My Open University Experience

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What do you do when you hit eighteen and go to university to study Drama & Literature, and realise you’ve made a whacking-great mistake? Well, I’ll tell you.

You spend a solid month in your campus bedroom, panicking in silence. To distract yourself from the anxiety, you listen to Kings of Leon’s ‘Sex on Fire’ and spin in circles on your swivel chair. You occasionally venture outside, wandering to Tescos to buy rotisserie chicken (and DVDs, so many DVDS). You try to ignore the state you’re in, but feel like imploding when anyone asks you: ‘How’s uni going!?’ You let the panic build, and build, until you finally realise; I have to get out. I have to get out – NOW’.

You eventually find the courage to tell your parents this. You tell your Mum first (she’s just forked out for a celebratory Pizza Hut on her first visit to see you). She’s shocked, concerned, and goes home to tell your Dad. He picks you up from the train station later that night, with half the contents of your bedroom packed in to your bags. You insist to them both you’ll do absolutely anything if they let you quit university, and move back home.

They try to talk you out of quitting, but eventually oblige you because they love you, and they’re concerned your skin now has the texture of a rotisserie chicken. You break the news to friends and teachers: almost everyone thinks you’ve made a life-altering mistake, but you know you haven’t, regardless of how awful it feels (and how chicken-like your skin has become).

The above is what happened when I quit university in 2008. I came home with a sense of simultaneous relief and dread to reassess my options. I was an A-grade Drama and English student at my secondary school *BLOWING MY OWN TRUMPET ALERT*, as well as prefect and Head Girl (a title I wish I’d never accepted). When the news spread that I couldn’t hack university, it was an absolute shocker. Clever Kate had failed. Oh dear…

I was out of work for three months, so I hit-up the job centre for pennies. I was distraught, I felt like I was the only teenager on earth who didn’t enjoy university. I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, I found a part-time job after three months of panic, got off benefits, and realised I still had that burning desire to learn, to know more. I started to consider higher education again, but knew I couldn’t handle another campus university. I looked to The Open University for inspiration and that’s exactly what I found.

I discovered a network of like-minded students and skilled tutors whose united goal was to achieve educational and personal success. I began studying English Literature with The Open University part-time in 2009, and last week I finished my final module. My first act as a deadline-free adult was to play David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, full blast, prancing round my bedroom. For the entirety of the song I felt infinite. When the music stopped, I wanted to cry. Six years of my life, over.

I began reminiscing with an intensity that would shame Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses. I remembered how hard it was to convince people that The Open University was a real university, and that I was a legitimate student (difficult to do that when you’re reading/crying over Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit as part of your children’s literature course). Friends and family made jokes about my ‘fake’ degree, but I took it all in my stride, because I was running this educational marathon for a reason. I was studying the same books as my friends who were studying literature on campus universities, and like all other students I had essays to write, deadlines to meet and exams to stress about. I will graduate with a BA Hons degree in English Literature in September. That’s right: a real degree.

My degree took six years instead of the traditional three because I opted to study part-time. This meant I could gain financial support, so I avoided accruing hefty student debts. I kept my part-time job, and this funded all of my weekends at The Pink Toothbrush (90% of the weekends in a year), and several trips down to Brighton to see my friend John, who was studying at Sussex University. I’ve managed to squeeze a lot of living and laughing in between my deadlines and work schedule, but there were times when I genuinely thought I might implode from the stress of it all.

These were dark days. I was not prepared for the crippling loneliness of being an Open University Student. My ‘days off’ were actually days on the books, on the laptop, on the edge of sanity, trying to cram in as much information as my little walnut brain could take. There were days when I’d stare blankly at my laptop screen, silently willing my grey matter in to action. It wouldn’t respond and the frustration was ridiculous; I’d panic, talk in a gibberish rage to my Mum, then run upstairs to cry for a solid thirty minutes. I’d snot out all the fear, have a pep talk with my reflection, then return to the laptop to write like a beast.

Fortunately, encouraging emails from tutors and student forums bursting with similar ‘I CAN’T DO IT, HELP ME!’ messages reassured me that it was normal to feel paralysed and lonely when deadlines approached. (I also discovered that power naps were the ultimate ally on deadline days, and this made the crying/snot less frequent).

