Slow reading

There’s a lot of news and social media about coronavirus and people’s reactions and fears and scaremongering. This can seep into you without you really noticing and affect your thinking and your mood.

One of the ways I’m coping with this is through slow, intentional reading. When I get into bed, I read one chapter of a carefully chosen book. Just one chapter. However much I want to read more, I stick to just one.

The book I am reading slowly at the moment is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It is a book that really benefits from slow reading and a deeper attention. It is written poetically and thoughtfully and needs space and time to reach into you and wrap its ideas around your heart. Yes you could speed read it, but that would be to miss a key point, as well as many nuanced ideas and you wouldn’t embody the teachings in the same way.

Reading this way feels more meditative, more mindful and is a way of slowing down at the end of the day. It is a tonic to heal from the short, snappy headlines, and the streaming flow of tweets.

“If you want the deep experience of a book, if you want to internalise it, to mix an author’s ideas with your own and make it a more personal experience, you have to read it slowly”
– John Miedema, quoted in The Guardian

I also will not look at my phone or tablet whilst I read the chapter. I read these as books, not ebooks and because holding books for too long hurts my hands, that also helps to limit me.

Some books lend themselves more naturally to slow reading than others and for me, these books include:

These are the books that spring to mind, but when I think of others I will add them in the comments below. I would also love to hear from you – what are you reading at the moment? Are you reading anything that feels therapeutic or healing?

Animal Lovers

If you’ve been around here before, you likely know I like nature and I like reading. You might also know that I write a lot about sex. So you might be thinking this is a further instalment of my bestiality series. I’m afraid to say it’s not.

This blog post is about a book, called Animal Lovers, by Rob Palk. It was brought to my attention by twitter which I tend to find is a good recommendation. The reason it was being talked about was because Rob had recently had some trouble with PIP… Personal Independence Payments. For background, and a sample of Rob’s writing, you can turn to a Guardian article from October.

If you aren’t aware, the process for claiming any benefits is one of horror films. There is constant fear, suspense, gas lighting and torture. There is life and death.

But back to the book as this isn’t supposed to be a post about the agonies of the benefits system. I already did that. In poetry non the less.

The blurb tells us…

“When Stuart married Marie, who saved his life, he didn’t expect her to leave him to protest the badger cull. Stuart can care about badgers too – if it means getting his wife back. But out in the woods animal instincts are stirring. Stuart’s about to enter a world of sexy witches, militant vegans and gun-toting farmers in this dark comedy about nature and love.”

One of the things I loved most about this book was the descriptive language:

“Darkness dropped mid-afternoon, and with it came a cold that snuck under our gloves and through the gaps in our buttons, wrapping itself round our bones.”

“Empty evenings, where if you speak it leaves a fingerprint on the silence, silence that shifts around the words before swallowing them, a silence louder than sound.”

It was a fun yet tragic story that I enjoyed and passed on to a friend as soon as I’d finished it. It was also one of those books that made me wonder what the characters were getting up to once I’d closed the covers.

A year in books

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll likely know I’ve been photographing the books I’ve read since Boxing Day 2018. This has been alongside #ayearinbooks and has been a fun way of thinking about what I read and how much I read.

The following images cover most of the 130 odd books I’ve read.

A recent tweet made me wonder, of this vast array, what was my favourite, what would I recommend and what would I really not suggest people read… of course these are incredibly difficult decisions to make and I’d like to add the disclaimer that I retain the right to change my mind at any time…!

I would highly recommend both of Shane Burcaw’s books – Laughing at my Nightmare and Strangers Assume My Girlfriend Is My Nurse. They are funny biographies which talk about his life with a disability.

“On the surface, these essays are about day-to-day life as a wheelchair user with a degenerative disease, but they are actually about family, love, and coming of age. “
– Amazon

The books are well written, easy to read and offer a great insight into life with a disability and being in an interabled relationship. Don’t expect self pity or inspiration porn, expect wit and sarcasm and to very literally, laugh out loud!

Another book that has to be on my recommendation list is The Prison Doctor which I read in a day. This book provides an eye opening insight into the prison system, through the eyes of a doctor – did the title give this away?! At times your heart will be warmed, at other times you’ll want to scream with frustration at the limitations of the prison system and you will definitely feel Dr Brown’s compassion coming through the pages.

