Joseph, who I sit next to at work, quickly cottoned on to the fact that I make lists for pretty much everything. I’d never thought of this as a notable characteristic before - surely everyone makes lists? - but ever since he mentioned it I have been noticing my list-making tendency more and more.
I once described football as a hobby for mildly dysfunctional people who can’t cope with the prospect of life without weekly punctuation marks. I am one of those people. That personality trait means I often use lists as a way to break down that unit of time even further. A list cuts through the occasional fear of the scale of life into granular instances and events, and makes everything seem a little more manageable.
For example. Yesterday evening I made a list which I titled:
THINGS I HAVE BEEN PUTTING OFF (due to fear, laziness, disinclination, or all of the above.)
It ran to two columns and twenty three items. Today there are eight left uncrossed, and they all seem a little likelier than they did yesterday.
This concept of breaking a task down into smaller items and tackling the little things has been in management and self-help books a thousand times. Usually, I think, it’s to get on top of work load, to manage time as best you can, to be more productive.
Yesterday was the first time that I realised my dependency goes one step further than just productivity: I need lists sometimes to avoid staying in bed all day, paralysed by indecision. I need lists to get me through bad days, when they tell me what to do after I’ve fed the cat and put the kettle on. The structure and clarity of lists is my answer to life when I look at it and see an intimidating, everlasting blob.
I don’t need a list for tomorrow, though. We’re playing away at Hull.
I learnt to ride a bike when I was four years old. My godmother Sophie took the stabilisers off in Cherry Tree Woods. There were many more bikes after that (the two repeated cries I remember: “Dad, I need one with suspension” and “I really want a BMX” - I got the bike with suspension, and rode it twice. I never got a BMX). There was brief rollerblade period, and a skateboard, secondhand, off a friend who went to a cooler school than me. There was a microscooter, bought in collusion with my dad one afternoon as the craze hit 11 year olds across north London. We trawled the shops of Muswell Hill before taking a rare trip to Wood Green to find the last one in town.
There were more wheels in my adolescence, I’m sure of it, but those listed above are enough for my family to have a caricature of me in their heads: “you just really like wheels.”
I’ve not yet even touched on the holiday in Scotland where I wrote down every car’s registration number and its tax disc expiry date. Exes have called me neurotic upon hearing this story; I maintain my argument that it’s merely officious.
Along with the Dorling Kindersley book about car mechanics I carried around the playground in year 2, the poster of airline tail wing designs I had on my wall for four years, the driving licence acquired as soon as possible after my 17th birthday: vehicles or wheels? I’m not sure which fascination it is that’s followed me around since childhood, but it’s something that has had me captivated for at least twenty years now and seems to have no sign of abating.
I’m 26 years old now and you’d hope that the fads of childhood might have faded a little now that I have a flat, a cat, a steady job, a healthy interest in the pub. But somewhere in the past couple of years, when I got over my fear of north London’s hills and started to cycle in London properly, I began to unwittingly follow rule 12.
I spent more than £100 on a bike for the first time after university: living in the country and working in a pub three miles away, I could either get a lift in three hours before my shift started, walk 45 minutes, or cycle. It was new, and I felt for the first time in years that I had my own bike, one that I chose, one that fit me and me only. It stayed a while, until I bought the Dawes - the bike that made me first learn that a brand called Campagnolo existed, about 8-speed and 9-speed and 10-speed, about indexing gears, about downtube shifters…everything, really, and everything I would’ve become hooked on as a teenager if I’d had a route in.
With a lovely tourer in the shed I wanted a lovely road bike, especially now I had a grasp of the possibilities. I bought a frame, and slowly bought the parts to make something special. It sat unfinished for a year until last Friday, when I finished it to a point that I am happy to ride it (and very happy with it I am too). And in the gap between frame purchase to full build, I bought another one: a yellow single speed, bought in the throes of “buy things to make yourself happy” heartbreak. That bike was the realisation that I had fallen into the hole n+1: imagining that there is always one more bike that will make me happy.
