my fingers race to keep up with the high hat

By Caroline Crampton,

Published on Jan 2, 2022   —   6 min read


I fell over this week. My unreliable left ankle gave way on the second from bottom stair and I toppled forwards, landing on hands and knees on the hard wooden floor of the hall. Somewhere in between I let go of the tea tray I had been carrying and shards of broken china went everywhere. It made such a noise that my neighbour, just leaving her house for a walk in the freezing wind, came and knocked on the door to make sure that everything was alright.

Apart from the perennial ankle problem and a few minor bruises, I was unhurt. The sharp pieces of pottery all missed me. I didn’t bump my head on anything on the way down. I did spend the rest of the day trying to pin down an unpleasant unmoored sensation that I think was slight shock. It took my body a few hours to process that sudden transition from upright to prone and the loss of control it implied. Maybe it’s because nothing else happens, but I immediately started referring to this incident with capital letters, as if I was the Provincial Lady.

The much lamented casualties of My Fall were two bowls from a now discontinued Spode dinner set and a treasured tea cup with a badger on it that my sister gave me in 2013. My husband managed to find secondhand bowls for purchase on eBay, but it seems like my cup is not to be replaced: Pinterest is full of artsy shots of it from about 2015, but there are none for sale. I feel sadder than I should about this.

A piece of advice I’ve heard a lot in the last year is to use the fancy stuff. Don’t squirrel away your best china or nicest towels for a ‘best’ that never arrives. Burn your fanciest candle on your worst day. Eat your cereal with the best silver. Enjoy it all now, because who knows what trouble is just around the corner.

I generally subscribe to this. I don’t believe in some imaginary future occasion that will be fitting for all the nice things I’ve saved up to buy. We deserve good things now. But the flip side of this, which I had never really considered before but was forced to confront while looking at the broken pieces of my cherished badger mug, is that if you use it, you have to be prepared to lose it.

The phrase “narrative non fiction” gets thrown around a lot these days, but I’ve never read a book that is better described this way. My friend Samira’s debut Karachi Vice reads like a novel, with brilliantly drawn characters woven through a complex plot that has you turning pages as with a thriller, but a thriller that also teaches you a lot about the city of Karachi and its people.

I’m going to be talking to Samira about the book and how she reported it on Sunday at 6pm GMT on Zoom as part of the Conversations with The Browser series — sign up here if you’d like to attend, it’s free and there will be the chance to ask questions.

For me, the feeling of having finished something that I’ve been working on for a long time is like the happy glow I get after doing exercise: it’s an intoxicating high but it doesn’t linger long enough to motivate me to do it more often. I finally completed a draft of the book proposal that I’ve been writing on and off for… three years? It still has a long way to go, but I’m trying to hold onto the buzz of completion for as long as I can to remind me why it’s worth seeing things through (and going for runs even when it’s cold).

My writing pace has been accelerating over the last few weeks, which I put down to two things: the almost-arrival of spring and my rediscovery of the Muse album Black Holes and Revelations. The first is self explanatory, the mere fact that is now light at 5pm has done wonders for my mood, but the second is a bit odd. I’m not a Muse fan, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen them live (Oskar will tell me if I’m wrong about that). I listened to their cover of “Feeling Good” a bit when it first came out, but I haven’t checked in with their discography in a decade.

But recently the serendipity of the iPod “shuffle songs” feature — yes, I do still use a real iPod, every day — brought the Muse song “Starlight” and thus this whole album to my attention. The rapid, throbbing bass line and rhythm section worked like a spell. When running, I’m terrible for going too fast just so my feet are hitting the pavement in time with the counts in a song, and it felt like my fingers were doing the same, racing to keep up with the high hat in “Knights of Cydonia”. On Wednesday I put the album on repeat for six hours and wrote 6,000 not-terrible words. I think fancy music people laughed at Stephenie Meyer when she thanked the band effusively in the acknowledgements of the Twilight books, but she knew what she was talking about.

Image: Roake Studio

There’s been a lot of chatter about “emotional spending” on my feeds this week, prompted I think by this article and Twitter threads such as this one and this one. I would like to humbly submit my entry: these oversized brass hairpins. Is there a better metaphor for 2021 than me buying something shiny from an Instagram ad with which to spear the coiled up mess of my frizzy, overlong quarantine locks and pretend it’s all fine? I’ll wait.

That isn’t my hair in the photo, by the way, that’s a picture I borrowed from Roake Studio, purveyors of these fine hair implements. I don’t know how to take a picture of the back of my head, or indeed if anyone would want to look at it if I did.

These hairpins give me the shoved up yet securely elegant hair of my dreams. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been hunting for something like them since my early teens. I have moved through life leaving a trail of fake tortoiseshell combs, oversized crocodile clips and those ponytail turner thingys in my wake. Hair that is up gives me the same feeling of invincible preparedness as wearing dungarees. But it has to be a style that is achieved with a couple of quick stabs and twists — spending ages with elastic bands and kirby grips just isn’t it.

I’m far from alone in this. Violet Baudelaire was able to get her hair out of the way when an invention was needed with just a single ribbon:

And Miss de Vine, a favourite character of mine from Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, had perpetual trouble with her hairpins. I love the early scene in that book where another character assists her by pushing them back in and she declares that she now feels “a marvellous sense of security”. That’s most certainly what I’m after, too.

I would like to draw your attention to this most extraordinary interview with Joan Didion, who is now 86 and apparently seeing out the pandemic at her home in New York. Now, I like The Year of Magical Thinking and Slouching Towards Bethlehem as much as any other youngish woman who fancies herself a writer, but I do also have a fair amount of scepticism about The Cult of Didion, and I think this piece rather bears that out.

I’m not sure whether this interview took place over Zoom, on the phone, or via email, but Didion’s replies are as near to monosyllabic as they could be without being actually rude. The introduction that the interviewer wrote for the transcript is far longer than her subject’s answers. There is absolutely nothing quotable; most of them are some version of “I don’t know. I don’t know that there’s anything to say,” which is a verbatim answer she gave to a question.

She doesn’t have a book to promote or anything, so I can’t work out why Didion agreed to do this interview when she so clearly didn’t want to. Boredom? Maybe. It reminds me of Brie Larson’s infamous Wired autocomplete interview, in which she so clearly didn’t want to be there and took every question as a kind of personal attack. Send me more examples if you have them, I’m starting a collection of unnecessarily grumpy celebrity interviews. We’ve all got new hobbies now.

There are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: receive my daily podcast recommendations from The Listener, read me weekly in The Browser, listen to my fortnightly podcast Shedunnit, or follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

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