Confessions of the sleep-deprived

A list, presented without comment. 

  1. You walk down the street and find yourself looking at people, random people, shiny happy people, and sourly wondering how much sleep they had the night before. You are certain that it was more than you. Your resentment is as bitter as it is unwarranted. 
  2. You turn to caffeine and sugar, in the hope they will help. They do, in that you actually survive the day. But the tiredness is not so much banished as smoothed over. It’s still there, gritty and burning, beneath the sweet rush of your instant coffee and chocolate hobnob. You still feel exhausted, but now hopped up and nervy too. 
  3. You fantasise over how much you could get done in your life if only you were less tired. You would do pilates every day. You would have planned and prepped every meal for the next three weeks. The house would be immaculate. The novel would be finished. You would probably be singlehandedly sorting out Brexit, if you could just get another couple of hours every night. 
  4. When you are eventually able to go to bed you will lie there, desperate to sleep, utterly unable to sleep. 
  5. It’s hard to remember a time when you weren’t tired. Surely you’ve been this tired since you were a baby yourself. Memories of sleeping for eight hours are probably just sleepy hallucinations.
  6. Everything feels insurmountable and unbearably tragic. Scrolling idly through your phone and reading the news is disastrous. You will cry real tears over the death of a guinea pig in Gloucester. 
  7. Naps are alluring, so alluring, but to be treated with caution. They should only be resorted to in cases of extreme exhaustion. If indulged in when only very tired rather than one step away from legally dead, they merely result in extreme grogginess and a descent into greater irritability. 
  8. The internet will tell you that your baby needs around 6 hours more sleep a day than  you. And yet somehow they seem to be awake constantly. Especially at 2am, when you’re ready to crawl under the cot and die. 
  9. These are confessions because in real life there’s nothing you want to talk about less than baby sleep. You don’t want anybody else’s advice. You’d rather not hear about what they did or didn’t do. Deep down, you don’t believe things will ever get better. Part of you genuinely feels that this will still be your life fifty years from now. 
  10. You cling to anything you can blame. Teething. Jabs. Summer evenings. Leaps. The phases of the moon. Anything, because the only other option is to blame yourself. (Should have taught them to self-settle. Should never have held them while they napped.) And there’s nothing as damaging to the possibility of sleep as lying awake at 3am wracked with guilt about your failings as a parent. My findings – a glass of wine works nicely to dispel such uncomfortable notions and to put you to sleep, for as long as the tiny dictator allows. 

Book review: One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Åsne Seierstad

This book is a journalistic masterpiece. At the same time, it was extremely hard to read. It’s also the most difficult book I’ve ever tried to review.

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway is not just an account of Breivik’s terrorist attack on 22nd July 2011, but also details Breivik’s life until that point and the trial which followed.

Part of the difficulty in reviewing this is that I read it in translation. Sometimes when reading a translated work I can forget that it wasn’t written in English. With this book, I felt conscious of it at several points while reading. The text was so journalistic and pared back that the sentence structure took on an added significance. Sometimes it just felt a little clunky, a bit dry. There were turns of phrase which were given narrative importance and emphasis which I’m sure would have had more impact in the original Norwegian than they did in English. 

I’m aware how churlish the above paragraph sounds. This is another difficulty for the reviewer – how to treat a book which deals with such a tragedy? It seems somehow petty to pick at minor literary details when the greater discussion is of matters of life and death. Professional reviews of One of Us focus on the book’s subject matter, rather than analysing it in its own right as a literary work. 

I suppose some of my discomfort when it comes to writing this review stems from my own fear of succumbing to a ghoulish voyeurism. When a book handles such an atrocious crime is it ethical to quibble about its entertainment value? 

I’m not sure about the correct answers here, but I’m going to do my best to evaluate One of Us and share my thoughts on its handling of this sensitive subject matter. 

