Second-hand books; first class words.

Being, as I am, fortunate to travel all over the world in my job-that-pays (writing, as yet, not providing much in the way of financial nourishment), I try to grab opportunities when they come my way. And an opportunity to duck into a second-hand bookshop is never to be missed.

In Boston, this means a pilgrimage to Brattle Book Shop. Despite the cold, visitors are still drawn to the bargain carts of books which sit in the vacant lot next door. Arranged in ascending – or descending, depending on your inclination – price, the carts offer books at $1, $3, or a heady $5. It was on a $5 cart that I found my first scoop of the day:

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At only five dollars, this US first edition seems like a bargain. Just as well Vita isn’t looking down from the writer’s mural on the wall. To be available so cheaply….

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Still, I feel that I have found myself something special. And a quick check on Amazon suggests that ‘The Dark Island’ isn’t in print. A copy in French is available; but even for this francophone, that’s a bit de trop.

Escaping from the biting chill whipping through the carts, I headed directly for the children’s section. (I didn’t dare head to the vintage and rare books floor; last time I did that I found myself shelling out for a Christopher Isherwood first edition). It didn’t take long to bag a couple of gems here. First up is this joyous volume:

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There’s something comforting about knowing kids have been learning the same alphabet for hundreds of years. The examples might have changed, but the letters haven’t.

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Shame they couldn’t think of anything for ‘Q’ or ‘X’.

A topical modern version might begin: ” A’s for America that’s been led astray; B is for Brexit that won’t go away”.

And talking of satire…

My final delight of the day is this intriguing book. It is, of course, a parody of Alice in Wonderland from the late 1920’s. In it, the author satirizes immigration restrictions, censorship and prohibition, amongst other topics.

As Trump takes office later today, I imagine we should expect a tsunami of satire to pour forth from America. As it must.

Heading back to the hotel along Boston’s mall, Commonwealth Avenue, I stopped at one of the many statues which proudly watch over the joggers, lunchers, dog-walkers and book-buyers. William Lloyd Garrison was an abolitionist, suffragist and social reformer. The kind of person I’d gladly sit next to on a plane. His world view – an expansive, anti-isolationist one – that we are all the same, is on the defensive in many parts of the world right now. But it is one I identify with, and on a day which feels like a massively retrograde step for decency and democracy, I’m sharing it with you.

“My country is the world. My countrymen are all mankind.” William Lloyd Garrison.

A morning which began with second-hand books, ended with a first class sentiment.

And an unexpected feeling of hope.

Don’t Tell Me You ‘Like’ Me; Show Me Why

How much do you care if anyone likes you?

Watching one of the many programmes about Margaret Thatcher which were hastily shunted into the evening schedules on Monday evening, it occurred to me that she was someone who wasted little time worrying about such things.

The film in question was Channel 4’s excellent ‘Maggie and Me’, in which Jon Snow showed how he never once managed to get the better of The Iron Lady during a press conference; each and every time she contrived to put him, and countless other journalists, in their place. She didn’t try to flatter them or worry about the next morning’s headlines. In short, the last thing on her mind appeared to be whether she was actually liked or not.

A steely glare from the Iron Lady

image: abc.net.au

This should of course have been blindingly obvious earlier on, during her ministerial career. As Secretary of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher withdrew free school milk. I know; I was there. One day I was forced to down a mini bottle of warm, been-out-in-the-sun-all-morning milk; the next, nothing. Round one to Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher. The long term effects of this policy have probably not been felt yet: imagine, an entire generation of forty-somethings could soon be clogging up the nation’s orthopedic wards with any number of snapped femurs, tibias and fibulas.

You tell me: if you cared, even just a bit, about your popularity amongst the people, would you dare to take away an infant’s only drop of daily milk?

Today’s political leaders are all much more concerned with being ‘liked’; the desperation is visible on their worried little faces. Now, it hasn’t stopped Cameron from cutting benefits to the disabled and the working poor (it couldn’t; the policies are in the man’s DNA), but why can’t he just get on with destroying people’s lives without trying so hard to do it with a friendly smile on his lips?

Is there a culprit for this level of neediness? The urge to be liked, at all costs? Yes, I believe there is. Facebook: j’accuse!like button

‘Liking’ is all over Facebook. It’s how they delve into your life and find out what makes you tick (read: what makes you spend money). But for me, ‘liking’ is an action with no meaning. The word ‘like’ is without value; it lacks depth of feeling; it suggests no emotion. If you like something, what do actually feel about it? Why do you like it? What makes it likeable?

And this obsession with ‘liking’ is spreading; into places you would least expect to find it.

