June ‘book to look forward to’: The Heartland: Finding and Losing Schizophrenia’. Nathan Filer. (Faber) Kindle edition £7.19

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for June 2019 said:
‘The former mental health nurse’s non-fiction follow up to his Costa book of the year-winning novel’.

Back in the early 1980’s, living in a shared house a group of us young lefty student ‘radicals’ (we thought we were, but as it turns out, we were just young) debated ‘the troubles’ as we called the situation between Britain and Ireland back then.  Some of us referred to terrorists and some freedom fighters – the debate about where each of these sat of course depended on one’s perspective.  Being earnest young things we decided to become properly informed so we wrote to each of the political parties on each side of the divide to ask for manifestoes and leaflets etc.  We had a right old laugh at how many of the envelopes that subsequently arrived had been “damaged in the post” and appeared to have been opened but I don’t think any of us could truly imagine they had been.  One day I was on the phone to a friend. It was a proper old phone, fixed to a place by a flex with a handset that tied to the phone itself by way of a curly cord.  We were having a natter about nothing very much but it was a terrible line.  Suddenly I heard the conversation I had just been having played back to me!  The call – I – was being recorded. I shouted to another housemate to come and listen and then the phone cut off, line dead.  I am not sure who was doing the recording but a house full of women must have been quite tedious to listen to.  It was the first time I experienced paranoia and was glad two other people heard the whole thing.

(image Regos-Kornyei via Upsplash)

Whoever would have imagined MI5 had recorded little old me? People might have thought I was insane for saying so.

Fast forward more than ten years. I was working in a secure mental health facility.  A patient told me that ‘star signs’ were accurate descriptions of different personalities because they were cultural descriptions of people from 12 different planets of the solar system.  An ‘Aries’ was a descendant from one planet and ‘Cancerians’ were from a completely different planet.  He was a Piscean and he desperately wanted his family to come and rescue him from Earth and take him home.  The patient had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was said to be delusional.  Strangely he was the second person in less than a year to put forward the view that ‘star sign’ personality traits in humans were a cultural legacy of being from 12 different planets of the solar system. The person I first heard espouse this theory was the chief copywriter, editor and company director of a successful advertising and marketing company. 

I was reminded of each of these (true) stories when reading Filer’s remarkable book.

The heartland of the book’s title refers to schizophrenia – the ‘heartland’ of psychiatry.

Filer artfully draws upon compelling stories which encourage the reader to have empathy and understanding to and with those experiencing mental distress. He forces the reader to consider labels, descriptions and diagnoses – how they are arrived at and who they serve (rarely the patient it would seem). The language of mental illness and treatment is that of control and uniformity and it would be hard to disagree that for the most part, conceptually mental illness is problematic and does not serve those experiencing distress well.

That schizophrenia and indeed psychiatry are problematic and that the people who are most badly affected by the problematic nature of each are the patients labelled is not a new idea but this book certainly adds much to the discussion.

Filer uses clever language techniques (‘so-called’ schizophrenia) to cause the reader to really think about the label and how it is used. The reader can only reflect on the impact of mental ill health on those who experience it and ‘the rest of us’ – whoever that is. Filer talks about the problems in service provision and treatment strategies without coming down either way on simple for/against arguments which means the reader must engage with the text and consider – what do I think? It is a well-written book – lyrical and flowing and with a friendly conversational style. It is a thought-provoking book and one I would recommend to most people but especially anyone going into helping professions (especially doctors). I was pleased to read stories showing patients as humans with varying ideas and understandings of the world and how it is (also showing patients with insight) because usually, we hear of ‘the mad’. This is a great book.

Apparently, according to Niler, social media is replacing religion as the source of paranoid delusions. It would appear that some people think social media is manipulating us, using and gathering data on us. As if…

May ‘book to look forward to’: Sandetti Light Vessel Automatic. Simon Armitage (Faber). £7.79 (Kindle edition).

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for May 2019 said:

‘Newly awarded Queens Gold Medal for poetry, Armitage brings together his commissioned and collaborative work in this collection.’

Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic is a lightvessel stationed in the North Sea, named after its location on the Sandettie Bank In the Strait of Dover.  (Wikipedia).

