2021 week one

A couple of nights ago in our lounge was heard a very loud and piercing BANG, or more of a POP. I carefully went towards the source of the sound, in the kitchen, and started looking towards electricals – I assumed a fuse had blown, or possibly something under pressure had given way.

After a minute or so’s search, the source was identified: a button cell, or watch, battery had exploded. Or… popped, I guess. Just blown itself apart. Incredibly, it was in the kitchen in a zone which is currently the closest thing we have to a blast chamber: on a shelf between a cast iron set of weighing scales and a granite pestle and mortar. If I were performing the controlled detonation of another battery, this would be the sort of environment I would hastily erect around it.


Anyway, the battery had come from some cheap Christmas decorations we bought at The Works, the discount bookshop. They were some of those cute laser-cut wooden buildings with little LED lights inside. They were astonishingly cheap, and each was powered by three watch batteries. The cheapness of the whole set has now made it abundantly clear to me, and I am only glad a) that I chose to remove the batteries before we packed the decorations away recently, and b) that the event occurred between two of the hardest objects known to our kitchen, rather than, say, near some wine glasses.

It briefly crossed my mind that I should tell The Works, but really, even in the best case scenario, this would lead to a small black and white A4 recall notice in the front window of some of their shops, and wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference. It is slightly troubling, though, to consider that each of these cheap decorations contains three potential blasting caps and the number of these which must now be scattered around the home of many thousands of people.

I have been reading an anthropological study of a Polynesian community written by Raymond Firth. We, the Tikopia was written in 1936 about the peoples of the island of the same name. I was put onto the subject having read about the island in that wonderful bedside table book, the Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky. That gorgeous book – part atlas, part history, part creative writing anthology – has inspired so many strange thought explorations in the years I have owned it. As each island is given two pages: one a map, one a page of text, I have rationed my devouring of its contents.

The entry on Tikopia made reference to the people keeping their population relatively stable through various rather grizzly and morbid means which intrigued me to the point of needing to know more. Beyond that, of course, reading about remote islands is just an infinitely comforting and fascinating thing for me to do as I nod off.

Having ransacked Wikipedia, I found Firth’s text (being as it was the source for so much of what we seem to know about this still quite isolated community). I’ve been enjoying his reasonably transparent approach to describing the people and their customs, but as I read I constantly remind myself that I am not familiar with anthropological texts, particular from the past, and that I may well be merrily reading a book which has some deeply outdated notions about how to describe and depict ‘other’ communities. But it’s best not to turn bedtime reading into an academic exercise: sometimes it’s just delightful to read Firth’s descriptions of island life, the weather and setting of the island itself, and so on.

There is a double enjoyment in describing what it is like to be on a tiny, isolated island (a genre I love to get lost in – scaling the island’s peak so that one can overlook almost the entire mass of land? Bliss!), but it is also fascinating as the Tikopia people were (are?) one of the last communities to have western influences forced upon them. As a ‘primitive’ people (okay, there I know Firth is using outdated language), reading about their daily lives is almost like going back in time.

As I say, I have not read many anthropology books – or not by that name, at least – but one series I have loved for years is Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide books. The first – the Guide to Medieval England – still feels like the best to me. In his books, Mortimer holds the reader’s hand as though they have truly just arrived at this historical period and suddenly need to navigate an alien world. What is used for money? How do you obtain food? Lodgings? What customs might you be unaware of? And so on.

Mortimer’s books are lightly humorous and readable, but are also packed with decades of research and facts – he isn’t merely dreaming up some sort of cosplay version of the middle ages, but rather he translates the raw facts and history into what it would feel like to live there. Or at least to visit.

And as I read Firth’s work – he spent a year or so on the island, the sole European, living amongst the Tikopia, observing them, and (with his knowledge of Maori) learning to speak their tongue – I am immediately reminded of Mortimer’s books. Here, Firth is taking the reader with him: what is it like to wake up on Tikopia? What sounds can be heard beyond the walls of his hut? How do the people gather their main meal of the day? What games do they play in the evening, and what gossip do they discuss?

It is fabulous and readable stuff – feeling more often like some Time Traveller’s Guide to Polynesian life than some dry academic textbook. By all accounts it seems that it is still heavily used by students around the world today. But I am just so happy to read it ‘for fun’ as Firth’s descriptions are so vivid.

2021 is off to a decent enough start.

It was a shame to take down the Christmas tree, but it would have felt very odd leaving it up. The tree was still green and full of needles, but (despite some watering of its stump) was drying out very quickly. We have enough other, living plants in the flat.

We have kept the lights which adorn the windows and outside space as we tend to; they will probably remain until almost the time to put the clocks forward, or at least until the days feel sufficiently long. Already, one can sense the slight increase in day length on days when it is clear and bright.

I treated myself to some new running shoes at Christmas (my old pair had both Strava and my feet screaming at me to replace them for many months before), and they have taken me about 55km this year already so far. They are slightly more trail-y than my last shoes, with more knobbly soles, so some of those KMs have been muddy, grassy slopes (which is especially handy when one finds that most of north London seems to visit Hampstead Heath or Primrose Hill and sticks religiously to the narrow paths that make up perhaps 1% of those vast open spaces).

It is hard to treat the turn of the calendar year as a new start or a moment to look forward when it is in reality a time of abject, bleak darkness. It is rather a time of hunkering down and taking stock, if anything.

A bit like the fairy lights mentioned above, as each year passes I really think the new year hasn’t truly started until early spring. When the days lengthen and new life begins to appear, then I think it is really possible to draw a line under the previous year and look ahead as if having cleared the bottom of a curve which is now only just beginning to rise again.

So I will keep my head down for the coming weeks, and engage myself in more reading and genealogical research (Ancestry is currently free from home via my local library authority – maybe it is with yours too?) and embracing the fact that I have a cosy home with all I need for these short days. And I will continue to try and use what few daylight hours we have for breaking in my new running shoes some more.