• Calling out the bullshit: love and feminism in Outlander

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    It’s probably no secret that I love period drama. Not of the Downton variety, mind – I like a bit more sass and tighter bodices, personally. For me, the eighteenth century is really where it’s at. This was a time of sexual licence and libertinism. It gave birth to enlightenment, archaeology, binomial classification systems, the pianoforte, Mary Wollestonecraft, and democratic republicanism. Of course, it wasn’t exactly a picnic; the eighteenth century also saw the advance of colonialism and the rapid growth of the international slave trade. The industrial revolution created a new type of urban poverty; children could be forced to labour under shocking conditions; women could be legally raped and flogged by their husbands. Certainly, this was a period of extreme dualisms, but it was also one of significant social shift.

    As you can imagine, I’ve been like a cat who got the cream this past year with all of the eighteenth-century period drama goodness (though I must confess that I’m yet to see the Beeb’s ‘Scandalous Lady W’ with Natalie Dormer). It all started with Poldark earlier in the spring (to think that we’ll be heading off to Poldark country in less than two weeks!), and then, a few weeks ago, Julian and I discovered Outlander (courtesy of my brother, Josh). We’ve since purged the entire series (huzzah for Amazon Prime membership!) and boy, were we drained after that rollercoaster. Now, for those of you that don’t know, Outlander isn’t your archetypal period drama, because it’s also about time travel. Yep, you heard me; it’s actually a *sci-fi* period drama! It sounds absurd, I know, and when I read the Amazon Blurb, I thought so too (this was before I knew about the whole series of Outlander books written by Diana Gabaldon). But we instantly fell in love with the characters and the story, and were swept up by the intense tumult of emotions.

    Outlander is a dream for a purveyor of historical drama; the costumes, sets, and details are phenomenal, notwithstanding a few anachronisms (I winced a little at the substitution of the KJV wedding vows with NIV vows). What’s most impressive about Outlander, however, is its resonance, and the poise with which it treats modern concerns through a period frame. This is partly facilitated through the structure of the plot; a woman who serves as a combat nurse in WWII travels back in time to 1743 (enter Claire Beauchamp). She’s sexually liberated, self-empowered, and full of ideas – ideas that are totally incongruous with the ideals of 1743 even at its most enlightened. Claire is like a Buffy figure, in the sense that she’s a ‘strong female character’-type who could’ve been created by Joss Whedon. Except she wasn’t.

    Like most ‘strong female character’-types, Claire is awesome, foolhardy, and headstrong. But she’s also so much more than that, and what we learn about her true strength of character is seen through her love affair with a Scottish Laird (enter Jamie Fraser). It’s a love affair that has all the stuff of modern romance, including a large dose of sex and nekkidness. As the second half of the series reveals, however, the relationship is complex and constantly evolving, testing the sensibilities of modern audiences. It exhibits the disjuncture between eighteenth-century tradition and twentieth-century morality. What is so refreshing about this relationship, though, is the way in which Claire persistently and ceremoniously calls Jamie out on his bullshit. She is unflagging and resolute, and Jamie does not just yield, but takes time to process and learn. The message that we take is that, ultimately, respect, and the capacity to learn and grow, is at the foundation of love.

    I love the relationship that Claire has with Jamie, because it offers us a model for behaviour that we should actively aspire to replicate our own relationships – challenging male privilege and hierarchies of power that are so deeply ingrained in the institutions and power structures of our society. Through Claire, Jamie learns about (something in between first wave and second wave) feminism, and in so doing, learns to become a better human. We could all basically do with lots more Claires and Jamies on the planet. I want to see the drama that’s played out in the eighteenth century realised in the present.

    I’d like to thank Catriona Balfe and Sam Heughan for fulfilling these roles so exquisitely, and for calling the world out on its patriarchal bullshit.

    *Since I wrote the post, I have in fact seen the Beeb’s ‘Scandalous Lady W’. A top-notch performance from Natalie Dormer, as always, and a fascinating insight into the life of Seymour, Lady Worsley. Worth a watch, despite what The Telegraph says.

     

  • Elections and Recollections

    Yet again, there’s been a long lapse of time since my last post. When I first set up this blog, I had every intention of maintaining it with the voracity with which I started. As time has passed, however, my inclination to blog has gradually diminished– not because I haven’t been able to formulate the ideas or consolidate the material, but because my passion has been eroded. I’d like to be clear: my passion for life, for my work, for social equality, peace, art, and culture remain intact. It is rather my passion for the blog itself that has diminished. I feel I do La Pasionaria a disservice by making this admission (since it’s to her that this blog indebted), but I also know that I do not, and that it is also a thoroughly positive and edifying admission. After all, this is my first ever blog. I came to this not knowing how I should properly publicise it or whether I even wanted to; I hadn’t done any research into what made other blogs so effective, and I didn’t know what ‘angle’ my blog was going to have – still don’t. I’m now developing ideas about new creative ventures in which I’m more passionately invested. LifeOnMyFeet has been a lauchpad for this creative epiphany, even if it hasn’t played host to it.

