‘Speed reading’ and our old friend Distraction


Ever tried speed reading? If you fancy having a go, paste this article into Spreeder.

Speed reading: isn’t that a gimmick for those who want to be over-productive, rat-racing, forever ramping up the pace of their lives?

Until yesterday, this was my assumption. Then laziness came upon me. I was reading this short story, Seth Fried’s ‘Mendelssohn’, and swearing internally at the computer screen. Not the story’s fault. All the finger-scrolling and eye-flicking across the unforgiving bright white expanse was getting to me: much more tiring than reading a physical book or a Kindle. So I found Spreeder and tried speed reading the second half.

Speed reading doesn’t allow for distraction: if your mind wanders, you skip half a sentence and get lost for a while. As someone with a restless mind, this was a demanding task, requiring me to zone in intentionally to the effort. To my surprise, when I later picked up a paperback and began reading ‘normally’, my focus was better than usual. I felt more present and calmly attentive to the task at hand.

Focus is rewarding, but distraction is equally important. Our old friend Distraction is the essence of poetry, a point made thoroughly and eloquently in this Poetry Off The Shelf podcast, ‘The Poet is Distracted’.

It was distraction in my exam revision period at the age of 15 that led me to start playing the acoustic guitar, an activity that has brought me great joy and fulfilment over the course of my life. It was an anxious breakdown four years ago – a major distraction from my career in headhunting – that gave me the space to revive my love of writing.

Not all distraction is made equal. Worrying or ruminating about aspects of our lives that make us fearful is an unwelcome habit that many of us struggle with. On the other hand, I might notice the sound of the raindrops on the windowsill and find it curious. This type of distraction is like fresh air because it emerges from an inner presence, a deep silence that we often crave.

Speed reading helped to unleash more of the ‘good’ kind of distraction. It was like taking my mind to the gym: my brain having had a proper workout, it was more stable, less worried, and – paradoxically – more willing to attend to the meaty distractions that come from that rooted place. A few moments ago, whilst enjoying my breakfast, I was distracted by the thought of writing an article about speed reading. I decided to change my mind’s focus and consciously attend to the distraction – and here we are!

There is an important drawback of speed reading, which is the lack of time it affords us for reflection and interpretation along the way. We are used to seeing large blocks of text at a time and moving on at our own pace, and this helps us to digest the work. I read the first half of ‘Mendelssohn’ without speed reading and found some nifty expressions, sharing some on my @siobhantebbs Twitter account. Whilst speed reading the second half was effective for my understanding of the story, it didn’t offer any breaks for laughter (I love allowing myself to laugh out loud while reading) or to consider what I’d read.

Some distraction is not only necessary to create, then, but also to process and interpret whatever you are taking in. I would venture that, when reading something we care about as a work of art, we need a bit of breathing space during the reading process itself. We already know that reading has a variety of positive effects on our memory, stress levels, and capacity for empathy – such as those outlined in Davis Allen’s article for JuxtaProse blog – (‘Bodies, Minds, and Literary Fiction’),  for example. For these to have the freedom to blossom, it doesn’t seem enough to expect them to happen spontaneously after the event.

We can pause the speed reading mid-flow, but this is less than smooth as it takes a conscious physical effort and we are under pressure to take a quick decision: keep reading or stop! There is no middle ground. For this reason I would put forward the idea of speed reading as ‘training’, to be used perhaps more with news articles or similar texts that are more about transferring information than the exploration of ideas. This could then help bring a profound concentration to our reading of fiction and poetry.

Speed reading ‘training’ could help us focus more, not only on reading, but in other areas of life too. A few minutes of it has given me a delicious glimpse of this, and of how it feels to have a more generous faith in the unexpected paths sometimes taken by my mind.


Catalan anger and British reporting

It’s interesting to read British broadsheets whilst in the midst of the Catalan-Spanish political crisis about next week’s referendum. In particular, it seems to me that The Guardian is reflecting from the perspective of the Spanish government.

Recording the sound in the street next to mine last night, 20 Sept, 10:15pm

Here in Barcelona, people were in the streets last night, either at the main protest or banging pots and pans on balconies (‘cacerolada’, or ‘saucepanning’), and shouting about freedom. All peaceful, but angry – walking home was quite moving and rather deafening. The outpouring of anger was triggered by the Spanish government’s ordering of its Guardia Civil (national police force that reminds many here of Franco-era repression) to arrest 12 Catalan officials and raid printing premises yesterday morning, resulting in the confiscation of the 10 million ballot papers.

This situation is the culmination of the past few months of planning for the Catalan referendum. The referendum itself is illegal under Spanish law, but the Catalans I have spoken to (whether or not they agree with its taking place) describe it as a last resort. The Spanish government under Rajoy has, they feel, not been interested in taking seriously their claim to independence, or their concerns about the ways that Spain capitalises on the income from Catalonia without reinvesting in it to an adequate degree.