Also vaguely health related were It’s All in Your Head: Stories from the Frontline of Psychosomatic Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan which talks in depth about psychosomatic illnesses in a respectful way. These are genuine illnesses despite them ‘being all in the head’, because the brain is an incredibly powerful organ. This is echoed in the intriguing The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes* by Frank Bures.

*Full title essential to include!

All of the offerings from Reaktion Books have been incredible. They have a fantastic series about animals and as well as telling you about the species, they look at how humans and animals have interacted over the years. These books are key for my animal blog posts and this year they’ve had two 50% off sales which has been fantastic! If you find that sort of stuff interesting, I really suggest getting your paws on one of their books.

This year I got a library card for the university library so this year’s reading has happily included a number of academic texts. Perhaps the best, although it’s a tough choice, was possibly Animals and Society by Margo de Mello.

Poetry wise, Hannnah Hodgson’s Dear Body was very inspiring and I’ve loved unpicking The Amputee’s Guide to Sex by Jillian Weise. On a non disability note, Significant Other by Isabel Galleymore has provided well crafted, thought filled poems. Other poets I’ve loved this year include Hollie McNish, Nikita Gill and Amanda Lovelace.

It turned out I can’t label any book as not to be recommended. Partly because I don’t bother finishing books I’m not enjoying – I know several people who will persevere but for me at least, life is too short and I can’t be bothered. I read because I enjoy reading and because I enjoy learning. A bad book gives me neither of those joys.

Over to you! What have been some of your reading highlights over the past year?

Pet cemeteries

In 1886 a vet in New York State offered to bury his client’s dog and that would be the start of the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery.  Hartsdale continues to operate today and is the resting ground of thousands of buried animals (including a lion) and shattered ashes.  It is often seen as a better way of honouring your pet than what would essentially be getting rid of them as if they were waste.  Burial in a cemetery also gives space for death ritual and mourning in a more formal way than burial in the back garden.  It also means you can revisit your beloved pet if you move house.

Over time the nature of the burials have become more elaborate.  Headstones can be more moving and less constrained that those for humans, there is less tradition guiding them and this frees up space for expression, it also opens up space to ask things like do you gift your pet your surname and if you do or don’t do that what does that say about the role of the pet in your family unit

Over the Atlantic, in London, we find the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery from the 19th century.  In the same era a pet cemetery was established in Paris.  During this time, the status of domestic animals grew and in turn so did the desire to commemorate them in death.

When Hyde Park Pet Cemetery opened it was illegal to bury animal remains in public spaces, meaning that most animal bodies, including pets, were left out with the rubbish or burnt.  This was starting to butt up against the idea of pets having more value than other animals.  Hyde Park was not run for profit and was almost solely for dogs, closing in 1902 as it was full.  Since then other animal cemeteries have popped up including one in Ilford which has memorials for individual animals deemed to have been heroes during the Second World War and the remains of thousands killed by their human ‘companions’ at the start of the war.

Of course, whilst pet cemeteries may be a relatively new idea, burial of animals is not.  It is possibly the most traditional way to deal with animal death, with the oldest known pet burial being 14,000 years old.  Evidence shows that cats and dogs have long been buried and it seems to be that this has been intentional and carried out because of a connection with the humans who buried them.  In the classical world, dogs were found buried with gravestones that carried touching messages, much as in the pet cemeteries of today.  More recently, urbanisation made burial harder as demand for land increased and many people didn’t have their own space they could use.

“Spatial limitations, as well as societal aspirations and emotional needs, were the key factors in the emergence of the contemporary pet cemetery… After the Second World War, however, pet cemeteries sprang up around the United States and Western Europe.”
– Michal Piotr Pregowski

Animal cemeteries are “a place of visible death” (Hilda Kean) which offers a role in the grief process akin to that of pet obituaries and today they can be found across the world.  There are about 700 across the US, about 75 in the UK and in 2009, the Australian Yellow Pages listed 138 pet cemeteries and crematoriums.  You can even visit the graves of celebrity animals at Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park.


