It’s that time of the year again where I reflect on my reading over the course of the year. For a more wide-ranging review of the year in books, check out the coverage at The Millions here. My previous attempts are linked here.
Coming out here dominated my thoughts at the turn of the year, which was how it found me digging into Richard Templar’s The Rules of Work. True the overwhelming sense at the time was of anticipation but there was enough uncertainty around how well I would navigate bridging a credibility deficit that looking for help came to mind most readily. In my notes from that first reading, I detect a sense of holding back against what seemed like rules promoting blatant self promotion. With the benefit of hindsight, and a big dollop of reality to boot, my view of the book is a lot more considered. There are certainly gems in there, which is why I intend to return to the book in the new year.
If there is a lesson in 2020 it is that the best laid plans are more likely to be ripped to shreds than come to fruition. I learned that in a deeply person way as a two week holiday between jobs turned into a three month hiatus. Steven Strogatz’ Infinite Powers was a fun and fascinating way to kick off that period, the ease with which it chronicled the history of calculus serving to draw me in. Much later, as there seemed no end to lockdown and the dystopian scenes of toilet paper hoarding and lengthy queues became the norm, I turned to a slew of spiritual books – and Alpha – for comfort. Brendan Manning‘s The Ragamuffin Gospel, Max Lucado‘s Come Thirsty (a re-read), Gemma Simmonds‘ The Way of Ignatius, John Starke‘s The Possibility of Prayer and a modern re-print of the Brother Lawrence classic The Practice of the Presence of God being the main ones in that regard. Esau McCaulley‘s Reading While Black took a slightly different tack, that of looking to engage scripture from the perspective of being black in America (and speaking truth to power/ protest amongst other themes)
This year I finally caved and went seeking to find out what the Jordan B Peterson fuss was all about. 12 Rules For Life was intriguing, not least for how overly reliant on the bible (in my view it was). True there were sections in which he seemed keener to rile the so-called radical left and right, and a few over-simplifications (lobster brains dissolving) but overall I didn’t see much there that a middle of the road Nigerian pastor might not preach on a Sunday if all the supernatural stuff and literal interpretations were toned down. The Enneagram was another thing I explored this year, the Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile book, The Road Back To You being the vehicle through which I did that this year. The Heart is the Bottleneck, The School of Life, Removing Your Shame Label and The Circadian Code are other reads which perhaps fall into this ‘self improvement’ category.
Dan Jones‘ Crusaders, Richard Holloway‘s A Little History of Religion and Nigel Warburton‘s A Little History of Philosophy scratched the history itch this year as did Aida Edelmariam‘s The Wife’s Tale. Adam Kucharski’s The Rules of Contagion, was as well timed a book as could be given its subject and the year 2020 was, both from the perspective of the pandemic but also the contagious conspiracy theories which bloomed this year around the world. Fareed Zakaria‘s Ten Lessons For A Post Pandemic World was more reflective, in that now distant time when the world breathed a little easier between the first and third waves. It is from this that one of the more compelling lines I’ve read this year comes. To paraphrase, What matters more is the quality of government not its quantity.
Liverpool won the Premiership for the first time in 30 years which I suspect inspired one of my summer reads, Jonathan Wilson and Scott Murray‘s The Anatomy of Liverpool which highlighted ten definitive matches that defined the club. A few – the UEFA Cup win over Alaves in 2000/2001, The Champions League win in 2005 – are etched in my memories but with no live football I did seek out Liverpool v Nottingham Forest on YouTube.
I found poetry a calming influence this year, writing, reading and listening to a lot of it, almost like therapy or prayer. To quote from the Poetry Unbound podcast, poetry helps us to: cast your eye on small moments that can give you some fortitude [and] that can help you through. In William Sieghart‘s anthology, The Poetry Pharmacy, with its stated purpose of pairing a poem to a spiritual or emotional ailment and Padraig O’ Tuama‘s In The Shelter I found that this year.
In keeping with last year, I thought I’d go through the list of songs Spotify thought I listened to the most from my 2020 playlist to try to tease out some themes and recollections behind them. Here goes:
Fighting For Us – Anthony Evans: I popped into a church end of year event in Croydon at the behest of my friend O, where Anthony Evans did this song amongst others. It turned out that he’d just lost his Mother to cancer which put his turning up at all into perspective. I came back to this song quite a few times over the course of the year.
