The Woman Who Thought Too Much (Joanne Limburg)

I saw this book reviewed by Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall).  Because of what she wrote, and because of the title, which could describe me, I knew I had to read this book.

Joanne Limburg is a poet and suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  In the review it talked about a girl who used to climb the highest trees and ride her bike everywhere, but as a grown woman can hardly cross a road, board an aircraft or go down a flight of stairs for fear of accidents.  A girl who was not like all the other children, easily embarrassed, an outsider who avoided company for fear of looking odd, which of course she was.

The brief description seemed to sum up all the worst aspects of my self and some of my mother’s too.  But OCD?  Surely not.  But OCD is a spectrum disorder.  Not all sufferers obsessively check that doors are locked, or wash their hands 50 times a day.

The author describes anxiety lying in wait for her every morning when she wakes; never being satisfied with her work; procrastination as a way of putting off the completion of work which is bound to be unsatisfactory; finishing things off in  a hurry as a result; feeling that it’s not worth it, there’s no point in trying anyway.  I recognised her immediately, but her life has been much harder, and her obsessions go much further than mine.  Or to put it another way, I am much further down the spectrum than she is.

It’s a brave and humourous look at a condition that she describes as boring, tedious and uninteresting.  In the media, stories tend to concentrate on the visible aspects of OCD – the compulsions, rituals and so on.  As the author says, “a film about a life spent feeling anxious while quietly avoiding all possible harm doesn’t make gripping viewing, nor a thrilling read.  And so we hear very little about OCD.

Alcoholism, drug addiction and manic depression make sufferers do all sorts of wild and extreme things that non-sufferers would never do, but find compelling to read about.”

Comparing Dante’s vision of Hell in his Inferno with what he might have found if it had been full of OCD sufferers.

“First Circle – people making lists
Second Circle – People checking to make sure they haven’t left the oven on
Third Circle – People washing their kitchen surfaces – again
Fourth Circle – People touching the back of every chair they pass
Fifth Circle – People opening envelopes they’ve just sealed, for the third time, to make sure they haven’t made any mistakes on their job application form
Sixth Circle – People phoning their husbands to ask for reassurance about the roads they’ve just crossed
Seventh Circle – People sitting on their sofas trying to anticipate every bad thing that might happen if they go out on a planned trip, and then deciding it would be easier to stay at home…
It’s a tormented life for sure, but that doesn’t make it an interesting one”

A wonderful description of being “stuck” if ever I heard one.

I’m glad I read the book, but must remember that it’s about Joanne Limburg, not about me.  Her life is not my life, and her future is not my future.  She is a published poet, and what am I?

Plato’s Podcasts (The ancients’ guide to modern living)

by Mark Vernon

Each chapter looks at one of the ancient Greek philosophers, putting them in their historical perspective and pointing out similarities with some modern dilemmas.

In the introduction, the author states that the turbulence of the times in which these people lived gave birth to philosophy, in the same way that people today are questioning and discussing lifestyles and ethics.  The times in which we live are equally turbulent in their way, and people are looking for ways to cope with this.

In modern style, the chapters are short enough that they could be made into a series of podcasts, but the author stresses that this would only be an introduction, as it takes a lifetime to study philosophy, and is best done by living the philosophy itself.  Podcasts and online learning might take a person from novice to beginner, but for expertise and mastery, the fellowship of risk-taking and trust is required.

Pythagoras is covered, who searched for meaning and found it in mathematics.  Sappho, whose love poetry embodies attention to detail and imagery.  Plato, who developed the device of the dialogue, a conversational style in which ideas are discussed.

Diogenes the Cynic was the man who lived very simply on the streets, with a barrel for shelter.  Diogenes message seems to be that fame is ephemeral and deceptive, while the best way to get a message across is to devote your life to it, which then attracts attention and makes the message newsworthy.

Epicurus was the man famous for his “less is more” philosophy.  Epicurus believed, after Democritus, in the atomic model of matter.  They reasoned that if matter is infinitely divisible, you would be able to divide and divide until you were left with nothing.  Since this is clearly impossible, there must be tiny indivisible units, which they called atoms.  They were far ahead of their time, and their ideas were not popular.  This reductionist way of thinking led Epicurus to consider what is fundamental for life to exist, and to try to live the simplest way possible.  He asked, what is natural and necessary; natural and unnecessary; and what is both unnatural and unnecessary?  Worth considering in our modern times!

