Book Review: The Echo Chamber

echo chamber

John Boyne is a prolific writer having had more than twenty books published since his first novel came out in 2000. I have read three of his previous works – The Heart’s Invisible Furies, A Ladder to the Sky and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas – and enjoyed them all. I have also met the author when he appeared at The Marlborough Literature Festival in 2017. He came across as warm and personable as well as being highly entertaining. All of this is to say that, as much as it is possible to like someone you don’t really know, I liked him.

In 2019 Boyne published a novel for younger readers, My Brother’s Name Is Jessica. I was dismayed to see the reaction to this book on social media. As I have not read it I cannot comment on the story, but the abuse Boyne received on Twitter demonstrated how toxic the platform can be when offense is taken. Perhaps it was this episode that inspired The Echo Chamber – a satire on how reputations can be trashed by those determined to ‘cancel’ any who do not agree with their opinion and support their cause.

The tale is told from the points of view of the Cleverley family, who enjoy a life of comfort, wealth and privilege. Sixty year old George works as a popular presenter at the BBC – where he has spent his entire adult life – conducting interviews with the great and the good, some of whom he now talks of as friends. His wife, Beverley, is an author of escapist fiction. Her books may not be regarded as highbrow but have sold in their millions around the world. Nelson, their eldest child, is a teacher with serious social issues. He longs for a girlfriend but struggles to converse in any acceptable way with women. His sister, Elizabeth, aspires to be an influencer, living for the likes and shares of her social media posts as she works to increase her follower count by whatever means. The youngest child, Achilles, is still at school but has found a way to earn money from his good looks, amassing thousands of pounds that he keeps hidden in his wardrobe. The story opens with a brief summary of his birth, an event that coincided with the creation of ‘The Facebook’.

George has always aimed to be open and liberal in his views. However, the contemporary world proves a minefield with its ever-changing vocabulary that must not be misused. When he tweets in support of a young trans woman, but uses the wrong pronoun, a can of worms is opened. With every attempt he makes to explain himself, he makes matters worse.

“‘I admit, I got that very wrong,’ said George, looking genuinely remorseful. ‘And I feel terrible about it. But the terms keep changing and it gets increasingly difficult to keep up. I would never intentionally say something racist, because I’m not racist. Nor, for that matter, would I deliberately insult a transgender person, because I’m not transphobic. But people don’t want to believe that because if they can put these labels on me, then they have a living, breathing human being upon whom they can take out their anger about inequality and injustice.”

One of the angry people seeking out well known names to castigate is Elizabeth. Calling out potentially controversial opinions is a means to garner attention on social media. She uses two Twitter handles, the one that keeps her identity hidden being particularly vitriolic with tweets that sometimes go viral.

Beverley, meanwhile, is working on her latest book while missing her handsome young Ukrainian lover and attempting to look after his tortoise. Absorbed as she is in her own dramas, she assumes her grown children – still living in the parental home and enjoying generous monthly allowances – are getting by fine. With each member of the family making use of the many apps on their smartphones, there is only limited in-person interaction.

The story being told starts well, slows down a little but then picks up and maintains a good pace. Given Boyne’s difficulties with his previous book, I at first questioned the risk he was taking introducing a trans woman as the subject of his first troublesome tweet. It then became clear that what is being explored is the challenge of mentioning any potentially controversial subject publicly. I am told that in real life there actually exist people who spend their time scrolling social media feeds to find someone well known to be outraged at. I had no idea shitstorms were so orchestrated.

Side threads in the unfolding plot bring to the fore how certain subjects can be poked for fun – perhaps in bad taste but generally ignored – while others carry a real risk of attack from the ‘Permanently Outraged of Twitter’ who are portrayed as living for the orgasmic power surge of having their victim ‘cancelled’. By creating protagonists who are in many ways flawed, Boyne demonstrates that it isn’t so much behaviour that is being policed but rather the use of a well known name that can be milked to promote a cause. Truth is unimportant when attention can be caught.

As the story approaches its denouement, the many ill thought out antics of each member of the Cleverley family are brought home to roost. The varied threads start to make sense as the gilded discover they too must face consequences. What had seemed all important is revealed as vacuous, although with money no problem their reckoning could be much worse.

