Wednesday, 23 January 2019

on my love affair with bad television


I grew up with bad television. Low culture, easy-viewing - whatever label you prefer to use to undermine the daytime schedules. Those glorious hours between 11 and 4 when the programmes are aimed at the elderly and the unemployed, the stay-at-home parent and the child home from school with a virus that probably isn't as bad as the newly adopted nasal voice and intermittent forced coughing makes out. They are fillers: not worth catching up on, just content for content's sake largely ignored outside of its prime audience.

As a child I had no conception of the programmes I could happily watch for hours on end being considered in some sense 'bad'. I knew only that, truly, there was no greater pleasure than consecutive days spent ill off school. These days were precious, filled with pyjamas and bargain boxes of ice lollies purchased to soothe a bad throat. But most importantly, there was a strict ritualised process to these days which ensured as much telly normally inaccessible whilst at school could be consumed.

The days would begin at around 8:30. After a phone call had been made to school to confirm your absence, the duvet and pillows would be wrenched from your bed and dragged downstairs before being plonked unceremoniously on the sofa. I was lucky enough to have a mum who worked from home a few days a week, so that when I was ill, I would distract her from her work and really play into the precious few days of looking after I'd be treated to. Soon enough, an offer to tuck the duvet in would be suggested and a cup of tea would be handed to me (such offers would dwindle over the course of the next few days as my mother's patience, and my state of illness, quickly diminished). With the tv remote in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, whilst a thermometer lolled about under your tongue taking an unholy amount of time to simply check your temperature, the channels would be skimmed through before a programme to start off the day's events would be decided upon. This would normally be something house-viewing based. 'Homes Under the Hammer' is the preferred choice, with its entertaining blend of musical puns segued into from the in-your-face presenting. The show encounters people - odd, boring, eccentric, funny, lonely - a seemingly endless spectrum of people - buying and renovating houses, the 'after' results of which are revealed to us at the end of the show via delightful Powerpoint style transitions.

After Homes Under the Hammer, your options are wide open: do we shimmy over to ITV to catch 'This Morning' (only if it's Holly and Phil on the sofa. There's no greater pain than changing the channel and being confronted with the disappointing sight of Eamonn and Ruth in the prime spot)? Or we do risk scrolling further down the channels and finding an 'Escape to the Country' repeat, or something equally as nondescript?

 Nondescript as such shows may seem, lumped together with 'This Morning', stretching even into the afternoon and including shows like 'Pointless' and 'Tipping Point' under the pejorative label 'daytime tv', there's something deliciously comforting about the predictability of it all. They feel safe, warm, always there to fall back on. The sameness of their format, on daily at the same time, feels reliable. Worlds you can always enter into, hide under, escape from the world through.

They appear, and are largely regarded as, boring. Yet the programmes eschew everything that makes things like reality tv so unbearable. Instead of mocking people, creating unnecessary drama, partaking in a toxic celebrity culture and treating its subjects as things to be poked fun at or criticised, daytime tv is accepting of people in all their forms: not mocking, but celebratory. Martin Roberts, on 'Homes Under the Hammer', takes time to listen to the minutiae and background of the people's lives who feature on the show. The programme embraces them, giving them a space to be themselves. On 'Pointless', Alexander Armstrong is genuine with the contestants, again, taking the time to ask them about their lives, what they do, what they enjoy, who they are before the gameshow actually begins. They are treated as humans rather than instrumentally valuable pawns required for the game to function and the programme to be aired. The show is not just about quizzing, but about people quizzing.

It's the same quality which makes Channel 4's 'First Dates' so delightfully likeable. As well as being a show about dating, the individuals' stories are listened to in a non-judgemental environment. They speak to the camera alone, as if we are catching them in natural conversation. They are free to be themselves in a safe space. They tell sad stories, happy stories, stories of suffering, stories of fighting, stories of struggle, stories of loss: the stories of life that have made them who they are. 'First Dates' embraces those who take part in the show, never mocking them or exploiting them, it doesn't fall into the trap of dispensing with giving them the time to show us what makes them who they are in desperation for content. Those who feature are not bandied about as content for content's sake; their world's and where they come from are celebrated. It wants to make us feel with others as we partake in their stories amid what is really, just an everyday, largely uneventful show about dating.

