Operation Book Club, Part 3

Having all finished To Kill a Mockingbird, the next step at the beginning of the week was for Lara, Nora and I to get together and discuss it. We therefore took to Zoom, but even though we talk to each other all the time, I don’t think any of us really knew how well this particular meeting would work out. I’d used my brand new bright red notebook to record all of my thoughts as I went along, but as we all scheduled our call earlier in the day, I was surprised to find that neither Lara nor Nora had done the same. Since we were all keen readers who had studied Creative Writing together, I had no real doubts about their ability to analyse a book, but I still wondered if a lack of notes was going to make it difficult.

I needn’t have worried. The agreed 7pm start time came around, and to my relief, we all had plenty to say about how much we loved the novel. One of us would raise an interesting point, which in turn would lead to all manner of spontaneous observations. It was such a satisfying chain reaction for us all, and to witness it in action reminded me of what was so great about collaborating in Winchester – watching an idea go from strength to strength as more contributions were put forth. The conversation was fruitful enough, but seeing how well it was working inspired Lara and Nora to make notes in future, so when the second book is complete we should have even more to talk about.

What will the book in question be, I hear you ask? We could easily have followed a classic like Mockingbird with another title of a similar calibre, and indeed, we have several on our informal shortlist, which we hastily typed as we talked. We have designated Nineteen Eighty Four as our third choice, and at some point – when I locate my long-lost copy – we’ll tackle The Three Musketeers too. At that moment, however, we all felt a hankering to try something completely new, and it was Nora who proposed the solution – a book she had languishing on her shelf. It was so unfamiliar to her that I don’t think she’s even opened it up to this point, but this made it an attractive prospect to Lara and I, as we both liked the idea of venturing into totally unknown literally territory. With the three of us in agreement, it was swiftly locked in as our next read. As I write this, I’m waiting for the copy Lara has so kindly bought me to arrive – she’s generously providing all of mine for the foreseeable future, to thank me for proofreading her work at uni. I’m very excited to start it, even though all I know is the title and author displayed on its cover.

Book two will be A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir, by Lady Trent. Watch this space – there’ll be more to come on this one!

Mason

Operation Book Club, Part 2

Last week, Nora finished To Kill a Mockingbird. Believe it or not, this was bad news, because Lara had finished it before her – meaning that of the three who are currently signed up to our book club, only I am trailing behind. It’s now approximately three weeks since I started, and I’m currently on Chapter 18. There’s still some way to go, but I have promised myself that I will definitely finish the novel within a month – giving me another seven days to hit my target. I don’t want to keep the other two waiting, and I believe that getting through each book relatively promptly will make the whole club concept much easier for us to maintain.

Having said that, though, I need to make sure I don’t feel any pressure in reaching the end. I’ve been guilty of that on the odd page recently, and what that means is that I find myself inadvertently racing through, reminding myself to slow down. I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve been scanning, because I still register what’s going on, but I’m focusing on the destination rather than the journey, and that’s not good for my notes. I’ve really enjoyed writing my thoughts down in my new notebook as and when they occur. Not only is this whole endeavour helping to broaden my horizons as a reader, it’s also challenging me as a writer too. Although only my eyes will see them, confined as they are to private paper, each set of new notes is in effect part of a larger review, and this is useful, because I haven’t always been particularly good at offering a balanced or negative perspective of a book, film or TV series.

As I may have said before, I tend to find something to enjoy in most things unless there’s an obvious reason to dislike it, which isn’t completely ideal if you need to write about its pros and cons. Because of this, I’ve found it handy during Mockingbird to force myself to note down what I did and didn’t like about the sections I’ve finished reading, even if it’s just a few lines for each. If I remember correctly, there are at least another 12 chapters to go, so if I do this for every one going forward, I should have plenty of thoughts to collate when it comes to discussing what I thought with Lara and Nora. I can’t deny, by the way, that most of them are positive, and I can most definitely see why the novel is so widely regarded as a classic. Maybe that’s why I’ve been so slow reading it – I can’t face feeling bereft after I turn the last page!

Mason

Operation Book Club

I’m starting this post in Waterstone’s, a place I often frequent even though I mostly have no intention of buying anything. That’s certainly the case today – I already have an outstanding book to finish (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I bought here last year, and which follows the equally excellent Ready Player One), so there’s no need for me to emerge with any more. And yet the notebooks captivate me. There are all sorts on the shelves, ranging from blank ones, to bullet journals, to those specifically designed for lists or novel planning, and even one containing a Jane Austen witticism a day (just in case you want another reminder that she’s buried in Winchester – I rolled over her grave once).