 One of Us has been compared, in scope and in its attention to detail, to Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. I haven’t read Mailer’s Pulitzer prize winning epic, but I have read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, another classic of this genre. While In Cold Blood skipped over depicting the actual murder of the Clutter family, One of Us opens with a chilling in media res description of part of the massacre on Utøya island. It then backtracks to begin its forensic examination of Breivik’s personality and the familial, societal and political forces which helped mould him. 

The detail presented here is exhaustive. This dive into Breivik’s life prior to the massacre lasts for around 250 pages, or half of the book. Much of it was interesting but I did feel that a lot of this detail was included for the sake of journalistic completeness. In my opinion, the objectivity of the book wouldn’t have suffered if some authorial judgement had been used to filter and summarise the events of Breivik’s childhood and adolescence. A clear picture of Breivik does emerge from the material presented. He’s represented as a strange and lonely character, a misfit who failed to find a place within society.  (And whom society perhaps failed in turn, as a small child in a home strongly suggested to be abusive.) 

I haven’t read enough books dealing with true crime to know if this is unique, but one of the standout features of the book was its determination to make this as much the story of the victims as of Breivik. To achieve this, Seierstad interspersed material on Breivik with chapters recounting the lives of the victims and their families. This was obviously a laudable aim, but I found the execution a bit clumsy structurally. I think I would have preferred these chapters collected together and even expanded, rather than mixed somewhat randomly between the parts on Breivik. That said, even in its current form, these chapters were undoubtably powerful. By the time Breivik kills these children, the reader feels that they know them and their families intimately. It’s almost unbearably tragic to read, and I applaud Seierstad for painstakingly telling us about the teenagers’ relationships, ambitions, football skill, etc so that we can’t lose sight of just how atrocious the destruction of their young lives was. 

As the book goes on, its attention to detail and keen observation of Breivik lends it a true sensation of horror. The level of detail which was at times dull in the first half becomes excruciating in the second half. I nearly cried in public several times. This latter half of the book, handling the attack and its aftermath, is fascinating and horribly painful in equal measure. I do wonder whether the rather dry set-up was calculated. To return to the question of voyeurism, it’s almost as if Seierstad was saying – ok, here’s the macabre description of murder you came for. But first you’ve got to wade through pages and pages on Breivik’s teenage years as a graffiti artist. 

The question of Breivik’s sanity was crucial to the trial and is dwelt on in the book. He was deemed accountable in the end and given the maximum sentence allowed by law – just 21 years. The discussion of the sentence given is one of the few places within the text where any explicit editorial comment came through. The emergency service response to the attack was also (rightly) given short shrift by Seierstad. Throughout most of the book though, the narrator is deliberately absent. While In Cold Blood felt distinctly novelistic, One of Us was obviously striving for neutrality on questions such as Breivik’s accountability. And yet the choices made in its composition (focus on the failings of social services who had early dealings with Breivik’s mother, inclusion of chapters on the victims, detailing of the missteps made by police on the day of the attack) are all themselves purposeful and reveal Seierstad’s opinions. 

I think that’s absolutely fine. Knowing where the author stands doesn’t for me detract at all from the work involved here. I initially thought that much of the material dealing with the massacre had to have been invented, in the vein of In Cold Blood. I was totally wrong – the author’s note at the end details the huge amount of primary sources available to Seierstad, ranging from coroner’s reports and police interviews to phone recordings and accounts by survivors. Her commitment to the research involved was clearly meticulous. 

The final page of the book’s 500+ also offers some modest editorialising. Seierstad posits that this is a story of belonging, and what happens to individuals who have no sense of belonging anywhere. On this basis she argues for the creation of a more cohesive and inclusive Norway.  

The part of this powerful book which really stands out to me isn’t anything to do with Breivik’s rather pitiful life or terrible crimes. It’s not the horrendous actions he undertook or anything to do with his political motivations. I found one small vignette Seierstad included utterly heartbreaking – the tale of a teenage immigrant to Norway, Mehdi, whose only friend (Simon) was killed on the 22nd of July 2011. I wonder where he is now – Seierstad doesn’t know or doesn’t tell us. 