Rajoy’s attitude is seen by many Catalans as the latest blot in a centuries-long series of campaigns by Spanish governments to repress Catalan language and culture and ‘homogenise’ Spain. Rajoy went on television last night to tell the Catalan separatists to stop their ‘fracturing’ and ‘radicalisation’ of their people, and that their activities were illegal. What stunned me – since it’s the first time I have really listened to one of his speeches – was that there was not much attempt to highlight common ground, to acknowledge the feelings beneath the actions, to suggest a way forward for a common future, taking everyone into account. There was just a ‘stop this, and we’ll talk’.

Reading the British newspapers, I’m struck by The Guardian’s focus on the Spanish government’s perspective. An article entitled ‘Is Madrid in danger of playing into Catalan separatist hands?’ says it all. To compare with other broadsheet article titles: The Guardian’s ‘Catalonia divided’ is The Telegraph’s ‘Anger in Barcelona’. The Guardian’s ‘Pro-independence protesters rally’ is The Independent’s ‘Tens of thousands hit Barcelona streets’. (The Times has a pay wall and it’s a Murdoch paper so it can take a walk.) All of these statements are broadly truthful, but with a very different emphasis and level of appreciation of the historical context.

For the moment, the protesting here is a masterclass in peaceful but noisy expression of extreme anger and hurt. It remains to be seen how the crisis will play out next week in advance of the referendum date, Sunday 1 October. Since websites etc. are forbidden to advertise the referendum, there are pages/communities you can sign up to that are entitled ‘1 October: That thing’, or similar. Protests are organised via WhatsApp groups of political activist organisations. All are appealing for activities to be peaceful.

Spoken Word brings poetry home

poetry, n. writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm – Merriam-Webster

When I started writing spoken word poetry, it came to me as words I was speaking to myself. A major part of the essence of the poetry was in its performance, even though during the writing of it that performance was only to myself.

Since I was younger, I have always assumed this: Poetry is a thought condensed. Prose is the opposite: a thought elaborated. Spoken word seems to straddle both of these definitions and to step outside of them.

Originally I thought that ‘traditional’ poetry was passed on in print. But this misconception comes from years in school, studying Blake and Wordsworth and Owen and then at university Akhmatova,  Blok, Pushkin. Even though sometimes we’d be asked to read it out to the class, we studied it mainly by looking at the words on the page.

Reading written words was not the ‘original’ method of passing on poetry. Poetry began with Chinese folk songs and oral epics such as The Iliad. From the Middle Ages, think of the Catalan troubadours, whose oral verse occasioned the codification of the Catalan language. Writing it down was merely a way to ensure that it wasn’t forgotten.

Poetry was a way to connect, instantly, with one’s audience. I would argue that spoken word poetry is the closest art form to that today. In spoken word, the words come forth like a stream of consciousness: as I speak the words, my audience understands what I am saying. There is no break or study period needed in order for them to connect.

When ‘traditional’ or ‘establishment’ poetry is read out loud, on the other hand, the words may sound beautiful, but it would take several readings for me to begin to really connect with the meaning of the words. Realistically, one needs to study the words visually and allow them to seep into one’s mind over time in order to decipher the real meanings behind them.

The very concept of a ‘poetry reading’ is alien to the spoken word scene, because spoken word poets feel that the performance of their work is absolutely integral to its existence; it is a part of the very essence of the work. The pace, tone, timbre, beat, rhyme, possible musical backing, amplification, acoustics, the general atmosphere, and the audience themselves are part of the poem. The work cannot exist outside of its being performed.

This makes spoken word – often seen as a less high-brow genre – in fact a sub-genre that brings us closer to poetry in its original form. Poetry is not always a thought ‘condensed’: it can be condensed, elaborated, tossed about, stretched, mocked, ripped apart and put together again; in any combination of visual and auditory elements.

Freedom of thought is under attack in some islands currently called ‘Britain’

Photo: Very Brexit Problems

‘If you believe you are a citizen of everywhere, then you are a citizen of nowhere.’

Theresa May, Oct 2016

To anyone with a drop of empathy in them, nothing much needs to be said about how abhorrent this statement is. What a regressive and nationalist point of view, which ignores the universal nature of the human condition and our duty to respect and care for one another regardless of artificial boundaries drawn by history.

In particular, how painful it must be for Syrian refugees to hear something like this, in their time of desperate need. They are forced to rely on the kindness of those in other ‘countries’ and the leader of one of the most powerful European nations is claiming the moral authority to negate their very right to exist.

But there is something more deeply worrying about this statement. May didn’t say, for example, ‘Remember, you are a citizen of the UK; not a citizen of the world!’. Instead, she attacked those of us who hold certain beliefs. ‘If you believe you are a citizen of everywhere, then you are citizen of nowhere.’