Anyway, enough complaining: now for the praise.

I have always relied on literature to help me process things. I cite Roald Dahl’s Matilda as one of my earliest and closest friends (I’ll allow a 10 second laughing break here). She knew books weren’t for ‘boffins’ (classic year six banter) and that your mind is an immensely powerful instrument that needs to be tuned, and re-tuned with all kinds of new information. It’s this desire to devour the written word which made me choose The Open University and why, despite my initial traumatic entry into higher education, I never gave up.

Regardless of what was happening at work or in my personal life, I always felt that I could hit the books and everything would be fine. The quiet, inner knowledge that I was consistently working towards something kept me going for six strong years. I knew the literature I read was improving me, whether academically or emotionally. People who insist they ‘don’t read’ don’t realise what they’re missing. I’m all for living in the real world and putting yourself in the way of experience, but vicarious experiences are equally as valid. I’m glad I have travelled through the minds of some of the most intelligent writers in the English language in the company of The Open University. (If you think I’m nuts, a recent study has proved readers of fiction tend to have higher empathy levels aka are really quite nice, lovely people)

It was this unfathomable self-belief that made me set the following target for myself: in my last two years of studying, I promised I would score a minimum of 70% on all assignments. In between the working, panicking, and being hung-over I excelled this target, scoring between 80-85% on my essays. Sometimes I had to ask for extensions (ill health played a major role in this), and sometimes I had to sit up until the wee hours, then wake up at 5am before an 8 hour day at work to meet the seemingly unachievable deadline. Now, all of that sweating and studying is over, and I’m strangely sad that the student chapter of my life has come to a close (but let’s face it, it’s about time). It’s time to set myself new targets, preferably ones that don’t have deadlines too.

If you find yourself in the same situation I did when I first considered university, or if you feel you’re stuck and unable to change something; please don’t panic. Please don’t think you’ve ruined your life, and for the love of God: PLEASE DON’T WASTE ALL OF YOUR SAVINGS ON ROTISSERIE CHICKENS. Stand up, take a deep breath, accept it’s not working and look at The Open University’s website. If you’re hesitant about starting, my advice is to pick a module that appeals to you, and go for it.

The Open University is D.I.Y for the mind. With the tools they give you, you’ll be able to build something useful, sustainable and concrete. If you want it, you can have it, all you have to do is apply yourself and keep going, regardless of how hard it gets. You can do it, and you won’t regret trying.

(Image courtesy of: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbwjua7zXz1qi86x2o2_500.gif)

19th May – World IBD Day 2015

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Bowels are important – we all know that – but today is World IBD Day; so they’re extra important for the next 24 hours. This day has been set aside on the calendar to raise awareness of Irritable Bowel Diseases, particularly the two most common in the UK: Crohn’s & Ulcerative Colitis.

I was diagnosed with mild Ulcerative Colitis when I was 12. I’ve been quietly living with it for 13 years and have rarely spoken about the hospital appointments, blood tests, endoscopies, and medication I endure in order to stay well. I’ve always struggled with telling people about the illness, but after reading the stories from other sufferers on the Crohn’s & Colitis Facebook page, I realised I am blessed to only suffer the occasional relapse; some people are slaves to this cruel condition.

Reading these stories, however, gave me the courage I needed to say ‘Come on Bob, it’s not that bad, don’t let it hold you back! – and that’s the revelation I’ve decided to share with you today, on World IBD Day.

I wrote a blog about how I’ve let Ulcerative Colitis dictate my decisions not to go to music festivals, but this year, I’ve decided to GO FOR IT. I’m off to Isle of Wight Festival in June and then to Bestival in September. Me & my bowels are being brave – and I don’t give a s**t about anything else.

More Lessons From The Laughter Academy

In a previous blog post I spoke about the trials and triumphs of pushing myself back in to performing on stage with The Laughter Academy. I have just performed in my third set of improvised showcases, and I want to share what this course in particular has taught me.

