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A neo-Londoner, who silently longs for his native countryside. Beau, beau, beau et con à la fois.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

In Memoriam Andrew Shaw: mentor, idol, and friend

It is late June 2006, and a stunning, wide-skied Lincolnshire afternoon. I have just graduated, and alongside a few friends from Cambridge, many generations of the Kohut and Cullum family are on deckchairs and benches in our newly-gazebo-ed garden for my 21st birthday barbeque. A Lincolnshire barbecue has a very particular scent: pig-manure on the fields mixed with the burnished herb and spice blend of an over-cooked sausage. 

Our garden was very long, and impracticably thin. Horse stables running along the right, and the wall of our neighbour’s bungalow on the left, rather pompously built up higher than our own house. This patch of grass  didn’t ever fully perform the function of a garden in the ‘English Country’ sense. Sheep ran through it in a bid for freedom at least once each month; my sister and I failed to persuade tennis balls to bounce on it to any practical height; it flooded whenever the rains came for longer than ten minutes (causing my mother near heart-attack-inducing stress before the house was sold). It was also often a muddy drive-way leading up a short bank to our fields at the rear, with ‘uninterrupted views out to the Wolds’ (Estate Agent Brochure, 2007-2009). On this afternoon, owing to my widespread popularity and expansive birthday guest list, cars were driving across the garden at regular intervals, and parking in the field.

My Grandmother and her sisters (all three alike in look, temperament, and a predilection to think themselves better than most) are lined up on a bench facing the garden-cum-drive, no doubt positioned specifically to pass judgement on those arriving. At about half past two (I am playing some kind of racket and ball game with a cousin’s son) I hear the sound of a car skidding too fast down the gravel portion of the drive by the house. Crossing the garden at speed is a bright blue open top convertible with my former music teacher, and dear friend Andrew in the driver’s seat, shirtless, hair spiked with blonde highlights, wearing aviator-sunglasses, an array of neck-ware, tight jeans, and with a perfectly even, deep brown tan, waving with flamboyant abandon as he drives. Grandma and her sisters have faces that betrayed a mixture of shock, awe, and confused lust.

It is one of my fondest memories of Andrew, bulldozing into people’s lives with an unashamed declaration of who he was.

Throughout these two months of Andrew’s illness, many of his former students have been speaking of how much he touched their lives. Like others, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the possible, now actual loss of someone who was so fundamental in shaping who I am: my tastes, my talents, my attitudes. I wrote a blog up here about being as much oneself as possible at all times, so that achievements can be measured alongside who you are truly. I now realise that this was something I learned from Andrew.

As a student of Andrew’s, I was in awe of him. His manner of teaching was that of a musician and music lover: we’d listen and he’d talk. During those four years, music became a history of shattering moments: when Bach completed his 48 Preludes and Fugues and western harmony was set; the bass entry in the first performance of Beethoven 9; the first resolution of the Tristan Chord in performance; the riot at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, the poor amateurs of Leeds Festival Chorus trying to sing Belshazzar’s Feast; the opening of the newly restored Coventry Cathedral alongside Britten’s sublime, subversive War Requiem.

But for Andrew, music was much more than simply a series of great works, and so too for his students. It was about the live, real performance and experience of some of the world’s greatest noises. It is here that is influence is most keenly felt, day-to-day, amongst many generations of Lincolnshire schoolchildren, and where his loss will be most hard to bear for generations to come. I find it tough even writing about my experience on stage at school, and Andrew’s role in that part of my life. In those hours inside and outside of classrooms, in rehearsal rooms, in churches, on stage, I learned to understand how music and theatre get inside your muscles and sinews, works of art becoming absolutely tuned to your sense of self, part of what makes you tick as you walk around in this flawed, clunky, ugly, real world.

I consider myself so lucky to have had a relationship with Andrew that developed from student to friend as soon as I left King Edward. When I fell unrequitedly in love after about 45 minutes of being at University, he was the first person I called for advice (he’d been there before, got the t-shirt, etc).

It has been such a tremendous privilege to join him as a staff member on music tours to Belgium, to see for myself him continuing to guide and shape the values of young people as he had done for me. And goodness me, did we have fun.

I recently told Andrew that almost all of my life’s greatest experiences can be traced directly back to his influence or guidance. He scoffed, as you’d expect (for such a natural showman, he was unexpectedly modest at times). I don’t for a second think this will change now he’s gone. Whenever I sing, whenever I hear wonderful music, see a great opera, whenever I drink coffee with at least 2 inches of Grand Marnier in the bottom, it will be thanks to him.