I enjoyed this tale for the witty exchanges and the forthright unmasking of the bullying nature of cancel culture. Boyne may have been driven to leave social media by the furore created around his supposed views, but if staying on message is the only acceptable conversation, critical thinking and listening will become lost skills, to the detriment of all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Random Musings: Writing, reviews and sharing on social media

All writers derive pleasure from their work being read, appreciated and shared. Once published – whether on line or as hard copy – work goes out into the world where it is at the mercy of readers. Responses can be difficult to predict.

As a blogger I can check my stats to see how many people read, like and share my posts. With book reviews this is a long game. Search engines send traffic to my site long after a book’s publication.

I have noticed that some book bloggers complain if their work receives no feedback, especially if neither author nor publisher acknowledges or shares on social media. Whilst I readily admit to the warm, fuzzy feeling such a response generates, I do not consider it either a requirement or a given. When met by on line silence, despite tagging if the post is positive, I do sometimes wonder if my review has not been well received. Have my words not been read as intended? Has the post not been noticed amidst the noise of other activity? Was there better quality content to share on that day?

This got me thinking about why I share other’s writing.

Mostly it is because I happen to spot the piece on my feed, have time to read it and then want to share. This process can be more luck than judgement but the ‘want to share’ aspect is, perhaps, more reasoned.

A pithy or witty review can be a joy to read, whether positive or negative. I have shared reviews of books because I am impressed by the reviewer’s skill.

Certain reviews are better written than others (content, structure, grammar, punctuation). I have chosen not to share Guardian reviews of books I have enjoyed because the review is bland, lacking insight, or contains spoilers – a basic error.

I tend to avoid reviews written for blog tours as so much content created for one title can quickly become repetitive. I prefer social media where content is varied. I may wish to draw attention to the book at another time – a reminder that it still exists.

Everyone is entitled to run their social media accounts as they choose. Nobody is required to share any content – and that includes authors, publishers and publicists.

Reviews say as much about the reviewer as the book and most reviewers acquire a particular style over time. I sometimes share other’s review of a book I have read because the reaction is so different to mine.

Sometimes I spot a review for a book I loved and will share simply to draw attention to the fact that another reader loved it too.

Reading for pleasure does not require the literary deconstruction taught at educational establishments. Being informative in a review may be more broadly useful than admiration from the literati.

At events authors often comment that readers bring to the fore elements of their book that even the author hadn’t been aware of. If a reader doesn’t ‘get’ a book it may simply mean that an element important to the author didn’t resonate with that particular reader. This need not be regarded as a fault of either party.

Following on from this, I am conflicted when authors complain about bad reviews – not the plainly ridiculous such as:

“1*  Didn’t receive my copy, may not have ordered it”

I understand the hurt felt when something that has taken a great deal of time and effort to create is dismissed with what appears lack of basic understanding. Even so, no book is going to be liked by everyone and a review remains a personal opinion.

I should point out that I am always grateful when my posts are liked and shared. There are individuals who I regard fondly as they are particularly supportive of the book blogging community.

I suspect all writers experience moments of doubt when they wonder if the time they devote to creating their words is worthwhile. If writers, and that includes book bloggers, wrote for the plaudits many would not persist.

Book Review: Viral

viral

Viral, by Helen Fitzgerald, explores the impact on a family of public humiliation. In a world where image capture is ubiquitous and data can be shared around the world in an instant, it ponders the potential fallout of behaving in a manner that society finds unacceptable. There are those who seek attention on social media, who value high numbers of followers, views and likes. The proliferation of cameras means that privacy is now a rarity. Other’s missteps are regarded as legitimate entertainment with little regard for the effect such sharing will have on the individuals concerned.

The opening line sets the tone. I was concerned that this was merely a shock tactic but the author is savvy enough to build upon the more nuanced aspects of reactions triggered in order to retain the reader’s attention. Many of the subsequent events played out are equally appalling. The double standards highlighted are more powerful for the subtlety with which they are presented.

Four teenage girls go on holiday to Magaluf where they drink heavily, party and seek no ties sex with like minded boys. Leah did not want her virginal, studious, sober, sister to be there but their mother would not countenance this as an option. Sensible Su was to keep Leah in check. Their mother did not appreciate that Leah was the one wielding the sibling power.

