Public reactions to Robin Williams’s death are revealing

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8s5uxSSZ9lZbP2qqoITMErGxvQcRobin Williams as Patch Adams (1998)

I was saddened by the recent news of Robin Williams’ suicide, though perhaps not surprised, since I had read about his battles with drugs, which suggested he had deeper issues. I was also not surprised, but most definitely saddened by, much of the the mass media’s portrayal of this event.

To cite just a few, The Metro presented lurid descriptions of the specific manner in which he did it. The Daily Mail focused on Williams’ looming divorce battles, and bankruptcy, as potential causes of his suicide.

On the other hand, Radio 4 has dealt admirably with the topic and opened the discussion on mental health in a measured and intelligent way. A few months ago, I adored their fascinating and enlightening crash course on the history of mental health in society, called ‘In Search of Ourselves’, which was presented by Martin Sixsmith. I hope one day it is available to listen to again.

Despite lots of mature and insightful articles on the actor’s death, much hostility from the public is still present. Williams’s daughter, Zelda, was driven from Twitter by trolls, after people tweeted her Photoshopped images of her father hanging. The Westboro Baptist Church, a fundamentalist American christian group, made signs depicting Williams in hell and are considering whether to picket his funeral. A TalkSport presenter has been reprimanded for saying that he was glad it wasn’t ‘Robbie Williams’ who had committed suicide, but still damned the news as a selfish and ‘diabolical’ act.

There have been lots of public figures – especially writers – with severe mental health disorders: Virginia Woolf experienced multiple depressive and delusional episodes, and eventually committed suicide. Stephen Fry has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and J.K. Rowling famously suffers from depression.

This has caused many people in the media to link depression with creativity, which I think is unwise. To twin depression with genius is to romanticise it – like the melancholic poet, Byron, and capture it on canvas in oil paint. It is more likely that some people with genius have depression, and vice versa. Comedians, perhaps, are more prone to depression because many admit to being victims of bullying at school, and have partly turned to comedy as a way to deal with negative feelings.

I have been touched by the national sorrow, but struck by the anger. It shows how many (and, often, influential) people still can’t see beyond the surface, and are dogged by a staggering and childlike insistence that the public persona is all there is. And, through narratives that become embedded in cultural history, the real person is lost.

There is still very little public awareness of what mental health is – despite the obvious fact that everyone has mental health problems, whether they admit it or not. In America, there seems to be more awareness of mental health issues, but it has been medicalised; hence, the stereotype of the depressed housewife on Prozac. Sometimes, depression is seen as an epidemic of modern life, but also, paradoxically, as the fault of the individual.

Depression does not strike in a day. It is likely a series of traumas, hurts and suppressions – compounded by chemical imbalances. This can be further complicated by, and sometimes combined with, delusional conditions like schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder.

The nuances are many, and mass media has a tendency to dumb down complex topics for purposes of bitesize consumption. But, as most mature adults know, mental wellbeing is more than the mind, more than emotion, and more than the body. It is being in step with life, whatever that may mean for the individual.

A few years ago, when a friend suffered a mental episode in which they lost touch with reality, I was shocked, confused, and scared. I thought the episode would last forever, and lost my faith in the power of the mind. As I lacked the capacity to deal with the experience, life resumed. I later became plagued with anxiety, which grew steadily worse until my mind temporarily stopped functioning. Panic attacks ensued, and darkness.

At the time, I felt guilty that my former confident self seemed to have been a sham and deserted me when I need it most. I felt that ‘mental illness’ was catching, and an epidemic had spread. No one had any answers for me.

Then I later found out how common these problems are – but people hardly ever talk about them! And, when they are mentioned, they are cloaked in euphemism, and sterilised for ‘decent’ consumption.

We want to deny the very fact of being human – that life is hard, we suffer, and sometimes self-destruct. The outpouring of sympathy from many members of the internet community and also some parts of the mass media show how many, thankfully, are able to grasp nuance, can peer behind the laughing face and see what was obviously a troubled man. A man who was probably both good and bad – just like the rest of us.

But many could only see an ungrateful superstar, too stupid to believe his own luck – as if money and fame are all the matters, and no other questions beg to be answered. That attitude betrays the true affliction of modern life.

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P.S.

Time to Change is an initiative (funded by the Department of Health) which encourages people to talk about their mental health issues – especially over a cup of tea. If enough people join in – ones who normally keep to themselves, while letting the cacophony of idiots take centre-stage – we could be having a very different conversation.

