Why I Don’t Volunteer Anymore

I have an extensive CV in volunteering – or at least trying to. But somehow things have never stuck in the long term, and recently I’ve been trying to figure out why that might be. After combing through my volunteering history, I’m starting to see something of a pattern, and I’m going to try to put it out here. Because sometimes you can attempt things, but for various reasons they just don’t pan out and these things tend to accumulate over time. I’ve already written about this in a blog post a few years ago but this time I have the advantage (?) of more experience and perhaps a better ability to see a pattern.
(I would’ve volunteered at school but I thought I had to invest all my time in my school work in case that got compromised – turns out it made no difference in my success or lack thereof upon graduation…)

Local Charity Store, 2005-2006
I enjoyed volunteering here at first, it wasn’t overly busy, I learned some new skills and I got to choose the music for the store. But I made the mistake of trying to find paid work elsewhere which I didn’t last long with because they kept picking on me to talk more and I quit out of stress, then I was made to treat going to the place like a full-time job “for the routine”, so I decided I had to look for a more full-time thing so that I wouldn’t keep being made to go somewhere for the sake of going.

National Volunteering Organisation, 2006-2007
It started out promisingly, getting a grounding in filming, photography and graphic design. It felt like a team effort and like we were bonding over something. It also occurred to me for the first time that I could actually learn some practical and transferable skills for the future. The first few months I felt like it was all going somewhere, but at some point it all started to feel aimless and like they were just struggling to find stuff for us to do. I had no idea how much my lack of initiative would affect my ability to self-start activities and I just kept waiting to be given things to do. I ended up spending most of my time IM’ing people and hanging out on MySpace (!!!) for which I was told off by the supervisor because it meant I wasn’t being productive (even though I hadn’t been given anything to do…), so it started to feel like a chore. I didn’t even know what skills to learn, or even if I did know, what to apply them to or where to take them in the future, so it all just trailed off. My placement was about to end soon and I started to panic in case I was forced to do an autism-specific course again which I’d found really unhelpful and patronising as they had far less of an idea of what autistic people are actually like back then than they do now (seemingly we can only do menial jobs and can’t be expected to aim very high in life…), so I scoured the internet looking for alternatives. That’s when I saw a course that might actually get me into uni (which I’d been desperate to do but had given up on by then) so I quit the placement, losing the few skills I’d learned before long. On my last day I remember being asked what I was still doing there.

September 2007-March 2009
I tried to volunteer with a gardening project at uni, but because I wasn’t given direct instructions and supervision I struggled, and because of health problems I couldn’t keep up with the digging. I ended up saying sorry but I can’t do this anymore. They said they “weren’t surprised” to see me go. I then volunteered at a bookstore in Canterbury, I can’t remember how that ended but somehow it did and I volunteered at a local charity store instead, which I actually liked but my condition (both mental and physical at the time) affected what I was able to do.
I also tried to volunteer at a homeless shelter but I went in for my induction and instantly felt intimidated, being stared at by lots of strange men, and not really being given specific guidance on what to do, and also fearing that I’d be thought badly of if I mentioned my intimidation, so I didn’t go back again.
Upon returning to Glasgow I rejoined the Glasgow branch of the charity store, which went ok at first but the manager who I liked stopped spending as much time there, leaving someone in charge who really took the job seriously, to the point that nothing I did was quite up to standard, so I ended up quitting.

September 2009 
I tried to start a book group, only got one session going then it fell apart somehow…

A Local Interest Library, Jan 2013

I applied to join a local special interest organisation, and volunteered to help catalogue things in their library. I came in for one session to do so, and then offered to write for their magazine. They said they would “be in touch to let me know” on both counts, I followed up with a request for an update and I was told the same. I never heard from them again.

Art Library, Jan-March 2013
I applied for a voluntary librarian position at an art library it seemed to go ok at first, I transcribed some handwritten material and was looking forward to becoming more involved, and although it was difficult to make small talk with the people there I tried to be nice and polite. At first they set days for me to come in but before long I had to keep asking if it was ok to come in, to which they said ok as if it didn’t really matter either way, then day they said they didn’t need me anymore and that they’d “let me know” if they needed me to come back. Not long after I saw that they’d put out an ad for the position from which I’d just been let go. Hint taken.

One of my better volunteering activities took place around now, doing social media work for a vegan website. I learned some basic SEO skills (which I’m *trying* to keep in my mind as they’re actually needed right now) and also got to add something to my CV, although I’ve found that with most of my placements I’ve struggled to know how to keep a good thing going.

City Specialist Library, June 2013-Sept 2014
I got a volunteering placement at a special interest library (one of few things I’m very interested in), which started out promisingly, and it would later help me secure my position in my MSc a year later. It was interesting at first but then it started to become quite disorganised, I never had a secure and quiet place in which to work and it was always as if they were just finding random stuff for me to do for the sake of it, and I wanted to feel as if I had a sense of purpose and actually belonged there. I kept up attendance for a year until I started my MSc then I didn’t feel like I was needed there anymore.

Local Historical Centre, April 2014
I applied to be a volunteer at a local museum and archive site, stating specifically that I wanted to have a research role rather than a tour guide one, because I felt it would be better suited to my skills.
I ticked the boxes for things I’d be happy to do, assured that I would have a mentor under which to work, but instead I was merely shown to a freezing basement room then invited to just start sifting through the mountains of documents, seemingly to no purpose. I was left entirely on my own the whole time with no supervision. I tried this for a few sessions but when I left on the last day, everyone else was chatting away near the entrance, as they were all tour guides and got along, and I tried to announce that I was leaving for the day. Instead of asking when it would be ok for me to come back in, they just said “bye then” and I took that as a sign that I was no longer welcome and they didn’t need me.

May 2016 
I actually based my travel plans around this one, which particularly pisses me off even now.
I was told by my then support worker that they’d make a special effort to get me back into volunteering due to all the difficulties I’d had hanging onto placements, and signed me up for a taster session. The first one was for gardening, which I would have liked if it weren’t for being afraid of hurting the worms in the soil with the spades and forks, which I had a hard time explaining. Then there was a cycling track for disabled people but due to personal issues at the time, I was very upset at the time and couldn’t concentrate properly. I ended up dropping out of the final sessions but had no-one to talk about as to why this ended up happening. Ended up feeling angry and cheated that it had turned out to be such an anticlimax and that I actually thought it would make a difference.


A National Library, April-June 2016
I started volunteering with the a national library, the first couple of times it went ok as I was mostly doing data transcription but the last time I went I was expected to move around the library doing odd jobs here and there. I turned up late this time because I was still stressed from the personal issues which had taken place not long before, and the bright lights and creaking floorboards made me feel really conspicuous and I ended up leaving early. It was deemed to be a good idea that I not return again, at least for the time being, and I dared not go back again because I felt like I had made such a bad impression. I think they just didn’t think I wanted to be there but I really did, I just wanted to be less visible.

A City Theatre, September 2016 (a few hours long)
I was offered an interview for a disability-specific volunteering role at a theatre outside the city centre, I never liked to feel like I was taking advantage or making excuses for a disability but I wasn’t having much luck elsewhere so I tried to take advantage this time. I went in for one photography session, again feeling self-conscious and overwhelmed by how busy it was and the bright lights, but thought I did a good job with the photography. After that they told me that I didn’t need to come back in as they’d found “professionals” to take my place.
I also tried to volunteer with what I thought was a local vegan kitchen/organisation but it turned out to be something else. I still tried to roll with it and took photos of the setting up and food prep like they’d asked me to, although I was uncomfortable with the non-vegan stuff. I did my best though, and thought I’d be asked to do more events but they never asked me to.