    It is perhaps unsurprising that I should have this kind of revelation in the run up to a general election. Five years ago, I recall that my sentiments were similar, and that my political consciousness and sense of ‘purpose’ was acute. In the few days following the general election of 2010, a whirlwind of emotion blazed over me. When I witnessed Gordon Brown walk out of 10 Downing Street and David Cameron walk in, I knew that things were set to change radically. In the intervening period between that moment and the present one, my life has been marked by a series of shifts and transformations; I have finished a Master’s degree, I have been to work for the probation service, been threatened with redundancy, and been on strike; I have been awarded a scholarship for a PhD and am almost at the point of completion; I have published my work in peer-review journals, and I have travelled to America three times. With each new challenge I’ve come up against, I have had to harden myself, and I feel pretty exhausted from all the fighting.

    In just over 2 weeks, I am getting married. Julian has been my stalwart throughout these five years of turbulence and transformation, but I know that the world in which we’ll be celebrating at the end of this month could look very different to the one that we’re living in now. And I know that, really, what happens tomorrow could change our future, and will have more of an impact on our lives than our wedding day, wonderful and momentous as that will be. I am very anxious about the possibilities, not least because I do not want to live under another austerity government bent on the destruction of vital public services and the advancement of the privileged. I was once so certain that I could never emigrate because I did not believe that there was anywhere else in the world where the sense of social responsibility, right, and justice was so strong. I’m not sure that I feel the same way any more – at least, I’m not sure that our sense of social responsibility trumps our level of self-interest. In spite of my cynicism, however, I will be voting with compassion and against austerity when I go to the polls tomorrow. I will be championing our rich heritage of protest and labouring solidarity. I’ll be thinking about La Pasionaria, who led the Republicans and Anarchists into battle against fascism with the words ‘it is better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees’. The fight is not over, and although I know that certain results are inevitable, and that certain projects will lose their lustre over time, there are others that I’m just not willing to concede. ¡No pasarán!

    Dolores 2

  • Fifty Shades of Trailer Boredom

    Yes, yes, I’m thoroughly aware that I seem to be totally incapable of maintaining any kind of regularity with my blog output these days. Life has tended to get in the way of essential blog time (*me time) lately. Anyway, I thought that it would be fun to kick start the new blogging year with a little bit of a riff on Fifty Shades of Grey, and why I’m not going to see it. I know what you’re probably all thinking, but I want you to suspend that thought for a moment. Yes, I find the whole concept of Fifty Shades really problematic, but that’s not why I’m not going to see the film. I’m not going to see it because I think it looks like the most truly awful piece of tripe that has ever been made for cinematic distibution. I mean, have you seen the trailer? I did, and it made me laugh. A lot. And when I was not laughing I was cringing at all of the overworked clichés that they’d harvested especially for the trailer. I’m pretty sure that that’s not the kind of reaction that E. L. James was hoping for. Anyway, last Friday, a whole bunch of my girlfriends hooked up to go and see it. I know that they probably think I’m a total spoilsport for not going to see it with them, but this was my literal thought process as I watched the trailer:

    Okay, it begins. She’s going up in an elevator looking all sad and then she looks up like ‘Oh my god, the elevator just went “ding”! That was so unexpected.’

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    If you want to be a really good English student, you have to wear a shirt from the ’70s. Oh, and a cardigan. The cardigan is an absolute must. Am I supposed to be anticipating sexy stuff yet?

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    ‘What was he like?’ ‘…very intimidating.’ Blimey, yes I see it. That is one intimidating hand right there. Look at all those veins.

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    ‘There’s really not much to know about me [pause]. Look at me [nervous laughter].’ Oh come on, are we really supposed to suspend disbelief here?

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    ‘I am.’ Bahahahaha! Just stop it, you’re killing me! Ok, being serious now, we have established that Christian Grey has veiny hands and is very literal.

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    HOLD THE PHONE. Where did that duffle coat come from?!

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    ‘It must be really boring.’ Tell me about it. Now when are we going to get to the sexy stuff?

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    Oh, hang on. That’s a bit sexy.

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    Inner monologue (unspoken): ‘Just having a mental breakdown over my grand piano.’ Why don’t you just have some fun on that piano. Demi and Patrick knew how to use props effectively.

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    Oh FFS. When she said ‘make the bed’, she didn’t just mean make YOUR side.

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    Oh cool, there’s a light aircraft! My GCSE English Literature handbook tells me that this is supposed to be a metaphor for the ‘thrill’ of romance. That’s a fantastically executed metaphor, I must say.

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    And now they’re going upside-down in it. Easy, tiger.