On the morning that the girls are due to leave their holiday apartment, Su wakes to discover that a video of her performing sex acts on a circle of boys in a nightclub has been shared on the internet and gone viral. Grabbing just a few possessions she flees leaving Leah to return to their parents’ home without her. Su hopes that if she lies low attention will wane. The views of the video keep climbing. The press becomes involved.

The girls’ parents are distraught. Father wishes to diffuse the situation without truly understanding how to make this happen. Mother desires revenge, to burden the perpetrators with as much pain as her beloved family are suffering. She struggles to come to terms with the lack of protection her profession, the law, offers for victims of this very modern problem.

As Su tries to work through in her own mind what has happened, and to evade the good intentions of her family, Leah steps up to support their parents who are falling apart. The author cleverly shows just how devastating society’s condemnation can be. This is a loving and supportive family but it is made up of individuals. The world outside their walls is eager to feed on details of their history, to judge and to condemn.

The action never stops. The pain that this family has to go through is exacerbated by their inability to control what is happening and the stress this puts them under. It is not just the teenagers who behave foolishly. The reader knows that attempts to fight back are high risk but it is hard not to empathise with the parents’ need to act rather than passively accept a situation they would never have envisaged, a situation which appears to have broken the lives they worked so hard to achieve.

The denouement is neatly executed. It did not leave me feeling satisfied but, under the circumstances, perhaps nothing could. The story vividly paints the imperfect world in which we live.

This is a fascinating subject and the author tackles it with aplomb. The tale is terrifying in its realism with whatever literary licence taken never detracting from the knowledge that this type of nightmare could happen. There must be few who have never done anything foolish. It would be good to think that the thoughts and discussion this book will provoke may trigger a kinder reaction to the next image or video that is shared without consent.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Faber and Faber. 

Friendship in a virtual world

social-media-students

I have a presence on a large number of social media sites. My use of them depends largely on who I know on each one, my interactions and relationships with followers. The majority of my socialising happens on line and I employ few filters. Where others fear for their privacy I see little of interest in my life to hide. I feel no need to present the world with anything other than what I am.

As a teenager I was an avid letter writer, and when electronic communication became possible I embraced it. From packaged messages sent across linked mainframes, through to email and instant text messaging, I welcomed the opportunity to contact distant friends without having to pick up a phone. I have always felt more comfortable with written rather than spoken words.

I joined Friends Reunited and then Facebook. I reconnected with friends I had not been in regular touch with for over twenty years, able once again to keep up with the aspects of their everyday lives that they were willing to share. More local friends were putting details of their social lives on line and I felt better acquainted with them than I had previously managed through our occasional, passing conversations. I could only see what they chose to post, but such filters exist in any social space.

I use Pinterest as a type of openly available filing cabinet for my thoughts on books and films; Goodreads allows me to connect with other readers and share detailed book reviews and recommendations; Tumblr I browse more than I post, using it for entertainment rather than for any personal connection; Google+ I am still getting to grips with. I use each of these sites irregularly, for specific purposes that I have tailored to suit me.

More recently I have started to use Twitter a great deal, linking up with other writers around the world as well as following those who can keep me abreast of news that is not widely reported in the mainstream media. Twitter has a fast moving news feed that is not always reliable, but is currently one of my favourite sites as it allows comment that has not been filtered as ‘suitable’ for general consumption. In many ways I feel it gives me a window on the world, with the caveat that I can only see it through the eyes of those I choose to connect with.

Facebook is now falling out of favour. I get that it needs to make money to survive, but the personal touch is being drowned out by commercial interests. Whereas I am comfortable sharing, many of my family and friends distrust the way it uses our personal data. If less is shared the site’s purpose and attraction are diminished. As Facebook is my means of linking with people I know personally, those I may still connect with in the outernet, I will not be leaving it any time soon. The pleasure gained from it’s earlier incarnations though has been tarnished.

I do wonder about what I share on the various sites. I put up links to news articles that interest me with no idea if they will be of interest to anyone else. I amuse myself with occasional Buzzfeed type quizzes and share results, aware that some will see this as irritating clutter on their newsfeeds. I promote my writing to an audience that may have no interest whatsoever in the stories that I create.