The psychology of shopping is touched upon, and hedonism, which is found to be a rather shallow philosophy.  Other philosophers thought that pleasures should be appreciated and enjoyed, but allowed to pass without yearning.

Cleanthus (the water-carrier) had a clear message for us today: don’t work so hard that you miss what you want.

The final chapter is about Socrates and his ideas about accepting the inevitability of death.  Aristotle was keen on logic, and recognised that all humans are mortal.  If we can contemplate life as if we are near death, it highlights the present, but also makes death seem less daunting, apparently.  It is the truth that sets you free.  Socrates talked of separating the soul from the body, which he hoped for in death, and practiced this by contemplating the body while keeping still.  In today’s language it sounds very like transcendental meditation.  His message was to choose a philosophy and practice it, in order to come to terms with death.  Because the contemplation of death leads to life, in the here and now, and the hereafter can take care of itself.  Which also sounds like meditative practice.

Altogether, a fascinating introduction to philosophy, which made me want to read more, and I hope I will.  Who would have thought that the ancients would have a message for our times?  But then, nothing in this world really changes, does it?

No Room For Secrets

By Joanna Lumley

A while ago I came across one of those things one is forever seeing on the internet; a suggestion that by listing the people (real or fictional) that you admire, you might gain some insight into what is important to you, and how you would like to be.

I was surprised at how many I could list, and among them was Joanna Lumley. As she is almost 10 years older than me, perhaps I could use her as a role model? I like how she is slim and well-kept, and yet not afraid to be seen without her make-up and hair-do. She is nicely spoken and polite, has enthusiasm and a sense of humour, believes strongly in certain things and is not afraid to stand up and be counted. Her TV programme about a trip to see the Northern Lights is excellent.

But beyond that, I wondered how much I really know about JL, and so I borrowed this book from the library. In it she uses a tour of her London home, with its many rooms full of art and memorabilia, to recount her background and life story, and to share her interests.

From a rather exotic background, with grandparents and parents moving around India and the far East, she went to boarding school in England from about 11. Travel is important to her, it seems to hold no fear or anxiety. Her tips on packing for a trip are something that everyone should know – quite minimalist! We learn a lot about her experiences at school, which she enjoyed, and her days as a penniless model and single parent, not through stories of hardship and woe, it was just the way things were.

I learned a lot about JL that I didn’t know before. Her home must be extremely cluttered; no hint of minimalism there. Every room is full of items handed down from her grandparents or parents, given by friends or relatives; things brought back from her extensive travels; pictures and photos of places she’s been; diaries from every stage of her life. The woman never seems to discard anything! Everywhere she looks she encounters memories.

DIY came as a bit of a surprise to me. Curtains she made herself, floorboards she mended, walls painted, tiles grouted. All highly imperfect (as described) but she doesn’t seem to mind. Second home in Scotland sounds idyllic too. And the garden, similarly haphazard and crammed with plants, including fruit and vegetables and a fishpond.

Diet – weight loss is touched on. Several old-style model diets are described, such as the toast diet! JL says one way is to eat only really bland food so you don’t particularly enjoy it and so you don’t eat so much. Sounds dull to me. She is a vegetarian, and is quite insistent on the evils of modern farming, but with several misunderstandings about the way agriculture works. For example, the price of outdoor-reared pork is too expensive, so no wonder people buy imported meat. No hint of understanding of the cost of rearing animals and the need for the farmer to make a living, nor of the possibility that the foreign farmers might be more heavily subsidised than we are. No discussion about the relative levels of animal welfare required by law in different countries. On balance I am not in agreement with her on food matters, but neither am I so slim and healthy-looking, so who is the winner?

On manners, she admits to being “old-fashioned”, preferring gently courtesy and good manners, and not liking modern ways, the way people always want to know such personal things about others. I’m with her on that.

On balance, I think I still admire Joanna Lumley. With her background, I could never be like her, and I’m not at all convinced by her vegetarianism and sentimentality about animals. But I suppose everyone is allowed a few blind spots here and there.

Wolf Hall

by Hilary Mantel

This is the first new novel I’ve read in a long time. I mean, properly read, as in, started, enjoyed, become absorbed, and finished within a reasonable length of time.