One of Us was a difficult and at times far from enjoyable read, but stands as a remarkable achievement in nonfiction.

The hell that is holiday planning

I’m sure there was a point in my life when the prospect of going on holiday didn’t fill me with an all-consuming dread. I definitely recall there was a time when it was enjoyable, exciting even, to speculate over where to go and then look at lots of over-filtered sunny pictures in the process of narrowing it down. I have a friend who told me years ago she found the whole holiday-booking process horrendous. I laughed politely and murmured agreement, not actually getting it at all. I’m sorry, Liz. I understand now. It’s truly terrible. 

My husband and I have spent the last few months talking about going on holiday. It’s now August, and we’re not going on holiday. To sum up the issues involved: I wanted somebody else to plan and book the entire thing for me, but I wanted it to be perfect and cheap and I didn’t want to pay this person or have to interact with another human being because I’m also tight and suspicious and I know I’m capable of using Google. 

Post-child, there seemed to be so many more factors to consider. For the first time as adults we’re living within visiting distance of friends and family, and now that we have a toddler they’re paying us more attention than they have in years.  I believe the solution to fitting a holiday in between social engagements is to plan it in advance, but that’s for people who can manage to get through a calendar year without having a baby/moving 300 miles/buying a house and a car. 

All we could seem to agree on is that we wanted to go to a villa or an apartment somewhere in the world. Anywhere with a separate room for the baby. And we wanted to be able to cook because the thought of hotel buffets made us both very anxious, food being the essential point of any holiday. Genuinely, a bad meal has ruined many an evening out and created much relationship drama, so this is an important consideration. 

Aside from that, the whole of Europe was up for grabs. We didn’t know where to go. We didn’t know where to find anywhere to go. We didn’t know how to manage all the logistics of going abroad with a baby. We knew there were answers to be found, but the time involved in finding them seemed always to be beyond our grasp. When it comes to research, D and I approach it from a position of competition. We both secretly feel we are better at it, and distrust everything the other person comes up with. Any suggestions must be researched by us both individually. It’s a time-consuming process. We felt like we needed a holiday to plan our holiday. 

The entire thing was making me feel exceptionally anxious whenever I thought about it. It was really almost a relief when we realised it was entirely a moot point, as the whole having a baby/moving 300 miles/buying a house and a car scenario had rendered our available holiday funds basically non-existent. Instead we’re staying in Edinburgh for a week. We’ll go to festival shows every day and the only decisions involved will be gin and tonic or white wine. I can’t wait.

Book review: Happy Birthday Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

Happy Birthday Wombat was our first foray into the Australian picture book series by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, which began in 2002 with the award-winning Diary of a Wombat.

I’ll confess that at first read I thought this book was rather odd, and I couldn’t quite understand E’s love for it. 

It took several read-throughs before it dawned on me – it’s the Ulysses of children’s books. Like Ulysses, it’s a daring experiment in narrative style which aims to push literary boundaries. James Joyce’s seminal work of modernism was controversial in its time. HBW has cunningly sidestepped such divisiveness by aiming at an under-five audience still grappling with literary criticism and perhaps not even au fait with the great debate on modernism vs realism in literature. 

HBW is told from the wombat’s point of view, and there’s little anthropomorphising here. This is an unreconstructed wombat, whose existence revolves around food, sleep, and digging holes. (Insert your own off-colour joke here about men/politicians/etc as you wish.) The language is simplistic and consists mostly of verbs – as appropriate for babies as it is for wombats. As with Ulysses, much of the meaning is found in the liminal spaces between the words, and in this case the pictures. On the textual level, the story is of the wombat’s day and his battle with mysterious foes. The illustrations tell a different story, of the wombat’s rampant destruction of a little girl’s birthday party. This irony, and the playfulness of the word choice throughout, lends the book a laconic tone. I’m sure there are plenty of novels written for adults which lack such sophisticated nuance. 

The illustrations are simple and charming, with one slight caveat. A fuzzy halo of red and blue surrounds each of the pictures.  Once you notice it it’s all you can see and I’m not sure what the intent was, other than contributing to the psychedelic feeling of the whole.