Not quite 73 questions

Today I’m going with something a bit different to my recent posts, something more personal.  I was watching Shane and Hannah on youtube and when they were answering 73 questions I got intrigued about what my answers would be.  So that is what is in store today.

1.What’s the best thing that happened to you this month? I got my first car and it’s a wheelchair accessible vehicle so I get to go out in the wider world in my electric wheelchair! Freedom!!!

2. What is something you’re tired of? Brexit…

3. What is something that recently moved you? Watching a kid get left out on a school trip, it was a couple of months back but it still hurts my heart

4. If you could teach one subject in school what would it be? Tough one… It would probably be about humans and animals.

5. What’s your favourite beverage? White wine

6. What’s your favourite cocktail? I can’t drink cocktails… Some of these questions are not going to be applicable…!  I’ll just delete those ones I think!

8.What is one thing you still have from your childhood? My teddy!

9. What is your favourite movie? Maybe Little Miss Sunshine

10. What is something you can’t do? Cartwheels

11. What is one habit you wish you could break? My weird need to have the tv volume at intervals that end with 0, 2, 5, or 8.  It’s been with me since I got my first tv…

12. What makes you laugh no matter what? when my friends are laughing uncontrollably

13. What does creativity mean to you? Self expression

15. What is something you’ve always wanted to try but you’ve been too scared to do? Ooh… just taking off and going travelling without a lot of planning

16. Best advice for your 19 year old self? Life gets better

18. Must have purse item? Money? Keys? Assuming the basics are covered then a notebook and pencil

19. What did you want to do with your life at age 12? In secret it was a writer but I was made to feel stupid for that so the answer I gave was teacher or something like that

20. What is something you will not be doing in ten years? Making so much waste and recycling – I recycle so many plastic bottles and am trying to find ways to cut back.  Whilst it’s great they can be recycled, it’d be better if they weren’t made in the first place.

21. What is an important life lesson for someone to learn? Everyone is dealing with something, there is nothing to gain in comparing those somethings.  Something that’s trivial to one person can be major to another person.

22. What is one goal you are determined to achieve in your lifetime? I’d like to have some writing published.  I have had a few poems published but nothing I feel overwhelmingly proud of.

23. Would you ever live anywhere else? Probably not, I love York and also moving is complicated by which local authority has responsibility for my care and housing and stuff… You can’t just decide to move…

27. Who is your favourite painter? I really like illustration and tattoo style art but not sure I could pin it down more than that.

28. Favourite Disney animal? Is Happy Feet a disney film?

29. What is a book you are planning on reading? So many!  I am literally surrounded by books!

30. What did you read most recently? I just finished Animal by Sara Pascoe, The Gift of Dark Hollow by Kieran Larwood and a book by Tamara Pierce

32. What’s your favourite board game? Does scrabble count?

33. What’s a city you wish to visit? Portland

34. Heels or flats? Both, the wonderful advantage of wheelchairs!

35.  Where does one go on a perfect road trip? Canada?

36. What do you do on a rainy day? Drink tea and read and write and watch stuff when I get tired

37. What’s your favourite exercise? I used to love trampolining and was actually quite good at it, which shocked everyone!

38. What was your worst subject in school? Related to the previous question, my worst subject by far was PE

44. What is something you wish you could be good at? Spontaneity, and spelling definitely – for some reason the end always trips me up…

49. How do you manage stress? Writing down what I can do about the thing that’s causing stress gets it out of my head.  Distraction.  Trying to accept that I’ve done all I can do and the rest is out of my hands.

50. What do you do to relax? Watch tv, read, go outside

51. Age when you were first kissed? 16, it wasn’t good…

52. Place you were first kissed? Backseat in the cinema…

57. How do you know if you’re in love? You love the person including the things you hate about them

58. Television show you’ve binged on recently? Manifest

59. Who do you turn to when you’re sad? My teddy, then my friends

60. Name one thing you’ve learned the hard way? Asking for help is a strength not a weakness.  Be interdependent, not independent.  We can receive help from others and in some way, at some point, we will give back to them even though it may not look the same.

61. If you could make a documentary about anything what would it be? Disability and sexuality, it would probably have to be a series!