My on line space is my own and I will use it in a way that suits me. Followers can always unfollow, friends can unfriend or choose to hide what I post. There is though the fear of causing offence by rejection. I feel hugged when I see my stats rise, question the worth of my posts when the numbers fall. Particularly with my writing, the links that I regularly tweet, I worry that my self promotion irritates.

My on line life is time consuming but is now my main link to the world outside my home. Alongside the life I have led and the books that I read, it provides inspiration for my stories. The writers I connect with encourage me to continue, read what I write, and help me gauge what has worked and what has not. I value the feedback I receive from all quarters.

I am not always so good at responses. Particularly on my blogs I am delighted when readers take the time to comment, yet I struggle to talk back to these generous souls. It would seem that conversations on line come no more naturally to me than face to face. I feel awkward and tongue tied, worried that what I write will not be read in the way that I mean.

When I hear social media derided I feel saddened as it has enriched my life despite it’s challenges and limitations. I understand that, particularly amongst young people who may be judged in the future for information they post now, prudence may be wise. For me though it offers a chance to connect on my terms. I can pick up a computer at a time that suits me, set it down if my attention is required elsewhere. Unlike a phone call demanding immediate attention with it’s shrill ringtone, my on line life need not intrude.

Join me then readers, reach out and connect. Within the confines of my sheltered, virtual world, I would very much like to be your friend.

 

 

Waiting out a mind disturbance

I have been thinking about friendship, about the ebb and flow of friends. I do not consider myself to be a particularly good friend. I do not invest enough of my time in maintaining the bond that close friendships require.

Relationships are rarely evenly balanced. There may be give and take on both sides but these do not always match expectations. Resentments can grow when effort appears to go unappreciated, or when demands are perceived to be too great. I have walked away from people in the past because time and again they asked for more than I felt comfortable giving. I find it easier to give than to take, but can only offer so much for so long.

I do not blame the people that I have walked away from but rather my own requirements from the relationship. I suspect that I am not an easy person to befriend with my regular need for solitude and my social awkwardness. What I am capable of giving may well not be what the recipient requires.

Over the past few days it has felt as though the internet has not been my friend. My main source of information and communication has not been providing me with the satisfaction that I have come to expect. I suspect that I am asking too much. Walking away is a possibility, taking a break from going on line. This is not a solution though if the problem lies closer to home.

I have a favourite t-shirt which has this image on it.

A84kLAzCEAAov07

I try to live my life like that, enjoying the journey rather than focusing too much on an end point, a result. In so many areas throughout life we are encouraged to strive for something rather than taking time to notice the good things to be enjoyed along the way.

Last month I decided to sign up for the 100 Happy Days challenge (detailed here http://100happydays.com/ ). I am struggling to continue with this, to pick out a different aspect of each day to focus on. I am undecided if the challenge is proving to be counter productive given that my inability to post each day is making me feel that I am failing.

It is not that I am feeling particularly negative, rather I am suffering a disturbance of my inner peace or balance. Non specifics are bothering me and my usual sources of calm are not helping.

I can walk away from others, from the internet, but I cannot walk away from myself. Zen Dog’s little boat has reached choppy waters.

I must find ways to hold on whilst minimising the damage. I know that this too shall pass.

birdrain

Hanging out on line

I have had a Facebook account for several years. Without it I would know a lot less about the lives of many friends I rarely see. Of course I am aware that I am only being offered the briefest of edited snapshots of their lives, but still. Still it is more than I would otherwise be offered; I am grateful for the little that I am given, for the link into a chink of their lives.

I was encouraged to join Facebook by a friend with whom I used to exchange regular emails. Since he and I have been on this supposedly social site we have not been as intimate. Can a largely electronic, text based relationship be described as intimate? I think that it can. I regret our loss of intimacy as I value the friendship and felt that I was giving something back. Inverted selfishness; I valued being able to give, as much because of the benefits to me as for the hoped for value to him.

On Facebook I keep most of my settings private. I try to take care over what I post, particularly photographs. I try to take care over who I will accept as a friend. I realise though that much of this is an illusion. The real reason why my friendship list is so small is because there are few people who seek me out. I have never in my life been one of the popular people.