One writes, that `Other friends remain,'
That `Loss is common to the race'—
And common is the commonplace,
And vacant chaff well meant for grain.

That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break

- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Poppies, Dame Helen, and Remembrance

First off, I want to make it clear that I wore a poppy yesterday, and will continue to do so for as many years as human beings are stupid enough to take up arms against each other. I would like to put in a plea, however, that the poppy/pin design is modified to better cope with today’s thickly-woven jackets, and tube-travelling lifestyles. By 11pm last night, mine was not up to a standard of neatness that I would usually strive for.

Each year that I’ve been old enough to choose to wear a poppy myself and not have it pinned on by my Grandmother, I’ve thought hard about why I wear it, and discussed my feelings towards it with friends. If any of us, as adults, decide to wear such a bold, culturally-laden symbol as a poppy, it is only sensible that we question why we do it, each time we do it. It’s very easy to drop 50p into the tin and pin one on because everyone else at the tube station is; even easier to change your Facebook profile picture to a poppy; add an avatar to your twitter. You’ll not be shocked to hear that I’m pleased by the debate around poppy-wearing this year – it’s healthy, it’s to be expected, and I feel much more comfortable living in a nation where we continually question and challenge our behaviour, rather than blindly follow path-dependent cultural norms.

Let me lay down my stall on poppy wearing: difficulty comes for me when attempts are made to load the poppy with multiple sentiments that do not necessarily sit comfortably next to one another. For many, the poppy is a largely pacifist symbol of remembrance: we remember our Grandfathers, and their Fathers, whom the state, on our behalf, conscripted, and dispatched across the world to fight fascism and tyranny. The ultimate loss of liberty in order to protect ours. We are free today because they, for those years of war, were not.

It’s an important point of contrast between the soldiers of today and the soldiers of the Worlds Wars that soldiers of today choose to join the Armed Forces, and are free to leave at any time. The relationship between those soldiers and us, through the mechanisms of the state, is different. As a friend of mine said yesterday, the thought of modern conflict – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya – makes one angry, politicised, opinionated. The loss of life today is no less upsetting than the loss of life in 1916, but my reaction is too big, too complex, and too contrasting to my reaction to the Somme, that wearing a poppy alone cannot support that.

This year, the object of debate for me has been the British Legion poster with Dame Helen Mirren, showing her wearing a poppy with the quotation: “Our troops are the real stars.” The tag-line for the campaign this year has been ‘shoulder to shoulder with those who serve’, clearly marking a correlation between the wearing of the poppy and recognition of support for the UK armed forces. I don’t blame the British Legion for trying to keep the Poppy Appeal relevant. With fewer and fewer surviving veterans, they pointedly extend the remit of their appeal, beyond merely remembrance.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the celebration of ‘our troops’ above many other public servants. Social workers, nurses, teachers - they can be such remarkable people. And the context in which they operate doesn’t make me feel as uncomfortable as the hierarchical, tightly structured, wholly rigid, compliant, aggressive, homo-violent culture of the military. Let’s think about the word ‘stars’. ‘Stars’ emote glamour, excitement, glory. That’s not war, for Dame Helen’s sake.   

So, how to conclude? First, people who wear a poppy should think hard about why they wear it, and resist blindly and easily following the crowd. Your poppy will hold much more weight if you can fully articulate what it means to you, what messages it carries. Similarly, people who choose not to wear a poppy shouldn’t be branded as ignorant. If the message of the British Legion marketing campaign is too much ideology for their poppy to support, then so be it. There’s no shame.

There also shouldn’t be an assumption that wearing a poppy means buying-in to military pomp or standing ‘shoulder to shoulder with those who serve’. There are people for whom watching a military parade is the emotional equivalent of a enjoying a really good bottle of red wine with a re-incarnated French poet from the 19th century. They wear a poppy, and so do I. Hey ho; never mind, eh?

During the two minutes silence yesterday, I was in the Terrace café in Parliament – moments from where votes were cast to send UK forces to Iraq in 2003, and a minute’s walk from the nation’s set-piece of collective mourning at the Cenotaph. At 11:02, the House of Lords display screen read ‘We Will Remember Them’, the boats on the Thames sounded their horns, and conversation re-started, with a collective intake of breath. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, speculate what those 20 or 30 individuals then enjoying their coffees had thought during their two minutes. Anger fired by politics, pride from pomp, or remembrance. I simply hope it wasn’t blind, automatic, or thoughtless. 


