Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Year of 100 Books

In an attempt to recapture the frantic hunger with which I would consume books in my youth, I decided that in 2011 I would try to read 100. Now, there's been a lot written about how being well-read is a fundamentally pointless endeavour, and how no human can hope to catch everything important in one lifetime, and at least one of those articles (if I remember rightly) discusses the idea that any attempt to master any given canon can be read as an attempt to cheat death. I don't think I was by any means trying to cheat death in reading these books this year, but it's an interesting theory.

In November 2010 I began (and aborted) a short story about a man who has read every book ever published, and in doing so gains entry to a small society of individuals who have achieved the same feat. The story kind of hinged on the idea that he wouldn't have to keep up with new books that had been published since he stopped reading - that "the entirety of books ever written" was a finite concept instead of one that keeps expanding out towards the borders of space - and in that sense it wasn't a very good short story. But the idea intrigued me. I picked 100 as a nice, manageable number which still sounded kind of impressive. There's a movement of people who try to read 365 books in 365 days, but I wanted a number that wouldn't interfere with the way I live my life - I'd spend more time reading than I had in 2010, for sure, but not to the extent that it stopped me from doing anything normal. There would be days when I didn't read at all, and there was a month when I hardly read anything (July, when I moved back to Cambridge and started a new job).

I'd expected, foolishly, that an English degree which ostensibly covered all British literature and some from other countries from 1300 to the present day would chuck me out on the other side with a much better grasp of what had been written in these isles (and other lands) during that time. It did not. If anything, my degree left me feeling less well-read than I had felt before I embarked upon it. And, what's more, I felt like I was losing my edge. In school it had been remarkably easy to be better-read than almost everyone I knew, particularly since I had books instead of boyfriends at that age. And at Cambridge I was doing okay - I was either slightly better-read or about the same as most of the people I encountered. But the degree knocked the sheer joy of reading out of me, and I didn't rediscover it as quickly as I'd hoped I would after I graduated. So this challenge, in 2011, was in part an attempt to get that back.

Some of the books I read were works of great literature, and some were not. Some were excellent and some were execrable. Do I feel like I'm suitably well-read now, or that I've caught up, or that I finally have my edge back? Do I hell.

The rules were simple: no cheating (a book had to be read from cover to cover to count) and no re-reading of books already read. The second was much harder to achieve - I yearned, at points, for books I'd read before. But ultimately I managed to resist the temptation. I haven't included poetry, as I rarely sit down and read a book of poetry all the way through.

Without further preamble, here is the list:


Fun Home - Alison Bechdel
The Year of the Flood - Margaret Atwood
Morality Play - Barry Unsworth
Players - Don DeLillo
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
One Day - David Nicholls
A Pale View of Hills - Kazuo Ishiguro
Shoplifting from American Apparel - Tao Lin
Be Near Me - Andrew O'Hagan
The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
Down to a Sunless Sea - David Graham
The Blue Flower - Penelope Fitzgerald


Cakes and Ale - W. Somerset Maugham
Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick
Minority Report & Other Stories - Philip K. Dick
Our Fathers - Andrew O'Hagan
The Beginning of Spring - Penelope Fitzgerald
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Lady Chatterley's Lover - D. H. Lawrence


The Art Fair - David Lipsky
So Many Ways to Begin - Jon McGregor
Lover of Unreason - Yehuda Koren & Eilat Negev
Persuasion - Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
Couch Fiction - Philippa Perry
Mansfield Park - Jane Austen
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer
The Prescription Errors - Charles Demers
Lunar Park - Bret Easton Ellis
The Tent - Margaret Atwood
Blindness - José Saramago
Model Behaviour - Jay McInerney
Identity - Milan Kundera


The Bell - Iris Murdoch
Frenchman's Creek - Daphne du Maurier
Naked Spirits - Adrian Abbotts
The Return of the Native - Thomas Hardy
Tam Lin - Pamela Dean
Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
Animal Farm - George Orwell
Big If - Mark Costello
Everything is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer


The Flight from the Enchanter - Iris Murdoch
The Spot - David Means
The Promise of Happiness - Justin Cartwright
The Old Man and the Sea - Ernest Hemingway
The Italian Girl - Iris Murdoch
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers
The Death of Grass - John Christopher
The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios - Yann Martel
The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry
The Grass Arena - John Healy
The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde


Fludd - Hilary Mantel
Everyman - Philip Roth
Bossypants - Tina Fey
Mr Norris Changes Trains - Christopher Isherwood
A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
The Pale King - David Foster Wallace
Jonathan Livingston Seagull - Richard Bach
Oh! What a Paradise it Seems - John Cheever
The Quiet American - Graham Greene


A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again - David Foster Wallace
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - Tom Stoppard


I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith
A Kestrel for a Knave - Barry Hines
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke


A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius - Dave Eggers
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud
Lincoln's Melancholy - Joshua Wolf Shenk
Young Victorians - Marion Lochhead
How To Be a Woman - Caitlin Moran
Nemesis - Philip Roth
V for Vendetta - Alan Moore & David Lloyd


Unlikely - Jeffrey Brown
Save Me the Waltz - Zelda Fitzgerald
Ethan Frome - Edith Wharton
The Game - A.S. Byatt
A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien
Feynman - Jim Ottaviani & Leland Myrick
The Green Mile - Stephen King


Nocturnes - Kazuo Ishiguro
Summer Blonde - Adrian Tomine
Sleepwalk - Adrian Tomine
Blue Pills - Frederik Peeters
A Fairly Honourable Defeat - Iris Murdoch
The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid
The Lean Startup - Eric Ries
Agonizing Love - Michael Barson


Oscar and Lucinda - Peter Carey
Scenes from an Impending Marriage - Adrian Tomine
Good Omens - Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
Jill - Philip Larkin
Hark! A Vagrant - Kate Beaton
I Never Liked You - Chester Brown
Blankets - Craig Thompson
Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman - Ralph Leighton, Richard P. Feynman & Edward Hutchings
The Treatment - Daniel Menaker
The Millstone - Margaret Drabble

By my count, that's 104. I'm not counting the book I'm currently reading (The Member of the Wedding - Carson McCullers), as it's very unlikely I'll finish it before midnight.

The best ten books I read all year were, in no particular order:

- Fun Home
- The Beginning of Spring
- Blankets
- The Bell
- The Handmaid's Tale
- Be Near Me
- The Things They Carried
- The Pale King
- A Prayer for Owen Meany
- Fludd

I don't know that I can pick a ten worst, but the second-worst book I read all year was One Day (seriously, people liked this?) and the absolute worst by quite a long margin was The Prescription Errors - it was pointlessly violent, meandering, almost entirely plotless, confusing, the shifts in perspective were not well executed and most of what was in it seemed to have been included for the sake of it rather than because it added to the book in any meaningful way.

So, that was a thing. In 2012 I plan to make a list of everything I read again but will probably not read as many books. And, although I've barely dented the sheer number of worthwhile books which abound, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

2011 - Resolutions

I never used to be the kind of person who made New Year's resolutions. I think I thought that self-improvement was for losers, or something, or perhaps that I couldn't be improved - not that I was already perfect, but that I was so far from perfectible that it was useless even to try to work on one small thing. I stopped eating meat on the 1st of January 2006, but even that wasn't so much about self-improvement or about seeing if I could do something for an extended period of time as much as a growing distaste for flesh and disinclination to continue to eat it. The New Year's thing was more a culturally-sanctioned way of finally making a decision I'd wanted to make for some time than anything.

And then last year brought an explosion of resolutions. I think I was feeling particularly optimistic around Christmas and New Year - I had just come back from the US, I had a terrible job but was at least being paid money, things were looking pretty good. I'd done things in 2010 that I hadn't ever done before, including graduating, visiting a different continent and living in another country. The time felt ripe for self-improvement, and this is what I vowed I was going to do:

- Learn German
- Keep a journal
- Be more generous towards my friends with my time
- Learn to play the piano
- Finish my novel
- Be more polite in everyday situations
- Read 100 books

And here's how they went, in order:


2011 wasn't the first time I'd vowed to learn German, and you may not be surprised to learn that I still can't speak it for shit. The fact that I was visiting Germany for the first time in July looked like it would be sufficient motivation to finally crack out the books and make a go of it. And I utterly failed. Of all the things I was trying to cram into my life in the first part of the year, it was the one I was least committed to and the first one to be dropped. Of the BBC listening exercises I did, I can still remember a couple of them almost word-perfect, which says a lot more about the way my memory works than anything. Verdammt.