The possibilities, then, are endless, and every time I’ve bought a new notebook in the past, I’ve done so with the same overriding desire – to make it the starting point for a new, game-changing project. Admittedly, this desire does come with some slight delusions of grandeur. I can’t help imagining myself putting pen to paper on a literary classic for the ages by candlelight like an 18th Century romantic novelist, or scribbling down my memoirs in a book small enough to fit snugly into the sidebag that hangs from my wheelchair.

Judging by my track record with notebooks, neither of those things will happen – and in any case, at this moment I can’t even decide whether I want a big one or a small one. I might have something entirely different in mind for it, though, thanks to a sudden burst of inspiration Lara has unknowingly given to me. In just over a week, I’ll be leaving Winchester – hopefully not for the last time ever – having finished my degree. Over lunch on Monday, Lara, Ben, Alysha, Ryan and I discussed the small matter of how we’ll stay in touch post-uni, and it was Lara who suggested we engage in a book club. I responded very enthusiastically. She said we could put books forward for consideration, and when we’d decided on one, we could obtain a copy, start it on the same day, record our thoughts and share them with each other at the end.

At the moment, only Lara and I are definitely up for it, but I hope others will agree to join, because it could be a great group activity – and it’s given me the perfect purpose for a new notebook. Not only would it allow me to make all the observations I need on what we read, but it’d also mean I could prise my eyes away from a screen for a bit and write the old-fashioned way. I’m sure my handwriting could do with the practice. One of my teachers used to say that reading it was like looking through spiders!

Mason

Decoder

Last Sunday afternoon saw another very welcome Zoom game session between myself and the uni gang. After the resoundingly successful game of Trivial Pursuit we’d played in the first instance, we were all keen to pursue some more ways of keeping ourselves entertained, and thanks to Alysha we had something new to enjoy. This was 30 Seconds, a game which required players to pair up. Lara was unable to join us on this occasion, so we had six players rather than seven – and that meant we had three perfect pairs, with nobody left out. Before we started, Alysha told us she was concerned that it would be too easy and we’d quickly get bored with it, but it proved more of a challenge than she thought, and we found ourselves unearthing a new favourite.

The rules were simple. Each pair would take it in turns to describe five words to their partner, who would then have to guess them before the titular 30 seconds were up. At the end, the pair with the most correct answers would be victorious. The words in question looked easy to convey on paper, but tended to be harder in practice – especially seeing as they could be completely random. Something like ‘mattress’ (“the big thing you sleep on in bed”), ‘hospital’ (“the place you visit when you’re sick”), or even ‘Audi’ (“German car company – four rings”) could be followed by a word much more difficult that you never expected to see or just could not get across. Examples of those included ‘grasshopper’ – which I tried to explain to Ryan as “green insect which leaps through vegetation”, sadly to no avail – and, most infamously, ‘decoder’. I didn’t even know where to start with that, so I swiftly moved onto the next one. Thankfully, it wasn’t too detrimental to our points total!

I’m sure one of the others will correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Ryan and I won that afternoon, and as I’ve already mentioned, we were all pleasantly surprised by how good the game was. I even suggested that we could play a homemade version using words we come up with ourselves. I’ve no idea if that’ll happen yet, but it’s definitely something to consider, and the trial of yet another well-received game has got us thinking once again about what we could do next. I’m sure that whatever it is, it’ll be great fun, and it’ll certainly help to relieve the sizeable amount of dissertation and assignment pressure that’ll be looming very soon…

Mason

One More Yellow Question

Picture the scene – the game is in its closing stages. Seven players started out, and seven are still in contention to win. I have gradually powered my way through Geography, Art and Literature, Science and Nature, Sport and Leisure, and Entertainment. History, the yellow category, is all that stands between myself and glory. Five slices of the cheese wheel are in place, and I just need the sixth. Unfortunately, it’s the same for everyone else – the last slice eludes them all – and the questions aren’t quite falling my way.

This was the climax of the Trivial Pursuit game I played with Lara, Nora, Ryan, Ben, Alysha and Deacon last weekend – socially-distanced, of course. It was possible thanks to the magic of Zoom, and worked an absolute treat. Ryan had the board and pieces in front of him, we decided on our counters, and he rolled the dice and moved them all on our behalf. We played for first place, then second, then third, all the way down to seventh, and there were plenty of laughs throughout. We all miss being on campus together dearly, so we’ve found that meeting online for quizzes and banter has served us very well indeed.

