I suppose most of us have been reading more during the pandemic, and more of us are lending books – although my policy has been only to lend out books I don't want back, as no matter how many threats you issue if you want your book returned, even your best friends will ignore the instruction! I'm also suspicious of book groups, probably because I rather fell foul of one I was in some years ago, which consisted of a group of women who used the opportunity to get together and generally use the time to complain about men.
As a counter to this, when it was my turn to lead the discussion I selected the book Iron John
by the American writer and Jungian psychologist Robert Bly, who is famous for all the wrong reasons, like encouraging men to hug trees – he didn't, and he doesn't hate women either. But he used a fairy tale about a scary creature – Iron John – who befriends a young boy and teaches him to be a man, as a way of using myth to explain the stages of a man's (and woman's) life. It's one of my favourite books and I re-read it every so often, but the other members of the group hated it – their choices had been stuff like Sex in the City
. Maybe they thought I was making a point – and maybe I was.
I ended up with several more copies of the book as they practically hurled their purchases back at me in disgust. However, that was useful, as the book's subtitle is 'a book about men', and I subsequently lent copies to several men I thought needed re-educating, none of whom apparently managed to get much past page 32. Even so, they never gave me my books back. Still, cast your bread on the waters and it will come back as toast, as someone (not Robert Bly) said.
Like T E Lawrence, who boasted that he could 'tear the heart of any good book in an hour', I've always found book reading easy. But I've never been totally comfortable with reading online material, as not being very detail conscious, I tend to miss the important bit out. In a book you can always retrace the pages if you missed what happened to the serial killer's last victim, but if it's about moving money online or using one of those price comparison sites, I develop panic symptoms.
In fact, I was getting so anxious that my daughter-in-law, who is a witch, provided me with some sage leaves that you burn to clear the air of negative influences. So, when faced with a ginormous increase in my energy costs from a well-kent Scottish supplier, I decided I must grasp the online nettle and change to a greener alternative. After much burning of sage leaves (so much so that the cat left the house for the rest of the day – he probably thought it was burning down) I managed to move my business to a nice helpful supplier which actually employs real people, who will rapidly answer emails using their own names (I'm not advertising them but they have something to do with sea life).
I suspect most people of my vintage would be happy to pay the same or even more for essential services, when it's possible to be in contact with an individual – even by email – rather than having to send off messages to some call centre which is probably staffed by a robot anyway. Many years ago, I worked for the then Inland Revenue in a small local office that dealt with self-employed people. A number of of them were farmers who would come in for a chat about their accounts, and although they usually tried to 'massage' their profits, it was all quite good humoured, and we were often on first name terms. Nowadays, it can take an hour to get through to the HMRC on the phone, and then it will be the wrong department. I can sort of understand why tradespeople prefer to be paid in cash.
Although I may have portrayed myself as an elderly hippy, I can be logical when it suits, but sometimes logic cannot provide answers. Some years ago I was driving along a local road, which is rural but usually quite busy, and out of the bushes at the roadside emerged two large black animals, about the size of a large spaniel, that were cat-like but looked more like black panther kittens – they had long black tails that curled up at the end and their heads were more panther-like than a domestic cat's. They continued play-fighting with each other and ignoring the traffic which slowed down to watch them – several drivers winding down their windows to get a better look, which reassured me that it wasn't just me seeing things. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, they vanished into the hedge, leaving us all wondering what we had seen.
There's a belief that the British countryside is home to a whole range of 'cryptozoic' creatures, supposedly escaped from zoos, yet zoos are never missing a resident when one of these beasts is seen, no-one has ever found a body, and the creatures tend strangely to disappear into thin air. In a book called, appropriately, Mystery Black Cats
, the writer and artist Merrily Harper has examined hundreds of accounts of visits from these strange animals ('cat flaps' she calls them), and after weighing up all the evidence, comes to the conclusion that they originate from other dimensions, along with fellow creatures like fairies, crop circles, or the Loch Ness monster. Her theory is anathema to scientists, but Merrily Harper would say that scientific thinkers are obsessed with 'explanationism', when sometimes all the evidence suggests that there may be things which are currently beyond explanation. I only know I would love to see those beautiful panther cubs again.
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant