Until about a minute ago, I didn't know what a quinquereme was. Turns out it's a Roman galley with either five banks of oars to each side or five oarsmen to each bank. Which I guess makes sense, linguistically speaking.
I only know the word from John Masefield's Cargoes, one of the few poems I can vaguely recall from my childhood. I'm sure at the time I must have gathered it was some kind of ship – the context makes it obvious – but somehow I'd remembered it as being one of the cargoes, rather than their transportation. A rare and exotic substance, akin to the ivory and sandalwood and cinnamon of the poem. Funny how memory works – or rather, how it fails to work, leaving all kinds of half-understood snippets and distorted facts lingering in the recesses of the brain.
Cargoes is a beautiful example of how evocative language can be, particularly for a child. Not knowing what all the words meant didn't affect my enjoyment of it in the slightest; it was the sound and the rhythm of them that brought the scenes alive. In fact, if I'd known back then exactly where Nineveh and Palestine and the Isthmus were, I wouldn't have found it nearly as fascinating. Sometimes understanding something takes all the magic out of it.
Of course, that's the beauty of language. It can mystify and enchant. It can make the familiar seem new and the outlandish seem mundane. Well-chosen words can make us laugh, make us cry, make us feel anger or pain or delirious happiness – even if they're only written on a page. Even if the story being told is pure fiction. Even if we've never experienced anything like what is being described. Language is the medium through which every one of us can travel to the furthest corners of the globe and beyond, without ever having to leave our own homes. In short, we each have our very own quinquereme.
Isn't that amazing?
Best. Fortune cookie. Ever.
I don't believe in the ability to predict the future.
That is, I'm sure it would be possible, given enough information – at a purely mechanical level, everything is just a matter of cause and effect. But unless you're a deity, you don't have access to that infinite amount of detail. You're certainly not going to get it from horoscopes, Tarot cards or tea leaves. In fact, there's not a single method of fortune-telling that the scientific part of my brain is willing to accept.
Yet at the same time, I can't resist it. I'll always scan my horoscope if I happen to stumble across it. I love seeing what it says inside my fortune cookie. I even read cards and runes and suchlike for my family at new year. I'm perfectly aware that none of it is true. Yet if I get a positive prediction, it makes me feel happy. I don't believe it – but, simultaneously, I do.
I suspect this desire to have our fortunes told comes from the human need to feel safe in the face of uncertainty. None of us know what's going to happen. We long for particular things, but we have no idea if we'll get them. For all we know, instead of the big promotion we're hoping for, we'll get run over by a bus. So we cling to predictions as a way of convincing ourselves it will all turn out OK and that we really are the special people we think we are. (It's noticeable how readily someone will pick out the parts of a prediction they like or that fit with what they want, and completely discard the rest.)
Conversely, larger-scale predictions seem to focus exclusively on death and disaster; I've never heard of a single ancient prophecy that foretold anything nice. And famously, 2012 is meant to be when the world is going to end. Judging by the other doomsday predictions that have come and gone in recent years, I don't set much store by that either. It's probably just a misinterpretation of something completely different. But if I'm wrong, you have my permission to say I told you so as we all evaporate in a burst of flame and smoke.
Oh, and by the way – the fortune cookie in the picture? That prediction didn't come true either. I'm still waiting for my rebate.
Nothing to do with opinions. I just like owls.
Blogging is all about saying what you really think.
Unfortunately, that's never been something I was very good at.
Having discovered as a teenager that my likes and dislikes didn't run in accordance with fashion or popular tastes (see G), I developed an almost pathological fear of giving an opinion. I'm the kind of person who agrees with others for the sake of harmony. The kind who doesn't declare a great passion for any particular book or film or TV series, and can always see the good points about anything. I pretend to admire things I secretly find hideous and keep quiet when someone airs a view I find offensive. Except with family and my long-suffering partner, I avoid debates on politics and religion and other sensitive topics. I'm so used to suppressing my opinions in public that sometimes I don't even know what they are myself.
The irony is, I developed this meek, self-effacing facade out of a desire to be liked. It didn't occur to me that anyone who stops liking me because of one of my opinions probably isn't someone I want to like me. And I didn't realise, either, that it's the people with interesting and definite views on things who are remembered. Who are respected. Who are admired. Holding back is just another way of making myself anonymous. And that's not what people want, from a blog or from a friend.
Being online has helped me, to a certain extent. OK, this blog isn't exactly controversial, but I'm able to write things I wouldn't say in person. I realise that can be a bad thing – that people can go too far the other way and come out with all kinds of extreme opinions they'd never dream of sharing with their friends and colleagues in the real world. But hopefully, it can also give those like me enough practice that we'll start speaking up for ourselves outside the blogosphere.
