A stranger wrote to me this week to tell me that while reading my book they had learned a valuable lesson about marine buoyage systems. This surprised me. The Way to the Sea is a personal memoir about growing up with sailor parents. While writing it I didn't feel like I had any special maritime expertise to impart.
If anything, I tried to err on the side of omitting seafaring terminology. I didn't want to sound like some kind of show off pirate who says things like "Lee ho!" all the time. Even though this is something my father says regularly while sailing... and I do still occasionally mutter it to myself while driving around a sharp corner.
This reader, who I think sails in North America, said that my occasional references to the buoys that you see as you sail into the river Thames had puzzled them. At one point I describe them as "green for starboard [right], red for port [left]" and they felt sure this was wrong. To their mind, the colours ought to be the other way around. In explaining this to me, they even referenced a saying they used to remember this fact that I had never heard before: "Red, Right, Returning".
The purpose of such buoys in a waterway is to mark the edge of the safe channel. Knowing which way around the colours go matters, as you need to know which side to pass. It's even more important when sailing at night because buoys have lights in the relevant colour to help you work out where you are.
This apparent discrepancy in my book bothered the reader enough that they did some research about it. From this reading, they discovered that neither of us was wrong. There are actually two completely contradictory navigational systems in use around the world. You can read all about it in detail here.
Basically, the world is divided into two regions: Region A is Europe, Africa, Australasia and some of Asia and Region B is the Americas and everywhere else. In Region A, where I learned to sail, port is always red. In Region B, port is always green. So if you sailed across the Atlantic, somewhere in the middle everything flips over. This seems needlessly confusing and like it could lead to avoidable accidents. My correspondent also noted that this is a recent consolidation of a much more complicated system, in which there were 30 different marine buoyage systems around the world. The switch to two, therefore, represents a state of relative clarity.
This was all very interesting to learn about, even though I don't plan on crossing the Atlantic in a boat any time soon. But for me the more valuable lesson from this enjoyable and civil email exchange with a total stranger about buoys was that it's always worth doing a quick google before confidently pointing out that someone else is wrong. No matter how sure you feel of your ground.
In the couple of months after my book came out in June 2019 I received quite a lot of emails from nautically minded men "correcting" me on minor details in the book. (This is not a turn of phrase, they were all men, I went back and checked while writing this.) The more aggressive ones I ignored and the merely condescending I enjoyed answering with a brief demonstration of how there was, in fact, more than one correct way of using words to explain something.
They were all disappointing compared to this latest communication. None of them had bothered to check if there was any chance that there could be a more interesting explanation than "this woman is wrong". Their messages were so much duller as a result.
This aspect of becoming an author wasn't one that I anticipated. I thought of the book as something finite, which once it had been finished and published would remain static. But it continues to evolve for me, even after being on shelves for nearly two years. I've been taken aback by how many people have taken the trouble to look up my email and write to me once they have finished reading it — I've never done this myself, so I naturally assumed nobody else did — and although they tailed off after it had been out for a while I still get two or three a month. I even sometimes get real letters, written on paper. Those are the best of all.
Most of the time people want to tell me about their connection to the Thames estuary, which I'm always delighted to hear about, especially when it's an older person who remembers the area before the docks began to close in the second half of the twentieth century. The "corrections" are rarer although still fairly frequent. This missive about buoys was the first reader response that truly surprised me. I spent about five years, on and off, immersed in this subject matter to write the book. It's reassuring to be reminded that I still have a lot to learn.
I filed a piece this week about the new Marvel series WandaVision, which started releasing on Disney+ on 15 January. The magazine will be out in a few weeks, and I'll link to it then, but I will say in the meantime that I've enjoyed what I've seen of the show so far and mean to keep watching it. And that should mean something coming from me, because I am generally Marvel-ambivalent, if not prone to actively avoiding the franchise.
During the process of writing the article I had to steel myself to go back and watch portions of the Avengers films, because the leads of this new show appear in several of them and I thought it would make it easier to understand if I refreshed my memory of who is dead in what timeline. I started out grumpily, ready to skip any boring fight scenes and just skim through the exposition I needed, but I shocked myself by watching one movie after another in its entirety. I even watched Avengers: Endgame all the way through, and that's a film that makes very little sense even on a second viewing.
It took me a while to locate the source of this sudden enthusiasm for Iron Man 2 (yes, I did watch that one as well). I concluded that it's a consequence of pandemic nostalgia and now being in my eleventh month of rarely leaving my house. Even though I've never been a fan of these films, it used to be a fun activity to go and see one on a whim with a friend really late on a summer evening.
We would eat M&Ms and popcorn for dinner and then come out of the cinema in time to see the sun set as we walked home through the city, enjoying the feeling of having turned your brain off for three hours and consumed a lot of sugar. That's the sensation I think I'm chasing by returning to the MCU. I can't have the friend and the walk, but I can have the sweets and the numbing effect of watching Robert Downey Jr blow things up. I'll take it for now.
Has anyone ever written a long essay or a book about why, when you need to do a boring but easy chore, it's really hard to force yourself to get started? I do not find vacuuming difficult or even that unpleasant, yet whenever it's time to do it I feel like I've been glued to my chair.
I have possibly found a workaround, though, which I think I first saw the YouTuber Claudia Sulewski employ in one of her too-stylish vlogs. You set a timer on your phone for 20 minutes (or even less) and do as much of the boring chore as you can get done before it goes off. Almost every time I keep going to finish the job, because once I got into it really wasn't that bad and the satisfaction of having ticked something off is worth chasing in these flat, unchanging days. There seems to be something about turning an ongoing task into something very finite that makes it seem doable. I'd love to know why my brain is tricked by this perception.
For the fifth anniversary of our first date yesterday my husband bought me a cassette player. I think at Christmas I had been reminiscing about all the great books I listened to as a child that don't seem to be available as digital audiobooks, and he went and found a few of them on eBay for me. A delightful gift.
The player itself is perfectly serviceable, although not the sturdiest electronic device I've ever used. While we were setting it up he explained that he had spent ages searching for one to buy, and that it's pretty much impossible to find a high quality cassette player to buy new these days. The one he ended up with is mostly tailored towards people who want to convert their tapes into mp3s — I had to read several pages into the manual before it admitted that you can also just listen straight from the device with headphones. I caught myself thinking longingly of the indestructible red plastic walkman I used pretty much every day until I was about 14. I think this is might be what getting old feels like.
What is this that I've just read, you might be wondering. Fair question. I've been struggling to get round to doing this newsletter (as you might have noticed from its total non appearance recently) and it hasn't had a settled format for a while. It's been with me in some form since 2014, which is a long time. I've changed my work a bit in 2021: I started a long term writing project, I'm now editing The Browser on some days, and I'm taking a break from reporting on the podcast industry. It felt like I needed a change of routine here too.
The process of assembling a Browser edition means that I spend hours reading other people's writing again. It's made me really appreciate the daily blogging habits of people like Austin Kleon, the weekly column writing skills of Peter Wilby, and the way that Julian Simpson puts together Infodump. One of my favourite newsletters these days is Three Weeks, which is written in just such an episodic fashion as I've tried to adopt here.
This change in how I spend my time has made me miss being on a regular writing and commissioning schedule, of making it a habit to capture ideas before they drift away again. I thought I would try to write something every day this week that I could send to you and see what came out. This was the result.
Until next time,
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.