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Analog. I grew up during a transitional phase when heavy analog technologies were being replaced by lighter, digital devices. A tactile nostalgia has since grown up around those cumbersome objects of the 1980s and 1990s. They have the charm of relics from a bygone age.

On the recommendation of a mutual friend, Jenn and I have been listening to Criminal, a podcast hosted by Phoebe Judge. It’s a true crime series that offers an alternative oral history of the American criminal justice system: it’s interesting, entertaining, strange, and often poignant. Highly recommended.

This week, I began working at Cardiff Metropolitan University as an Associate Tutor in English Literature. It’s a short-term post that will span the Spring semester, and it feels good to be teaching again. I’m working with texts by Ursula K. Le Guin, J. R. R. Tolkien, H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Alan Garner, and Umberto Eco, among others.

Having left a career in academic research back in June, I wondered whether I would return to teaching in higher education—it was always the part of the job that I loved the most. So, as you can imagine, I’m delighted with my new role.

Cardiff. Late afternoon. I walk for two hours through the city. A couple of books in my bag. And a flask. Happiness.

I spent the greater part of this morning sorting through my books—for the second time this year. I decided to keep my favourite books (those that had the most personal and practical value) and donate everything else. My intention is to make use of the city libraries and local university libraries on a more regular basis. In the early afternoon I took three bags filled with novels, plays, and biographies to a local charity shop, and I am feeling better for it.

Reflecting on the decision to pursue my vocation in art, service, and simple living

Six months ago today, I decided to change my life. I wanted to find a sense of peace and happiness in myself, and to live by my conviction that to enact social, cultural, and political change, it is essential that I change myself. I started following a healthy and balanced diet, stopped drinking alcohol, and began exercising regularly; I began to pursue my vocation as a writer; and I committed myself to getting more involved in my local community. Since that decision, I have attained a healthy bodyweight (having shed fifty-three pounds), am volunteering with local organisations, and write for my own enjoyment. I accept that meaningful change requires ongoing action and sacrifice, and I continue to be humbled by an awareness of my weaknesses and limitations. I am grateful for the understanding of my family and friends, and for their continued enthusiasm and support. I feel that I have found my peace, and I am happier than I have ever been.

Oliver Sacks. Photograph: Bill Hayes.
Oliver Sacks. Photograph: Bill Hayes.

Started reading Bill Hayes‘s memoir, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me yesterday afternoon, and didn’t stop until the final page. Through a series of reflections and intimate diary entries, the book offers a revealing account of Hayes’s relationship with the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. The book is also a love letter to New York, and captures “the evanescent, the eavesdropped, the unexpected” nature of the city through brief vignettes and black and white portraits. Björk even makes an appearance. And another one. I laughed and cried at several points. Beautiful style. Wonderful photographs. Truly life affirming. To sum it up, I’m reminded of something Oliver Sacks said which Hayes recorded in his diary:

“4-22-15

O: ‘The most we can do is to write—intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively—about what it is like living in the world at this time.’”

— Bill Hayes, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me

I rise at 6am, and spend the early hours writing, reading, and drinking hot tea.

I am reading Primo Levi’s The Truce, an account of his long journey home after the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. The chemist has a close eye for detail, and describes people’s actions with clarity and economy. His work is relevant for its account (and analysis) of historical injustice, but feels more so during these times.

Experimenting with black and white photography, and pleased with the results. Since I capture images using a phone camera, quality can be a concern in poor weather or dim lighting. But I find that in black and white photography these conditions are not a hindrance, but work to one’s advantage. The results are always interesting and sometimes beautiful. A dark and blurry portrait resembles a canvas painted with broad strokes.

There is a juvenile Eurasian coot living in a nearby canal. It was born much later than the others, and its family has not yet flown south for the winter.

“I need to set myself to the study of non-violence, with thoroughness. The complete, integral practice of it in community life.”

—Thomas Merton, Journal, 21 August 1962

Autumn. It has been almost four months since I made a decision to change the way that I live, and I feel happier now than at any other time in my life. I rise earlier in the morning (around 6 o’clock) to read and watch the sunrise. I go cycling or running almost every day, rain or shine. I have also become a regular visitor to my local library, which has a wonderful selection of books on every conceivable topic. At the moment, I am spending my days writing, looking for part-time work, and nourishing myself with healthy and delicious food.

I continue to find international news events troubling. I was saddened to hear about the most recent American mass shooting in Las Vegas, which took the lives of over fifty people and injured over five hundred. Someone who attended my wedding was at the event, and while she managed to escape she knew people who were shot. Other family members also know friends and colleagues who were in attendance that day, including some who were killed.

