On Trying To Keep Still by Jenny Diski

This book captivated me. I have read some good books this year, but this one outshines the rest. When I wasn’t reading it I was thinking and talking about it. It’s about experiencing an experience, becoming aware of experiencing the experience and so losing the experience.

I have had the experience of experiencing Jenny Diski’s travels during a year when she visited New Zealand, spent three months in a cottage in Somerset and went to sample the life of the Sami people of Swedish Lapland. No need to go those places myself now. Really, I could be tempted by a trip to New Zealand, but that is only a pipe dream. Now, a cottage in Somerset – that is a real possibility.

I can see myself living in that cottage, but I would not want to be there alone. Her description of her drive to Lilstock, in Somerset identifies the pleasure and gratitude of the present-moment experience of being in a beautiful place, even though this then conjures up the consciousness of

that terribly difficult business of experiencing experience. I am so conscious of me being here, of being me here, not somewhere else, having this experience, that I lose my awareness of what is pleasing me in order to think about the pleasure.

To me being in the right company as well as in the right place enhances rather than diminishes my pleasure.

I don’t need to visit the glow-worm caves or Doubtful Sound in New Zealand, now that Diski has described them to me; indeed she had to miss out on an actual visit to the caves but enjoyed a virtual trip courtesy of an imaginative reading of the brochure ‘what more could we want, particularly as the actual visit to Doubtful Sound was disappointing?‘ And I certainly don’t want to go to cold, dark Lapland even though the enchanting, mythical, magical forest ‘glittering fairyland labyrinth‘ lit up with frost ‘making an intricate latticework which sparkled, twinkled, actually dazzled the eyes, as if the forest had been sprinkled with a layer of diamond dust‘ is beguiling. This is counterbalanced by the difficulty in living in such a hostile environment. Intriguingly this visit was aimed at advertising tourism.

Of course this book is not only about travelling. It is also a personal memoir, and is about being still, being alone, wanting to be alone, phobias and the problems of coping with life and especially with ageing. There is so much in this book that I can empathise with that it is almost alarming. Jenny Diski wants to be alone to a greater extent than I do, but I still identify with feelings such as not wanting to make a noise in case people notice that I’m there, not wanting others to worry about me, and worrying that others are worrying about me; feeling the need to do something such as going out for a walk – not the desire to do it for itself but the feeling that I should want to. On a practical level I also have difficulty with ‘left’ and ‘right’. In my mind I see left and say right etc and like Diski I can only visualise a route for a short distance before it disappears in a grey fuzz in my mind.

There is so much more in this book; it describes adventures in places at the opposite ends of the earth intermingled with personal insights and meditations on solitude and stillness, consciousness and belief systems. I found it a moving, amusing, thought-provoking and original book.

9 thoughts on “On Trying To Keep Still by Jenny Diski”

  1. This reminded me of the essay on Grace which was part of the original inspiration behind Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. Part of the point being made there is that children have natural Grace (whichever meaning you assign to the word) until that moment when they become aware of it and then it simply vanishes. I’ve been meaning to read Diski. I shall look out for this.

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  2. Ann, I have been intending to read Pullman’s triology for ages now. One reason I haven’t is because I’ve only got The Subtle Knife and was waiting until I could get the first book. Other reasons are of course that I keep buying and borrowing other books!

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  3. Order it from the library. I always find that the fact that I’ve got to return books in order to be able to check out all the others that I’ve reserved and which are now waiting for me, moves library books srtaight to the top of the pile.

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  4. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did and I’d love to hear what you all think of it. Previously I’ve read Diski’s ‘Strangers on a train’, about her travels across America, but I prefer ‘On Trying to Keep Still’.

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