail.

Bolton Wanderers, the football club I’ve supported all my life, nearly failed in 2019. Employees were forced to use food banks because they weren’t paid. The business fell into administration and the club was deducted points, which led to our relegation from League One. It was a devastating fall from grace for a club that once competed in the Premier League and challenged in Europe.

A lot has happened since that failure. A new owner was found and the club survived. And on Saturday I found myself taking a Tube, train and bus to Crawley to my first Bolton match in too long — not to watch from inside the ground, as Covid restrictions were still in place, but to cheer from the outside with about a dozen fellow Bolton fans, none of whom I knew yet. 

When Bolton won promotion from League Two on Saturday, we celebrated with the players as they joined us outside at full-time. 

It’s a risky game but when things go well, it’s a towering feeling.

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Meditation in an emergency

I am a meditator. It started during the pandemic. I’d open the Calm app most days and listen to the daily meditation. Then I discovered Waking Up, an app by Sam Harris, and completed the month-long introductory course. Now I use both apps. I don’t practise every day, although I know I should. Here’s my attempt at a guided meditation.

Meditation in an emergency…

Close your eyes and start by taking some deep breaths.

Focus on the breath. Cover it with your awareness. Follow every moment of it. Find the area where the breath is most clearly felt. It could be the nostrils, the chest, the abdomen.

There may be sounds coming from outside. A car, a neighbour. Or noises from another room. Just observe them. Think about how they emerge as if from nothing and then disappear again. They’re not permanent. They’ll pass.

Are you still focusing on the breath? Like sounds, thoughts will arise when you’re meditating. Sometimes they’re benign, like what you’re planning to do later. But at other times they can be coloured by anxiety, stress, anger, frustration, shame, regret. You may think about work, negative interactions you’ve had, things you shouldn’t have said or done. Moments when you’ve hurt someone, when you’ve lost control. It’s important that when any thoughts emerge, you don’t fight them. Just acknowledge them. They’re not permanent. They’ll pass. Those thoughts are not you.

When you notice that you’re distracted, that a thought has taken you away from the breath, that’s OK. Allow yourself to begin again, focusing on the breath.

Now, ease your awareness and let the breath flow naturally.

When it feels like all around you is in chaos, it’s easy to internalise that and feel chaotic yourself. But I’ve found that if you keep practising at paying close attention to consciousness, a calmness will emerge.

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Sarah Everard

I wrote recently about my night walks, referencing the flâneur. I learnt about the flâneur during my English degree; it means someone who wanders around observing society. The flâneur is traditionally male. Because typically you have to be a man to feel safe walking alone outside.

The killing of Sarah Everard has led to an outpouring of anger and grief. It has put the misogyny at the centre of society in the spotlight. Here are some voices that say things far better than I ever could:

Sarah Everard deserved better than this (The Cut)

What happened to me was nothing — the nothing women know all too well (The Guardian)

Sarah Everard’s death has shown women’s fear and the need for men to step up (The Herald)

To stop women like Sarah Everard going missing, the conversation must start with men (City AM)

Women are human beings: an apparently radical take (Roar News)

Men are now feeling the discomfort we’ve been living with for years (The Telegraph)

The vigils were not just about Sarah Everard, but about the whole justice system (The Guardian)

The Sarah Everard case has shown how frightened women really are (The Spectator)

It is only luck that it wasn’t me, or maybe you, on that Clapham street (The Times)

The Met’s dumb mistakes at Clapham Common turned Sarah Everard’s vigil into a protest (The Times)

Let me tell you what women and girls can’t do (The Times)

Extending police powers cannot and will not end male violence (Refinery29)

She was just walking home (The New York Times)

The police will never keep women safe (Huck)

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