Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Creative work might not make big bucks, but we must value it.

So says the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University in Belfast, in response to how they are managing budget cuts by amalgamating courses such as anthropology and sociology into wider subjects of study, so that instead of 21-year-olds passionate about their specialism, we have instead: 

Now, I’m not saying that supporting 21-year-olds to understand the job market and how they can take their place within it is a bad thing. I could have probably done with some of that. 

But what I am saying is that when you have the head of a university basically denigrating the joy and wonder that humanities research can offer an undergraduate student, encouraging them to take on post-grad study, potentially becoming a world specialist in their field and inspiring others behind them - well, something has gone very, very wrong in the way we think about the value of education and specifically university education. 

This is a subject close to my BA Hons heart. I studied English Literature - a degree that does not really give you any marketable skills or an understanding of the ‘tenets in leadership.’ At. All. 

What it gave me was joy. 

For me, university was a space where I could discover. I spent three years reading fairly-but-not-very obscure modernist women writers - Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Katherine Mansfield… as well as the women writers on my courses, such as Woolf and Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. At UCL, where I studied, English Literature students had one-to-one tutorial sessions and I was lucky enough that in the second and final year mine were feminists who encouraged me to scooter off syllabus and read as much about Djuna Barnes as I wanted. 

Today, confused guests arrive at my flat and look at my anthology of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, a relic from the time when I wandered off on to a study project about the spectacle of lesbianism in 20th century literature. My special subject essay was on Plath, who I loved then and love more now. And although I had a mild panic when I got to my exams and realised I probably should have read the Yeats and Hemingway set texts instead of just Virginia Woolf and a whole load of off-syllabus women, I’ll never regret that university was, for me, a space where I discovered the women writers I’d always longed for - women writing about female experience, sorrow, joy, bodies… And today I’m still writing about them and reading them and being inspired by them. 

I didn’t learn about the tenets of leadership. What university provided for me was three years of intense joy in a subject I love; an opportunity to learn about culture and history and feminism; three years in which to immerse myself in books and reading and thinking. I might never have secured funding for all my postgraduate study dreams of Jean Rhys. But those years reading and writing and discovering still serve me today - writing my book about modernist Parisian women, setting up the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, and generally banging on wherever I can about feminism and women’s liberation. 

As my friend at university said to me, many, many years ago: ‘why study physics to be an investment banker? Surely study it because you love it?’

What happens when we decide that arts and humanities within universities are no longer valuable? What happens when we tell people that studying 6th century history is no longer valuable - that becoming a specialist in something obscure yet fascinating is no longer a way to contribute to society? 

The views expressed in that interview reflect a wider capitalist and Conservative approach to what we as a society value. And currently, our thinking is that value = making money.

It’s true that it’s unlikely the UK can make much money from studying 6th century history, or that a PhD thesis on Jean Rhys’ use of clothes and make-up to construct identity is going to add much to the Bank of England’s coffers. (let it go, Sian. No one wants that PhD written!)

But why should that be how we measure value? 

Surely studying 6th century history can illuminate things about the human condition and the evolution of society that we can learn from today? Surely exploring the intricacies of history and literature and art and language can tell us how we have developed as people, as groups, how we told our stories then and tell our stories now? 

The obscure doesn’t have to be meaningless. The specialist doesn’t have to be an island. 

We’re living in dark times. To me, we need the spirit of creativity and discovery more than ever. Artists, writers, makers and readers can help us unravel the ugly period we’re living through - can help us to construct meaning, reflect on what’s happening, create a new story, a new narrative. The arts and humanities can change the way we think about things; creative work can change the world! 

I don’t want young people coming out of university to be perfect little capitalist automatons, conforming to what we think society values right now. University is a time to push your boundaries, to think creatively, to discover the unknown and the specialised and be excited by knowledge. I want 21-year-olds to come out of university fired up by the secrets of 6th century history, not humbly trading in today’s political currency. Education should be about questioning the status quo, not conforming to it. 

Britain bangs on a lot about its creative heritage. Right now we’re living through 400 years of Shakespeare, 200 years of the Brontes. James Bond was a big hit again, everyone swooned at Hiddleston in the Night Manager and Hilary Mantel is the best selling Booker winner of all time. 

