One of my favourite book titles is Seth Godin’s, Unleashing the Ideavirus. For me it meets the copywriter’s dream of encapsulating a detailed concept in a single word. What I like about the concept of Godin’s Ideavirus is that I understood it in seconds and in seconds I could pass its message on to others. This almost immediate capturing of our imaginations and ease of replicating to others is the beauty of viruses.
Networked Blogs on Facebook is a clever little app that I’ve liked this week. I received a request from my friend Trev asking me to confirm him as author of his blog; I did so and decided to put this blog on there. I had to ask several friends to confirm me as its author; which they did and now Elizabeth has asked me to confirm her authorship of her blog. Within my small corner of the blogosphere, Networked blogs are going viral. Networked Blogs is a fantastic example of an Ideavirus.
As I work for a science museum, albeit one set in a beautiful Grade II listed Queen Anne house thereby ticking more boxes than merely the science, I’ve felt a desire as well as a need to acquaint myself with that science. At the Edward Jenner Museum that science is smallpox (a truly horrifying virus that killed one in three of those unlucky enough to be infected and spread to every corner of the globe) and its eradication thanks to the development of a vaccination by Dr Jenner in 1796.While 2010 is the 30 year anniversary of the eradication of smallpox, it is far from being relegated to medical history. A Horizon documentary, Why do viruses kill? made reference to smallpox as a stepping stone to our understanding of disease and our relationship with viruses. While Horizon focused on Professor D A Henderson of the Centre of Biosecurity of UPMC saying that “it’s quite possible that this man has saved more lives than anyone else alive today,” the person to save more lives than anyone, dead or alive is arguably Edward Jenner. Professor D A Henderson headed up the World Health Organisation to realise Jenner’s dream of smallpox eradication but it all began with a country doctor in Berkeley.
Vaccination is such a part of our lives that we sometimes fail to remember how extraordinary it is. Edward Jenner is one of ten scientists to feature on the set of stamps issued by Royal Mail today to commemorate their 350th Anniversary but Jenner was accepted as a fellow of the Royal Society for his work on cuckoo’s; when it came to vaccination he experienced a certain degree of ridicule. When you stop and think about it, it is pretty bizarre to put puss from a diseased pock into a newly opened wound.
It was good news for the intelligent and rational when Andrew Wakefield withdrew his terrible piece of research that he used to platform his views on the link between the MMR jab and autism but while unforgivable that Wakefield touted his peculiar ideas as science fact; that he had his peculiar ideas is perhaps not so strange. That is why I think it’s so important to celebrate Jenner’s work. His story is not just that of vaccination but about good science and having the confidence to push the boundaries of societal understanding for the greater good. And Jenner didn’t just develop vaccination; he began one of the most important branches of modern medicine, he is the Father of Immunology. Our understanding of allergies, autoimmune diseases and transplantation originate with his fundamental work. Quite right that the Royal Society put him in their top ten, Edward Jenner changed science.
My enthusiasm for all things Jenner is hardly subtle but what I need to do is start to infect people with it. Several people have done very good work with marketing viruses; Luke Jerram combines science and art with his staggeringly beautiful glass sculptures and Natalie Ireland encouraged people to knit viruses as part of the 2009 Manchester Science Festival. Seeing a virus in glass or wool changes our perfection of it as it takes it from the microscopic beyond the realms of many of our imaginations to something tangible that we can begin to relate to. Something that visitors to the Facebook group I help run will recognise is the Friday virus game that I put up. I’ve researched a number of these simple, yet rather addictive, games and hope that in addition to people playing them and picking up some ideas about viruses, they’ll recommend them to their friends.
The key is the idea. Jerram’s idea of beauty, Ireland’s idea of quirky, my idea of playful. Science needs reimagining as something that is far from dull. I’ve been guilty of this myself as I simply failed to appreciate the relevancy of science to my life. I appreciated all of the hard work the clever people put into it but unless I had an actual consumable product; it was incomprehendable abstraction. I’ve got some big ideas that I hope to have the opportunity to explore; ideas that take the science and make it relevant to people’s lives. Because once an idea has a host it can infect, it’s ripe for spreading! All you need to do is fit the idea molecules to the host.