A small post-script. @DavidUnderdown9 has pointed out that conscription was only introduced in 1916 in the UK. A useful reminder, yet I would be very reluctant to make a strong comparison between the volunteer armies, the 'pals' battalions' of 1914 and 15 and the trained soldiers of 2011. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Buy-in to the social contract

There is certainly no worth in people like myself, with too many opinions on too many subjects, pretending that we understand all the causes, and have the solutions to the problems of the last few days. I have also read a lot of drivel across the interweb, with some truly notable exceptions commenting with wisdom and understanding (such as Zoe Williams of the Guardian here, and Camila Batmanghelidjh in the Independent here).

But then, watching the gradual destruction and disintegration of this city’s already declining built environment, caused by the very people it is designed to protect, nurture and serve, is undeniably powerful, and I don’t judge the results of an immediate compulsion to tweet in a less than considered manner; to blog a list of causes and solutions from a position of ignorance; to describe human beings as ‘feral rats’ who, quite frankly, have fairly shit life-prospects compared to the owner of a baby clothes shop in Ealing.

I’ve seen reactionary, racist, authoritarian points of view expressed by close friends, and I must admit, on listening to an audio-boo of a couple of girls describing the thrill of looting, a quick whack with a police baton didn’t seem too concerning. 

I think Ed Miliband is playing the political discourse just about right. Condemning the criminality first and foremost, ensuring order is restored (not at the expense of civil liberties and human rights), but keeping in mind the societal messiness and the need for nationwide soul-searching. The sooner we can restore the rule of law, the sooner we can sit back and ask ourselves how so many young people, from so many areas across the UK, have total disregard for their own lives and for the communities still in the process of bringing them up.

The problem with ‘Broken Britain’ and the ‘Big Society’ that was trumpeted to fix it  (I use the past tense because I cannot see any politician daring to use either term with seriousness after this week) was that it saw simple reasons for individuals’ decisions not to buy into the social contract of liberal democracy. Apparently, Labour had made it too easy for individuals to decide to ‘opt out’ of respectful, hard-working, law-abiding Britain. They could sit on their arses, practically haemorrhaging babies, because Labour would pay them to.

But what of the converse? Did I, aged 13, decide that I would opt into a social contract? Did I decide, having had the morals of right and wrong explained to me, that I would not covet my neighbour’s flat screen TV and blue-ray player? Of course I didn’t – the truth is simply that there was no other frame of reference throughout my upbringing other than that which involved buying into the social contract.

However, this ‘frame of reference’ is more complicated than simply not having been exposed to breaking the law – it’s about understanding what is lost if you do. I have been mugged twice since living in London, and both times my mind went through the same thought process: ‘I can stand here and fight, risking injury, or I can let go of my bag and stamp my foot as they run away’. Both times I let go, because there is too much to lose in fighting back and perhaps being beaten up. There was clearly not 'too much to lose' for my attackers in mugging me. I also have too much to lose in smashing up a shop window, or setting fire to businesses on my local high street. My liberty, my family, my friends, the joy I gain from simply living my life – these are all too precious to risk losing. This is my frame of reference instilled since childhood. 

How would I feel if this weren’t the case, if I didn't know the thrill of achievement, the love of a supportive family, the freedom to travel and see the world?

It’s a quite breathtaking piece of good-bad timing that last Friday saw a performance in London from the Simón Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela. This orchestra is the pinnacle of the country’s El Sistema musical-education-cum-social-inclusion programme, within which 90% are youngsters from severe social disadvantage. I don’t have time to write about how a similar nation-wide programme in the UK might affect our social fabric. It is interesting, however, to consider what happens if you give a child an instrument, give them the prospect of excelling in it and the ultimate goal of touring the world with it. It instils a frame of reference across society which includes long-term goal-setting, and perhaps most important, the chance of failing, and losing it.

The liberal-democratic social contract works because we understand and value that which is lost if we don’t keep up our side of the bargain. It’s the same with religion: not wishing to be inflammatory, but Christianity exists through fear of eternal separation from God following the day of judgement, and belief in the value of his eternal presence.

I don’t buy into the Christian contract, because I don’t care about eternal separation from God (I don’t believe in it, in other words). The same is true of those rioters:

Why buy into the social contract of liberal democracy if you don’t believe in what is lost in breaking it? 

Friday, 22 July 2011

A short confession, and some evidence gathering.

For the regular Londoner, the tube is the cramped, airless, oft-broken embarrassment that is tolerated because no-one will visit you if you live near a National Rail station.

As such, the tube – its stations, lines, maps, history, design (can you sense my heart beating faster?) – evokes, in most, feelings of mild annoyance, of frustration, but mostly of apathy. I would like to suggest that the great majority of people reading this won’t know of a consultation just underway into the extension of the Northern Line to Battersea Power Station? Or that the Queen’s Park to Euston Overground route may be diverted via the freight line just by the Camden junction, to join the existing Richmond to Stratford Overground line (a controversial one – probably won’t go ahead because of public opposition from residents of the commuter-belt north of Harrow).

You might think that transport-geekery is reserved for the anorak-ed men who stand with pad and pen on railway platforms, making careful record of train numbers as they pass. Gents of Lincolnshire do this on the line from Grimsby to Doncaster. What do they expect might happen? Are they waiting for the day a major signalling error diverts a Japanese bullet-train via Scunthorpe, or the day Phillip Hammond mislays the train numbers floppy disk database?

I am here to disclose to the world the existence of a hitherto unspoken-of band of nerds, for whom nothing is as exciting as riding through a ‘dark’ station on the Piccadilly Line. As you can gather, I am a fully paid-up member. In fact, I’m the Honorary Treasurer and Social Secretary.

Since living in London, my soul has been warmed by the numbers of gay men of my socio-politico-intelligentio demographic who get excited by public transport. In fact, in my circles, it’s only gays who are train geeks like me. Quite literally, I am never happier than when using a new piece of transport infrastructure for the first time. On the rare occasions that I am late for a rendez-vous, it usually due to my getting overexcited by choosing a subversive tube and bus route.

My continued analysis of this phenomenon hasn’t proven particularly fruitful. Simply being attracted to the ‘glamour of rail travel’ doesn’t quite cover the public policy element of infrastructural change. Yes, we all love Celia Johnson, but we’re equally jelly-legged after encountering some Crossrail-related demolition. Similarly, I’ve noticed a shared love of the 1920s and 30s ‘speed’ aesthetic in transport advertising, but again it doesn’t permeate the nerdish qualities that will see me waste hours on the individual tube lines’ Wikipedia pages.

So, any ideas, folks? Any gays out there have some transport geekery to confess? You’re welcome to comment below, or simply dismiss these ramblings as my final attempt to prove that I’m not a geek.

*turns on DVD of driver’s eye view of the complete Bakerloo line journey*

Monday, 18 July 2011

A View from the Gothic

First, a Murdoch-style apology. I’m very sorry for dangling the prospect of a regular blog like a disembowelled shrew over your eaglet mouths, only to cut short and stop writing due to both work and play having gone mental. Things calm down this week, so a couple of simmering blog-pans will be cranked up to a full boil. (Note: I’m making up for my absence by showering you with cloying metaphors; be thankful).

Before that, I thought some of you might be interested in my thoughts on last night’s Prom, a performance of Havergal Brian’s much-neglected Symphony Number 1, the Gothic. As a member of the London Symphony Chorus, I was lucky enough to take part in this ‘once-in-a-generation’ event. It was an opportunity for us all to ask the question: is the establishment’s neglect of the Gothic due to a lack of musical quality, or a lack of administrative ambition?

From where I was stood (back row of the Upper East Choir), and from where I’ve been sat in rehearsal rooms for the past month or so, that’s not an easy question to answer. The rehearsal process was laborious, frustrating, and exhausting. Choral singers are trained through an ability to recognise musical patterns, cadences and modulations, and their voices instinctively fall to those ingrained codes. This remains the case with even with the most difficult advanced tonality. With Brian, there was nothing on the page, nor in the ‘air’, that allowed the choruses to rely on instinct. The writing is so bizarre that even the perfect sight-readers amongst us were struggling.

