So, how was your Lent?

Hello friends! It’s been exactly seven months and 10 days, or 223 days, since my last post (I looked it up). In fact, at the time of my last post I was still living in Shepherd’s Bush, losing the will to live on a daily basis commuting into the City on the Central Line and, although I didn’t know it at the time, slowly dying of boredom. Several things have happened since then, among them a move across London (I now, shock horror, call an E2 postcode my home) and a promotion (I still essentially do the same job, but my title has changed to something that sounds more like I actually know what I’m doing). There were lots of other little things (there must have been), but this post isn’t actually about what happened since September 2013. What I’m going to tell you about is what happened between 5th March and 17th April 2014, when I gave up Social Media for Lent.

Say what?

It probably won’t suprise you that although I was baptised Catholic, I’m not an overly zealous Christian. I’ve always been a firm believer in the pick’n’mix approach to religion, trying to internalise the bits that teach us how to be good people but siphoning out the misoginy, homophobia and general fuckwittery that unfortunately comes in-built. But I do identify as Catholic, if only because it was the tradition I’ve been brought up in, and I’ve made a point of observing Lent for eight years now. Since 2007, I’ve given up a variety of vices for the six weeks leading up to Easter – sugar, alcohol, meat (before I became a bad vegetarian) and, most difficult of all, deep-fried things. For the last three years (since moving to London) the vice du jour has always been booze, but my ever worsening hangover paranoia has recently put a pretty enormous cork in my bottle, so coming up with something to give up proved pretty difficult this year. I don’t quite remember where I first got the idea to pick Facebook and co, but the sense of dread it filled me with immediately made me realise that I’d struck gold. Oddly, “I can’t do it” seemed to translate into “I have to do it”.

So I went cold turkey. I posted a status to let my friends and followers know I’d drop off the radar for a while, turned off the notifications on my phone so I wouldn’t be tempted back and waited for the DT’s to set in.

And waited.

And waited.

It was all a bit anticlimactic. Contrary to some of my friends’ expectations, I didn’t have to be restrained by my colleagues so I wouldn’t open Tweetdeck, and I didn’t go on sneaky midnight Facebook stalking sprees. I just kind of stopped thinking about it. After about a week, I realised that I didn’t have a clue what was going on in the world because I usually get all my news from Twitter, so I started listening to the radio on my way to work and made a point of skimming the broadsheets in my lunch break. I missed out on some gems from the lovely London Book Club people, such as the chance to shadow this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and it took me considerably longer to find the answer to a number of pressing work-related questions because I couldn’t just tweet them at smarter people. But mainly I just kind of pottered on.

So yeah, there’s no big life lesson learnt. I guess social media is a bit of a time waster and we’d probably all do a bit better if we didn’t spend so much time stalking, judging and feeling jealous, but then again we kind of knew that, non? So to end this in a non-preachy way, here’s a list of all the cool things I did from 5th March to 17th April that I didn’t get to tell you about.

1. I bought a bicycle.

My favourite new thing.

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At Stein's in Richmond, bavarianing it up.

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Isn’t it pretty? I got it off Gumtree and terrified my flatmate Jen when I said I’d text her every ten minutes on the first ride home from Brixton, but then my phone died and she thought I had too. Next day I got a little overexcited and decided to cycle to Richmond and back with my friend Mike, which turned out to be a 30 mile ride in total. My arse was in RIBBONS, but it was a lovely, sunny day and Mike introduced me to Stein’s, a traditional Bavarian beer garden right by the riverside in Richmond.

2. The boyfriend and I went to see the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford.

Diagon Alley.

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The butterbeer tasted like non-alcoholic butterscotch with melted vanilla ice-cream poured on top, but Diagon Alley and the concept art was pretty amazing.

3. We also went on a little trip to see some of the fam, and by Jove Jilly Cooper country is a heartbreakingly pretty neck of the woods.

Cotswolds loveliness.

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More Cotswolds loveliness.

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And pretty decent pubs they have as well.

4. Spain!

Vamos a la playa.

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I spent Easter in Murcia with my sister, didn’t get sunburnt but did lots of other unhealthy things. Cycling to work was a bit of a pain for the first couple of days after my return.

5.  I went to see Miranda Hart’s “What I call Live Show” at the O2 with my Twitter friend Victoria from Books, Biscuits and Tea and it was ace.

Miranda!

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Fangirls.