1. You can get through anything if you’re willing to laugh about it

Occasionally, I’d rather implode than discuss the things which make me want to punch holes in the sky screaming ‘I DEFY YOU, STARS!’ in a Romeo-esque rage (see gif below). The ‘things’ vary. I might be distraught watching the Snickers I paid 70p for get stuck during its fall to the bottom of the vending machine. I might be riddled with self-loathing about the decisions I’ve made whilst living by the mantra: ‘What would Courtney Love do?’

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What stops me from having a Shakespearean-style breakdown? Laughter; genuine laughter, fake laughter, nervous laughter, evil laughter. The sound of a laugh – like the effortless sound of a human heart beat – is beautifully reassuring. Week after week, The Laughter Academy has kept my laughter levels at optimum capacity.

2. You can get away with anything if you do it with conviction.

I’ve been wearing the same Dr Martens for five years and the same pair of denim cut-off shorts for six. I consistently wedge in jokes about feminism and having a bob cut. I’m boring, yes, but I’m boring with conviction, and that’s what makes it okay!

If no-one laughs at the joke, that’s okay too; power through until the next punch line and don’t lose focus. This works in all situations; keep bloody going, regardless of how wearisome or embarrassing it might seem. The Laughter Academy has supported my comical outbursts and forced me to think outside of my bob-shaped box.

3. Time is precious – don’t take it for granted

Time flies: whether it’s the short time I’m on stage or the extra hour I stay behind in the pub after class. Lessons and showcases seem to last only moments, which is why they need to be cherished. I have made friends at The Laughter Academy who encourage me to pursue my ambitions. They won’t let me give up; even when I am convinced I should.

(Gif courtesy of: http://33.media.tumblr.com/4defd892aab30fd27d4e355ffe395d32/tumblr_n4el29Po661qj4315o1_500.gif)

WOW – Women of the World Festival 2015

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‘Our life experience – that’s our expertise’ – Jude Kelly

I have so much to say about my experience at The Women of the World Festival this weekend, but in the interest of a) getting some sleep, b) catching up with university work, and c) making up for the meals I had to skip; I’ve tried to be as brief as possible (although condensing it down feels like extinguishing an already exploding firework).

The Women of the World Festival (WOW) was founded five years ago by Jude Kelly, the artistic director of The Southbank Centre. It is designed to champion the artistry, activism and achievements of women from all walks of life. I had previously attended stand alone events, but I had never attended the entire weekend. This year, I felt it was time to immerse myself in to everything the Festival had to offer.

(Before I forget: editor, friend, and all round excellent human, Louisa, spoke at the Cambridge WOW festival on Sunday about the creation of the Belle Jar website. Read her blog here!)

On Friday 6th March at 9:30am, Jude Kelly opened the festival by reminding us even if we don’t consider ourselves to be activists, by turning up to WOW; we had become active in the campaign for gender equality. She then began the festivities with the first event: ANNIE LENNOX IN CONVERSATION. I was so excited to see Lennox speak, that I arrived 30 minutes before the Southbank Centre opened. Turns out, ‘Sweet Dreams’ are made of £2.50 cappuccinos, a lot of patience, and thorough time keeping.

Lennox joked that when she was younger she thought she couldn’t be a feminist because she was ‘too vain’. She wanted to be aligned with the cause, but often felt intimidated and ‘not good enough’ because she enjoyed expressing herself by wearing make-up and high heels. What a relief it was to hear someone, who I regard as beacon of hope and power, admit that they too had experienced anxiety about their own place within a feminist world. Jude Kelly kindly pointed out this was a typical reaction from young women to feminism, and arguments which state feminists shouldn’t wear make-up, or be feminine, are an irrelevant distraction from the true feminist cause: to gain equality.

Lennox opened up about her personal life, and shared her belief that women naturally feel a lot of pain, emotionally and physically. She revealed her first experience of motherhood – giving birth to a still-born son – was the ultimate combination of these two types of pain. I felt a terrible urge to cry when she said this. What stopped my tear ducts from leaking, however, was the way she explained what this personal tragedy had taught her.

It had opened her eyes to the tragedy of every day life, and cemented her own personal belief that she must help, she must make a difference to women in a less fortunate situation. She channelled her pain in to activism, and as a result she raised immense funds and awareness around the issues of poverty, HIV and AIDS. Jude Kelly summarised Lennox’s outlook beautifully:

‘You must realise your own potential, then you can open doors for other people.’