Through choral rehearsals, we strive towards achieving clarity of sound. When you feel that clarity taking hold (normally just before the conductor’s piano rehearsal) it’s a wonderful feeling, particularly with challenging or atonal work. With the Gothic, even when we were pitch-perfect, the choral texture is so mushy and lumpy that rather than striving towards clarity, we were striving towards a kind of fortissimo soup.  The same was true when we joined the other choirs in Birmingham for a massive group rehearsal, and once again in Alexandra Palace for the first tutti. With each step towards the concert, the soup got lumpier and louder, but apparently ‘better’.

All this aside, I do think that the Gothic has merit. The sight of 800 singers standing in unison to the might of the Royal Albert Hall organ must have been thrilling. Music is so much more than notes on a page: it is people and place. The spectacle is of merit in itself, and all involved in the logistics should be applauded, not least Maestro Brabbins.

There is some very bad writing, however. Pitching 200 voices, singing in the middle of their register, against a large brass band playing at cross rhythms to the choir is never going to work. The pink panther clarinet solo and subsequent la la la-ing is daft. And call me a conservative, but Tudor-eque double reed interjections should never follow deeply unsettling chromaticism.

But then we come to the Coda. In setting non confundar in aeternum (let me never be confounded) Brian unleashes hell, quite literally – some of the most horrifying noises I’ve ever heard, and one of the most profound statements of post-WW1 turmoil put to paper. Timpani explode from each corner of the hall with remarkable rhythmic complexity as trombones try in vain to cut through the chaos with short phrases of jollity. Painful homophonic shouts from the chorus try and bring about order, but their attempt at some kind of harmonic unity or optimism is utterly futile as each chord becomes progressively more disturbed.

Once quiet descends, stunningly well-played cello and oboe melodies brought the piece to a close with a quiet and contemplative chorus, accepting of what has gone before. It’s in these final passages that the Gothic makes sense – it’s a work totally overwhelmed by the traumas of the First World War. WW1 was a marker in history that shone an ugly light on the potential for humanity to suffer. In his Gothic, Brian is looking back at that history, celebrating it, teasing it, and altering our perceptions of it through the horrors he and his contemporaries had just experienced. It’s very much like TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) in that regard, from which these lines are taken:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow       
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,   
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only      
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,               
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,              
And the dry stone no sound of water.

Don’t try and compare the Gothic to the 19th century choral masterworks, because it won’t stand up. It’s isn’t a 1920s Symphony of a Thousand, not least because it is a musical representation of horrors quite beyond the comprehension of Mahler. And whilst it may not be as refined as TS Eliot, or as disturbing as Ezra Pound, it has many more natural companion pieces in poetry canon, than in the musical one. 

Friday, 20 May 2011

Accents, poshness, and the 'distinct filter'

Earlier this week, I pounced on a new colleague’s use of the hard northern ‘a’ vowel in a shop when buying ‘plasters’. In the spirit of Northern Solidarity, I asked her, ‘Where are you from, originally?’ She replied with a defensive, ‘Oh no, is it that obvious...?! I’m from Manchester’. The energy in her voice diminished as the sentence reached its end:  the name of one of our greatest cities. I would hesitate to label the concluding tone as ‘shame’ or ‘embarrassment’ (because I have no knowledge of her feelings towards the mother North) yet, in the grand hierarchy of accented localities, Manchester didn’t seem to fair too well in her eyes.

What was it fairing against? Who were its competitors in the accent stakes? Well, we then spoke more about the accents of our office, a Southwark-based think tank. Apart from those of Swedish extraction, and one from Middlesbrough, we all speak with a generic London / home-counties / ‘middle class’ English accent, myself included.

What is it about the British and their accents? Why are we one of the only nations where accent is what is used to label? And the labels that come with accents are the dirtiest ones – class, wealth, success. So often it is not what we say but how we say it that is used to analyse our merits and achievements. And even if the great institutions of the UK don’t discriminate based on accent, those stereotypes remain deeply embedded, and affect how we operate. I certainly don’t remember deciding to start speaking like a southerner, but I’m sure that strong sociological and institutional forces were acting upon me when my voice started to change. On some level, I decided that the way I said things mattered. Maybe it was because of the way power, wealth and happiness were disproportionally shared amongst southern-accented gentlemen on the television?

My accent has always been a talking point. I was born in Grimsby in North Lincolnshire, and raised near a town called Louth. Both of these places have distinctive local accents. Grimsby is a mixture of Mancunian and Hull, best identified by the words ‘car park’. To make that phrase jump from the screen, say outloud ‘waaa waaa’ as if imitating a baby crying, then add a ‘c’ to the first one and sandwich the second with ‘p’ and ‘ck’. Caaaaaaaaaa Paaaaaaaaak. Gorgeous.