The shooting occurred on the first day of October. The next day, I spent an hour or more watching footage and witness accounts broadcast on various channels. I then picked up my coat and went walking. The second of October is traditionally known as the International Day of Non-Violence, a day inaugurated by the United Nations General Assembly ten years ago (June 2007). The second of October is significant since it marks the birthday of non-violence advocate and political activist Mahatma Gandhi. As I passed along Lloyd George Avenue, I saw that a new statue of the civil rights leader was being unveiled. The likeness struck me as a potent and inspiring reminder of human potential in the face of inestimable odds, and, moreover, a testament to the importance of kindness and compassion in these troubled times.

I went home and spent some time reading Thomas Merton.

[Overheard in a secondhand bookshop.]

— I must say, I have a bone to pick.
— Oh yes? What’s that?
— Well, you see, I’m looking for your John Le Carré titles and you don’t seem to have a single work! I must say I’m very surprised. Very surprised.
— I’m sorry to hear that you haven’t had any luck finding him. Did you try our general fiction?
— Yes, I did. I tried the general fiction. Nothing.
— And I’m guessing you were looking in our thrillers section?
— I was, I was. He is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment. Didn’t you know that? I’m surprised that you don’t have his work on display. Front and centre!
— Yes, well, I’m afraid that when a writer is popular we don’t tend to get many sellers approaching us with their books. They hold on to them. Sometimes they reread them, sometimes they think they are more valuable than they are. We tend to get offers when the author is no longer in the spotlight, strange as it might sound.
— I suppose I could wander into a general bookshop, but I’m poor, you understand. Don’t you have a spy section? An area for spy stories and the like? It’s a very popular genre, you know.
— I’m afraid we don’t have a spy section here.
— Well, that’s an oversight if you ask me. It really is a very popular genre.
— Have you tried looking for Le Carré in the crime section? Perhaps he’s incognito.
— No, I hadn’t thought of that. Let me go and see.

I alight at Waterloo Station and head towards the autumn morning light. Commuters and workmen stand at the entrance, wreathed in smoke. Cranes overhead, still as sculpture. I wait for the colour green at a pedestrian crossing and pass under a railway bridge. Near the South Bank, I see vendors setting up their stalls for the day ahead. It is cold and bright. I ascend a flight of stone steps and encounter a bust of Nelson Mandela outside the Royal Festival Hall. The bronze likeness is set on top of a granite plinth, and bears the inscription “My Struggle Is My Life”. The artist, a political campaigner named Ian Walters, offered the work to the Greater London Council in 1984. It was unveiled in October 1985, and publicly disregarded by the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons. When the original was destroyed by fire in an act of racism, a copy was created and unveiled in August 1988. At this time, Nelson Mandela was still serving a life imprisonment sentence for his resistance to South African apartheid, and would not be released until February 1990. I first came to know Nelson Mandela’s name in June 1998, when my grandparents went to see him during his visit to Cardiff; they waited for him outside the Park Hotel on the sixteenth of that month, where he shook their hand and exchanged greetings. My grandmother and grandfather always remembered their encounter fondly, and for years afterwards there was a dogeared copy of his memoir, A Long Walk to Freedom, on their living room bookshelf. It is quiet where I stand, and after a few moments looking at the sculpture I walk on.

Today my wife, Jenn, and I moved out of the office we have shared for the last year, and left our jobs at Cardiff University. I first came to Cardiff University in 2003, and have been there as a student or employee ever since (with the exception of a one-year interruption of studies). Jenn first came to Cardiff University in 2004. We met in the Arts and Social Studies Library in 2008, and married a few years later. We have had many happy years studying and teaching at Cardiff, and are excited to see what comes next. We feel grateful for the friends, colleagues, and students who made our time at Cardiff so enjoyable.

Woke early this morning but did not get up straight away. Lay in bed for some time and watched the light move gradually across the wall. A beautiful day. After a light breakfast, Jennifer and I went cycling around Cardiff Bay barrage. We found a bench overlooking the water and talked for awhile. Bright blue cloudless sky.

On returning, I settled down to read a few articles and blog postings. One of the finest literary blogs around is Cynthia Haven‘s The Book Haven, hosted by Stanford University. The site covers a rich variety of topics in a lively and accessible way, and includes reviews and interviews alongside thought-provoking essays. In addition, Haven is alert to the political and cultural turmoil that continues to shape contemporary American consciousness. In a recent post, she draws on the words of American writer James Baldwin to examine how literature can lead to greater empathy and understanding between people and communities:

There’s a direct line between our moral and social crises and the collapse of the humanities. […] Here’s one reason: literature is our chance to explore the world of  the “other,” to enter into some head other than our own. You can’t read The Brothers Karamazov without being able to understand multiple ways of living and thinking in the world, and some quite alien to one’s own p.o.v. That’s precisely what’s lacking in today’s public life, and that’s the understanding that should have been grounded in our educational system.

James Baldwin put it in his own insightful way: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

— Cynthia Haven, The Book Haven