International Library (remote), Feb 2017
On Twitter I saw an open invitation from a US library and archive centre to transcribe some of their manuscripts and documents, which I would’ve loved to do. One day I went onto the site to have a go, but found that virtually everything had already been done. I checked back a few more times with the same result, so I didn’t know what else to do. I might still have a go at the Voynich Manuscript at some point though, if I have time…



I guess it was round about this time that I gave up on the idea of volunteering altogether – twelve solid years of trying, not too bad IMO – especially as most volunteering placements require you to either work in a store (which I’d already done and probably wouldn’t feel up to doing again) or interacting directly face to face with the public (again which I tried a few times but realised was extremely difficult for me to do for extended periods of time), so I guess it’s safe to say that I’ve tried and that perhaps writing is the only thing I’ll ever really be good at, and I only get paid for a very small percentage of that right now. And nope – in case it comes as any surprise – I haven’t earned a single penny for this website…

But I think personally, what is notable about the particular examples of volunteering I’ve outlined above, is that one would normally expect such placements to be entirely “in line” with someone who likes alone time, to research things of interest, and generally to put what skills they have to good use. Being terrible at very pro-social placements would not surprise me in the least; what has surprised me, however, is that I have struggled even in such placements where I honestly thought I would excel and find my “niche” after years of trying.

These placements do not include the numerous unpaid writing assignments I’ve undertaken since my (first) graduation, as a certain amount of unpaid work is to be expected in that field of work until you develop a sufficient portfolio in order to command a paycheck. (Often one is expected to continue to work for free indefinitely but that’s a story for another time.) This sort of thing was done to a specific end, in order to further my career, if you can call it one. Nor am I going to include the times spent volunteering with animal sanctuaries, with which I’ve had very mixed experiences. That is something I’d do more often but as I can’t drive I’ve been unable to make it a regular thing.

Thus sums up my experiences volunteering, and generally trying to make the world a better place, in the best way I can. Looking back, I’m now almost entirely convinced that despite my work ethic and desire to learn new skills and better myself (and the world around me), my lack of ability to keep up small talk and network with the “right people” were all responsible for my being let go from positions and replaced with those who were more “their kind of people”, unless I’m strongly mistaken. In addition, my difficulties in planning and initiating multi-step and long-term activities, coupled with a lack of effective mentoring (with the exception of one or two), meant that I failed to fulfil whatever potential I might’ve had once. This has resulted in a long line of sporadic and short-lived volunteering stints which never really went anywhere.



Study guide writing: the highs and lows of the Perfect Job (For Me)

On the surface of it, I have the ideal job situation.

For the past year and a half I’ve been writing literary study guides for an online publication company. What this involves is being assigned with a work of fiction, and basically writing about it from every conceivable angle. I have to write summaries and accompanying analyses, and outline themes, symbols, characters, etc, and provide a completely comprehensive guide to the book in question. It’s about as involved as one can get with a single piece of literature, I’m guessing, outside of writing a dedicated postgraduate thesis on it, so it certainly helps me to keep my skills fresh in that area. I send it in once it’s done, I get paid, then I can choose another book to work on.

This position ticks a lot of boxes for me, at least in theory – it’s the *only* regular paying job I’ve had basically ever, let alone since graduation, and I was incredibly lucky to encounter the ad, and be almost immediately accepted for it in the first place. I’ve struggled enough with finding suitable employment my entire adult life to know never to take such a stroke of luck lightly, so I’ve always worked as hard and as well on each guide as possible. Also, as an autistic* person, the absence of pressure to constantly interact socially on the job, and general office politics, is a welcome advantage. It’s done entirely remotely, meaning that I don’t run the risk of accidentally committing a social faux pas while getting the work done. This combination of advantages is still, in my experience, exceedingly rare in the job market, unless you happen to know someone personally who can fix you up with your ideal role.

The thing is though, the “autism thing” has also proved to be, in itself, a major drawback in certain aspects of the job. My strengths lie in analysis and comparison, and most definitely not, as I’ve learned over time on the job, in summarising. Each guide requires a chapter by chapter breakdown of everything which has happened, but at least for me, if this is a work of fiction – with all the nuances and tangents and inner narratives of the main characters, which often play out in a non-linear fashion – this is where I really begin to encounter my limitations. My brain is very poor at condensing and selecting large amounts of narrative detail and being responsible for judging what is relevant for the summary, because essentially I see *everything* as being relevant in some sense. After all, why else would such detail even be in the book in the first place? At least goes my thinking…

I can do almost everything else in the guide far more easily in comparison – in perhaps a deviation from the autism stereotype, I’m actually quite good at understanding and employing metaphor, analogy, subtext, all the interesting and sometimes confusing stuff of which literature is often comprised. I have the thick backlog of marked university essays to prove it – your 100% literal autistic stereotype wouldn’t even be capable of such a thing. Also, sometimes rather sneakily, I can slip in some insights of my own here and there. I’ve been known to draw particular attention to parts of a book where a character expresses vegan-friendly sentiments, for example. The rules don’t say you can’t, as long as you adhere to the guidelines, so 😉

But anyway. The past year and a half or so has been a unique opportunity, for me, to experience how my particular “wiring” can work both for and against me all at once. An internal battle rages every time I accept a new assignment, knowing that I will both love and hate the mission I am about to embark upon. Due to various reasons, I’ve not been able to assume as much work as I would have liked, or as I would even have expected in the beginning. I can be an infuriatingly slow worker when I have even one other preoccupation going on. A couple of health problems, and a general deficit in concentration, have slowed me right down, but I merely spaced out the projects I did, rather than risk taking on too much work and then risking disappointing my hard-won employer by failing to turn in on time. Lots of employers, despite growing “awareness” campaigns going on at the moment, simply do not or cannot fully grasp the complications of both the difficulties and the advantages of trying to shoe-horn a neurodiverse brain into working efficiently in a world where this type of brain is still in the vast minority. I fear coming across as incompetent, unintelligent, unmotivated or otherwise incapable of doing the job, which in fact I can do if the conditions are just right, or at least just right for me.

The solution I’d propose, if it were up to me, would be to work on everything except for the summaries, with someone more suited to the type of thinking that requires chipping in. Another solution, or at least a move towards branching out into other areas I might excel in, would be to assume more in the way of editing work, but given that jobs full stop are hard to come by, let alone ones you are actually qualified for and are related to your field of interest, I am certainly not about to quit completely anytime soon, as long as I am capable of reading and writing in a way which is useful and comprehensible to whoever might be using the study guide, when the product is complete.

I shall, upon completion of the most recent assignment, make another move towards other areas of freelance writing, building upon experience gained, and as a sort of refresher from the near-academia level of study required for the study guide writing, but first I think I will need another spot of recovery time.

*Using the clinical term for the time being, stay tuned for a post coming soon about my relationship to the name/label/diagnosis. It’s complicated so really needs a separate clarification.