(Pages are in fact white and not yellow. My lighting here left a lot to be desired.)

Despite studying Joyce at university, there’s a lot about his work I don’t understand. I worry I’m also missing the point with Happy Birthday Wombat. My sympathies are with the little girl whose birthday cake is eaten and bouncy castle deflated, rather than with the eponymous wombat. E adores it though and laughs gleefully as the wombat pops balloons. 

There’s an added bonus to reading this one in the UK; it seems as fantastically whimsical to me as a tale of a unicorn invading a birthday party would. Maybe it is. I have only vague notions about wombats and their reality. That’s ok though; the average Dublin housewife of 1904 had, I imagine, little in common with Molly Bloom, yet her character was heralded as a triumph. I confess I had rarely considered the day-to-day of a wombat before reading this story and now I’m determined to stay forever uninformed. 

The completionist in me feels anxious though to go back to the start of the series. Just as Ulysses stands as discrete chapters but can only be understood completely as a whole, perhaps it is also so with the wombat oeuvre. I’m going to have to read them all to find out. 

Tribes of Babyland

Playgroups vs classes – where not to find your new best parent friend

To be at home with a small child is to inhabit quite a different world to the one you used to move through. It probably involves a great deal more discussion of, and close involvement with, bodily fluids of all types and hues. It’s smaller, its boundaries constrained by where you can realistically travel in the window of time your buggy-hating child will allow. It can also be extremely lonely. 

In the hunt for allies I’ve run the gamut now, from nature classes in the forest to free stay and play sessions at children’s centres. I’ve gradually realised that Babyland comprises two distinct territories – the groups, and the classes – each with their own rules, customs and inhabitants. 

I used to think it was worth paying £100 for a block of classes, because I’d be sure to meet some like-minded friends. This was hopelessly naive. These classes are not for making friends. Sing and sign, baby sensory, music, swimming – they’re all for the babies! On one level of course this is obvious – it’s not me that needs to be stimulated by lying on my back under a rainbow parachute while bubbles float past, and my jingle bell shaking is already almost in sync with the music. 

And yet despite all evidence to the contrary, every time I dragged E to another of these classes, I persuaded myself that it was also an investment for me. It wouldn’t matter if E lay there like a grumpy potato for an hour, because I’d meet my New Best Friend and she’d embrace the shrivelled raisin of my soul and we’d bond over how badly we needed haircuts before running off hand in hand to the nearest pub to cry/laugh together over glasses of chilled sauv blanc. 

It didn’t happen. I should have known. 

The extortionate price tag of these classes necessitates this focus on our babies. To get us to go back after the free trial and shell out for a block of ten before paying for the next term too, they have to make us believe that by taking our babes swimming for an hour a week or massaging their tiny legs or sticking them in a tutu for ‘ballet’, we are being the best parents we possibly could be. All these activities must be framed as vital investments in our children. Your four month old needs to learn to swim under water to set them up for swimming when they’re six. Sing and sign will help your baby communicate earlier. I don’t even know what baby sensory classes are meant to do, but it must be important because everybody does them. 

It’s not that I didn’t buy into all of this myself – in fact I’ve tried everything on offer across South London and Edinburgh, and spent the price of a designer pram on it in the process. (God forbid that little E’s lack of baby yoga expertise prevent her representing Great Britain in the 2036 Olympics.) I just hoped I’d meet some like-minded people along the way. But little did I realise that when you’re there for your baby’s future, you’re not there to make friends. Don’t interrupt your little darling’s investigation of a maraca lest you stunt their fledgling career as a concert pianist before it has even begun. There’s no time for chitchat when you’re frantically trying to get your baby to wear the Santa hat rather than stuff it in her mouth. Sure, you might manage a few pleasantries and some light moaning about your lack of sleep. But the jump from small talk to extracurricular coffee and cake often seems insurmountable.