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    Ooh, I know what he’s going to say, here: ‘I just need to pop to Asda (or Walmart or Trader Joe’s or something like that) to get some milk for the tea.’ Oh wait, I think this frame actually relates to the bit where he talks about his ‘singular’ tastes in the bedroom that Dakota/Anastasia ‘wouldn’t understand’.

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    ‘Enlighten me then.’ I’m finding it really hard to believe that you don’t know what S&M is, Dakota.

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    Oh look, her hands are also veiny! They’re made for each other.

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    So there you have it. I’m not a prude, or a snob, but that’s just all I got from it – cardigans, light aircraft, and piano tantrums. I’m sure it will be quite sexy, and I can see the appeal of Jamie Dornan (even though he’s not been in anything I’ve ever heard of before and despite the fact that his stare is actually a bit psychotic), but I spent £15 on a truly awful film last year and I vowed I would never ever do it again. You can buy a lot for £15. In any case, if we are to believe that Fifty Shades really empowers women to explore their individual passions, then we have to accept that some women will choose to opt out of this one.

    *Annoyingly, this post is about two weeks late owing to server issues that prevented me from getting it up (pun most certainly intended).

  • When Feet Become Wings; Magical Marrakech

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    Yet again, it’s been an age since my last post. I’ve been immersed in various life things, and lots of work things, and so the time has passed me by, and all of a sudden it’s nearly Christmas. I’ve always enjoyed this time of year: mince pies, bitter chills, and drinks that are both hot and alcoholic. The past few months have been so manic, however, that I’ve hardly had any time to enjoy any of that. Still, you can rest assured that I will be taking a break over Christmas.

    In fact, though, my break already began at the end of last week when the teaching semester finished at KCL and my students went home for the holidays. I headed home to celebrate (with bubbles!) and to prepare for a long weekend away with some girlfriends. It was, after all, my hen weekend; a little early, I know, but I had anticipated some much needed respite at this time. I couldn’t have been more right. In the weeks leading up to this holiday, I had mountains of essays to mark, a lecture to write, and editorial and PhD work to contend with. I was getting to bed at around 1am every night (*morning), and was beginning to resemble the zombies that I’m currently researching and writing about. So, in short, the holiday was most welcome.

    Not only was it welcome, but it was entirely stress-free (for me, at least). That’s because my best friend Emily took on the task of organising it, coordinating attendees, arranging flights and accommodation, booking activities, and making sure that we would have enough BOOZE to keep us happy throughout our stay. She did a magnificent job – as did those who worked to keep our destination a secret from me for the best part of a year. I was blissfully unaware of the stresses that they had all taken on in an effort to allay mine, and I’m truly grateful for all of their hard work. I realise that I am blessed to have such wonderful friends.

    So, unbeknownst to me, they planned a trip to Marrakech – the beautiful bazaar of sensory stimulation. I was overwhelmed with excitement when they eventually let me in on the plan (although a little concerned that I had not been able to pack my own suitcase)! Luckily, my girls had thought of everything, and even threw in a bikini that they thought might be more appropriate for the hammam that we planned to visit on our second day. Every last detail was, in fact, planned out minutely, and encompassed my various loves of food, dance, music, dressing up, pampering and…perhaps best of all…haggling! They flew me away – in the most literal sense, of course – but they also flew me away from my worries, cares, and obligations, and I was able to relax knowing that they had it all in hand. I will never forget the lengths that they went to to make my weekend special, and it’s highly unlikely that I would be able to if I tried, thanks to the beautiful mementos that they gave me to remember it by.

    There are few words I could offer that could measure up against the loving gestures made by all of the people that contributed to this trip but, I’d like to attempt to cobble some together in any case. To Emily, I’d just like to say THANK YOU. For everything. You are brilliant. To Emma, who put together my beautiful Berber wedding blanket, I’m deeply touched – and not just by the effort, but by the idea. To all of my remaining hens – to Rachael, Jo, Kate, Jess, and Sonia – I’m so glad that you could be there, and be a part of it all, and I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of women to spend 4 days with. To the hen that was unable to make it due to the extra baggage she was carrying(!), a.k.a. Moussette, I was sad that you couldn’t be with us, but I was moved that you made your presence felt in spite of your absence, and I absolutely love the beautiful kaftan that you bought me. And finally, to all those who weren’t there, but were still very much a part of it all – to my mum, dad, and brother, to Jadey, Katie, Cat, Jane, Maureen, Alex, Sue, Amy, Julie, Faye, Toni, and Jen. And, last but not least, to Julian. Thanks for completely ruining me with your impossible quizzes (Arsène Wenger indeed!) I loved it all, and I love you all. Merci/shukran.

  • Landing on My Feet and the Things I’ve Learnt

    It’s been a really long time since I last blogged. I didn’t need the constant push-notifications from my Facebook Pages app telling me that my ‘audience misses me’ to remind me of that. I started this blog last year with the intention of maintaining it regularly – yes, I had hoped that it would ‘keep me on my toes’, if you’ll pardon the bad foot analogy – but this year, and particularly these past few months, I have found that really difficult. I once wrote, a little in jest, that I felt like I was living out The Red Shoes, and would carry on dancing and dancing unless someone chopped off my feet. Well, a little over a month ago I think that someone finally did (metaphorically, of course). I’m not the only person I know who is guilty of overdoing it, but I’ve always been content to work hard and play hard. I have never felt guilty about the time that I take out of work to focus on me, but when my mind and body are constantly engaged in so many things – PhDing, running, dancing, coordinating outreach, and such – I never really get proper ‘me’ time. The PhD experience has introduced me to a new kind of stress, but I usually deal with this by cutting loose. I recognise the signs of burnout and I respond to them; I go out for drinks with friends, stomp around London with my baby brother, or go out on little road trips with my ma and pa. I had a couple of small breaks this year, but on both occasions I spent the majority of that time by myself, in my flat. I had no holiday time with my loved one, and no money to do anything interesting. It’s been especially hard to come to terms with that as although we don’t always get to spend much time together, we’ve always made sure that the time we do have together is quality. We have never really been flush, but have generally been able to have a little holiday together each year, go out for dinner occasionally, and maybe even go to the cinema once in a while. Of course I realise that we are very lucky to have been able to do this. I never take it for granted. But while I have always made the most of the good things when they come, I have made sacrifices in other areas of my life in order to enjoy those ‘good things’.

    It hit me hard, then, when I had to endure a solitary week of nothing just over a month ago. Julian couldn’t take any holiday because he was working hard to secure the next round of investment for his startup company, and we’d had to cut back radically while he was ploughing all of his reserves reserves – mental, physical, and financial – into this effort: ergo, no dinners, no cinema, not even much of what you’d call ‘quality’ time together. During the week that I spent off I had too much time to think about the challenges that we were being faced with and I started to worry about how we’d be affected by it all. At least, I wasn’t really conscious of the fact that I was doing this, but when I went back to work the following week, it seemed as if the stress had started to set in. For once, work stress was not the problem, but life stress was. I went along to Julian’s marketing event for his company’s crowdfunding campaign later that week and woke up the next day feeling exhausted. I put it down to a busy day and possibly too much free prosecco. But then the next day I woke up feeling the same, and then the next, and the next, etc. For over 3 solid weeks I felt drained of all energy, foggy, dizzy, and depressed. I went to the doctor’s and they sent me to have some blood tests. I was worried that I might have a serious health problem – that I might have some kind of deficiency. I became fixated with the idea that I might have diabetes, anaemia, or something worse. Never did it really compute that it might be the effect of stress. Then the blood tests came back fine, so I didn’t know what to think. I spent a couple of days down at the coast with my grandparents, which probably did me more good than I realised at the time. While I continued to feel exhausted, my nan had me out walking about 5 miles each day. I went swimming in the sea, which, though it didn’t make me feel any less tired, made me incredibly happy. Julian picked me up at the weekend, and we spent an afternoon at Botany Bay, where we enjoyed some burgers cooked over a cheap disposable barbecue. My mum got me a vitamin tonic and I gradually started to feel better. Julian and I spent a lot of time talking through our worries, and figuring out solutions. And now his crowdfund campaign is coming to an end, and the company is almost 150% funded, things are looking a lot brighter.

    Of course, while this has been a very difficult time for us, it’s also been very humbling. Not only have we had to go without the ‘good things’, but at times we’ve had to go without the necessary things. We’ve struggled to afford groceries, and I have often spent evenings scouring the supermarket shelves for reduced items. We’ve had to dip into savings knowing that we may not recuperate them and knowing that we’re getting married in a little over 8 months. There are a lot of people who live out their lives like this every day, who have to deal with never having enough, who have more debts than we have savings, and who have to face the challenge of how they’re going to come out of it. We retain a rather blasé optimism, assured that whatever difficulties we face we will overcome, but we also have the privilege of a good education and interesting and colourful working portfolios, so we stand a better chance than some. Since I have been feeling more like my normal self, I have had time to take stock of these things, and I realise that the experiences that I – that we – have had have not been altogether bad. We have learnt a great deal about the true value of things and I hope will be able to take those lessons forward as things start to improve. Some people will never experience these kinds of hardships, and ultimately, no one should have to. We can’t deny, however, that a massive imbalance prevails, and that people are really genuinely struggling right now. This Christmas more people will be homeless, more people will have to rely on foodbanks, and the poorest and most vulnerable in our society will continue to be stigmatized as ‘thieves’. In the modern, democratic society that we live in, this is unacceptable. We landed on our feet; others aren’t always so lucky.

     

  • Hopping Happy: Life, Love, and Lindy Hop

    It may surprise some of you to know that I have very few inhibitions. Okay, that doesn’t really surprise you. Those of you who know me well are fully acquainted with my outspokenness, my grandness, my gregarious and very personal dress sense, and my predisposition for stylish headwear (whatever the occasion might be). I like to think that I don’t only transition, but ‘sashay’ from one stage of my life to the next. You see, at heart, I am a musician – a jazz musician, to be precise – both literally and metaphorically speaking. Rhythm and syncopation are innate within me, and I have always had recourse to music whenever I’ve felt happy, or sad, or bored, or just plain hungry (which is most of the time). When I was a teenager, I went through a phase of writing jazz and blues songs. I have never been able to play an instrument (not for fault of trying), but I have always loved to sing, and I still sing, even though my songs aren’t as good as they used to be. The first NW LP was definitely the best, but that’s by the by.

    Anyway, I have very little spare time in which to sit down and write songs these days. Sometimes I get a tune in my head when I’m travelling to and from the library, or while I’m out on a run, but that sustained ‘composition’ time just eludes me. So I have to be content with enjoying the music of others, and I do enjoy it – loudly, energetically, and enthusiastically. Music is in my heart and in my lungs, but it’s also in my body, and I can never seem to stop it from doing its thing whenever I hear that beat. Back in the summer of 2012 I started a Lindy Hop class run by the fabulous ‘Gypsy John’ of the Cinque Ports Lindy Hoppers, but unfortunately I had to give it up when I started my PhD. I always intended to go back, or to start a new class somewhere, but never got round to joining one. Last November, when I was in New Orleans, I went to a couple of Zydeco nights and learnt how to dance ‘Cajun. It was great fun, and it reminded me how much I had missed dancing with a group of people, learning new things, and celebrating the music in my life. I was determined to start dancing again when I returned to the UK, and, a few months ago, Julian and I joined Swing Patrol in Old Street.

    Although we’ve not attended many classes so far, we’re having great fun learning the kooky dance moves, and have pretty much mastered the 8-count and 6-count basics, as well as the Charleston. We’ve also had the opportunity to meet, and dance with, lots of other fun-loving, uninhibited, and ‘musical’ types. Sometimes we’ll be at home and I’ll stick on some Count Basie or Glenn Miller and we’ll attempt to practice on the carpet of our tiny living room. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to go social dancing soon, and I can swing out in my best swing dress (I have a good few to choose from, after all). For now, though, I’ll keep practicing, and I’ll leave you with a snapshot of my fabulous classmates doing their thing at last night’s Swing Patrol class.

    Swing Patrol, Old Street

  • ‘Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read’: Banned Books and Little Britain

    Just over a month ago, I was thrilled to learn that Harper Lee had authorised the digitisation of To Kill a Mockingbird. I had just led an outreach programme at a women’s prison on ‘Race and America’ in which we used Mockingbird as a source text to anchor our discussion. The women that took part loved the programme and loved the book. During the session we also listened to Emmylou Harris’s beautiful and haunting song ‘My Name is Emmett Till’ as we considered the resonance of racial violence in America (and beyond). The women were deeply affected by the simple acoustic melodies and the penetrating lyrics of the song, and they were moved by the insights of a young girl named Scout Finch.

    I didn’t study Mockingbird at school, but I did read the book after my mum introduced me to the film with Gregory Peck when I was a teenager. When I was in NOLA, I noticed the book sitting on the bookshelf in the apartment where I was staying, and felt impelled to read it again. It was partly because it was fresh in my mind after rereading the text that I decided to use it in my outreach day. When I left NOLA, and left Tom’s place, I left the book behind. On my return to the UK I tried to get hold of an etext so that I could plan my outreach programme, but there just weren’t any out there. So I went to a bookstore and bought a hard copy of the thing. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE physical books. I like to scrawl over them, mark their pages, and smell them (especially if they’re ageing). Part of the enjoyment of reading is, for me at least, its kinaesthetic aspect. However, if you saw my bookshelf (which really is fit to burst), then you’d understand why I wanted to get hold of an ePub!

    When Lee announced on her birthday (a birthday that she shares with my brilliant father, coincidentally) that she had sanctioned its distribution as an etext I was elated. Given the number of young children that now have iPads, Kindles, and such like, I was surprised, when I had tried to get hold of an electronic version of my own, that such a great work of children’s literature hadn’t been made available in digital format before. When the news broke, I tweeted about it a lot. What can I say? I was excited. Maybe people didn’t think it was a particularly big deal, but I did. I was excited at the prospect of this magnetic work flashing up as recommended reading on the eReaders of young technophiles. Whereas many teenagers have long been required to read Mockingbird for their GCSE exams, children might now, I imagined, choose to read the book of their own volition, because it is there, at their fingertips. In any case, and whatever Lee’s motivation behind her decision to go digital, I felt confident that the reach of the text would be that much greater as a result. And reach seems to me especially important given the continuing relevance of the main themes of the text. Mockingbird was published in the wake of the murder of Emmett Till, and it was only two years ago that Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman for looking too black to be up to any good in a gated community in Florida. ‘Stand Your Ground’ and the gross miscarriage of justice that it led to in this particular case bore an all too uncanny resemblance to the injustices suffered by Mamie Till and by Lee’s fictional Tom Robinson.

    Books like Mockingbird allow us ways in to seeing and acknowledging our dark histories, histories in which even (and especially) us small islanders are complicit. Our great institutions were built on the proceeds of, and formed a key role in perpetuating, slavery in the Americas. We can choose not to acknowledge this. It’s easy, in fact, and we do it all the time. Nobody sees the black soldier on the bas-relief at the foot of Nelson’s column. Nobody sees the slaves on Jamaican plantations as they peruse Hans Sloane’s collections at the British Museum. It’s not even palpably present in our great country houses. But all of these things lay at the heart of our history, and if it weren’t for ‘outsider’ perspectives like Lee’s, we might not be encouraged to talk about them.

    As you can imagine, I was truly horrified when I heard the news last week that British exam boards had planned to remove this brilliant text (amongst other controversial and politically engaged American texts) from their English programmes. I went into a rage. I stomped around, I tweeted vociferously, and I sat down to brainstorm ideas for a campaign to reverse the parochial actions of the Department for Education. It wasn’t long before I realised that all of this was probably futile. What angered me the most was that this news had come at a time when the text’s reach had been expanded; when more people would have had the opportunity to talk about it. The digitisation of Mockingbird brought it into the public imagination once more. Removing the text from the GCSE syllabus seemed to me like killing the conversation. To add insult to injury, WJEC announced that it would be removing Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from its list of set texts only two days after Angelou’s death, at a time, again, when everyone was talking about her and the major influence of her works. The criticism levelled against the DfE for the exclusion of texts from other cultures from the school syllabus is of course a valid one, but I also think we need to talk about how insensitive and just plain stupid these decisions are, given the public presence of these authors and these texts at this current moment.

    Ultimately, had it not been for the American greats that I studied at school – writers like Steinbeck and Tennessee Williams – I may not have chosen to enrol on the degree programme that I took as an undergraduate in English and American Literature. It’s almost certain that I wouldn’t be working towards a PhD right now, wouldn’t have had the opportunity to spend one incredible month of my life in New Orleans doing research, and I wouldn’t have had any contact with the amazing people who have enriched my academic life. I can only speculate, of course, what my life would have been like if I’d read different books at school, but it makes me sad to think that one day in the not too distant future I might be teaching university students who have never read any Steinbeck, or Miller, or Lee, or Angelou, and the work will be so much harder, and the students will feel they have been defrauded as they will, perhaps for the first time, have to open their eyes, expand their vision, and engage in conversations that they find difficult and unprepared for.

    I’m not so cynical that I think children won’t find these books on their own. Some, of course, will (I am living, breathing testimony to that fact). There will, however, be those that won’t, and those that won’t will lose so much, and not just where America is concerned, but in terms of their own histories, and their own world visions. Little Britain might just become even smaller.

  • Going Cold Turkey: A Month Without Facebook

    That’s right, I’ve been away from Facebook for a whole entire month. I know a lot of you didn’t think I could do it, and neither did I if I’m at all honest, but I did, and the more I did the less I actually cared. I’ve learnt some valuable lessons during this short time, and, I hope, learned to channel and refocus my energies, thereby regaining control of aspects of my life that I felt had been consumed by Facebook. After a period of abstinence, its always important to reflect – to think about what worked and what didn’t, how the good practice can be sustained, and how knowledge of the experience can be transferred to other aspects of one’s life. So I give you a reflective look back on my month without Facebook.

    The first days of nothing

    Those of you that know me (and even those of you that don’t!) know that I love Facebook. I overwhelm your feeds with critical musings, check-ins, photographs, music, the occasional article about Haiti, black culture across the Atlantic, or the innate evil of the Conservative Party. Over the past couple of years in particular, it has become my playground, and my workdesk, and the site of my inner-monologue. More than a few of you have borne witness to my outbursts about salmon (#salmongate), my beautifully-intagrammed pictures of London’s best burgers, and the things I get up to on ‘Ladies’ Night’. Leaving Facebook meant leaving this world, this hub, this nucleus, this omnipotent-all-I-am-and-know space behind. I did so ceremonially, of course, in my last blog entry (http://lifeonmyfeet.com/?p=202). Initially, when I signed my login details over to Julian, I imagined that my life in those first few days away from Facebook would be like the nothingness in the Book of Genesis before God invents light and night and animals and rest days (which we mostly spend taking Facebook selfies, right?) Anyway, the nothing was not the apocalyptic nothing I had anticipated, it was just a nothing that I found myself making productive use of doing other things. I didn’t take up any new hobbies like learning to knit (I did that years back when I finished my Master’s as I coursed my way through the entire seven seasons of Gilmore Girls) but I did learn to do other things I was already doing in my life better, for example, planning and enjoying the meals that I cooked, spending time (real, quality time) with people that I care about, and reminding myself of the many, various, and brilliant channels of communication out there that I have become less au fait with in recent years.

    With abstinence comes withdrawal…

    …or perhaps not, as I found the case to be. Although Facebook has invariably become such a huge part of my life, I never once felt the urge to ‘raid the cookie jar’, so to speak, in my month without it. My will was repeatedly tested, however, by the email bombardment that I got informing me of the 38 unchecked notifications I had received during my few days away. Luckily, Julian was able to preserve my peace of mind by logging into the account and unsubscribing me from all email correspondence from the demons of Facebook, resolving this problem. With few remaining traces of what I might be missing remaining, I was less inclined to miss it at all. In fact, I didn’t, and I felt much freer, happier, and less encumbered as a result. Perhaps it was only the placebo effect of change in routine, but I really felt like the quality of my life improved. I used my mindspace without having recourse to Facebook, and I realised that I didn’t actually need to expand its boundaries in a virtual arena.

    What I noticed about other Facebookers

    Coming away from Facebook was what you might call epiphanic. I was able to step outside of the matrix of ‘FB’ and see my former life through a new lens. Ultimately, this was magnified by the fact that most of the people around me still remained part of that matrix, and I was able to scrutinize my life – objectively – through theirs. One thing that I noticed about ‘other Facebookers’ – and when I say ‘other Facebookers’, I mainly mean Julian (sorry, Julian, I’m not being passive-aggressive, but you’re a convenient example given that I spend near on every day of my life with you) – was the way that they used Facebook as a surrogate. By that I mean that rather than just doing and living, Facebookers do and live and then duplicate that doing and living on Facebook. As in, the time spent doing and living is in fact halved by the intervention of an external device. The maths in that equation, in other words, is not conducive to living ‘life on one’s feet’. When I saw people on their smartphones, sitting in front of me and facebooking (yes, I know I used it as a verb but that’s just a reflection on how active it is in our lives) a combination of the following would often run through my head: ‘you are being antisocial’, ‘you are not spending time with me’, or ‘you care more about Facebook than you do about me’. None of these thoughts bore any resemblance to the truth of the situation, but having an outsider perspective made me aware of how ‘exclusive’ (and excluding) Facebookers can be, and reminded me that I rarely took stock of how other people might feel about me ‘doing’ my ‘facebooking’ in front of them. This is not in any way intended to spite or judge, but hopefully it will encourage us all to think about how we can be ‘social’ in the fullest and most human sense of the word.

    What I missed

    Okay, so in spite of everything, I do think that Facebook is a good thing, nay, a great thing. It has brought me into everyday contact with family and friends in far-flung corners of the world, it has enabled me to share in their happiest moments (my favourite being the wedding of my dear friend Jenny earlier this year that I was unable to attend in person), and likewise it has allowed me to share mine with them. Without Facebook in my life, I wouldn’t have been able to revel in these moments, and unintentionally create new ones. Last week I received an email from my friend Emily with a screenshot she had taken of her Facebook feed, informing me of the engagement of one of my dearest and oldest friends. I was so thankful to be otherwise connected at that moment, and was able to contact my friend directly and offer her my congratulations, but I was also sad that I wasn’t able to stumble on the information myself – to be surprised, and overwhelmed at the same time that everyone else had been.

    In conclusion, I won’t be leaving Facebook any time soon, and I certainly won’t be leaving permanently, but I think I still need to adjust to new ways of managing and integrating my social media life. It might mean that I decide to vanish at an impromptu moment, but I’ll pop up and surprise you again when you least expect it. So stay tuned, and remember that I’m still out there. I’m just leaving footprints in other places.

     

     

     

  • Making Healthy Adjustments: À Bientôt, Facebook

    The last time that I posted, you may recall, I was wrestling with my inner writing demons. While I’m not entirely sure that I won, I have since had a much-needed break, and I am now feeling much more refreshed and ready for new scholarly challenges. Holidays are important, and it’s all too easy to forget just how important they are when our lives are so consumed by work—and not just our own work. I’m not going to say too much about that, because I’d just be resurrecting old material. Instead I’d like to address the matter of how it might be possible to remain healthy and focused while working, and the changes I feel I need to make in my life to make sure that happens. What I’m saying, essentially, is that, for a little while at least, I am going to be saying goodbye to Facebook.

    I know what some of you may be thinking, but I can assure you that I am not going through some kind of breakdown. Over time I have seen many friends and family members de-activate their Facebook accounts for various and—I should add—completely valid reasons. I toyed with the idea of doing this, but in the end decided against it. So my account will remain open. You can tag me in photos, check me in at exciting venues, and share things on my wall, but I won’t necessarily see any of these things for some time. I can’t say for how long, as I don’t really know myself yet, so I can only tell you that I’ll be gone for as long as I need to be.