Again, this wasn't the first journal I'd ever vowed to keep, nor was it the first I failed at. Selected quotations include,"I rarely meet burritos I don't like" and, "Surrounded by businessmen. Slept v. badly last night." I think a journal is a very worthy thing to keep if a) you enjoy doing it and/or b) you write about interesting things. This exercise ticked neither box for me. I read over all of the entries from January 2011 the other day, and whilst they were very good at evoking some of the exact sensations and events I experienced during that month, the writing and subject matter was fundamentally uninteresting. I tend to feel that there's something more important or interesting that I could be writing if I'm going to be writing at all, and journals therefore seem like a waste of time. My grandmother has kept a diary for that last goodness-knows-how-many years, filled with entries along the lines of, "Charlotte came for tea. Weather mild." She recently said, "my diaries are up in the cupboard in the spare bedroom, so you can all have a good laugh when I'm dead." I don't want to leave a similar burden to my descendants after I'm gone.

Generosity with Time

By this I meant quite specifically that I would try to stop blowing my friends off whenever I didn't feel like being sociable. It was a more pressing thing when I was living 300 miles away from them, and I did it with the best intentions. I can be very selfish with my time if I don't feel particularly like seeing anyone or talking to anyone, and I was curious to see if this was something I could correct by keeping it in mind and trying to overcome it. This was not the case. It worked all right for a month or so, until the periodic desire to make a hermit of myself grew stronger than the feeling of duty I had to be less of a dick when my friends wanted to talk to me. In retrospect, I think the fact that I occasionally need a lot of downtime is more a fundamental part of my personality than anything, and thus this was never going to be an easy fix. I still think mindfulness of personal flaws is worthwhile, and attempting this did at least make me a bit more self-aware, which is probably not a bad thing.


This got off to a slow start, as we didn't get a piano until early May. As soon as we got one, I practised every day and made some reasonably decent progress. Then I moved back to Cambridge at the end of June, and that was kind of that. I'd still like to continue to learn to play, and will probably take lessons and buy either an electric piano with weighted keys or an acoustic as soon as I have money. And, coming home this Christmas, I found that I haven't become appreciably worse in spite of not having played for six months, which just shows how pervasive muscle memory is.


Finished Part I at the end of January and the whole thing in May, then spent the summer and autumn editing the hell out of it. It's not exactly a thing of beauty, but I did get a huge kick out of writing it and to that end have begun another.


This resolution came out of the fact that I have in the past been notoriously impolite, not so much out of any fundamental rudeness but because I found being publicly and vocally polite deeply embarrassing. I have no idea why I found it so blush-inducingly shameful to thank someone for having me or tell them what a lovely time I had or any of the other little social pleasantries that make everything go along a lot smoother. It wasn't that I wasn't grateful - often I'd be overflowing with gratitude but too awkward to express it. So I jumped in at the deep end and tried to be as courteous as I possibly could in all situations which called for it. And it worked - I got over my embarrassment, I'm now suitable to be received into semi-polite company and I actually really enjoy being polite. I haven't quite been able to stop swearing loudly in the street or in the presence of children (although I've curbed it quite a bit), but the rest of it is pretty much engrained now. An unexpected and happy side effect is that I now find it much easier to make small talk with (and tip!) people working in the service industry, when before I felt embarrassed for both of us that they were making me a coffee or driving me to the station or whatever. The only negative effect I've experienced is that I now notice when other people aren't polite much more than I ever did before, and it really grates on me.

100 Books

This is going to get a blog post all to itself at the very end of the year/beginning of 2012, in part because I reckon I can squeeze at least another book in before Sunday. More on that story later, and a full list (possibly with short reviews of each) will follow.

I also took up blogging again in 2011, and whilst I haven't done it as often as I'd like, it seems to be going vaguely okay.