We have another Zoom call pencilled in for tomorrow lunchtime, and I can’t wait. We’re going to give some new games Alysha has suggested a try, too – we all agreed it would do us good to diversify from quizzes every so often. They’re much less complex than Trivial Pursuit, too, involving little more than old-fashioned pen and paper, so they seem rather refreshing in that respect. I’m sure that whatever is different about the games we’re playing, though, one thing will stay the same – the spirit of competition between all of us.

I came third on that day, by the way. The question that clinched it?

‘Which king abdicated the Spanish throne in 2014?’

King Juan Carlos, in case you were wondering.

Mason

Mission To Marwell

On Monday lunchtime, Flat 12 and I all came together for a group meal in Winchester before going our separate ways for the summer. The food was great, but as always, the company was the highlight. Alysha, Ben, Deacon, Ryan, Nora, Lara and I spent a lot of time reminiscing about our favourite moments from the past year. There have been many highlights, but if I had to choose a new and very recent one to go alongside them, our day out just under two weeks ago would most definitely be worthy.

We had decided well in advance to go to the nearby Marwell Zoo, firstly by taking a short train from Winchester to Eastleigh. Once there, we would board a bus running directly to our destination. Everything was ready as we set off in the morning, and we were lucky to have weather that was warm enough to allow me to leave my jumper in my rucksack. I’d booked my train tickets and assistance beforehand, so boarding the train was a piece of cake and we were in Eastleigh around ten minutes later. It was once we’d arrived that our plan started to go somewhat awry. Every sign around the bus station told us what we thought we knew – that at 10:23 sharp, a large and distinctive leopard-print bus would arrive to collect us, and the final stage of our journey would go without a hitch.

10:23 came and went, however, with no sign of our lift. Confusion reigned for a moment, since we’d all been chatting with our backs to the road and it was entirely possible that we simply could have missed it. We swiftly established that this was not the case – it would have been very difficult for all seven of us not to clock a leopard-print bus – so Lara phoned the zoo for some much-needed clarity. The lady on the other end informed her that by contrast to what the signs were telling us, those buses only ran at weekends. If we wanted to, though, we could get a regular bus part of the way to the zoo and walk the remaining distance, as there was supposedly a footpath close by.

We decided to take her advice. To my surprise, I was able to board the bus without paying a fare – upon learning that I didn’t yet have a Hampshire bus pass, the driver was adamant that I should never be charged. She took us out of Eastleigh and along a series of winding rural roads before we disembarked next to a pub car park. As we looked around us, we could see that whilst nourishment and alcohol were on offer if we wanted them, the promised footpath most definitely was not. What separated us from the zoo was actually a 50 mph road, evidently not built with pedestrian or wheelchair access in mind. The risks ahead were immediately clear to all of us, but seeing no other options at that moment in time, and having already come so far, we decided to try and tackle it as best we could.

We made our way along it slowly and in single file. Behind me, over the roar of the passing traffic, I could hear Lara reminding me to keep as close to the grass verge at the side as I could. Up ahead, Ben and Ryan were finding our mission increasingly stressful – this particular part was admittedly rather dangerous. After tucking ourselves into each lay-by and bus stop in an attempt to move as far as we could, we crossed to the other side, where the kerb was low enough to allow me to get up onto the grass. By now, though, it had dawned on us that we needed a backup plan – successfully reaching the zoo was fast becoming a very distant possibility.

We unanimously agreed that bowling in Eastleigh was the solution. After stopping for lunch once we had returned, we headed to the alley, determined to do something enjoyable with our somewhat pearshaped day. We played two games, for which I – being both disabled and more than a little bit rusty – used the ramp and bumpers, as did Alysha and Nora. I surprised myself and everyone else by drawing with Alysha for the win in the first game and coming a clear second in the next, and it was generally agreed that I was the most consistent player across the two. Meanwhile, Deacon took longer to get a strike than he would have liked – although I think he did win the second game – and Ben might not thank me for saying this, but I believe he was last on both occasions.

