Category Archives: Book Review

Running through Footnotes

Footnotes is a remarkable book. Let’s start with that. As I plodded along at my slower than ‘politicians run marathons’ pace (see later in the post) last night I was thinking about the review I wanted to write. I didn’t really know whether it should go on my running blog or my academic blog so I’m putting it on both. As I turned left to avoid yet another uphill (and because it felt like a lovely random thing to do in the rain – getting lost on an estate just down the road from me) it struck me that the book has made such an impression on me because it’s about everything that makes me who I am. It’s about nature and running and literature and it’s about being an academic. Maybe not explicitly so but I think many academics, maybe particularly in the humanities and social sciences, will recognise so much of the emotion of this book. I now understand why Kath has been urging me to read the book ever since she picked it up some time ago.

My left turn was a mistake, or rather the almost immediate right turn I took after it was because I zigzagged down the hill and cut off the opportunity to zigzag back up without running the same road twice (Vybarr Cregan-Reid doesn’t like retracing steps either! I’m going with first name only for the rest of this post – hope he doesn’t mind – but surname just felt so academic and formal) so my legs stopped working and I had to walk. As I puffed up the hill I thought back to the beginning of the book. I am cautious about running books. I am sensitive about my running. I am so keenly aware that I am a rubbish runner and only slowly getting my head around the idea that it doesn’t matter. ‘I am lost on Peckham Rye’ is the opening sentence and from there I’m in. It’s a book about running and it starts with being lost. That means it can’t be a book about road running and races and going as fast as you can from A to B because people who do that sort of thing don’t get lost (maybe they do but I don’t think of them as the sort of people that go anywhere one could get lost). The book is full of the sort or running that instinctively makes sense to me – outdoors, connecting with nature, evoking landscape and literature, tapping into something that isn’t quite explainable.

There is a fair amount of explaining though and Vybarr explores the science of running in the book and I like that. I like to understand what is going on as I run, what individual bits of my body are doing and how that fits together, what I could (should?) be doing to help, how and why some runs are awesome but many just are. Why the first couple of miles often feel so hard, and why taking my shoes off on the beach and running barefoot was one of the hardest runs ever physically yet one of the best.  Some of the answers are in the book but it’s not sports science book. It doesn’t spoil the magic of running by over- analysing or over explaining. Vybarr, I think, accepts and knows that running is more than science, it’s also magic.

The sections on runners’ highs are fascinating and I agree that all the science on this still doesn’t really capture it. I’m also slightly envious that Vybarr seems to get to that runner’s high far more often than I do – mostly I don’t go far enough to get the full hit but I do think I sort of get a mini version of a runner’s high that kicks in immediately after running. Kath calls it my ‘she won’t stop talking’ phase when we run together. I don’t think I talk out loud when she’s not there but I wouldn’t bet on it. I do know that it is often the only time I really feel positive about my running, it’s where I feel strong and capable.

I’ve got up the hill and my legs don’t really want to get going again but on I go. I’m on an odd run for me. I didn’t really want to go and realised it was because Kath had been out at Bolton Abbey earlier in the day and I think I was envious of her running there and grumpy about having to run at home. So instead of going a usual route towards track, wood and eventually canal, I stayed on the roads and had a nosey round the local area. It was quite fun looking at gardens and little streets and alleys I don’t normally see but as I started a stretch of long straight road I thought about the importance of running in nature and how Vybarr captures the difference between running indoors or even in cities and running in green spaces so perfectly. I ran on the road and kept having to hop back onto the pavement to avoid cars. That’s what it felt like. How can a little residential estate be so busy? (Ok so there were maybe 6 cars in that 20 minute stretch but it felt like an assault on my running calm). Footnotes captures how important outside is and how treadmills have very little to do with real running! I may have got a little over excited at the mention of Foucault in the book – as I did with Bleak House and the other surprising number of law related references. I shall leave you to find the connections between treadmills and Foucault for yourself but I smiled as I thought about that on my run, quickened my step and turned off to cross the canal bridge and run at least a short section along the canal. I could feel the stress leaving me as I turned to run alongside ducks, one with what might be a third brood of tiny little ducklings, further along there were a couple of swans and I desperately looked around for a heron but couldn’t see one. I crossed at the next bridge still thinking about how wildlife and what I see or don’t see can sometimes have a huge impact on my run and am reminded of one of one of my favourite sections in the book – the razorbill on Lundy. I won’t spoil it for you – read it in the context of the chapter it’s in but think about this:

‘Sometimes they fly because they need to hunt, or migrate; sometimes it is only to enjoy the sensual excitement of flight. This is where the joy is to be found: in using ones’s body and its expressive impulse for its own sake, for no other outcome but itself.’

I plodded on still smiling from the memory of that passage mixed with my own memories of puffins on the Farne Islands and the graceful flight of gannets at Bempton Cliffs and pushed up a little slope and turned right – again unusual. Normally I’d walk up the big hill towards home now but I wasn’t quite done running yet. I glanced at my watch and chuckled at my pace. And as the pace sort of registered in my brain my stomach plummeted. There are two tiny little sections in the book that nearly ruined the entire thing for me. This is not really about the book, it says far more about me than anything else. On page 220 (obviously I don’t remember this while running!) there is one sentence that floored me. Vybarr describes what sounds like a stunning run from St Juliots in North Cornwall. I loved reading the description of the run, the links to literature (Hardy), the fact that it was a tough run and he needed a lift back to his car (this would happen to me all the time except that usually I just have to walk back because there’s nobody to come get me, or I have to get a bus or whatever) – all this resonates. Then the following line stopped me in my tracks ‘I later work out that I have been running 12-minute-miles – these are the sorts of times politicians manage in marathons’. I stared at the page for a bit. And then I stared a bit longer. Then I carefully put the postcard I’d been using as a bookmark into the book, closed it, put the book down and walked away. ‘Right, ok then’ I remember thinking ‘so this isn’t a book for me after all’. In my mind I have put it on the ‘books for proper runners and not me’ shelf, right alongside Run Fat Bitch Run (which you might recall I hated). Everything in the book had been speaking directly to me – almost as if the book had been written for me to remind me that how I think and feel about running is ok, it’s better than ok. That line shattered that. I nearly put it back on the shelf and didn’t finish it. I didn’t really quite understand how someone who could articulate so much of how I feel about running could be so utterly dismissive of 12-minute-miles. I tried to explain this through tears to Kath who simply said ‘yes I wondered when you’d get to that bit. I knew you wouldn’t like that’.

As I turn left to make myself run up a hill rather than avoid it I’m angry. 12-minute-miles are fast miles for me. Mostly I run slower than politicians manage in marathons. Sometimes I wish I didn’t but there it is, I do. Part of me wants to challenge Vybarr to run some of these West Yorkshire hills with me, that’ll teach him – no hills like these bastards in London. And then I remember that I can’t run them either and even if I could, I’d still be slower! And as I push the last few steps up the hill and force myself to keep running on the flat I also force myself to accept that the comment about 12-minute-miles is a comment situated in the context of Vybarr’s running, not mine. That pace may well be utterly awful for him, it may well be a sign that the route got the better of his legs, that’s what that’s about really – not me being someone who runs slower than politicians do in marathons.

The second comment is about marathons. Vybarr recalls his 2012  London Marathon (lovely and funny read this) and notes that his official time was a ‘horrific’ 5 hours. Really? Horrific? I’d love to have a marathon time that started with a 5. I have run two. Nearly 7 hours and nearly 6 and a half hours. I rolled my eyes and read on.

So there’s a sentence and a word I don’t like in the book. Everything else is, I think, pretty perfect. The book has had an influence on my running. I took my shoes off on the beach and ran when we were at Seahouses a few weeks ago. I was tempted to take them off yesterday and feel the warm rain on my feet but I haven’t run barefoot. I need to try it on softer surfaces first. It has helped me connect more with the environment I am running in – or do so more consciously which then bizarrely leads to less thinking. It’s made me determined to increase fitness so that I can do those 7 or 8 miles runs more comfortably. I think I agree that they are a really nice distance – no major concerns about fueling and far enough to achieve the almost meditative state you get when you finally find your rhythm. The book has also made me think about literature and whether maybe I should revisit some classic authors. Should I maybe go back to Dickens and Hardy and others with a focus on nature and movement and place? Could I read Bleak House, for example, not as a lawyer but as a runner? How different would it be? And finally the book has taught me something really important about academia. If academics can follow their passion and write about something that truly brings them alive, they can create magic. I love this book for that alone and as I continue to run (at my pace!) I am getting closer and closer to figuring out what I want my magic to be. On this run though I reach my driveway before I can grab hold of ‘it’ so for now, thank you to Vybarr for sharing his magic and if you haven’t read the book yet; what are you waiting for?

 

Taking a look at a glass closet

I have just finished John Browne’s ‘The Glass Closet – Why coming out is good for business‘ and I am irritated. I don’t like the book. I am irritated by it and I am irritated that it irritates me and at the same time I can’t quite pin down why I am so irritated.

So what’s it all about. John Browne resigned from BP where he was Chief Exec in 2007 because he was about to be outed by the press. The book is about his story and about why gay employees should do what he didn’t – come out; and why business should encourage and embrace diversity.

I feel like I’m missing something. And maybe I am. I don’t work in business. I’m also a fair bit younger than Lord Browne and have made any decisions about coming out or being out in a different context. I’m also a woman. I get that for some people coming out is a really difficult and painful journey/experience and it certainly seems to have been that way for John Browne. The fact that he didn’t come out on his own terms but was outed compounds that pain. I agree that people should be able to come out on their own terms (sort of anyway). I agree with quite a lot he says in the book actually. Hm. Still irritated.

So, here’s the thing, well two things. I don’t think anyone should have to come out of any closet. The whole idea of coming out suggests that heterosexuality is the norm and we need to announce that we are not normal. How many straight people come out? When straight people feel the need to come out as straight I’ll happily announce my sexuality right along with them. Until then, I’m just me.  But even if we think people should come out then I don’t give a toss as to whether that’s good for business. In fact, saying ‘come on you gay lot, get your backsides out of that closet of yours, business needs a bit of a boost and needs to be able to get the most out of you’ or ‘come on gay people, your leaving too much of what you should be committing to your employer in the closet, get out of there’ makes we want to punch something.

Lord Browne addresses his audience well and tells his story well. I am assuming that his intended audience is other business leaders and he speaks their language and maybe it will make a difference and create more welcoming environment. Maybe. But I wonder how many gay and lesbian young people, still in education or emabarking on their business career, read his book and reconise themselves in the stories. The stories he tells, including his own, start from an incredibly privileged position which brings with it its own set of problems but mostly is just, well, privileged. I think I am irritated by the privilege and the lack of recognition for other stories. It seems that if you want a business career now it might be ok to be gay but it porbalby still isn’t ok to be from inner city Bradford with a strong West Yorkshire accent. I’m not sure that helps much, I am not sure business is really anywhere near to really valuing diversity – just privileged diversity.

I want to be able to celebrate this book, to say: read it, listen to the message, diversity is important, gay people should be able to come out (oh hang on, that’s it in’t it, should be able to – not should) and if you create an atmosphere where difference is valued, people will be happier but I can’t quite bring myself to say that. I know I should like it more than I do. I know I should admire John Browne for telling the story and trying to drive change; I know that maybe business can be a real driver for change but I am struggling to get past the feeling that it’s always the privileged that get to tell the story, define it and set the agenda. While we are distracted by a former BP Chief Exec, what storeis are we not hearing? Let’s not allow this book to be the only story we hear about coming out in business or at all, let’s listen, let’s talk and let’s come out if we want to – for us, not for business!

 

Reading ‘On Liberty’ by Shami Chakrabarti

The real luxury of having a few days off work is that I have actually had time to read – not read as I do for work but just curl up on the sofa for hours at a time and actually enjoy a book. For Christmas/my Birthday I got several books but was most excited about On Liberty. On Liberty

Whenever I hear Shami Chakrabarti speak she always makes perfect sense to me. She can articulate clearly things that I just sort of feel but can neither put my finger on nor reason out fully. So you might say my expectations were high when I started reading. I finished the book in 3 sittings – the first only cut short by my inability to keep my eyes open past 11pm and the second by a cat deciding the book would make a comfy pillow. It’s a good book, it’s an easy read but it is also an important book. It’s a book, that for me, puts into focus why I like living here, why my politics are my politics, why I love law and why I love teaching law and teaching it at an institution like the University of Bradford.

I’m not a human rights lawyer, I have a basic familiarity with the legal provisions and even some of the cases (told as the personal stories they are in the book!) but I’m no expert and to read this, to understand it and to really think about it you don’t need to be. Shami has done the hard bit for us all and she writes so clearly and so persuasively that I find myself wondering why I hadn’t been able to articulate exactly that before I read her arguments. The key thing I keep coming back to – because like any good book On Liberty haunts me for a bit making it impossible to start another book, impossible to really think about anything other than the arguments or the story while what I read whirls around in my head – yes the key thing is this: The Rule of Law.

In various contexts I have been thinking about the rule of law lately. I have been involved in various committees etc inclusing one looking at the Quality Assurance Agency standards for law degrees in the form of the subject benchmark; there’s the various Law Learned Associations and our responses to changes to the regulation of the education and training for lawyers and then there is of course the introduction of new programmes at Bradford. All of these activities throw up the question of what we/I think a law graduate should understand/know/be able to do. What is a law graduate? Well, after reading On Liberty it seems to me that the answer is actually quite simpe – A law graduate must understand the rule of law, know its importance and be able to defend it. That’s it. Everything else is detail.

And of course I mean rule of law proper – not some watered down for convenience version where the powerful get to make exceptions when it suits them. Of course Shami is writing in a particular context – that of Human Rights and it is here where the need for adherence to the rule of law is perhaps at its most obvious, where it hits you in the face but there are countless other examples and the strength of the book, in my view, is that it shows how all our rights and those of others are interconnected. Things that do not immediately jump out as Human Rights issues so cleary are if you just stop to think for a minute (or accept that not everyone can have as brilliant a mind as Shami Chakrabarti and let her take you through the argument instead).

Occassionally the book rambled a little but in a good way, the way conversations ramble and move from one issue to the next not always following a predictable path but getting to the point nonetheless. It does this even where the terrain gets tricky, teacherous even. I like that Shami does not shy away from calling things difficult, that she admits that sometimes things make her uncomfortable. I read the passages about religion towards the end of the book with interest. I have always struggled reconciling my views on human rights, equality, religion etc and once again Shami does it for me – it’s ok to feel uncomfortable about religious symbols, dress etc but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t allow people to wear them. It’s ok to be offended and it is ok to offend. There must never be a right not to be offended, I agree. I also agree that there are difficult lines to be drawn for each of us personally and maybe also legally  so I leave you with this quote from the TV Series The West Wing which Shami uses (see p 120) and which is one I had noted down for teaching. In the series (fictional) Matt Santos, Presidential Candidate, says this about the US Constitution and religion: ‘This wasn’t designed to make us comfortable. It was desgined to keep us free’. I think it applies to Human Rights and the rule of law too.

