Book Review: What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival

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‘What Doesn’t Kill You,’ is an anthology of short stories and a couple of philosophical essays centred on a single theme: adversity.

Its contributors are authors, journalists and figures from the British media, and the topics it covers are broad.

I enjoyed reading ‘What Doesn’t Kill You,’ for a number of reasons but not for the ones I was expecting. If you love – as I do – to leaf through the overcoming of hardship – the long-earned joyful walk to all kinds of personal victories – then this may not be the book for you.

This anthology, travels, instead – to borrow a term from Pilgrim’s Progress – to a series of  ‘sloughs of despond,’ personal difficulties which its writers have experienced and then invites us to take a look around. This may sound bleak – and many of the tales here are predictably dark – but there is also something deeply connecting in reading of another person’s ‘Struggle’, ‘Self’ and ‘Striving’ (the titles of each section of this anthology) without necessarily learning of their happy ending.

Indeed, despite the occasional musings on personal transformation and some beautiful philosophical insights on what it means to be human (the elliptical title of the anthology is borrowed from Nietzsche), this anthology could not be classed  as ‘uplift lit.’ Healing, or even transcendence of past pain is not the focus of this collection.

This said, the writing (and editing by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska) is fabulous. There are  breathtaking lines to take away – language which takes us closer to what it feels like when life’s sharpness moves us to the edge.

The exquisite surrealism of Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Three Wise Women’ is a huge treat –

‘I sat in train carriages watching for a far-flung white calla lily to manifest from a rip in a seat.’

Okojie’s storytelling is utterly compelling – poetic and precise – and her descriptions of ‘winter’ searing in the way which they evoke the alienation of an anxious mind.

Alex Christophi’s piece, which is both of the mind and rooted in the flesh, takes us through the recreation of memory and its accompanying thoughts. His words on coming back to present stillness are arresting:

‘…when they finally stop running, they can actually feel the world spinning.’

 

The meditations on ‘disappearance’ which appeared throughout this anthology were also a thrill to read:

In Ed Mitchell’s story of alcohol addiction, ‘Not Wasted’ where he describes how he went from an affluent lifestyle as a television presenter to living on the streets of Hove, he writes:

‘I disappeared for a year: a sea front ghost.’

‘A Disappearing Act’ by Kate Leaver is a moving account of overcoming an eating disorder, clear-sighted on what it meant to withdraw from ‘the act of living my life’. She writes:

‘It was my best effort to vanish.’

And I particularly liked Hazel Gale’s exploration of leaving one’s own body in ‘The Last Fight’. Her disappearance (and later re-appearance) in her own physical reality, is the story of reclaiming her personhood:

‘What I’d been calling the Self was forged solely of what I thought was required of me by the Other.’

Memory’s disappearance is acutely studied in Emily Reynold’s ‘My Unremembered Life’:

‘Trauma simultaneously erases memory and rewrites it,’

while Elitsa Dermendzhiyska’s tale of using economic theory to try to make uncertainty vanish from her daily life, lured by the ‘promise of an underlying order’ contains great beauty in its truth and vulnerability.

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Peppered throughout this collection are nuggets of inspiration, on our personal agency in not just surviving adversity, but the ways in which we might exist in its wake:

‘If I don’t want to go back to prison,’ writes Cathy Rentzenbrink, on tending to herself sensitively in recovery from PTSD, ‘I have to make sure I keep the conditions of my bail.’ and for each of these writers – and for many of us – this keeping out of the ‘prison’ of self-protective suffering might look quite different.

Ben Saunders explores the futility of ‘striving’ in the last section of the anthology, through his piece ‘A Very Long Walk in a Very Cold Place.’ His is a gripping real-life adventure to the North Pole full of grit and grimness, where the true prize cannot be gained externally.

Nature is also at the forefront of A.J. Ashworth’s ‘Eight.’ Facts and images of the sun weave beguilingly through this powerful account of living with panic attacks.

The stories in ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ neither sugarcoat nor glamourize the difficulties encountered by its authors. There is courage in these very personal tales, many as raw as the pain they’ve endured.