Regardless of how successful each of us had been down the lanes, it was clear to all of us that we’d had the great day we wanted after all. Even at the beginning, when nobody knew how it was going to turn out, we were laughing together. The fun we eventually had was just a welcome bonus, since all good friends really need to enjoy themselves is the company of each other. Flat 12 is now slowly being vacated, as everyone will be living off-campus from next year, but we have already discussed how and where we can meet up and the things we could do. I’m already counting down the days. For now, I’ll leave you with some wise words from the key ring Lara kindly gave to each of us:

Mason

 

Snowball Territory

Allow me to present those of you who may not have seen it with another photo I simply couldn’t keep from you. The snow arrived in Winchester yesterday evening, and the university had earlier anticipated that it would be bad enough to cause significant disruption. They therefore announced that all classes would finish at 4pm, and resume at 12pm today – one of my tutors seemed very pleased when he discovered mid-seminar that he would be going home early. The expected onslaught was slow to materialise, however, and I did not see any kind of real flurry until 7pm, on my way across to Lara’s flat. By the early hours of the morning, though, the snow had become considerably heavier, and our curiosity to explore – even at around 1am – led to the picture below being taken. It might look like a fairly light dusting of icing sugar compared to some of the images you’ll see today, but believe me when I say it was ideal for snowballs. An annoyed Ben discovered this the hard way when he wouldn’t come out, leading Lara to take one to his bedroom just so he could be pelted with it!

Mason

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What Can I Say About Christmas?

I have managed to publish a post here on each of the last two Christmas Eves, and I hope that they both managed to encapsulate the joy and excitement I feel each December in the eyes of those who read them. This is, after all, a truly magical time of year for which I am always hugely thankful. It has to be said, however, that such posts are getting harder to write – since I now risk sounding insincere – so when I came to think about what I was going to say this time, I was more than a little bit stuck. I eventually decided that it would probably be best for me to look at the festive period from a perspective that is even more personal than usual, as I can look back at the year leading up to it with a lot of pride.

Being one semester in to a three-year degree course, I have already seen, experienced and learned a lot – as I sit in the glow of the Christmas tree lights, I couldn’t be happier with how everything has gone. The work that I have done has given me good marks in return, I have bonded really well with Lara and a host of other friends, and I have lived independently without getting significantly poorer or fatter. In addition to those things, I have also been part of a winning quiz team – yes, it might have taken us eight weeks, but who couldn’t be proud of a result like that? Broadly speaking, I believe that all of the necessary tools are in place for the second semester to be just as successful – and that means the turkey can go down even better than it usually does this Christmas.

I can relax with the family knowing there is a lot to be pleased about, but I feel like none of it could have been truly achieved without the love, support and friendship that has been constantly shown to me. From the unwavering encouragement at home in Somerset to the broken lift heroics and general awesomeness of my friends in Winchester, there has been an abundance of warmth for which I am truly grateful. Long may it continue! I would like to thank everyone who has supported me so far, either in big ways or in smaller ones. Christmas allows us all to come together and take stock of who and what we have around us, while being immensely thankful for all of it. Rest assured that I couldn’t quite have gotten to this point without you. Now that I am here, I intend to enjoy every last moment of it, because it feels wonderful. I hope everyone has a Christmas that is as magical as mine!

Mason

My Life’s Mission

I am now home for Christmas, having successfully recorded my podcast (which you can listen to by clicking here, if you dare). The first semester is complete and I am free to relax, but university – particularly Publishing and Social Media – has left me with a rather pleasant parting gift, thanks to another magnificent writing prompt. In my seminar last week, we found the following question up on the board:

“You receive an email from an alien. What does it say?”

I started working on my answer there and then, but as I didn’t have the time to complete it immediately, I decided to save it for a blog post. Communication between the human race and extraterrestrial life is often depicted in fiction as being either blatantly hostile or somewhat ominous, so I wanted to try writing something that would be a little bit more heartwarming. It had to convince the recipient that this was an alien coming in absolute peace, as I felt that anything else wouldn’t quite be right at Christmas! I would like to show you my intergalactic email now. How do you think this message would make you feel?

“Hello,

You won’t know who I am, but I feel like we are meant to be. This email will take seconds to travel across the universe, but I have been searching for what seems like millennia. I told myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t rest until I found you. I don’t know what you’d call me, but I guess humans like to refer to us as “guardian angels”. We appear at birth knowing only love. It flows from every part of us and courses through our veins, dictating every action and emotion. From a young age, when our schooling begins, we are told that one day we will pick a face from a crowd – no matter how distant – and watch over them until the day they die without ever revealing ourselves. But when I saw you, I couldn’t resist. I had to reach out, so here I am, writing to you now.

I’ve seen you at your best, when you feel like you’re on top of the world, and at your worst, when you feel trapped, worthless and alone. I want you to know that you are none of those things, and you never will be. Yes, I know people have said the same one minute and been gone the next. Not me – you are my life’s mission. It pains me to admit that you and I may never see each other, and as things stand, this email is the closest I can get to showing you my true form. But, just like a lost loved one, I’ll never truly leave you. Anything out of the ordinary is me making myself known. That muffled banging you think you can hear from the pipes in the dead of night? That’s me. The figure you see for a second in the corner of your eye, before realising nobody is there? Me again. The funny coloured shapes that appear when you close your eye? Yep, you guessed it!