I’ve scratched the itch for now. My road bike and I plan to be very happy together, and unless my riding patterns change in the foreseeable future, there’s no need for the Brompton I thought about when I worked in west London, or the cyclocross bike, and the track bike can probably wait until I’ve been to Herne Hill Velodrome more than once. My three bikes make me feel like I’m back to the start on that journey through wheel obsession. All those scooters and skateboards in the end merely brought me back here, to my somewhat pedestrian form of thrill seeking: the urge to beat bigger hills, to get faster, to bend just that little bit more into corners. Of course there’s the transport element - it gets me places faster than the bus or the tube, and there’s fresh air and I always, always get a seat. But the real rush comes from grinding through those jolts of industry - I will make it up this hill - followed by the euphoria at the end. And you only need one bike for that.
I don’t mind getting marketing emails. I probably help push up a lot of open rates. But in the past week I’ve had two of those grovelling “come back to us” emails. Both from good services that I use from time to time. And both with calls to action with no substance to them whatsoever.
One of those emails was fine, but when the second one landed it bothered me enough to kvetch about it. Having been in a good mood for about six weeks solid, seemingly all of my angst now gets saved up for bad websites and direct marketing. On Saturday night I tweeted to bitch about how the Guardian’s new navigation buttons look like they’d not made it out of wireframes. Then I deleted it the next morning, thinking drunk website bitching was perhaps not the best self-presentation.
Anyway - in chronological order of emails received:
Netflix: I don’t watch much telly, and I was planning on reactivating my subscription for the second series of Orange Is The New Black. Why is it a great time to restart my membership now? No reason given. No “hey you might like House of Cards.” Nada. Zilch reasoning for a made up statement.
Zipcar: I use Zipcar when I go to Ikea. The rest of the time I ride a bike. Why not take one for a spin today? Because I don’t need to. If the subject line was more along the lines of “What are you doing this weekend? Do you need a car?” then I’d let them off - that gives me some time to ponder why I might need to use a car. But at 1pm on a Monday, there’s heaps of reasons not to take a Zipcar “for a spin”: I’m at work, and an email from Zipcar isn’t enough to prompt a change of evening plans. And anyway (final kvetch), the body copy isn’t backing up the subject line to push me into a spontaneous, exciting drive to Sainsbury’s for my ‘weekly shop’ - it’s just the bog standard Zipcar spiel. No spontaneous, “take the car tonight!” aspirational messages: just, you know, it’s really easy! You can book it via an app!
Last month I borrowed The Private Life by Josh Cohen off my pal Laura. Honestly, I thought it would be about social media and our treatment of it - but seemingly that was just my preoccupations transposing onto my book-by-its-cover impression.
As with any book about how we live now, of course it addresses the internet (and, specifically, our behaviour online) - but more than that, it’s about the distinction between public and private across all of life - a distinction existing everywhere from your face and your sentences to Katie Price’s “reality” TV shows and Henry James’s short stories. Cohen is a psychoanalyst, and being fresh out of six months of analysis myself I lapped it up. The idea that analysis is about finding the gap between your public self and your private self - not necessarily lessening it, but becoming aware of it - resonated with my experience on the couch. As I’ve become both more aware of and more OK with that gap, I’ve found my behaviours change. My mind had jumped to social media because it’s where the distinction is most brutal, and it’s where I’ve found myself retreat from (yeah, it doesn’t look like it does it? But it’s true!) as I’ve become more comfortable with the existence of the private self.
At our studio we have a TV in the meeting room which we use to connect our laptops and phones to via Apple TV. At the end of a meeting a few weeks ago Mathew connected his phone and opened his browser - up came the last page he’d looked at, visible to all present on a 32” TV (a blog post about Halifax’s bad SEO practice, if you’re interested). The client exclaimed, “Goodness, I’d be scared to open Safari on there!”.
I started thinking then about browser history as a way into someone’s private consciousness. Many of us spend more time in a day with a phone in our hands than with our head on a pillow, and what we do on there is viewable to…well, pretty much no one. A few days ago a friend asked me how to turn off the iPhone’s message preview on the home screen, and as I showed her I said, “I have no idea why anyone thinks having that switched on is a good idea.” Messages, browsing, whatever app activity we do…our phones are extensions of our private selves, living externally to our bodies and ostensibly accessible to anyone but kept behind lock and key - the diary and stack of letters that used to live under the bed getting taken out for a walk every day. That text you sent to the wrong person, or the one that the wrong person saw on someone else’s phone? It’s like showing your emotional cards when you call someone after six pints, pushing the private into the light and always - always - feeling intensely uncomfortable after doing so.
