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May 2020

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After the End by Clare Mackintosh
28th May 2020

One writer, two voices -
After the End by Clare Mackintosh

 

After the End by Clare Mackintosh

 

Having built an impressive reputation as a thriller writer, for her fourth novel Clare Mackintosh took a different direction and wrote an incredibly personal novel, centred around a couple and the life-altering decision they are needing to make, but can't agree on.
Exclusively or the Foyles blog, Mackintosh has written about the challenges she faced writing the novel, being sure to give each character a distinct voice and point of view, in making such a difficult decision

 



Dual narration: writing two voices
 

Determining the voices of a novel is – to me, at least – as essential as the story itself. Who is our narrator? Will they speak in first person or third? Present tense or past? What can they see, and what is hidden from them? Are they reliable? Likeable?

          From the outset, After the End was always going to be told by two central characters, Pip and Max: the two halves of a couple torn apart by an impossible decision, about which they don’t agree. The novel was inspired by a moment in my own life, many years ago, when my son lay critically ill in hospital. My husband and I were taken to the ‘quiet room’ and asked to make a choice. Did we want to continue treatment, or remove intensive care and allow our son to die?

          ‘What happens,’ I asked the consultant, ‘if we disagree?’

          There was a long pause.

          ‘You have to agree,’ she said. ‘The alternative is unthinkable.’

          In After the End, I have written the unthinkable. The weeks our son spent in intensive care were desperately lonely. How much more lonely it would have felt, to be at war with my own husband; the only other person who could possibly understand what I was going through. How much deeper it would have cut, to lose a partner as well as a child. I wanted to explore such a rift, but more than that, I wanted to understand how it felt from both perspectives.

          When you believe that a course of action is the right one – a voting decision; a social injustice; to vaccinate or not to vaccinate – you believe it with every fibre of your being. It is the right decision. The only decision. In After the End, Max’s devotion to his son, and the passion with which he speaks, results in crowds of demonstrators gathering at the hospital in which his son is being treated. They take on his case as though Dylan were their son, too. They, too, want Dylan to live; want him to receive treatment in America, treatment that will cost millions of pounds.

           In writing Max’s chapters, I remembered the endless lists of pros and cons we’d drawn up for each terrifying road that stretched out before us. I read the court evidence from high-profile cases involving parents pitted against hospitals. I wondered what if we’d made that choice? I cried.

           I found it hard to read Max’s chapters back, in the final stages of my edits. He was so compelling, so reasonable in his arguments, that I found myself rooting for his cause, wondering again what if, what if, what if? But as each chapter passed, and I was flipped from Max’s perspective to Pip’s, so my mindset changed. She is gentler than Max; more guided by heart and instinct, than by head and stats. I sided with her, I cried for her… until her chapter ended, and I was once again in Max’s camp.

          This to-and-fro, this battle of conscience, is integral to the novel. It reflects the decision-making process itself, and is something we experience in our own minds, as well as when we have to make a decision as a couple.

          Writing from both Max’s and Pip’s points of view enabled me, too, to show the disconnect between how we think, and how we feel; how so much of what we are experiencing is hidden from others. I remember with shame the times I would snap at people; how the tsunami of grief inside me would flood my speech with things I did not mean. Max and Pip are locked in their own worlds, at the very moment they need to be together.

          There is a structural reason, too, why After the End is told by two central voices. The shape of the novel is inspired by the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken.

          Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

          And sorry I could not travel both

          And be one traveller.

          How I wanted to see the ends of those roads, back when we stood in the quiet room, taking in what the consultant was asking us. How I wished I could hold onto that moment, like marking the page with your finger in a choose-your-own-adventure book, so you can flip through the rest to see how each decision will play out.

          There are two voices in After the End because there are two stories. Two possible futures, two outcomes. Because with any crisis – with any difficult decision – what matters is not the event itself, but how we deal with it. What matters is how we learn to accept a new normal, how we come to terms with our choices, how we quiet a conscience that constantly wonders what if?

          What matters is what happens after what feels like the end, but is really just another beginning.

 


 

Clare Mackintosh
 

Clare Mackintosh is the multi-award-winning author of I Let You Go, which was a Sunday Times bestseller and the fastest-selling title by a new crime writer in 2015. It also won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year in 2016. Both Clare's second and third novels, I See You and Let Me Lie, were number one Sunday Times bestsellers. All three of her books were selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club, and together have been translated into over thirty-five languages.

 

 

Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature by Patrick Barkham
27th May 2020

Timely, personal and fascinating - 
Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature
by Patrick Barkham
 

Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature by Patrick Barkham
 

Wild Child: Coming Home to Nature is the new book, both timely and personal, from celebrated nature writer Patrick Barkham. In it he draws on his own experience as a parent and a forest school volunteer to explore the relationship between children and nature. Many parents will find his words and advice invaluable in the current climate in helping children to find their place in natural world, wherever green spaces can be found. 

Exclusively for Foyles, Patrick has written a blog in which he shares how he and his family have navigated some of these lockdown times, through the joy of nearby nature. And to help keep your young ones occupied and inspired by nature, you can also download the activity pack which accompanies the book, at the bottom of the blog.
 



I’m writing this just after 4am because, like so many people, lockdown is playing havoc with my ability to sleep. When I opened the backdoor this morning, I was engulfed by a waft of damp fresh air, with sweet suburban notes of laburnum and wisteria. I was also struck by an orchestra of bird song, perhaps a hundred voices of the nesting birds in our neighbourhood – nearest, a blackbird in our hedge; loudest, a song thrush; most repetitive, a chaffinch.
 

This current crisis is tough and tragic for many but I’ve lost count of the number of times people have remarked about the melodious bird song this spring, or how they are enjoying life without traffic. This is a glimpse of another way we could live if we chose – enriched by having a little bit more wildlife in our lives.
 

For those of us with children, lockdown has given us a new opportunity to get to know our neighbourhood nature. No matter where we live, no matter how urban, animals and plants are living alongside us. They are newly visible during this temporary retreat of the noisy, busy human planet.

Patrick Barkham

The thing that my three children, eight-year-old twins Milly and Esme, and six-year-old Ted, have really enjoyed this spring has been our garden blackbirds. Spending more time at home, we’ve tracked their movements and discovered four nests. Handily, the first one we found was easy to peep into. We watched three blue and brown speckled eggs hatch into three chicks. We permitted ourselves to check the nest almost daily. Esme, who particularly enjoys “hunting” wild things, talked to the chicks. I’m convinced they began to recognise her voice. Their necks would strain and wave like triffids when Esme peered in. She carefully fed them some tiny worms we dug from our compost heap.
 

It was wet for a couple of days and so we didn’t check on the chicks because we didn’t want to risk keeping the parents off the nest in bad weather. We couldn’t believe how much they had grown when they checked again. A few days later, they looked ready to fledge. We were super-careful now, because we didn’t want to scare them into hopping out of the nest too soon. Finally, two days later, they had disappeared

Patrick Barkham


They weren’t gone from our lives, however. Esme talked to the hedge and the hedge talked back – young blackbirds give a funny, rather stupid-sounding chirp to beg their parents for food. The fledglings hung around in the hedge making these noises for several days, as their parents dashed back-and-forth with supplies.
 

We’ve been following nests for a few springs now, and we quickly learned that there are rarely happy endings for these real-life soap operas. We dominate the planet because we are the only species to have largely solved the problem of infant mortality. Most chicks are food for something else. We’ve carefully watched a collared dove nest this spring in which both chicks suddenly vanished (chief suspect: a disreputable chancer seen lurking in the neighbourhood – a magpie), and in recent years have witnessed robins, dunnocks and bluetit nests all fail.
 

One day we heard the chink-chink alarm call of our garden blackbirds from the old hedge that separates our house from the neighbouring industrial estate. They were terrified and furious about something. It continued for 15 minutes. Finally, I saw a sparrowhawk dash at high speed from the hedge holding a brown bundle in its claws. A male blackbird bravely, and futilely, pursued it. Gruesome, but also totally thrilling – a sparrowhawk is the tiger of suburbia.
 

A few days later, we found two fledglings dead after colliding with our windows, even though we have those stickers on the glass to prevent bird-strikes. When we find a dead bird, the children and I take the opportunity to examine it, and discuss why it might’ve died. We sometimes carry out a solemn funeral. It is too easy to hide from death but I think it is useful for children to witness it in nature, respect it, and become both less fearful and less sentimental about it.
 

The tranquility of lockdown has also enabled us, like many families, to enjoy our streets more, improve our cycling skills without fear of speeding vehicles, and get to know our local patch. While access to green space is not equal, with poorer neighbourhoods having much less of it (we as a society must change this – access to green space should be a modern-day human right), most of us can find some greenery close to home.
 

Children love to get to know their neighbourhood. My children moan like any other when taken for a walk but they soon become content in the humblest of outdoor places. One of the greatest gifts as adults we can give children is to facilitate their free play in nature. We’ve been pottering down to the river near us, scanning the water futilely for otters and playing Pooh Sticks under a footbridge. We’re on nodding terms with more than just our human neighbours now. We’ve befriended an aggressive white goose which chases off the others on the water. Esme has fed and caught with her bare hands several feral pigeons. (She lets them go again almost immediately.)

Patrick Barkham

This may appear eccentric  but I passionately believe that we must cultivate a more intimate relationship with the species around us. We need these bonds for ourselves, because our mental and physical health is immeasurably improved when we are outside, in green space. But we also need it for the planet, because we will not quell the extinction crisis that imperils all life on Earth without touching, feeling, hearing, smelling and admiring the species around us – our neighbours – who have been in such fine voice this spring.
 

**********
 

Looking for new ways to entertain the wild child in your life? Download this free 8-page illustrated activity pack, inspired by Patrick's book, bursting with ideas for spending time in nature with your kids.
 

Wild Child Activity Pack
 


 


Patrick Barkham

Patrick Barkham is natural history writer for the Guardian. He is author of The Butterfly Isles, Badgerlands, Coastlines and Islander. He lives in Norfolk with his family.

 

I Am Not Your Baby Mother - Candice Brathwaite
26th May 2020

It's about time we made motherhood more diverse - 
I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite

 

I Am Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite

 

Author Candice Braithwaite first started blogging about motherhood in 2016 after making the simple but powerful observation that the way motherhood is portrayed in the British media is wholly unrepresentative of our society. Her debut book I Am Not Your Baby Mother is a thought-provoking, urgent and inspirational guide to life as a black mother, exposing what it's like to deal with the usual range of pregnancy and younger childcare issues, while facing hurdles such as white privilege, racial micro-aggression and unconscious bias at every point.

Here you can read an exclusive extract.

 



‘Children from Black and minority ethnic groups
are more likely to be in poverty: 45 per cent
are now in poverty, compared with 26 per cent
of children in White British families.’
(Child Poverty Action Group, 2019)

 

The idea of a nursery made me happy even if the thought of buying the necessary things like, you know, a cot and nappies, filled me with dread. But the plan was that I would breastfeed exclusively, which would save money. When people smiled and said, ‘Yes, that’s wonderful. So much better for the baby,’ I just grinned and nodded. Truth be told, I could think of few things worse than having a mini-me permanently attached to my tit, but formula was a tenner a tin and I was worried that if the baby’s appetite was anything like its father’s, we would quickly be in the red. Food is a necessity, of course, but if there was a way to keep the overheads of a human being low, we were going to try and utilise it.
 

Despite the need to budget carefully and wisely, there was one item that I absolutely didn’t want to be seen without. It was the mark du jour that supposedly represents the kind of mother you are before you’ve even introduced yourself; the item that acts as a megaphone, announcing what tribe of motherhood you belonged to.
 

The pushchair.
 

Now I’m not talking about any pushchair; this particular  brand was like the Lamborghini of baby vehicles. Its reputation was renowned, and its finish was spectacular.
 

The pushchair in question?
 

A Bugaboo, of course.
 

Before I had fallen pregnant, the only Bugaboo I knew was the hit song by Destiny’s Child. Of course, I knew that babies required some kind of construction to be carted around in. I’d helped a few struggling mothers when they were stranded at one of the many train stations not equipped with lifts. But I’d never had any good reason to research pushchairs in depth.
 

Once again, the Internet wasted no time in reminding me that I was ill-equipped for the task of motherhood. Pages and pages of online forums remarked that the Bugaboo was not only the most stylish pushchair, but also the safest.
 

‘I know they’re expensive,’ one online commentator began, ‘but I couldn’t imagine going for one of these knockoffs. Imagine if something were to happen to the baby? I would never forgive myself.’
 

 Upon reflection, I now see how crazy this all was, but I’m also aware of how deeply rooted my anxiety to get it right was. When black people arrived in the Britain they were told was Great, all they had was the willingness to work and the clothes on their backs, clothes which were always well pressed and well cared for. And looking presentable had been drummed into me from an early age. ‘If you don’t have a pound in your pocket, your attire shouldn’t show it!’  my grandad would recite each morning whilst fussing with the particulars of my school uniform. And of course my nan was slicker than butter on heat. Even though I had long outgrown wanting to wear matching dresses with her, she took her sartorial choices very seriously.
 

We were taught to be proud about how we looked, because the way we presented ourselves impacted on how we were treated by society. We didn’t – and in many ways, still don’t – have the luxury of not thinking about our outfits, because we instinctively know that we have to go the extra mile. So, when young black people are chastised for seeking designer garments before saving their money, I often want to stand up for them, as those who judge these choices don’t seek to understand that there is more to it than wanting to be seen as ‘cool’ or ‘on trend’. Being well dressed and in possession of the latest items was quite literally how black people were able to gain access to spaces that were usually closed off to them, not only for being black but also poor. And appearing to be financially solvent was quicker and cheaper than actually being so.
 

So, I admit that that is exactly what I was doing when trying to get my hands on a Bugaboo. I was trying to present myself to the world as having it all together. I was trying to say that no matter what people thought of me, I wasn’t that. Look, look at my cute baby and thousand-pound pram. I don’t care what you think about any other young black woman with a baby. If you took one look at me, your stereotypes would be shot to shit. 
 

It wouldn’t matter that we were renting our home.


Or that we often skipped lunch or dinner to keep foodcosts down.


Or that we piled on jumpers in the winter because the gas meter took every extra penny.


Or that date nights were spending fifteen pounds in Ikea.


Or that we purchased our mattress from a man with a van for seventy pounds.


None of that would matter as that’s not what the world would see.


I knew that the ‘mother’ version of me would be judged before I even had the chance to introduce myself, so if being able to give myself and my baby a head-start meant getting my hands on a pushchair that made people believe that not only did I know what I was doing, but I also had the wherewithal to get it done.

 



Candice Braithwaite credit Zoe Timmers
 

Candice Brathwaite is the hugely popular influencer and founder of Make Motherhood Diverse - an online initiative that aims to encourage a more accurately representative and diverse depiction of motherhood in the media. She has worked with brands such as Pampers, Ella's Kitchen and Specsavers, and has appeared on countless panels to discuss modern motherhood. Her writing has appeared in Stylist, the Metro and the Huffington Post. I Am Not Your Baby Mother is her first book.

 

 

Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat
25th May 2020

Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat - startling, real and with a lingering emotional punch

 

Alligator and Other Stories by Dima Alzayat

 

In her debut short story collection Alligator and Other Stories, Dima Alzayat captures luminously how it feels to be 'other': as a Syrian, as an Arab, as an immigrant, as a woman. Each of the nine short stories is a snapshot of those moments when unusual circumstances suddenly distinguish us from our neighbours, when our difference is thrown into relief.

Picador have generously allowed Foyles to share one of the stories which you can read below

 


 

ONLY THOSE WHO STRUGGLE SUCCEED


It was the night of the office Christmas party and Lina felt lucky and excited to be included as she was merely an intern, although there had been allusions to, if not promises of, a permanent position in the new year. Because she lived an hour’s drive away, and because she had to go into the office the day of the party, there was the question of how she would get ready for the outing. Her roommate reminded her that a gym membership they shared, a gift to the roommate from parents who found the roommate’s weight bothersome, was the solution to her dilemma. So, after a day of reading scripts and writing notes that summarized their strengths and weaknesses, going on coffee runs and picking up lunches, Lina said, ‘See you later,’ to her co-workers, and went to the closest gym to which the membership allowed her access and made use of its showers and changing room. She blowdried her hair straight and carefully flat-ironed and sprayed the fine hairs that framed her forehead and which she knew would otherwise frizz and curl in the party venue’s humid indoor air. It was a nervous energy that filled her as she applied her makeup, and she recognized it as one of anticipation, the same she had felt several times before. To her it signalled that her ambitions and desires, to secure for herself a role in the company and gain acceptance into an industry that was derided in public and celebrated in private for being discriminatory and exacting, were ones she could access and with time obtain. She felt in that moment the very potential of her life revealed. Before leaving the locker-room she looked at herself in the mirror a final time, felt satisfied with the pale gold shadow that brightened her eyes, and wiped off the red lipstick she had previously thought festive but which now she deemed made her lips appear too prominent and defined.
          The party was held in a bar closed to the public for the occasion, and when she entered her co-workers were glad to see her, and she spoke to men and women who in the office spoke only to one another or to their own assistants. As she made her way around the room, she was welcomed into the various intimate groups that formed, reshuffled and formed again, and was included as gossip was exchanged about people whom she did not know, but whose names she recognized enough to allow her to join in on the laughter that ensued at their expense. Such interactions, she understood, were the blocks required to build relationships which, if they were carefully maintained, could later act as bridges capable of delivering her to the most coveted positions. As she conversed and laughed she began to feel encouraged that the months she had committed to working without pay, complying with requests and orders that were at times intended to humble or diminish her, were in fact worthwhile, and that she was, at last, to be admitted into a life that had initially seemed too extraordinary for someone like her to achieve. She stood near the bar and accepted the drinks handed to her, and later, when the president of the company, for whom she interned directly, and the vice president, who had flown in from New York and stayed for the party, gathered a select few and handed out shots of tequila, she found herself full of verve and jubilance, feelings the gathering evidently inspired within those comprising the small group around her. And thus, though she preferred vodka to tequila, in fact found the latter sickening, she drank it, and then another. 
          Speaking to a second intern, who was much newer than she was and had been included in the small group taking shots near the bar, Lina learned the girl was completing her last year at a highly esteemed private women’s college on the East Coast. This intern, though polite, did not smile much, and it made Lina aware of the ache in her own cheeks from smiling and laughing widely through the night, and she allowed her face to relax. When the company president sat beside her and the other intern, and discovered where the latter attended college, and where she had been raised, Lina did her best to convey interest and engage in the conversation even though they spoke of a world whose distance from hers made it mystifying and at times unreal. As they spoke, she worried that perhaps this connection, between the president and the intern, would threaten her own chances at a permanent position, and would make inconsequential the time she had devoted. Her education at a public university, well ranked, but public nonetheless, and large, and which before that moment had been for her the greatest accomplishment of her life, seemed now crude when measured against the finely tailored education of the girl sitting beside her.
          When she began to feel drunk, she did not worry. She had, earlier that week, made arrangements to sleep at the apartment of the president’s assistant and his girlfriend following the party. Though she did not particularly like the assistant, as he was selfish and crude, she had with time developed a reluctant fondness for him on account of his dedicated, if compulsive, work ethic, which made him resourceful and energetic, and imbued him with a sense of humor. She also liked that he thought her smart, smarter than the other interns, and trusted her to read scripts other interns were not allowed to see. With time, his trust of her had come to serve his needs primarily, she knew, as she would often be left to cover his desk on his days off and sent scripts to read and provide feedback on in the middle of the night. He told her he would, of course, take credit for some of the work she completed, but that on occasion, when it mattered, and to the president directly, he would credit some of her work to her. He promised also, in return, to help her secure a job, either at the company or elsewhere once she graduated. She had learned, both in college and in previous internships, that this was an industry that operated in such a manner, was not put off by this knowledge, and had in fact been spurred to seek a career within it partly due to its demand and difficulty. Growing up with little money, she believed, had prepared her to work long hours and to live frugally, and she had, on several occasions, felt irked by those people whom she encountered at the various jobs she held in college, in clothing shops and call centers and deli counters, who seemed assured of something large and yet-unknown in her path, as there had been in theirs, and which would keep her from realizing her goals. Their worries and complaints were, sherepeated to herself, imagined and self imposed and particular to them, and, in this way, she remained steadfast in her commitment to succeed.
          When the other intern excused herself and left Lina and the company president alone, Lina felt comfortable enough to make a joke and was relieved when he laughed. She had been working for him for five months and though she found him intimidating, it was because of how he carried himself with poise that was notable and rare. Only on occasion, when someone, usually his assistant, made an error that led to his appearing uninformed, did the president raise his voice. This was different, she knew, from the men who owned the company, and the many others like them, who screamed often, and insulted the people who worked below them, and were known to resort to physical violence from time to time. The president, in contrast, was not boorish and had about him an air that was calm and regal. She was happy to speak with him and was happier still when he thanked her for her work, and complimented her on her good taste in film, and inquired about her goals and the career she would like to one day have. They spoke also of family, she keeping to herself that what worried hers most was money, and he sharing with her his struggles to connect with teenagers who, to him, seemed to overnight become different people than the ones they had been as children. After some time, he thanked her for being easy to converse with, and admitted these were not subjects he normally spoke of in such depth. She, in return, complimented him for setting a good example to the people who worked beneath him, and for being measured and kind, especially to the interns. He was taken aback by her words, but she could see he enjoyed them, and he confided in her that his years of focused work had, yes, brought him much success, but at the great price of two failed marriages and a feeling of loneliness he found difficult to describe.
          These things Lina would, the next day, remember, but what occurred after was to be captured and recaptured in frames by her mind as it attempted to place in order events she would absorb as random and discrete. They would include the president offering her one of his children’s empty beds for the night; the vice president telling her the assistant had disappeared after a fight with his girlfriend; the lights dimming; the vice president assuring her she would receive a room at the hotel; the bar closing and her gathering her belongings; the vice president ushering her into the backseat of a chauffeured sedan; the room spinning; the assistant telling her the plan had changed, that he and his girlfriend could no longer host her as planned; the voices slurring; the vice president informing the president that the company had, for the use of employees, reserved rooms at a nearby hotel, whose name she recognized as one located on a well-known boulevard; the faces blurring; the assistant instructing her to get into the car.


When Lina woke and found the vice president on her she wondered if maybe she was imagining him there. There, on her face and neck and hips and thighs, and ‘No,’ she said, and he stopped. Then he was on her again, and the room spun, and she spun with it. His tongue felt like other tongues and she thought maybe, then thought about the tongues she had in the past known and wanted and the distance between such tongues and this one was too vast, and the inability to calculate it overwhelmed her. What was occurring she felt was a sequence of awakenings in which first she noted how the room spun and she with it, followed by him, there, and there. Then, the unnerving feeling of this sequence being one of many, and that somewhere in the room they were stacking, amassing to something that could soon be summed and made whole. Her need to make it stop and him with it brimmed and receded, brimmed and receded, as she woke and slept, and the room spun. Her hope was for the waking to last long enough to flood her, to expel from within her the dismay and dread that kept her soundless, and when finally it did, she saw that her waking, and the awareness that came with it, would in fact be quick to saturate her through and through, and she cried, loud and plenty. This brought the movement above her to a stop, and at last she could feel him not on her and heard him walk away.
          In the morning, she was calm though lightheaded, and she thought that perhaps he was gone and she could rise and gather her things and leave undetected. Instead, he came into the room and sat next to where her legs stretched beneath the covers, and said he had been drunk and so had she, that he had slept on the sofa on the other side of the door, that he was certain nothing complete had occurred, and ‘I’m sorry.’ He told her also that her car had, the night before, at her request, been brought from the party’s venue to the hotel, and on the bedside table placed the ticket that would allow her to collect it. She did not tell him that this was a fact she did not recall, and remained silent as he said some other things about how if there was ever anything he could do to help her, she should not hesitate to ask. She noticed then the business card he held in his hand and watched him lean toward the bedside table and lift a pen, and on the card write a number he informed her was his cellphone. ‘Just in case,’ he said as he stood up. Then he kissed her cheek and left. The relief was immediate, and she turned her attention to putting her things back into her shoulder bag, and, on reflex, walked the length and width of the suite and its rooms in search of anything that might testify to her being there. She was beginning to sense the complications to her reputation and career that her presence in the suite could cause and was meticulous in her search. Finding nothing, she decided it was okay to leave. Before she did she looked out of the window and imagined someone like her, or actually her on a previous day, looking up at the window of that expensive hotel on that well-known boulevard and imagining that the people who stayed there surely led lives full of liberty and ease.
          The valet took her ticket with a smile and she hesitated to ask for it to be charged to the room and to give his name, but she could guess the cost to park in such a place, and so she did. When her car pulled up to the curb beside her, its dented side and back bumper sent the normal rush of embarrassment through her. Though, in that instance, her shame was met with a degree of relief at the car’s familiarity, and this shift in feeling softened the interaction between her and the valet, her handing him, as a tip, a five-dollar bill he might have guessed she could not easily afford, and her smiling in gratitude at his stepping aside to allow her to get into the driver’s seat. When the door closed, it quieted the sound of the street, and she breathed the car’s damp and dust, and felt the seat that after so many years had molded its shape to her back. On the freeway she was thankful the day was a Saturday, with neither classes nor her having to go into the office, with him, for his leaving Los Angeles and returning to the New York office where he normally worked, for the ability to tell no one what had transpired, or nearly transpired, or was in that moment continuing to occur and manifest within her. As she drove, she endeavored to arrange the facts of the previous night, those she could recall, into a tolerable order. However, shuffling what she knew, from one place to the next, made her increasingly aware that the arrangement she sought was not one of chronology, but of something else, of cause and motive, fault and responsibility, and she vowed to think of it for the duration of the drive only, and planned to remove it from her mind once she reached home.
 

Soon after the Christmas party, Lina graduated and moved to the city, and while the company decided whether or not to hire her, she survived on inconsistent and temporary work allotted to her by an agency that kept a portion of her earnings. During this time, she questioned the path she was on, and whether it was one that would always keep her feeling so precarious and unsteady. In order to continue, she knew she had to cast the thought from her mind, and instead repeat to herself, Winners never quit, What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and other things she had been taught and believed. When, several months later, the company did at last hire her for a permanent position, she was grateful and relieved. Her confidence in her destiny had been – as she had waited for the job – momentarily disrupted, yes, but the wait, she decided, had tested her determination and commitment appropriately, and reiterated the fact that Success comes to those who persevere.
          She was apprehensive, of course, about what had occurred, or not occurred, the night of the Christmas party, her primary concern focused on keeping what had taken place, or nearly taken place, private, as she was aware it would take from her the opportunity to succeed at the company, and perhaps within the industry, if it was discovered. She had, soon after, confided in the president’s assistant, telling him what she recalled, which, as she relayed it, struck her as insufficient and incapable of capturing the disquiet that accompanied it, the feeling that she was slipping away from herself. She watched the assistant at first appear remorseful, then become impressed by the knowledge that the vice president, who was widely perceived to be an impotent flunky, was capable of such actions. Finally, the assistant advised her of what she already knew, that she should stay clear of the vice president, when possible, and put the incident behind her.
          On her first day of work, the president congratulated her personally, and the vice president called her from New York to offer his best wishes. He also informed her that his counsel on her hiring had, in fact, been sought, and that he could have, had he wished, opposed it with ease. There he paused to allow her to absorb the gravity of his words, to imagine in those passing seconds where she might now be, had he not been so generous. Prior to the Christmas party, like the assistant, she had thought him an inconsequential man, who, as a result of years of bullying and humiliation at the hands of the company’s owners, seemed often nervous and afraid. This fear was evident in his voice over the telephone, but Lina could now also hear, embedded within it, malice and conceit. He waited for her to thank him, and she did, then hung up and did her best to remove him from her mind. There would be times, she knew, when she would have to see and tolerate him, but she took comfort in the distance between the office he worked in and hers and felt a surging need to deny him the ability to alter her course, and to think of him as merely one of the many obstacles she could and would overcome.
 

Lina’s new boss was a woman who she quickly learned did not trust her, and perhaps did not like her, but who, because of the president’s affinity for Lina, had felt pressured to hire her. Lina understood such politics were usual, and set about ingratiating herself with her boss, whom she liked well enough, when the woman was in a good mood. She enjoyed that her boss, like the president’s assistant, was humorous, that she spoke loudly and directly, and laughed often. At times, her boss was rancorous and seething, and in those instances, Lina braced herself to be ridiculed or berated. While such incidents were unpleasant, she felt prepared for them. What concerned her more was that her boss did not seem to do any work, and spent her time pretending to do so, or avoiding the president, whom she also did not trust or like.
          As the months wore on, Lina worried how her boss, who she was now certain did no work, could guide her on her path to learning and promotion. She began to wonder how many executives, like her boss, in the company she worked for and in others, did any actual work, and how often. But as her goal was to climb up through the ranks, and to one day become an executive, she determined it was her boss only who did so little in such a role. The president, by this time, had acquired new interns, some of who were the children of well-known and respected industry figures, and Lina understood that when the time for promotions came, they might be preferred over her. So, she did her best to work diligently when she was given work, though it was often of a personal nature and was mostly comprised of her boss’s private tasks and errands. Still, it was important to Lina to keep her boss happy and focused, so that on occasion, she might be inspired to work. When that failed, she resorted to helping her boss keep up the appearance of working. She understood that the value of her own job depended on such a pretense, and that her fate was intertwined with that of her boss.