    Okay, some explanation is warranted. What’s brought this all on? There’s no simple answer to that question, but suffice it to say that I’ve learnt some really positive life lessons from several people in my life over the past four months and I believe that I can continue learning better, transferring those positive energies to my working life, if I leave Facebook. One of those people is my friend and colleague, Eilidh Hall, one of the co-jefas of the Salsa Collective. Earlier in the year, Eilidh came to stay with me and she asked if I could lend her a lamp so that she could read in bed. We talked about bedtime rituals and it dawned on me that, although I always had a book on the go, and although I had a stash of unread books by my bed, I rarely took the necessary time to read. Of course, I read every day—it’s at the core of everything that I do, but the privilege of being able to pick up any book and just read is one that I don’t think I fully valued until Eilidh and I had this conversation. I would often slip into bed with the intention of reading a little, but would succumb to the siren-call of Facebook, there at my fingertips, telling myself that I needed to say goodnight to the world before I could escape into another literary one. And then, of course, I would just go to sleep. Since then, I have read every night, displacing the technology that too frequently interfered with my good intentions. A couple of times I have lapsed, admittedly, but I am getting there, and I’m hoping that this decision to quit Facebook completely will encourage me to seize the opportunities that lay before me.

    Another person who completely opened my eyes to a world of healthfulness and balance was my friend Toni, who runs the superb food blog, Etta’s Corner. Toni recently undertook the ‘Paleo Challenge’. For 30 days, she gave up a lot of what I would consider to be ‘the good stuff’—bread, caffeine, dairy products, and processed foods of any kind. I have never had much time for diets, and, frankly, I do not believe in them. I don’t believe that limiting oneself, or giving things up, promotes a healthy attitude about either food or body image. However, Toni’s challenge was very different in its ethos to any other diet that I have ever encountered. She didn’t even call it a ‘diet’, in fact. That’s because it wasn’t a diet, in the sense that we might understand it; it was, rather, a journey, during which Toni hoped to see how certain adjustments to her daily routine might impact on her life more broadly. She committed to this challenge for only 30 days: it wasn’t about reaching a particular ‘milestone,’ in other words. When I spoke to her about how it all went after she had begun reintroducing some of ‘the good stuff’, she told me that she had learnt some valuable lessons about her body and the food that she was putting into it. What she was saying made a lot of sense, and it has made me realise that I might be able to adopt a more ‘healthy’ attitude to Facebook if I give it up for a little while. We’ll have to see, I guess.

    In any case, this is not a diatribe against social media. I LOVE social media, and you’ll note that I haven’t vowed to quit twitter, Whatsapp, Instagram, or my beloved blog. I’ll still be out there, but I need to remove myself from a world that I have become so deeply immersed in. So for now I’m signing out. Come find me if you want me. À bientôt, Facebook.

  • Writer’s Block/Endless Perfectibility

    It’s been over a month. That’s a long time. I tell myself that writing is this ridiculously daunting, time-consuming task, and yet I know that that’s not true. I type text messages that are over 300 words in length, I send emails that go way over that, and I come to my blog and just write and write with complete abandon. In the time that I’ve been absent, I have been drafting a chapter of my thesis. I’m still working on that draft. The process is tedious and drawn out, and yet I really enjoy the subject matter that I’m engaging with and the ideas that I’m teasing out. So why is it taking me so long? I usually have an optimum working output of around 1,000 words a day, and I can do much more than that when I put my mind to it, but this draft seems to be resisting my efforts to bring it into line.

    There are endless reasons why this might be the case. It may be that

    • I am not taking enough breaks
    • I am not working to a plan
    • I am working too rigidly to my plan
    • I am not creating enough variety in my working schedule

    Ultimately, though, I’m pretty sure that none of these reasons explain the current dip in my productivity. It is much more likely that my problems are in actual fact caused by the writing demons that lurk in my head – the demons that tell me that my work is not sophisticated enough, or a point that I’ve made is not articulated clearly enough, encouraging me to go over and over the same paragraph until I feel that it’s close enough to perfect. I read over that paragraph a week later, and, realising it’s still not perfect, continue bashing away at it.

    When I come to my blog, or send an email, or even a really long text, I am able to write and write because, in each case, I am able to explore a different train of thought. These platforms also allow me to develop thoughts that I am struggling to conjure into life in my academic work using a different narrative template (my last blog post was one such example of this.) I know that my best writing is my freshest writing, so I must attempt to kick those demons into touch by moving onto new ideas, and new paragraphs. The solution may seem simple, but in reality it takes brutal dedication to follow through; after all, having spent half of the time I’ve been writing this very blog post editing it, I know that I’m not infallible…