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We had a bit of a moment when, never having met “in real life” before, we started gushing about the books we were reading, pulled them out of our bags and they turned out to be by the same author, Rainbow Rowell. I’ve now finished “Fangirl”, a sweet and quite addictive YA novel about a nerdy teenage fanfiction writer who slowly realises that falling in love is even nicer than writing about it. Miranda was brilliant too – on the way to the O2 I kept wondering which teenage megastar had a gig at the same time because surely all these people couldn’t be here to see Miranda? But they were, all 20 000 of them.

And that’s  all folks.

Thoughts before reading The Casual Vacancy, and an unexpected revelation.

Has it really been five years? The other day, I was watching The Culture Show special on JK Rowling’s new book, and they casually mentioned that it took her five years to write. Five years! Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in July 2007, so I suppose that yes, my chiildhood ended five years ago.

Now, before you roll your eyes at me for being melodramatic, let me quickly explain what Harry Potter means to me. (Stay with me, I won’t be long.) When I picked up my first Harry (God that sounds sinister), I was thirteen years old (dear Lord.) and laid low with the flu. I had watched All The Telly and I was too weak to walk anywhere, and among a mountain of crumpled-up hankies on the coffee table, there was The Prisoner of Azkaban. Everybody else was already reading it, which was precisely why I had refused to so far. But in my feverish state, my teenagery resistance was crumbling. It can’t hurt to have a peak.

Ten pages in, I was hooked. I had no idea what a Gryffindor was, or why they were being awarded points. Before I started reading it, I hadn’t even been aware that Harry Potter was about wizards – I had been under the impression that he was simply a boy detective. But I read on, and when I finished, I picked up the first one, and a lot of things that hadn’t made sense began to become clear. By the time I finished the Philosopher’s Stone, I was well enough to go back to school, but that didn’t deter me from reading The Chamber of Secrets under my desk. And when I finished that, I picked up The Prisoner of Azkaban again.

A year passed, in which I didn’t really read anything else. It being 1999, the first three were the only ones that had been released yet, but I rotated them until my parents had to get another set because my siblings and I were constantly fighting over who would get them next. (Those were the days when I could still resolve any argument by sitting on them. *nostalgic face*). In fact, they were reading them as much as we were. The wonderful thing was that as my onsetting puberty was leaving my hitherto healthy relationship with my parents in tatters, Harry was the one thing we had that we could still talk about over supper, that didn’t result in me threatening to run away, and them responding in spirit by introducing curfews or taking away pocket money. When the film came out, all of the clan went to see it on the first night, and I remember the drive back – no squabbling over who got to sit in the front and who was taking up to much space in the back, only unanimous agreement that Hermione was miscast, we had all expected Snape to be skinnier and they couldn’t have found a more perfect Professor McGonagall had they allowed JK Rowling to breed one.

But that’s not even what I meant. The real love story began in the summer holidays of 2000, when The Goblet of Fire was released and my father, in a desperate attempt to improve his daughter’s mediocre English grades, bought her a copy before the German version was released. I don’t think I had ever loved him more. The first chapter was a struggle – I remember being sat there for ages, almost straining a neck muscle from constantly looking back and forth between the book and my Cambridge Advanced. But then something clicked, and I read the whole thing (500 pages!) in less than a week. And then read it again. Etc. And then I bought the other three in English. At some point that following year, I went to boarding school in Bedford for a short while – the first time I ever went to England. Stuck in a grand old house with forty other girls from all over the world, but mostly Hong Kong and Russia, and the strictest house mistress in the world, I don’t know what happened, but I felt more at home than I ever had anywhere else, including at home. My awkwardness, which made me stick out like a sore thumb at home, suddenly made sense, because everyone else was just as weird. These days I have a lot of issues with private education, but I do think that separating hormonal teenagers from their despairing parents is a fundamentally healthy thing (and should be government-subsidised.) If Miss Darbon had been made mandatory for the whole of the UK, last year’s riots could have been prevented.

I’ve been what is commonly regarded an “anglophile” ever since. I went on to study English to degree level, spending what little money I had on trips to London and PG Tipps from the British Shop in Leipzig. When my ex and I broke up after a three year relationship, the only hopeful thought that made it through the fog of my devastation was that I was now free to move to London after graduation. By the time we got back together I had already organised to write my dissertation in the British Library, and we half-heartedly talked about “making it work”, but in hindsight I don’t think I ever intended to come back, not really.

Maybe I can’t blame Harry for all of this. Maybe I would have found my way here anyway. There is no coulda, woulda, shoula, and I really don’t want to find out that I could have been just as happy in Castrop-Rauxel, teaching fourteen-year-olds the difference between I will and I’m going to. My point is that this is what Harry Potter means to me. And if only a tenth of the series’ fans associate something of similar weight with it, how the FUCK will The Casual Vacancy live up to that?