Reviewing ‘Straight Expectations’ by Julie Bindel

Curled up in our summerhouse on a giant beanbag in middle class sort of suburbia not a million miles away from Hebden Bridge I have just finished reading Julie Bindel’s new book ‘Straight Expectations’. Before I had finished the book Professor Chris Ashford published his review of the text on his blog. Initially I thought I didn’t really have anything to add to his thoughts. I agree with everything he says in that post so blogging a review repeating what he has already said seemed pointless. However, having finished the book now, I think I do have something to say.
Bindel’s book was on my list to read urgently (I have various lists!) for a number of reasons. I contributed to one of her surveys and was interested to see the results of that survey, I am strangely fascinated by identity; often disagree profoundly with Bindel and was slightly irritated by the subtitle ‘What Does it Mean to be Gay Today’ because surely that depends on a whole host of factors and I also thought the book might help me also develop my own research on LGBTQ legal academics.
Let me start by saying that I think you should read the book. It is an amazingly honest and open book and we need more of those. Ashford is right in calling it a very personal book and it is a book that certainly made me reflect, think, laugh cry, get angry and think a bit more. It’s a few hours since I finished the book and I can’t shake off the feeling that, as a lesbian, I must be such a disappointment to Bindel. But let me try and do this in some kind of order.
One of Bindel’s key arguments is that the campaign for equality and in particular marriage equality as well as the right to ‘acquire’ (her words) children is actually inherently conservative. I don’t really disagree with her. I have never been at all interested in marriage, gay or straight. I don’t particularly like weddings, I don’t get the point, the significance or why anyone would want to get married – actually particularly women. However, what I do get is that it is really really important to some people and that these people are not being screwed by the patriarchy, they don’t need liberating, they have thought about it and the implications and made the decision to get married. That of course doesn’t always hold true and I remain deeply suspicious of the institution of marriage but I just don’t believe that everyone entering into wedded bliss has been brainwashed into supporting the patriarchy.
It may surprise some people that the sections in Bindel’s book about children and the increasing trend amongst gay men and lesbians to have children irritated me the most. I don’t like kids. There are very few children I tolerate, even fewer that I like. I have friends with children and in spite of the joy that their offspring clearly bring them, I fail to see why anyone would want to put themselves through all of that. Quite frankly I find having cats stressful enough, I don’t have a biological clock (and strongly suspect it’s a societal clock rather than a biological one anyway), I have no maternal instincts… and even if I did I am not sure I understand this urge to have biologically related children. There are so many kids out there who would benefit from a loving stable home – why not look at adoption/fostering etc, particularly now the legal barriers have been removed (I do agree with Bindel here though that the law is way ahead of societal attitudes here). So, so far I have agreed with the narrative in the book – so why the irritation. Well, I feel deeply uncomfortable about making claims about what is and isn’t right for people. Personally I can’t really think of anything worse in my life than pregnancy and having a sprog but I have also seen a lot of people who have genuinely blossomed and come alive once they had children. Why criticise that? Why suggest that if they are gay or lesbian and have the desire to have children of their own, they are somehow letting the side down by wanting to become just like ‘them’ (meaning straight folk). I also felt a little uneasy about the distinction made (implicitly) between lesbians who had kids from straight relationships which they had left (good lesbian) and lesbians who decide to have children as single lesbians or in lesbian couples (bad or at least not so good lesbian). I just do not think that Bindel, me or indeed anyone else are in a position to tell people what they should or shouldn’t want from their lives, be that babies or marriage
This brings me to the points she makes about marriage and marriage equality. I was genuinely excited about the change in the law that allows same-sex couples to marry. Why? Because I believe in equality. Do I think it takes the gay rights agenda any further forward – well no not really. Gay culture is about much much more and just because we have achieved equal rights does not mean the fight is over. There is a long ling way to go and Bindel captures this well. I am not sure I agree with her that we shouldn’t have bothered with marriage rights but should have always worked to overthrow the patriarchy though – maybe the patriarchy can still be dismantled! But the thing is, I have never been particularly activist or political. I have never been radical in that sense. I have never dressed ‘lesbian’ (whatever that means), I have always just been me and that me has never had a particularly lesbian identity. My sexual orientation has never been a big deal. I have no coming out story, at some point in my life I started having sex with women that was that, then I fell in love with one, that didn’t work out, then I fell in love with another. No dramas, no big political statement, no big personal statement. Did I choose to be a lesbian or was I born this way (another key debate Bindel picks up on). I don’t know, I don’t care, I don’t see why we should get so hung up about this. I understand the arguments Bindel makes here but I don’t find them that interesting and do not think they help us further. I am who I am and I have always been open about my personal life but I have never made that personal political in the sense that Bindel clearly has. Part of me admires her for that.
So I said towards the beginning of this post that I felt Bindel would surely be disappointed in me as a lesbian. I am not an activist, I am not radical, I do not speak out against the patriarchy all that much, my life can hardly be described as alternative. I am not even hippy enough to feel comfortable in Hebden Bridge, I don’t often go to gay/lesbian events and the last Pride I went to was a few years ago in Halifax. I don’t wear cocktail dresses or high heels but I also don’t express my identity as a lesbian through what I wear. I live in a pretty middle class area in domestic bliss… The only two things that might make me an acceptable lesbian in Bindel’s eyes is that I am suspicious of the institution of marriage and that I don’t want kids. But I guess to Bindel I am still letting the side down, I am still striving to be too much like ‘them’ and am still too much of a respectable face of lesbianism.
Or am I? I say I’m just me but that just being me isn’t always easy. I challenge my students to think differently, to challenge the patriarchy, to accept me for me as a professional, as a woman and as a lesbian. Sometimes what I say and do in the classroom is radical. Sometimes what my friends with children do is radical, sometimes being just like them is radical… Bindel’ hints at some of this and I welcomed that acknowledgement even though she is quite dismissive of it in the end. So, I am aware that I am now just rambling – you should read Bindel’s book, it’s thought provoking and it gives a snapshot of what it means to be gay for some of us today – actually I don’t mean ‘us’ here because even though I responded to her survey and even though there are some sections with which I absolutely agree, I just don’t see myself in the book, I don’t fit and that is bothering me.