Passing through Edinburgh airport last week I was witness to just how pervasive the cult of ‘liking’ has become. Just the other side of security, after the once-happy traveller has re-looped their belt, re-laced their boots, re-sealed their see-through freezer bags containing their not-over-100ml sized lotions, they are now invited to ‘like’ their airport security experience. I kid you not. There is a touch screen on the wall where you can register your appreciation for having your dirty socks aired in public.

I wouldn’t be surprised if David Cameron hasn’t got one installed inside the entrance to Number Ten, probably with a government whip lurking nearby. (But don’t forget, people of Britain, there is another, much larger, ‘like’ button. It’s called a general election).

image: guardian.co.uk

image: guardian.co.uk

Time was when a person could like something without feeling the need to tell everyone; it was enough to know that you had found something interesting or enjoyable, think about it for a moment or two, and then get on with peeling the potatoes or editing your thesis on integrated mass transit in Croydon.

Nowadays everyone seems to be ‘liking’ like there’s no tomorrow. And for whose benefit? Not the liker. I think it’s all to do with the likee: by ‘liking’ that hilarious video of a kitten drowning in a bowl of honey-nut cheerios, you are, in effect, ‘liking’ the person who posted it; thereby giving the likee hope that someone, somewhere, finds them interesting.

Simply ‘liking’ something tells us nothing about why you ‘like’ it; it also tells us precious little about you. Why exactly does that video of a drowning kitty make you smile? Is it because the film’s creator has caught the emotion and drama of the moment with their use of a sympathetic camera angle? Or because it triggers a memory of Great Aunt Hilda sacrificing herself to save her pet Chihuahua from the frozen village pond? ‘Liking’ would be that much more interesting if we all knew why you ‘liked’ in the first place.

The act of ‘liking’ in isolation strikes me as passive. It’s a short cut; the easy way out. It’s texting when you could pick up the phone and talk; it’s sticking a horse meat lasagne in the microwave when you could be making it yourself.

In writing terms (and let’s not forget this is a blog about writing), it’s similar to the difference between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’. Telling, as we learn on our creative writing courses and from peer feedback forums, can be one-dimensional and uninteresting: “Margaret Thatcher closed the coal mines and imposed the poll tax.” Yes she did, but the real story comes alive when you show the effects these policies had on real people: the desolation that mining communities faced, rusting machinery, queues at soup kitchens, crying children, warring siblings; or tens of thousands of poll tax rioters rampaging through the streets of London. By showing these things we understand more about the policies that caused them.poll tax

I disliked Thatcher and all she stood for; in fact I loathed her. Friends with different politics to my own always ask why; they want to know why I hated her so much. Always happy to oblige (particularly after a couple of glasses) I explain why I thought she was ripping the heart out of our country; why privatising all our utilities would end up costing us all more in the end (it did); why widening the gap between rich and poor was divisive and unjust; why Section 28 turned me, as a gay person, into a monster in the eyes of the world. I could go on. But at least they know why I hold these views. What’s more, I can show them how much I loathed her by producing photos of me marching at demonstrations, placard held aloft, screaming the most-heard slogan of the eighties: “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!”

Putting my loathing/disliking into context gives my emotion more meaning. It should be the same every time we hit the ‘like’ button.

I’ve noticed that since WordPress introduced the ‘like’ facility, the number of readers leaving a comment has plummeted. People used to show me why they liked a blog post by actually telling me what they found interesting or stimulating; they also used to tell me what they disagreed with or disapproved of. Now they tell me they ‘like’ my post, but I don’t know why. I have no idea what it is about my story, or my piece on an obscure Quebec poet, that they ‘liked’.

To be honest, I don’t need to know that you ‘like’ my posts; but I’d really love to know how you feel about them: what works for you, what doesn’t; why one story is successful whilst another falls flat on its face.

In this respect at least, (and here’s something I never imagined I’d be admitting), I have one thing in common with our deceased ex Prime Minister. She didn’t appear to give a fig whether she was liked or not; Margaret Thatcher was driven by ideology. But I’ll bet she would have engaged you in conversation to find out why and then try to challenge your opinion.

So come on bloggers and blog readers, don’t just tell someone you ‘like’ their post; show them why (or why not). Stop your endless ‘liking’. In fact, just stop. Stop for a moment and think. Think about why you ‘like’. Think about why you don’t ‘like’. Then put those opinions into words; open a line of communication. We might all learn a bit about ourselves and each other in the process.

It’s my new manifesto:

Stop Liking; Start Commenting.

© flyingscribbler 2013