There comes a point when you are so exhausted that sleep becomes something you can feel, a sensation in the limbs that you recognise from its lack thereof. Combined with the smell of fabric softener on the sheets and the sound of your partners breathing, the faint gurgle of the dishwasher and the occasional passing person outside, a picture is created within your senses about what sleep is and then your body screams for it through angry, painful withdrawal.
When I was a small child my brother and I would argue with my mum that listening to the radio was not tiring. We couldn’t recognise that she was being honest when on certain occasions she claimed to be too tired to listen to music while driving the car. In addition to my brother and me, my mum at that time cared for 14 horses on our stud farm, kept a clean and tidy home and produced two servings of dinner as my father got home too late for us all to eat together.I’m no stranger to feeling tired. At 18 I caught a virus that it took me over four years to recover from. ME or Post Viral Fatigue is devastating. It’s a level of exhaustion where at your worst you can’t read or focus on a television program. You lie in bed struggling to make coherent sentences from a sluggish brain to speak through a mouth where every movement tires the jaw. I can appreciate why Lynn Gilderdale wished to end her own life. My own experience left me with a profound gratitude that my own case hadn’t been worse and that I recovered in a relatively short period. ME is an illness however, the tired I feel now is not.
I’ve worked fairly solidly throughout my twenties but have been completely unprepared for a 40 hour week with an hour’s commuting each day. Sitting with your laptop on the sofa in thick socks isn’t true work. Taking a walk and stopping for a coffee to clear your head isn’t true work. Feeling a bit tired and watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy then making an early start on the risotto you fancy for tea is not true work. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t have a nicer place of employment; I start at ten so I miss the morning traffic, I drive out along country roads to a small town to an office in a listed building where the gardener makes pots of fresh coffee, I then work in a small office at a job I love, before leaving at six and once again missing the traffic. But from half past nine to half past six I am doing something and lunch is rarely more than ten minutes snatched to heat and eat a bowl of soup.One night last week I got home, changed and headed over to my boyfriends flat. I started cooking without sitting down because I feared I wouldn’t be able to get up again. He always puts music on for me; that night I requested silence. I could cook. I wasn’t unhealthily tired in a post viral way but I was exhausted. I was happy to cook the meal I’d promised but music was one thing too much.
The weekend that followed began around 7am each day as my boyfriend's youngest announced his waking via the baby monitor. Of course, the rent I pay on my own flat entitles me to weekends with as much sleep as I could possibly desire but then I don't live to work and the weekend is the time I have to really be myself, the woman I only truly became acquainted with while sitting on the floor playing whatever game caught the children’s imaginations that week. I was delighted to make toast on Sunday; pressing my stamp into pieces of bread to reveal 'I love you' messages in dark brown detail for my guys.
Just like my mother, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I love my life right now but I'm tired. I was close to not appreciating all that I have when I read a statement by Joshua Ferris in the Observer magazine; 'As far as I'm concerned, writing a book is the most preposterous thing a person can do. Because it's so all-consuming. Even a mediocre writer has done something really difficult. You can dismiss a book as a bad book, but you can't dismiss the achievement as a bad achievement.' This relates to so many things, perhaps I'm not a great academic but I have written 100,000 words of academic text and while it may not change the world, my PhD thesis will earn me my doctorate. I may make a terrible stepmother to my boyfriend's kids but I will be there and I'm patient and interested in them and the things they say and no matter what happens I'm on their side unconditionally. Considering that my ME once meant I was nearly bedridden for a number of months, that I'm living the life I am is an achievement. My exhaustion is temporary. Just like starting school, starting ones career is tiring stuff but we adapt and get used to it. What is important is that we note the victories and enjoy our time. I have never believed that our school days are the happiest of our lives; I’m a far happier adult than I ever was a teenager but the sentiment is right. A life busy with work and family and friends is wonderful when written down like that. Lest I harbour overly fond memories of 2009, I was unsure what direction my life was going in. Now I have a career path and it is good to stop, take stock and feel grateful for this point in my life where I’m on my path but it could still lead anywhere.
Still, despite the fact it’s only 9pm, I think I’m going to turn in. This column is the last thing on today’s to-do list.