So far I’m about 60 pages in, and I’m enjoying it. I wasn’t gripped until the scene between Krystal and the school counsellor, and to my eternal shame I have to admit that I wince every time she uses a four letter word. (With the words of Soldier Boy, it’s a bit like turning over a page to find Hagrid sodomising Hermione.) I’m determined to keep an open mind and try to separate between Harry’s Jo and the adult Jo, but it’s proving a hell of a lot more difficult than I expected.

Merciful Hour

My Twitter lovelies (well, the ones that aren’t sex bots or trying to get me to invest in recession-proof business schemes, anyway) may have noticed that I’ve gone a bit loopy lately. Less of the hilariously astute social commentary and witty cynicism (work with me here please), and more of the OH MY GOD OH MY GOD LOOK WHO REPLIED TO MY TWEET fangirling over a certain Dublin-based author. (By the way, yes, we did indeed have a little back and forth on the Twitters. Proof here.) Anyway, whether you care or not, chances are that if you know me, you will have heard that “Queen of Chick Lit” Marian Keyes has a new book out – The Mystery of Mercy Close. Michael Joseph (Penguin), 508 pages, £18.99 (but lovely Waterstones, bless them, are currently doing a £10 off deal. Just as an FYI. Now go. Buy it. Hurry, because if you don’t live in London, your nearest bookshop will close soon. I’m afraid you can’t borrow mine because the waiting list is very, oh very long. But I digress.

Why should you read this book? Well, duh, because it’s good. Because it’s so good. Becauses it’s one of those books that you just want to carry around with you all day (and that’s where it gets tricky, I had to go to work carrying my cotton Notting Hill Shopping Bag and looking ten times the hippie I usually do, because it wouldn’t fit in my handbag), and when you finish the last sentence you feel as if you’ve just lost a good friend. Because it contains a terrificly written, incredibly moving romantic scene that you might just miss because it’s so elegantly low key (hint: picnic). Because once again, Keyes manages to break the chains of being classified as a writer of “women’s fiction” (said with derisive snarl, of course) and address uncomfortable issues such as mental health with her trademark lighthearted wit, but never in a condescending or judgmental way. But then again that’s just your usual, run-of-the-mill Marian magic, and we didn’t expect anything less from her, whose every novel has been hailed as “her best yet”.

I have read and re-read all of her novels several times, and of all her characters I have always loved the Walsh sisters the most. I see bits of myself in Claire, Margaret, Rachel and Anna, and I have a sister who is exactly like Helen (as described by her sisters. Wouldn’t put it past her to end up in the funny house either). I was a bit apprehensive as to how Marian would dissolve the dilemma of having to write about a character as scary and unpredictable as Helen, because much as I loved Anybody Out There (and it might just be my favourite of the stack), I always felt she’d overdone it a bit with giving Anna a complete character transplant. But much to my relief, with the fifth one she didn’t – Helen Walsh is every bit as stroppy, mouthy, direct, unpredictable and self-reliant as she ever was. Her dark secret is not very secret at all – it’s right out there in the open, from the very first page. The mystery seems to be what happened to trigger it, but when we do find out, it’s suddenly no longer important. “People get sick and sometimes they get better and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes you wonder whether outside interference makes any difference at all; whether an illness is like a storm; whether it simply has to run it’s course and, at the end, either you will be alive or you will be dead.”

And now you may tune out, because what follows might just be my English degree getting the better of me – but the way I read it, the second heroine of the story in Mercy Close is Ireland. While Helen tries to tackle her demons, Éire is fighting her battle against the crippling recession. The chapter about Helen’s flat being repossessed was gut-wrenchingly sad, but the casual mentions of debilitating unemployment, poverty, loss and hopelessness are worse. I remember walking through Dublin last February, and the posters asking young people to APPLY FOR VISA HERE nearly broke my heart. I’ve never suffered from depression in the clinical sense, but I imagine it would be tough even for the most resilient of optimists to retain their good spirits in a climate like that. I am inclined to believe that Helen Walsh is indeed “the perfect heroine for our times”, as one of the cover blurbs proudly claims, because she is trying to hold on as everything around her is disintegrating.