May was excluding, through her rhetoric, the cosmopolitan, educated liberal elite from being considered British citizens. Making a beeline from the world of rich Tory post-imperialism to the disgruntled working classes, she cut out the liberal intelligentsia from citizenship as a concept.

Let me say that again. May announced that those with certain beliefs – beliefs about their own identity and nothing else, nothing hateful or harmful – do not have the right to consider themselves British citizens. And it wasn’t just any group of people, but the educated liberals; those of us who have the material and educational resources to stand up to the horrific directions her government is taking.

One of the first things Lenin did when the Bolsheviks attained power was deport 220 prominent intellectuals. The pursuit of aggressive ideological metanarratives does not allow for a plurality of educated views. We saw the UK start to go in this direction when Brexiteer Michael Gove announced that the country ‘had had enough of experts’ – almost all of whom were for remaining in the EU.

Now, those of us who have a cosmopolitan outlook are under attack. We are privileged to have the education and resources that we have; and it’s easy to make us scapegoats. Liberal policies are blamed for allowing the immigration that ‘took our jobs’ and ‘ruined our health service’ (and contributes millions to our economy and immeasurably to our cultural fabric).

I am not going to mount a defence of immigration here. Anyone seeking to protect white Britain from the responsibilities that follow centuries of imperialism and slave trade has probably stopped reading already. With May’s statement, what is in jeopardy here is freedom of thought.

‘Hostility to universal citizenship is, I submit, the main characteristic of fascism.’ Gáspár Miklós Tamás

May is not stripping away our passports just yet; but this is a key shift in rhetoric that presents us with a red flag. We cannot rest on our laurels any more. If the PM can say something like this and get away with it, it means that a good proportion of people in the UK think it makes sense.

Let’s not pretend we are a post-class society. Our education system has failed; the social mobility that creates a meritocratic pool of intellectuals has not been implemented. Disgruntled workers need scapegoats. Powerful post-imperialists need scapegoats. Those of us being pushed out must fight back.


The EU and the Future of the Nation-State

The EU and the Future of the Nation-State

As the EU debate rages in the UK, many of the arguments being advanced for leaving the EU capitalise on a sense of national pride. Tapping into this from a broader political-philosophical perspective can illuminate the question. The issue runs deeper than how to organise one aspect or another of our governance and is related to the fundamental question of the nation-state. We need to be thinking about what kind of a world our children will be living in and make the right choices for their sake.

The nation-state’s position as the primary unit of human governance and allegiance was being established in the centuries leading up to the Industrial Revolution. Marx saw it as a creation of capitalism, the emergence of which required such established spheres of governance in order to reap the benefits of international trade. Allegiance to one’s country means supporting economic growth there over that of other countries. A sense of patriotism, of belonging to one’s nation-state, was central to the system of governance upon which capitalism was built.

Patriotism involves projecting the people’s desire for community onto a national stage, thereby engendering support for the system created by the ruling class. It’s ironic (or chilling) that large corporations, which rely on a system that exploits patriotism, nevertheless think in a thoroughly transnational way. Clearly we need a form of governance that can hold them to account in a transnational way as well.

AMMER-Etat-NationWolfgang Ammer

Patriotism is in decline, even in the US, and it’s clear that the fiction of the nation-state is in question. Surely technology and the environment will be determining factors in its fate. Technology changes the landscape of communication, putting us in touch with everyone around the (technology-enabled) world. ‘Communities’ can now mean groups of people scattered in many different places across the globe. How long before people’s allegiances and sense of belonging turn from nation-states to the stratified global community they feel is most relevant to them?

As democratic and authoritarian regimes, political parties, church councils, and school cliques have demonstrated over the ages, the people’s allegiance is the most important factor in any system of governance. If we bow now to the arbitrary walls cemented during the Industrial Revolution, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot instead of showing up bright and early for whatever happens next.

The environment is the most pressing category of concerns facing the whole world at the moment. This is why it’s the stage on which international institutions are exercising some real authority. For all of us, there are limits as to the spheres in which we believe international institutions should have power. The environment is one of those arenas in which people tend to believe they should: it is hard to argue against a case for working together on something which affects all of us so deeply and so imminently.

The environment could well be a crucial unifying factor for humanity, creating structures of governance broader than the nation-state, upon which other collaborations may be built. Indeed, in a model of a future global order shown to be more likely than some others, the nation-state no longer holds such primacy, but there is a network of structures and power relations, with different types of decisions being taken at different levels.

International governance can make us feel distant from decisions that affect us. We all want to feel close to our leadership and able to effect change; but why does that have to be only at a national level? Why not also your European voting region, of which the UK is split into 12? Your transnational interest group or political community? The nation-state is  cemented and upheld by those who benefit from it; it is only to our advantage to divide our allegiances between different levels of power.

