No Complaints #80: Castles, Covers and Cheer

I’ve been doing a lot of work emailing with Americans this week, and it has really struck me how much more positive their written professional register is. I did at one point have to consult a more expert trans-Atlantic traveller for clues as to ulterior motives in a particularly gnomic “reaching out” missive, yet overall I like the sense these emails give that the writer is actually happy to making contact with you. British grumpiness has its uses, and done well can be a kind of art all of its own. Perhaps it’s just the news and its consequences creeping inside my mind – I mean, come on, world – but I find myself thirsty for a bit of simple, openly-expressed cheer that I don’t have to dig through three levels of subtext to find.

In that spirit: I’m glad to be sending you these things today, and I hope at least one of them amuses you. Why not hit reply and tell me which one?

Things to read

“Which is your least favourite fictional character?

In the part of my brain where I file alternative Jane Austen novels, I have devised a nasty fate for Mr Knightley, in order to liberate Emma into widowhood.”

I am reeling from the information that Hilary Mantel has plural alternative Jane Austen novels filed away in her mind. How do we persuade her to publish them? Email to Pocket.


“There is a wonderful exchange near the beginning of the book when Rose reveals dramatically that she would consider selling herself on the streets, only to be told that this is unlikely to work in deepest Suffolk. Rose bursts into tears, with Cassandra speculating it’s because she has lost faith in ever meeting any marriageable men, ‘even hideous, poverty-stricken ones’. We’re left in no doubt that this is a story with sex and money at its heart.”

There are few better books that Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, and Evie Wyld does a grand job here of explaining why. Email to Pocket.


“An often-asked question when I speak in public: ‘Do you have some good advice you might share with us?’ Yes, I do. It comes from my savvy mother-in-law, advice she gave me on my wedding day. ‘In every good marriage,’ she counselled, ‘it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.’ I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home through 56 years of a marital partnership nonpareil. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”

I love getting a glimpse inside Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s mind. Email to Pocket.


“Our hands are uniquely capable of grasping objects, a useful trait for our branch-swinging primate ancestors. Especially remarkable are our opposable thumbs, free to flex, extend, curl, and press in all sorts of directions. But their inherently unstable joints didn’t evolve to be constantly pushed beyond their range of motion. Yet they are when we flick through our phones or, worse, tablets.”

Pretty much nothing Silicon Valley has ever produced has been designed to be used repeatedly by humans without causing us harm. Email to Pocket.


“The piano and guitar-wielding dudes behind more downbeat covers do not embody the same cultural stereotype as The Chainsmokers; they're bros of a different kind. British YouTuber and pop performer Conor Maynard’s recording of ‘One Dance’ is part of a cynical-seeming project called Covers, on which he covers many of the songs with the highest streaming figures of the past year, presumably in order to catch some of those songs’ listeners second-hand – a technique Popjustice labelled ‘slipstreaming’.”

It’s a scientific fact: bros and their rubbish covers are ruining music. Email to Pocket.


Things to listen to

The BBC National Short Story Award is one of my favourite audio events of the year, because they always put out a podcast series of all the shortlisted stories. They're all recorded by famous voices (Miriam Margolyes and Ayesha Dharker were my vocal highlights this year) and they mix in music appropriate to each story. Following the fiction, each episode then has an interview with its author – I found Hilary Mantel’s particularly revealing, but that's probably because I’m one of the people willing her to finish The Mirror and the Light asap. The stories range widely in setting, scope and style, but I thought they were all excellent in different ways. Mantel’s Alan Bennett-inspired tale of the “habitués” of an accident and emergency department is sad and slyly political; Lavinia Greenlaw’s story of a young woman who lives in the dark countryside but longs to light up the city is mysterious and familiar somehow at the same time; and KJ Orr’s winning story about an encounter between a plastic surgeon and a waitress in Buenos Aires took me days to puzzle out. 

Things to watch

The hand-snake sings.


Compulsory medieval thingamabob

Before there was Twitter.


The guest gif

Me, on the internet.

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THE END. See you next time!