All posts in What Matters

  • 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

  • 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.

     

  • ‘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.

  • PhD: Periodic Human Derangement

    PhD

    Hello world. Yes, I’ve been absent – and for some time. I’ve been deferring this post for a while, though in fact I’ve been piecing it together intermittently over several weeks. I think that reflects the irregularity and general tumultuousness of my life over the past month and a half of the New Year, during the course of which I have repeatedly asked myself whether I might be ‘crazy’. Everyone has their own special brand of crazy, right? It’s the human condition, I’ve come to learn. There is not really any such thing as ‘sanity’. But there’s crazy and then there’s PhD crazy. Ultimately, I think you have to be crazy to do a PhD; or, if not, then the PhD will make you crazy. Of course, the two things combined are mutually conducive to more crazy. There is a serious point to all of this. Lately I’ve had a series of revelations, and they have opened my eyes to the kind of person that I’ve become since starting my PhD 16 months ago.

    The PhD can be a lonely and intimidating experience; it’s not for the faint-hearted, this much we all know when we sign up. It takes hard work, and guts (real iron-encased guts) to stay focused and positive through the long periods of solitude and the many challenges to our credibility and worth as scholars. We have to face off against these things while, at the same time, trying to spin several plates, ultimately knowing that the extra plates help to drive us and keep our work fresh, but also knowing that they are the essential building blocks in our careers. Again, I’m hardly saying anything new here, and it sounds a lot like the start of an invective against the PhD, but actually it’s not. If anything, it’s more like the opening of a (potentially unanswerable) question about the conundrums posed by the PhD.

    In recent months, I have felt confused and unsettled by some of the emotions that the PhD has thrown up. I feel compelled to say that I am in a (pretty) good place as I write this, but that wasn’t the case about a month ago. In every job, people have to take the rough with the smooth, and there’s no denying that there are a lot of people out there who experience more of the rough than the smooth, but that shouldn’t be the case for a PhD, surely? I mean, in spite of all of the above, this kind of career involves choice, and it relies on a motivating passion. I get to do what I LOVE; I get to exercise my passion and employ my creative energies in ways that to some are unimaginable and unachievable. My expertise was laid to waste in my last job, and the PhD offered an opportunity to change that, so you can imagine my surprise when Julian told me that he thought I was a ‘happier person’ in my last job.

    Though I knew him to be right, it seemed to me the most incredible thing. How could I possibly have been ‘happier’? How could I not be happy now? Everyone’s experience of the PhD is different, but, by and large, I’ve not met a single person that has been through (or is presently going through) the experience who could tell me that they have not had moments of complete desperation. Even in those moments of wild and sustained productivity, when things seem to be ‘coming together’, I think that many of us would still find it difficult to characterise ourselves as abundantly happy. And yet, we’re stuck in a catch-22 situation, as I’m pretty sure that happiness makes you work better and more productively. A lack of happiness translates to a productivity ‘leach’.

    So, inevitably, we try to bring happiness into our lives, ensuring that we enjoy equal measures of fun and rest to balance out the demands of work. But how do we sustain that happiness through our work? How do we continue to feel positive after the buzz created by that breakthrough passes? How do we pull ourselves out from that giant pit that seems to get deeper each time we attempt to climb it?

    The solutions that we find are likely to be personal ones, but I think that we can all benefit from the maintenance of active communities that promote opportunities for fruitful and regular exchange. As I type this, I’m thinking about how I might go about setting up a network for such exchange to take place *exciting brainwaves catapulting Nicole to new levels of happiness*, but I appreciate any thoughts and comments from happy people, or from those striving to achieve happiness in their daily working lives.

  • At the Mouth of the Mississippi: Archives, Histories, 12 Years a Slave

    Hey y’all. I’ve been in Louisiana for a week now, and that week seems to have passed by without me even realising. It has been eye-opening, liberating, and, of course, rewarding – on both a personal and professional level. For most of the time that I’ve been here, at least during the working day, I’ve been poring over manuscripts in the archives. I’ve become a regular and recognizable frequenter of several New Orleans institutions, and I’ve been welcomed and assisted by everyone that I’ve met. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. Earlier today, I met with some American graduate students at LSU and together we discussed how intimidating the archives can be. The archival material that I have been looking at has been challenging, and not least because a lot of it is in manuscript form and written in a foreign language (not only French, but an archaic eighteenth-century French). To add to this, some of the manuscripts written in English have been equally, if not more, challenging – to give you an example, I spent about two hours trying to decipher a draft foreword that George Washington Cable wrote for his short story ’Tite Poulette, and had to transcribe it, writing down all of the variations of certain words that I could not quite make out, until I came out with the best possible outcome. What I found was interesting, and (I hope) useful, but it could easily have been two hours wasted.