The accent of Louth and the Lincolnshire Wolds is a bit of an anomaly, and somewhere between rural west-country and Geordie. Take the following phrase that was often spoken to me when I answered my parent’s phone:
“Now then mate, is Michael there?”
‘Naaaww then’, a generic greeting, colours a conversation with an amount of suspicion. It implies something having occurred that might need commenting on. To me, it belongs more to an all-knowing drag queen than a painfully shy farmer. ‘Mate’, to sound Lincs, should be split into two vowels – ‘me’ and ‘at’. The ‘my’ of Michael, should be the baby cry from Grimsby again.

It’s a big shame for me that I’m not marked by either of these accents. I spent 18 years of my life in a countryside village, well above the Watford Gap, and nobody believes me. Reasons for this lack of accent are complex. First, my sister and I had a ‘correct’ way of speaking drummed into us: no dropped consonants or an over-reliance on vernacular phrases. My mother held up less intelligent children as examples of ‘bad’ speaking, and as a result I think I attached my voice with my brain (my major success and status giver as a child).

Secondly, I’m worried that the label of ‘posh’ that I gained very young thanks to a ‘correct’ way of speaking encouraged me to let my voice slip into southern vowels, even at school. I think I saw ‘poshness’ as a way of increasing and maintaining that status. For whatever reason, southern vowels (which I began to link to my being clever) came with a high status. It was easier to talk to the lady who ran the music festivals if I mirrored her affected twang, for example. Quite upsetting to think that a recording of my Cambridge interview, if such a thing existed, would certainly reveal a 17 year old without any hint of short vowels.

When people ask me why I don’t have a Lincolnshire accent, I excuse it on 3 years in Cambridge and 5 in London. If I’m honest (as I will try to be here) that accent began to fade the moment I began to associate a neutral, long-vowelled accent with status, success, and the high-flying world (a long way from Louth) that I wanted to inhabit.

Now I am stuck with an accent that detaches me from my origins. I’m also grouped in with the southern hegemony of the policy world, which has its own problems. For a start, it’s hard to play the Northern Lad Done Good card with vowels like mine. More importantly, when I talk about the tremendous social and economic problems in North Lincolnshire, I don’t yet think I’m convincing listeners of my commitment to the cause, nor of my understanding of it. The insecurity (what else?) that led to a change of voice in my mid-teens has in turn, ten years later, led to a whole other set of misconceptions – I’m posh, privileged, ignorant of struggle, patronising, out of touch. In politics, as I’m beginning to understand, these labels can be as damaging and limiting as any other.

How terrible that some people should feel an automatic hierarchical inferiority as a result of their accent. How equally terrible that others are said not to have true understanding of life’s struggles because they speak with southern vowels! What a stain on our national identity.

In the UK, your accent forms part of a kind of ever-present, distinct filter through which your words and actions are analysed and judged. Some will choose to repress this filter, or try and shape it – change their accent; adopt more masculine mannerisms; wear shoulder-pads. However, I have learned that there are great benefits to the ‘distinct filter’. I now know that if I aim to be ‘impressive’ by layering intelligence and wit on top of what makes up me (including my origins, my tastes, my sexuality, and my ambitions) the pay off is much greater. In fact, I almost go out of the way to tie what I say to who I am. Perhaps to make up for too many years of insecurity, what I say and what I do must come through the distinct filter of a gay, Wagner-loving, coffee-drinking feminist from Louth, or it has no power for me.

Nowadays, if I ever succeed at something (professionally or otherwise) I know for certain that who I am didn’t get in the way. In fact, it probably helped. At the very least, my success exists right next to those aspects of my person that society has shaped to be more challenging. People may think this a bizarre route to self-confidence, but it has worked for me. Even within the last couple of years I have tried to speak from a less genuine platform, and it did nothing but increase a latent insecurity about the person beneath.

Not to sound too Oprah about it, but for many people, the most difficult relationship to navigate is that between ourselves and ourselves.  Between me, myself and I. For the royal us (Thomas and his pals Thomas and Thomas) that relationship is made functional by thundering honesty. I believe that, for example, my origins and sexuality are two key elements to my identity. I realise that I’m making quite sweeping statements about the nature of identity, which are wide open to easy critique, but it’s late and you’ll be wanting to get to the end of this. We’ll just have to save that discussion for another day.