Rory Bremner’s essay is a beautiful description of living life with ADHD, both sensible in its advice to those experiencing similar, and celebratory of the wealth of expression he feels the condition has brought him. His refusal to see ADHD as a problem, instead as a part of himself to be loved, is key to the way that he chooses to live.

In his essay ‘No Cure For Life,’ Julian Baggini takes a characteristically rationalist approach to suffering, shunning the notion of the ‘happy ending’ sold to us by self-help evangelists. He observes the uneven way in which life’s slings and arrows appear to be handed out, and seems to underscore some of the thoughts of M. Scott Peck in his seminal book, The Road Less Travelled:

‘Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.’ 

However in Peck’s book he goes on to say:

‘It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.’

While ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ isn’t generally about transcending the adversity it portrays – it reads more as a panorama of lived experience –  the gems contained within make it well-worth a look.

I loved the style of Lily Bailey’s ‘The Lily Show’ and found her stream of consciousness sentences a brilliant vehicle into the hellish reality she employs to keep her safe.

‘Maybe…they’ll smash through the set walls and rescue me..’

This is as real an account of mental illness and its attendant isolation that I have ever read.

But what I loved most about ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ is that it points to other books as safe crossings and scaffolds when life gets tricky. There are some great book recommendations here – from JD Salinger to Clarissa Pinkola Estés – so many of the writers in this anthology finding solace in the printed page.

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It has indeed been my own experience that there is a deep hopefulness in the occupation of reading – in seeing the story of another played out and repurposed purely for our benefit – which can be like a hand-hold through life’s sometime rough terrain.

‘Reading was, as ever, an ally in taking my mind away from itself,’

writes Cathy Rentzenbrink.

And it is this which makes ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’, a valuable book shelf addition; each of these 15 pieces – while simultaneously distracting us – draws us closer to our own humanity, especially in this time of societal introspection.

It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us,’ writes David Whyte at the start of the anthology, and in celebrating the beauty and plurality of each of these writers’ challenging life experiences, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ empowers us to find our own possible steps when life feels like a struggle.

 

What Doesn’t Kill You is published by Unbound, available to purchase here (among other outlets) from 11th June 2020. 

This blog recommends pairing this book with the 1978 classic, The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck, a book about fulfillment based on the author’s experiences as a psychiatrist and as a person.

I review books I’ve loved. All views expressed in my posts are my own. This blog is not affiliated to any other individual, company or advertisement.

Please note – I am currently reviewing selected books whose launches have been affected by the current Corona virus outbreak. If you are an author or publisher please feel free to get in touch (see below) if this is of interest.

If you’d like to email me, please visit my contact page, here.

Your comments as always are welcome…

 

 

Out of Touch: Book Review

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Thank you to Net Galley for sending me an Advance Reader Copy. Note to readers: there are details from the novel mentioned in this review but (hopefully) no plot spoilers!

 

Out of Touch by Haleh Agar is a soulful story about two siblings, Ava and Michael, and the ways in which they try to make sense of their family’s past.

Michael lives in New York. Ava, England. And as their current lives unfold we are given glimpses of the way things were between their parents when Ava and Michael were growing up.

Towards the end of the novel, their father, Lee asks ‘What do good families do?’  and it is this uncertainty, this search for a happier future to eclipse a tricky history which seems to fuel both brother and sister in their daily lives.

Earlier in the story, a request is sent by Lee to see both his adult children urgently. As readers we are intrigued to discover how this part of the tale will develop.

The scenes in New York where Michael lives with his partner and son are vividly told, ‘everything in mason jars’ and with a straightforward realism which is compelling and enjoyable to read.

And the appearance of an artist neighbour who is able to see into Michael’s apartment adds an interesting dimension – a twist on the idea of the male gaze – for as she watches him and his young family go about their daily life, it is the female gaze making Michael conscious of his actions, affecting the choices that he makes.

Out of Touch is well paced and yet there is a captivating stillness to its prose, an acute sensuality reminding me of the film, ‘Yes’, by Sally Potter which also looks at shattered family dynamics and cultural crossings.