Feeling high on life after hearing Annie Lennox share her experience and insight, I stayed to watch Jude Kelly chair the BLURRED LINES discussion with news presenter Kirsty Wark, journalist Hannah Pool and BBC Newsnight editor Ian Katz. Their discussion considered the impact of misogynist behaviour on the internet, and how women in the public eye are generally trolled, and criticised more violently than men. The debate also highlighted the Campaign4Consent, which was set up by seventeen year old school girl Lily and her friends, in order to get the issue of consent on to the UK school curriculum.

In the queue for the next event, WOW QUESTION TIME, I met another girl who had come to WOW by herself. We struck up a conversation, and after introducing ourselves properly, realised we shared the same first name (Kate, not Bob). I don’t usually buy in to the fate/mystical universe thing; but I’ll admit that meeting another Kate at an event which made me want to burst with feminist glee is pretty cosmic. Unfortunately, due to excessive interest, we didn’t get in to the event, so we attended a discussion entitled THE WOMEN WE LEAVE BEHIND instead.

This conversation centred around the women and girls who live in countries where western foreign policy, interventions, and civil unrest are consistently detrimental to women’s rights. The insight of panellist Feruz Werede, a human rights activist, was particularly poignant. She spoke about the human rights abuses that are affecting women and girls in Eritrea, the country where she was born. This abuse includes trafficking of girls and women, and harvesting their organs for sale. I felt wretched with ignorance. Why wasn’t this being reported in the international media? Was anyone trying to help these women? Feruz explained that Eritrea’s laws and government are intensely secretive, and getting aid in and out of the country is not always possible. Fortunately, organisations like Equality Now are trying to put activism and legislation together, in order to help the women and girls who face atrocities like this, and to bring closer attention to the global issue of violence against women both at home, and abroad.

‘Often, the media is amoral at best, or immoral at worst, with regards to women’ – Jude Kelly

The next events on my agenda were about WOMEN IN JOURNALISM (which bestowed me with a FREE goodie bag) and HOW TO WIN AT B/VLOGGING. It was after these events that I realised it was almost 4pm, and I hadn’t eaten since 7am. After a hasty dinner, I concluded my first day at WOW back in the hub with Jude Kelly, who was interviewing broadcaster Lauren Laverne and HSBC’s most senior lawyer, Sandie Okoro. I enjoyed Lauren’s stories of being in a band, and trying to ignore sexism in the music industry by cracking jokes, and thinking of herself as Iggy Pop. Sandie Okoro revealed that when she was seven, she told her school teacher she wanted to be a judge and the teacher cruelly replied: ‘little black girls from Balham don’t become judges’. Okoro urged the audience to ‘Think big. Ambition is free’, and her own advancement in the legal business has proved this. I left the Southbank Centre feeling full of potential.

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I awoke on Saturday 7th March full of fire, and ready for another day at WOW. I attended the MAN UP OR MAN DOWN workshop, which discussed sexist language and how to combat it. As well as being informative, the banter was top notch. The girls and women in my group were laid back and supportive. I didn’t feel judged or like I’d ‘got it wrong’ – a notion which many of the speakers addressed when they were speaking about female potential. They were keen to remind us that this is how patriarchy encourages women to feel – and that even acting as an equal often feels like ‘misbehaving’ (Jude Kelly).

I flew from one language based event to another: HOW TO GET PUBLISHED, chaired by author, founder of The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and all round literary hero, Kate Mosse. Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project was also involved in Mosse’s talk, and both women provided fascinating and useful insight in to writing and publishing both non-fiction, and fiction books. Mosse urged us to claim the title of ‘writer’ regardless of a publishing deal, and to write every day, to work at it, to normalise it; to make it less intimidating. Female perspectives and female stories are important, and the job of the female (or male) writer is to have their ‘eyes down, on the page’, sharing those personal experiences.

Next on my agenda was a CONSENT WORKSHOP, which was introduced by Laura Bates, before being led by Susuana Antubam, the National Women’s Officer for NUS. Susuana spoke about the I Heart Consent campaign which she is currently running in universities and colleges, and we had group discussions about the true definition of consent, and the numerous issues surrounding rape culture.

