Notes from the Commuter Train: Reading in Review

At the end of last year, I spent three months commuting into London every day for work. From leaving home to arriving at the office in Shepherd’s Bush, the commute took about one hour and forty minutes, the majority of which were spent on some form of train.

I like travelling by train. There’s a romance to it that feels peculiarly British. In a strictly historical sense, the rail network is the skeletal infrastructure of British industrial growth over the last 150 years; it is both historically significant and persistently relevant in a way that it’s not in, say, America, land of the road trip or the domestic flight. And in a purely cultural sense, the blitz spirit of being trapped in a metal tube surrounded by other passengers all tutting in polite consternation whenever there’s a delay is the closest I get to chest-beating patriotism.

I’ve spent a lot of time (and money, oh dear God, the money) on trains over the years, zipping up and down regularly between York and Oxford during my undergrad degree. But I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much daily time on them: three hours, give or take, every single day. I needed to find something not only to pass the time but to activate it, to not let it drain away into hours I’d never get back or get anything real out of. And as someone who’s always loved reading, my route was clear: I read my way through it.

I read 21 books in those three months, some of them staggering, some of them not so much. Below are some brief reviews and recommendations from the reading train.

Best non-fiction book: The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing

I’m not ordinarily a huge non-fiction reader, but this book totally changed my outlook. Part-memoir, part-art history, part-critique, Laing explores a city and a set of artists through a lens that would never have occurred to me but which seemed indispensable once she’d  put it in front of me. It’s the kind of book that leads you on a meandering path around the same central subject: loneliness, the feeling of profound isolation, and how artists including Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, and a new favourite of mine, David Wojnarowicz (pronounced “Wonna-row-vitch”), transmuted those feelings into art. I don’t have a picture of my own copy, as I’d already lent it to a friend to read, but this is undoubtedly one of my reading highlights of the year.

Read this if you’re remotely interested in New York, modern art, or have ever felt lonely. Yes, I’m aware that last one includes everyone and I’m not sorry. Avoid it if you don’t like being shaken to your very bones.

What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.

Best poetry book: Off-White by Annie Bryan

Now, full disclosure: the author of this particular work is very dear to me and I did Snapchat her frantically whenever I encountered a line in this book that moved me to my core. BUT I also firmly believe that there is enough beautiful writing in this book that I would have been frantically Snapchatting somebody about them – it was just a peculiar privilege that that person could be the author.

This book will teach you about love and finding your way back to yourself. It is about pain, and family, and getting better. It harbours such enormous feeling that from the first page to the last the time you spend in Annie’s thoughts is a lesson in empathy and being a little kinder to yourself and to those around you. It will open your eyes.

Read this book if you want to hear from a woman speaking frankly and beautifully about coming out, eating disorder recovery, and so many more difficult topics it is so hard to bring into the light. Avoid it if you’re not into poetry or beautiful things.

But she says “few things make me happier than a blue sky with white clouds”
And she looks at me like i’m one of them.

And it all felt like a river that was heading towards the sea
Though we did not know which one

And so i go on loving you
——Percussively
Like water.

Best novels: a top 3 list (in no particular order)

1. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I first came across Jennifer Egan in my American literature module at York, when we read her 2001 novel Look at Me. I loved Look at Me, and had heard interesting things about Goon Squad before reading it. Nothing could have prepared me for this though – it’s a feat of ingenuity that I’d never anticipated. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character, each of them tangentially related to one another. In each one you are sucked completely into that character’s world and their problems, and although you never see their story in its entirety from their perspective, there’s a particular thrill in glimpsing them through other characters’ eyes. There’s also a chapter that’s entirely told through PowerPoint, which is the most bizarre thing that I never expected to move me in the way it did.

Read this book if you are a fan of unorthodox storytelling and want to try something compelling and different. Avoid this book if you think that jumping between so many different characters would shake off your interest after a while.

2. Autumn and Artful by Ali Smith

I make no secret of how much I adore Ali Smith. How to be both, as I frequently tell anyone who will listen and recently told the author herself at a book event at Foyles, changed my life and what I thought was possible from reading and writing. Autumn and Artful are both comparably brilliant.

The former is the first book in Smith’s ongoing seasonal cycle, and has been widely billed as the first post-Brexit novel. It examines activism and political change and art, with a shining handful of central characters that you care deeply about by the time the book ends. It makes history beautiful as it’s happening, which is unbelievably rare.

Artful is a literary- and art-historical ghost story about grief and beauty, and was unusual and unexpected in all the most important ways. It’s a tour of the mourning period and of great art and embraces intertextuality arguably more than any of Smith’s other works. Smith does this nimbly and manages never to seem pretentious or unfocused. The book also prompted me to rewatch the 1960s Oliver! which was delightful.

Read these books if you love or are curious about Ali Smith – she will not disappoint. Avoid these books if you’re not a fan of postmodern style, and prefer a more traditional narrative voice.

To be known so well by someone is an unimaginable gift. But to be imagined so well by someone is even better.