P.P.S.

This article is a very interesting alternative take on sympathy for William’s suicide.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

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Virginia Woolf - by Gisele Freund.

National Portrait Gallery, 10 July – 26 October 2014

Virginia Woolf is one of my heroes, whom I discovered on an English Literature degree introductory module, during which I read To the Lighthouse, but wasn’t particularly impressed with at the time. It wasn’t until I discovered her essays, and learned about the context of the times in which she lived, that I was hooked. Like pieces of a puzzle rendering a vague image gradually clear, the more a level of consciousness I had not been able to articulate found expression.

I took an exam and picked my question based on her quote about the experience life being comparable to a luminous halo: consciousness flickering.

I read Mrs Dalloway for my second year modernism module and A Room of One’s Own for one called ‘Images of women’. Her dazzling narratives represented so well the vagaries of consciousness, and her non-linear representations of time expressed what I had only bluntly grasped. Her calm and reasonable – but nevertheless impassioned – essays in defense of, and for the advancement of the rights of women, thrilled my soul.

I finally understood why I had always suspected it would have been much better to have been born a man. It was because of Virginia Woolf – and the lecturer who introduced her to me – that my intellectual awakening occurred.

Virginia Woolf came into my life as part of a wider context of higher education, but she has never left it. She is an inspirational light which continues to shine through the decades.

I included Mrs Dalloway in my undergraduate dissertation, which was about representations of the tea table in modernist literature, and how it symbolises the confinement of women but also may provide a route to their liberation. In my Master’s thesis, I wrote about all of her fiction and their explorations of women’s issues through tea. It was awarded a 2:1, and I can now proudly say that I have read all of her novels.

So, though I already know a lot about her, the exhibition was fascinating because it provided a complex and insightful window into her personal relationships, the places she lived, and her art. Her work suffuses London, where she spent much of her life, where I now live, and where the exhibition took place. Her work is still relevant and I have yet to discover a modern feminist writer that matches her; though I live in hope. It provided a valuable new lens through which to view a most mysterious woman and her legacy.

If you would like to see the exhibition, it runs until 26 October.

Why do women tire of high fantasy more easily than men?

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princess, girl and the dragonMy boyfriend James stated the other day that girls don’t like high fantasy (which he is perhaps regretting now), to which I responded that I was currently reading Lord of the Rings, so was I to be included in that sweeping generalisation? He quickly amended it to ‘all girls except Catherine’.

Admittedly, Lord of the Rings has not thrilled me so far. I am several hundred pages in and Frodo and the gang have only just left the Shire. The songs are so badly written as to be laughable, and the dazzling ‘Goldberry’ a poor excuse for a foray into female character. All this has left me wondering: what exactly is high fantasy?

That font of knowledge, Wikipedia, defines high fantasy as:

‘fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than the real, or “primary” world… By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or “real” world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.’

This barely scratches the surface, but you could broadly sum the genre up as: epic magical fantasy featuring an overarching plot concerning deep questions about human nature, with characters and tropes borrowed from popular myths and legends (things like wizards and dragons). Fairytales for adults, you could say.

The subject captures my attention for several reasons, such as the fact that I really like the fantasy genre. One of my life goals is to write a fantasy novel featuring a female protagonist, because I believe that I lost interest in reading fantasy novels as I grew up because I couldn’t find one of significant quality which appealed to an adolescent female reader. Lyra Belacqua, Harry Potter, Rincewind and Lucy Pevensie of childhood fantasy fiction seem to dissolve into the drama of teen fiction.

Since boys and girls are less differentiated than men and women are, I think the gender of the protagonist in children’s fantasy literature is less important than in adult fiction. Unfortunately, as my hormones raged, my interest in the genre wilted due to the absence of a credible teenage female heroine. I needed a character to identify with, but whether due to a real lack of candidates or an unfulfilling library, I abandoned the genre.

As a child, I was captivated by heroic tales far removed from the banality of the everyday. After reading His Dark Materials series (1995-2000) by Phillip Pullmann , I wished desperately for a daemon of my own (a kind of spirit comrade that takes the form of an animal). I was also very keen on Pokemon and the Dragon Ball series, which could be classified as a high fantasy-anime hybrid. The vivid and fantastical nature of the stories complemented my interest in drawing, and my desire to spill the contents of my mind onto the page.

The assertion that women are less interested in high fantasy, which I feel has truth in it, almost suggests that women are more egocentric than men because they cannot feel much interest in subjects which are removed from their immediate experience, and are impoverished in imagination. It also implies that women are not fully-rounded individuals who wish to explore personal values and principles through works of fiction, or gain exposure to new ideas whilst being mentally thrilled.

That, I disagree with.

I think one of the main reasons women lose interest in stories the more fantastical they become is because these types of stories are innately masculine; employing tropes like the hobbits’ band of brothers, wise old men, war and quests. Women are relegated to romance only, the quivering damsel awaiting her hero, and there seems to be no equivalent story arc for us. Where is the band of sisters, wise old witch, or motivation so powerful that a woman will confront monsters and wild landscapes to fulfil her bildungsroman? Usually only when in search of a prince.

One reason that female characters might be less prevalent in high fantasy stories is probably because women have traditionally been less concerned with overarching questions of good and evil, which Wikipedia rightly says is a prevailing feature of high fantasy literature. Women are more commonly associated with human relationships, usually love, whether that’s between a man and a woman or that of kinship.

Except in George R. R. Martin’s wildly popular series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present), adapted into television sensation Game of Thrones. He has somehow smashed the gender boundaries while staying true to the gritty misogyny of a barely-disguised medieval society, and created female characters that are all the more powerful, inspiring and riveting because of their constraints. His deft parallel of Arya, who rails against feminine stereotypes to evolve into a savage killer, and her sister Sansa, who passively accepts her entrapment, is skilful and insightful beyond anything I’ve seen. All the while, these struggles are set against a backdrop of ever-more gruesome battles between bloodthirsty men vying for power, who are also contending against vengeful harpies wronged by the world.

Another reason for a lack of female characters is that high fantasy stories are often based on familiar myths and legends, commonly those of Great Britain, such as the Arthurian Cycle, or Norse legends, and these contain a notable lack of interesting female roles. Many of these stories revolve around war, from which women are usually conspicuously absent – although the recent King Arthur (2004), starring a wooden Clive Owen, was a breath of fresh air, with Keira Knightly playing a sassy Guinevere.

I disagree with the use of the terms ‘high’ and ‘low’ in regards to culture because they imply a hierarchy of quality which I don’t think is useful. There is a tendency for fans of genres to exclude certain examples that they don’t consider to be ‘pure’ enough, and this might also end up excluding novels that fall outside the usual boundaries of high fantasy by including features that could be considered more ‘female-friendly’, like relationships (admittedly, I do love a good romance). I think women should take a greater interest in high fantasy and devour the more ‘feminine’ novels we already have, like Ursula Le Guin’s books or Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments (2007-present) – then maybe we can dispel the myth that women aren’t interested in wizards and dragons.

Public ambiguity over “no makeup selfie”…

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Image via Independent

Why was the public so angered or allured by the “no makeup selfie” trend recently? For those of you who missed it, this was legions of girls snapping photos of themselves on their smartphone cameras without any makeup, posted with the hashtag #nomakeupselfie on preferred social media channel and making a donation to a selected cancer charity by text. Participants also publicly nominated other women to do the same. The movement wasn’t started by Cancer Research, the main cancer charity involved, but they received £8 million in six days – and ultimately enough to fund 10 new cancer trials.

Apparently, the “no makeup selfie” people were making the mistake of suggesting that something which requires only as much effort as prodding the screen of your phone and uploading to Instagram was akin to running a marathon or a hosting a bake sale. This apparently insulted cancer sufferers, because not wearing makeup is nothing like losing all of your hair and feeling terrible as a result of chemotherapy (and potentially dying, of course).

While this is serious indeed, many celebrities frequently do idiotic things that are woefully contradictory, and no one has actually said that not wearing makeup is analogous to the physical changes caused by cancer treatments. When all the men grow moustaches, no one accuses them of comparing it to the experience of prostate cancer or losing a testicle, and letting hair grow is at least as little effort as going bare-face.

At first, I wanted to understand what had led some people to lampoon this sensational trend, cast aspersions, or others to embrace it wholeheartedly. It’s undeniable that the whole thing can teach charities a lot about the fundraising potential of social media.

I toyed with the idea of suggesting that the reason so many people posted a no makeup selfie (with or without donating to a cancer charity) is because it appeals to our sense of vanity. It engaged our obsession with constant sharing and comparing: the glut of digital stimulation that has so distinctly pervaded our lives in the last twenty years. I was going to make some kind of comment about modern life, but I lost interest in that idea.