I know humans fear those things, because they can’t explain them, so I’m just letting you know that you needn’t be afraid of them. They’re not signs of danger or death, but a warming cup of tea when you desperately need one, or a hand that you know will be there to catch you when you fall. Look out for them – when you notice one, you’ll know hope, companionship and unwavering loyalty is nearby. You might think you can find us by looking up at the stars, but the truth is that we’re much closer than you could ever have imagined.

– Your Guardian Angel”.

Mason

 

 

 

Five Flights Of Stairs

When the security guard told me I’d have no choice but to stay where I was last Monday night, I knew what ensued could be both interesting and amusing. The lift in Lara’s block of flats had broken, and because she lives at the very top of it, I was obviously unable to get to the ground floor in order to reach my own flat. I instantly considered myself lucky that I wasn’t stuck with a group of people I didn’t know so well, and even more luckily for me, Lara and her flatmates were all too happy to have me. Once security had confirmed that the lift would not be fixed until the morning at the earliest, I retreated back into the kitchen – where we all usually socialise – to hatch a plan, while Lara and Ben went to my flat with my ID card to collect some of my things. They swiftly returned with a change of clothes, the leads for my laptop and phone, and my pyjamas, among other things – and they were all in a bag Deacon had lent them, which I still need to give back! My orange manual wheelchair was also summoned, and it waited patiently in the corner of the room for its call to action. Lara then very kindly said I was welcome to sleep in her bed, and that she would take the floor (insisting that the cushions from the sofa in the kitchen can be very comfortable when laid out correctly). We therefore had the sleeping arrangements covered rather quickly, and showering was a doddle too, even in a shower not designed for a disabled person like my own. I just had to keep my balance on my knees as best I could, without a seat to use!

The real challenge came the next morning, after Lara and I had giggled our heads off in the middle of the night thinking of names for disability dating sites (don’t ask). I would have to get downstairs somehow in order to reach my 9am lecture, and we had initially agreed that I would be carried downstairs in my manual chair with everyone in the flat bearing some of the weight. When we got to the top of the long staircase, however, we discovered that a Plan B would be needed, and fast. Ben had been confident that he would be able to lift the front of the chair all on his own, but it transpired that he had severely underestimated its weight with me sitting in it, as he immediately hurt his back upon trying to lift it. I joked with him beforehand about the risk of injury to anyone who tried hauling me around, but I was not actually expecting it to happen – thankfully, after apologising profusely multiple times, I think the risk of a lawsuit has now subsided. With Ben out of action, I then tried crawling down the stairs myself so that I wouldn’t hurt any more of my friends, but these stairs had sharp metal edges that dug into my legs and impeded my progress. Our third attempt finally got us to the ground, and it was one that I took part in on my own two feet, with Lara and Ryan each supporting one arm as Nora carried my wheelchair down behind us. Fortunately for her, it was a whole lot lighter without a passenger, and her back would emerge from this unscathed.

Our little trip meant – as the title of this post suggests – that we had to traverse the entirety of A Block and descend five whole flights of stairs. The support I had was sturdy enough to mean that falling over wasn’t really a concern for me, but it was for the other two – since I, the only non-walker of the trio, was going quicker than they could! Lara feared that I might end up pulling her over, and Ryan was losing the circulation in his  arm holding mine, so we stopped and started again wherever we needed to. Eventually, after many a hop, skip and jump (since I couldn’t get an entirely firm foothold on any of the stairs), we got to the bottom and I was able to transfer to my chair, much to Lara and Ryan’s shared relief. Once Lara had gotten to grips with pushing me along on the slopes of the steepest city in Hampshire, it was a straightforward downhill run to the lecture theatre – but going back up was a different story. When it was time to do that, Lara had to bend over in order to push properly and avoid slipping, so her inability to stand up straight – and my considerable weight – caused her more than a little bit of discomfort. Before long, the lift had been fixed, so she didn’t have to endure this for very long, but after all of her help and kind hospitality, buying her mac and cheese for lunch was the very least I could do. I am tremendously grateful for the assistance that everyone in her flat gave during the ordeal – above all, I think it served as a strong reminder of the importance and value of friendship. I just hope the lift stays reliable for a while…

Mason