Playgroups, on the other hand, are for parents. This is counterintuitive, as to walk into a playgroup is to walk into a wall of noise and to confront a sea of bright plastic and crushed melty sticks. In actuality though, the toys are just there to keep the children occupied enough that they’ll ignore their parents for a blissful few moments at a time, and toddle off by themselves. The parents there are all seeking a moment of adult, human connection across the toy car or play kitchen. But there’s a catch. Most people are there with their NCT pals, or have been going and chatting to the same women for weeks and weeks, since the days they had a tiny newborn and existed permanently on the verge of hysterical tears. If, say, you are adrift in a new city with no friends or even acquaintances to call upon, playgroups can feel even lonelier than sitting at home by yourself. 

What you must do is zero in on any other losers/loners like you (me). Doesn’t matter if their friend just went to grab a coffee. That’s your opening – use it. However once you’re past the initial greetings, it’s crucial to observe that a type of double-speak must be deployed at all times. You are there to make friends, and yet you must act as if you couldn’t care less about making friends. Let it show and you will become tainted with the whiff of desperation as malodorous as baby sick. 

Pretend that you are indeed there for the sake of your child, and hope that you can exchange pleasantries week by week, and slowly, so slowly, forge some kind of meaningful relationship. Unfortunately, the conversation naturally revolves around the babies. How many months? Walking? Talking? Sleeping? Eating? Boring. I don’t care about your child. What I want to know is do you read books, what’s your favourite film, Kit Harrington or Idris Elba.

But maybe you don’t want to know those things about me. Maybe you really are just there so your child can try out some new toys. Maybe the answer is to hold out for the school gates, and join a book club in the meantime. But I don’t think so. I think you’re just the same as me – a tired, confused, slightly dishevelled person trying to figure out who they are now and where they fit in this new world. So that’s why I keep going back, week after week, until I find my New Best Friend and she looks at me over our lukewarm teas and jammy dodgers and says, ‘Screw this, let’s go to the pub.’

Book review: A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

A Curse So Dark and Lonely, henceforth ACSODAL, is a Beauty and the Beast retelling. Forget Marmite or Brexit – I think this is truly what divides us. Either you’re into this subgenre or the very thought makes you want to run screaming into a deep, dark forest.  

 Rightly or wrongly, I’ve been hooked ever since Belle breezed in her self-absorbed manner through that French marketplace, arms full of books and head full of dreams. Of course Disney’s version was problematic as hell, but so was the source material, a French fairy tale from the 18thC designed to persuade young girls into arranged marriages. Maybe this is what keeps me coming back to these retellings – I want to find one which allows me to enjoy the story without feeling like a bad feminist. 

Romance is at the centre of most takes I’ve read on Beauty and the Beast. Yet I can’t help but feel that the Disney animation also had its core a story of a young woman asserting her independence. It obviously didn’t lean into that, and we can only speculate about how much adventure and freedom Belle would have had following marriage to the Prince, but the kernel of something beyond the love story is there. I don’t think this aspect is often explored in books which take on the fairy tale, so ACSODAL was a nice exception to this. Harper is a strong and interesting character. I loved that her cerebral palsy was an incidental trait, instead of the main hook the plot revolved around. The exploration of how her disability would be regarded in this fantasy environment was handled well too. And while this was a romance, there was no instal-love, and the connection which eventually developed between Harper and Prince Rhen felt earned. 

“If I put a crystal goblet in this one’s hand, she’d likely smash it and use the shards to cut me.”

― Brigid Kemmerer, A Curse So Dark and Lonely

ACSODAL really was surprisingly good. The plot bounded along apace; the enchanted castle was depicted vividly; the characters had suitably dark backstories. I would have enjoyed even more about all the previous years Rhen had been living under the curse, and more on the deaths of his family. (What can I say, too much Stephen King at a formative age?) 

