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.
Haig 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!
Like 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….