The weird world of executive dysfunction

Articles like this one have started to click with me in a way that few others do. It has inspired me to do something of a stream-of-consciousness-style ramble on the issue of executive function. Or executive dysfunction.
I’ve written about my tendency to procrastinate in at least a couple of my blog posts, which from a cursory glance in the wider “blogosphere”, seems to be a trait which is almost fashionable to “fess up to” these days. A specific level of hipster-ironic “I so can’t even right now (but actually I can and in fact have proven that I can merely by writing this article to my huge social media fanbase AND have been paid with my very own by-line on a trendy website like Buzzfeed about how much I like tattoos and drinking tea (and drinking the latest speciality locally grown tattooed tea brewed in a shed in the back garden)…” is almost, in my view, the thing to humble-brag about and come off as quirky, and even endearing.
Far be it from me to remotely judge the capabilities and difficulties of someone else upon the basis of an online article, but sometimes I can’t help wondering how much of it is mere self-depreciation, or even just the glorification of the “meh” attitude to life. The “too cool to care, or at least appear to” attitude which can be found in ample supply in digital publications like Vice. I realise I might be encroaching upon hypocritical territory here  -I am after all writing a blog post about essentially the same phenomenon – but when you “honestly can’t even and I’ve no idea why even after all this time and it’s not getting any easier as time goes on and it’s driving me slowly but surely insane” then… well, that can be harder to articulate, and to differentiate from the multiple claims of “I can’t even” which seem to be so popular now.
 296ed64a53c8c78ee598a892ca0a8140(Image courtesy of pinterest.net – well what do you know, there is such a thing as tattooed tea. Or at least tattoos of tea.)
It’s ridiculous how long it’s taken me to realise just how big a problem this has been for me throughout life. Had I known that this was a DEFINING characteristic of autism, rather than merely written off as a co-morbidity lurking in the shadows of other more well-known symptoms – many of which don’t even apply to me – then perhaps I could have recognised a major part of myself and dealt with it appropriately a lot earlier on, rather than wondering why the hell I was being likened to Rain Man or little boys who are obsessed with train timetables and just having it all… not connect with me.
(I’m going to write a blog post, at some point when I’m able, about my long and complicated relationship with the whole “label” of what is currently known as “high functioning autism/Asperger’s Syndrome” – I’m still not fully comfortable openly identifying with it in *every* situation, but that would take a fair amount of explanation which would take a while.)
I wasn’t like that – I was just a normal girl, albeit quite awkward and reclusive and desperate to fit in, with a lazy and stubborn streak who just needed to get her shit together like everyone else and then everything would be fine.
Who turned into, as one tends to do, into a normal woman, albeit quite awkward and reclusive and not-quite-so-desperate-but-would-still-find-it-nice to fit in, with a lazy and stubborn streak who just needs to get her shit together like everyone else and then everything will be fine.

Actual footage of me trying to get something done

In fact issues with executive (dys)function are often not even mentioned at all, and if they are, it’s just within a few words, “cannot complete tasks on time”, etc, with zero elaboration as to WHY this might be, the implication being that it’s just one more mysterious tragic failing of the autistic persona, which one need not delve any deeper into – as if there is simply no depth to even be found within.
We Just Cannot Do Things Like Others Can.
Such a pity I know… but what can you do eh? *sigh of resignation*
(Image courtesy of memegenerator.net website)
It’s basically the reason I take a really long time to do seemingly simple things, why I find it very difficult to prioritise tasks, and often why I’ll find excuses to avoid them completely. It can take me several days, weeks, months, and even years to do things which need not take up that much time. I’ll KNOW what I need to do, in a very broad sense, but actually putting things into action in an effective way, to the point of completion, is something else. I’m trying to accept this aspect of myself more these days, to try not to see myself as just slow, lazy, lacking in initiative, etc… but I still see myself that way. I still feel very much like a lazy and ineffective individual merely in need of a good kick up the arse, and often feel like punishing myself accordingly, resenting myself for not even being entirely sure whether I *can’t* or whether I *won’t* do any given thing. I’ve been told repeatedly by many in life that I’m just not trying. As if I’m CHOOSING to constantly flounder and struggle with the simplest things in life.
This might sound ridiculously petty but one of the quotes I hate most in the world is the one by Yoda:
 (Image courtesy of starwarsbloggers.wordpress.com fansite)
Yoda may be a tiny wise green creature, widely revered throughout the Galaxy Far Far Away, and much of the other stuff he says is very spot on, but I’m going to have to respectfully disagree in this instance.
In my humble opinion, there is a metric fuck-ton of “try” involved with pretty much everything in life. And what makes things even worse is when you ARE trying *in your own way* but cannot prove to others that you are, you just know, somewhere, that you’re doing things to the best of your ability. At least you think you are. Some of the time.
Then you’re told – informed, rather – with the sheer self-assurance of their own knowledge that only a barely qualified so-called professional government employee can convey, that you’re Not Trying. That is a truly maddening experience which can take its toll over the course of time.
Simply being told, in a bright and blase tone, to “get on with it” or “have a word” or “be productive!” just isn’t enough in isolation, without a solid plan with clearly outlined steps in a rational sequence in place.
It’s becoming something of a challenge to remind myself, constantly, that perhaps it’s down to a particular wiring of the brain that causes me, and many others, to approach tasks, and indeed life in general, in a different way. It’s still a work in progress trying to find a way to function in a world not designed for you.
(I realise there is probably a certain degree of contradiction in the fact that I even managed to compose this semi-coherent ramble-ette in the first place. Although it just sort of happened – I was going to write a social media post about the article which inspired this train of thought, but then it just sort of took on a life of its own.)

To the Land of Ice and Fire

From an early age I knew I had to one day visit Iceland. Ever since flying over part of the lower half of the country during a layover in Keflavik en route to America, looking down from the airplane window to see a glimpse of a landscape that looked positively unreal – volcanoes, rugged terrain, colours of water one would think completely unknown to nature – I knew I had to go. Or return. Depending on whether you’d count a layover as *technically* going to a place. I guess it also didn’t help that Bjork was playing during said plane journey en route to Iceland – in the late 90s, at the height of her commercial international fame – so their national airline is pretty good, let’s just say, at setting the scene.

Fast forward to nearly two decades later – after spending a period of time this year, ever since my trip to the TBEX conference, being mostly laid low for reasons I won’t go into right now, I gradually improved and decided that I needed to try one of my “attempts at travelling” again, in order to shift my perspective on life back onto a wider plane than it had already started to shrink to. This timing, incidentally, was right smack bang in the middle of what I’ve heard referred to as the “shoulder season” – that time when the summer crowds have largely gone, winter has not yet come laying chaos and destruction, and crucially, when prices have normally gone down.

Because I don’t drive (can’t or won’t I’m still not entirely sure) and my first choice would’ve been to rent a car either myself or with a buddy and see the entire country at my/our own pace, my second choice, in this case, was to base myself in Reykjavik for a few days and get the main touristy tours in, then embark upon an organised tour of the north of the country for a few days, returning to the capital for a couple of nights before flying back home. Sounds relatively simple. OK it turned out to be a lot more expensive than the renting a car/hostelling/camping/hitchhiking thing which many younger and more outgoing people opt to do but this was the way in which I knew I would best be able to appreciate the country the way circumstances (namely not being able to drive and probably being too much of a Goose to drive in a place such as Iceland in any case) currently were.


After a relatively painless journey to Iceland (thanks largely to the high quality headphones I invested in not long before) I arrived at my hostel – and its rather unusual sleeping quarters. While a long time ago I swore off staying in a dorm room ever again (unless I was with friends for whatever reason) I made an exception in this case because of the special “pod” style beds this hostel had, specially imported from Hong Kong and basically like a really tiny little room in and of itself. Which happened to still be located in a dorm room but this was about as affordable a “single” room was going to get in this country so I conceded, and had a rather fun time on the first night pretending I was on some kind of futuristic space mission…

After falling asleep basically the second I got into that pod-type thing I started early the next day with a tour of the Reykjanes Peninsula, an area of the country which is seemingly often neglected due to its deemed purpose of being just the location of the airport and the Blue Lagoon. It is actually meant to be one of the most geologically active areas of the country (and certainly smelled that way) and hosts the most visible part of the continental divide between Europe and America. That is, where the tectonic plates physically meet, rather than bureaucratically speaking. There were no border checks or anything there.