This year my use of the internet has changed. I started to blog and put out links to my writing on various sites in order to encourage readers to pay me some attention. Having spent years carefully watching and listening, I started to put a chunk of myself online, accessible to all. I started to say what I thought and, more especially, how I felt. I started to befriend the internet in a way that I had never managed with the face to face people I knew.

As well as setting up this WordPress site I made use of Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and Google+. It took me some time to get into the rhythm of Twitter but, at times, this is my favourite medium for news and expression. It offers soundbite communication and easy sharing of other’s musings in a quickly digestible, largely disposable format. When we attend large gatherings of friends and acquaintances isn’t most conversation like that?

I set up my Google+ quite some time ago but have only just started to use it in the past few weeks. I am not yet comfortable with the settings which seem tricky to manage compared to Facebook. Last week I commented on a Youtube video that amused me, and was quite shocked to see a link appear on my Google+ feed, shared with my circles, many of whom I know only from the blogosphere. I need to learn how to share more carefully on this medium. I need to decide how I wish to use it.

In general though, my active pursuit of an on line profile has made me less concerned about personal privacy. I question whether I have much to hide. I started to write under the moniker zeudytigre and that has largely stuck, but my Twitter account uses my given name and I now link it to this blog.

I also use my given name on Pinterest where I record my book and film reviews. I am not into cutesy craft, fashion or home improvements. I have managed to make this site work for me, the way I want it to. I may still add a board to link to this blog though; I want people to read me. I feel a sense of embarrassment admitting that.

Of all the sites to which I ascribe, my Tumblr is probably the maverick. I have yet to find a use for it beyond a means to take the pulse of a world of young people who know how to think for themselves. It gives me hope for the future. Whether or not I can harness it for myself remains to be seen; perhaps that will be my next project.

In November I took part in NaNoWriMo, an experience that gave me more confidence as a writer. I decided that I would like to pursue my fictional writing so set up a second WordPress blog as a home for some my short stories (Dreams and Demons). I also joined the writer’s community at Tipsy Lit (link via my sidebar button). I am gaining a lot of pleasure from this new direction and have had some positive feedback from other writers, which is always very satisfying. I still feel somewhat reluctant to describe myself as a writer.

With all of this activity to manage it now feels as though the internet is my hangout. I certainly feel more comfortable here than I ever did at physical gatherings of people. The one thing that I do need to watch is that I do not stop reading the books that do so much to feed my mind, essential if I wish to improve my writing. I can spend far too long on line.

As well as my writer’s pseudonym I continue to use my original avatar rather than a personal photograph on many of the on line sites that I frequent. As a back garden hen keeper, the picture of a mother hen with her three eggs seemed to suit me (I have three children). I feel more comfortable being known by that picture than by my face. Perhaps, in time, I will gain enough confidence to allow my true self to be seen more often.

As my children have grown away from me to pursue their own lives I have felt a need to fill the void that they left. My writing has offered me this possibility. Those who mistrust the internet and wonder at my willingness to open up to on line strangers may well be those who can easily socialise off line. As I am not comfortable in such an environment this space has allowed me to interact with like minded people who I would struggle to meet otherwise. My hope for the coming year is that I may expand my community of acquaintances and continue to find help and inspiration, as well as readers, amongst those I meet.

Finding the readers is a tricky balancing act. I wish to promote what I write but do not wish it to be the only aspect of my conversation. I do not wish to use my social networks purely for self advertising as that alone is bound to put people off linking to me. I am not yet confident that what I write is worth other’s time, that it is good enough to warrant their attention.

If this is where I go to party then I desire conversation more than mass attention. I wish to discuss, dissect and muse over the significant and the inane. I am interested in books, films, current affairs and politics; I am not interested in celebrities, cooking or fashion. I seek out the blogs and the sites managed by those who offer me insight and feedback.

Am I still only using my ‘friends’ for my own means? Perhaps that is all that any of us ever do. Perhaps the best that we can hope for is that we may also give enough back to make the interaction worthwhile for all concerned.

ChickenCartoon

Attack the message, not the messenger

It is political party conference season here in England.

