Hello there 🙂

Welcome to issue seven of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected and often delightful things I’ve recently encountered.

Grab yourself a suitable beverage and enjoy…


Part I: Good Things I’ve Encountered Online

In the last issue of this newsletter I mentioned that doing pretty much anything feels like hard work at the moment. Perhaps as a result, over the past two weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how I might be able to make doing stuff feel a little easier.

I’m not convinced I’ve come up with a great answer, but I figured that sharing some of what I’ve been thinking about might be useful.

A few years ago, when I was still working agency-side, an invitation to pitch to a well-known make-up brand came across my desk. It kicked off with the following adage:

“When you look good, you feel good.”

From my perspective, there’s something spectacularly icky about a make-up brand bandying around stuff like this in order to justify peddling their wares, but I’m going to park that particular train of thought.

Here’s the thing I actually want to talk about: that adage has never rung true for me.

If I’m not feeling good, then “looking good” – e.g. doing things like styling my hair, donning some nice clothes, applying make up etc, have no effect on my mood whatsoever. I might look good, but I still don’t feel good.

Maybe you can relate, maybe you can’t. Maybe, looking good does indeed make you feel good. If so, that’s great. You should definitely do whatever works for you.

Most of the time when I feel good, I look pretty damned awful (according to traditional standards of beauty at least). Let me give you an example:

I used to do a street dance class on a Saturday morning. I loved it. When I was in that class I didn’t feel self-conscious or embarrassed. I didn’t worry about what I looked like, or whether I was any good or not. I didn’t worry about what others thought, or even really notice what other people were doing.

My face would go beetroot from exertion, I’d be covered in sweat, my hair would be total mess, and I’d feel absolutely brilliant. My own body is not something I typically love – I prod, poke, and pinch at the bits I don’t like; but when I was dancing in that class, I loved my body. I would marvel at the things it could do, and the bits that wobbled no longer registered.

Of course other things make me feel good too. Talking to my friends makes me feel good, and I’m blessed to have friends who really couldn’t care less what I look like. Curling up with a fantastic book makes me feel good. Having a long bath makes me feel good.

I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes you feel good doesn’t matter too much. Maybe it’s looking good that makes you feel good. Maybe it’s painting. Maybe it’s dancing around your living room in your pants. It doesn’t matter what makes you feel good, but I think it really matters that you’re doing some of those things.

Unhappily, it may be the case that some of the things that make you feel good aren’t possible right now. Hopefully there are still some things that make you feel good that you can do, but even so, making time for that stuff might be difficult. Maybe the idea of doing things that make you feel good makes you feel selfish, or self-indulgent? If so, I feel you, but for what it’s worth, I think that doing things that make you feel good is neither of those things.

But why am I blethering on about this? Why is feeling good important?

I’ve noticed that I find it easier to do hard things when I feel good.

When I feel good somehow everything seems a little easier to cope with – tasks, responsibilities, work, family, (etc, etc, etc) none of that stuff seem quite so overwhelming.

I said right at the beginning of this rambling missive that I’d been thinking about how I might make doing stuff feel a little easier; so it follows, perhaps, that the answer is to try do more things that make me feel good.

Things are really tough at the moment, so finding the time to do things that make us feel good might be more important now than ever.


Moar serendipitous finds:

I resemble this content:


S Kirk Walsh’s essay on what she learned from E.L. Doctorow as a graduate student in the creative writing program at New York University:

“This isn’t about reading before you go to bed or reading on the subway,” he said with a soft smile. “This is about becoming professional readers. This is about craft and narrative. It’s about asking yourself: What can you steal from these writers?”


Watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on the Danger of a Single Story.

:“…to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. 

[…]

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” 

Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. 

Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story. 

[…]

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. 

They make one story become the only story. 

[…]

…when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”


Jeannette Winterson on Why We Read:

“Reading is an adventure. Adventures are about the unknown. When I started to read seriously I was excited and comforted all at the same time. Literature is a mix of unfamiliarity and recognition. The situation can take us anywhere — across time and space, the globe, through the lives of people who can never be like us — into the heart of anguish we have never felt — crimes we could not commit.

Yet as we travel deeper into the strange world of the story, the feeling we get is of being understood — which is odd when you think about it, because at school learning is based on whether or not we understand what we are reading. In fact it is the story (or the poem) that is understanding us.

Books read us back to ourselves.

[…]

One of the things the story teaches us is this: Read yourself as a fiction as well as a fact…The escape into another story reminds us that we too are another story. Not caught, not confined, not predestined, not only one gender or passion. Learning to read yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is liberating…”


The Myth of the Male Bumbler by Lili Loofbourow:

“The bumbler’s perpetual amazement exonerates him. Incompetence is less damaging than malice. And men — particularly powerful men — use that loophole like corporations use off-shore accounts.The bumbler takes one of our culture’s most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponizes it into an alibi.”