The international angle is delightfully told, not just through the dual scenes set in the U.S and UK but via the backgrounds of the characters themselves — Lebanese, Greek Cypriot and Iranian. Culturally-specific details add texture to our understanding of the main characters and a liveliness to their histories.

There is much depth portrayed in this novel but also a pleasing lightness to the writer’s style which makes it a book which is hard to put down (I read it in two sittings and I’m generally not a fast reader!)

It was refreshing to read how the twin taboos of physical and emotional pain are tackled and the myriad ways in which humans try to face or avoid them.

When something frightening happens to shake Michael and his partner’s family life in New York, his partner Layla responds by becoming overly cautious, taking a hammer on car journeys in case of an accident, deciding to try to become the ‘God’ of the family by checking everything she can. Layla’s anxiety which seems to stem from a disconnection from the nominal faith of her childhood is insightfully handled through the narrative.

While the difficult legacy of Michael and Ava’s mother, Elena, is portrayed in detail there is also space for complexity in our understanding of her. And it is this grappling with the dynamics of family and the way characters try to overcome their histories through new choices that this book is at its most captivating. We are given a window not only into the pain of the past but also the ways in which repair may occur in the present.

The love story at the centre of the novel plays out beautifully. Sam is earnest and believable, Ava wavering and confused until she has to make a decision either way.

There is something warm and life-affirming and ultimately important about the way human difficulties are addressed in this book. I was left at the end with the sense, as a reader, of being seen. The existential questions the characters face – whether it’s possible to make peace with the past (can old disagreements be mended?) and why a look at what happened long ago might shed light on our present responses – feel universal and timely.

I look forward to reading more from Haleh Agar.

 

Out of Touch is published by Orion, available to purchase from April 2nd 2020. 

This blog recommends pairing this book with Me before You by Jojo Moyes, which also handles deep themes with a light touch and has a central premise of a young woman trying to move on.

I review books I’ve loved. All views expressed in my posts are my own. This blog is not affiliated to any other individual, company or advertisement.

Please note – I am currently reviewing selected books whose launches have been affected by the current Corona virus outbreak. If you are an author or publisher please feel free to get in touch (see below) if this is of interest.

If you’d like to get in touch, please visit my contact page, here.

Your comments as always are welcome…

 

 

 

 

Anxiety’s cloak – Thoughts on ‘Love & Fame’

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In the 1980s, before fan-girling was officially a thing, YA author Judy Blume used to receive letters from her teen readers.

‘How did you know what we were thinking?’ they would ask, as though her novels had reached magically into their minds and located the things which mattered most.

Ever since I started reading Susie Boyt’s columns in the FT, the same thought has often popped up:

How does she know?

Her latest novel, Love & Fame opens with a theatrical monologue. No sentence is completed, thoughts are left hanging, each one linking to the next like an echoing voiceover. We hear the incessant worries of a person who feels everything.

Newly married actress Eve and her husband, Jim, who is writing a book about anxiety, are honeymooning in Chicago. Soon we meet Beatrice (‘Beach’) a bereavement counselor and her sister Rebecca, a journalist. All are connected by the passing of Eve’s famous actor father, John Swift.

But it’s anxiety itself which gets the starring spot in Love & Fame. Eve’s new husband Jim writes about it but Eve, herself, is living it.

‘Is your conclusion that anxiety’s a bit of a dark hero in a cloak?’ she asks him, for beneath his research lies a premise: Could anxiety actually be useful? Positive even?

Eve thinks not. At dinner with Jim and his agent, Max, she allows her thoughts on the subject to overflow:

‘I would say anxiety has cost me some of the very best things in my life.’

Suddenly Jim’s earlier remarks about anxiety being like a helpful friend – the type who prods you when you’re straying from what you actually want – are re-cloaked. As readers, we are left to reflect on our own experiences.

Those who loved Susie Boyt’s famous FT column will enjoy the same detail and intensity in this novel. Like the ‘Legendary’ cheesecake which Eve passes on her nighttime walk, such delight is sometimes best savoured in small mouthfuls. And yet – as with the best confectionery – I found I could not put this down.