Never is a frightening word. It has an awful ring of finality to it.
For instance, I will never be a professional artist. I will never be a musician (see M). I will never be a Jedi. I will never own a restaurant, a bar or even a pub.* I will never become a world-famous archer. I will never have a tattoo.
In one sense, that isn't a big deal. I mean, there must be an infinite number of things I will never do or be. But the point is that I have no desire to be an astronaut or a footballer or cross the Atlantic in a boat made of tin cans, whereas at one stage in my life I really quite fancied doing all the stuff listed above (especially being a Jedi). Never, in that context, represents all the dreams I ever had that have fallen by the wayside. And I can't help but feel that as I get older, the realm of never – the realm of closed doors and missed opportunities – will only get larger.
Yet there is a flip side to this. I have never watched Citizen Kane. I have never been to Australia. I have never raised a child. I have never seen the Northern Lights. I have never published a book. All these things belong in the category of possibility and potential. They are things that may (and hopefully will) happen in the future. And so as one set of nevers – the outlandish, the impractical and the ones I just didn't want that much – becomes fixed, another set is continuously turning into haves.
I have been up in a hot air balloon. I have ridden the Incredible Hulk coaster at Islands of Adventure. I have bought my own house. I have seen the Barcelona Fountains. I have watched the sun rise over the sea. And as I get older, though the list of things I'll never do will get longer and longer, so will the list of things I have done.
That's a pretty good place to be, even if I'll never be a Jedi.
* It was going to be called The Unexpected Duck. Don't ask me why.
With a baby on the way, my partner and I are currently trying to declutter our house.
It goes something like this.
Me: OK, this weekend we really have to get this place sorted.
Partner: Yep. I suggest we start with the guest room.
(We stop just inside the door, which is basically as far as we can get without climbing over stuff.)
Partner: Let's just work our way through it one pile at a time. You start with those papers and I'll go through the contents of this box.
(We squeeze into the room and set to work.)
Me: Do we really need these bank statements from ten years ago?
Partner: It's important to keep your financial information in order.
Me: But it's not in order, it's all over the floor.
Partner: Put it in a pile of its own and we'll file it later.
Partner: Do we really need this clump of multi-coloured ribbons?
Me: Ribbons are useful.
Partner: How about these foil wrappings from the chocolates we had three Christmases ago?
Me: They're perfect for making cards.
Partner: But you haven't made any cards since the Great Card Disaster of 2008.
Me: Well, maybe I'll have more time after the baby is born.
Partner: How about –
Me: Hang on a second. I've just found a story idea I wrote on the back of a napkin and it's actually pretty good.
Me: Yeah, turns out it's not so great after all. What were you going to ask me?
Partner: Hmm? Oh, can't remember now. But look! Here's the dinosaur comic I drew when I was twelve! I thought I'd lost this years ago!
Me (catching sight of what was underneath): And there's my first ever diary! Wow, I remember those days … I was so young …
(Longer silence full of companionable reading.)
Partner: Huh. It's getting dark. Better get the dinner on.
(We survey the room.)
Partner: I think we made pretty good progress.
Me (doubtfully): There seem to be more piles than when we started.
Partner: But at least now we know what's in them.
The A to Z Challenge continues tomorrow.
At one stage of my life, I wanted to be a musician. More specifically, I wanted to be the lead guitarist in a band.
There were some flaws in this plan, of course, notable among them the fact that I couldn't play the guitar all that well (I'd learned a handful of basic chords, and I could pick out the main riff from Comfortably Numb, but that was about it). Still, I remained undaunted. I was convinced it couldn't be all that hard to get up to a reasonable standard. In the meantime I had more important things to concentrate on. Like writing the song lyrics. And naming my band.
My desire to play music for a living faded once I realised I'd actually have to do some serious practice, but my love of music never did. It's one of those things that seems to be almost universal. I know people who don't like reading, I know people who aren't that interested in art, but I'm not sure I know anyone who doesn't like music in one form or another. We may disagree violently over what can be classed as good music, but all of us like something – whether it be classical, rock or bizarre novelty pop.
So what is it about music that's so appealing? Why is it that we can't remember anything we learned at school, but we can still remember all the words of our favourite songs from the same period? How is it that music can speak to us in a way that no other medium can?
If I had to guess, I'd say it's because music relates directly to our emotions. A book or a painting engages the brain first; then, if it's good enough, it engages the heart. With music it's the other way round. You don't go looking for music. It comes to you. It's instant and it's accessible. You hear a few notes and that's it: like an evocative smell, the song carries you back to a particular time or place or mood. When I read a book, all it reminds me of is the book itself. When I hear music, it's inextricably linked with all the times I heard it before. What I was doing. How I felt.