    The headaches of reading minute and foreign manuscript with magnifying glasses were assuaged slightly last Friday, when I met Wayne Philips, who manages the costume collection at the Louisiana State Museum. Wayne showed me a selection of ‘tignons’ – also described in the collection catalogues as ‘bandanas’ and perhaps best understood by us as headscarves – worn by women of color in antebellum America, and one in particular that is thought to have originated in Saint-Domingue (colonial Haiti). I had been looking forward to seeing these artefacts, mainly because I think that the best histories are told through palpable objects, and to see them in the flesh pleased me no end. But unlike the manuscripts that had told me, and given me clues to, a great many things, the tignons harboured secrets that I was not able to penetrate. Other than the short descriptions in the LSM catalogues that indicated the origins of the artefacts and alluded to the (racial) status of their unknown wearers, there was no additional information to help me work out what these items might have signified to the wearer or to wider society. Wayne and I talked for some time about the various possibilities but agreed that we could really only speculate on what these might be. The stories of these objects we can only imagine because the presumed female wearers did not write them down – not to our knowledge, at least.

    Today, after one of the better days in the archives, I went to see the highly acclaimed Steve McQueen film, 12 Years a Slave. As you know, earlier this year I went to see Django: Unchained, and wrote a lengthy piece about it here. I have done a lot of thinking about Django, since I first saw it, and agree with my younger brother that it’s not really a slave revenge film – or even a film about slavery, for that matter – it is a white fantasy about the history that we would all like to imagine as having happened, and this fantasy is given ultimate sanction by the white liberator/avenger character King, who, in the end, is martyred.  This film, in contrast, was an adaptation of the personal narrative of the same name recorded by Solomon Northup, a black musician from the state of New York who was beguiled, captured, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The film is not unproblematic, and some of the problems surrounding the adaptation had been brought to my attention earlier in the day when the graduate students that I had met with discussed it in their class on the American plantation, but I came out of the cinema with a sense that an important history had been imaginatively brought to life, without (m)any speculative of the fantasies that make films like Django much more problematic. There were holes and silences where those silences exist in reality; I was troubled and saddened, for example, by the fact that the narrative was unable to communicate the fates of enslaved women such as Elizabeth and Patsy, and still feel haunted by the thought of what may have lay in wait for them beyond Northup’s narrative.

    Just before the film started, I saw a trailer for the film Belle,which tells the story of a woman of color who forms the second subject in Johann Zoffany’s portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray. Dido Elizabeth Belle began life as the daughter of a slave woman from the West Indies and Admiral John Lindsay, and was raised in the household of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield. From the snatches that I saw, this film looks to be more of a romance than the stark and meticulous narrative of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, but it offers a window into another history that has seldom reached the level of public understanding: the story of what it was like to occupy a precarious space as a black woman in the household of white aristocrats.

    I am glad that black histories from the diaspora are being gradually recuperated in film narratives like 12 Years a Slave and I can’t help but be excited about Belle, in spite of the romantic inflections, and I hope that the projection of modern fantasies about the experiences and sufferings of real people does not replace the excavation of those harder to find histories. There are of course things that we may never know, but that doesn’t mean that we should stop looking.

     

  • The Little Girl in Me; the Woman I am

    As many of you know, I am planning a wedding. Due to commitments that I have in my professional life, and to allow me plenty of time to save, this event will not be taking place until the spring of 2015. It is rare that I get much time to think about the necessaries that Julian and I will need to take into account in planning our big day, and when we first got engaged we were convinced that we would be unlike most other couples who go through this process. I would be totally cool; never would the name ‘Nicole’ and the word ‘bridezilla’ be used in the same sentence, and Julian would be totally involved, rebuffing the stereotypes of men who sit back while their partners go gaga over table plans and flower arrangements. Most of that stuff is a long way off for us yet, and we have a team (or maybe it should better be described as an ‘army’) of fabulous people – friends and family – who will help us bring it all together, but I think that, by and large, we’ve done pretty well. On a couple of occasions, however, an insane and monstrous bridal version of myself has taken possession of me, and I have emerged from the experience thinking, ‘what on earth just happened?’ When I was very little, one of my favourite things to do was to watch my mum and dad’s wedding video. Repeatedly. I think that as I grew older, and in the eleven years that Julian and I spent growing to be more a part of each other, I forgot that this little girl ever existed. And in those moments of monstrosity, Julian has got to know her. ‘I’m sorry that I’m a stupid little girl,’ I’ve said, ‘but it’s just part of me that I can’t erase.’