First up we had the Liberal Democrats, who did nothing to improve their crumbling credentials by headlining with their economic policy game changer (not): a plastic bag tax (Lib Dems back 5p charge for plastic bags). The party were mocked in the media and then dismissed. At a time when so many people are suffering economic hardship; with the cost of living steadily rising while wages stagnate; to open their annual conference with the announcement of a plastic bag tax suggests that they have no worthwhile policies to offer. If they later managed to announce any, then the headlines generated by this initial, punitive and ineffective measure drowned them out.

Second to the rostrum were UKIP. Their unfortunate buffoon (the one who hit the headlines over the summer for referring to ‘bongo bongo land’) made the headlines by calling the women in his audience sluts (UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom under fire over ‘demeaning’ joke). With that, UKIP shot themselves in the foot. It was unfortunate, and their leader was furious, but the media lapped it up. What disturbs me more though is that this has not merely been mocked and set aside. UKIP policies are gaining a lot of support; there is a real possibility that they may gain a huge increase in votes at next years European elections. The media is responding to this by trying to personally smear their leader, Nigel Farage. A couple of photographs have been released on social media recently showing him with a darkened upper lip, like a little moustache. I have no problem with reasoned criticism of policy or calling out buffoonery, but attempted character assassination with a cleverly taken or photo shopped picture suggests biased desperation.

Next to perform were the Labour Party, who managed their conference with fewer gaffes. It is unfortunate that their leader is now embroiled in a row with the odious Daily Mail newspaper over an article published about his father (Ed Miliband in row with Daily Mail over ‘smear’ on father). I refuse to read this paper with it’s hate and fear promoting propoganda. However, the timing of this row detracts from what was seen to be a reasonably successful conference for Ed Miliband. I may not be a Labour supporter but, once again, I object to going for the man (and his family) rather than what he stands for.

The Conservative Party conference is ongoing, but one little nugget that I have picked up on was their attempt to ban one activist from taking part in a panel discussion on the Rise of Food Banks (Off to Conservative Party conference, despite them trying to ban me from going). All of the political parties aim to use their conferences as a PR exercise; to outline policies that they believe will appeal to their core supporters and potential swing voters. It is the growing tendency to get personal when the political parties do not offer the media something significant enough to mock that makes me mention Jack Monroe. She has only recently started to come to the public’s attention, and, with that rise in profile, has come the hate. She tweeted yesterday that:

‘The abuse from strangers is endless: I’m ugly, fat, vile, ‘rank looking’ – it’s draining, exhausting. Don’t they have better things to do?’ (Lifted from the Twitter account of A Girl Called Jack (@MsJackMonroe)).

Of course, she is not the first person in the public eye to suffer cyber abuse. The classicist Mary Beard, amongst others, has been grossly insulted and threatened via Twitter (Television classicist Mary Beard sent bomb threat by ‘trolls’ just hours after apology by Twitter boss). It is a symptom of a wider malaise.

Politics has always been a dirty game to play with rumours, scandals and media outrage forcing those involved to back down or resign with depressing regularity. The public seem to expect their representatives to behave in a way that they themselves may not be capable of managing. It is when the slurs are invented, or contain opinion aimed at being personally hurtful, that I feel uncomfortable. However the saying goes, words can do damage. We may not be physically stoning those we disagree with, but by hounding them with hate filled dialogue we show how unwilling we are to listen to an alternative point of view; to even allow it to be voiced in case others support it.

UKIP is a case in point. There are many who vehemently oppose their ideologies, but at least they offer an alternative. If a voter disagrees with what they offer, they will not vote for that party. I would hope that it would be the policies and rhetoric that they are rejecting, not the leader with the photoshopped moustache.

The three main political parties in this country are depressingly similar in policy and outlook; I have posted my views on this before (Tolerance in adversity). Jack Monroe is not a politician and is new to the public arena. She is refreshing to listen to as she will still say what she thinks. UKIP representatives will also sometimes say what they think, and can be judged accordingly. Perhaps it is this honesty that I miss in political dialogue; it is very hard to know who to support when pronouncements willfully obfuscate.

Sometimes those in public life need to be called out over their views, but attacking their appearance is unnecessary. I may have little time for those who court publicity for themselves rather than a cause, but I still believe that all should be treated fairly and with a degree of courteous humanity.