Setting out early, on a very chilly and overcast (and often drizzly) Halloween morning, our first stops were actually at a gas station, then at some “fish farm” where the catches of the day left a very pungent scent in the air, which would then follow us onto the bus for the rest of the day, in addition to a rather disturbing sight of the disembodied heads of thousands of fish in rows and rows being hung out to dry. Disturbing for a vegan like me anyway – a number of those on the tour were happy to sample the local “delicacy”, which I imagine many people are, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. I guess it comes under “adventurous eating” or something. We left mercifully quickly (although unfortunately I was unable to open a window) then stopped again, shortly after, to capture this view of a rare break in the weather allowing for this scene:


My first “proper” (samsung camera) photo

This is the sort of scene which I’d imagined long before coming here, and one which really sparks the imagination. It’s easy to imagine the “hidden people” from Icelandic folklore scurrying around the place, presumably being so skilled at building houses that they don’t mind living out somewhere the cold air can actually bite. So despite nearly losing the use of my hands from the low external temperature, I set about capturing as much of it as possible, both here and on the few stops along the way. There was a stop at a rather foreboding looking lake (because of the weather conditions mostly), some curious rock formations, hardly little Icelandic ponies bravely braving the awful weather like the little bosses they were, a random heart-shaped formation on one of the hills we passed, and of course, this all provided ample opportunity (for the few moments I could stand to be outside) to try out the macro photography settings on my camera again.

We moved onto one of the many actively geothermal areas that Iceland has to offer, and it’s one thing to know that such areas exist but quite another to actually see boiling mud and water coming out of the ground, knowing that it is *entirely* the work of nature.

Next we moved onto possibly my favourite part of the tour; the raised tectonic ridge which forms the divide between the continents of Eurasia and North America. Not only was there an abundance of that hardcore-looking black rock and sand which is unique to the country, but the idea of literally standing on the border – the true one – between two massive landmasses, and standing directly on the single longest “line” on the entire planet, was a thought worth reflecting on for a while.

(Brief digression: I got to put the panorama and macro settings on my humble yet dependable little Samsung compact digital camera to full use here. During this trip I would come to learn the limits of this camera (well actually I did on a previous trip but sometimes it takes a while for a lesson to sink in) – as reliable as it is for taking generally high quality photos for the most part, it fails quite spectacularly when it comes to low-light settings, for example. For some time before leaving I painstakingly deliberated over whether or not to invest (splurge) on a more professional camera, such as a Nikon or a Canon, especially with the possibility of seeing the northern lights so tantalisingly close. After a lot of back-and-forth-ing, mainly because I’d already parted with an eye-watering amount of money booking the trip in the first place, in the end I decided to stick with and make the most with what I already had – as it turns out, several cameras between all my devices – and to simply try to improve. In any case I much prefer to travel light wherever possible rather than drag around hulking equipment, especially when there’s no guarantee they’ll actually be put to use. I may however have to reconsider this attitude. End of digression.)

On the tectonic ridge is where I also saw a peculiarly colourful type of plant-life which simply invited a few photos at close range. It made me wonder what it was about the plant which made it hang on in this type of setting, being so seemingly inconducive to thriving life.

Stopping at another geysir (there were honestly so many of these that I won’t bombard the page with photos of every single one we saw – same with waterfalls, as spectacular and awe-inspiring as they are, posting photos of every single one of them might be a bit excessive) and at – *drum roll* – a lobster restaurant in a fishing village (where I only had a coffee and some snacks I had the foresight to take with me), we arrived at the symbolic continental divide, a place where they built a bridge between the tectonic plates so that one could actually know they were crossing from Eurasia to North America, and vice versa. I took a few selfies here but they look dumb enough for me to be too embarrassed to post them here. So instead make do with a photo of the symbolic bridge.


“You shall not pass!”/”Papers please”

Finally, the tour ended with me, and a few other people, being dropped off at the Blue Lagoon. I don’t normally “do” lagoons, or otherwise any other communal swimming area, but it was one of those cases where it would be so definitive of the experience of visiting the place that it had to be done at least once. However, a mishap with the workings of the lockers, and no-one readily available to offer assistance – along with the unsettling possibility of having all my stuff stuck in a locker and being left all alone in nothing but my swimming costume – meant that I had to, very reluctantly, abandon the Blue Lagoon, merely settling for taking some photos of the surrounding area.



The next day there was another early rise for a tour of the classic Golden Circle and also, for shits and giggles, a snorkelling session at the Silfra fissure in Lake Thingvallavatn. In a literally freezing lake.

I surprise myself sometimes. I really do.

There was the standard coffee/photo-taking stop en route to the first official stop of the day, where I saw this oddly endearing “earthquake demo” at one particular gas station, a stark reminder of just how likely such a thing would be to happen at any time:


The first official stop was at Gulfoss waterfall, and on this day we were rather lucky with the weather. Despite being bitterly cold it was clear and sunny, allowing for good photos to be taken with far more ease than the day before. The waterfall was unspeakably massive, and not a little bit intimidating, as was the geysir at… Geysir. The sheer force with which natural elements move is alarming. You quickly learn to respect nature – and the many warning signs and barriers – in this place.

The favourable weather conditions allowed a glimpse of a rainbow. A great photo opportunity here.


Along the way we stopped at a farm with Icelandic horses, who were willing to come and say hello to visitors in exchange for a few treats. I did not have anything on me to give so I felt like a bit of a tease when they came sniffing up to me…

I felt a bit sorry for them, with what seemed like an endless procession of phones and cameras being pointed at them, but they were lovely to interact with however briefly. I don’t feel as though I encountered nearly as many animals as I wanted to during this trip – very surprising for a country so steeped in its own nature – so perhaps that’s one incentive to go a bit further off the beaten track next time.


Our penultimate stop was Thingvellir National Park, where the snorkelling session was to take place. I was already beginning to regret signing up, as I’d battled the soul-chilling cold all day, to the point where it was difficult even to continue to use the camera outside, but it was, by then, One Of Those Things I Had To Try While I Was Here. After what seemed like several hours of suiting up in completely waterproof clothing (I was prepared to take as long as possible to make sure ZERO of that near-freezing water got in), we started swimming…

I actually tried to signal that I wanted to stop snorkelling pretty much immediately, as the cold was so painful on the few areas of skin that were exposed to the water, but I decided to endure it and soon it was fine. This sight – photos here courtesy of one of the instructors – was the reward for doing so. I did take my own photos beneath the surface but feel that the professionals are best suited to portraying the sheer awesomeness of the lake on this occasion. Funnily enough there is also no animal/marine life in Thingvallavatn apart from algae, which made it all the more surreal in my view.

Our last stop was the original site of the Althingi, the first ever known parliament in the world, and it also turned out to be the site of a simultaneous sunset and moonrise, which I didn’t manage to capture properly due to leaving my camera in the van, because I thought it was getting too dark to be able to properly photograph anything by then. I did however manage to capture the sunset earlier, after finishing the snorkelling:


It was at the end of this long day that I was informed by email that the tour I was meant to embark upon – to Akureyri in the north of Iceland, and the surrounding area – was cancelled due to lack of participants, and then I had to basically scramble to make an alternative plan. It was during this scramble that I began to whole-heartedly lament my decision to take a chance on a third party, and my never learning to drive up until then. Had I been able to hire a car it would have been a lot easier to be flexible with travel from place to place, and probably a lot cheaper too. However I decided to simply try to recreate the original plan as closely as possible, booking flights and a hotel in Akureyri, and an alternative tour of the area. Then to let off some steam I went for a wander in the neighbourhood at nighttime, trying out the night-time settings on my camera.