Its serious subject is lightened by a number of laugh-out-loud set pieces. Boyt is brilliant on middle class liberal do-gooding. Jean Swift, while deep in mourning for her husband continues to invite young ex-criminal mothers into her home to learn cookery. A couple of the mothers are described as ‘lovely ex-shoplifters’ – the book is peppered with surprising juxtapositions and one-liners. There is a warmth and love of human frailty in Max’s comment which could equally be true about Love & Fame itself:

‘Eve – this is really a book about kindness.’

Perhaps it is in kindness that the antidote to anxiety lives. In the forgiveness that Jim finds so easy, or in Beach’s endless listening. When grief is allowed to surface, anxiety beats a path to the back door.

Judy Blume used to answer her readers’ questions, saying that she wrote from the memories of her own childhood. “When I dream. I’ll frequently dream of the house where I grew up.”

Nothing in fiction is truly invented; there’s a reservoir of joy and pain and memory which in reading this novel, shimmers translucent. These are the parts of Love & Fame which move for it is in the story’s mining of these personal depths that as readers we find our own worries normalised.

This is a book so brimming with heart, its dialogue so finely tuned and touching that it felt like the best kind of musical. A triumph of love over suffering that I did not want to end.

In the opening scene when thoughts are rushing around the character’s head, tailing off in anxious uncertainty, I realise what a gift we have in Boyt’s prose. In answer to the question, how does she know? It is her characters who show us.

In funny searing chapters we are reminded how hard it is to be alive sometimes but that a listening ear can change everything. Anxiety, in the end, may be neither hero nor antagonist but a sign that there is more left to grieve. Only after tears have been allowed to fall – on Beach’s couch perhaps – may we see anxiety slink away, or at least begin to speak in a softer tone.

Love & Fame is published by Virago, available to purchase November 2nd 2017. Pre-order here

All views expressed in my posts are my own. If you would like me to review your book, please visit my contact page, here.

A tale from Colombia: the power of owning your story

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The Colombia of my imagination has tropical rhythms over middle eastern chords. Poetry. Impenetrable jungle, a generosity of smiles. Although I have never visited the country itself. All of this I learned from friends and songs and stories.

Last week I came across the real Colombia of the 1980s as experienced by a writer who spent her childhood there.

As a girl in England, my first school friend was from North America. Long ponytails, kind eyes, we met when we were four or five. I loved her because she wasn’t like the folk I knew. She spoke with vowels unknown and when she did a handstand, she called it by another name.

Like many in our university town, her family stayed a year. And then they moved to South America.

Last month I found a letter she sent me in 1981. When I looked online I discovered that thirty years on, my friend Shelley Hundley had written and published a book called A Cry for Justice.

I read it in two sittings.

There are few works of literature that have made me reflect so. Examining her own history and faith, Shelley has managed to somehow hold, ‘the mirror up to nature’.*

Her book describes that when she was a child, living in Medellín, between the age of six and ten, a minister known to her family routinely abused her, then left her silenced by the burden of his crimes.

She lost her faith, the world became a place from which she hid. Later on, she planned to take her life.

Shelley’s is a book about trauma and the healing which she found through re-embracing her religious faith. Her story-telling is compelling. The book, both page-turner – for the prose flows effortlessly – and an uneasy read.

As if Shelley’s own pain were not enough, Medellín in the eighties was a dangerous place to be a child. Shelley describes herself as ‘a gringa-paisa, an American by blood but a Colombian by birth.’ At the hands of Pablo Escobar and his ilk, Colombian cities in the 1980s were part war-zones where children did the normal things: play and learn and go to church but Shelley also saw shootings, robbery, casual violence, lockdowns.

Shelley’s descriptions of the society of her childhood reminded me of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the sense of something once beautiful, decayed.

Later at a North American college, filled with the rage of a knowledge unspeakable, Shelley embodied the young prince’s quandary: ‘To be or not to be’. But it was at this time that her life began to slowly turn, through therapy, scripture and prayer, from angry existence to a cathedral of love.