Daytime tv, largely considered merely 'low' culture is far more than banal, 'just a filler' content. It embraces the small, daily magic of human life and celebrates it, encourages it, and shows that entertainment need not be exploitative or contrived (see 'Big Brother', 'Made in Chelsea', 'Love Island' etc etc) for it to be enjoyable. Those sofa-days spent recovering from tonsillitis in my childhood were formative for me, and taught me that there is so much to love about so-called 'bad', 'unintellectual' and 'wasteful' tv.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

on finding a good cuppa in norwich: episode 2: kofra @ the sainsbury centre

Your eyes are not deceiving you, nor is this a mirage. You really are looking at the review you've been desperate for: the next instalment promised to you and, I assume, hotly anticipated. There will have been restless nights I'm sure. Tossing and turning. Days spent looking wistfully through window panes, yearning for an update on my quest to find the best brew Norwich can offer me. 'When, oh when, will Imogen publish the next stage in her journey?'. Allow me to put an end to all this as we get right into episode 2 and the nitty gritty: the review you're simply dying to hear.

I will begin by admitting that this isn't my first visit to Kofra at the Sainsbury Centre. 'What?! But Imogen! I thought we were going to be on this journey together. It would be new for us all!', I hear you protest and mutter to yourself. Well, dear reader, I must admit I was rather hoping to go in with that angle too. However, sometimes things happen, like going for tea several times at places where I had yet to consume tea, and then doing something silly like, oh, I don't know, not taking a photo and therefore being unable to document the experience, something unhelpful like that, just for examples sake. I definitely didn't, for instance, go to both Kofra on Unthank Road, or Strangers on Pottergate on Tuesday and totally forget to document the experiences. Not wanting to deprive you of my thoughts on Norwich's beverage offering I know you've been lusting after any longer, I thought we'd instead kick off with somewhere I'd been before, but was trying out again, just to ease ourselves in.

The Sainsbury Centre is one of the few places on campus where I'm not plagued by a swarm of students. There's a real mix of people here - tourists, locals, and people just utilising the space for meetings or work. Unlike the Kofra on Unthank Road, the cafe here is roomy without losing the intimate feel offered by the mere two or three tables they have at their other branch. There's a mix of comfier chairs and chairs set around tables, some of which are next to the gift shop, providing an excellent viewing station from which to peruse the postcard selection, whilst others are nearer to the windows, the perfect people-watching opportunity for the UEA campus grounds (dog-spotting galore). I was meeting a friend today and we nabbed one of these tables: bright and airy as a result of being close to the huge expanse of floor to ceiling windows, whilst still managing to feel cosy as opposed to the clinical feeling a lot of open-space places have a tendency to verge into. The chairs were fine - I have no quibbles here, however, I will say that the few remnants of cup rings dried to the glass table surfaces very much played havoc with Instagram photo taking opportunities. As did the napkin which accompanied my cup and saucer: my precious aesthetic vision was scuppered!

Now that the admin is out of the way, let's dissect the tea itself. Having been to Kofra before, I know that ordering a tea will mean the barista proceeding to ask if you'd like a pot or a mug. Now here you have to be careful. The offer and possibility of a pot being introduced into the mix immediately sends glee to the tea-drinker's heart. More than one cup suddenly seems like a delicious possibility: plonked down in front of you, ready to offer 2, or even 3, cups of the stuff. However, after trialling both their mugs and pots, I can confidently say that if like me you tend towards a strong cuppa, always go for the mug. Don't even allow the barista to ask: hold your hand out to silence him before the trendy fella starts to speak and say, 'I'll have a mug, thank you'. Not only is it such a satisfying mug to drink from (their yellow, branded coffee mugs are just as satisfying too, and they sell them for £7.50 a pop so you can bet I snapped one of those babies right up and have been drinking from it for a few days straight, bar the washing up intervals), but something about the use of a teabag rather than the tea leaves Kofra use in their pots makes for a much meatier cup of tea; the kind of tea my mum would say you could stand your spoon up in.

As always when I go for the mug (after I'm finished feeling enchanted by the pleasure of holding the smooth, perfectly sturdy handle in my grasp - how on EARTH have they produced such a bloody good mug?!), the tea is excellent. It's the kind of tea that hits the spot: after that first slurp you're overcome with an uncontrollable urge to polish it off in big, hot, satisfying gulps. It makes you want to emit a sigh of satisfaction. That kind of tea.

Apart from the ghastly sight of the napkin nestled beneath my cup, ready for me to plonk the teabag onto it after I'd finished brewing my tea, Kofra is a really lovely spot for a drink. They have a small selection of cakes too, and from the speed at which my friend gobbled down her brownie, fork flailing back and forth as if it were digging for gold, I'm going to suggest they're pretty good. The setting is quiet whilst also providing ample opportunities for people-watching, and being located in the Sainsbury Centre, it means you can have a mooch afterwards (or just have a wander around the gift shop and buy a handful of postcards despite not actually setting foot in the adjoining art gallery). It's also a nice place to work if you're a student and the prices aren't too steep. They're not grumpy about shoving you out either, so you can happily sit there for a while without feeling guilty that you're still slurping on the cold remains of your £2.50 drink you purchased hours ago, and have been surreptitiously drinking at an impossibly slow speed to avoid paying for another.