Some aspects didn’t work quite as well for me. Harper’s pathetic family situation was perhaps a little overdone, and the resolution of this didn’t have the emotional weight it should have. I also found the way that monarchy was presented in the book quite amusing. There’s no real examination of the role of royalty, and the narrative assumption seems to be that it’s right that Prince Rhen continues to rule, despite the fact he admits he has no clue how to do so, has a cabinet and an army comprising one person, and is actually a beast half the time. Ok then – all fairly consistent with the royal family today in the UK I suppose. 

I realise that this is a fantasy setting and so this might seem like nitpicking, but I just think it’s interesting that in YA books it would – rightly – be unacceptable now to present gender in such a simplified, unreconstructed way, but that the issue of political rule and class privilege isn’t treated as requiring analysis. 

Overall I loved this book though. There’s a sequel coming later this year, and I’m really excited to find out what happens next, when Kemmerer’s story branches out from the original tale. I’m hoping it will be just as dark and twisty as this one was. 

Leaving London: a survival guide

Dear reader, I write from north of the wall, at great distance from the capital where I lived, loved and ate brunch for nine years. It may surprise you to learn that connection to the internet is even possible outside of London and yet I am here to report that life does indeed go on beyond zone six. Here’s a guide to help you weather the trauma of the transition.* 

  1. Fear not – hipsters exist beyond Shoreditch. Kombucha and kimchi are just as available where I now live as they were in London. I was relieved to find turmeric lattes on the menu of my local coffeeshop too – I never want to order one, but I like to know that I could. 
  2. Be prepared – your perception of distance has been irretrievably warped by London life. You consider two hours commuting a day perfectly normal. Most people you meet outside of London consider that akin to travelling to Mars. Try not to get frustrated when they won’t traipse across the country to visit you. Remember how much you grumbled when you had to go from North to South in one evening and learn to appreciate life in your immediate locality. 
  3. People will speak to you all the time. On the street, on the bus, in shops…They’ll make chit-chat about your baby, the weather, your shopping…It’s odd but really quite nice. 
  4. Related: you are no longer anonymous. Outside of London, if you leave the house with baby-sick-encrusted clothes and unbrushed hair, you will immediately bump into your ex-boyfriend’s mother, your former boss and five people you went to school with. When you discover a great new playgroup to go to with your baby, you’ll find out that everybody else you know who has ever had a child has been going there for years. 
  5. Do be warned that you will need to practise mnemonics to distinguish between your new friends. Outside of London, everybody looks the same. It’s a much more monocultural world out here in the provinces. That said, compared to my childhood, when virtually everyone I knew was a shade of mottled pink, it’s gradually getting more diverse.
  6. You’ll need to embrace your new community, because to everybody in London you’re effectively dead. They said they’ll come to visit you – they never will. 
  7. There’s a certain narrative everybody you meet expects you to follow. They want you to tell them how busy London was, and how relieved you are to have escaped. They will watch your face narrowly, on the alert for any signs that you are secretly longing to be eating overpriced bao on the Southbank. It’s easiest just to agree that London was dreadful and since leaving you have newly discovered the joy in living. 
  8. I left my job along with London, but I have it on good authority that jobs anywhere else are basically a piece of piss. Sometimes my husband actually finishes work at five, so essentially mid-morning. Can you imagine! Obviously in London we were all chained to our desks with unpaid interns standing to attention in front of us with carved wooden platters artfully dusted with organic cocaine for us to snort through rolled-up euro notes, so it’s quite the culture change. 
  9. Random observations for parents: fewer people sing along in baby classes outwith London; but go to a class with your child and they will invariably receive a sticker. Make of that what you will. Does class-going outside London require a reward system? Has the tube sucked all the embarrassment at public exhibitionism out of London parents? I need answers to these questions!
  10. You will slowly come to the realisation that even before leaving London, you weren’t really living in London at all. You lived in a village within London, a bubble which post-baby you didn’t leave much except to occasionally visit other bubbles. The London you once experienced was over for you. The good news is that it’s still there, just a train journey and a babysitter away. 

*Advice applies if you are a female, early thirties, ex-media-professional-turned-stay-at-home-parent-to-one, Ottolenghi apologist, brunette Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan. Otherwise it probably won’t help.