After all, there's a reason films have soundtracks: they tie key emotional moments to the music. When you listen to the soundtrack, it helps you relive those moments in a way that just reading a description of the action or seeing a still from the movie can't possibly do. And in exactly the same way, we all create soundtracks for our own lives. Certain songs will always remind us of how it felt to be heartbroken. Others can't help but evoke that one perfect summer or that significant event. Still others bring back, with perfect clarity, what it was like to be a particular age. Even more than a photo album, our music collections are records of our lives – and if we want to remember something, all we have to do is play the right song.
Which songs are in your soundtrack?
I am incredibly lazy.
There. I said it.
I would like nothing more than to spend every morning lolling in bed, alternating a spot of light reading with some good dream-filled dozes, and being brought snacks on a tray from time to time. Around noon, I'd get up (though not dressed, because that would take effort) and venture as far as downstairs. There, I'd watch a movie or two, drink fruity cocktails through a straw, and turn my hand to a bit of sketching if I was feeling energetic. After a mid-afternoon siesta, I'd write for a couple of hours – well, when I say write, I wouldn't actually use my hands, dear me no. I'd dictate, the words flowing easily and rapidly from my lips. Then I'd eat a three-course meal (prepared, of course, by someone else), listen to a little music and go back to bed for eight more hours. Perfect.
Unfortunately, life insists on throwing up obstacles along my path towards this paradise.
You see, no-one else realises how lazy I am, because I'm one of those people who hides their laziness behind a smokescreen of efficiency. Why? Because efficiency is the lazy person's best friend. Doing everything you need to do promptly and with the minimum of fuss gains you valuable hours that you can then spend being lazy.
For instance, I never miss a deadline. Missing a deadline causes stress and panic, plus the added hassle of people yelling at you. I hate being yelled at. I like an easy life. So I get all my work done on time, which keeps everyone happy and makes them think I'm an exceptionally hard worker. And don't get me wrong – I do work hard. But it's only because I'm too lazy not to.
It's the same with all the writing projects I keep undertaking. Really I'm just too lazy to come up with a good way of saying no. And as for having a baby … well, they sleep most of the time, don't they? Which means I'll have an excuse to do the same. Yep, there's no denying it all makes perfect sense.
As I said, I'm lazy. I live my life in the belief that the more I do now, the less I'll have to do later. Trouble is, there's always something else that needs doing before I can achieve my nirvana. Turns out efficiency just invites more work, and all those lovely hours of lounging around that I'm working so hard for never materialise. Which means to all intents and purposes, I'm not lazy at all.
Still, at least I'm doing some interesting stuff in the meantime.
My first kiss was in a cinema. We'd both been eating Reese's peanut butter cups, which aren't exactly your classic date food. And it wasn't your typical date movie, either; as I recall, it was a horror film. Somewhere in the middle, he leaned towards me and we started kissing. It was ... nice. Not the earth-shattering experience I'd hoped for, but pleasant enough. Though at the same time, I kind of wanted it to stop so I could finish watching the film (I hate being interrupted in the middle of a film). I guess, even then, it was obvious that my love of cinema would last far longer than our relationship.
My worst kiss ... well, there have been a few. Maybe it was the one where I had a cold and was dosed up to the eyeballs with paracetamol (it's never good trying to kiss with a blocked nose). Or the one where I only kissed the guy because my friend really liked his friend and I didn't want to be left out. But thinking about it, the worst of all has to be when I kissed one of my own friends because I was just getting over a breakup and I was lonely. I knew he liked me, and I knew I didn't like him the same way, but I went ahead and did it anyway. I wish I hadn't. Not because the kiss was bad, but because it messed him around – and our friendship couldn't take it. I'm still sorry for that.
My best kiss ... that's easy. It wasn't my wedding day kiss, though that comes a close second. It was my first kiss with the man who is now my husband. We were strolling through a park at night. We didn't say much, though we kept glancing at each other. I knew I liked him, but I didn't know what he thought of me (though in retrospect, I suppose the fact that he was willing to stroll through a park at night with me was a bit of a giveaway). We walked under a bridge, and when we came out the other side it was as if we'd crossed an invisible boundary. And we stopped, and turned to each other, and kissed.
That's my favourite kiss not because of what it was like – though it was great – but because of everything that's happened between then and now. It could have been just another kiss, but it wasn't. It was the first kiss in the most significant relationship of my life. It's a kiss the two of us celebrate the anniversary of every year. And someday, hopefully when we're both ridiculously ancient, there'll be a last kiss to mirror that first. And those two kisses will bookend our lives: everything we've made and everything we've done and everything we've experienced together. The family we've built and the home we've created. The thousands more kisses we've shared in between.