You won’t hold back when it comes to Your children You fiercely defend us ’til we stand delivered You’re fighting for us, always fighting for us You won’t back down facing armies of thousands You speak one word and they scatter around us You’re fighting for us, always fighting for us
Breakthrough – Red Rocks Worship: Although I stumbled on this during my London lock down, the enduring memories of this song for me are having it on repeat during my evening walks in the heat of the Arabian summer in first few weeks out here. My favorite bits are the bridge:
Shake the mountains, break the walls apart Open the Heavens, Almighty God, You are Over comer, Defender of my heart, oh-oh, yeah And by Your power, the oceans open wide Your fire falls down, Heaven and Earth collide King Jesus, forever by my side, yeah
Land of The Living – Church of The City: Stumbled on this song during a period of uncertainty which is perhaps why it stuck with me. Something about the reassurance of the lyrics, taken from Psalm 27:13, provided an anchor, and I ended up coming back to it again and again over the course of the year.
You’ve never made a promise you couldn’t keep You don’t lie to me, You don’t lie to me You’ve never made a promise you couldn’t keep You don’t lie to me, You don’t lie to me
The Blessing – Kari Jobe, Cody Carnes and Elevation Worship: Spawning loads of covers from across the globe (my favorite ones were from the UK and Nigeria for obvious reasons) it is fair to say this song was a global phenomenon. I suppose a prayer that reaches back like a thread to the past and speaks over the future generations is especially powerful.
May His favor be upon you And a thousand generations And your family and your children And their children, and their children
May His presence go before you And behind you, and beside you All around you, and within you He is with you, He is with you
So Will I + Do It Again- Osby Berry:This was another one that I returned to again and again during lock down. The clarity of the voice held me, and I ended up devouring everything he’d done I could find on the internet.
And as You speak A hundred billion failures disappear Where You lost Your life so I could find it here If You left the grave behind You so will I
It feels very much like my first Christmas up in the ‘Deen, what with being house bound, friends and family some distance away and there being a decided chill in the air. Now, as with then, I woke up to We Three Kings in my ears with all the rabbit holes of memories it brings with it.
The key difference this time is that the lockdown has given everyone practice of staying in touch across the distance. Fortunately or unfortunately, that means I have several family zoom calls to jump on. It is a small inconvenience I guess, given the year we have all had – the best of years and the worst of years to use that oft quoted line from Dickens.
There is a lot to be thankful for on all counts, so all I’ll say is give those friends and family members a call over this period and catch up.
In about as low key a manner as could be, lights – I won’t go so far as to call them Christmas lights – are slowly making their way on to trees around me. That they first turned up in front of the communal lounge and then a few houses here and there complete with inflatable Santas made me think they were put up by individuals. I am no longer so sure of that, given that some lights turned up on the tree in the middle of no man’s land in front of my house. Lights apart, you would have no inkling it was a week to Christmas – work continues apace and the only official holiday is the 3rd of January. For all the sameness that living in the bubble I live in seems to cultivate, it is these little differences that drive home the realities now and again. The positive is that I get to take the days off when I want which, all things being equal, should be soon-ish.
Two conversations this week, and one of my favourite podcasts, brought the subject of language to my mind. First was a conversation around learning French which for me remains lost in the dregs of the someday/maybe folder. Three months of lockdown had me diving into Duolingo on a regular basis but in the face of real life since then, the inscrutability of gendered nouns, tricky pronunciations and head scratching verb conjugations have put paid to that desire. Maybe English is far too reductionist – or more likely as a reasonably fluent English speaker I have become lazy with languages – but one wonders what the world-view behind gendered nouns is.
The past few episodes of the On Being podcast have focused on the subject of love and loving. In the notes to Ellen Bass’s Bone of My Bone and Flesh of My Flesh, the subject of language and how we refer to the ones we love comes up but perhaps most close to my heart was a conversation with O. O is a distant cousin who insists on speaking to me in our shared mother tongue. In the aftermath of our last conversation I couldn’t shake the thought of how we greet in the morning from my mind. In my mother tongue (and why is it mother tongue?), we say “mole muude”, which loosely translates as welcome from yesterday. Maybe some distant ancestor realized that life was a hard slog, and making it through a night exposed to the elements and wild beasts deserved a welcome of sorts, or not. Given the multiple theories on the origin of language, I suspect we will never know for certain.
When the morning temperatures first dipped below 10 degrees a few weeks ago, I spurned the use of a jacket as I the one I had was not fire retardant. Fast forward a few weeks now, and every morning when I get off the bus without my jacket, I am invariably asked if I am not cold. My usual response is to say that I’ve seen worse, and that 10 degree weather, sans the bracing Scottish wind – is hardly cold. This is an explanation I have overhead others repeating. I fear this is one of those things that will take on a life of its own, with interest continuing until the day I finally cave in and turn up with a jacket. For now, I am still holding out.