When that summer the Israel–Lebanon War, also known as the Hezbollah War, also known as the Second Lebanon War, began, Lina worried about the people who would be hurt or killed, and about her brother who had, as part of his graduate course placement, and on account of his fluency in Arabic, gone to Beirut to work. Lina’s politics during college had become muted, or rather, redirected toward grievances she found abstract and aloof and without connection to her life. She was, of course, aware that her being Arab was problematic in certain spaces, and that in such instances it was enough to refrain from announcing or declaring it outright. This she had learned in friends’ living rooms, and in shops and offices in which she had worked, and classrooms in which she had sat from kindergarten through college.
          She did not consider herself dishonest for keeping, in her current job, her background to herself, since she was, as a rule, private, and to that effect she had absorbed the requirement to pass as one comparable to not speaking of money or lack of it, or one’s political leanings, or the countless other facts about themselves she knew people juggled, and hid or presented, as needed. She had watched her own parents, on several occasions and in public spaces, silence their Arabic in the presence of bewildered or suspicious looks, and understood the necessity of such actions. Earlier internships, in addition, had indicated to her clearly and unmistakably that her passing was indeed essential to her success, and that without it, her climb, while not impossible, would become steep and perhaps without end. In particular, a French producer she had interned for, who had, as he said, a certain regard for the Lebanese, who – as he also made sure to say – were different from other Arabs, advised her that others she might work for in the future might not be as worldly as he who understood that not all Arabs despised democracy and freedom and were prone to violence and a hatred of Jews. Her decision to pass, then, was not consciously taken, but was instead natural and necessary for her desired career, as was the ability to work long hours, suffer lecherous men, and bear occasional derision.
          When, after one thousand Lebanese civilians had been killed, and one million displaced, and as her brother went on land from Lebanon to Syria to Jordan in order to return home, she heard the president’s assistant call Arabs animals and watched some of her co-workers high-five at the news that much of Lebanon had been destroyed and the Arabs broken, Lina felt herself an imposter. The binding that held her together loosened, and she saw herself as they might see her if they were to know her as one of the many Arabs whose deaths brought them such joy that day. She felt again as she had several times before, that what was possible and what was not was laid bare before her, but this time, however, she was alert at both the value of possibility and its cost. It was an amount, she knew, she was willing to pay, and persuaded herself to believe it was even more worthwhile, more commendable to ascend the ranks of a world that could so easily shun her.
          That summer also saw the president of the company take increased notice of Lina. It began with an encounter in the mailroom, where he reminded her of their conversation the night of the Christmas party and what a rare and enjoyable exchange it had been. The value of the encounter, he suggested, was his ability to speak genuinely and openly with someone who seemed neither fazed nor altered by his status and position. Lina’s esteem of the president had remained unchanged in the months since the Christmas party, despite her boss’s dislike of the president, and the president’s occasional reminders to Lina that her loyalties lay with him and the company and not with her boss, whom everyone knew he had been forced to hire. So, in the mailroom, Lina again reiterated her respect for the president and confirmed what she believed he hoped to hear, that her ambitions were to remain with the company and to advance her career within it.
          It was common knowledge that in order for an assistant at Lina’s level to gain a junior executive position, she would first be required to serve as the president’s assistant. This knowledge served the president’s current assistant well, as he perceived Lina to be incapable of usurping him and hence sought a future in which their promotions would be simultaneous – he to a junior executive office, and she to the president’s desk. This plan the assistant shared with Lina, and it triggered within her both trepidation and pleasure. Increasingly then, she was asked by the assistant to cover his days off and holidays, a responsibility that furthered her exposure to the president, and, the assistant hoped, fostered within the president a feeling of familiarity toward her, one that could not easily be rivaled when it was time for the assistant to be promoted and his replacement sought.
          So, as the summer weeks gave way to fall, Lina began increasingly to work with the president directly, and when the whispers reached her ears that soon his assistant would at last be promoted, she was certain her due would come with his. It was shortly after the whispers commenced, then, that the president complimented Lina not on the quality or ethic of her work, or even her conviviality and amiable presence, but on her physical appeal. It was a day like all others, except she was ill, and had all but lost her ability to speak. The president found her voice, made hoarse and hushed, attractive, sexually so, and he said this without embarrassment, before proceeding to ask for his messages, as if the comment had not been made, or had been and was accepted. This movement, from one comment to another, was so refined as to be nearly imperceptible, and it was only once their exchange concluded, that Lina gathered what had occurred. She sensed, however, that to investigate it, even to herself, was a dangerous act, and refrained from doing so.
          Because the incident did not immediately repeat itself, with time she thought it aberrant, perhaps even imagined. She remained confident that the president, after all, was more thoughtful and dignified than other men in the industry, who used their positions to openly procure for themselves sexual favors, or who, like the vice president, tried to forcibly take them. So, when some time later, the president sent her a script, and asked her to telephone him that weekend to discuss its strengths and weaknesses, she pushed from her mind the memory of what had occurred, and spent an evening meticulously reading the script and making notes. As she did, she was aware the president’s esteem of her opinion did not merit a private phone call between them. She wondered, however, if the task was, in fact, a test to determine if she was ready to take on the role of his assistant. As she dialed the number, she noted her anxiety, and how like fireworks it sparked in innumerable directions but had one nucleus. She recognized the center of her anxiety as the comment he had made and which she had worked to forget. 
          When he answered, he was genial but not overly familiar, and this put her at ease. She began to read from her notes, at which point he interjected and asked a cursory question about the script, followed by another. The questions she found facile, but she answered them as required, and waited. He informed her that he was to see a film that evening, and she took this as a signal that the conversation had come to an end, and she worried that their call had, in fact, been a test, that she had failed it, and that her anxiety, now clearly unfounded, was to blame. When he then asked her to accompany him to the film, she felt in her stomach a deep drop, one that threatened to be interminable, and which she knew could be halted only by her saying, quickly, before she could lose the courage, that she found such an outing inappropriate. What happened next, she would think about many times later in her life, because she would come to realize that it contained within it the very systems that structured life, made their anatomies visible and the intentions behind them clear. At her comment the president laughed, then somberly agreed. But what he sought was platonic, he assured her, and again he reminded her of their connection at the Christmas party, and also again lamented to her his position as one that placed him in what he referred to as an ivory tower which kept people like her, who were genuine and kind, distant from him. As he spoke Lina grew embarrassed at her outburst and said so, and he assured her it was expected and even commendable.
          As she drove to meet him, Lina knew what was about to transpire had to be handled with great care. She was glad then, when shortly after she arrived and parked at the white high-rise in which he lived, he promptly came out, as agreed, and led her to his car. The conversation, she found, was surprisingly easy and pleasant, and it renewed in her the belief that she was, to some extent, in control of how the evening might proceed. She began to doubt not her worries, but their depth, as she could now see how her time with the president might be enjoyable, and perhaps acceptable. When she remarked that they had been driving for some time, he informed her that they were, of course, not to be seen together, as the difference in their levels at the company would deem such a sighting unseemly. On account of this, he grew apprehensive as they entered the theater, and although they were in a neighborhood far from the center of the city, his eyes continued to scan for people he might know. Only once they sat, and the lights dimmed, did he relax and appear to enjoy himself, and Lina did her best to pay attention to the film and its many details, in case the conversation to follow demanded such knowledge. When the film ended, and he asked her to dinner, she said no, and when he took her back to his apartment building and invited her up, she declined and retrieved her car instead. Both times, if he was disappointed, he did not convey his feelings, and she again re-evaluated her assumptions and his intent.
          When the following day, the president commented on her appearance and she pretended not to hear, it did not deter him. For many days after, he delivered discreetly, either on the telephone or out of the earshot of others, comments which were dispersed among the other things he said to her and were intended to disappear unless she chose to recognize and respond to them. It was then the president’s assistant informed her that the president would that week commence his search for a new assistant. Lina could now make out clearly the hurdle before her, a boulder that would not remove itself from her way, and that she could not circumvent, and which she would have to confront or allow to force her to turn around altogether.
          When the president sent to Lina another script and asked her to read it and speak to him once she had, and when the assistant confirmed that this was indeed the test she had awaited, she knew she would neither read the script nor meet with the president. Instead she worked to expand the distance between them, by refusing to cover for the assistant when she was able, and by taking different routes to and from the various parts of the office. When she witnessed candidates being led to meet with the president, and the assistant voiced to her his disappointment at her failure to aggressively pursue the position, Lina felt compelled to tell the assistant why this was, in the hope that he would, despite his shortcomings, and because he had at one time championed her hiring, understand the gravity of her situation. She watched the assistant, at first, appear remorseful, then become impressed by the knowledge that the president, who was known to the assistant as having once been a man desired by many women, was still capable of such actions. Finally, the assistant advised her of what she already knew, that she should seek another job, where possible, and put the incident behind her. Watching the assistant, Lina’s fretfulness dissipated, and she began to see that she was not intended to succeed on terms other than the ones now spread out before her. She wondered if perhaps this path had been, despite her oblivion, clearly signposted, and whether if she had only looked down and around, instead of directly ahead, she might have seen the signs. Of this, however, she was to remain unconvinced, and she became increasingly sure the signs, while present, were never meant to be seen.
          After the president hired a new assistant and promoted his old one, and after it became widely known, throughout the office, that his desires were freshly set on a young woman recently hired within the department, and that this woman returned his favor, he stopped by Lina’s desk and voiced his displeasure at her lack of effort. She had not read the script he had sent, nor spoken to him about it, and he could see now, he said, that he had been erroneous in thinking she was ready for such a role. Several weeks later, when Lina entered the president’s office and sat down, and told him directly and calmly of her plans to leave the company, he frowned then scowled from behind his desk, and she watched his well-groomed poise give way to a clean hate she recognized, and which she would see again many times in her life. She was making a terrible mistake, he said, and was burning a bridge in an industry in which an act such as hers was impermissible and permanent. During the tirade, Lina felt scared and uncertain, and did her best to appear calm, and said only that she was prepared to endure the consequences of her actions. This silenced him. As she rose to leave, he spoke one final time, to remind her that he was not to blame, and that he had done nothing wrong. He waited for her to repeat these words, and she did.
 

It was many years later, as Lina watched on television the owner of the company, accused of rape and abuse and harassment and misconduct by eighty women, turn himself in on charges pertaining to just two, that she was reminded of what she, in her youth, had experienced and felt. She did not find the news interesting or enlightening, and she was not intrigued by what might transpire between the law and the owner, who, on account of his wealth, was able to negotiate the precise terms of his arrest and bail. Even the half- and whole-hearted appeals of employees and former employees who claimed ignorance or innocence, she found tiresome, their musings inconsequential to the affected women, and the lives they led, or had hoped to lead prior to their encounters with the owner, who took from them, and of them. The women, she knew, once the excitement settled, would be the ones made to pay.
          She thought of the night in the room of that expensive hotel, on that well-known boulevard, of how it had spun, of the young woman who had spun with it, and all her aspirations and desires. She became aware of the vigilance with which the young woman had put aside and away and moderated and maintained her knowledge of that night, and for that, Lina allowed herself to grieve. She yearned to reach into the memory of that room and pluck from it the young woman, to show her there were many ways to live a life, that many had not been taught to her, that she had been set down upon a path designed to ensnare her while keeping her reaching for an apex, a triumph of some kind, which would never come, and that this was by plan, not chance. But more than that, she longed to tell the young woman to carry fire, soon and often, to tell the others, and to set alight everything she saw, to waste no time burning all her bridges down. 