English: Shows the 649 seats after the electio...

Letter writing

I have a birthday coming up later this month and have received some cards already. The best thing about these cards is that they contain letters; I do so love to receive letters. In these days of instant communication and prolific use of social media a personal letter is a rare treat, especially when it is my only contact with acquaintances who are uncomfortable with sharing details of their lives on line. Although I would welcome more regular contact, these occasional updates are appreciated.

Most of the personal letters that I receive are from family members. My parents do not own a computer and I dislike talking on the telephone. We have been corresponding regularly since I moved to England twenty- five years ago. These days I word process my missives and print them off in a large, clearly spaced font as my mother’s eyesight is failing. She would probably like it if I wrote to her more regularly than I do. However often I wrote this would probably be the case.

When I was growing up I loved to write letters. I had many pen pals and, every few weeks, I would craft pages of rambling prose about my life for them to read. Perhaps this was the precursor to my blog.

Today I received letters from my brother and his wife who live on the other side of the world. Although (or perhaps because) my brother has worked with computers for much of his adult life, he will not sign up to any social media sites. The letters that we exchange at Christmas and birthdays are now our only form of contact. He left our parent’s home when I was a young child so my view of him has been gained largely through this correspondence. I sometimes wonder how well we know each other at all; I guess the same could be said about anyone though.

In his letter my brother told me that he has recently celebrated his thirtieth wedding anniversary. His wife seems so lovely and I regret that I have not had the opportunity to get to know her better. She shares my brother’s mistrust of social media but is also kind enough to write the occasional letter to me. They both write of the same experiences but in very different ways. A letter can be a window to a personality, but only through a glass darkly.

A lovely young lady, who is the daughter of a good friend of mine, also sends me a letter from time to time. I would love to get to know her better but value the communication that we have. One of the attractions of Tumblr is that it allows me to gain a better understanding of the next generation. It is too easy for us oldies to mix only with their peers. How are we to support young people with the issues that they must face if we do not have any understanding of the lives they must live?

Sitting down to write a letter takes more time and discipline than a few lines on a social network. A letter is crafted for the recipient whereas a status update is offered to a crowd. I do not gain the same pleasure from writing letters that I once did, perhaps because I write of myself in so many other ways now. I am still more comfortable corresponding than talking though. I find it hard to express myself as I would wish with the spoken word.

Communication with others is so valuable yet each of us harbours different preferences for achieving this sociability. I will read and reread the letters that I receive but can only interpret the information contained therein based on my own experiences. Conveying an intended message with words is an art form; perhaps that is why so many shy away from it.

Although the letters that I receive cannot show me the entirety of the writer, they can open up a side of them that others may not see. Our personal writing style can be as individual as our character, multifaceted and full of a curious ambiguity.

We can never fully get to know and understand another individual, not least because new experiences are constantly changing how we think and feel. The occasional snapshots offered by a letter are still of value. They are a reaching out that tells us we are thought of; a sharing of highlights offered for our delectation. A letter does not invade our time and space but may be enjoyed at our leisure.

I hope that there will always be those who are willing to write to me; the consideration offered is appreciated as much as the update.

English: Postbox for letters and bird box. Woo...

Moments

I indulged in a moment of self pity last night. Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that this is foolish and unjustified. I lead a very cushy life surrounded by comfort and love; by any reasoned measure I already have more than most can hope for.

My moment was probably triggered by tiredness more than dissatisfaction; a good night’s sleep has succeeded in restoring balance to my perspective. It has made me think though, of the impression we make on those whose lives we touch with our interactions. As an avid sharer of the minutiae of my life these moments have the potential to colour views and feed prejudices. What was a fleeting dip in my mood can too easily become how others choose to see me.

I know so many people who present to the world only a carefully edited version of their lives. They wish to be seen in a certain light and will keep private and hidden any aspects of their thoughts and experiences that do not conform to this image. My choice to be open about what I think and feel may appear to be more honest but, as only fragmented segments can be offered, these can come across in a very different way than was intended. How I see myself from the inside, knowing the reasons and driving forces behind actions, will not be how I am seen by others, however much I share.