    As we’re now entering feminism’s ‘fourth wave’, I wonder if my (speculative) daughters will grow up differently. There was nothing particularly ‘girlish’ about my own upbringing, however, and, when I cast my mind back, I realise that my mum had nothing really to do with my obsession for weddings. My mum bought me pretty party dresses, but she also bought me leggings and trainers and inspired me to become the strong, independent woman that I am today. I think that, ultimately, it comes down to the experiences that have framed my life; I remember going to a spate of weddings in my early childhood – friends of my parents, and uncles, and the like – and I was mesmerised by everything that they had to offer. I have also been a bridesmaid on six occasions (not quite ‘27 Dresses’ but I am evidently hot bridesmaid property). Some of the best memories I have made, in my later life, come from the weddings I have been to. I will never forget the ‘Danza Kuduro’ car shimmy on our road trip up to Northumberland for Ben and Ellen’s wedding, or the ice swan at my aunt and uncle’s Hindu wedding, or the fantastic Soul and Motown band at Helena and Jeff’s wedding.

    Earlier this week, I went to visit Mary Wollstonecraft’s tomb at Old Church in St Pancras. Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She was one of the earliest British feminists and one of the most prominent political writers of the late eighteenth century. She had a child with a man named Gilbert Imlay who abandoned her, and later found love with William Godwin with whom she had a passionate affair. In the course of their relationship, she fell pregnant with her daughter, Mary, who would later make her own literary mark with the novel, Frankenstein. Wishing that their child should be legitimate, they decided to marry, and were married at the same church at which they are both now laid to rest. I doubt that Mary Wollstonecraft ever went through any of the crazy thought processes that I have been through, but I know that she did some crazy things for love. Throughout the course of that day, I had sparked up a twitter conversation with another fan of Wollstonecraft and met her when I visited Old Church. We spoke about her life, or, rather, she spoke and I listened. She gave me a postcard and told me about some of the other interesting tomb-dwellers in the churchyard. And at this point, I realised that being a rational, freethinking woman is not in any way affected by my reversions to girlhood, and that our brilliance, as women, comes from all of our component parts. I am a woman, but I am also a girl, and I don’t apologise for either of those parts of me.

    Wollstonecraft’s Tomb, Old Church, St Pancras

    Before Julian proposed, he went to let my dad know his intentions; we were all heading to New York to surprise my mum for her 50th birthday, so it was crucial that she couldn’t know any of the details (he would’ve told her otherwise.) My dad was ecstatic, but offered him some words of warning: ‘You know that it’s just going to be weddings and dresses all the time now, don’t you?’ ‘Nah, Nicole’s not like that,’ Julian retorted. I do talk to Julian about the wedding, and I’ve shown him my Evernote folders and Pinterest boards, but we also talk about world affairs, work, hobbies, and all of the wonderful adventures that we hope to have in life. Let there not be one ‘big day’, I say, but many.

     

     

  • CARNIVAAAAL

    Carnival

    I can heartily assert that I’ve always been big on pageantry. On one occasion, when I was about four years old, I was wandering around the stockroom in the charity shop where my nan and granddad then worked and I happened to fall upon this bright pink, sequinned dress (I say ‘dress,’ but I’m not quite sure what it actually was, though I have been told that it was most likely some kind of modern dance costume.) Needless to say, I loved it, and my grandparents were forced to part with the couple of pounds that the shop would have sold it for. I used to love getting this costume out and putting on the sparkly pink arm warmers. Sometimes I used to eat my dinner in this get-up (to me, there was nothing unusual about this). This, I suppose, set the tempo for the many fancy-dress and themed parties I was to have throughout my childhood and into my adolescence, right up to the present (I haven’t yet decided on a theme for this year’s event, but rest assured that there will be one!) I could recount many other examples on this score, but I would need to dedicate an entire post (and some) to the effort. I would like to conclude this little jaunt down memory lane, however, by recalling the moment when I discovered Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World. At the time that this book fell into my hands, I was just about to leave university and embark on a Master’s course at King’s College London. It was unlike anything I had ever read and it was all that I really wanted to read; in short, I found it utterly cool. In this world (the world created by the Renaissance writer François Rabelais), Bakhtin envisions a carnival that is so grotesque that it renders its participants equal through a kind of levelling laughter. In this world, masqueraders don costumes that allow them to transcend the ordinary social barriers that proscribe their daily lives: jesters become kings, and kings become fools.