I love everything about this routine – her flawless execution, how much she’s enjoying performing, her teammates support – it’s an absolute delight from start to finish, and every time I watch it I do a little cry:


My friend Mark Jonhstone wrote a post over on his site, Content Hubble – How you block your creativity and what to do about it, which I really enjoyed reading. In particular I found this bit about jazz musicians really interesting:

“There was an academic study that monitored the brain activity of jazz musicians. They were wired up to EEG machines and the aim was to see which parts of the brain lit up when they got into flow.

But what they discovered was quite the opposite!

It wasn’t about the parts of the brain that lit up, but the parts that switched off.

The area that turned off was the frontal region (which can be thought of as the social brain), where we consider what might happen when we take an action — it might not work, we might make a mistake, and others might judge us.”

Mark also has a newsletter which you can sign up to here.


Pat is my spirit animal:

“If I only knew where I was to die, I’d never go near the place.”


And finally, this is so great it hurts:

PS I suspect you’ll like this, even if, like me, you’re of the opinion that Wonderwall is a deeply mediocre song which got way too much airplay initially, (and frankly ever since); and if you never hear it again for the rest of your life you’ll be just fine, thanks.


Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now

First up, “Boy Parts” by Eliza Clark. In this book, our protagonist is Irina, an artist who picks up men, and photographs them. Her work is unsettling and has shades of violence, much like Irina herself. When she’s invited to show her work at an art exhibition in London, the process of trawling through her archives triggers her, and her already self-destructive behaviour kicks up to a whole new level.

Comparisons have been drawn between Boy Parts and American Psycho – imagine Patrick Bateman as a consistently underestimated pretty woman from Newcastle. There are definitely shades of American Psycho here: like Bateman, Irina is an unreliable narrator, a narcissist, and possibly even a sociopath; however, she lacks Bateman’s levels of privilege, and she’s vulnerable in ways that Bateman isn’t – Irina is both a victim and a perpetrator of violence.

At its heart, I think it’s a book about gender, class, power, and beauty. Clark herself has said she’s interested in how people conflate beauty with goodness, and how people treat others better when they are dressed nicely or are conventionally good-looking.

This is definitely not a book for everyone – it includes scenes of sexual violence, drug use, and self-harm. But if you enjoyed American Psycho, I think you’ll also enjoy Boy Parts – I definitely did.


As you may recall from issue three of this newsletter, I absolutely loved the TV series, Tales from the Loop (Amazon Prime), and so I treated myself to the book that the series was based on “Tales from the Loop” by by Simon Stålenhag.

It’s a beautiful hardcover book filled with art and stories from Stålenhag’s childhood.

“The Loop was deep underground. It was an enormous circular particle accelerator and research facility for experimental physics…

Our parents worked there. Riksenergi’s service vehicles patrolled the roads and the skies. Strange machines roamed in the woods, the glades, and the meadows. Whatever forces reigned deep below sent vibrations up through the bedrock, the flint lime bricks, and the Eternit facades, and into our living rooms.”

The images above are from the book, and you can see more of Stålenhag’s artwork here. I’ve also ordered the follow-up to Tales from the Loop; a book called Things from the Flood, and I’ll doubtlessly be blethering on about it in the next issue of this newsletter.


Recommendation of the fortnight goes to “Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells” by Helen Scales. I picked this book up in the course of writing my play, The Sleep Stealers (my protagonist, Alex is fascinated by seashells). For the sake of transparency, I didn’t expect to be recommending this book to you – I started reading it for research purposes, but it’s both fascinating and brilliant.

Scales is a marine biologist, and so her starting-point is the biology and ecology of molluscs, but like most ecological subjects this becomes quickly intermeshed with human history. For example, seashells were previously used as currency, and it’s thought that “spondoolies” (slang for money), is a modern variant of “spondulix”, which was probably coined thanks to the spondylus shell which was used to make neolithic jewellery and was also an early form of currency.

The biology of molluscs is fascinating too: mollusc bodies are nearly all foot, and so, when a snail swallows, “its food goes right through its mind”. Also, it’s thought that perhaps the patterns on mollusc shells are actually self-written notes, so these creatures don’t forget where they were in their shell-making efforts.

Some of today’s molluscs are bigger than you might realise, for example, Noble Pen Shells, a large species of Mediterranean clam, have shells which can reach up to 120 cm (4 ft) in length. But it the past molluscs were even bigger. If it were possible to travel back in time to the Ordovician period, you might encounter a shelled cephalopod named cameroceras – a creature with a shell more than 10 metres (30 ft) in length – that’s about the size of a double-decker London bus. Probably best to stay on dry land, huh?


Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching

I’m still at my Dad’s, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there’s not a great deal of overlap between the sort of stuff I like to watch, and the sort of stuff Dad likes.

For example, we watched a couple of episodes of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads (BBC) – I loved them, and fully plan on watching the rest, but poor Dad really wasn’t feeling it. (This reminds me of the mix tapes I used to make and gift him as a teenager – these were gifts he received with remarkable good humour, and duly endured but definitely didn’t enjoy.)