Perceptions can be tricky to deal with. Manners and social convention exist to enable us to move through society in an acceptable way. Dealing with situations where people appear to have made a negative judgement can still be a challenge though. I sometimes find it difficult to know if I am being treated maliciously or if I am merely taking offence where none was intended. I guess we would all prefer if our detractors would disregard us rather than seek to subtly attack and make others see us as they do.

I am always grateful when my friends make the effort to spend time with me. Much as I enjoy and value social media, it is good to enjoy positive human contact from time to time. I do not expect to be liked by all but it is comforting to feel liked by some, especially those whose regard I value.

My fluctuating moods have been a particular challenge this year. One of my friends suggested that it is my age, which I find a great comfort as it means that the exasperating volatility will eventually pass. I can easily dismiss any momentary feelings of self pity as unjustified, but the despondency I sometimes feel can be harder to set aside. However much I may espouse Pollyannaish tendencies, I can still suffer some fairly dark moments.

But they are just moments. For most of the time I am generally fine, getting on with the quiet routine of living my life. I have a very good life and I am mindful of my many advantages. If I share a thought or a feeling then that will be what I am experiencing at that time. What happens next may be apposite, but could just as easily be a whole new chapter.

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Off line

My on line life is important to me. I value the interaction with others, many of whom live too far away to make meeting up on any sort of regular basis possible. I value the fact that those who live closer share aspects of their lives that I would not otherwise be aware of on their social networks. I value the opportunity that the internet offers me to read the opinions and musings of interesting people who I would be unlikely to meet in any other way.

As I have trimmed and tailored my social life to better suit my fluctuating moods over the past year, my on line activity has offered me a lifeline. However down and insular I have felt, I have been able to log on and reach out to a world that keeps turning whatever personal crisis I am dealing with. There has always been somebody out there, however near or far they may be, willing to offer me wise words.

Last weekend I set off with my husband and sons for a few days camping in the New Forest. With my daughter away from home for a month this was to be our main family holiday. Last year we took a cottage near the coast for a week but did not consider the trip a success. With lots of space and comfy beds the children felt too much at home and did not interact with my husband in the way that he likes when on holiday. Sleeping in a tent forces us all together. With only natural light available we sleep and rise at much the same time; with only limited space and facilities we survive as a team.

Although my ageing bones can only cope with sleeping on an air bed for a few days at a time I am happy to share the adventure that living under canvas offers. What I had not expected was to be totally cut off from the rest of my life for the majority of our time away. Before setting off I had topped up my smartphone and packed the in car charger. When the phone battery ran down at the end of the first day and the charger failed to work, I found myself off line for the remainder of the holiday.

A few friends have been away this year to beautiful places so remote that no internet is available. On their return they have commented that they found this restful; I did not. Of course I was fine, but I missed being able to communicate. I missed the interaction and the ability to reach out to those who would understand what I was going through, whatever that may be.

As my children have grown older and more independent they have developed their own interests. Although I wish to know about their thoughts and plans, their detailed knowledge of esoteric subjects leaves me with little option but to prompt, smile and listen rather than join in. I do not possess the cognizance that would enable me to usefully add to a conversation that revolves around a discussion of the detailed workings of electronic or mechanical devices. It is left to my husband to offer useful responses; perhaps this is a part of what he enjoys about our family time away.

Our location was not so remote that I could not have sought out a WiFi link on our days out, but that is not how I choose to go on line. I wish to participate fully in each family activity; to step away for the sole purpose of logging on would have been a disruption too far.

For me, the internet is something that I turn to when I am not needed elsewhere; when I have a little natural solitude that I may choose to use as I please. I did not wish to miss out on family time, to choose not to join in with the holiday in order to log on. Whilst I gain enjoyment from sharing it is not a necessary part of the fun.

I once saw a sign in a building that amused me. It said ‘In the event of fire, please leave the building before tweeting about it’. I guess this past week has shown me that I can still have an enjoyable holiday without links to the rest of my life. However much pleasure and benefit I may gain from it, I am not totally addicted to my social networks.

Along with a comfortable bed and a private shower, getting back on line was one of the home comforts that I looked forward to enjoying on my return. With all that has been happening while I have been away, it will now take me some time to catch up with what the rest of the world has been doing in my absence.

Español: Logo WiFi Vectorizado