More than two years ago, Marian published this letter to her fans, explaining that a “major depressive episode” had left her unable to cope with everyday life, let alone write. She recently said she has come to realise that a large part of her former self is gone, and now it is about accepting the “new” Marian, and in a way, you can tell with Mystery Close. Marian’s trademark zeitgeisty observational humour is as astute as it ever was, but the rip-roaring hilarities are no more. There are no more cheerily indulgent drunken girly nights about town, and the romance plot takes a determined backseat. Chick lit, it isn’t.

If you love Marian, go buy this book. If you don’t love her yet, go buy this book and become enlightened. There is no third option.

UPDATE: As of this morning, I have received this on the Twitters:

Why I Don’t Really Think It Means All That Much

Blogging! Only two posts in and already have I begun to neglect the Damsel. And I had such good intentions! I keep thinking about things that might make a good blog post, but then I don’t want to blog for the sake of blogging, and here we are, madness and sweaty palms. I briefly contemplated writing about Missouri Congressman Todd Akin’s fuckwittery of epic proportions, but then surely everything has already been said and I couldn’t possibly hope to add anything clever (mostly because after a while I get incoherent with rage). Another idea that briefly crossed my mind was to write about an ad for a “Posh Dating” website that recently popped up on my Facebook – Zuckerberg and friends seem to have found out about me dating above my station. But then I kind of forgot what I found so funny about it and there was no way I could milk an entire post from Hamish and Co. on PoshFlirt.co.uk, so on I moved. And now this new London obsession with Nolympics – yes yes, fun while it lasted, certainly a blast, now let’s get back to normal please – again, everything has already been wrung out of it.

But! When I got into the office this morning and switched on my computer, there it was – the perfect blog story. The Hunger Games trilogy has officially passed Harry Potter in terms of sales figures on Amazon.com. And because I haven’t really aged past 16, I felt mildly offended on behalf of all eight billion Harry Potter fans on the planet and tried to come up with reasons Why That Doesn’t Actually Mean All That Much. (See, the title does make sense.) And I don’t even dislike The Hunger Games – in fact, I hugely enjoyed the novels and devoured all three in about a fortnight, have given my sister a box set for Christmas, got Soldier Boy and several friends into it and went to see the film almost immediately upon release. But after that I put them back on the shelf, and kind of stopped thinking about them. And Harry Potter – well, it’s twenty-three past midnight, well past my bedtime, and I am writing a not-terribly-well-thought-out blog post about why Suzanne Collins making a shitload of wonga from e-book sales doesn’t mean that we love her more than JK Rowling. So without further ado, here’s the list.

First: It’s Amazon. (And what’s more, Amazon US.) And while we may all feel that they are the only booksellers in the world that really matter anymore, there is one huge disadvantage with a bookstore that stocks its goods in huge warehouses on industrial estates miles from anywhere that matters – they are shit at organising midnight releases. So while I’m sure they have made huge profit from the large group of people who were unfussed enough that they could stand waiting for a couple of days, weeks, months before joining the boy wizard on his next adventure, they missed out on the gazillions of devoted fans who happily queued in the cold for their copy, wearing Gryffindor robes. And I’m also sure that not every family is as mental as mine, who had to buy four individual copies of the Deathly Hallows on the first day because we just couldn’t agree who would get to read it first. (Then there was the story of when we were all bundled in the car, me driving, trying to get home as quickly as possible so I could start reading, and then my sister started teasing me by reading out half sentences and I turned around to hit her but (very nearly) hit a cyclist instead. Hilarity ensued.)

Second: Digital Revolution. Kindle figures are counted within the overall sales figures of course, and Harry Potter wasn’t available in e-book format until March this year. And when it came out, sales in the UK alone topped one million pound within three days. Despite the fact that the world and its grandmother already owned a copy – again, I’m not making assumptions about the sanity of other people just because my family, in addition to the four English Deathly Hallows copies, has two copies of each book in German – one for reading, one for display – at least one of each, if not more, in English, plus a couple of odd ones in French and Russian.

Third: Three words – Young Adult fiction. Can you see parents reading their children bedtime stories about Katniss’ perennial homonal woes and Mutts tearing holes into Cato? I can’t either. I can, however, see all 3.4 members of the average white middle-class household holed up in their respective corner of the little semi-d’ in Surrey with their noses in a copy of Mockingjay each. And I can also remember reading to children who will probably never in their life cross the threshold of their local Waterstones branch (or whatever the equivalent German book chain is these days), but who were nonetheless breathlessly following Harry’s first trip to Diagon Alley.

Fourth: None of the broadsheets have picked up the Amazon press release yet. Which leads me to the assumption that they have decided to take the news with a pound of salt as I have.

Draco dormiens numquam titillandus.