In an attempt to uncover some common-ground (i.e. stuff we’re both happy watching) we both endured Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I suspect each of us thought that perhaps the other liked it, whereas, in reality, both of us found it to be utter tripe. So we found consensus I guess, but failed to find entertainment. Seriously though – do not watch this film – the script is so poorly written in places it made me wince, and I’m really not sure why this film was even made.


We watched a couple of episodes of The Serpent (the BBC’s drama about Charles Sobhraj). As I understand it, a lot of people really liked this show, but honestly, I’m not sure why. From my perspective it’s clumsily written, the constant flashbacks cause the show to feel disjointed, and distance you from the action; and although much has been made of how much the show’s writers apparently care about Sobhraj’s victims and their families I didn’t see it in the episodes I watched. Possibly I’ll watch the rest of the series, but probably not. Incidentally, Dad wasn’t feeling this one either.


Sticking with the drama based on true crime, we also watched The Pembrokeshire Murders (ITV have apparently been crowing that it earned the channel its highest ratings for a new drama series since 2016). Both Dad and I agreed that it was ok, but that it was a shame that the work of the forensic science team on the case took a backseat to the work of the detectives. (For clarity, without the evidence that team found, the case wouldn’t have made it to trial.)


More nature programming saved the day (or at least I think it saved the day – it’s entirely possibly that Dad is enduring these programmes too, and is just too kind to tell me that’s the case). Another David Attenborough show, Seven Worlds, One Planet (BBC) has provided much delight (for me at least).

In Antarctica we watched an amazing display of humpback whales blowing spiralling walls of bubbles to corral the krill:

Humpback whales corralling krill (viewed from above)

And of course, there were penguins which never fail to make me absurdly happy.

But as always, these programmes are bittersweet as they highlight the myriad ways we are destroying habits, and indeed, the planet itself. In the previous issue of this newsletter I levelled criticism at the BBC for the ways some of this stuff is handled: problems are highlighted by Attenborough, but little attention is paid to just how complicated these problems really are, and what real-world solutions might look like, and once again there remains a frankly troubling “keep calm and carry on dears” vibe to this programming.


Part IV: Things I’m doing

As mentioned previously, this section is here to keep me honest. I’m hoping that by documenting some of the things I’m planning to do, it’ll give me the extra motivation required to actually do them. 

Here’s what I’ve been up to:

I’ve been having a lovely time being a part of the rehearsal process for my play, The Sleep Stealers. Thanks to lockdown all of our rehearsals have been via Zoom, and I’ve been so impressed by the energy and commitment of both director, Malita Brooks, and actor, Lucy-Mae Beacock – they’ve worked incredibly hard to bring this piece to life in very trying circumstances, and I can’t wait to see the final piece. By the time you read this, filming will have been completed; speaking of which:

Last chance to buy tickets for The Sleep Stealers (part of Monolog 4 at the Chickenshed). Theatres are of course closed right now, but if you’re interested in seeing the play I’ve been blethering on about, you might be pleased to hear that you can watch it from the comfort of your own sofa.

Chickenshed will be broadcasting pre-recorded performances, and you can get your mitts on a ticket here.

Please note, my play is being shown within Group B (when you go on to book tickets you’ll see you can select either Group A, Group B, or both). When you book you will receive an email containing a link which will be available to watch between 11th and 20th February.


In the last edition of this newsletter, I mentioned that my friend Laura suggested that I start playing Stardew Valley. Dear reader, I have been playing the game on my teeny tiny iPhone SE (the 2016 one, don’t @ me). This makes gameplay quite challenging, and I didn’t get off to a great start – on day one I could find my way back to my own farm, much to Dad’s bemusement:

Dad: What are you doing?

Me: I’m playing a game on my phone but I can’t find my house and it’s getting dark. Oooh! I just found a daffodil!

Dad: What?!

Me: I think I’m going to die – where is my house? Why is it so dark? I can’t see anything…

Dad: I have no idea what you’re talking about, I’m going to watch the snooker.

I am not very good at the game. So far I have accidentally destroyed my own crops, built a well I didn’t need because I didn’t realise that I could fill my watering can in my pond, and have been buying food for my chickens because I couldn’t figure out how to extract the hay from the silo I built. I have also found dating within the game to be challenging. It possibly requires more commitment than I’m capable of right now, but I’m working at it.

Fortunately Laura has been on hand to explain this stuff to me, and I am enjoying playing even though I’m not doing it right. Overall, I would recommend it – it’s weirdly addictive and a lovely distraction.


So what’s next?

Like I said right at the beginning of this newsletter, I’ve noticed that I find it easier to do hard things when I feel good. So, dear reader, over the next two weeks I’m going to do at least one thing that makes me feel good every day for the next two weeks. I’ve scheduled fun before (at the back end of last year), and it worked remarkably well, so I’m going to go back to doing that.

There are also a bunch of posts I’ve been meaning to write (some of which I’ve even started), and I will publish at least one of those before the next edition of this newsletter goes out.


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