I've got a few things lined up that I'd like to work on in 2012 and will probably write them up fairly soon.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

It's the time of the season...

When I was a lazy undergraduate, frittering away my eight-week terms and revelling in (read: equally frittering away) endless holidays, I used to wonder how real grownups managed when they only got a week or so off at a time. This year has been all about learning that real grownups are in fact immensely grateful that they get any time off at all.

Don't get me wrong, I love going to work and will very much miss everyone over the break. But it's going to be very nice to do absolutely nothing for ten days.

Towards the end of the year I'll be doing a writeup of all the books I've read this year, plus some general ramblings and resolutions and all that kind of jazz, so stay tuned.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Fortnum and Mason

Last weekend I went to Fortnum and Mason. We'd taken the Jubilee line to Green Park, and I was responsible for piloting a good friend and his raging hangover across Piccadilly after we'd spent sufficient time staring listlessly into the window of the UK offices of the airline of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The window theme (of Fortnum's, not IranAir) was vaguely Cabaret/La Cage aux Folles-themed, and, as always, they were playing the kind of faint music that they like to play out of speakers above the vast windows, music I've always found slightly disquieting. A siren-song, whispering, "come, spend all your money; it'll make you feel really good."

Now, this is a line that capitalism has been trotting out for a good couple of hundred years already. It's no surprise to anyone, nothing at all new. And, as always, we're absolutely eating it up - in the case of Fortnum's, literally. There are plenty of people who disagree with such luxury establishments, such as these protesters, but to dismiss Fortnum and Mason as "Tory Scum!" (amusing as I find this) seems somehow reductive. Sure, they're purveyors of fine and expensive things that rich people love to cram in their faces, and they've held a dear part in the hearts of the last 150 years' worth of monarchs, but to call them Tory scum and be done with it doesn't strike me as a particularly useful or interesting act of cultural criticism.

What I found much more interesting when I visited last week, for the first time in a couple of years and maybe the fourth or fifth time ever, was the overwhelmingly touristy clientèle. Again, not surprising. But it did make me consider the phenomenon more deeply. Tourists come to buy a small souvenir to take away (this is reflected in the selection of branded tea, sweets and chocolates, the smallest examples of which are fairly reasonably priced in the grand scheme of trying to buy status, clustered around the inside of the door) and to have a look at "how the other half live". The main problem is with this is that the other half don't live there any more, if they ever did. And anyone who claims to do (or actually does) their weekly shopping there is as desperate to buy status as any of the huddled masses crowding around the inside of the main doors, trying not to show how out-of-place they feel and reminding themselves that they, too, have money - the great leveller - in their pockets. The only differences are that those who feel they've earned the right to buy everything they ever want to eat from Fortnum's are a) disdainful of the tourists as people who they believe don't truly belong there, and b) vastly more deluded.

Maybe it was the better part of a bottle of Waitrose vodka - I, too, am an elitist - that my liver was trying desperately to purge from all my cells which was doing the talking, but I felt for the fifteen or twenty minutes that I spent inside as though I were a free party, unconstrained by either of these status anxieties (I'd urge anyone who hasn't read Alain de Botton's excellent treatise on this subject to do so). Of course, I received the usual glares from the shop assistants and the security guards; in my battered Soviet coat and with a large rucksack, I looked, if not poor, then at least like a student. But I didn't care. And I think this is an attitude that has the potential to be healing for both the tourists who feel as though they'll never belong and the people who do all of their shopping there (or in Harrods, or in the Selfridges food hall, or in Harvey Nichols). It's a case of trying to unpick the hierarchical, class-and-status obsessions with which we endow our public spaces. It's fine if I'm standing in Fortnum and Mason on a Sunday morning, and it's fine if you are too. It shouldn't make a bit of difference what we're wearing or what we're buying; you've no need to cower, and you ought not to sneer.