When I was at school (only 6/7 years ago), no-one was talking about the issues of consent in sex education. I learnt about the biology of sex – but that was it. It seems ridiculous that I didn’t know I could say ‘No’, and not have to justify myself. I discussed this with two girls in my group who were studying for their GCSEs, and I spoke to a woman who was attending the workshop so she would be able to give this information to her grand-daughter. The workshop  solidified my belief that women are now feeling brave enough to say ‘no’.

On Sunday 8th March, I awoke with that fiery excitement still burning inside me (and without a hang-over!) and gunned it back to The Southbank. It was International Women’s Day, so everything felt like it had an extra-feminist edge. I went to EMILY DICKINSON: PRESENTED BY POET IN THE CITY, which involved a panel discussion about Dickinson’s poetry, and live readings of selected poems from the glorious Juliet Stevenson. I briefly met with my friend and fellow Belle Jar writer, Juliette, before she went to THE EDUCATION EMERGENCY event and I attended the BEING A MAN talk.

The panel included poet Anthony Anaxagorou, writer and broadcaster Ekow Eshun, psychotherapist John McKeown, and artistic director of The Red Room, Topher Campbell. They spoke about the aversion to emotion that is encouraged within masculinity, and patriarchal culture, and the way this damages men and boys of all different ethnicities and sexual orientations. Whilst there were no concrete conclusions on how to solve negative, inherited masculine attitudes; the efforts of the panellists in their professional and personal lives, were encouraging and uplifting.

I made my way to The Queen Elizabeth Hall to see YOU’VE BEEN FRAMED, a discussion about WOMEN’S MENTAL HEALTH. This was the most revelatory discussion of the weekend. Artist Bobby Baker, and Chair of National Hearing Voices Network, Jacqui Dillon, spoke at length about their personal experiences of being diagnosed with mental illness. Whilst both women were inspirational, I found Jacqui’s story particularly poignant. Jacqui was born in to a family that associated with a paedophile ring, and consequently, suffered sexual abuse from an extremely young age. When she reached her twenties and decided to seek professional help, but she was told by psychiatrists she was ‘psychotic’, and had imagined the abuse. They refused to accept Jacqui’s psychosis was a natural reaction to intense, and prolonged trauma.

Fortunately, Jacqui eventually found professionals who were willing to accept the truth; which is why she is now able to tell her story to strangers like me. Jacqui and Bobby’s discussion highlighted something crucial: psychiatrists and societies often re-frame people’s natural responses to trauma, and diagnose them as mental illness. They pathologise or medicalise natural reactions. They don’t always consider the social context may be the true issue which needs addressing, not the reaction of the individual.

My weekend at WOW was coming to a close, so I took a seat at the final discussion and caught up with Juliette again. The discussion came in two parts, firstly, Jude Kelly offered her thoughts on the subject WHY WOMEN STAY. We stay, quite simply, because there is nowhere else to go. Women across the globe are immobilised in so many ways. In her introduction to Laura Bates’ book Everyday Sexism, Sarah Brown states that ‘women who lead, read’. Two thirds of the world’s women can’t read – how can they be expected to get anywhere without a basic education? Jude Kelly urged us to keep calling out sexism, to keep being exhausted and irritating in our own circles, because the world is slowly starting to realise that empowering women, means empowering the world.

The second part of the discussion, entitled FUTURE FEMALE: THE ECONOMIC CASE FOR GENDER EQUALITY ACROSS THE GLOBE, featured a live Skype session with Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, and a further discussion with Jude Kelly and BBC Radio 1’s Gemma Cairney. Christine insisted gender equality matters so much, because it makes economic sense. She also raised the following point:

‘We used to be called the fair sex, but for the fair sex, it’s a very unfair situation’.

This unfair situation was then addressed by campaigner Eloise Todd, who was promoting the newly launched Poverty is Sexist Campaign. This is one of the many organisations dedicated to improving women and girl’s economic independence across the globe. Finally, Christine answered Gemma’s question: What three pieces of advice would you give to your twenty-five year old self? Christine’s reply was simple:

  1. Grit your teeth and smile.
  2. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
  3. If you’ve tried everything, and it doesn’t work, leave; they don’t deserve you.