The Hallgrimskirkja


In order to see as much diversity of landscape as possible while in Iceland, I opted to try to stay at least part of the time in another corner of the country. That’s why I opted for Akureyri, in the absence of the opportunity to travel round the entire Ring Road. So I flew up and walked the hour-long journey into town. It looked like a certain quiet mountain town in Colorado I have to say, upon first impression…

The plan was to spend the following day undertaking a tour with a Game of Thrones theme – to see some of the settings of the show, along with Lake Myvatn and some more iconic scenery along the way. More photo opportunities, more opportunities to fire the old imagination back up again… until the following morning, when the tour van didn’t show. Or answer their phone. Or answer their email until nearly a week later. Ok then. No biggie.

The only thing left to do, with no other form of transportation and a flight not leaving till the following day, was to wander around the town. This proved to be quite a logistical challenge as it had been snowing heavily overnight and I couldn’t even see where the roads and pavements began, but it was either that or stay in the hostel the entire time. I was beginning to become increasingly reminded of Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There, in which the author travels up to a remote Norwegian town in the arctic circle, where it is very picturesque but where one runs out of things to do very soon, which leads to a rather humourous recollection. With no chance to appreciate the surrounding natural landscape, and not even very many shops open, some of the few options off-season were, seemingly, to find the nearest bar or cafe and sit nursing a drink for a while. And take some photos of what could be seen through the snow. And have the single most expensive salad of my entire life.

Akureyri was only ever meant to be, for me, a “base” town from which to venture into the surrounding countryside. Indeed I get the sense that had it been during the summer, there would’ve been a chance to go hiking in the area, however on this occasion it was not meant to be. I was beginning to look forward to going back to Reykjavik – if only so I could have a proper meal again.


Reykjavik is a very pleasant and accepting town (technically a city but it really doesn’t feel much like one) and incidentally, there was a music festival – Airwaves ’17 – while I was there. But being woefully out of touch with the contemporary music scene, let alone the Icelandic one, I didn’t feel justified in buying an entire season ticket. However there were plenty of off-venue gigs which were playing around the town which I got to listen in on, while sampling the local craft beers, some of which I rather liked, some of which I’d gladly never go near again. An acquired taste indeed. It was a pretty interesting time to be in town.

One thing which is starting to increase in popularity, in Iceland, and Reykjavik in particular, is veganism. As a country which is widely known as being one of the worst places in the world to try to find vegan food – where locally grown fruits and vegetables are extremely scarce and imports extremely expensive – I was not expecting to eat abundantly while here. I was fully prepared to survive on snacks purchased from supermarkets the entire time, with the very occasional meal out if there was a rare vegan option somewhere. After all, it was not the local cuisine I came here for, but rather the unique geographical setting. The sheer novelty of the place. Yet options there were, in the most unexpected of places, namely an American diner-type venue where an old-fashioned (veggie) burger, fries and guacamole ended up being one of the best things I’d tasted in what seemed like ages; perhaps that it was eaten during a raging storm taking place outside added to the enjoyment a little. This, and the only vegan bar/cafe in the entire country, was found thanks to the Happy Cow app, which sorts me out pretty much anywhere I go. Also articles like these are a big help, serving as not only a food guide but as evidence that I wasn’t such a strange creature for wanting to continue being vegan even in the kind of place which seems otherwise antithetical to that kind of lifestyle.


Another reason to go to Iceland? The literature.

Iceland is a country obsessed with reading, having the highest number of published authors per capita (and general appreciation of reading, from casual observance) in the entire world, showing itself most notably in a very charming Christmas tradition of distributing a catalogue called “book tidings”, or “Bókatíðindin“, in order to provide ideas for books to give to people over the festive season. Oh and it’s also a UNESCO City of Literature, keeping company with other cities with a rich literary heritage such as Edinburgh. In short it is a place where it’s deeply cool to be into reading and writing, a perfect place for someone like me and my near-obsession with the subject area.

The literary tradition is, basically, as old as the country itself. The early settlers transcribed their thoughts and ideas into runic form almost literally (ha!) as soon as they made their home here and it would not be long before Norse mythology would manifest in the Icelandic sagas, producing early figures such as Snorri Sturlson – the composer of the Edda – which/who would gain prominence and notoriety over time. In addition, literacy has been a crucial skill ever since the very origins of the nation, even for the layperson, it was compulsory to be able to read scripture when Christianity took a stronghold on the elite and the common people alike. In any case, according to Alda Sigmundsdottir’s fascinating (if oftentimes surprisingly depressing) The Little Book of the Hidden People, life was often so harsh and grim for the Icelandic people that communal reading and storytelling was one of the few ways they could escape their circumstances for a short while. Read the fantastical tales themselves in order to see how far removed from reality they can be (one in particular is almost certainly the result of the inadvertent ingestion of an hallucinogenic substance) and you’ll get the idea.


An easy way to get a quick fix on the go

As someone who was reading long before they could actually speak, whose favourite thing to do while growing up was to hide out with a pile of books somewhere, and who (eventually) got a degree in literature – harbouring a special focus/interest in mythology and folklore from the beginning of the course – and who, um, once tried to self-publish a “short story” collection on Kindle… I guess it’s kind of inevitable that I would end up coming here, and that I felt like I might fit right in. Even though lately I’ve been in a bit of a slump reading-wise, I always welcome the opportunity to dive right back in, and an entire society geared towards fuelling the habit of reading seems like the ideal environment, and one great example of this, found entirely by chance, is in the park benches in the city which allow you to listen to a sample of Icelandic literature by simply scanning a barcode, as shown in the photo above. I’ve never seen anything like it before.

Of course, I would need to bring at least one book back home with me. A real book, not a Kindle one. I ended up choosing the Elder Edda by (allegedly) Snorri Sturluson, and to be honest I was so overwhelmed by the choice of more modern literature (I’ve just never been into crime as a genre) that I decided to pass – at least for now – and rather admire the sheer legendary might of the literary canon:



So I ended up downloading a short story collection. Also, picking up some token souvenirs from the local grocery store in order to bring a literal flavour of Iceland back home with me. I still don’t know what to do with any of these. Ok maybe except for the herbal tea.



Culture Vulture: The On-going Effort To “Put Myself Out There”

Today it came right home to me just how peculiarly I tend to occupy my own segment of public space.

I went to see a local exhibition a few days ago, and ended up only being able to stay for all of a minute. While I enjoy the activity of going to see a show or an exhibition, in and of itself – seeing what new and potentially inspiring works of art or other type of creativity has just been borne into being – I struggle with the inevitably social side of doing so. Even in a relatively quiet setting, if someone – even one other person – comes in, it changes the entire ambience for me. Indeed it’s even worse for me if it’s only one other person, because then it becomes a Potential Social Situation. You know, where it feels dangerously close to being a thing which feels like a thing you’re Doing Together, rather than simply Doing In The Same Place At The Same Time…
Albeit one that’s not immediately apparent but still, essentially, one.



Pictured: a surprisingly busy normally relatively quiet area in Edinburgh. Mind you it was during the Fringe.

In quite a few posts on this site I’ve made reference to the notion of missing out on something which I can never quite pin down. It just hovers over me, tormenting me in the form of the elusive Idea That Everyone Else Is Doing Some Amazing To Some Extent And Which You’re Kind Of A Big Loser And A Bit Of An Idiot For Not Doing Or Even Knowing About In the First Place.

In a bid to quell this feeling as much as possible (ignoring the infinite regret of having missed out on lots of these things much earlier on in life) I’ve been making more of an effort to do cultural things and expand my mental landscape in the process. When you are only sporadically employed at most, and find that you have an ongoing obstruction to creativity, a chronic inability to prompt yourself into action AND a tendency to magnify niggling worries until they end up being far bigger and more intrusive than they originally were, you start to realise the importance of keeping yourself occupied in a somewhat healthy way. Some of the time, reading a good book can divert and alleviate these encroaching thoughts/feelings but it has to be a really good one. (Few books really draw me in enough to make me forget myself completely but it’s well worth continuing the search for that odd one.)

I try to venture outside what I know every so often, and also to stay in touch with “what’s happening”, which is all too easy to do. Luckily, between Glasgow and Edinburgh there are frequent cultural events which can be attended without too much practical difficulty, many of them showcasing upcoming art and literature. From poets with a profane edge, to niche photography exhibitions, to open questions concerning the meaning of “fake” (very popular in 2017), it’s easy to just “drop in” here and there to check out whatever rouses one’s curiosity. The latest exhibition I went to see had a library theme: it was basically a small special collection of history, travel, art, etc themed books in a communal sitting area, with a smattering of books in the adjacent room suspended from the ceiling.

As someone who trained to be a librarian not too long ago, this felt like one of the things I had to go see at least once. It has been the motivating factor for many of the slight detours I’ve made on recent trips (basically any renowned public library or collection in the city I happen to be in (with the personally infamous inclusion of the Library of Congress – the librarian’s pilgrimage site – which it never occurred to me for a second would be closed on a Sunday…)) because what better way to delve into the psyche of a place – if places can even be said to have any kind of collective psyche – than to meander through the written collections of its literary representative, and even also some up and coming voices from the region. So… a library collection serving as an art exhibition near where I live? Alright then!



More often than not, due to repeat experiences in crowded, noisy, bright museums and galleries and other cultural venues – where the distractions all around by far cancel out any potential enjoyment or appreciation to be had from the actual artefacts on display – I’ve started to try to go to these things less and less, and only occasionally now. Yet as a trainee librarian, one thing which was made very clear was the collective bid to encourage the general public’s patronage and attendance, including measures to make venues more accessible to those with special requirements and/or disabilities. In short, they really want lots of people going to these things, which in and of itself is really no bad thing. Furthermore, as someone who finds that the more personalised and exclusive a place feels the more enjoyable, I realise that I am most likely very much in the minority. There have been occasions, however, when the conditions have been, if not ideal, then perhaps as close to ideal as is possible.

The British Museum in London ran an open evening a year ago (not sure if that’s a regular thing) which held an instant appeal for me as I was alone and didn’t feel like either going on a “night out” alone or, well, going back to my hotel room alone. However it seems that almost everyone in the area had the same idea; cue one of the noisiest and busiest sessions at a museum that I think I’ve ever seen. Although this time, I had a secret weapon – earplugs. Along with a resolute will to make the most of a rare free activity in London.

Earplugs made a huge difference to the ability to appreciate objects of antiquity such as the Rosetta Stone and the personal collection of, arguably, the world’s first librarian. It was then that I was able you appreciate what a cool place the British Museum is, especially during an open evening, when you can (almost) imagine that things in there are about to come to life…

More recently, there was an exhibition at the nearby Tramway Theatre involving a special and now-obsolete type of film being used in the photography of a visiting American artist, which required the entire room – the size of a warehouse – to be almost completely blacked out. In fact, here’s the bit I liked – you needed a torch to go in there, because any exposure to light would have been damaging to the type of film being used. Wandering around in an almost completely dark and empty place was intriguing and a bit good-scary, but of course I was unable to take any photos, even if it was allowed nothing would have been properly visible.

The examples above are, as far as I’m currently aware, exceptions to to the general rule. Due to increasing (over)population and the competing need for everyone to be everywhere at all times – and to take the appropriate selfies to prove they were there – very few places have an ambience of retreat and escape. Yet this is perhaps all part of the challenge of modern living, to find a way to both co-exist with fellow people and to create a way of being both original in and true to oneself whilst sharing an experience which, essentially, was designed for the very purpose of being shared by and amongst people.

It is an ongoing challenge, and I’ve no idea how that will work out for me personally in the future.

I Volunteered With Animals Again

I made the decision to volunteer with animals again. As given away in the title.

I’m always on the look-out for events where I can actually interact with animals, especially in a vegan setting. If there’s one thing I can never understand it’s when animal products are served or consumed in a place where the animals are meant to be enjoying a “safe space” from that very thing. Just over a year ago I volunteered at a place in Spain called Jacob’s Ridge, otherwise known as Pig Village, and as a vegan sanctuary it ticked all the boxed for me. In exchange for a few hours’ volunteering per day, you got a tent, lots of homemade vegan food and the pleasure of interacting with animals with personalities all over the spectrum, and of course falling asleep – and waking – to the sound of pigs snorting and munching just outside.


Pictured: the setting of a previous animal-themed adventure

I didn’t write much about it at the time, because I was only just getting the hang of blogging and there were simply too many angles from which to approach it (going through a writer’s block at the time didn’t exactly help either) so one of these days I’ll need to retroactively write a fuller account of my time there. In the meantime I’ll just focus on the present, and most recent experience.


I’m a member of the London Vegan Meetup group, which I joined a year ago when I realised that you were actually allowed to join groups based in places where you don’t go to an awful lot but simply have an interest in what they might be doing and want to decide, at the time, whether or not you’ll be available, or be willing to make the effort to attend. I was both of these things and, based on a quick read of the website (and the fact that I was looking for an excuse to visit London (and Brighton) again anyway) I signed up and booked into the cheapest accommodation possible. This proved to be not too difficult as student accommodation starts freeing up during the summer months so woo hoo!

As per usual, I scouted around for lodgings which made up the magic combo – affordable, central in location, and with free wifi. However because it was central London I was prepared to compromise on things like cleanliness, comfort and noise level. As for getting to London, I was going to fly down, having had a not too great experience getting a very busy train for a very long five hours last time, but because it was so last minute flight prices had been bumped right up, so I looked again on the train website for journeys that wouldn’t be too expensive. It was then that I noticed that some first class seats were going not exactly cheaply but far less extortionately expensive than usual, and it was the option which allowed for individual seating. That was me sold, although it took a bit of going back and forth before finally committing to the entire thing – the day before departure.

So I packed as lightly as possible and away I went, the journey going without a hitch except that the seats weren’t quite as “individual” as they were advertised as being, resulting in me cursing my decision to “treat” myself to a first-class ticket for the very first time. Luckily the accommodation was within walking (huffing with a suitcase) distance of the train station, and the room was indeed very “spartan” – it resembled a prison cell more than a student’s room to be honest but knowing that I could leave at any time (minus the accommodation price) made it easier somehow.


The actual view from my window. Remind you of anything…?

Rising after virtually no sleep (if any) early the next morning, I popped into Regent’s Park and took some photos – and met a squirrel who was not in the least bit shy about approaching me – before meeting fellow volunteers at Charing Cross Station.


It would emerge that only a third of the fifteen or so people who signed up actually showed up, which was incredibly disappointing (although this wasn’t exactly the first time I experienced this sort of thing) not least of all for the organiser, but we went ahead anyway. We were picked up at the nearest train station by the volunteer who was driving and we arrived at the sanctuary. It was a glorious sunny day for the event to be happening, and the animals – pigs, cows, ducks, chickens, geese and one very friendly goat – were all happily splashing or wallowing around, just as they were meant to be.


A bit of background info: FRIEND Animal Rescue is an organisation based in the rural Kent area which takes in any abandoned and/or neglected animal they can. These are primarily what most people would consider “farm animals” – who are quite possibly the most systematically abused and unfortunate creatures on the planet – along with a few “companion” animals, and here they are allowed to live out their lives in comfort and peace. Also (what particularly drew me to this place) is that it is a vegan sanctuary, with the humans actively promoting a vegan lifestyle, namely through their open days where visiting humans can observe and interact with the animals (subject to the wishes of the animals of course) and learn more about a responsible and compassionate lifestyle.

Back to the volunteer day; knowing that I don’t do well when put in a situation where I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, I decided to simply do exactly what the volunteer I was paired up with was doing, and got to work sweeping out the hen houses, picking up the eggs they had laid (along with the, ahem, accompanying fluids attached to said eggs), refilling water, shovelling manure, and generally meeting and greeting (and getting nibbled and pecked by) the non-human residents along the way.

I learned a few things about some of them; geese and ducks are quite bold and defensive, squawking constantly and trying to peck at you if you get too close;


A not-so-silly goose running the show

Chickens don’t mind too much if you stroke them, providing they’re in the right mood;


Came up to hang out with me at lunchtime

Goats, or this one goat in particular in any case (who I took it upon myself to name Goaty McGoatface in the absence of knowing their name) can be surprisingly friendly, going as far as to follow you for a stroke or two;


Probably goes by a different name

Cows, particularly bullocks, are more massive than you’d imagine;


Their moos are quite earth-shattering

And pigs can demolish entire pineapples and watermelons at an alarming rate;


Pictured: not a video of pigs at feeding time as I’d wanted (current website plan won’t let me) so here’s one of me trying to remain awake and upright for an on-the-farm selfie


Of course, these traits – particularly the ones relating to temperament and personality – are not necessarily ones which define the entire species, as that would be a blanket generalisation which contributes, in part, to the speciesism which humans are all too inclined towards. Some of the negative traits, such as the fear, aggression and irritability, are just as likely to have been the result of mistreatment in their past lives as mere quirks of their individuality – with it being a rescue centre, the animals coming to the place will have come from a background which many would not even want to think about, but one which is all too often a reality – and indeed routine – for virtually all of their kind. However as volunteers we came prepared for entire personality “spectrum”, taking care to practice sensitivity and kindness, and being pragmatic about some of them not wanting to get too close.

In any case, the animals were by and large very good sports at having us there, making brief interruptions to their personal space in order to do the maintenance work required for the open day, although I did get pecked and grunted at more than a few times. Such is the price of caring!


Travelling all that way down, only to have them turn their backs on me 😛

Before even the lunch break (an all-vegan potluck for which I was woefully ill-prepared with cereal bars being my sole contribution) I was absolutely shattered, and genuinely felt unable to continue for much longer. It is rare that I do a full day of concentrated work these days, my energy only tends to only come in the shortest of bursts here and there (if I’m lucky) but knowing it was for a special cause, and being among like-minded people, I pushed on, and I was most glad I did so. As a vegan who strives to do as much good for animals as possible (I still have too many commitment issues to adopt one but I’m working on that), I would love for this to be a more regular thing to do.


As of yet there is no fully vegan animal rescue centre in Scotland to my knowledge – at least one that can be reached without a car. There is one which is still in the process of being funded and is not yet open but I don’t know its exact intended location. Not even FRIEND Animal Rescue could be accessed easily without carpooling, but if there were such a place near where I lived I would be a regular volunteer. Ever since volunteering itself seemingly became a “privilege” which necessitates a rigorous screening process and put on a months-long waiting list – or like me, simply being let go after a session or two for no apparent reason – I’ve found my drive to continue to make a come-back into volunteering wane considerably. One might think that simply a willingness to help would be the only necessary prerequisite (along with a basic background check if working with vulnerable beings) but when I find that I spend most of my time at home not really doing anything of much use to the wider world when I KNOW I want to be more productive, and to participate more in society, one can’t help but conclude that there has to be a reason.

The great thing about places like FRIEND Animal Rescue is that they welcome any and all volunteers with open arms, perhaps in part because compassion and consideration for animals (outside of those relegated to pet-status) is still so rare, despite growing awareness with the help of vegan activists, that all the help anyone can offer is the very least that people can offer these animals who have endured such a hard life.

I’d strongly urge anyone to go visit their nearest animal sanctuary or rescue centre – actually go to meet these animals face to face, and then never allow themselves to forget the faces that will imprint themselves on their mind’s eye. The faces behind the “machine” which only views them as products and property, doing all it can to hide the fact that they, in the truest sense, are people too.


Books I’ve Been Reading Recently Which Have Made An Impression

Books can be – from time to time – exactly what you need to press the re-set button on your life.

Over the past few months I’ve entered a weird sort of limbo, feeling quite low and not having any particular direction to go in – and then acquiring a lot of additional anxiety to add to the mix. Indeed I originally aimed to write this post two months ago, hence why it is dated to two months before I actually got round to finishing writing the entire thing.


For a brief period of time I tried to re-imagine myself as a travel writer, as one might ascertain from my past few blog posts. Having plenty of spare time, and nothing in particular tying me down to my current residence, I jaunted pretty much wherever I was inspired to go. However, after my most recent trip down to London to volunteer at an animal sanctuary, it was unofficially “the plan” to put another plan in place.

However… one thing I did not account for was the possibility of my mood taking a very sudden downturn – previous existential issues which had been humming in the background of my brain for as long as I can remember suddenly got a lot louder and more urgent, and long story short, I’ve really not been in a very good place recently, brain-wise. Indeed, perhaps it is a good thing that, by this time, I hadn’t acquired any greater commitments to any third parties than a remote part-time gig as a freelance literary study guide writer, with no deadlines set in stone. Because I was about to spend at least a good few weeks getting reacquainted with my old regular companion, anxiety – and its bigger and meaner cousin, existential dread. The extent to which I had failed, repeatedly, to “establish” myself in the greater world’s society and culture, and even just in everyday life (by failing to meet many of the milestones which are normally expected of someone my age), was beginning to weigh heavily upon me. For a good few weeks I could do little other than stay in bed numbing myself with Netflix and Youtube re-runs in a bid to silence the ever-growing voice saying, let’s just say, rather scary things to me.

Whether this would have happened anyway, or whether it was a result of a recent change in medication (which can make you feel much worse in the beginning) I’m still not entirely sure, and I still suffer from recurrent depression and anxiety, only now I can (usually (eventually)) leave my bed, and even the house, at some point during the day. There’s no apparent reason why the very things which had been playing on my mind for a long time should have bothered me so much more but there you go. In a bid to cope, one thing which I ended up doing, which I didn’t realise I was doing all that much of at the time, was reading.

Some of this was work-related, which kept my brain somewhat active, and delayed the spiralling of the thoughts I was beginning to have. But most of it was a bid to seek an escape, and some hope. Below are the books in roughly the order I read them in, except where grouping them together makes better narrative sense.

*For now, I will not apologise for the fact that almost all of these books were acquired via Kindle – when you can’t even get round to renewing your library card and don’t want to risk having to ask someone for books you might be interested in (what a terrible would-be librarian I’ve become!) but still need to read things, then you’ll do things which are normally not quite in line with your principles: for me, that’s giving lots of business to Amazon.*


The Humans – Matt Haig


from the Goodreads website

This author has started to have an increasingly greater influence on my outlook on life. “The Humans” was the first of his books that I read, as part of my study guide writing project, about an alien being from a faraway part of the universe coming to earth with an order to destroy  the main character, Andrew, and take his place while completing the rest of his mission. Initially a coldly rational being who is puzzled by the strange-seeming ways of humans, he begins to slowly adapt and even to come to love his “family”, and ends up protecting them from the very mission which he was originally assigned to. Various aspects of the personality of “Andrew” – the alien – emerge through interactions with the humans around him; he is baffled as to why people eat animals and refuses any meat dishes offered to him (could he be an alien version of a vegan?), why people wear clothes and make certain facial expressions, and otherwise do things for no clear logical reason. The detached perspective on the ways of the human race cast a new light on how people find meaning in life. “Andrew” begins to find it in seemingly small things; music, wine, the poetry of Emily Dickinson (the author and I seem to share a bit of an obsession with Dickinson) – and ultimately in a newfound love for his family. The “rules for life” at the end of the book, which “Andrew” writes for his son, are full of deceptively profound pieces of advice, and it’s quite difficult to be honest to not try out at least a few.


The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore


from the Goodreads website

Another book read for the study guide writing project, “The Last Days of Night” chronicles the dawn of the era of electrical lighting, and the resulting legal war being waged by proclaimed light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison on his immediate rival George Westinghouse. Precocious young lawyer Paul Cravath, attempting to make a name for himself far away from his humble beginnings, is tasked with defending Westinghouse, which seems like an increasingly impossible task given the ruthlessness with which Edison is prepared to defend his patent. Meanwhile New York has become, literally, a beacon of light in the new world of America as Edison’s bulbs, despite their dangerous direct current electricity, begin to adorn the streets, bringing new light – and resulting new possibilities – to the people. Paul rises to the challenge, and soon encounters another major figure from the era, Nikola Tesla, who has developed brilliant and unprecedented visions for scientific progress, including the safe harnessing of alternating current which would see safe and reliable lighting being brought to everyone in the country, and eventually the world. Paul’s attention is soon waylaid by the appearance of actress Agnes Huntington, who seeks his legal assistance for another case and is soon shown to be hiding a secret past life.

The main thing which drew me into this book was the portrayal of the characters, who have dialogue almost exactly of the style which would be used today, and indeed the author has a knack for making the world of late nineteenth century New York feel just as vivid, relevant and contemporary as it is today. The secret desire of Agnes to shed her stuffy facade and cut loose into the less reputable corners of New York high society shows a flicker of rebellion which contradicts the flat and lifeless image which many have of that era. Another key detail which gives the narrative an additional relevance is the use of quotes from key modern figures in science and technology, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the internet (at least as we know it today)), which effectively foreshadow the events shortly to come. As a fan of historical fiction (when done just the right way) the juxtaposition of old and new automatically catches my interest and creates the feeling that the past is not so much a foreign country as a thing which is often overlooked and misunderstood by many, and takes a skilled writer to bring back to life.




Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind – Yuval Harari



from the Goodreads website


Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – Yuval Harari


from the Goodreads website

*I’ll get round to reviewing these two books shortly. They require quite a bit more dissection than I feel capable of right now but trust me – they’re quite something*


How To Stop Time – Matt Haig


from the Goodreads website

The most recent release by the author, “How To Stop Time” is a story about a man called Tom who has lived for over four hundred years, due to having an extremely rare condition – “anageria” – which delays ageing and vastly prolongs life. Over the most recent years he has been starting his life over every eight years in a different part of the world under a different identity, and this time he has chosen to be a history teacher at a school in London. He carries the unimaginable emotional burden of hundreds of years of love, grief and strife, having personally known some of the figures who we consider to be icons today, such as Shakespeare. He meets Camille, a fellow teacher at the school who bears her own emotional burden and with whom Tom begins to fall in love, a thing which he never felt able to do ever again. Almost continually on the brink of having his secret identity uncovered, Tom attempts to come to terms with his past and his condition, and tries to find a way to seek meaning in an unnaturally long life.

In contrast to “The Humans”, “How To Stop Time” casts a new perspective on the significance of the human lifespan by provoking thought on how we experience the passage of time. As the former invites you to imagine landing on Earth from an unfathomable distance, the latter invites you to imagine living several consecutive lifetimes, and what such a life would do physically and emotionally to a person. Also, it has a way of making even the oldest-feeling person feel young, which is something which would benefit me seeing as I feel old all the time.


Reasons To Stay Alive – Matt Haig


from the Goodreads website

This is a book which I put off reading for quite a while, but one day recently, decided that I needed to read as soon as possible. “Reasons To Stay Alive” is the personal account of the author’s struggle with severe depression, recalling the worst of the time with emotional clarity, interspersed with thoughts and musings on the nature of depression and how it is perceived and treated by society at large. As someone who has done battle with anxiety and depression on and off (mostly on) throughout my life, this is a deeply reassuring – and of huge value to many more people – book to have to hand when things feel particularly rough and unmanageable. At first worried that the book would contain mere platitudes on the “meaning of life” and how “life is a precious gift and we must live every day to the fullest extent possible” (which to me is not so much helpful as demoralising because if it really were that easy why is not literally everyone doing it by now?), it instead contained a gently but unrelentingly honest examination of the various nuances in mental state which the author experienced on a day to day basis, when simple tasks seemed impossible and the world took on an intimidating hue. It also recalls how the “cure” for depression did not appear suddenly, or indeed even be really a cure; rather the good days eventually began to outnumber the bad ones, small but memorable steps towards the light were made and the author found solace, primarily, in writing. The resounding message is that depression is a common part of the human condition and that it is up to ourselves to find out what gives our own lives meaning. That’s something I’ve been trying to work on for quite a long time now…


The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina


from the Goodreads website

Having watched the show “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” in my teeny-bopper years, I was intrigued to find a “re-imagining” of the show in graphic novel form whilst quite urgently seeking out more reading (i.e. distracting) material on Amazon. The instant download option – and the resulting instant gratification – is just too irresistible for someone who now, more often than not these days, does not leave the house. This was… quite a departure from the TV show.

This version is basically an R-rated version of a very PG-rated show, in which Sabrina is a member of a satanic coven of witches who are not averse to casting terrifying curses on, and even killing, those who interfere with them in any way. An initially innocent high school romance turns rapidly into a murder mystery, and Sabrina as a young novice witch must try to navigate this world. Exactly how this will be done remains to be seen.


The Little Mermaid – Metaphrog


from the Goodreads website

Metaphrog are a Scottish graphic artist duo who produce rich and vibrant illustrations, often to accompany traditional fairytales. Their latest, “The Little Mermaid”, tells the original Hans Christian Andersen version (quite different from the Disney one), of the mermaid who gave up her entire life (at first figuratively then eventually literally) for a young man she rescued at sea. Of course I did not read the book for the traditional tale but rather for the evocative imagery accompanying the narrative. For a while I considered a move into graphic novel writing but I never felt confident enough in my illustration skills – once upon a time I was quite adept at using Photoshop but I’m living proof that if you do not continually maintain your skills they will quite rapidly deteriorate until it is as if you never had them in the first place. I consider myself a fan of Metaphrog now and I feel like they will inspire me in the future.


Neil Gaiman once dubbed the humble book as an “empathy machine”, through which anyone can experience another perspective simply by reading. As someone who, more often than is desirable, misses out on the opportunity to flex and exercise my empathy muscle in a more obvious and active way (say by contributing more creative output via actually writing fiction, as I have long aimed but somehow felt unable to do) I settle for absorbing whatever I can, in terms of literature, and trying to write (or photograph, or compose, or something) about my own perspective, in the hopes that it will have any resonance to anyone out there.

Reading – if and when I cannot write, which is the case an embarrassing amount of the time – at least helps me to feel tangentially involved in the wider world (I think the closest term I can think of is the “zeitgeist”  but that sounds unbearably pompous but hopefully you get what I mean) and as if the spark which will finally kick me into action is waiting on a random page – that it’s just a matter of keeping going. Sometimes that really seems to be all you can do because… well, just because.