There's a lot of money to be made out of encouraging everyone to feel bad about themselves - this is, after all, one of the central tenets of modern capitalism and advertising - and even if it's impossible to prevent on a fundamental level, there's still the chance to exercise free will. I'm not going to apologise for going to places like this, and I'm not going to apologise for not being rich while I'm there, either.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

On the Buses

I spend a fair bit of time on the bus. It's my preferred method for getting to work (I hate my bike), and £40 a month for an Oyster card-style bus pass seems like a pittance when I get the incredibly luxury of an hour a day of reading time. I mean, I'd pay £40 a month to have an hour each day in which to read even if I didn't get transported to work as part of the bargain.

The buses of Cambridge, however, leave a lot to be desired. Stagecoach's promise of "up to every 10 minutes" rarely holds true, and their copy is both poorly written and thoroughly offensive to any adult who does not enjoy being spoken to like a child. As the bus stop near our office is the end of the line, though, I've had a lot of recent experience with something that is even worse than this: the perverse and seemingly willful obfuscation of what the hell is going on.

It's very similar to the way that First Great Western used to run their trains about five years ago (thankfully they've come a long way since then) - long delays and absolutely no information about the cause or likely resolution of said delays on the part of the train manager. It used to be that FGW trains would not announce the expected time of arrival at each station along the way, or even suggest how long they anticipated it would take to get from the current staion to the next one. This used to endlessly frustrate me - it takes very little effort on the part of the train announcer to say, "Our next station stop will be Castle Cary in approximately twenty minutes", and, luckily, they have indeed taken to doing this of late. But to omit such information looks a lot like purposefully keeping passengers in the dark, and that's both inconsiderate and unnecessary, especially when the relevant authorities are in possession of the relevant details. In fact, it's always struck me as something of a power trip.

The buses of Cambridge are worse, and seem to follow neither rhyme nor reason in their scheduling and departures, especially at the route terminus. Take this as an example: a week or so ago I left work at around 17.30 and went to the bus stop. A bus (which I will call Bus A) was waiting in the bus bay, totally empty and with its lights turned off. The driver of this bus, Driver A, was stood outside at the back of the bus, staring down the road. A crowd of 12 or 15 people formed. Driver A offered no explanation as to why we couldn't get on the bus or why the bus was sitting there with its lights off. We waited for 2o, maybe 25 minutes. On at least four occasions I was on the verge of asking the driver what we were waiting for, or if he could at least turn the lights on and let us sit in the bus (bonus reading time), but I found myself holding back out of a sense that it was not my place to question this increasingly bizarre-seeming decision. None of the other people gathered there asked either - we were all too reserved, too British, perhaps, to ask for what was under the circumstances very reasonably information.

Finally another bus turned up with another driver. The insane and pointless mystery was solved when it turned out that Driver A was waiting for Bus B so that he could drive it back to the depot, whilst Driver B switched to Bus A, turned all the lights on and finally let us on board. Again, at no point were we offered an explanation. I realise that the bus company probably has very good reason for making this kind of thing decision, but I don't see any need for it to be so perversely shrouded in mystery. Once again, it feels as though the people who hold the power (and information is very much power in these situations) use it as leverage over the people who have to stand there waiting for 20 minutes to get on a bus that has also been sat in the bus bay for the same amount of time.

Sometimes a bus will come and the driver will say that it's only going as far as the centre of town and not to Addenbrooke's. This, like the above incident, is perfectly reasonable from the perspective of the bus company. Scheduling buses is their prerogative (and whether or not they could do a better job of it is neither here nor there), and I have no problem whatsoever with them making these decisions. And I'm not advocating the kind of information overload that Grahame has experienced on public transport in Japan. But I do think that giving as much background as possible in these situations is the best way of empowering passengers in a situation over which they have essentially no control and which otherwise has the potential to make them feel entirely powerless. It's frustrating and unnecessary, and perhaps another symptom of the "let's treat our customers like children" mentality which similarly seems to motivate most of their on-bus copy.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Young Nuns

Today I watched Young Nuns, a show that I knew from the articles about it in the Guardian and on Jezebel that I really wanted to see and have been mentioning periodically on Twitter (yes, I remembered to watch it). Shows like this don't quite constitute my sausage-wrapped-in-bacon of televisual programming - that honour is reserved for episodes of The West Wing which also featue a heavy medical drama element, e.g. Season 2 Episode 1 - but they come pretty close. I love documentaries, particularly human interest documentaries (although not just from the 'Boy With an Arse for a Face' school of Channel 4/5 voyeurism - and, come on, the BBC is very guilty of that too sometimes - maybe I do want to see a young Scottish man with no visible prospects calling his mother "pure shite" but it's hardly the better angels of my nature which drive this desire), and Young Nuns promised to combine both of these aspects into some kind of awesome whole.