That afternoon we started to discuss the concept of history roulette. In front of an audience, open your browser history, close your eyes, scroll through, land on a link…and explain why you got there. One glimpse into your private internet sinkhole…if you dare.
A few days later Mathew started to explain a different game he’d come up with - a competition for someone to get from Adolf Hitler to the Teletubbies on Wikipedia in the shortest time. The private life version of that? Start at Hitler, isolate everyone for half an hour, tell them to stay within Wikipedia…and see where everyone ends up.
I’d actually be up for playing both of these games with a ton of strangers at some kind of event, but I’ve been told that’s a terrible idea. Cohen’s messaging throughout his book is that the private is necessary, and whatever we do to detract from it, it will continue to exist. Perhaps it’s time for me to spend a bit more time in the notification centre and a little less coming up with games of history roulette.
How did toast become the latest artisanal food craze? Ask a trivial question, get a profound, heartbreaking answer.
Every week at With Associates we send out an email called With Links (if you don’t get it, you should). Originally this was a collection of links we found in the studio and shared in our studio chat room. At the end of last year we changed the format, and it’s now themed every week - we write the theme on the blackboard, stare at it all week, and each of us submits a link on the theme. Our names are attached to the links, so to my mind each link is a glimpse of someone’s personality. Everyone interprets the theme differently according to their perspective.
I came to my link for this week’s theme - Networks - when reading about toast last week. (It’s hard to shake off two years of working for an artisan bakery and give up on reading about bread.)
When a few days later somebody I know tweeted the same link saying “$4 for toast?!” I thought, you’ve missed the point. Firstly, food trends are all about nostalgia: no one’s paying $4 for toast. They’re partly paying for the memory of all the toast they had as a child, too.
But really this article is about self preservation - knowing what you need to do to survive. The last time I felt intensely emotionally vulnerable - a situation where my emotions were entirely caught up in somebody else, and I had very, very little power over what was going to happen - I gravitated towards what I told my shrink was “kids’ food”. Macaroni cheese, fish pie, spaghetti bolognese. It’s a way of building certainty and comfort into a time where it can’t be found elsewhere. Reading this article isn’t reading about toast. It’s reading about Carrelli knowing herself well enough to know that she is vulnerable to complete emotional instability, and building her entire life around helping herself through that. Surround yourself with others by running a cafe. Fill that cafe with cinnamon toast. Know what you need to do, and do it. (Or: build your own damn house.)
Two weeks out of London for the first time since about 2009, when I spent a summer in Berlin. It’s a treat to have the brain space to sit and read for a few hours; I started writing this on day 3 when I was averaging at a book a day. When I packed I tried to pick books I’d been meaning to read for a while, or that I’d just got and was excited about.
Because reading so much in a short period will, I know, lead to me forgetting what I’ve read or why I’ve read it, I thought I’d document my two weeks of reading here. Wouldn’t it be nice if newspapers did follow ups on their summer reading previews with notable types - “did you read it, and did you like it?”.
I’m now in the rather unique position of pretty much having finished all of the books I’ve had on the go for the past few months; no longer is there a guilty stack sitting next to my bed! So any recommendations are welcome.
NB links go to Foyles, one of my favourite bookshops, rather than Amazon. Their online service is very good.
Management in Ten Words - Terry Leahy
A slow burner. Thanks Kilburn Library for allowing me my renewal habit (side note: I would love to rebrand the library service. What a task - and what a worthwhile one). I read this on the plane and piano piano (slowly does it) over the first week. Chockfull of good stuff though none I’ve not read or experienced elsewhere - in fact, actually very similar to Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods. I find myself doubting the credibility of Leahy after the recent debates over his legacy.
Brother of the More Famous Jack - Barbara Trapido
Probably my favourite book, actually. Were my motto not ‘honest, brave & true’ (thanks, Muppet Treasure Island), it would probably be ‘If in danger or in doubt, read Brother of the More Famous Jack.’ It makes me laugh and cry in about equal measure, and while it’s not particularly high-falutin’ there is something so entirely wonderful about the relationship between Katherine and the Goldmans that I will go back to it time and time again.
So Long, See You Tomorrow - William Maxwell
The week before going on holiday, I had an unexpectedly lovely meeting with Vintage Books about a work project we are planning for next year. They plied me with books beforehand and then after the meeting sent me another stack, including a couple by William Maxwell after we discussed Richard Yates, Raymond Carver and their summer smash of Stoner by John Williams (it’s very good. You should read it). Maxwell is another of the American mid-late 20th century school - he edited both John Cheever and John Updike whilst at the New Yorker, which probably says it all - and while I wouldn’t say this book blew me away, I’m looking forward to reading his short stories when I’m home. The plot hook felt a bit thin to sustain over 150 odd pages, but it would’ve worked very well in a shorter format. So here’s hoping that’s Maxwell’s forté.
Lean In - Sheryl Sandberg
Another Kilburn Library job. My boss recommended I read this a few weeks ago, and I duly polished it off this evening. Though I thought it could’ve done a bit deeper, actually I rather liked it for its brevity and accessibility. Cliché perhaps - and it feels like the world and his wife have talked this book to death already - but I found it a pretty inspiring read. Big takeaways: Ambition is OK. Know that sometimes the way you act is related to your gender. Know your biases and work through them. I swallowed my frustration around the repeated mentions of supportive husbands, but you can’t please all the people all of the time. I’m sure that non-white readers would think to themselves, hey, there’s more discrimination around than just gender based - but Sandberg writes what she knows, and it was definitely a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours. That concept of women not “sitting at the table” is entirely true and while I am lucky enough not to have been brought up in that way of thinking (both my parents and my school were very much of the “of course you can do it” school of thought), socialisation elsewhere means that I recognise it in both myself and in others. It’s good to know your limits…so you can work around them.
Quiet - Susan Cain
A book about introversion. Only since starting to live on my own have I begun noticing my patterns of behaviour, and how after periods of social activity I find time alone the only real way of resetting my balance. This book really resonated with me. The broad premise being that everyone is introverted/extroverted to some degree (as with sexuality, you are rarely all or nothing of one), and that within both of those, there are limits to sociability. Nice to read and work out that there is something more to it than just “I don’t like other people.”
Lions and Shadows - Christopher Isherwood
Oh Isherwood. Resolutely one of my favourite authors. What a treat not to have gone through them all yet!
Bicycle Diaries - David Byrne
My god this man is smart. An absolute pleasure to read, and I can’t believe I’d had a bookmark sitting at the beginning of it for quite so long. Byrne goes city by city, takes his folding bike, and tells us about it. Thoughts on the dot com bubble, and the way cities and cultures are built. Lovely.
The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton
Another one I’d been in the middle of for a long while. Nearly had a bit of a cry at the end. Society vs love vs duty vs what a terribly sad state of affairs.
The Stranger’s Child - Alan Hollinghurst
An emergency purchase in an English language bookshop in Florence, when I realised I’d run out of fiction and had an evening to kill by myself. For the first hundred pages I thought “hang on, this is just like Atonement” - with a plot hanging on something the little sister isn’t meant to notice - but turns out that, well, it isn’t. Serves me right for trying to second guess. I read the lot in one night but despite that wouldn’t say I loved it - enjoyed, certainly - and had far less of the feeling of having my eyes opened wide that happened when I read The Swimming Pool Library. Both Wharton and Hollinghurst’s big takeaways: families are really complicated (conversely, Isherwood hardly mentions his in Lions & Shadows, despite its semi-autobiographical nature - and the fact that he lives with them until halfway through the book).
“We quickly abandoned ideas that looked great but ultimately didn’t serve our users’ needs.”
I’m no designer. I’m no developer, either. But I’m getting slowly obsessed with the idea of design as function rather than form; that is, the design is there to serve a purpose. Just yesterday I killed off a pointless vignette in a book layout; it serves no purpose, so I don’t want to see it.
I guess the trick here is: work out what your purpose is. Then work backwards.
Slowly but surely it dawns on me: it’s probably time to read The Lean Start Up.
Think of your core values as those that, when the chips are down, you believe in so much that if you took them away your company would cease to exist.
Starbucks continue to attempt to present themselves as a friendly coffee company rather than a multi-national cafe chain.