From my perspective, how great it must be for Lord Prescott to know that all that he is contributed towards him becoming one of the most powerful men in the country (despite the constant stream of prejudice directed at his accent and origins). Indeed, how much easier would that internal relationship have been for David Laws had he become Chief Secretary to the Treasury knowing that his being gay (something that society cultures us to see as a hindrance and a matter of concern) had sat alongside his rise to political power?

We’ll never know. 

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The post that started it all off.

For someone so opinionated (and such a fan of the social networking revolution generally), it's odd that I've avoided blogging. Perhaps I was concerned that my inability to actually write compelling sentences would cast my secret wish to write a piece of literary fiction into the bin of 'never in a million years'.

In 2005, my friends and I were some of the first British facebook guinea pigs, and I feel like my temperament has suited the short and sharp kind of real-time social commentary that I've subsequently grown up with. I can do quick and easy wit (she’s got a sharp tongue on her) but as of yet I don't have any idea if I can hold attention across paragraphs. Time to try, I suppose.

Why else am I blogging now, at 25, nearly five years after I moved to London from Cambridge to seek my fortune, only to discover that presidency of a student drama society didn’t place me on an equal level to Ban Ki-Moon, and that as amazing as it was, directing a musical which featured a flying scaffolding bridge didn't automatically warrant a high flying job, a steady income, or the respect of the inhabitants of world's greatest city?

[Yes, I know that's a cumbersome sentence, and I apologise if you gave up halfway through. Also, on the subject of the flying bridge, I may blog about that soon, with pictures; I expect about 65% of this blog to be nostalgia.]

Well, basically, opinion is a complex thing (obviously) and 140 characters is not enough space within which to express it. Also, my friends don't want me to fill their precious pub-time with oration - they've not said as much, but the last time it happened, eyes were frantically diverted to i-phones, and coats were put on in an attempt to cut me off.

That particular speech was on the Alternative Vote, and my perhaps surprising objection to it. I am a Social Democrat, attracted to portions of Liberalism, but generally positive about the potential good of a strong state. I'm also in favour of electoral reform more broadly, but have several fundamental objections to the Alternative Vote, which I decided to lay out on my facebook profile. Here is the post itself:

If you want electoral reform, and truly fair voting, don't vote 'yes' to a system where the range of opinions expressed on ballot papers are not counted uniformly across all voters.
If AV is introduced, at the next General Election, if you are in the majority of 1st preference voters (i.e. if most people in your constituency agree with you on your 1st choice) any range of opinion expressed on your ballot will more than likely not be counted. You might really like your second choice; it might have been a really close call between 2 and 3. Doesn't matter. It will happen many times that the candidate with the most 1st preferences will lead throughout the counting, and end up reaching 50% first.
Other citizens, however, may see their 2nd, 3rd, 4th preferences influencing the outcome. Someone who votes for the Monster Raving Loony Party as number 1, for example, will then have their ballot looked at more closely, and the subtlety of their political opinion registered. Why should anybody else (no matter what their political opinion) have their range of opinion taken into account, and yours not?
That is not fair.
Yes First Past the Post is crap, but so is AV.
At least with FPTP we have equality of crap.

Reading it back, I'm quite embarrassed by how campaign-speech it is (I use all the tricks for ‘argumentative writing’ we learned in GCSE English language). I was, I think you can tell, frustrated that the 'No' campaign didn't seem to be making this quite crucial argument; a crucial element of the ‘fairness’ debate that was left out of most campaign literature, as far as I could tell.

After I posted it, I was ‘blown away’, as they say, by the response: nearly 30 comments from friends (most of them derogatory, admittedly); several people I very rarely speak to 'sharing' it on their profile; people bringing it up at work; referencing it in blogs, on twitter. How cool to think that I had sparked debate across social medialand! Perhaps the time had come to use my own time to put finger to keyboard, allowing my friends to read my opinions when they had time or inclination to*.

So, that's why I'm writing this blog. One: because people seem to have some kind of reaction to what I say and two: to try and put to bed my secret ambition to write a novel.

*NB I desperately hope that any friends reading this don't misunderstand me – please don’t stop trying to put the world to rights with me in pubs, restaurants, and front rooms. It is perhaps my greatest pleasure, I just don’t want to fill all your time with it.