News this week:
Got a fringe.
Finished final edit of What Happens Now?
Sent synopsis of book three to my agent (no rest etc etc).
Suffered the worst cold of my life. Used to scoff at people who called in sick to work with a cold, but this week, on day four of the cold, while walking from my flat to Notting Hill sweating and feeling all fevery, I genuinely thought to myself ‘I wonder if this is how ME starts?’ Fortunately, I seem to have turned a corner this weekend and think I’ll live. But it was touch and go at one point and I promise never to roll my eyes at coldy sorts again. Today’s column (in which I also shoehorn a mention of this
life-threatening illness cold) is below.
I tend to write emails that sound like I speak – gabbled, breathless, often apologetic. ‘So sorry for my belated reply,’ I wrote to my friend Alice recently. She’d emailed me at 10.17 the previous morning, I answered the following afternoon full of sorrow, feeling as if I should flagellate myself with the mouse cable for responding so late.
‘I am so fascinated by your email habits,’ Alice told me afterwards, ‘because you always apologise for a delay when in fact I feel this is a normal length of time to leave.’
Her observation made me think. Firstly, Alice and I should probably try stepping into a bar or a pub and interacting face-to-face with people instead of sitting behind our computer screens, dissecting our email practices as if characters from a Sally Rooney novel. But secondly, I’m not sure she’s right. In 2019, ignoring an email for a day and a half feels almost wanton. It depends what the email is, course, whether it’s an important message from your boss or one from your mother with a link to a quiz entitled, ‘What kind of root vegetable are you?’
But smartphones, our pocket gaolers, have made us so constantly available that we feel increasingly guilty if we don’t acknowledge an email as soon as we receive it. Like a toddler who wobbles across the kitchen on stumpy legs and instantly looks around for recognition of his journey, these days we want a response within minutes. Or, at the very least, by ‘EOP’. Dread phrase, it means ‘end of play’ for the lucky souls among you who haven’t come across it. Although I use it myself from time to time when I want to sound as if I’m a lawyer who’s working on the trial of my life in a John Grisham film.
Unless you’re the Prime Minster emailing Jean-Claude Juncker about Article 50, why this ludicrous urgency? Glancing at my inbox (have I missed anything in the three seconds since I last checked?), there’s one from my sister about Masterchef, another from M&S announcing that spring has arrived since they’ve already got asparagus in stock, plus a press release about gum health offering quotes from ‘a leading celebrity dentist.’ Good luck to any government agencies or tech firms trying to snoop. The only intel I can offer them is my sister’s cerebral thoughts on who John and Gregg will crown as champion this week. ‘Not the ginger one because the way she ties her hair annoys me.’
I get work emails in the evenings and on the weekends with increasing frequency, so I know I’m not the only one this neurotic. It’s a conspiracy we’re all in on. Must be available at all times, we think, sending emails from our laptops while scrolling through Instagram on our phones. Need to stay on top of our workload, must appear in control, even though there’s nothing remotely controlled about sending an email at 11pm organising a Colin the caterpillar cake for Carol from accounts for her birthday next week. And if you don’t hear back from someone within a day or so? Well, they must have died or been diagnosed with something terminal, poor things.
It’s unhealthy email brinkmanship, especially given a survey I read last week that said the time we spend on the loo using our phones has increased to ’10 to 15 minutes on average.’ Grubby. Nothing is that urgent. Turn your screens away and do something else. Go for a walk. It’s nice outside, spring-like. I know because M&S emailed me about it.
Away from my computer, I had an exceptionally happy time at the World Marmalade Awards in Cumbria last weekend. Held annually since 2005, the competition sees thousands of marmalade makers from around the world post in their sticky offerings for the local WI to judge. Each entry is given a detailed report card with marks out of 20. My mum and I spent a couple of hours going from room to room, lifting up jars and reading the cards underneath. ‘THIS IS NOT A MARMALADE, NO CITRUS,’ thundered one. ‘THIS IS A JAM,’ said another. I could almost hear the exasperated sighs of the ladies from Penrith. ‘A STRONG SMELL OF PICKLE,’ read yet another. A little reminder, therefore, that should you want to enter next year, the definition of a marmalade is a preserve made with citrus fruit. And don’t even think about sending it in a Branston jar.
Have you got this cold? I’ve felt as alert as Monty Python’s parrot all week, so off I shuffled to my local chemist to buy the hardest drugs they had. ‘Got a cold,’ I said to the man behind the counter, who visibly recoiled. ‘You have a cold?’ he double-checked. I nodded. He made another face and stepped back further, before pointing out my options from such a distance he had to shout them at me. ‘HOW ABOUT SOME DAY NURSE?’ What a chemist, I thought, trudging out again with my paper bag. If you work in a pharmacy, whether someone asks for Anusol, verruca cream or Benylin, surely you have to maintain a sensible expression and not laugh or look repulsed? I’m considering coming up with a list of diseases and going in on a daily basis to torture him – ‘I’ve developed leaky pustules on my back and I’m worried it’s bubonic. You got anything for that?’