 



Dima Alzayat
 

Dima Alzayat was born in Damascus, Syria, grew up in San Jose, California, and now lives in Manchester. She was the winner of the 2019 ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award, a 2018 Northern Writers' Award, the 2017 Bristol Short Story Prize and the 2015 Bernice Slote Award. She was runner-up in the 2018 Deborah Rogers Award and the 2018 Zoetrope: All-Story Competition, and was Highly Commended in the 2013 Bridport Prize.

 

 

How to Raise a Loaf by Roly Allen
19th May 2020

How to Raise a Loaf and Fall in Love With Sourdough by Roly Allen

 

How to Raise a Loaf by Roly Allen
 

Sourdough is one of the biggest stories in food, with a whole generation converting to the rich flavour of the bread. In How to Raise a Loaf Roly Allen promotes the health benefits of this probiotic bread, as well as the mindful quality to baking.

In a piece written exclusively for Foyles, Allen gives a delightful, inspirational insight into his own sourdough journey, alongside some of the beautiful photos from the book, and best yet some great tips for first-time sourdough bakers. Enjoy!

 



If I’d had any idea how important sourdough bread would come to be in my life, I wouldn’t have got so annoyed the first time I saw it in a baker’s shop. 
 

For, like many people, my first experience of sourdough was outrage at its price. I remember seeing a loaf of it in the baker’s window looking stunningly beautiful,  yet ludicrously, comically, expensive. It raised all manner of questions: how could they be charging more than a fiver for a loaf of bread? Was it some kind of mistake? What magical ingredient made it worth so much more than the basic loaf? Had the world gone mad, selling an everyday essential at a luxury price?
 

These were, of course, all the wrong questions. What I should have been asking myself was – why is all the sourdough sold out by lunchtime? Because, of course, despite the high price, it was, going to a loyal fanbase of customers who, having tasted that basic sourdough loaf, would settle for nothing less. It took me a little while to take the plunge and join them, but once I did, I too was hooked. 
 

It wasn’t just the look and feel of the bread, whose crust blended warm grey and brown tones with the distinctive white traces of flour left by the proving basket: it was the taste. It had the comforting stodginess that any bread does, but it also had an edge, a savoury complexity that developed in your mouth as you chewed it, revealing new notes and flavours like a glass of wine. And it lifted anything that you ate with it; cheese and pickle sandwiches became gourmet sensations, toasties were rich golden miracles, and even Marmite on toast had never tasted better. So, for a year or two, without giving it much thought, I just ate the stuff whenever I could.

How to raise a loaf and fall in love with sourdough by Roly Allen

That changed when I lost my job. I was made redundant just after Christmas, and it hit me hard. I’d worked for the same company for many years, had done well there, and had poured all of my energy and creativity into the business. Then, suddenly, I was home alone all day long, with time on my hands, and a cloud over my head. With each unemployed day, that cloud seemed to thicken, darken, and block out more of the blue sky; and as I revised my CV, reworked my LinkedIn, and relentlessly stalked the recruitment agencies, it imperceptibly lowered, until one day I woke up and realised that if I didn’t do something constructive with my time, I would get seriously depressed. 
 

Making something with your hands is an excellent way to cheer yourself up, and sourdough was an obvious candidate – for no other reason than, it was cheap. All you need is a bag of flour, right? Right? 
 

Well, yes. Up to a point. There was this mysterious item called a starter, for one thing: where was I to get one of those? And the book I was consulting made everything seem very complicated. The author told me to read the entire book before even looking at a bag of flour: over 200 pages. Surely it couldn’t be that hard? Still, feeling slightly intimidated, I did so, then followed the instructions for making the mysterious starter, then waited, fed it, waited, fed it, waited some more… Finally – after a couple of weeks – I gave up, chucked out the gluey mess, and started again. Thankfully, this time it worked, and it only took a week. With this bubbling, not exactly appetising, but undeniably alive mixture to hand,  I rolled up my sleeves, and made my first loaf. Alarmed  by the number of new concepts I had taken on board (everything from acetic acid to zymase),  I was nervous, but I did the best I could, mixing, kneading, folding and proving. Success eluded me. Nothing looked quite as it did in the book: the dough was sticky as glue, so kneading it was next to impossible, and I was unable to form it into anything other than a blob. My dough did rise promisingly with proving, but when I tipped it out of its bowl to go into the oven, it lost its shape immediately, and when it came out of the oven, I had what could only be described as a discus: perfectly round, barely risen, and hard as a brick.
 

Nothing like the sourdough I had fallen in love with, my first loaf had little to do with food of any kind, and was barely palatable. After three weeks of emotional investment, this seemed a pretty poor return. 
 

Reluctant to let go of my dream of crusty, bubbly, homemade loaves, I turned to the internet. It was a little more helpful, but not much: there are a million sourdough bloggers out there, and they all disagree with each other as often as they can, but I took tips and techniques from everyone I could and, with practice, found a simple way to make a loaf that rose reliably and tasted good. Perhaps it wouldn’t win any prizes for its looks, and I wasn’t sure what part the acetic acid and zymase had played, but I didn’t care about that. I had raised my loaf!

How to raise a loaf and fall in love with sourdough by Roly Allen

I started baking regularly, and as the loaves rose, so did my spirits. This happened each day I baked, with the creative process giving a shape to an unemployed day, and living dough under my hands responding to, and rewarding, my attention. It’s become a cliché to say that baking is mindfulness in action, but I think there’s a germ of truth in the idea: and it’s definitely the case that a regularly-fed starter becomes something of a pet. I even started to think of the bubbling yeasts and lactobacteria inside my dough as a kind of party, a lively gathering that would, if left too long, literally knock itself out with alcohol.
 

Over time, things got better, and I revelled in this new skill that I’d acquired. When it got past the discus stage, friends and family enjoyed my bread, and always asked me to bring a loaf if I was coming to see them. A couple of friends even took some starter away and got into regular baking themselves. One of them asked for my method, so I typed it up for him, and then a few other people asked for it too. I experimented with different flours, and toppings: seeds, nuts, grains, cheeses, fruit, even chocolate. I bought a couple of proving baskets, and worked out how to adapt ‘conventional’ bread recipes (that specified dried or bakers’ yeast) so that they worked with a sourdough starter instead. This opened up infinite possibilities, from mediterranean flatbreads to dense, moist rye loaves that burst with flavour. 
 

So when the opportunity arose to create a truly basic beginner’s book on sourdough – the book that I had wished for right at the outset – I jumped at it. How to Raise a Loaf is the result: I hope that it takes the mystery out of bread baking, and gives people the confidence to give it a go. If it benefits a few people the way it’s benefitted me, I’ll be extremely happy.