 I am yet to be disappointed with Kofra and I will definitely be going back, in spite of the unsightly napkins.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

on 'kiki's delivery service'


I've always been apprehensive about sitting down to watch a Studio Ghibli film. I think I have treated Hayao Miyazaki's oeuvre in much the same way as I treated mainstream music as a precocious 14 year old only interested in that which was considered 'indie': if it was popular, I didn't like it. As such, from the ages of around 17, perhaps a little paradoxically, the more praise I came across and the more hype surrounding the films I encountered, the less interested I was in seeing what all the fuss was about.

After 'The Great Manga Phase of 2010' ended, in which I suddenly became utterly obsessed and entranced by drawing my own manga (to this day nobody knows where on earth this phase derived from. All we have are handfuls of 'how to draw manga' guides given by family at every gift-giving opportunity and the crumpled drawings sun-bleached from years spent pinned to the fridge before being ripped down and shoved in a memory box then bundled swiftly into a far corner of the attic), I never had any further interest in then exploring anime, or reading manga comics of any sort. As I tried to disassociate myself with this period of my life, Studio Ghibli films were shoved aside in much the same way. In my head they were lumped together with a juvenile interest I was now eager to be rid of and so I avoided them at all costs. Little did I know how much I would enjoy them, for reasons largely unrelated to their anime medium.

I'm not sure what finally convinced me to begin my foray into the Studio Ghibli realm with 'Kiki's Delivery Service'. I can't promise it wasn't the result of aimlessly typing 'whimsical films' into letterboxd and landing on a list titled something like 'Whimsical films for when you need a pick-me-up' , ravenous as I was for something lighthearted but soul-nourishing. I recalled seeing the post below on Tumblr a few days before, and voila, somewhere in the deepest depths of my mind, a decision comprised of multiple strands was made.


Something about this idea of feeling, and of the feeling of the little special moments of life captured in cinema appealed to me. I gobble up all sorts of content - films, television, podcasts which rely on this feeling of contentedness and everything that surrounds it. I enjoy things that have a heart, that celebrate the everyday for the sake of the everyday, as opposed to the image-value of an artificial picture of contentedness.

I enjoy the warmth of the world contained in games like Animal Crossing - worlds distant from reality but that still partake in the glorious parts of existence - of community and daily ritual and encounters with people. I enjoy the pleasure of a video game in which nurturing is the aim, for the sake of helping others and seeing the beauty in life itself, in keeping-house and celebrating nature and keeping a community running.

I enjoy feeling the thick, quality paper of magazines like 'The Simple Things' and 'Oh Comely' with their naturalistic imagery and un-condescending tone. I enjoy slowly leafing through them, appreciating them as pages and pages full of stories and potential worlds. I enjoy the articles they publish: feature pieces on inspiring women making the best lives for themselves. Or the attention paid to small daily tasks which bring joy into one's week with pieces like 'My Day in Cups of Tea' - people's routines are laid bare and celebrated purely for the beauty of routine; the value in the minutiae of life.

I enjoy looking at the world or seeing scenes in cinema that frame something that is beautiful in a simple way. I enjoy looking out onto a lake from the comfort of a bird-watching hide (yes, I know, what a way to spend my weekends, now is not the time) and having the wooden window box capture the serenity of the scene before me, of nature allowed to just exist. I enjoy thinking about how such scenes would make good jigsaw puzzles (again, yes, I really know how to make the best use of my days of youth) and think about the long stretch of blissful afternoons that blur into evenings spent on carpets or at tables alone with only delicate pieces of cardboard for company. I think about how nice it is to spend time just bringing a picture into being and appreciating it as a made thing, as a scene brought to life through perseverance and the pay off being the completeness of its beauty: a landscape or a snapshot of city life frozen to preserve it.