And yet… funding for the UK Film Council is gone. Schools are cutting their creative writing A-level courses because there’s no money. Theatre groups struggle to get funding, publishing is taking fewer risks and acting is dominated by public school educated men and women who have access to theatrical facilities on site as well as family financial support. 

If we start treating universities as businesses, if we start denigrating the arts and humanities as having little value, if we start squashing creativity and dismissing exploratory creative thinking, then what will our future as a creative society hold?

If we start acting that creative work has little value, then who will be the Shakespeare, Mantel, or Jean Rhys of the future? 

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

For The Heroine Collective: Sylvia Beach

My series for the Heroine Collective on Women of the 1920s Left Bank continues with a profile on one of my favourite women, Sylvia Beach.

Have a read.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The value of women's silence

What would happen, if women stopped staying silent? 

What would happen if every time a man harassed us on the street. Every time a man groped us. Every time a man assaulted us. Every time a man hit us. Every time a man raped us. What would happen if every time this happened, women went to the police? 

What would happen if every time we went to the police, we were believed? 

And the man was prosecuted. Convicted. Sentenced. 

What would happen if every rapist felt the full force of the law? If every DV abuser stood up in court and was sent down to prison? If every entitled male who grabbed and groped and harassed was, oh I don’t know, at least fined? 

Society wouldn’t be able to cope, that’s what. If each one of the 97,000 rapes in the UK led to a conviction. If the 1.2 million incidents of domestic abuse were prosecuted. Every year there are half a million sexual crimes in the UK. Imagine how it would look if nearly half a million men had to take responsibility for those crimes. 

You can’t imagine it, can you? You actually can’t imagine what a world would look like, if every man who abused women actually had to take responsibility for his crimes! 

A few years ago, the Guardian reported that approximately 1,400 girls were abused as part of the Rotherham case. I remember listening to the news and walking to work, before bursting into tears. Why? Because I knew that there were more than 1,000 men in that region who had raped girl children and who would never have to face the consequences of their actions. There were over 1,000 rapists walking around, going to work, going home to their families, knowing that they could just carry on as they are. Never mind the harm they did to those girls. Never mind the trauma they’d left behind them. They would never pay for their crimes. 

And then I thought about all the other rapists and domestic abusers who walk free. In the UK, 85,000 women are raped every year. Only 15% are ever reported and of those 15%, only 6.5% lead to a conviction. 

That’s a lot of men who never have to face the consequences of their violent actions. 

Women’s silence is so valuable in our society. It’s thanks to our silence that the prisons aren’t overcrowded. Our silence keeps the economy afloat. Our silence means violent men can keep their status – their jobs, their families, their friends. 

Patriarchy understands this. It absolutely understands this. It relies on our silence. It keeps us silent by telling us that we won’t be believed if we raise our voices. It keeps us silent by dismissing the violence committed against us, or blaming us for the violence committed against us. 

So much depends on women’s silence. 

But imagine what would happen, if we didn’t stay silent? 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

#InspiringWomen - an interview with The Bandwagon blog

I was interviewed as one of the Inspiring Women being celebrated this year by the Bandwagon Blog.

That makes me officially an inspiring woman, donthca know ;)

Read the full interview here.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

For Music & Literature magazine: Ladivine by Marie NDiaye

I reviewed Marie NDiaye's extraordinary new novel, Ladivine, for the lovely people at Music & Literature magazine.

Translated by Jordan Stump, this brilliant book was long-listed for the Man Booker International.

Have a read of my review.

Monday, 9 May 2016

The Dress

This is a short story I read at the February Talking Tales event at the Left Bank. It's organised by the Stokes Croft writers group. 

It's called: The Dress

She had volunteered in the end. No one else had wanted to. And so now here she is, standing in the aertex-ed hallway with its overpowering smell of Imperial Leather soap and cheap cleaning products; the smell that took her back to childhood, the smell she always associated with sitting on her grandparents’ mud-brown velour sofa, watching the soaps, watching Countdown, watching whatever came on next, the TV on even during tea, not like at home. 

The TV is silent now. She can’t remember if she ever saw it so. It would go to the charity shop, along with the collection of china ornaments that covered every surface, filled every shelf and every nook – the cavorting couple, the pink-gowned woman waiting for her waltz, the shepherdess with her fanciful crook. All purchased from the back of a supplement, advertised with a curled and romantic font, paid for via a coupon. The same ornaments had always stood there, she’s sure of it. Although, would she have noticed if they were, in fact, different? Perhaps the ones she remembers had been replaced long before. She’s been absent, after all, for years. 

It doesn’t matter. They were officially categorised as old now, destined for the charity shop with everything else.  

She admires the neatness of her packing. The ornaments are swaddled in newspapers. The TV sits in a reclaimed box. Back in the hallway, she wrinkles her nose at the blast of soap and cleaning products. Buried beneath those white, bright scents, she can detect the smell they attempt to hide.   

It’s time to tackle the bedroom. 

She realises she’s never been in the bedroom before. 

Stacking the romance novels into boxes, sneezing at the dust rising from the only-once-thumbed pages. Each cover blurs into the one before, each one with its voluptuous heroine: big hair and eyes as big as her mouth, a muscled hero with a penetrating stare. The only change is the hair. Sometimes light. Sometimes dark. 

She notices odd classics confused in the mix. It’s easy enough to see how the gaudy covers could be mistaken for standard romance fare. Adam Bede portrayed as a ripped, shirtless farmer. Guy de Maupassant’s fallen woman resplendent in red, wearing inaccurate court shoes. Melville’s moustachio’d sailor complete with blonde mullet and unlaced shirt against broad chest. 

They must’ve come as a shock: these books where no men are offered as a reward for a woman’s good behaviour. Where no hair tumbles over pillows, and no veil is drawn discreetly over the crunchiness and pleasures of life. 

She turns her attention to the wardrobe. The pastel polyester from local supermarkets bristles with static. She flicks her hands into the air, shaking out the shocks gathering at her fingertips. The blouses, the skirts, the ‘slacks’, all shapeless without the body that wore them as a uniform for twenty years or more.  

Finally she reaches the suitcase. 

It’s old – older than the ornaments, older than anything else in the flat. She runs her hands along the leather edgings, opening the sturdy metal clips with a click. 

She coughs at the musty faugh smell that greets her, waving her hand over her face to chase away the years that have passed between the last time this case was closed, and this moment, right now. 

She looks. 

Lying on top of the case is an exquisite silk brocade ball-gown. Lifting it from tissue paper, it falls in a heavy cascade of blue, pink and gold over her arms, the silk cool between her elbows. The bow on the empire bust-line juts out. She notices the label still stitched in at the neck. Not a name to recognise, just the brand of a local shop. Long gone. 

The brocade is followed by a flurry of baby-blue taffeta underneath a boned corset, petticoat after petticoat billowing below a blue overskirt. The same label, stitched in. A knee-length, sleeveless wiggle dress, white net and white wool. Label, stitched in. A pale yellow satin dress, the neckline plunging from wide straps, the cloud of petticoats barely contained by the fullness of the skirt. Label, stitched in. A deep pink silk tea dress, printed with paisley, the silk as crisp as a new five pound note, a yellowing peter pan collar. Label, stitched in. 

She pulls out dress after dress, liberating each one from its neat and tight folds, until soft silks and crisp silks and firm brocades and sturdy taffeta and slippery chiffons and smooth satins surround her. In each dress the same label, stitched in. 

Her hands dive into the case, excited now, lifting out shoes that are still and spotless on red velvet shoetrees with polished black handles; toes embellished with diamante clips. Satin pumps with thick heels. Neat buttons running up ankles.

She reaches in for the final dress in the case. She notes the faint stain of sweat in the underarms; a smear of powder on the neckline. There’s a softness in each fold that suggests at least one wear; a smudginess to the outline that betrays at least one outing. The buttons up the neck had been left undone. The zip gapes obscene. 

She checks. The label has been unpicked. Its negative remains. 

The colours. The fabrics. The romance novels. The china woman waiting for her waltz. 

What other life had been dreamt of, when the last woman to touch this fabric had run her fingers along its folds? What promise had she seen, when she held the dress tight against her figure, turning her head over one shoulder to check the fit? What other life had been imagined, once, in the promise of silk and taffeta? 

Her tears blob on the one worn dress, fading into the fabric. 

Sunday, 1 May 2016

For Halcyon Lit Mag: The Kindle

I'm beyond thrilled that my short story The Kindle has been published by the lovely people at Halcyon Lit Mag.

It's always really exciting to have a piece of fiction published, especially when it's in the first edition of a brilliant, brand new magazine.

Have a read. I'm really quite pleased with it.

The Kindle