On the subject of language and poetry, David Whyte on the Art of Manliness talks poetry, life and the intersections therein. A theme which seems to be popping up a bit amongst friends and acquaintances turns up here too, the need for men to develop friendships that encourage difficult conversations.
From Math Twitter, Steven Strogatz (The Joy of X, Infinite Powers) posted a link to The Mountains of Pi which delves into the story of the Chudnovsky brothers and their quest to build a super computer to compute the digits of pi, back in the early 90s. They’re still going, incredibly.
That doing and not doing are both habits is something that I have come to grudgingly accept over the past month, seeing as the longer I was away from here the harder dragging myself back here seemed. In my defence real life has been manic, the stultifying pressures of time-sensitive deliverables not lending themselves to the pursuit of non-essential, creative pursuits. I have myself to blame for some of that pressure, seeing as I somehow thought fitting a poem a day challenge into everything I had going on would be doable. I made it through fourteen days of that – a minor miracle at least. With some breathing space coming up towards the end of the month, my hope is to go back over the prompts, edit, write some more, and begin the process of pulling some of the pieces together into a chap book for the evaluators in January 2020.
Winter is very much here, not enough to turn on the heating (I love it cold at night for sleep) but enough to feel the bite in the wind at noon when I make a beeline for the canteen to grab my regular lunch time fare. My evening walks now include a hoodie for some warmth and protection against the chilly weather which, believe it or not, hovered just above 10 deg C the other night. We have had rain a couple of times too, in addition to the occasional heavy fog rolling in like a wet blanket. Rain and fog most assuredly did not cross my mind as weather effects to expect out here. A learning experience if ever there was one I think. The next milestone – six months in the current gig – is just round the corner. I’m hoping that it goes well, bucking the recent trends of lay-offs, hiring freezes and all the other things the headwinds facing my industry seem to have driven every one from small, nimble operator to lumbering erstwhile giants to. Back in Blighty, Boris and his oven-ready deal have proven to be anything but that, with recent briefings suggesting that no-deal – by whatever name it is called – seems to be the most likely option. Surely his days in the hot seat must be numbered with any number of challengers from his ranks waiting in the wings it seems.
Oil, and the head winds facing the industry, are never far away from the conversation. The recent up-tick in oil prices and what seems to be some sense prevailing amongst the sabre rattling big producers and cartels perhaps delays the inevitable but oil has certainly has its day. In conversation with G the other day at work, we concluded that our generation is probably the last one that will benefit from the ‘largesse’ of the oil industry. The latest cuts at one of my previous employers – whilst borrowing to keep up paying dividends – certainly removes any sense of rose tinted glasses. It is a numbers game now, and any notions of pride in esoteric knowledge very much need t be tempered by the realities of life. I am betting on data and porting my skills into adjacent industries.
Proper reading has taken a back seat to everything else with the only real time I’ve had been on the bus to and from work. Audio books and podcasts have come to the rescue in that regard. Here, for your pleasure are a few bits and bobs from what I have managed to consume.
Season 2 of perhaps my favourite podcast is still going strong, now standing 22 episodes deep and featuring a wide variety of work from folk such as Lucille Clifton, Chris Abani, Gregory Pardlo and Ada Limon. Next to Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise, I am finding Dilruba Ahmed’s Phase One an especially evocative one. Something about learning to forgive oneself is particularly resonant given the year we have all had in which carefully laid plains have been disrupted by things outside our control
A thoroughly fascinating and wide ranging conversation between Nanjala Nyabola and Yousra Elbagir over at Intelligence Squared had me nodding and smiling to myself from time to time at how very articulated several of the thought which have been kicking about in my head were made. The power of passports is something that I know only too well.
My views on government are shifting, decidedly I think, in the direction of smaller, less bloated forms. Fareed Zakaria certainly makes the argument in Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World that the quality of governance is what matters more than the quantity. Nigeria certainly has a lot of quantity (and bloat) and very little quality, good old Blighty seems to have neither to me.
And from Church of the Way, Land of The Living, which has become one of my favourite songs over the past month. It might be the song itself, or its lyrics which soothe a craving for certainty but all told, I think it is well worth a listen.
And I am learning
to forgive myself,
to not let the weight
of the worries of the world
hang heavy on my head,
to accept that sometimes
the broken things
around my feet
are the world being itself,
that sometimes beauty slips out
like light through a cracked down
from the riven parts of a fragile bowl,
that sometimes it is not you
or me or the distant things between
but life, and living
and being breaking,
and beginning the cycle
And still, I find myself reaching for the solidity of certain earth, my feet aching for the cold comfort of the morning sand, breaking my free fall. This is a fevered dream that returns each night in which i find that home though close, disappears in the dim distance.