This book is, without a doubt, an invitation to the message of Jesus Christ and yet, I wonder whether whoever reads it, from whichever faith or background, may be strengthened by its integrity. Shelley rejects modern social ‘relativism’ in favour of God as unique Judge, liberator of the human from ego-based judgement, Opener of a space from which to love.

Filled with light, Shelley’s tale starts with survival which becomes thriving and culminates in complete transcendence of her past.

Sometimes a book is enough to throw open a window on a place we’ve never seen. Driving in Muscat last week with Shelley’s words still inside my head, I listened to an interview with Colombian author Laura Restrepo, award-winning writer of the novel, Delirio, also set in 1980s Medellín.

When asked how Colombian young people might approach the act of writing she said:

You know people in Colombia… it seems like everyone is writing, poetry, essays, novels, it seems like a very intelligent and brave way of understanding what’s going on with us. There’s plenty of fine literature in Colombia, great writers all over the place. It’s like a process of healing that the country is going through by telling its own story once and again and again… Go on and write your stuff, whatever you want to write, write.

Owning our past, paragraph by paragraph is for some, the conscious taking back of what was always meant to be ours. When Laura Restrepo and Shelley Hundley chose to write about their lives -the wounds of their society – they tapped into the power to heal themselves -and others – with their pen.

To tell one’s own story in whatever form is an act of courage. Writers who allow the sun to shine on the painful cracks in their personal histories are surely partaking in the communal work of letting in the light.

I’d like to visit Colombia some day. Thanks to Laura Restrepo and my childhood friend, I picture a place where everybody’s writing their own story. I’m trying to imagine the magnificence of that.

Shelley Hundley’s book A Cry for Justice is available here

Laura Restrepo’s novel Delirium is available here

I would love to know which countries you have been inspired to visit via literature. Please, as always, feel free to comment below.

*Prince Hamlet’s advice to the players in the play within the play (Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Speaking in bombs: Book Review – Song of Gulzarina by Tariq Mehmood

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After three years of studying (yeah right) at Manchester Uni I decided to stay on another year. I couldn’t get enough of the Northern drizzle: gobs of fumey water threatening to turn everything grey. Sometimes the sun would appear and a bright blue would cover the city, lighting up the red brick of the warehouses.

I arrived in 1996 when a bomb planted by the IRA had gutted the central Arndale Centre. Terrorism in England in the twentieth century was all about bins in railway stations, bombs in Wimpy Bars, the targeting of political buildings. Scary yes but somehow in parallel with normal life. Not at its centre.

Manchester is the setting of Tariq Mehmood’s recently published novel, Song Of Gulzarina, an absorbing read which travels between the North west of England and Pakistan along with the main character, Saleem Khan.

The story picks up pace at a mill, in an incident involving unsuitable toilets at Saleem Khan’s workplace. The Pakistani workers request sanitary facilities. The white British manager, Mr Andersen abuses the men:

‘You filthy Paki bastards always sticking together.’ Mr Anderson picked up another pipe and hit Salamat Ali Teka across the face.

This racist violence paves the way for Saleem Khan’s journey through pain, into war, loss and eventual expatriation.

Love features too as Saleem falls for Carol Anderson, the daughter of his boss. One of the most enjoyable parts of this novel is the way the writer has his characters speak. As Carol and Saleem chat, she responds to Saleem by speaking to an invisible onlooker:

‘How did you find out?’

‘How did I find out, he says,’ she said leaning back into the setee.

Her turn of phrase is real and affecting betraying something deeper than its outward flippancy. In fact I was originally drawn to review this book after Tariq Mehmood’s humour showed up on a mutual facebook friend’s page. Mehmood has a gift for pithy – often witty – dialogue switching between registers with pitch perfect precision.

A few years ago I attended a workshop on writing dialogue at the Winchester Writers’ Festival. The take-away was that speech in literature is artificial but you have to make it sound plausible; each character should appear authentic and different (try it – it’s not an easy task!) Tariq Mehmood gives his characters language which is earthy, often coarse and angry and it makes his characters visceral, believable.