It’s the story of Thomas Cromwell from his humble beginnings in 1500 as the son of a violent, drunken blacksmith, through his years as a kind of assistant and friend to Cardinal Wolsey, to the height of his power as Secretary of State to King Henry VIII in 1535.

The book is packed with minute detail, and yet it doesn’t become boring. It’s told from the point of view of Cromwell, but in the third person. Cromwell is almost always referred to as “he” and “him”, so that sometimes you have to stop and think who the author means. But this is not a problem. The main cause of confusion is the number of peripheral characters, historically accurate figures who were a part of the King’s court at various times. First names are often common ones, such as John, Mark, George, Thomas or Tom. And many characters are referred to by their first name, their surname or their title, variously. For instance, Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne Boleyn, becomes the Earl of Wiltshire during the story, and is referred to as Monseigneur as well. Her uncle is the Duke of Norfolk, but also a Howard, which is important to the story at times.

The story covers the years from when the King becomes fascinated by Anne Boleyn, through to the time when he is tired of her and obsessed with the need to father a son. The title of the book, Wolf Hall, is almost incidental to the story, in that it is the name of the home of the Seymour family, whose daughter Jane is a part of the story, and as we all know, is to become the King’s third wife. But not in this book – maybe there will be a sequel. Only at the very end of the last chapter do we find Cromwell planning a summer jaunt for the Henry, ranging across his kingdom, and including a few days at Wolf Hall.

Cromwell is depicted as a complex character, who pulls himself up from a low, violent childhood, runs away to the continent where he learns business and finance, returns to England and learns about the law and builds himself a life and family. Along the way he makes useful contacts, friends and enemies. Among his friends is Cardinal Wolsey, a larger than life figure who teaches Cromwell a great deal and furthers his interests. Cromwell is devoted to Wolsey but can’t prevent his eventual disgrace. Following Wolsey’s death, he becomes ever closer to the Boleyn family and then to the King, continuing Wolsey’s work as he sees it, which is to promote the King’s interests and to steer the country away from the Catholic Church. Sir Thomas More features heavily, as a dedicated Catholic and a ruthless torturer of heretics, yet there is respect between him and Cromwell, who does his best to spare him his eventual execution.

The morals of the times are fascinating and complex. There is no explicit sex in the book, but it is gradually made clear that Cromwell himself must have had many women. After his wife dies, he carries on an affair with her sister for several years, while she and her husband live in his own household. There are hints an gossip about many other ladies. Ladies in waiting are said to draw lots among the courtiers queuing up to sleep with them. The King and Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister, not only have an affair before Anne becomes queen, but also whilst Anne is pregnant. It is said that their father prefers the king to have Mary rather than a girl from any other family. And yet apparently Anne does not allow the king to actually have her properly until they are married. She is described as a ruthless woman who knows that once the king has had his way with her, he is less likely to marry her.

The story shows how the people around the king progress slowly through trying to prove that his first marriage to Queen Katherine was wrong because she had first been married to his brother Arthur; to endless negotiations with the Pope and the king of France, against a background of Lollards, Lutherans and Tyndale’s English bible; through Henry’s frustration because he wants Anne, but he also wants to be loved by his people, and is afraid of the power of Rome. It goes on for years, while Cromwell builds his position at court and gradually becomes indispensable.

Cromwell comes across as a man who knows that the only person he can rely on is himself, and yet he empathises with many people. He is forever grateful to Wolsey for his patronage and friendship; takes in many apprentices to train them in the law; rescues wives of men executed as heretics, and young people mistreated by Thomas More. He even feels sorry for the king, and for More. His sons, daughters, nephews and nieces love and respect him. His aim always seems to be to arrange things while doing the least harm to anybody, and yet he accepts that it is necessary when deaths occur, and shows little emotion over executions or death by plague. He is a consummate diplomat who knows how to deal with the moods of Henry, Anne, Queen Katherine and Princess Mary; and also with the temperamental Duke of Norfolk, the quixotic Cardinal Wolsey, and the martyr Thomas More.

In all this book illustrates how complex people’s characters and motives can be. In this life we’re impatient for things to happen, and easily bored by minute detail, and yet the most momentous events in history take years to unfold, and the details are the most important aspects.