Also, I was raised Catholic. It's not something I go on about a lot (except in order to claim religious immunity when making foul jokes about the Pope and when I want everyone to think I've had a hard life) because faith was never made a big deal of in my house. We were Vatican II and then some. Maybe Vatican IV. My father is something of an outspoken atheist - his response to my childhood questions like, "but whether or not he was the Messiah, do you think a guy named Jesus existed and maybe did some stuff back in the day?" were always met with a roll of the eyes and a kind of 'whether or not he existed is irrelevant because religion is a crock of shit' response. My mother openly admitted that she only took me and my sister to Mass because she wanted us to qualify for a letter from the priest so that we could go to the Catholic school if we didn't pass the 11+ and couldn't go to the grammar school. Even my grandmother, the most prominently Catholic person that I spent any serious time with growing up and the person who used to pray for me (to St Jude, of course) and flick holy water at me when I swore in the house (I think in the hope that it would leave a scald), seems to have come in recent years to the conclusion that whether or not there is a God, He is unjust for the suffering He allows in the world.

Any childhood attempts at religiosity were met with puzzlement by my parents - I went to a Church of England primary school and thought that prayer was an essential part of 'being good' (or else why would the school make us do it every day?), thus whenever I went on periodic 'being good' binges, which were remarkably similar to my occasional present-day 'trying to be a responsible adult' attempts, I tried to include praying in front of my parents as an essential, demosntrable part of my newfound goodness. I think they genuinely feared for me at that point, and, for the record, I never kept up being 'good' longer than about three days, maybe a week tops.

The other reason it isn't really fair to call myself Catholic is that I basically never was. I mean, I was baptised, and apparently that's enough for. It turns out that even if you write to the Vatican and ask them formally to no longer consider you a Catholic, for the purposes of the Day of Judgement they still consider you one of their own - it's the cult you can't ever escape from, even in death - but I never had a crisis of faith or lost my faith because I never had any faith to lose. I was quite the little heathen. I recall asking a priest at the age of six, "If God was Jesus' dad, who was God's dad?" and finding the response that God always has been and always will be, world without end, amen, to be entirely unsatisfactory. I played devil's advocate (or perhaps just plain devil) with the religious kids at school in most RE lessons - hell, I love arguing - although I've mostly given up on faith-bashing as a) faith is a deep mystery and one which I cannot comprehend and b) it made me kind of a dick. I will still go as far as to say that I believe some people are hardwired for faith and others aren't, but as I have no idea why this is or why it should be, I'm content these days to leave things at that.

Young Nuns. I digress. It was fascinating, and not just from the voyeuristic perspective of, 'how on earth can these young women who are the same age as me bear to give up their boyfriends and smartphones and go and sit on their own with Jesus forever?', although it did slightly irk me that this seemed to be the main emotion that the BBC wanted to inspire in people who could relate on the surface to the would-be novices. There was a segment in which some of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, who were the fun nuns who got to drive around in cars and go to help the poor and actually leave the convent, went into a Catholic school to talk to a Year Seven class about what it was like to be a nun. And they did a very good job of engaging the children, and the children did a very good job of looking horrified by the prospect of being a nun and saying things like, "How can they have no makeup when makeup is the one thing girls are supposed to have" and "I don't think I'd like it if I couldn't wear jeans" and other such things which made me despair ever so slightly for the state of the young women of tomorrow. But it seemed to be this kind of response that the programme makers were really pushing for - a visceral, black and white, "I don't want that" kind of reaction which doesn't really engender any debate beyond the absolute obvious - and they backed this up with shots of Catherine, one of the young maybe-nuns (spoiler alert: by the end of the programme, neither of the girls they follow are nuns), taking part in a charity fashion show and talking about how she's a "girly girl" and she loves makeup and the hardest part about perhaps becoming a nun for her would be giving up the chance to get married and have a family. Which seemed to be selling the whole thing short somehow.