Something I love about Southeast Asia is the fact that I fit there. I’m small you see. I am fairly short and that is fairly short with reasonably long legs. Meaning I have short arms. Oh and I have small hands. Not only do I struggle to get things out of tall cupboards but I need to concentrate if I’m to hold a pint glass with one hand (my habit of holding a pint of bitter with both hands saw my ex refer to me as looking like a thirsty squirrel, whatever that means). It’s far from a significant impediment to my life but is sufficiently irritating to continually remind me that I don’t quite fit this England of bigger people. Shops place things just out of reach and part of my love of high heels stems from the fact it lifts trouser hemlines out of the mud. I can’t wear bangles because they fall over my hands unless I keep my fingers splayed; fingers that I must wear my grandmother’s rings on the middle fingers of instead of the fourth fingers she wore them on.
So I love my car. My car is a toy car, a dodgem of a vehicle with seats that hold me snugly and a steering wheel I can hold for extended periods without my hands aching because it is too thick. No surprise my car is Japanese. I drive a marina blue mx5; an early model with pop-up headlights that peep frog-like over the bonnet. It can be a bit grumpy on cold mornings (like myself) and is rather impractical in a country where it seems to rain continually but it makes people smile (which I hope I do). The car enthusiast at work approves and the non-enthusiasts think it’s really cute. To use a girlfriend’s phrase; it is a car full of win.
Except it isn’t of course. It’s 19 years old and has had a little drama recently. After driving back to Gloucester at the tail-end of Christmas it then sat (cosily I thought) under a blanket of snow for nearly three weeks. When it came to taking it out again, the battery was completely dead. A failed jump-start blew a fuse so that after the battery was charged, it still needed a call-out from an auto-electrician. It ran for a week and then the screen wash ran out. I didn’t imagine this would be a difficult situation to amend but I needed to consult my owner’s manual to work out how to open the bonnet only to find the hose from the screen wash container had disconnected (something I discovered when the screen wash I poured in sprayed out the bottom, hitting hot metal and hissing dramatically). Still, to the best of my knowledge it is in fine running order, parked as it is outside my flat.
My boyfriend’s car has also been under the weather recently and he has been driving his stepfather’s Audi Coupe Quattro (his stepfather being something of a collector of cars and having it going spare). One night he asked me to drive with him to collect his car and then follow him to his mother and stepfather’s house to drop off the Audi. Nothing makes you aware of your driving quite like your boyfriend throwing you the keys to his BMW and asking you to drive it unchaperoned!
I’d driven his previous car, an Alfa Romeo 166 Super, but found the experience hampered by the fact that it was in poor condition even by his fanboy standards; the driver’s seat had been welded into position and my boyfriend despite being five inches taller than me, has shorter legs but longer arms. This required a driving position that would engage my abdominal muscles did I have such a muscle group; instead I held myself up by gripping the steering wheel. The BMW is a 530i Sport and a whole lot of black and shiny and magic tree fresh. Importantly, I could adjust the seat.
I said of driving the Alfa that I felt insulated and separate from the world in a way that sitting a short distance off the tarmac in my shouty badly insulated terrier of a car had me wholly unprepared for. The Beemer was similar to the Alfa but confident and self possessed in a comforting way that the Alfa with its sexy silhouette was a touch arrogant and emotionally distant in its epitome of cool way. A Beemer cossets you; no wonder drivers of them are universally referred to as cocks.
I’ve driven a transit van across the UK and a campervan from Sydney to Adelaide and I fear I place my boyfriends BMW in a similar bracket. As a passenger I adore it. I love the luxurious leather seats, climate control that means I can sit at a cosy 23 degrees while my boyfriend sits in a cooler 19 degrees and the muffled rumble that sends his two year old to sleep in minutes. But as a driver it is a utility vehicle with a massive steering wheel and it feels plain odd not to change gear. I’ll keep my Japanese toy car for my commute thank you.
The experience was yet another in my realisation that a car is about far more than getting from A to B and this week it was also the location for a wonderful conversation with my boyfriend’s eldest child. He’s four years old and asked me what the numbers on the fuel pump meant. I explained that they were how many “measuring jugs” of petrol his Daddy was putting in the car. Sharing in him suddenly understanding the meaning that numbers can have was magical. He then asked what the different pumps were for and I said cars were a bit like people; some like petrol and some like diesel, just like how his Daddy and I drink coffee but he and his brother drink milk. He absorbed this and looked very serious before putting his hands on the freezing glass and shouting “magic handprints!” We then made handprints on the glass and watched them disappear until his father returned from paying. I never thought a garage forecourt could be so much fun.