The sense of place in Song Of Gulzarina looms large. Not just in Manchester where:

The white pigeon with a black circle around its left eye is now perched on top of one of the toll gates, oblivious to the cold Mancunian wind.

but also in Pakistan where the depth and sensuality of the detail reminded me of Aravind Adiga’s descriptions of Bangalore in The White Tiger:

‘Other than the smoke from the exhaust of a rickshaw, nothing hit us.’

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——-SPOILER ALERT——-

The final section of the book – please look away if you don’t want a SPOILER – takes the character of Saleem Khan to a darker place.

If the book begins with racist humiliation, it ends in exile. The distancing of our hero from his own humanity, hell-bent on revenge, his heart closed and life little more than an alcoholic blur.

Ravaged by the losses of his wife, girlfriend, cousin, the disdain of his daughter, Khan’s heartbreak has turned its face upon the world. He plans to avenge his disillusionment on the British ex Prime Minister, Tony Blair who has come to Manchester to speak. Strapped to Khan’s body are enough explosives to take out far more than the former PM.

In this last section, the reader is kept on tenterhooks as Khan wanders around Longsight and Wilmslow Road in this state ready to activate the mobile phone at any moment.

That our protagonist chooses Tony Blair as his target is unsurprising. There is a terrible irony that much of the IRA terrorism mentioned above was curtailed by an agreement in 1998 of which Blair played a significant part. Five years later, the invasion of Iraq and all of its rhetoric served not only an illegal war but a media machine which placed people like Saleem Khan in a cold and terrifying place.

Cast out by a British government acting with unspeakable hypocrisy, it is easy to understand why Fight or Flight became, for some, a way of life.  Add in the United States response in Afghanistan to the 9/11 attacks, and terrorism becomes a very real language. ‘We are here,’ cry the suicide bombers. ‘You thought you could ignore us. But: ‘Look at me. I’m the captain now.’

That Khan’s decision to blow himself up is not associated with his religious beliefs but a quest for social justice is significant. In fact he declares himself an Atheist, his faith has long since died. “Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose.” wrote Baltasar Gracian in the 17th century. Saleem Khan’s self-rejection is so complete, hope so long-gone that he will go to any lengths. His radicalisation has come not from religious rhetoric but from the sense that he has nothing left so nothing will be lost when he kills and dies.

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For this is a novel about alienation, about looking for home and finding only estrangement. From the woman who treats Khan at Manchester Royal Infirmary and comments with horror at the amount of hair on his body to his close white friend who runs away as they watch the events of 9/11 unfold on the telly, Saleem Khan is left without sanctuary.

Mehmood skilfully navigates the nuances of Islam in the West. When Khan’s daughter Aisha is aggressed by men in a passing car, the Muslim youths outside the mosque stand impassively. Khan chastises them:

‘How can you just carry on selling books?’ I ask the bearded youth, pointing a shaking finger. ‘You saw what they did to your sisters.’

The youth replies that all will be taken care of in the Hereafter – a view which ignores traditional Islamic belief (which highlights the importance of balancing both Earthly matters and a spiritual focus on the next life) – and instead of helping his Muslim sister, uses fundamentalist religious rhetoric to do nothing.

Towards the end of the book, Khan remembers seeing a snake as a child and playing with it until he was urgently warned to move away. As he walks, in the present tense, through Rusholme with explosives strapped to his chest, he recalls his mother telling him of how casually he toyed with the serpent. The adults were afraid of the creature because they had experience but the child was safe in his innocence. Nothing had caused him to prejudge it, to antagonise it and the snake did not attack.

Tariq Mehmood has written a powerful tale and his voice in the current political climate is important. Through a strong sense of the spoken word, an under-heard narrative gains momentum. This book is pure entertainment but it is also a cautionary tale. A question embedded in a Song. What happens when people are ignored and suppressed for too long? Where does that energy go? It is the reader’s gain that this particular writer has put his own spark into Song for Gulzarina.

For more information about the book click here

 

Header photograph from the book Manchester, England (by Dave Haslam), by Aidan O’Rourke (www.aidan.co.uk)