So much of what we absorb, especially if we inhabit the thinking sphere – with its higher education, broadsheet newspapers and political engagement – is judging the wider collective for a perceived slide into nihilistic retardation. We wring our hands and insist that people are so apathetic and easily entertained that they will mindlessly gorge on whatever is slopped in front of them – whether that’s a smart phone, a widescreen television, juicily exposed flesh or extra-large french fries.

When making these judgments, to be found in the columns of newspapers, magazines and personal blogs, this collective never includes ourselves.

We frequently say, “Everyone is obsessed with fiddling with their smartphones, even whilst in company… Isn’t it sad to see those couples sitting together not talking to each other? I hope we never get like that-” even while our own partner’s eyes glaze over as we launch into full rant.

It’s never us struggling with our weight and consuming too much fried chicken. We’re the ones smugly scoffing sushi and looking down our noses at people who might actually just be doing something because they enjoy it, and thinking rapturously, “Fuck my health!” Maybe.

The complaint most grating on me right now is: “digitisation is spreading like a noxious weed and ruining our lives! If we don’t curtail the rampant dissemination of technology into the very womb, then childhood itself will crumble. Children won’t be able to tell the difference between a cat and a pokémon!”

We argue that people don’t talk to each other anymore because it’s much easier to be entertained by the electronic device constantly attached to our persons. I wonder how much more accurate it would be to suggest that those people never really liked each other that much in the first place.

Perhaps the public isn’t as easily swayed by the behemoth forces of modern life as we might suggest when we’re feeling a sense of moral superiority over others. Maybe people, just like they always have, sometimes want to talk to each other and other times, they’re frankly bored with the conversation.

Maybe the no makeup selfie is not a sign that superficial vacuous celebrities (and their homunculi, the popular girls at school who can now digitally lord their superiority over you directly to your own home) are taking over the once-sacred charity world, with its “innate” moral purity. It could actually be that vain girls and celebrities are doing what they often do: glorifying themselves in mildly inappropriate settings.

Criticising human weakness is a way for many of us to shore up our own egos. Whether it’s snootily mocking someone for spending too much time on their phone, being selfishly materialistic or posting self-obsessed Facebook status updates, we love to look down on the superficiality of others.

The world of charity is a bastion for people who want to feel superior about themselves. I work in this sector and I love it, but I do sometimes feel a creeping sense that I could justify thinking of myself as morally superior because I’m working towards the greater good of humanity – even if I may only anticipate a disappointingly-average maximum salary.

We were angry because the no makeup selfie was narcissism masquerading as philanthropy, and it had infiltrated the charity community. Ostensibly, the charity world is earnest, other-focused and lacking in coiffed glamour, but the no makeup selfie smacked of contrived artificiality. Some people tried to say they were angry because the phenomenon indicated that people have become especially egotistical and superficial as a result of the spread of social media.

I think there is probably the same number of vain people now as before the birth of Twitter and Facebook – it’s simply that they now have a much more public outlet for self-expression.

We’ll always find something to panic us and complain about, all the while feeling smug that we’re not a part of it. In reality, sometimes people choose to do nice, good things and, lots of the time, they don’t. I choose to believe that, most of the time, people aren’t corrupted by social decay but are making a conscious, sometimes shallow choice – whether that’s taking a photo of themselves and posting it on the internet or growing a moustache for Movember. Image

What’s in a name?

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This blog post has taken a long time to write. I’ve been thinking about it, but starting a new job and finding a new housemate do eat away time.

So, what’s in a name? I thought of this post because I read Heather Long’s article about Greek women being legally bound to keep their maiden name rather than adopting their husband’s moniker. She ends with a typically ‘progressive’ conclusion that we are 30 years behind Greek legislation and should give women more legal options to choose their own name.

The issue of naming makes me realise how far we’ve come, and how antiquated traditions really throw this progress into relief.

I’ve always carried around the name Heath, but over the years it took on a different hue.

First it was just my family name, though my parents have been divorced for as long as I can remember so it never represented marriage to me. They finally parted ways when I was ten and just as I started university my mum got remarried, resulting in her shedding the name ‘Heath’. We don’t talk to my father any more so now it’s just my sisters and me, all sharing a name.

I sometimes feel like my name is imbued with a past long gone. Family days out are no longer, and never will be again – yet I have no desire to eradicate my identity with the name of a distant future husband. Why should I disembody years of study, jobs, degrees and creative output to feel the comforting embrace of domesticated romance?

Partly I feel that marriage is a longing for the family nest that one must fly upon becoming an adult – but I never had that. My nest was dismantled for me and I’ve never believed that marriage is my ultimate destiny.

It seems outmoded in an age where we vie for civil partnerships and women are no longer governed by their husbands. It’s obvious that the erosion of the institution of marriage – demonstrated by rocketing divorce rates – is not going to result in Babel.

But if you do want to get married, for love or money or security, or whatever, what should you do with your name? Emma Barnett, Women’s Editor of The Telegraph online, considers ‘meshing’ (combining two surnames to create a new ‘married’ family name) upon feeling sadness when observing her childhood friends’ names changing on Facebook, before concluding that she prefers the tradition of taking her husband’s name.

She feels a warm glow inside when her husband confesses, “I wanted my wife to become my family and part of that is taking my name so we are one unit,” and ends with using her maiden name for the professional world and her husband’s at home. She sees this as liberally ‘choosing’ tradition.

I think this is a fairly right wing feminist viewpoint and I don’t really agree with her reasoning. All fair and good to form a new unit – but it has to be his unit.

I kind of like my unit. My name may ultimately derive from someone I don’t see any more, but it’s also the name of my grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins and sisters. My name is my identity, and belongs to the person that writes my blogs, stories and poems. What’s in a name? No more or less than you give it.

Perhaps I should think about a nom de plume.

What does it mean to be middle class, and why should we care?

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Cost of Living Crisis (or, “Economics for Lazy People”)

As you can’t help hearing on the news at the moment, a core part of Ed Milliband’s campaign strategy is to wage war on the “cost of living crisis” on behalf of “middle income families”. Drawing attention away from Labour’s reputation for haemorrhaging money through benefits, he suggests we need to siphon some cash from the top-earners in entrepreneurial business, banking and finance.

By “middle income,” presumably he means what most people would call “middle class”. Indeed, a subheading in the Telegraph reads: ‘Foundations of middle-class life – well-paid jobs, strong pensions, housing ladder and university education – have all been “undermined”’, in reference to his Labour Party Conference Speech in Brighton during 2013.

But, before we all descend into chaos and panic, and even though we’ve only narrowly escaped the slavering jaws of a “triple-dip” recession, I’d like to conduct a short foray into what it means to be middle class in modern Britain and why we should care.

What does it mean to be middle class and why should we care? According to this BBC diagram, the middle class is to be defined by a history of consumption, from mass-produced cars to the modern-day farmer’s market – similarly to Ed using an exclusively economic definition.

I will naturally approach the question from a very British standpoint, as someone who has grown up eating chip butties, was educated at a local comprehensive and watched the BBC every evening.

Crisis of Confidence (See Urban Dictionary for Help)

Just who is having a crisis? What is the middle income bracket? Figures show the average UK family income (two parents and two children) is £40k combined, so probably a lot less than you might think. Urban Dictionary defines the middle class in exclusively cultural terms, suggesting that they are:

“Usually, working professionals and often take residence in suburbia or greenbelt areas. Generally speaking, their children attend university and do well within the education system, often following in their parents’ footsteps to maintain some sort of professional job.”

Being middle class seems to be defined by educational and economic attainment, and revolve around the family unit. Urban Dictionary isn’t completely certain, and admits that there are other factors to consider.

Many middle-class children don’t do well in school and never go to university. Plenty of working-class children perform excellently at school, and the figure of the eternally-unemployed, middle-class “waster” is well-known. On the other hand, being middle class does seem to provide a degree of immunity to being convicted of a crime, being a serious sexual offender or having mental health problems.

Angela Monaghan in the Guardian wonders the same thing: just who are these middle class? Monaghan says, ‘Research suggests membership of Britain’s middle class depends on personal perceptions as well as incomes.’ But what are these perceptions? Who decides whether one can enter the middle class, and does everyone actually want to? Is it a definable category or simply a fluid zeitgeist of feeling privileged, intellectual and future-oriented, ‘living by your wits rather than your hands’?

University and Class Consciousness

I went to the University of Southampton and there were plenty of privately-educated students, with the rest of the student body comprising a mixture of public school, grammar school and state comprehensive. I didn’t pay much attention to the stratification at first.

Eventually, I learned that the politicians who represent us in the Houses of Parliament are predominantly privately-educated, which will probably mean that their parents are rich. Someone explained the concept of ‘rah’ within the first few weeks of Freshers’.