In recent years it seems to have become the case that admitting you lean to the right is akin to saying you enjoy a little light goat sacrifice in the garden, that you lack empathy for your fellow man and that you understand where Nick Griffin is coming from. Given my interest in diverse cuisine and a tendency to speak before thinking, I can allow the first two to a degree but Griffin is a moron. Griffin represents to many of us leaning to the right what suicide bombers represent to Muslims; they claim to share a viewpoint but they get it utterly and horribly wrong.
I wasn’t always right-wing. My parents and grandparents voted Tory but as an idealistic teenager I found some of their views a little tough. My paternal grandfather in particular struck me at times to be lacking sympathy for those less fortunate. As a first year Sociology student studying the welfare reforms ignited by the chocolate factory owners I found theory to explain my feelings that perhaps we were other than the result of the effort we put in. I also found a vocabulary for my fear that my academic achievement was more about my intelligent and articulate family that bought me books and took me to museums than it was my own efforts. These ‘demons’ as they were brought into my life someone who clung to the notion that our successes and failures could be explained by external factors and for a while I bought into that persons politics.
Yet whilst the idea that poor circumstances might not be our responsibility had its appeal, it never rang true. I was a capitalist and I simply didn’t believe it to be the case. My heart said that we were each masters of our own destiny and that my potential success lay in my hands alone. It was out there waiting to be seized but it absolutely was not waiting for me; it was merely there for whoever cared to do the seizing. I increasingly struggled to understand those that seemed to have an innate sense of entitlement.
At the weekend I read an article in the Observer* Magazine entitled The Lost Generation. In it Andrew Hankinson (29, unemployed) argues that ‘Baby boomers took all the good jobs, the free education and the cheap housing, and left their kids with nothing but the credit crunch and the bill for their pensions’ and that was just the front cover! It was in a word, shocking. Hankinson believes the world owes him a living. Actually no, he believes the world owes him a living doing something that he finds interesting and for good money.Hankinson’s problem is that he wholly underestimates the value of the jobs he dismisses. I currently do a job I love in an industry I hope to make my own but just a few weeks ago I was a retail monkey on my feet all day doing work that didn’t particularly stimulate me and which paid the most nominal of amounts over minimum wage. In the interview for my current role I was asked about a time I’d been part of a team. Not only did I say that the environment at Jessops had required us to stick together (official line is that Jessops is now safe but we seemed to get an endless tirade of customers asking whether we were going under) but that it had been one of the friendliest environments I’d ever worked in. I basically said I had fun in retail and they hired me. I’m resilient, I’m positive, oh and I’m also enough of an adult that I recognise that it is down to me to pay the bills. Someone willing to do a job, any job, to fund their path to their future (in my case, while I wrote up my PhD) is a more attractive candidate than someone unwilling to sully their CV with something ‘menial’ or ‘beneath them’.Hankinson wants to write. That’s what I want to do as well actually. I’d like to do research and write about that. Take photographs, cook and travel and write about those things as well. What I did was I find a job that pays me to write press releases among other things and I feel grateful for that. I go to a creative writing class once a fortnight and I write this column into the night after a day at work. I’m a writer. I may not have complete autonomy over what I write and I may not make much money but I’m doing it, living it and I’m not complaining about it (except to the boyfriend, Patron Saint of Ginger Mentalists).Life isn’t black and white. Sometimes the writer, painter, photographer needs another job while they realise their dream. Not everyone is cut out for their dream job (I can’t see Kathryn Flett calling any time soon to suggest that a column charting Random Market Town replaces hers charting Random on Sea) as a full time career. It’s a bit sad but that is the way of things. Hankinson falls into the trap of imagining a golden time of the previous generation but acknowledges that his father once delivered Thompson Directories. I’d say that any time is as golden as you make it and the fact that we’re in a recession is simply the challenge we face today.
I don’t write this from the cushioned position of a permanent job. I’m a week into a three month internship (I’m lucky that there is a stipend). So I am job seeking. But unlike Hankinson, I’m not angry at the lack of jobs out there. I’m too busy writing the column which has pushed my day’s work into the tenth hour. Hankinson’s message is childish and petulant and that is why I know I am right wing.
* I like a little aggro on a Sunday afternoon. Reading the Times is relaxing and unobtrusive; the Observer gets me really worked up.