Leaving the EU would not reverse the global trends already in place. It would be a backward decision, designed to hold in place for as long as possible the fictitious community of the nation-state. If we stay, then rather than disempowerment and disconnection, we will be offering our children a firm footing in the new world order, whatever its shape.


The Thoughts in Between

Yesterday, I was watching a TV programme in which a man on an ‘empty’ spaceship hears a baby crying in a different room. He hunts for a while for this child and finally finds it in a drawer. As a viewer, you’ve been hearing the baby cry for some time now and you are eagerly awaiting the catharsis. He opens the drawer, and there is the baby. The baby has dark skin.

The man in question, who is black himself, lost a son several episodes beforehand; and this is the kind of intense situation in which he might go delusional. Therefore it wouldn’t be strange for the viewer to be guessing that the baby would have dark skin. Other than this, there is no reason why the viewer should have any expectations about the baby’s skin colour.

After he had found the baby, I did feel a sense of catharsis. But today I remembered a thought that had occurred to me in the millisecond when he found the baby. A thought I quickly pushed away and almost unwittingly tried to ignore. The thought was that, not only had I expected the baby to be white, but that the discovery of a black baby was something of an anti-climax. In words that are hard to write, this translates to the notion that a black baby’s life is worth less than that of a white baby.

Irrespective of our own characteristics, those of us who are committed to liberation are constantly trying to check our privilege. We stay aware of facts (such as the fact that people with black-sounding names are less likely to get invited for job interviews than those with white-sounding names and the same profile) but we tend to believe ourselves to have transcended this on a personal level. We tell ourselves that the ways we relate to folk are different because of their characters, not their ethnicity. With babies, though, our biases can’t hide, since they are innocent and vulnerable. You can’t say to yourself: ‘I like this baby more than that one because he has a kinder heart.’ My shocking thought meant that my own racism was thrown into stark relief.

The unspoken and largely unacknowledged view in the West is that white lives are worth more. If the building last year had collapsed in a predominantly white nation instead of Bangladesh, there would have been international uproar. Americans would have been much less supportive of the Iraq war if their partners and parents were killing white people. The West would be more vocal about Palestinians’ rights if Palestin10bhysians looked like white people. And, regarding the refugee crisis, I honestly cannot imagine thousands of white people being forced to jump fences and sleeping in camps. The West simply wouldn’t let it happen. Boko Haram kidnapping 200 white girls in Nigeria? That would have sparked a war. ‘Other’ can be defined on any basis; the most dangerous ‘othering’ hasn’t always been about race. But these days, it is.

It feels very unpleasant to acknowledge one’s own racist thoughts. As Andrea Gibson says, the truth is not polite. There’s no time to be pleasant when death and destruction are real and all around us. Black History Month has just ended, but keep checking your privilege. Making any kind of a difference requires us first and foremost to know what’s going on inside our own minds. The danger lies these days not in fanatical racism, but in what’s unspoken. Changing the world is about noticing the thoughts in between.



Don’t get any ideas!

I have an idea.

Ideas are dangerous, and we get very mixed messages about them.


All of us have ideas. Some should be pursued, others should not; many just need refining. Often we decide that an idea is impossible to achieve before we have even registered its presence. Before we have felt out the contours of the idea or spoken about it to anyone. Before we can grasp it, it fizzles out: because it was genuinely not realisable, or because of our fear.

If we believe in an idea enough to speak about it with someone, sharing it with supportive people provides validation for the idea and we feel propelled forwards. The problem is that, if we rely on external validation for the idea, negative responses can make us feel shot down and increase the chances that we’ll give up. Though it didn’t shake my resolve, I experienced something of this sort recently.


So, how to share an idea and with whom? I’ve heard wisdom that we should share them with those who will help them grow and provide good advice, rather than just sharing for the purposes of validation. Those whose ideas are successful tend to have a strong inner conviction about the validity of their own idea rather than requiring this from others. And even with good advice, Sean Kim (founder of Rype) reflects that, whenever he followed advice over his instincts, it was a mistake.

It seems that instinct comes first; and anything gained from sharing with others comes second. Of course, it is not only mentors and successful people with whom we need to share our ideas: it is also potential beneficiaries of the idea. These could be all sorts of individuals, including people who communicate in an unhelpful way, for example who are competitive or negative. They can’t be ignored, and they might help push you to build a compelling and wide-reaching story. 

The important point is that you are not seeking ‘validation’ from either group of people. My recent error was expecting validation and support from someone I knew was unlikely to offer that. It remains important not to let others’ responses shake your inner conviction; whether you are sharing for advice from someone successful, or getting the opinion of a potential user. Instinct always knows best, and if your idea comes genuinely from your own heart and life experience, instinct will carry you to the right place.