I don't see how a kiss could be any more meaningful than that.
OK, so according to the picture this should technically be D for Diary. But I'm not planning any of these posts in advance, so you'll have to cut me a little slack :-)
I first started keeping a journal when I was 12, and I stuck at it for more than a decade. Journal is really the wrong term for it, I suppose. The whole point of a journal is that it's meant to be daily; although I always started out each January with the best of intentions in that direction, my entries would inevitably become more and more sporadic as the year went on. Nevertheless, they fulfilled their purpose.
I always imagine famous diarists – Pepys, for instance – having a neat shelf of uniform notebooks, bound in leather, chronologically arranged. Books that you could tell at a glance held an important historical record of the age. My diaries weren't like that at all. They ranged from pocket-sized to A4, colourful to discreet. Some were specifically designed to be journals, one page per day. Some were lined and some were blank. One was covered in velvet. But all of them played host to the anguished outpourings of my soul: dreams, anxieties, first love, first loss.
Occasionally I read back through those notebooks, laughing and cringing in equal measure. As I get older, the person captured between their covers seems increasingly alien to me; yet through the words on the page, I can remember how it felt to be me then. I suppose that's the main purpose of a journal: to preserve, better than any other medium, a permanent now. Even a photograph can't bring back the same flood of memories, not just of what happened but of what it was like.
My last ever journal stops abruptly halfway through a year, and for a very specific reason: something happened that I couldn't bring myself to write about. At that point, I realised that everything I'd ever written in my diaries only reflected the parts of myself I was willing to admit to. Even in private, there were things I didn't dare reveal – emotions too painful to examine – confessions I couldn't make, even to myself. I probably should have forced myself to go on; a journal is a kind of therapy, and writing things down is a way of exorcising demons. But I couldn't. I put away my notebooks, and that was that.
In a way I regret it. I can't look back over the past few years, as I can for the decade or so before them, and remember how I felt about particular events. I don't have a written record of my wedding, my partner's thirtieth birthday, the day we found out we were going to have a baby. Yet even when I kept a journal, the events I recorded were very selective. Whether or not I noted down what actually happened on any given day depended entirely on my whim at the time or how tired/busy I was. My diaries were never so much a factual account as an outlet for my emotions: a form of navel-gazing. And I think perhaps I've reached the stage where I don't need to look in on myself any more. After all those years, I'm ready to look out.
It's 4 a.m. The world outside your window is dark and silent. Your partner/ significant other/cat is snoring gently beside you. Somewhere in the house is a small, regular sound, perhaps a dripping tap or a ticking clock. You turn over, then turn over again, trying to find a comfortable position. The pillow beneath your head feels flat and lumpy no matter what you do. Through your mind, over and over, runs the single thought that's standing between you and golden slumber: I have to get to sleep right now, or tomorrow will be a complete disaster.
I'd better say at this point that I don't suffer from full-blown insomnia, for which I am very grateful. But I do know what it's like to lie awake in an unfriendly night, every minute lasting an hour, fretting over an important upcoming event for which it's vital you're full of energy and feeling your best. The more you think about how important it is to get a good night's sleep, the further that possibility recedes from you. And what happens just as you finally begin to drop off? A little voice in your brain observes oooh, I'm falling asleep – which, of course, wakes you up, to start the whole process again.
People who never have difficulty sleeping can be quite unhelpful about this sort of thing. My other half, for example, drops off almost on demand – lie down, head on pillow, bam. Lights out. Such people tend to give advice like just lie there with your eyes closed or if you're tired enough you won't be able to help falling asleep. They don't seem to understand what it's like not to be able to switch off your brain. To feel as if the basic ability to sleep – something that's usually as instinctive as breathing – has deserted you completely. They should count themselves lucky, but it's not really their fault. They don't realise how desperate it's possible to become when the arrival of morning is something at once longed for and feared.
I've always wanted to be the kind of person who, if sleep is elusive, gets up and does something useful. And indeed, I have been known to write the odd book chapter during the night before an interview or exam. But that comes with its own problems. It's hard to admit defeat when you're convinced it will mean failure at whatever tomorrow holds. And the fact is, being exhausted and frustrated isn't conducive to achieving anything very useful. It's probably better just to read for a while or listen to gentle music. In fact, the best thing to do is simply accept the fact that you're awake – and know, too, that it won't make as much difference to tomorrow as you think it will.
But in the middle of the night, that's far easier said than done.