62. What is your Kryptonite? Books and bookshops

63. What are you most enchanted by? The power of nature in the face of adversity, think about plants that fight through cracks in the pavement.

64. What is your biggest strength? I am quite thoughtful.  I’m good at looking at the other side of something and thinking about why people do the things they do.

65. What is your biggest weakness? I want to fix things for others when I should just be listening.

67. Cutest thing on planet earth? Animals, especially babies.  I can’t be more specific.  Except perhaps excluding spiders.

69. Best first date idea? Some kind of activity, ideally outside.  Or something like ceramic painting.

70. Favourite type of flower? Daisies

71. What do you first notice about someone when you meet them? A sense of them, a feeling I get.

72. What’s your guilty pleasure? I don’t like the phrase guilty pleasure, if something brings you pleasure and doesn’t cause harm, enjoy it!

73. Plans for the weekend? Reading, writing, seeing what the weather does.  My weekends tend to be very chilled out – I’d rather go out during the week when the outside world is quieter.

Do names matter?

“Names – and in particular the names of the other living things around us – help us make sense of the world… A strong case can be made for the idea that when we know the names of living creatures, it helps us appreciate the diversity of the natural world, and treat other species better.”
– Stephen Moss

There is a power in names and naming.  By naming, we notice.  Without names, we can be blind to what is around us.  When we don’t know the names of plants, for example, we overlook them.  By naming, we can see the differences between this and that, we can notice the way the beak curves on this bird but not on that.  Names help us to see.

Smeuse is a Sussex dialect noun for ‘the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal’; now I know the word smeuse, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.”
– Robert MacFarlane

Without a name, we cannot easily discuss something.  And if we can’t talk about it, how will we know it, understand it and protect it?

Species names matter.  Wild dogs have had many names, some which denigrated them to a feral and dangerous animal which made it easier to kill them.  The population plummeted – calling them wild dogs made them sound like they had gone rogue, as if they were once tamed and had broken free and thus pest control methods were needed.  As painted wolves, or painted dogs, however, beauty was seen in them and now populations are increasing.

The right name can help us see a species differently and can change our instinctive attitude towards them.  More positive names can inspire a sense of pride and illicit a protective response.  If you want another example, would you prefer to save a hairy nosed otter or a furry nosed otter?  If you’re being honest with yourself, your gut reaction was the latter wasn’t it?  Don’t feel bad, you’re not alone.

A study which looked at otters and how likely people were to protect them based purely on their name showed that “furry nosed otter” was more likely to be conserved when compared to “hairy nosed otter” or “Southeast Asian otter”.  Similarly, “rainforest otter” was more likely to be conserved than the “giant otter”.

Other studies have reiterated the affect a name can have on the public’s likelihood to support species specific conservation efforts.  Think about the orca vs the killer whale.  They are one and the same but one name is more likely to get a positive response than the other.

“When advocating for increased conservation of a species, conservationists and researchers should consider using an alternative name that would entice a stronger positive reaction from the general public. It is possible that such a “rebranding” of otter names might potentially increase public concern and their value as a flagship species… It should also be noted that a species named after something that is already highly publicized as in danger of extinction, or degradation, would receive more attention and conservation concern than a species that is not.”
– Caitlyn Scott

There is another way that naming can help conservation, and that is on an individual level.  By giving an individual animal a name, we are giving it space to have it’s own identity and for us to have our own unique and personal relationship with that individual.  Think about the outcry surrounding the shooting of Cecil the lion.  That he had a name mattered, and there is power in the fact that I managed to remember his name a number of years later.  There was a global response and an increase in donations to related charities.  But what about the many other lions which die each year?  It’s been suggested that as Cecil had both an English name and was well known, his death made more of an impact.  David the chimpanzee is another example of how naming an individual can raise their profile.  By giving animals names, we create a way of knowing them and if we know them, it’s much harder for us to see them hurt or killed.

When we look at conservation rhetoric, we tend to see species wide discussions which makes perfect sense, but this makes it harder for us to have a relationship with, and thus care for, them.  It also makes it easier for the individual’s wellbeing to be disregarded, they are just one in a sea of many.  Instead, by naming individuals, we make space for empathy and for connection, instead of alienation.