    A lot of time has passed since I first read Bakhtin, and while I think that his theory of carnival and masquerade continues to offer interesting insights, these insights do little to inform our understanding of what carnival is really like in the black Atlantic world. Over the weekend, for the first time in my life, I went to the Notting Hill Carnival. For me, it was a beautiful experience, and encapsulated all of the things that I love to do: dress up, eat, drink, and dance. It was also, and indeed primarily, a learning experience. My knowledge of carnival – of its intersected and diasporic history, of the people that have kept its traditions alive and channel the politics that underlie it – has expanded over the past year, and what I have learnt has infused my conception of our persistently segregated world. As a white woman that studies black history, I am reminded daily of the need to step outside of myself and see myself as a seer, as someone that makes a career out of discussing a history that is not my own, but which I am nevertheless passionate about. In this way, my going to carnival was not just about ticking something off of a list, but part of an ambition that I have to deepen my understanding through lived experience.

    This experience sadly coincided with news about Miley Cyrus burlesquing black culture in a sexually degrading dance routine at the VMAs, and served only to reinforce my belief that we all need to do a better job of understanding and learning about each other. When I was getting ready this morning, I didn’t hear much about Miley or the VMAs on Radio4’s ‘Today’ programme (it being Radio 4, I guess), but I did hear a discussion about the recent LSE report whose research found that children in inner-London schools were not in any way hindered by the presence of foreign-speaking children in their class. No, I thought to myself, not hindered, but enriched. I don’t want my children to grow up sheltered from such experiences and only hearing me talk about them in the abstract, and I hope very much that they will get to share them with me, so that we can continue learning together. Next year marks 50 years of the Notting Hill Carnival. Let’s make it a big one.

     

     

  • Time, Space, Here and Now

    This blog began several weeks ago when I went to see the latest Star Trek film, Into Darkness. I was pretty riled at the time: riled that I had spent my Saturday evening watching an action movie that was so far removed from the sci-fi fantasy dramas that I had grown up on, and riled because it was so disappointingly sexist. A lot of time has passed – I’m still riled, of course, but so many things have happened since that moment that have affected me in unspeakable ways. In a sense, I suppose that this is why I’ve been absent for such a long while, and I have to apologise to my dedicated followers for over a month of nothing. I’ve been busy, but that’s no excuse; that’s just the excuse that I make for myself.

    Knowing where to begin after such a long absence is hard. To surmise, I have been testing my own limits; I have been mining deeper into the recesses of my own mind (testing those hypotheses) and, in the process, becoming more increasingly assured of the importance of the project(s) that I’m undertaking. In a sense, this is good news: affirmation that we are doing the ‘right thing’ is always going to fill us with a little bit of warmth, is it not? On the other hand, it is also a sad reminder of the fact that pervasive scars have been created by prevailing imperial sensibilities. It’s strange that it’s only been a few weeks since a horrific incident a few miles down the road from where I live exploded across the world media. I even heard about it on French Radio. The EDL went on a violent rampage: taking to the streets, abusing Muslims, torching mosques. My friend could see blue lights and helicopters from her balcony. People became disgusting. Or, rather, the things that were already disgusting just became a little more visible. Either way, I was sad that, over and above every other emotion that I experienced over that course of time, I wasn’t surprised.

    I should have had something to say, perhaps? I spoke with friends and family, I commented on other blog posts, tweets, and articles, and I ruminated. I am continuing to think, because I know that the scars won’t suddenly be healed overnight. Writing helps me, but it doesn’t help the problem. The problem is big, and the solution needs to be greater than big. I’m continuing to work on that one, and continuing to develop progressive ideas. I won’t be mute again though. Silence is not what I do; silence is what I combat. This is me, right here, back with a BOOM. It isn’t an essay, but I’m here to let you know that the fight is still very much on.

     

    ‘Better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees.’