The applause at the end of the discussion was deafening, and I was both elated and exhausted to have been witness to such a glorious Festival.

I’ve spent the last two days typing out just a fraction of what I encountered this weekend at WOW. This weekend has proved to me there is an immense power behind the sharing of personal experience, the sharing of statistics and information, and the sharing of art and creativity. Whether this is shared in the form of debate, lectures, or a bit of banter; I believe by spreading the word, signing the petitions, and documenting the speeches; we can help alter negative perspectives on feminism.

The power of the individual story is only as powerful as the individuals who listen to, and re-tell that story. That’s what my weekend at WOW helped to re-enforce. I’m already looking forward to next year.

P.S. For anyone who wants to hate on this by saying ‘Women get their own Festival, what about men?!’ – You can attend the Being a Man Festival (BAM) later in the year. Give me a shout when you do, I’d like to come with!

P.P.S. This post is definitely the opposite of brief. Oops.

The Runaways

 

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In between panicking about assignment deadlines, trying to be funny at comedy class, and drunk-dancing under the strobes on a Saturday night; I have been reading Cherie Currie’s biography Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway.

‘Cherie fucking Currie, the Queen of Hate.

Currie’s book documents the time she spent as the lead singer of the all-girl rock group, The Runaways. The group was fronted by Cherie, with Lita Ford on guitar, Jackie Fox on bass, Sandy West on drums, and the amazing Joan Jett on guitar and vocals. Cherie joined the band when she was fifteen and transformed in to the Cherry Bomb on stage, wearing raucous outfits and promising to ‘have ya, grab ya, ’till you’re sore!’ Together, they proved to the world that girls could rock.

‘There was a point when I realized that you could get away with just about anything so long as you do it with enough conviction.’ 

Neon Angel was adapted for the silver screen in 2010, appearing under the name of The Runaways. The film was directed and co-written by Floria Sigismondi, and starred Dakota Fanning as Cherie, and Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett. After watching the film, I had two immediate desires:

  1. Join an all girl rock band and become a Cherry Bomb.
  2. Read Cherie Currie’s memoir to see if being a member of The Runaways,really was as wild as the film suggested.

Whilst Sigismondi’s film is faithful to the spirit of Currie’s book, it blends and overlooks some of the more personal aspects of Currie’s biography (which makes sense from a commercial, film-making perspective). Cherie was an identical twin, which is not addressed in the film, and the brutality of The Runaway’s manager, Kim Fowley, was also diluted on the screen. The severe trauma(s) that Cherie Currie experienced are also left on the pages of her biography.

Before she had reached the age of seventeen, Currie had been raped by her sister’s boyfriend, sexually assaulted by several men, and had to terminate a potentially wanted pregnancy. Add to this the pressures of cutting records with a successful rock band, and a heightened exposure to drugs and alcohol; and it’s hard to not regard Currie as a phoenix rising up out of some truly hellish ashes.

‘I realized that I had spent most of my life as a slave to something. I grew up as an emotional slave to the rotten kids in school, to my parent’s bitter fights. Then, after Derek came along, I became a slave to something else: I became a slave to my own hatred and rage. It was on the road with the Runaways that I came to the conclusion that all of that was finally behind me. I was free to do whatever I wanted. I would never be a slave to anything again.’

Below is a clip of Dakota Fanning performing Cherry Bomb in The Runaways film. Read Currie’s book and watch Sigismondi’s film, and prepare to feel the explosion of The Cherry Bomb.

 

**The edition I’m reading/quoting from: Currie, C. (2010), Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, Tony O’Neill (ed.), New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Fifty Shades of Disappointment – Revisited

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To mark the release of the infamous film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, I have re-posted a blog I wrote about my experience of reading E.L James’ novel. I’ve updated the post to include the extra paragraph that featured in the version of the blog I submitted to Belle Jar (and because for a literature student, my grammar is sometimes appalling.)