Urban Dictionary defines it as:

“Someone who went to private school… likes rugby (not football), probably a member of a rowing, sailing or yachting club, refer to their parents as “Mummy and Daddy”. Boys: often seen to be wearing a lemon (or any pastel shade) sweatshirt slung casually over their shoulders and deck shoes. Girls: Dress similar to that of boys along with pearls, numerous shopping bags and Daddy’s credit card.”

Again: linking class to culture. Oddly enough, there hadn’t been any rah people at Poole High School, which is free to attend. In my time, it had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the area and apparently failed an Oftsed report (I can find nothing to substantiate this though). Southampton, on the other hand, is a Russell Group university (but not in the same league as Oxford or Cambridge) so it had many rah people. To call someone “rah” is to express disdain towards them for consciously choosing to align themselves with a privileged elite (by wearing Jack Wills, flip flops in winter and Ugg boots when it rains). You can be rich and not rah, but not rah without being rich. 

Tea and the Times Crossword

Middle class-ness is a category of identity learned from others, and therefore is an aspect of culture transmitted by sets of behaviours and common modes of thought. I found I liked these middle-class things – prizing education, equal rights for women, good food – a cup of tea whilst doing the Times crossword.

No one ever had to explain being middle class to me. Suddenly, I had found a culture I fit into, where no one mocked you for wanting to learn or liking to read. I learned about the wonderful history and cultural context of books, new ideologies to analyse and absorb, as well as how to turn food into a substantial leisure pursuit. I slowly but surely started reading broadsheet newspapers, going to art galleries and discovered BBC Radio 4.

But how does all this relate to Ed Miliband’s “Cost of Living Crisis” for the middle class?

The Middle Class makes it’s “Marx” in History

During a module called ‘Novel in the Literary Marketplace’, we were taught that in the seventeenth century, the “rising middle class” were comprised of merchant capitalists, clerks and small landowners, some of whom eventually accumulated enough wealth to rival the influence of the landed aristocracy. The Industrial Revolution cemented the fact that power would reside with those who own the means of production, hence the decay of the landed aristocracy (see popular ITV drama Downton Abbey for further details), and the mechanics of it are evolving still.

Thus, aristocratic Britain was no more, and the middle classes sprang into being as a result of capitalism, flourishing well into the nineteenth century and Queen Victoria’s long reign. Partly as a result of this, I think being middle class is upholding the values of: freedom, equality, education and enterprise (I can see an acronym emerging).

This section of society historically has had members who exhibit traits such as intellectual independence; are often explicitly feminist, environmentalist or atheist; are educated beyond the national curriculum (but not necessarily formally so); make decisions based on some level of reason, have the interests of others at heart; strive to succeed and aspire to equality between sex and race. These personal and intellectual freedoms have been enabled by the middle class of history, who made money and fought for the right to vote, insisted on free education for all and the right to free speech. Naturally, these values are not exclusive to the middle class, but I digress.

That class isn’t so readily identifiable anymore, because now those battles have been mostly won. Class is created by inequality, but in modern Britain social mobility is prevalent: that’s why the term “middle class” now pretty much covers everyone. This is why using a purely economic definition doesn’t work anymore. Middle class culture survives: the enterprising, principled and intellectual middle class, who give us cause to celebrate.

The appropriation of the term ‘middle class’ (or the sneakily disguised ‘middle income’) by politicians like Ed Miliband has rendered it nearly meaningless. It’s being used as a tool to encourage people to fear a crisis and therefore vote for Labour; apparently this is called ‘dog whistle politics’.

Class is an outdated term, reliant on immutable social structures which no longer exist. It’s a smokescreen employed by politicians in a calculated attempt to increase personal power.

There seems to be a penchant for Marxist theory now, as the 2014 electoral race begins – and no wonder, since Conservative policies really do hit the poorest people hardest. Hopefully recent political and economic developments don’t suggest that the privileges won for us by the historical middle class might be revoked. There’s so much more to class than Marxist theory – a downtrodden proletariat oppressed by the greedy, heartless bourgeoisie – but the whole class of society is certainly more important than the few. We should not sell our hard-won privileges for a feee.

NB: that’s not a typo.

The Career of a Pessimistic English Literature Graduate

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Well, I’ve finally made it into a profession I actually wanted to be in. It’s been a long journey and fraught with many a tear and wail. Sometimes it seemed impossible that I would reach the dizzying heights of the (digital) communications world, but I’ve done it – and neglected to blog along the way.

Sorry about that. It’s things like blogging that keep you going; sharing your thoughts with the world, lifting you above tedious (and sometimes humiliating) tasks – the bidding of over-inflated and under-competent senior management members.

