From two sides…

I think it is fair to say that life can be a challenge – work-life balance, financial worries, mental health, family pressures and the general political situation are all looming over us. Maybe it should come as no surprise that many people turn to all sorts of things to take their minds off of their troubles: some will throw themselves into work, some will indulge in drink and/or other stimulants and some (like me) will resort to a combination of exercise, books and cake. Sometimes the books take the form of sheer escapism and, at others, they will be of practical use. All I would ask of them is that they be at least readable (and, preferably, compulsively so). A couple of my recent reads definitely had this in common even if, on the face of it, they didn’t have much else.

Notes on a Nervous Planet – Matt Haig

I don’t recall, when I was a child, there being much said in public about anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. People were said to be ‘nervy’ or ‘sensitive’ and sometimes they, sadly, didn’t make through life unscathed. It could be hoped that the modern world’s new openness about mental health would mean that we faced up to these issues and helped people to cope better but, as Matt Haig points out in this timely book, it is often the modern world itself which adds to the problem. The constant availability of the whole of the internet, and social media in particular, means that we have no respite from insidious suggestions that we are, somehow, lacking.  We need the lotions and potions because our skin is dull, or spotty, or (heaven forbid) looking old. We need to be thinner, fitter, better dressed, eat clean, cleverer, richer: we need to be more everything. And not for the sake of being healthier or happier but because we will then need to buy our way to perfection. This assault on our sense of satisfaction with ourselves is, sometimes, overwhelming. I am reminded of a song by a Dewsbury band which Rob introduced me to about an over-excitable boy on a trip to Blackpool but in a lot of ways it is much worse than that. We are being encouraged to become perfect but, of course, that process is all about the becoming – perfection is always unattainable.

9781786892676Haig gives lots of suggestions on how we can help ourselves escape from the endless cycle of ‘improvement’ for improvement’s sake. Of how we can learn to accept ourselves as improved and yet still imperfect. A lot of it boils down to escaping from the relentless demands of social media (although, to be fair, if any actual person I knew demanded that much attention I’d consider them downright anti-social) and is, on the face of it, very easy. Use the off switch. Leave the phone downstairs when you go to bed. Don’t engage with online trolls. Easy to say. Hard to actually do with any consistency. But, given that our health, mental and physical, could be at stake, it seems worth trying.  The idea isn’t to avoid the internet and social media entirely but to try to send more time on the parts of it which help and less focussing on the parts which want us to hate ourselves.

Why Mummy Swears by Gill Sims

This book is, on the face of it, a very different kettle of fish – although it does have a social media connection as the author has a blog and a very popular (if not always, or indeed ever,  suitable for work) Facebook page. This is the follow-up to Why Mummy Drinks and continues the story of Ellen, her family and her dog and her attempts to keep her head above the waters of all of life’s demands. And boy, are there a lot of demands!

9780008284213Like many women before her Ellen needs to go back to work – although her husband has a good job she feels the need to both have money she has earned to spend as she jolly well pleases* and to be something more than ‘just a Mummy’ – and this is where the trouble starts. The agency puts her forward for her dream job – which she gets despite an ‘eventful’ interview – but the job is full-time, add to this the fact that daughter Jane is rapidly approaching her teens (but not close enough to get the Instagram account she craves), Daddy is being particularly awkward and Ellen, somehow, manages to find herself in charge of the PTA. We may be living in the 2010s but it still seems to be women who are having to struggle with trying to do it all (be it all, have it all or just all…).

This book is, as I hoped, hilarious and incredibly sweary. At a basic level this is perfect, light reading but coming to it straight after the Matt Haig I also got more than a hint of the sheer panic parents – and particularly Mums – feel day in and day out. So, my personal ‘note to self’ is to be more sympathetic to the parents out there – it is a job which has to be done, and done with love, but I don’t think I could do it…


*obviously she uses rather stronger language than this….


The Last Dog on Earth – Adrian J Walker

Animal narrators are nothing unusual. I’d imagine very few children are brought up without some experience of stories told from the point of view of various bunnies, puppies and kittens and I, personally, have strong memories of crying my eyes out at some of the episodes narrated by Black Beauty (poor Ginger, I’m filling up just thinking about it…). It is, it seems, a tried and tested way of introducing youngsters to events and emotions which might seem too harsh if they had to contemplate them happening to people – I can’t even guess how many times I’ve recommended Badger’s Parting Gifts, for example – but as adults do we want the same things? Most animal-narrated books for adults that I’ve seen previously, such as A Dog’s Purpose, have been on the sentimental side so I’m not sure I was quite prepared for Lineker – the canine half of the narrating double act in the Last Dog on Earth.

51dtYojn65L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Lineker and his master, Reginald (he really doesn’t like being called Reg, although he often is), live in a deserted tower block in London after some not quite specified disaster. This suits them as Reginald is anxious about leaving his flat and, even before London became a deserted wasteland, he does everything he can to avoid any kind of physical contact with other people. However, when a starving, silent and persistent child shows up on their doorstep – and refuses to leave – their lives change. They have to leave the safety of the flat and try to cross the city to get the child to a refugee camp. They meet allies and enemies – the latter generally being the purple-clad followers of a charmingly plausible politician whose inflammatory views set the destruction in progress – and discover that no-one can get through it all on their own.

I liked Reginald, a fragile, fallible but, in the end, downright decent man. He has his issues – an inability to be touched rooted in a terrible personal tragedy – but, when it comes down to it he overcomes them to protect those he feels responsible for. The child is fearful, fierce and, essentially, hugely resilient – you can see why both Lineker and his master come to love her – and other, minor, characters (human and canine) are well described. But Lineker himself, well, he really was the character which made the whole story come alive for me. He is pure dog. He adores his master, especially his various smells, and thinks deeply on many subjects (and also about smells, food and squirrels – he really hates squirrels…). His language is earthy, but this seems pretty dog-like to me. He uses words we would consider to be bad swear words but they are the ones connected to bodily functions and sex – what else to we expect a dog to be interested in? I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic novels (as I’m sure I may have mentioned previously) but this one stands out. Partly because the apocalypse itself is unusual – an eerily realistic political disaster rather than a plague/zombie attack/nuclear war/environmental crisis – but largely because Lineker is one of the oddest, if most engagingand joyful, heroes I’ve come across in the genre.