On the other hand, the other of the two potential nuns, Clara, was given a somewhat more even treatment (although I can't help but wonder if that's because she gave them much less "girly girl" material to work with - in spite of said more even treatment she was still filmed in skirts, and shopping, and drinking wine with her friends and playing with her younger brothers, all of which are perfectly valid things for a young woman about to enter the novitiate to do but all of which do equally emphasise a stereotypically feminine side). And the lit geek in me did enjoy a tiny thrill that she shares a name with Clara Batchelor, the heroine of the final three books of the Frost in May quartet. Clara was shown in the context of her family, who clearly share a strong faith and were utterly supportive of their eldest daughter's decision, accepting that this was what God was calling her to do even though it would be painful for them to be separated. Catherine was portrayed as much more of a dilettante in the Faith, which wasn't helped by the fact that her abbey of choice decided not to admit her in their next intake and asked her instead to wait a year to make sure she was certain of her decision.

I found it particularly interesting that both Catherine and Clara wanted to enter closed orders as opposed to the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, the fun nuns with whom the viewer spent all the time that wasn't dedicated to the two would-bes. I did think it was strange that the BBC was clearly allowed to film and interview the nuns in these closed orders (and they did so), but they didn't spend nearly as much time getting under the skins of their faith and their choices as they did with the jolly Franciscan sisters. This, for me, kind of devalued the impact of the choice the two protagonists were on the verge of making, and also made me question their choice of a life of contemplation (which at times sounds heavenly, pun maybe intended) over the choice of a life of out in the world. And in some ways this did strike me as a choice of privilege. Becoming a nun in the 21st century is a very different decision with a different range of motivating factors than taking the veil would have been in the 13th century, or the 19th, or even the early-to-mid 20th century. Convents are no longer seen as a dumping ground for the poor, the unruly, the unmarriagable or the unmanageable. In fact, choosing to become a nun entirely out of faith and vocation is perhaps the purest and truest to the heart of the religious life that this choice has ever been, if also the weirdest to modern sensibilities. Both Catherine and Clara appeared to come from comfortable middle-class backgrounds with no obvious impediments to following their vocations. The poor don't tend to want a life of poverty and mortification of the flesh and spirit if they can help it (although far be it from me to speak for the poor). And what of the girl with strong faith and strong vocation who has to care for a disabled family member, or has to work so that her younger siblings don't go hungry? Does she get to sequester herself away from the world for a life of prayer and devotion? I think this would have been another interesting angle for the documentary to have looked at (okay, so I want a series).

The other thought that this programme inspired was also suggested in part by the Jezebel article I linked to at the beginning of this post. The Jez columnist points out, "If something similar existed for female atheists - a quiet single sex residence for devotion to reading, study, gardening, hanging out with your friends, running charity marathons, and singing - the waiting list would be years long." And it's true. I love most of those things (charity marathons I can take or leave, ditto gardening). The idea of reading and singing hymns all the time (okay, so I'm an atheist who loves religious music) sounds fantastic. I'm incredibly drawn to this kind of lifestyle, and have always been particularly drawn to the prospect of solitude - my ideal house, for a long time, was a shed in the woods with a bed and a typewriter, although I think 2011 called and suggested I take my laptop, and Henry David Thoreau also called and told me to quit stealing his ideas and to ask Emerson when he could next come over for dinner. I like the idea of this to the extent that, for a brief time, I questioned whether or not I had a vocation (the answer is no, I think, a] because I'd hope the thought that I might would be a hell of a lot stronger if I actually did and b] because, as discussed above, I am basically the worst Catholic ever). I can definitely see the appeal, though, and thus the programme was interesting for me not just in a raging-against-privilege-and-stereotypes-of-women sense but also in terms of a comparison between myself and Catherine and Clara that ran much deeper than the one which the BBC seemed to be trying to provoke, namely, 'I can see exactly how you would want that; there is some part of me which wants that too.'

Should you watch Young Nuns, which is available on iPlayer for another six days? Yes, probably. If you like that sort of thing.