It’s a hard place to reach and one you can only get to through being well-connected or extremely committed; supported by eternally generous family and long-suffering friends. I never realised just how important a workplace was or how wrong you can get it, especially when you’re young and desperate for a job, any job.

Interestingly, as ever, job prospects have evolved. I’ve grown up in the era thinking that City bankers and lawyers are some of the most highly-paid and high-profile professions (failing incredible beauty and a talent for acting), whilst being a journalist romances the writer in me. However, the reality is that news journalism is, figuratively speaking, back-breaking work, some jobs that seem glamorous or lucrative might not be as rewarding as Mad Men would have us believe, and hardly anyone reaches the baffling status of people like Justin Bieber or Colin Firth. Read this article for a sobering look at the world of Wall Street (in contrast to the recent DiCaprio film) from a former banker. TV and film have warped our expectations of what we can reasonably expect from a satisfying life.

All those years of higher education are finally worth it, and now I work in higher education as Digital Communications Assistant. To me, this is an amazing job that I have struggled hard to get but to others, it’s probably a little dull and technical (it’s not). Whatever your aspirations are, it’s important to keep going even when it seems like you’ll just never get there. I will never know what it’s like to be a doctor, lawyer or teacher – those professions that immediately jump to mind when a child casts around for typical “grown-up” jobs – unless I make a somewhat unlikely career change.

I suppose I’ll have to revise my goals and give myself something else to strive for; focus on actually being great at the job, for instance. Being an English student is an interesting path, and one that I’m still observing radically different forks within. There are some I know who are making it as journalists, the top prize of the second-tier glamour professions (journalism, broadcasting, advertising, publishing). In case you were wondering, top-tier glamour professions refer to the film, sports, movies and fashion industries. There are internal communications specialists, editorial assistants and jazzy PR professionals. Some fellow English grads have diverged and started forging their way into the related and equally as competitive areas of “the arts” and museums.

According to my 1982 Concise Oxford Dictionary, the word glamour means “bewitching or enchanting”, “magical” in some way, but Google says that it can also mean “an attractive or exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing.” In this context, I am using it to mean exciting and attractive professions that seem to require little actual drudgery compared to the high levels of recognition and financial reward – though neither are always the case.

Still, hardly anything matches the thrill of seeing your name in print – though this medium is clearly dying out. That’s okay, because in a few years I’ll have a vast knowledge of digital communications under my belt, a rapidly developing field (sometimes mysteriously known as “new media”) that emerged with the internet explosion a few years back. Social media, websites, e-comms and tinkering with HTML will all be things that I can be quietly proficient in.

I think it’s important to challenge preconceptions, and maybe there are amazing careers that I haven’t even thought of. Hardly anyone wants to work in engineering or manufacturing, but apparently this is the industry to watch. If you ever thought being a B n’ B owner would be dripping in glamour, check out this website to find out why it’s not. The working world is more complex and alluring than I ever suspected it might be; even accounting for my previously rock-bottom expectations.

I’m pleased and I’m proud; I hope to revel in these sensations for a while, though I’m not really sure if communications can be described as glamorous. One thing that is true, is that the buzz still hasn’t worn off when people actually ask me for ideas about projects that are interesting. It’s funny to think that I could (or would) not imagine post-university life before I lived it, like some dark abyss beyond the reach of sanity.

Well, here we are, and it’s looking good.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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unbearable lightnessTitle: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Author: Milan Kundera
Published: 1984

“for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera’s book is both bewitching and moving. Richly textured, it is the embodiment of all that is mysterious, beautiful and horrifying about the modern world. The story itself follows the happenings of a Czech couple, Tomas and Tereza.

Tomas is a serial and mostly unrepentant philanderer who Teresa is madly in love with, and she endures incredible pain at the hands of his infidelities. The Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia reduces Tomas from a respected surgeon in Prague to a window cleaner, then truck driver. His fall from grace does nothing to hamper his philandering.

The novel charts their adventures. The narrative is intertwined with piercing philosophical interjections – hence, the unbearable lightness of being. Parmenides is the philosopher of choice for Kundera, who floated the idea that at the heart of the universe is a fundamental binary principle, which determines the manifestation of everything else, and was an early proponent of dualism.

The novel is complex and apparently postmodernist. Kundera himself often breaks the spell and enters the narrative as an authorial voice, much like in the Victorian novels of yesteryear. This only serves to emphasise how absorbing the novel is. It’s like lifting your head above water and staring round for a few seconds, before submerging, beneath the water, once again.