I read in the press that Andrew Motion, poet laureate from 1999 to 2009 said the role was ‘entirely thankless’ had damaged his writing and had given him writers’ block. I ordered Simon Armitage’s book from the Guardian Review’s literary calendar of books to look forward to before the news broke in early May that he is to be the new poet laureate after accepting an invitation to take over the role from Carol Ann Duffy.  Having been unable to do anything but binge read this excellent book I very much hope his work is not impacted in the same way.

I have seen Simon Armitage perform poetry at an event sometime in this decade.  Ridiculously I cannot remember where or when or how I ended up there – it may have been Hull, Barnsley, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax or Todmorden. It might have been Brighton.  I remember the venue was dark like a night club and seated.  I remember that he was on a very slightly elevated stage and some other poets performed too but where or when eludes me.  What I can recall with absolute clarity is how captivating his words were and how seeing him scooped me back to a time of punks and zines and radical politics. Back in the day (the 80’s) I used to go to venues in Hull (shout out to fans of the Adelphi) to watch punk poets – Attila the Stockbroker, Swift Nick and somewhere or other (clearly my memory for venues has always been a bit dodgy) I saw John Cooper Clarke a couple of times too.  Armitage’s live poetry has the same ability to carry the listener into different worlds and different ways of seeing things.  His readings are punchy, delicious and extraordinary, but (and forgive me for saying so) his poetry is in a different league – highly sophisticated, subtly powerful, comic, thought-provoking, economic and extravagant. 

I never expect the same head rush from reading poetry

I am no student of poetry and do not understand its discipline or form.  I chose this month’s book as I was trying to stick to my ‘rule’ of achieving a balance between fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  May’s choice needed to be poetry and Sandetti was the only one suggested.  I am so glad it was. The book is a collection of commissioned works which share the broad theme that they are works for what the Telegraph reviewer calls ‘non-literary spaces’.  There are great poems in this book – the Henry Moore poems take me directly to the sculptures without passing go.

The most extraordinary poems though are those grouped under ‘The Not Dead’ and ‘The Great War – an Elegy’ which are powerful, evocative, shocking and tear inducing and probably the most incredible poems I have ever read.

Read this book*. Even if you don’t like poetry read this book. It is glorious.

*(Only do not read it on Kindle – the last section of the book is a comprehensive chapter of notes which support and complement the poems with background information and interesting detail. None of the poems have links to facilitate easy navigation between poem and note so it is tedious indeed scrolling backwards and forwards).

April ‘book to look forward to’: Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored. Jeffery Boakye. Kindle edition £8.99 downloaded 18 April 2019.

The brief description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for April 2019 said:

A writer and teacher examines more than 60 words, many hugely contentious, that are used to describe black men and women, with a particular focus on black masculinity’.

I had originally intended to read Naomi Wolf’s book on Sex and Censorship which I was keenly looking forward to – only the publishing date was changed to later so I had to pick another title from this months options.  It is fair to say this title both intrigued and intimidated me.  I have spent a lot of my academic and activist life considering oppression and diversity issues but I am mindful that whilst I identify as a working class, disabled, lesbian woman I am white and as such, privileged.  I have not given very much thought at all to masculinity except in relation to the impact of masculinity upon women and I can only be academically aware of the impact of race upon lived experience.  Would I find this book interesting to read or indeed, relevant (enough) to me personally?  I was acutely aware of and politically anxious about the nuance of my preference for Wolf’s book over Boakye’s.

With limited time and energy one much choose carefully where to focus and whilst books about masculinity are important I guess I have decided to commit my own time largely to books about and by women. This should not be understood as a single focus so much as more a positively gendered choice.  I am aware of the contradictions inherent in a narrowed focus.

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I see little merit in reviewing books already thoroughly reviewed elsewhere.  The aim of the blog is to consider the merit or relevance of the Guardian Review Literary calendar.  David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, gives a compelling, politically powerful, and mediated by his own experiences as a black man, review in the Guardian (15 April 2019) . It is a thought provoking read of itself.