Naming individuals can also give us a way of engaging in discussions about the plight of a species in a way that is more emotive and more relatable than is possible in a species wide conversation.  Named individuals, arguably, offer a more accessible way into conservation.  And the more we can discuss conservation and act accordingly, the better.


A Grumble About Train Accessibility

I think it’s important to note that before the wheelchair, I loved trains.  I was very used to train travel.  I knew what I was doing.  I wasn’t a nervous traveller.

This all changed when I started to need assistance.

To illustrate, let’s start with the asking for help portion of the drama.  There’s an online form to complete (you can ring but eek, phones.) and you fill out all the details of your journey, what help you need etc. It seems like it covers everything.


It’s not valid until they ring you back to repeat everything.  And there’s no guarentee they will ring you.  I’m travelling Saturday and as of yesterday, still no call. I have to ring them. Over 20 mins on the phone repeating everything again. The person mentioned three different databases she needed to check and didn’t seem to know how to use any of them.  At one point she tells me she can’t book me a wheelchair space because it’s a different train line.  They are supposed to be able to deal with your entire journey.

Upshot seems to be, I have to book the assistance with this provider but the space with another.

But it’s all booked.  That’s that, right?


Just because you have booked assistance, followed the process and done so 48 hours before your journey – no spontaneous train trips for me – doesn’t mean the assistance will be there.

Take my most recent train journey, a simple York to Leeds trip.  We turned up 20 minutes as required, we notified the information centre and were told to head to the platform.  The train arrived early as it terminated in York then turned around.  We waited on the platform.  We waited and we waited and five minutes before the train left we managed to speak to a member of staff on the train – bear in mind it’s station staff that do the assistance.  He thankfully had access to the ramp and we got on.

I made him aware that we were getting off in Leeds so that he’d be able to keep an eye out for station staff etc.  We pulled into Leeds, no sign of anyone, not even the train staff member.  My carer gets off and looks around – no one.  Absolutely no one to help us.

I am in my manual wheelchair and have limited mobility.  This gives us two options:

  • Option a) stay on the train until we reach a station that’s got staff on the platform that my carer can get off and get them to help
  • Option b) I get out manual chair, fight against crowd of people pushing to get on, stranger helps carer with chair then I fall off the train

The adrenaline of the situation helps me out with option b.

I complained about the lack of assistance to the appropriate people and got the following response:

London North Eastern Railway is very serious about offering our customers Assisted Travel. It forms part of our overall Disabled Peoples’ Protection Policy (DPPP) that helps us meet the needs of customers who are disabled or whose mobility is impaired. Our trains are for everyone and we’ll do everything we can to make each journey relaxing and enjoyable.

We’ve clearly let you down on this occasion and we’re sorry for any distress and inconvenience caused.

What we do to offer the best Assisted Travel experience
Our on-board and station teams have details of all customers who have reserved accommodation or arranged mobility assistance through Passenger Assist. 

…a lot of stuff about how they support passengers in the case of delays which was entirely irrelevant…

We are also getting a new Passenger Assistance in soon which should help to improve the booking process for both staff and passengers.

The problem was not the passenger system.  I was booked in as I should have been.  The problem was that no one turned up.  Either staff weren’t alerted to my journey or they just didn’t bother.

And you might well be thinking, yes but this is a one off, people get trains every day, you’ve been unlucky.

Well, no.  I have been forgotten about, left on trains and treated disgustingly time after time.  And if you don’t believe me, there’s plenty of other people out there who’ve had similar experiences.  Then there’s the stories about broken disabled toilets. Lack of appropriate space.  Staff who won’t move luggage out of the wheelchair space.  Broken lifts. Rail replacement services which aren’t accessible.  And so on and so on.

All of these things add up and mean that I have gone from being someone who was confident about, and regularly used, trains to someone who spends the entire journey wondering if I will actually be able to get off when we reach the destination.  And if I can’t get off then what is the next stop and how long will I be stuck on the train if I have to ride it till it terminates.  These are very real concerns.

The unpredictable service, the anxiety and the frustration all mean my travel is now significantly limited compared to my pre-wheelchair days.  It’s 2019, we should be able to expect better than this.

Wish me luck tomorrow…