— Ali Smith, Artful

3. The Master by Colm Toíbín

This book is one of those quiet gems that you don’t realise has become so meaningful to you until you’ve finished reading it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought about it since putting it down. The novel is a fictional retelling of the life of Henry James, the “master” of American fiction, but you don’t need to know anything about James or to have read him to enjoy it. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by James, and I actually think it helped: I encountered him for the first time through Toíbín’s understated and sensitive prose, and when it was over I would have rushed out to read him immediately had I not worried about disturbing the magic this book had created.

Read this book if you love fictional interpretations of real stories and you love learning to care deeply about fictional characters. Avoid this book if you’re not much into stories about writers or literary history, and want something a bit more fast-paced.

Special mentions

The book I wish more people knew about: The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong

Immediately after reading this book I Googled it, hoping to find some kind of discussion of the narrative perspective Armstrong uses here. Alas, I found nothing. Somebody please read it so that I can talk your ear off about it.

The book that disappointed me the most: Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

This is less the fault of Woolf than it is of my own astronomically high expectations: I’d been looking forward to finally reading this for years and expected the richly-textured prose I remembered from Mrs. Dalloway or her letters. But Orlando is not quite that book. One to revisit in future with a more open mind, perhaps.

The book that made me cry on the Tube: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

A beautiful, vast storytelling voyage that nearly made me sob on the Circle line. You cover so much ground and learn so much about Chinese history and family and music in this book, it’s a little overwhelming but well worth all the feels.

If you’ve read any of the books I’ve mentioned here, either in these highlights or in the full list below, let me know your thoughts!

The full list (in order of reading)

  1. Sagan: Paris 1954 by Anne Berest
  2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  3. The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong 
  4. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  5. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing
  6. Lust by Roald Dahl
  7. Autumn by Ali Smith
  8. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
  9. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  10. Artful by Ali Smith
  11. The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry
  12. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
  13. Off-White by Annie Bryan
  14. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
  15. The Power by Naomi Alderman
  16. Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
  17. The Master by Colm Toíbín
  18. Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy by Neil Astley
  19. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
  20. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  21. Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest

Further reading (as if you needed it): Train Songs, an anthology of poems about trains and stations, edited by Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson.


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

— Ezra Pound, “In A Station of the Metro”

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New publication: “I. Paris” in the SYMPHONY issue of Thistle Magazine

This week, my poem “I. Paris” appeared in the final ever issue of Thistle Magazine on the theme SYMPHONY. I’ve been a fan of Thistle for a long time now so it’s an honour to be included in their last issue alongside a lot of other amazing work.

Download SYMPHONY for free here.

in the beginning,
you will love him like you love
Paris. electric – the rain
on your skin will feel like the ripple
on the surface of a cymbal
as it crashes… 

Poem on Longwall Street, 20.04.2017

A cool breeze after warm spring rain
and leaves back on the trees again:
a spray of wet green overhanging the sandstone wall.
Dim silver on the pavement and in the gutters,
in a cascade of beads down a woman’s raincoated back
and you not there at all –
not in the doorway that frowns over passers-by
at the noise from hometime traffic,
and not in the coffee shop beyond, hunched
over a book or a laptop or a cup
of bitter black beans brewed
by a waitress who’s not me
with no milk, no sugar, just
a spoon.

Old Haunt

 

Something about the greyness outside
of the bookshop’s windows on a Thursday afternoon
makes me think of you:
a pressing silver gloom
that clings to the glass
and makes evening approach faster.
Dust gathers thicker;
an unseen clock ticks louder.
On shelves pillowed with dust,
warped and well-loved
spines breathe against each other
as the door opens and closes,
opens and closes,
and the cold bellows of the rain
draw brown leaves, swirling in eddies
onto the brown mat.
We lay like open books once;
lingered for an hour
in this same weakened, weakening
midweek light: a world away,
but one which echoes still
in bookshops on a Thursday
or anywhere, in the dead hours of the afternoon.
I pull a paperback,
fan its pages against my fingers in a whisper
of secrets stored between white sheets
when a clock ticks out of sight –
leave it with its pages clamped shut,
and a trace of regret,
like the umbrella somebody left
shivering in the doorway.


This poem took shape out of a few lines I came across saved on my computer a few nights ago, when I was trying to jolt myself into writing creatively. It wasn’t easy, and it’s certainly not perfect, but I decided that it’s high time I fulfilled the original purpose of this blog, which was to kill the perfectionist impulse and get my writing read by someone other than myself – in other words, to show my work. So, here it is.

On negative space

A few weeks ago I sat at my desk and wrote a poem.

It was, as with every attempt at writing after a long interval, a bit of a painful task. I’m usually a word-processing kinda gal when it comes to writing creatively: the ability to vanish my poor metaphors as if they never existed, and instantly reclaim them if I decide they weren’t that rubbish after all, is a kind of magic you take for granted if you mainly write on a computer. But since starting this blog (whatever meagre degree of productivity it has achieved) I’ve been trying to think more about my self-censorious attitude to my own writing. The illusion that word processing gives you is that the process of writing is without mistakes, as the page you start out with is the same page that you finish with, with all the messiness of the in-between process erased. This is comforting for sure – and it’s a great feeling when you’re writing often. “Look at all these things I did recently that I’m proud of,” you can say to yourself, sweeping a hand impressively across the vista of your open “Poetry” folder. “Look at these things I created so well and so easily.” You can read your own work almost like you were reading someone else’s, and that’s great.