I loved this book – I want to give it to dozens of friends, students and strangers…

I loved this book.  I loved, admired and envied the cadence and rhythm of the writing style which was musical and easily accessible whilst discussing challenging concepts. I found it to be a radical and compelling book – the kind I want to hand to dozens of friends, students and strangers and tell them to read it.   It was funny. I learned so much from it – things I had never known or understood – and things I really should have known or thought about but can hopefully, not now ‘un-know’.  I (re) considered the nature of language, labels, binaries, cultural homogenization and appropriation, loaded terms and the impacts of these and who is hurt most.  Some of it was uncomfortable reading (language as a weapon) and some especially thought provoking in relation to terms (of endearment? of ‘outlaws’? of politics?) I now often hear used/appropriated across communities. 

However – and I am mindful that as a white woman I am on wobbly ground here – there was one section that just didn’t sit right with me and that in his discussion of the naming of Melanie Brown AKA Scary Spice.  Drawing on an article by Chaedria LaBouvier ‘We Owe “Scary Spice” an Apology’ in which LaBouvier discusses hair – specifically black girls hair, Boakye repeasts her questioning of why a black girl was given the name ‘Scary’ which LaBouvier says is inherently racist.  Boakye suggests that as a nickname ‘Scary Spice’ is about blackness being frightening to white sensibilities.  In a HuffPost live conversation Mel B explains the origin of the name and why she still uses it – because she likes it and has never been offended by it. She acknowledges it was given to her by (female) journalist who, like Mel came from Leeds.  Whilst LaBouvier suggests Mel B may keep the name because she has no choice, nothing I have ever read about Mel B suggests she is a woman without agency.  I have always ‘read’ her name to be a manifestation of her Leeds girl, badass, could wipe the floor with you if she wanted to, take no shit, self-confident attitude (and indeed, in the interview Mel B suggests it is exactly this).  As Yorkshire born I have known, been scared of and achingly wished I was more like/as ballsy as Leeds girls/women as I grew from girl to woman. I understand that there is an ‘eye of the beholder’ issue here and that this is a discussion of different hues with no ‘correct’ answer but it was the only part of the book that that made me feel something was missing and I was unpersuaded by the depth of the point being made.  The focus felt narrow and possibly even, dare I say it, not respectful enough in according Mel B (women’s) power to make her own informed choices.

This is a wonderful book – I have never read one quite like it.  I have read a lot of books about oppression and discrimination underpinned by (righteous) anger and the fury can be an infectious call to arms.  There are several hundred pages of book here which could be a call to arms but Boakye does not write with incendiary fury. He writes instead with the voice of a wise, funny and thoughtful teacher who must be heard.  His voice opens eyes and minds and I wish I could write like that. 

So far, the ‘books to look forward to’ list offered by the Guardian Review is proving to be (almost annoyingly) worthwhile – though, as I will discuss in a future post, somewhat unbalanced and skewed in relation to representation.

March ‘book to look forward to’: Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Caroline Criado Perez

(Chatto).  Kindle edition downloaded 7 March 2019, £9.99

The brief book description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for March said:

‘The activist and journalist on the discriminatory consequences of men being treated as the default and women as atypical, in a book that casts new light on homes, workplaces and public buildings’.

Feminism and I unexpectedly tripped over each other in the early 1980’s and without getting into major biography, feminism changed every single element of my existence with enormous and enduring impact. Through the 80’s and 90’s I read every feminist book I could get hold of hitting strident radical outrage and non-violent direct action along the way. For the past 20 or so years, having bought the many and varied t-shirts (some of which have now become cleaning cloths – oh the irony) my interest in such books waned. I read the books I needed to read for my professional life dutifully, to ensure my power-points stayed relevant and current but I had mellowed beyond outrage and indeed, slogan t-shirts. I chose this book from the March ‘books to look forward to’ list because of the others in the non-fiction group it looked a) the least dull and b) my semi-un-conscious bias kicked in.

Everything about this book is quite simply wonderful.

This assertion might be dismissed with a roll of an eye and a weary ‘of course you would say that’ but in fact, the opposite would be true.  I am a well-read feminist and I have read some turkey’s, which frankly did the women’s movement(s) no favors, but this is very certainly not one of them.  I have read enough to know the difference and I loved this book! 