I recently stumbled across a tag on Tumblr, an entire aesthetic community really, dedicated to life on farms and the imagery associated with this. Dubbed 'cottagecore', the aesthetic involves posts which seem to commodify jam-making and vegetable-growing and tractor-driving for empty purposes. Aesthetic wiki summarises it as 'an aesthetic based around the visual culture of an idealised life on a Western farm. Common themes include plants, animals, rural kitchens and straw'Scrolling through the tag, it doesn't feel celebratory but instead somewhat violating, using the 'idealised life' and falsifying it, contriving it, making it into something that doesn't truly exist in reality and certainly cannot be captured in a medium whereby people reblog images that appeal to them, so distant from the useful, purpose-driven rural everyday of the farm. There's something uncomfortable about the idea of blogs dedicated purely to images of such a lifestyle detached and disembodied from the stories and places they have been plucked from, lacking an appreciation for the entire essence and feeling present in these lives.



'Kiki's Delivery Service', the coming of age story about a young witch leaving home for the first time, is also a story about community and about building one's life amongst the everyday lives of others.

After leaving her family and hometown behind, needing to find a new place to settle, Kiki befriends the owner of a bakery and is looked after and given a place to stay before eventually finding a purpose through the setting up of a delivery service: a way in which locals can have their errands carried out for them, whilst also acting as a way for Kiki to utilise her magical powers of flying from place to place to carry out her tasks. The everyday errands as intersecting with magic via Kiki's delivery services seems to suffuse them with value, with worth. Kiki finds purpose and so finds herself through encountering a grandmother who wants a cake delivered for her granddaughter's birthday and learning about a life she might previously have never considered as she gazes into the twinkly eyes of the wise old women. As magic brings these errands into being and allows them to be achieved, we see them as somewhat magical in themselves, deserving of our attention.

In this world we see food being prepared, chores being taken part in - a community pictorially celebrated through intricate cinematic art. There's steaming mugs of tea; fresh loaves of bread; cakes baked step by step; backstreets explored by bike (and by broom) and ugly crows which haunt the nearby woods made loveable through the artistic gaze of a girl who lives amongst them, painting the beauty of them it is suggested only she can see.

Though my thoughts on the subject are fragmentary and not fully developed in terms of why I find such joy in celebrations of the little things, I mostly know that the consequences of me landing on such a list of whimsical films containing 'Kiki's Delivery Service' has been rewarding. 'Kiki's Delivery Service' is magical, sweet, heartwarming, genuine and whimsical with a capital W. As a hopeless romantic, a professional crier at adverts not worth crying about, and all-round overly emotional person, this film tugged at my very real and very delicate heartstrings.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

on the evils of a digitalised world


There’s an evil lurking in every corner of society, but rather than panic, I’m deciding to be very Carrie Bradshaw about it all. I regularly find myself having ‘I couldn’t help but wonder’ moments at 2am as I’m suddenly assailed by the power of this evil and taking a leaf out of Bradshaw’s book, I sit in my oversized tee and start to type. Here are the results of those Bradshaw-esque efforts.

I scrutinize and I muse about this evil. At times I go as far as worry, but mostly I just contemplate, for the evil is too pervasive for me to do anything other than investigate. It’s everywhere, omnipresent, and we’ve all encountered it. Some of us will be tormented by it, whilst others simply tut from the sidelines, watching the evil unleash and unleash and unleash. It’s hard, really, to effectively describe it, deconstruct it.  It’s labyrinthine and yet simple, intangible and yet tangible. To characterise it as a dark recess of the modern consciousness would perhaps be a little abstract, and yet to tie it down to simply social media as a concept seems too, well, simple. 

I encounter the evil when I begin to feel disillusioned with the actions I’m engaged in. I have horrible realisations that perhaps I’m in an episode of Black Mirror as I catch myself endlessly, incessantly, meaninglessly scrolling. I pause, and begin to suspect that my visceral need to keep ingesting frankly banal content is inextricably tied to the pervasiveness of the more more more mentality which has wormed its way into the fabric of daily life.  From targeted advertising which slots images of favourite online retailers next to unrelated and innocuous web-page browsing, to the currency of the way we receive the news (no longer a distant entity but an omnipresent force relegated to the status of smartphone notification) life itself is overshadowed by an intangible oppressor, the digital world and all its evils persistently reminding us of its hold on us. 

Is my creeping sense of disillusion tied to a serious, global case of Stockholm Syndrome? The danger lies in the fact that the evil, our hostage, (our phones? Social media as a concept? Reliance on the online world? - you fill in the gaps) is fundamentally inescapable, having become a necessity to the way we carry out our lives. Put simply, it’s always there. The evil doesn’t occupy space as an otherness, but defines the normative space we inhabit.

It derives its power from its subtle ability to brainwash as it distorts routine and cultural currency. Slowly but surely, it trickles into different realms. In domesticity and family life, its achievement is having made sitting down to watch ‘the news’ largely redundant as a ritual. ‘The news’ as a definitive, authoritative noun phrase, connoting ideas of it as an entity in itself, possessed by and the preserve of journalists, has all but disintegrated. Hans Haacke’s 1969 art piece ‘News’ (which currently sits on the top floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) relentlessly prints headlines as they come in, onto reams of paper which spill onto the floor of the gallery. In its day, Haacke’s piece was conceived as a means of breaking down barriers between art and politics, allowing them to coalesce so as to remove notions of seclusion assumed to belong to the holy sphere of art.

Today, it seems to carry a different meaning. Incessant printing of news feeds once seemed radical, a radicalness which seems incomprehensible in the age of Twitter, incessantly notifying us in our back pockets. Sophie Haigney writes for The Paris Review that Haacke’s News feels ‘like a reminder of when the News was still an object. It looks, in moments of stillness, like the sculpture it is’. In 2018, Haacke is breaking down new barriers, starkly showing us how the radical quickly transforms into the unquestioned norm. In light of this, perhaps our taste for shows like Gogglebox speaks volumes. When culture is compressed into content, and we no longer engage in ritualised watching of the News as it loses its status as an object, there’s something nostalgic about watching humans come together to view programmes, commenting and discussing them aloud, with more than 280 characters at their disposal.

Inundated with images, content and information, my brain has resorted to a somewhat continuous state of overdrive. This particular malaise manifests itself in a restlessness. My inability to cope with the weighty demands amid the pace of the modern world has left me feeling empty - the potentiality of things lies before me, and yet the enjoyment I receive from acting on this potential (the potential to read, to watch a film, to bake, to walk, to explore, to be curious) seems utterly devoid of value. Instinctively, I turn to the device beside me, the key into a world where all my worries are numbed in the act of mindlessly scrolling. This escapism, whilst appearing inoffensive, is tainting the way I engage with the world. It is then that my mind drifts to the awful realisation that if my actions aren’t going to be recorded, documented and uploaded in service of portraying an image to the world, validating my existence, is there really any point in doing anything other than blindly engaging with the plethora of content readily available on my trusty companion - my phone?

I often wonder if the existence of a so-called online world (a rather oxymoronic term, really) is relegating the real world (again, an unnerving adjective to apply to existence, as if it needs to be qualified as ‘real’) to a second-class state of being. As we enter into the world of the Black Mirror episode ‘Nosedive’  we’re overwhelmed by pastel hues. Everything is saccharinely perfect. It’s eerie and unnerving, and yet it takes a television episode, possibly even viewed on the same devices it is commenting upon, for us to acknowledge its similarity to the modern world. We have to enter into another world in order to understand our own. We’re blissfully unaware, cloaked in the same atmosphere of pastel hues as the protagonist of the episode, Lacey (Bryce Dallas Howard), and yet we have to see this atmosphere dramatised in order to spark a reaction. It’s ‘thintelligence’, as Howard aptly labelled it, in a press interview. Our vision has become so narrowed, so distorted, so conditioned, that we embrace the new normal, without taking a step back to witness ourselves. We need programmes like Black Mirror more than ever.

A year or so ago now, I remember asking a friend if she could take a photo of me “for Instagram”. The act of taking the photo was not an end in itself, for the content within it was a means to an end, in what I now understand was a gross servitude to the evils of the online world. The reason behind this photo (specifically styled as ‘candid’, because, of course, it simply had to appear as if social media was the last thing on my mind as opposed to being at the forefront) was that, earlier in the evening, I had remarked to the friend in question that I didn’t feel as if I “existed” on my Instagram. My friend agreed, and we chuckled at the fact that the content on both of our Instagram accounts was largely of things we had done: arty shots of food, buildings, other people, carefully curated snapshots of books at angles on tables and such. As individuals, we didn’t feature amongst this steady stream of content, and required a boost, a sense of validation. We needed to supply images of ourselves in order to feel as if we existed. Social media was demanding that we provide proof of ourselves. 

This sense of needing to provide proof of oneself within the online realm as a means of validation extends beyond afflicting only the younger generation. The BBC recently reported that the Conservative party’s Brandon Lewis had arranged sessions for MPs to learn how to utilise social media, especially as a means of showing their ‘human side’. The document leaked to the BBC revealed tips and guidance offered to MPs, as well as what to avoid, namely anything that didn’t ‘feel real’. The article’s headline was eerily oxymoronic in itself: “Revealed: Advice to Tory MPs on how to be ‘real’ on Instagram” - as if virtues of genuineness and oddly, humanity, could be validated online. To become a man of the people, one must ‘project [their] personality’. The way to likeability is to cultivate an image, and so reality becomes conflated with a realm that, really is far from anything that could truly be defined as real, however much the online realm plays a part in our so-called reality.

In service to social media, it is as if, and worryingly so, it is not efficient to enact individuality in the real world, when it can be so carefully curated online. Why read books, watch films, bake cakes, go for walks, travel, meet new people and discover new things - why find yourself and craft your contours, find your idiosyncrasies and understand what makes you tick, when you can post a photo and formulate a tweet. Why be yourself in a world that demands you simply project an idealised self?

One of the saddest things I see on a regular basis is people sat behind the steering wheel, scrolling through their phones in supermarket car-parks, complete with gormless expressions on their faces. I think this somewhat encapsulates the paradox of social media as it incessantly projects images of people living, uploaded by people who are often doing anything but. We scroll and we scroll, hungry for more and more images, feeling more and more worthless; throwing our hats in the ring in order to fill the void. We are all trying to appease this void-like feeling, and yet we are all simultaneously projecting images which do anything but reflect the real world. Perhaps the void that gapes, empty and hungry, yearning for something intangible, is not really inside us. Perhaps it is we who enter into it. If we do not enter into it at all, perhaps we can seal the void once and for all. 

One interpretation of the title of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian series ‘Black Mirror’ is that it reflects the darkest recesses of the human condition. Whilst I think there is scope to this interpretation, perhaps the blackness of this mirror is related instead to its hollowness and inability to reflect anything real. It has become our reality, reflecting back a darkness yes, but it is distorted and unnatural: it is a mirror which is desperate for us to realise the nightmare we are perpetuating daily. We have become unstable, feverishly engaging for the sake of engaging, valuing news articles, cups of coffee and holidays for the content-potential they offer. Susan Sontag, writing on the subject of reducing culture to content nearly half a century ago, paints a rather nightmarish, post-lapsarian, Gothic vision in which the mass media churns out a ‘disseminated glut of unending stories’. The evil of a digitalised world lies in the fact that the human instinct for narrative and for stories has been usurped by a disfigured hierarchy in which the value of a story has been replaced by a desire to thoughtlessly produce content - the ‘unending stories’ of our modern world.


Friday, 4 January 2019

on hating english students (or, only i'm allowed to be pretentious)


I really really despise other people who do English. To phrase it in its most brutal sense: I have absolutely no interest in what other people studying my degree have to say about books. I only really care about the thoughts about books floating around in my own brain. After that, I care about what academics have to say about books. And what the media has to say about books. But students with oversized glasses, never seen in seminars without an iced coffee (firstly, it's winter, where does the impulse to buy an iced latte every day come from? Secondly, the coffee is bad. When I say bad, I mean, the coffee is shit. Like, seriously shit. The baristas are all skint students, and ergo, not 'baristas',  so don't tell me you're enjoying that milky concoction) and a Macbook on the desk in front of them, mostly intent on keeping up false appearances of pretentiousness? Not so much.

 The allure of the university environment as being a mystical place of burgeoning ideas, excitement and discussion was revealed to be rather more mythical than mystical when I first attended university. This was not a world where I felt at home, surrounded by motivated peers, but a space where everyone seemed to be in silent competition to beat one another at doing as little as humanly possible whilst still doing well in the bi-weekly essays. After I left, I began to see English students as a breed I did not belong to, despite coming under the label. I'd been exposed to the reality and no longer clung to any illusions about ever feeling embraced by the term and the culture surrounding it. Being a state school student in a world where it was perfectly normal to discuss how much money your parents made and where it was not asked where you went to school, but the name of the school you went to, as your partner in conversation awaited a recognisable name as an answer, I felt irretrievably lost. Sally Rooney captures it so well in 'Normal People' through Connell that reading it made me want to throw up: it was so painfully true of my own experiences.

'All Connell's classmates have identical accents and carry the same size Macbook under their arms. In seminars they express their opinions passionately and conduct impromptu debates. Unable to form such straightforward views or express them with any force, Connell initially felt a sense of crushing inferiority to his fellow students, as if he had upgraded himself to an intellectual level far above his own, where he had to strain to make sense of the most basic premises. He did gradually start to wonder why all their classroom discussions were so abstract and lacking in textual detail, and eventually he realised that most people were not actually doing the reading. They were coming into college every day to have heated debates about books they had not read. He understands now that his classmates are not like him...They just move through the world in a different way, and he'll probably never really understand them, and he knows they will never understand him, or even try.' [p.67-8, Normal People by Sally Rooney.]

In short, directly addressing my quibbles about English students: I don't think it's cool that you turn up to seminars having only skimmed the blurb of the book we are paying money to discuss. I don't think it's clever that you treat essays as last-minute affairs written hours before the deadline, lumped together with choice sentences nabbed from criticism only glanced at on JSTOR whilst still steaming drunk from what can only have been a sub-par Thursday night out. Please refrain from bragging aloud to your friends before the lecture begins about your formatives as exercises in elaborate bullshit about books you haven't read, having substituted relying on the Shmoop article (sure, we all love Shmoop, that's not the point here) in place of actual reading (god forbid!). I think it's immensely sad that you spend your degree crafting an outer image which feels so artificial, performing this idea of being an English student, making jokes about being an English student, dressing like 'an English student', all whilst doing, frankly, absolutely fuck all in terms of academic labour.

 Perhaps this is a little harsh. But it's true that I really struggle to get along with, or even just click with, people doing the same degree as me. I don't mean (I do) to sound so disparaging about large collectives with this next sentence, but English students often fall into the same category of annoyingly performative and self-satisfied personality types as Drama students. I wish I was sorry about that sentence, but it's the only way I can capture the culture of the English student; a culture of perpetual loud, brash, irreverent look-at-me-ness. The English student is a breed of student who inhabits a bubble of their own self-importance. Their laziness is something to celebrate, for they're too clever to stoop so low as to put effort and care into their work. Their appearance is a careful, constructed craft. Literary culture is a part of this appearance. The irony of carrying a Penguin Classics tote bag to lectures as part of this branding despite the fact they haven't even glanced at that term's reading list two months in is entirely lost on them.

On occasions where I have tried to infiltrate this culture (attempting to partake in it in the feverish belief that I too am an English student and therefore these are surely 'my people'?! If they are not my people who the hell are my people and where are they?!) I have come away from conversation overcome with a cast of world-weariness. Everything of them reeks with the stench of artificiality. It's everywhere: you'll sniff it out in conversations that often run along the lines of 'I spent the summer in Russia reading only Russian literature' (this translates as 'I own Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment but gave up after the first page, and went to Poland, not Russia, for a History A Level field-trip'), or 'I haven't read anything but Virginia Woolf for months!' (in this case, the translation is something like 'I read one Virginia Woolf book and was so traumatised by the struggle that I had to re-read all of 'The Hunger Games' trilogy, my real favourite books, as soon as I had finished').

I too, have glanced at Dostoevsky but never risen to the challenge. I too have only read one work by Woolf and a few years ago would have happily praised the first two books in the Hunger Games series. I like some classics, but I find most pleasure in clever, skilful but often simple prose. The kind of prose that you begin reading in the morning with breakfast and the next thing you know you're three quarters through the book and you're still on the sofa, still in the same pyjamas, now with added dried toast crumbs: these are your Patricia Highsmiths, your Daphne du Mauriers, your Monica Dickens. There is nothing wrong with these tastes. And there is nothing wrong with only liking classics either. Or only reading YA literature. Or never having read Pride and Prejudice. I'm not at all bothered about people's reading tastes. What bothers me is when true likes and dislikes, true passions, true thoughts about what moves you, what has touched you, what you really like to read/watch/listen to and that properly makes you happy is shoved aside in place of a performance of wanting to seem like a picture of pretentiousness. What gets on my tits, as such, is 'pretentiousness' as an essence becoming a hot commodity, something to be grasped at, embodied and performed in the drama of being an English student.

Perhaps I am being unkind. University is a space of independence where identity is toyed with and selfhood explored - in a city away from the town you grew up in, there is this delicious stretch of possibility floating before you and within that stretch is the potential to explore who you are and the stuff you're made of. With this awkwardness comes a degree of artificiality in the clumsiness of finding your feet and presenting this new and developing self to the the world. But encounters with such students are never coloured with this genuine hue. Perhaps my personality which in the last few years has leaned more and grown towards trying to be genuine, accepting who I am and not trying to be anything will never fit in in this world and this degree with its students with a tendency towards falsehood. Or perhaps I just need to give it time, and I'm being harsh on this mass of 18 year olds just taking advantage of a space where for the first time in their lives, they really can explore who they are.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

on new years


Every year I feel pretty disillusioned with the liminal stretch between Christmas and New year. I enjoy the festivities and revel in days spent sprawled in new pyjamas on sofas, surrounded by chocolate wrappers and disorganised messes of presents and paper. After a few days of this, I'm overcome by an urge to just get on with life again. I yearn for routine amidst days of enforced relaxation where meals are replaced by ceaseless nibbling of leftovers, and time off work is filled with spontaneous trips to a town that is busy with people to-ing and fro-ing aimlessly around the sales, desperate to have something to do when they've had enough of sitting in front of Father Ted re-runs for hours on end. Everyone seems to be waiting for New Year, taking the 1st of January as their cue to start afresh.

Maybe it's because of this urge of mine to return to a routine after days of laziness, but I've always found New Years celebrations so depressing. I've never enjoyed them. Even as a child when my Dutch mother would cart us off to The Netherlands to see the huge fireworks displays the Dutch do so well I never saw much joy in it all. Everything about it felt so arbitrary: a forced celebration. As I got older I began to recognise that this cue to start afresh that I craved from Boxing Day onwards simply so we could return to normality en masse, was always followed by performance - social media filled with vacuous new year's resolutions ('drink more water', 'take up yoga') which seemed to be just hot air. They were said for the sake of it, for the performance-value of seeming like a good/healthy/productive/kind/inspiring person and inciting guilt in others who set eyes on them, inducing a cycle of new year's resolutions said for the sake of clutching at a sense of becoming a better person. Seeing all this unfold on Instagram just makes me sad. I want to start advocating New Year's celebrations where we remember and look fondly on what we have achieved, rather than looking forward, burdened with a guilt that we need to become something other than what we already are. Goals should be set for ourselves, rather than said online only for the sake of the image of what such a fictional person might be like, though they represent nothing of our reality. 

With this in mind, a poem penned by Pandora Sykes which cut through the glut of all the 'new year, new me' style posts when it appeared as I refreshed Instagram, made me very much stop in my tracks of mindless scrolling.

I am apt to scroll past Instagram poetry without giving it a second glance. It never seems to catch me. But here was Pandora's idea of stopping, considering your lot and thinking 'of all you can do' representing a mantra I wanted to take up and carry with me. It represented a new way of treating New Years. Seeing the new year as one of opportunity, of reflection, and yes, perhaps goal setting, but not a cue to inflict guilt on yourself. New Years is, after all, a rather arbitrary occasion. The 1st of a new year doesn't really represent anything, though it might be a little cynical to characterise it as such, but it is, after all, a mere day that follows another day. 

But the new year does bring with it the idea of a new cycle being embarked upon, so, whilst the urge to set goals for ourselves remains, I'm going to take a little of what Pandora recognises with me; reminding myself that resolutions are not about creating a fictionalised narrative of a person you know you'll never really become (because it isn't really you), but about understanding yourself; looking forward not with pressure to become something, but with direction and motivation in a continued process of becoming. Like Rachel proudly toasting a crappy new year in 'Friends', looking forward is about recognising what you have, who you're surrounded by, and appreciating all that makes you happy in life currently - understanding that even if, in this case 2019, is crappy, you are still you.

In that spirit, here is an appropriately messy list for how I am going to head into 2019: 

- continue developing the habit of not being so hard on myself. Remember that all you can do is learn to become comfortable with who you are and how many people love you for it. 

- instead of putting pressure on myself to consume culture and media, remember that it is quality not quantity. Try and develop the habit of reading more again, but only because of how in love you are with it, not so as to fulfil the demanding reminders of the Goodreads reading challenge. Engage with things because you want to, not because of how they might make you look or because you feel a certain sense of pressure to say you've read or watched something of value. 

- try and unlearn some of the guilt of looking after yourself and simply living your life during periods of academic pressure. 15 minutes spent washing up does not need to be sacrificed so that you can work work work. A so-called unproductive day because of time spent doing laundry, cooking meals, cleaning or tidying should not necessarily make you feel as if you have wasted time. 

- continue learning and understanding that university is not a narrative written for you but something you decide for yourself. See your family when you want to, go home if you want to, meet friends if you want. Don't compare your experience to what everyone else is supposedly doing - do what makes you happy. 

- write about what you love. Write about what you want. Use writing as a way of loving every weird and wonderful thing that makes you you.  

- continue seeing mental health as a journey. However much you might feel cured, understand that it is a process that takes time. Setbacks aren't necessarily setbacks, they are expected and sometimes inevitable hurdles on this journey. 

- discover things. Do things. Learn to feel less shame. 

- make a little more effort with the little things. Don't hold back from sending sweet postcards, affectionate text messages, buying small spontaneous gifts, treating yourself a little. Meet up with friends even when it feels as if academia is about to swallow you up. 

© musethings
Maira Gall