This novel is a triumph, for reasons I can hardly begin to articulate. The language and drama are taut and captivating, whilst the juxtaposition between high philosophical musings and the visceral realism of bodily excretions and furtive sexual fumblings is masterfully written.

The backdrop of totalitarian, Communist Russia pervades the entire novel like a slumbering beast, but never quite takes centre stage. At first this seems like it could be an ambitious political critique like Orwell’s 1984, before it slowly becomes clear that the focal point is character. The emotional struggles of Tomas and Teresa writhe across the page until the dramatic, comedic and tragic ending.

Hardly ever have I enjoyed a novel this much. The Harry Potter series, of course, was number one choice in my younger days; when my mind wasn’t quite mature enough to enjoy much “serious” literature. Next, Stephen King and his pacy modern horror novels, then Terry Pratchett’s kaleidoscopic Discworld and the laconic Rincewind. After that, trashy teen fiction.

Once at university, with pretensions to serious intellectualism and a new taste for the feminist canon, I worshipped Virginia Woolf’s outpourings and also the magnificent T.S. Eliot. There have been others along the way but these are the diamonds. Finally, Milan Kundera, who I assumed was a woman until I typed his name into Wikipedia halfway through the novel, has taken literature a step in a new direction for me.

I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being over several tube journeys with fascination, pathos and amusement. Kundera says that character is not in fact the representation of the author, but the manifestation of his own stunted possibilities. I was rapt.

The unbearable lightness of being – as well as being one of the most inspired titles I have ever come across – is the futility of existence, which through being liveable only once can never have any weight. The wars and tragedies of history, acted out only once, dissolve meaninglessly into the dusts of time.  However, traditional dimorphic representations of opposites are turned on their head in this novel, and Kundera asserts that heaviness, which is achieved through repetition, may actually be a burden. The novel itself ends somewhat hopefully, though you’ll have to read it to find out how.

I don’t know if I completely understand this novel, but that probably doesn’t matter. While the subject matter is often ethereal, philosophical or historical, it never feels like you’re ploughing through a weighty tome (pun definitely intended). The stark beauty of Kundera’s prose and the realism of his characters has inspired me to seek out more Eastern European authors, and indeed there are many recommended on Google. I’m actually considering reading War and Peace (1869) by Tolstoy next.

How to Feel Better About not Getting a Job Interview

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I’ve had eight job interviews now, I think, and not a single one of the interviewers has seen fit to give me the job. You parade yourself in front of these legions of people, prancing like a pony hoping to impress, and it all amounts to nought.

Somewhat depressing, you might think. And yes, it is upsetting; I’ve entertained all the usual clichés. I’m no good, everyone else is better than me, what was I thinking, blah di blah.

And yet, I am haunted by the old adage… that tough times show you what you’re made of. Nothing worth attaining is easy. The most striking realisation I’ve received recently is that there is no external arbiter striking off the number of times you’ve tried and failed on a chalk board; that no one seriously has to know how many job interviews you’ve had and not “passed”.

Maybe Gmail knows because it’s the receptacle for all those rejection emails. Gmail knows my dark secret; and so does anyone who cares to search it now I’ve immortalised the fact in a blog post. I suppose I wanted to make something productive out of my pain, and I am and always will be a writer, so this is the result.

You feel better because you have to. Because there are many kind people in your life, hopefully, that will repeat platitudes at you until you do. They are platitudes because they are true – “there’s always hope”, “just keep going”, “I know it’s hard sometimes” – but they are hard to remember. The emotional fraught-ness clouds your judgement until you are just howling in despair.

If you dig deep, you’ll find you’ve always got that tiny reserve of effort that was just lurking out of sight. It doesn’t make it any easier and maybe there’s still a very long way to go, but you will keep going and that’s the important thing.

What does make it easier is your flatmate sharing his dinner with you because you were too ill to trudge to the shop and buy something yourself. Or your boyfriend nattering with you for ages because that’s what girls like to do, and, well, he likes it because you like it. Or your long-suffering mother photocopying pages from self-help books and emailing them to you at work.

People make it easier. Getting a job is one of the hardest things to do in the world; or a job you actually want, anyway. I suppose all those insecurities will never go away: that I’ll never amount to anything, there’s a fundamental flaw in my character, or, worst of all, I’m just a girl.

But you don’t have to listen to them.

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