The book considers the absence of women in the data that defines and shapes the algorithms, policies, designs and laws in the world, our understanding of them across time. It considers our lives, opportunities and dangers inherent in it – and by ‘ours’ she means all humans. The ones most disadvantaged by the absence of women in data are of course women who have equipment which doesn’t fit or cannot be safely used because it is not made for their bodies, who cannot use public transport because the standard use which informs timetable planning is that of the male commuter and does not take account of carer responsibility and so very many other examples across the home, the workplace and in general public life. The book makes clear, however, that all of society are disadvantaged by the uni-focused narrative of male defined data sets.

The book has potential to be a preachy call to arms but it is not – Perez manages to make this eminently readable book engaging, humorous and informative.  She takes us to the heart of how we understand our world and in doing so highlights false assumptions and the absence of other perspectives.  At one point she asks (a little tongue in cheek) whether women are even human at all!  Her question comes from analysis of data about the evolution of humankind being predicated on understanding of the centrality of ‘man the hunter’.  What were women doing when humankind was being built, (allegedly), by hunters?  Do we even fit into this narrative and if so, in what ways do we influence that prevailing story?  She gives another example of a warrior skeleton being steadfastly identified and labeled as a male by museum curators, despite indisputable DNA bone analysis showing she was a female, simply on the grounds that she was found with weapons and high ranking afterlife kit.  They apparently were unable to comprehend the notion of a high-ranking warrior woman and so refused to believe it.  In doing so, the educative purpose of the museum is shamefully compromised and yet again, women are denied the opportunity to know our history.  Perez, sadly gives example after example after example.

This book is exhausting reading. It is hard not to have one’s feminist fury re-ignited by it.

Fury – rightful as it may be – is not the most useful outcome of this work. It is a very well considered, well researched, evidence based discussion. I hope it can contribute now to a broader discussion which always, always, always considers ways in which data is defined only by a male view with female perspectives being either silenced or ‘othered’. If we want to understand and learn and plan in the most healthy and positive ways for humanity and our planet we need the best data and this means inclusive data that from which male bias is eradicated. I am taking a wild guess about which gender(s) are the most likely to take this opportunity on board…

Note all images copywrite Chatto

  • Personal anecdote: I once worked in a secure mental health environment.  The women complained they wanted paper towels back because the newly installed, air-blow hand driers had been fitted by a six foot three maintenance man. When the women tried to use the too-high driers, it caused water from their hands to run down their arms and make their sleeves soggy.  I have noticed ever since how stupid-high most air blowers are in women’s toilets.

February’s ‘book to look forward to’

Late in the day. Tessa Hadley (Cape).  Downloaded on kindle 29th January £9.99

“A sudden bereavement reconfigures the lives and loves of two long-married couples’.

Note: Reviewed by Andrew Motion in the Guardian Review issue no 58, 23 February 2019.

With no real grounds for thinking so, I was looking forward to reading this book.  One of the things I most enjoy in books of any genre is when attention is given to the relationships between characters and the impact upon those relationships when something unexpected and significant happens.  A book where the focus is on long term knowing and the complexity of group dynamics seemed to me to have the potential for a delicious, cosy-up-with-a-cuppa type enjoyable way to spend time. 

The book is indeed about the complexity of relationships, which are left somewhat anchorless by the death of a central figure in the group; Individual relationships fray and the group dynamic shifts uncomfortably.  The stability and reliability of the group become jangled and rifts and crevices in the relationships open.

Hadley tells the story through the characters thoughts and in their interactions with each other and this is where I found the book difficult.

There are a lot of characters who Hadley knows well and they are allowed to ‘speak for themselves’, but I found it a challenge to work out who was who. 

I read a Kindle edition so I cannot give a page number but at 17% in I noted seven different characters mentioned on a single page.  At that early part of the book, I had not yet been able to gain a picture or a voice for  – or warmth for – any of the indistinguishable personalities.  Unfortunately, I never did.  The books seemed to me to be a middle class based narrative, and perhaps this explains why I felt on the outside of the story, unable to gain a foothold into the unfamiliar environment in which the experiences took place.  I found I could not care less for any of them.  Reading this story was somewhat underwhelming.

Despite this, it is still written beautifully with language used delicately and with subtlety.  The themes of the book – loss, change and how these impact on the very essence of us are important but perhaps a little neglected in the busyness of all the ‘stuff’ going on around the themes and through the voices of the characters.