How to raise a loaf and fall in love with sourdough by Roly Allen
 

Three Tips for First-Time Sourdough Bakers

1 - You want your starter to be absolutely fizzing with life when you use it. A good way to judge is to drop a dollop into water. If it floats, you’re good to go: if it sinks, refresh the starter and let it build up strength for a few hours.

2 - Flours vary. All strong bread flours are slightly different from each other, and absorb water slightly differently. While you’re learning, you should stick to one brand of flour, getting used to it and slightly adjusting the amount of water you use until you have found exactly the right mix for your dough.

3 - Don’t worry too much about the looks – think about the taste and texture. Professional bakers have to make loaves that look attractive, because they have to sell them. You should be less worried about the appearance of your loaf than its taste and the texture of the crumb. Get those right, and beautiful crusts will soon follow.
 


 

Roly Allen

Roly Allen only baked his first sourdough loaf because he thought it would be difficult and he wanted a challenge. To his surprise, it turned out to be incredibly simple.

 

Bad News by Rob Brotherton
15th May 2020

Bad News by Rob Brotherton
How can we all be smarter consumers of news?

 

Bad News: Why We Fall for Fake News by Rob Brotherton
 

There was a time when the news came once a day, in the morning newspaper. Not so much the case these days! In Bad News, Rob Brotherton delves into the psychology of news, reviewing how the latest research can help navigate this supposedly post-truth world. Which buzzwords describe psychological reality, and which are empty sound bites? How much of this news is unprecedented, and how much is business as usual? Are we doomed to fall for fake news, or is fake news ... fake news?

Here you can read an exclusive extract taken from chapter four, giving some context to current times from over 75 years ago

 


Too Much News

For seventeen days in the summer of 1945 there was no news in New York City. Well, there were no newspapers. Well, it was hard to get a newspaper. (Sensationalism is a difficult habit to kick.)

The newspaper deliverymen were on strike. The walkout had been called for midnight on June 30, a Saturday night. Apparently many of the disgruntled workers couldn’t wait. According to the New York Times, something like a thousand men who were due to work that afternoon failed to report for duty. Some had called in sick. Many more just didn’t show up. The Times sarcastically reported three hundred deliverymen “struck by the epidemic.”

The deliverymen were equally droll. As they mingled on the picket line, according to The Times, “There was much horseplay, men asking each other: ‘Well, how d’ye feel, buddy? ’with the answer being, ‘Oh, I guess I shouldn’t have had that mayonnaise for lunch.'”

All told, fourteen major papers were left without their usual means of distribution. According to an estimate in the New York Times, some 13 million customers in the city and surrounding area were deprived of their daily newspaper.

Bernard Berelson, the project director of Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research, saw an opportunity. Berelson wasn’t just a behavioral scientist, he was the behavioral scientist; later in his varied and distinguished career, he would be instrumental in establishing the concept of the behavioral sciences, including coining the name behavioral sciences.

His initial passion, though, had been library sciences, in which he had earned his master’s and doctorate degrees. So when the deliverymen’s strike hit New York City’s newspapers, Berelson’s enduring fascination with reading and readers mingled with his research interest in public opinion to inspire him to study the  public’s reaction to being deprived of their daily reading matter.

He quickly put together a plan. As the first week of the strike came to an end, Berelson dispatched research assistants around Manhattan to conduct in-depth interviews with sixty people affected by the strike.

The interviews included some scripted questions, but their primary purpose was simply to let people talk about what the newspaper meant to them, and how they felt about going without it. The sudden absence of people’s daily paper, Berelson figured, would bring its significance into sharp focus. “Such studies can most readily be done during a crisis period like that represented by the newspaper strike,” he wrote. “People are not only more conscious of what the newspaper means to them during such a ‘shock ’period than they are under normal conditions, but they also find it easier to be articulate about such matters.”

Most of the people interviewed complained about being deprived of their regular reading material. By design, Berelson wanted to interview people who usually read the paper, so these were all people who were being forced to abstain from a regular pastime. But one of the questions Berelson asked was “Are there any reasons why you were relieved at not having a newspaper?” The answers revealed how torn some readers were about keeping up with the news.

“Papers and their news can upset my attitude for the  whole day — one gruesome tale after the other,” a “middle-aged housewife” confessed. “It was rather a relief not to have my nerves upset by stories of murders, rape, divorce, and the war. ”She contemplated the other uses she could put her time toward without the daily newspaper demanding to be read. “I think I’d go out more,” she mused, “which would be good for me.”

Another interviewee had similar thoughts about better possible uses of his time. “I usually spend my spare time reading the papers and put off reading books and studying languages or something that would be better for me,” he said, calling the paper “just escape trash.” Whether he was successfully pursuing those loftier habits in lieu of his daily newspaper is not reported.

The interviews revealed the compelling, almost addictive, and not always pleasurable quality keeping up with the news possesses for some people. “The typical scrupulousness of the compulsive  character,” Berelson wrote, “is apparent in this case of a middle-aged waiter who went out of his way to read political comment with which he strongly disagreed.”

“I hate the policy of the Mirror,” the waiter complained, naming a particular columnist whom he particularly disagreed with, despite reading regularly. “It’s a pleasure not to read him.”

In other cases, Berelson reported, people were compelled to keep up with news of the war. By that point in the summer of 1945, Hitler was dead and Germany had surrendered, but the official armistice was still a few weeks away, as was the nuclear bombing of Japan. Some people forced themselves to follow the news out of obligation, Berelson said — as the least they could do for the war effort, or as a kind of atonement for the guilt of not doing more. It felt like her duty, a young housewife said, to follow the latest developments “ for the boys — the spirit of it. ”

Some people seemed to feel that keeping up with the war news was bad for their well-being. “Under the stress and strain of wartime conditions my health was beginning to fail,” one said. Thanks to the newspaper delivery strike, she “enjoyed being able to relax a little. ”

“I’ve been reading war news so much, I’ve had enough of it,” said another.

For these people, conflicted for one reason or another about following the news, the newspaper strike provided “a morally acceptable justification for not reading the newspaper as they felt compelled to do,” Berelson concluded. Though they wouldn’t voluntarily have given up their newspaper, “once the matter was taken out of their hands, they were relieved.”
 



Rob Brotherton

 

Rob Brotherton is an academic psychologist and science writer who likes to walk on the weird side of psychology. His first book, Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, was published by Bloomsbury Sigma in 2015 and was shortlisted for a British Psychological Society Book Award and a Phi Beta Kappa Book Award. Rob completed a PhD on the psychology of conspiracy theories at Goldsmiths, University of London, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. After a time lecturing at Goldsmiths, he moved to New York City, where he researches and teaches political psychology, among other things, at Barnard College, Columbia University.

 

 

© W&G Foyle Ltd
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