I will probably crack and go and see the film, because: JAMIE DORNAN. I just want it on record that I really wish everything about Fifty Shades was fifty times better. Here’s my updated rant:

I would like to begin this post by stating that naturally, I admire anyone who has taken the time and energy to produce a novel. I appreciate that it takes an immense amount of courage and bravery to write and publish your own work. It’s something I hope to achieve in the future and the idea of someone picking up my work and ripping it to shreds, breaks my tiny walnut heart. I am about to criticise E.L James erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. I now sound like a complete hypocrite (especially as I didn’t finish the book, I only read 178 pages) but rather than just shouting ‘I HATE IT! I HATE IT! I HATE IT!’ I thought I’d explain why I couldn’t finish reading it.

You might be thinking ‘Ugh, Bob is clearly just over-sensitive/easily offended and should get over this mildly pornographic novel’. If you think that, then you clearly don’t know me very well. I am not offended by graphic descriptions of sex in literature – it’s 50% of the reason I love books so much. You can be as filthy as you like in the most intelligent of ways! The library scene in Ian McEwan’s Atonement gives me tingles, Emilé Zola’s Germinal makes me do a sexy shudder, and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is still rocking my world. I was hoping Fifty Shades would provoke a similar reaction.

I’d spoken about the book with friends, and my old school teachers. They had all come to a similar conclusion: that it was terribly written soft porn. Some of them liked it, some of them dismissed it. I wanted to read it out of curiosity, but didn’t want to actually pay for it (just in case it really was complete trash.) Fortunately, I was in a charity shop one day and I saw it on the shelf at the tempting price of 75p. I handed over my pennies to the smirking, yet sympathetic cashier, and hastily left the shop as if I’d just committed a terrible crime. I started reading the next day, and I was generally impressed with the way E.L James established the characters of the young literature student Anastasia Steele, and the intimidating businessman Christian Grey. (Obviously, with the turn of every page I was waiting for some sexy bits, but that didn’t happen until about page 100.) I continued reading and started to become aggravated with James’ persistent repetition of specific phrases. The words ‘holy hell’ appeared before, during, and after every awkward, sex-free encounter Anastasia had with Christian. She also reused the phrase ‘damn my clumsiness!’ too many times to count. I wanted to scream in to the page: ‘I GET IT! SHE’S CLUMSY!’ If James cut half of these phrases the novel would flow smoothly. However, this isn’t what disappointed me the most…

Before they engage in sexual activities, Christian Grey busts out a hefty, sexy contract for Anastasia’s consideration. It states that Christian wants to be ‘the dominant’ and control all aspects of Anastasia’s sex life, therefore making her ‘the submissive’. There’s a very important bit about consent, discretion, physical well-being, and personal limits, but you get the gist, right? Well, the amount of pages James dedicates to the explanation of this ‘contract’ is one of the most excessive, boring things I‘ve ever had to read (and I’ve read Middlemarch.) Her repetition of ‘the dominant’ and the ‘submissive’, nearly caused me to rip the book to shreds. I don’t ever want to see those words in print again (…oops.) However, this still isn’t what disappointed me the most…

The character of Christian Grey is cringe-worthy. From the reviews I’d read and the facebook statuses I’d seen, I assumed he was a Demi-God. Quite frankly, I’m not turned on by his helicopter (the one he physically flies, not the penis trick), his entrepreneurial success, or fundamentally anything he does or says. I don’t like the way he keeps talking to Anastasia’s vagina about its ‘intoxicating smell’, and I especially hate the way he calls her ‘baby’. Don’t even get me started on his ‘sexy’ Red Room (weird/inappropriate allusion to Bluebeard and Jane Eyre there? Another reason why the book infuriates me!) I’m surprised Anastasia didn’t out-right laugh in his face when Christian showed it to her, gave her a sexy contract and said ‘think about it, yeah babe?’ (THAT’S BASICALLY WHAT HE DOES!) However, this still isn’t what disappointed me the most…

I cannot handle the way Anastasia Steele does not call her vagina what it is: A VAGINA! She refers to it as ‘my sex’. James will write graphically about oral and penetrative sex, but she refuses to use the word ‘vagina’? She doesn’t even use a playful word like ‘p***y’, or something blunt like ‘c**t’, she constantly refers to it as ‘my sex’. Perhaps she thinks this displays Anastasia’s consent and ownership over her body? Perhaps it is, actually sexy? Over 70 million copies of the book have been sold, which means other people seem to really enjoy this kind of thing. I appear to be alone in my loathing of this newly coined, vaginal terminology. However, this still isn’t what disappointed me the most…

Finally, I am about to reveal the real reason that I had to stop reading Fifty Shades of Grey. The first time E.L James referenced Thomas Hardy’s tragic nineteenth-century novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I knew I was destined not to reach the finish line. It is Anastasia Steele’s favourite book, it also happens to be one of mine. James uses the novel’s title as a motif; a classic reference that could potentially give her novel a sturdy, credible backbone. I am about to smash that backbone right up. For those who haven’t read Hardy’s novel, seventeen year old Tess Derbyfield is raped by her ‘cousin’ Alec D’Urberville. There are many literary critics who have tried to dismiss this rape by arguing that Tess is a passive, but consenting sexual partner. To summarise: their argument is BULLS**T. It is horrifically clear that Tess does NOT consent to Alec’s advances. She is a seventeen year old girl, completely unaware of how to defend herself in a society where she is deemed a sinner, even though she is the victim of horrific sexual harassment. Tess’s appeal to her Mother after she has been raped surely proves that she was not an active, consensual partner in her encounter with Alec D’Urberville:

‘How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn’t you warn me?’

I feel that James uses references to Hardy’s novel incorrectly, and as poor justification for male dominance and female submission. How does Tess’ story compare to Anastasia’s story? Anastasia is ‘warned’ by Christian’s ‘contract’ about what he would like to do to her. She wholeheartedly admits that she desires him in every way. Not once does Tess admit desire or consent to sex with Alec. Tess is raped, Anastasia is not. I find it baffling that E.L James thought this would be a valid reference for her novel. Even in terms of ‘the dominant’ and ‘the submissive’, it is still a completely misused reference. This is why I had to stop reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

I am open to the idea that James’ novel isn’t supposed to be taken seriously (it is fan fiction based on the characters of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen from the super successful Twilight series.) I like to think that readers are potentially more interested in the emotional relationship between Anna and Christian, than the sexual relationship, but I find it disappointing that such a badly written novel with such inappropriate references, has gained such popularity. If like Oscar Wilde famously said, all art is ‘useless’, then Fifty Shades is harmless, but if all art is ‘propaganda’ like George Orwell suggested; what kind of message is James trying to convey? She is exploring elements of female sexuality, which is commendable, but her characters are so unsatisfying (and highly unrealistic – I don’t know any women who managed to climax whilst losing their virginity), I could only read 5-10 pages at a time before the disappointment turned to despair. I’m genuinely confused as to what kind of message this novel sends to women and men, about the role of sex in a relationship? The only thing I can praise is the discussion about consent, but even that was portrayed in the unrealistic medium of a ‘contract’.

I fully accept that it’s not the best idea to judge a book by its first 100 pages (178 to be precise). However, I have researched the plot online and can happily say that I would‘ve gained nothing but another rage-induced headache from continued reading. I also fully accept that I have repeated the phrase ‘However, this still isn’t what disappointed me the most…’ four times, thus committing the same literary sin as E.L. James. Oh well, I doubt she will take offence at this blog post for the following reasons:

  1. I only have about 5 regular readers
  2. She’s one of the best-selling authors in the world, why would she care what one disgruntled reader thinks?
  3. Jamie Dornan is going to make even haters like me sort of want to see the film (DAMN YOU DORNAN, YOU CHARASMATIC BASTARD!)

Belle Jar at The Guardian Student Media Awards 2014

Before I launch in to an explanation of what happened at The Guardian Student Media Awards (still suppressing the urge to scream with joy whenever I say/type that), I would like to explain just how I came to be standing in The Guardian Offices on the 27th of November, with some of the most brilliant women I have ever met.

In July 2013, my friend John sent me a link to a website called Belle Jar. I spent most of the day browsing through the articles on the site, overjoyed that I had found a corner of the internet that I could relate to. Belle Jar declared that its aim as a website was to ‘smash patriarchal norms, one day at a time’, and I decided to be brave and send in an article for the editor’s consideration. I submitted my article ