Covid block

It’s hard to read or write at the moment

There have been lots of articles and social media posts from avid readers who are finding it difficult, suddenly, to read in these Covid times.  This chimed with me.

Sophie Vershbow, writing in Vogue in April said “Reading is a primary form of self-care, the thing I turn to just as much when I’m happy as when I’m sad. It’s felt like losing a friend in a time when we’ve already lost so much.” 

She quotes research as showing that chronic stress affects the way the front of the brain works: “the area…[that] normally controls our ability to concentrate and switch attention from one thing to another.” So, during something as stressful as living through a global pandemic, “we lose our usual mental flexibility and become highly focused on the source of the threat,” which means it’s difficult to lose ourselves in a book.”

Some people have suggested we should consume less news.  I know I’ve been obsessively watching the news, scouring social media and reading online news sites.  And then I perpetuate the anxiety by sharing articles that impact on me on my social media pages.  It makes sense, then, that BBC journalist Emily Maitliss, in the thick of the news, tweeted:  Ok. An admission. I’m finding it really hard to read at the moment and I usually devour novels. Is anyone else? Is it concentrate span? Twitter? Or as I suspect the plots and problems now seem to belong to a slightly different age. Book tips?’

Constance Grady, in Vox, in May, interviewed Oliver J Robinson, Neurologist and psychologist, about anxiety (and the difference between anxiety and fear).  He said that anxiety is about uncertainty (fear is about the known or visible or understandable) – and with anxiety you don’t know when something is going to end.

“The pandemic that we’re in is the most uncertain thing possible. You don’t know when it’s going to end, whether you’re going to get it. You don’t even know what it is, really. And all of a sudden, everything in your environment is dangerous. Door handles are dangerous. Other people are dangerous…” To this uncertainty I’d add coping with a new normal – working from home, having your partner home all the time, home schooling, on furlough and worrying if your job is safe …

“It’s also completely uncontrollable. But what I can do is seek information. I can go on Twitter, I can go on the internet, I can search nonstop, trying to resolve this uncertainty. The problem is that you’re never going to actually resolve it [yourself].”

How does this manifest itself?  “One person might have difficulty remembering things, or difficulty staying on task, or difficulty not focusing on negative things. So it’s very hard to say, ‘This one function is affected by anxiety’.”

Laura Abernethy, in an article in the Metro of 19 May has consultant psychologist Sarah Lewis, Psychologist explaining it like this:

 “When we feel under threat we become more alert to danger, including becoming hyper-vigilant. We are fully focussed on ascertaining the source of the danger. Think of when you have been startled in the night by an unexpected noise. Immediately you think – is someone in the house? Your attention is focussed on to that sound, straining to make sense of it. Then you realise it’s your son knocking over the hall-stand trying to creep in; relief rushes over you…The problem with C-19 is that the resolution of the danger, the flood of relief, doesn’t come.”

Maybe spending more time on screens is changing the way we process information: research from Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University, quoted by Laura Abernethy, tells us that reading is a body/mind process.  Our brains like to get physically involved with what we read. Reading a book (as distinct from a screen) requires a different hand-eye co-ordination, and is a different sensual and tactile experience (the smell of the paper, the feel of turning the page). But “the instant gratification of screens means that we have the ability to take more shortcuts – browsing and scanning rather than steadily reading and absorbing. We lazily skip over text that’s more demanding rather than rereading and checking if we’ve understood.”

I wondered whether it was the same for writers, because when I left my job at the beginning of the year to return to freelancing (and, I said, finally spend some time on that book I’ve been trying to write), I found it impossible to do once Covid-19 hit.  I kept looking for diversionary activity.  I recognised my anxious state, and instead of reading, or writing, and once I’d cleaned out all the cupboards in the house, like so many others I took to gardening and jigsaws. They required something different from my brain, something that I could access.

So I took great comfort from a quote from Kit de Waal in the Guardian in May, who said, “Well, you can’t write because you’re not paying the rent, or you’ve got three kids at home, or you’re lonely. So I would say it’s not the end of the world if you do jigsaws for the next two months. I haven’t written anything since this crisis started, but I know it will come back.”

I hope it does for me, too.  I’ve been trying to exercise my writing muscle – I’ve taken workshops in Italy and in Cornwall and they have been wonderful.  But back at my desk, nothing happens. I’ve had long discussions about writing with my Australian writer/editor friend. And I decided that I needed to reactivate this blog and try to re-generate some sort of writing muscle memory.

Richard Osman, in the same Guardian article, talked about how he carved out a discipline for himself when writing The Thursday Writing Club:  “Give yourself two hours a day to write  – make a deal with yourself”.  This reminded me of an interview I did with Australian writer Olga Master several decades ago.  Olga came late to writing fiction, having raised her seven children while working as a journalist on a country newspaper.  She had no truck with writers’ block:  “Go back to your corner and write”, she said. 

Here’s Kit de Waal again: “There’s a lot to be gained by not writing, but thinking. Not catastrophising, but contemplating a piece of work that you’ve done that maybe doesn’t work or hasn’t worked in the past. Ask yourself, what is wrong with this? Can I talk to someone about why it doesn’t work?

Or as Joe Dunthorne said:  “ Even when I do manage to find some uninterrupted time, editing seems more appealing than writing. I can happily spend an hour moving a few commas around.”  This reminded me that a voraciously-reading former colleague of mine, when tweeting about the loss of reading solace during Covid, said she could re-read, but not tackle anything new.

Cue that debate I always have with myself about whether to just keep writing, anything, to keep the muscle exercised, as all writing teachers will tell you, or give in to the urge to edit and tinker, which exercises some muscle, even if it’s not the critical one (like rehabilitation after being forced to rest because of badly broken ribs, and then discovering actually you need to rebuild your atrophied leg muscles before you can sort out your core…) 

So – back to being unable to read: do we need to create some reading rituals, and stick to them?  Or join a gang (eg a reading group) to help us? Or would the neuroscientists say that simply won’t work?   Maybe there’s a lateral solution? Maybe we should be trying different or shorter forms?  Poetry?  Audio books?  Has any of this worked for you?

Been busy…but must blog better

First published 16 February 2013

I’ve been a bit slack with my blogging lately. Must do better.

Meanwhile, the things that are keeping me busy include the two arts boards I’ve joined, at Site Gallery and the Holmfirth Arts Festival.  I also recently had a fabulous weekend at a Guardian Masterclass in Feature Writing, and a really interesting day in Birmingham at a blogging workshop run by Kate Feld.  If you’ve ever considered doing a Guardian Masterclass I’d say, Do It!  I’ve also seen some fab theatre in Northern Broadsides’ Rutherford and Son and the Manchester Royal Exchange’s Accrington Pals. Neither of those two productions, which we saw on two consecutive evenings, is exactly a rollicking, laugh-a-minue night out, but both are must-see pieces of riveting theatre.  And in two weeks time I’m in London for Merrily We Roll Along. Lucky Me

And I’ve added to my family history research, courtesy of distant cousin I’ve just discovered in Australia, and I’ve been rocking in despair at the recent antics of the people who purport to govern us.  But as a staunch supporter of Ed Miliband, I’ve been cheered by Labour’s poll figures, the highest in ten years, and by Ed Miliband’s speech on Thursday on rebuilding the economy. Polly Toynbee and Deborah Orr seem encouraged too.

So, I suppose all this means I’ve been actively engaged in the things I seem to blog most about – writing, the arts, politics, genealogy – rather than writing about them, and I will get back to blogging soon. I must!

Feeling Thankful – thanks to the Unthanks

First published 12 September 2012

Phew. Taking a break from obsessive Olympics and Paralympics viewing to return to my blog. In the last couple of weeks, in between gasping in awe at the feats of the world’s Olympians and Paralympians, I’ve seen some fabulous cultural offerings, all outstanding for different reasons.  

Most recently there was the astonishing York Mystery Plays, set in the Museum Gardens in York. The mediaeval cycle of plays, telling the stories from Creation to The Last Judgement, has been performed by the people of York for centuries. This production, from  York Theatre RoyalRiding Lights Theatre Company and York Museums Trust, was one of the most ambitious since the modern revival of this tradition in 1951. Created by over 1,000 local people and professionals, it showed 32 of the 48 plays, with a cast of about 250 community performers and professionals, led by Ferdinand Kingsley as God and Jesus, and former Corrie baddie Graeme Hawley as the devil. I saw the final matinee on the bank holiday weekend, and it was amazing for the sheer spectacle, the emotion and power in the performances, the ingenious, minimalist but very evocative staging, making great use of the setting among the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, and the wonderful language.  During the interval I heard some people discussing the fact that the language was difficult to understand but they were engaging with it, and because these plays were born from a tradition of storytelling that was as visual as it was linguistic, their meaning is clear, even if you weren’t brought up on bible studies. This production was adapted by York writer by Mike Kenny. Part of the vision for this production was “To create a bold, exhilarating piece of story-telling theatre on an operatic scale and to re-invigorate the tradition and the language and make these plays accessible to a modern audience”, and they succeeded in spades.  The reviews were almost all ecstatic – here’s what The Guardian had to say – and the enthisiastic momentum generated by the twitterati, piling superlative upon superlative, meant that this was pretty well a sell-out season despite the weather. 

But the GREAT news is that, if you missed it, or even if, like me, you’d like to revisit it, you can, from this evening, on the BBC/Arts Council website The Space.  But you don’t have to watch it in whatever static way it’s served up to you – you can create your own edit, from six different cameras, in a ground-breaking offering from digital partners Pilot Theatre and Kinura.  Check it out and be astonished.

Another real treat was Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi in London, a birthday present from my beloved. Bloody marvellous. Bloody and marvellous.  The production is wonderful in its own right, but was extra special for me because Sweeney Todd has always been my favourite of Sondheim’s musicals, and I know the book and the score backwards, but I’d never seen it live; I’d only ever seen the badly-videoed original – but iconic – Broadway production with Angela Lansbury.  This London production, with Michael Ball as Todd and Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, was much more thoughtful and thought-provoking than that more caricatured original;  this barber and pie-maker evoked your sympathies more, even while their deeds were horrific. The performances were more subtle and the characterisation more three-dimensional.  I loved it.

And in York again a few weeks ago – where have I been all my life, that I’ve never met The Unthanks? This folk band from the north-east is fantastic!.  We were at the York Minster to see the final gig in the tour that marked their fabulous collaboration with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass band, the national champions of Great Britain.  This evening was special because of the exquisite combination of the elements – the voices and harmonies of The Unthanks, the sound of the brass, and the setting and acoustics of the Minster.  It was an inspired collaboration in that, as The Unthanks point out, brass is a very compatible vehicle for telling folk stories, the stories of working people.  Here they all are with the The King of Rome, which they performed at the BBC folk awards this year. 

I love a good brass band, me, and the stage was given over to “Briggus” for two numbers – a very accomplished contemporary piece, and then, just as I was thinking, “Well, that’s better than the Floral Dance”, what should come but … yes, well…..but not like you’ve ever heard it before.  I suppose if you have to perform it because it’s a brass band staple you might as well give it some wellie and find your own version. I had a sneaky feeling they were sending it up, with all those flourishes and all that showing off, but they seemed to be enjoying it and the audience had a ball.  But the stand-out number of the evening for me was Rachel and Becky’s a cappella rendition of a Caribbean sea shanty, which was exquisite enough in its own right but which the acoustics of the Minster, with the most astonishing reverb, turned into something that could never be recaptured in another venue or a studio.  

So I’ve had a very lovely couple of weeks, and feel very lucky.  Right, back to the Paralympics on the telly…oh, and a look at Cabinet re-shuffle, which I might post my thoughts on later

Sculpture…hanging on

First published 4 July 2012

You know how experiences come in batches?  There’s a name for it, but I can’t bring it to mind at present.  Perhaps it’s just synchronicity.  Anyway, I’ve had a bit of a sculpture week.

I read in this morning’s Guardian about one of the Cultural Olympiad events, artist Richard Wilson’s installation on Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavillion, which you can read about for yourself  here.   (Wilson also did “Turning the Place Over” in 2008, in which a large disc sawn from the side of a building rotated from the edge of it.  It was commissioned as part of Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture celebrations. ) In today’s article Wilson reflects that some people, including fellow artists, would call these works cheap spectacle rather than sculpture.  What do you think?

This past weekend we had a fabulous time at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which is a heavenly jewel here in God’s Own County, if I can be so parochial for a second.  There was almost too much to take in.  First we went to Longside to see the Anish Kapoor Flashback exhibition, the first survey of Karpoor’s work to be held in the UK outside of London.  It features some stonking pieces, some of which are from the Arts Council collection, under the arrangement whereby sculpture from the collection is displayed several times a year at YSP.  The exhibition shows his early pigment work, his exploration of voids and his work with mirrored surfaces.  It was really well displayed, with just enough pieces to keep the viewer satisfied without the over-crowding that has happened to some of Barbara Hepworth’s pieces at the Hepworth Wakefield gallery.

Then there was the Joan Miro show, the first major UK exhibition of this significant 20th century Catalan sculptor.  I’ve never really liked his work, but I think that was because I didn’t fully understand the context in which he was working.  I’m not sure I’m entirely converted aesthetically, but the exhibition has given me a new appreciation of his importance.  Some of the works are in the Underground Gallery, but many are in the astonishing landscape of the park, respecting the artist’s view that “sculpture must stand in the open air, in the middle of nature”.

And if all that wasn’t enough, there were still the favourite pieces in the permanent collection to visit, dotted around the park, and a few new ones to discover too.  I said about four times to the people I was with, “We are so lucky to have this, on our doorstep”.  Judging by the number of people – many families – there, hundreds of other people think so too.

And this time last week I was in Italy.  Showing a friend around the remorselessly touristy but still gorgeous San Gimignano, I came round a corner to find Anthony Gormley.  Well, not really Gormley, but then again, almost him – one of the body-cast pieces that feature in so many of his projects.  And there was another one in the next piazza – and look, another one on top of one of the towers (a bit of a Gormley signature as we’ve seen in many of his projects, notably Event Horizon in London in 2007).  I discovered later that the outdoor pieces were associated with his exhibition Vessel at the Galleria Continua which runs until 20 August. San Gimignano takes art seriously, if you look beyond the tourist shops.

So – some huge works of statement, and some smaller, more intimate works this week. Sculpture, which I confess I used to dismiss as cold and remote, has the power to amaze, move, and provoke thought.  And repel.  But that’s fine. 

And despite my reservations about  the display in one of the rooms at the Hepworth in Wakefield, it’s still an amazing space, and well worth several repeat visits.  And here in Yorkshire, if the YSP and Hepworth weren’t enough, we also have the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.   We are indeed fortunate.  And let’s hope we can hang on to them during this time of austerity, because the public, certainly, is voting with its feet.

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