Except for when it’s not great. Except for when you haven’t written for months, and the process feels like pulling a tooth, and when you look back at all of these other poems – fully formed, history-less – you see no evidence of this head-butting-against-a-ceiling kind of feeling. No sense that this thing you’re doing right now could one day be one of the things you’re proud of, because there’s no evidence that any of those things were once what this thing is: vaguely incriminating, a testament to the fact that you are still learning. At these moments, when I’m feeling discouraged and distanced from the past writer self who I always think of as more confident and creative than she probably was, the “Delete” function isn’t so much a space-clearing tool as a kind of writerly ejector seat. In the moment of creative frustration and doubt, I can just press a button, and never have to look at these bad lines that seem so humiliating right now ever again.

So in the spirit of giving myself a break from my own perfectionism, this time I sat down at my desk with a notebook and pen instead. It was, predictably, hellish – at least to begin with. Writing one line out over and over again in different formations, rehashing the same ideas on different pages and with different line breaks feels like a nightmare at the best of times for me, one that’s only made worse by the exaggerated physical act of reinscription that handwriting entails. At least when you’re typing a line that you know is bad, you also know that it’ll be gone as if it never existed in a matter of moments – not so with a notebook. Not only was I writing bad stuff, I was having to look at it again and again and be discouraged by it.

Maybe I got into a bit of a stubborn frenzy, or maybe I just hit my stride around 2am, but for whatever reason I managed to push through the discouragement and stick it out ‘til the end. And I’m proud of myself for that, and proud of the poem I wrote, too. It’s not my best effort, but it is an effort, and that’s something to be happy about. And actually, throughout all this process of striking out and writing over, I found myself thinking much less about the bad stuff I was leaving out than the good stuff that didn’t make it in. I began to remember more and more the labour of love that writing is, the repeated letting-go that it entails. Meanings I couldn’t find the words for; words I did find but somehow didn’t fit. Plotting my progress physically across the pages of a notebook made it so much more apparent to me just how much negative space there is around the edges of the final thing: all the things a piece of writing doesn’t end up being that are, really, the making of it as it is.

I’m by no means the first person to think about writing as a process of selective omission. Every writer nowadays seems to know that Samuel Jonson quote (“Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out”) – or at least, if they don’t know it yet, they have it quoted at them pretty quickly (case in point). Ernest Hemingway’s theory was “that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” This idea – of good writing, selective writing, being able to make us feel more than we understand – is at the heart of why omission is so important to the writing process, and perhaps why it is so hard, too. Leaving out the things we once thought so good or so important is not only letting go of a part of ourselves ,but letting in a little of someone else. Chuck Palanhuik says it best in his essay instructing his readers to stop using “thought” verbs in their writing: “Your story will always be stronger,” he promises, “if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.” Sure, leaving out lines that you’re proud of, or moments that are so integral in your head to what you’re trying to get across can feel like a capitulation. It feeds a fear I believe that everyone, and perhaps especially every writer, has: that we, our selves and our lives, are inexpressible, unreachable by anybody else. But when we relinquish the need to make someone else understand as we understand, the need to explain everything, we allow the reader to understand for themselves. To ask questions, to think of new answers, to recreate the text in their own minds in a way we would never have thought of. Though writing can feel like a monologue, in the final event it’s more of a conversation: it’s in the parts where you’re not speaking, that negative space, that real connection occurs.

Of course, omission is not always a virtue. We don’t always have control over the things we leave out. The world that we live in implicates us all the time in the erasure of people and problems through the stories that are told to us and the stories we choose to tell back, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (an utterly fantastic writer and human being) speaks about in her now-famous TED talk, “The Danger of the Single Story”. In a world full of stories balanced on the cusp of telling, it’s easy to be petrified by the dangers of omission, to choose silence over a flawed telling: to press “delete”. But I’m inclined to agree with Adichie in that, in this world so full of untold stories, and so overrun with systems resistant to the telling of all but a few of them, it is more important than ever that we write, that we support others’ writing and writing that is othered. That we are aware of systems of omission and our roles in them – and omission’s role in our telling of ourselves.

“How well I would write if I were not here! If between the white page and the writing of words and stories that take shape and disappear without anyone’s ever writing them there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition which is my person! Style, taste, individual philosophy, subjectivity, cultural background, real experience, psychology, talent, tricks of the trade: all the elements that make what I write recognisable as mine seems to me a cage that restricts my possibilities. If I were only a hand, a severed hand that grasps a pen and writes… who would move this hand? The anonymous throng? The spirit of the times? The collective unconscious? I do not know. It is not in order to be the spokesman for something definable that I would like to erase myself. Only to transmit the writable that waits to be written, the tellable that nobody tells.” – Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveller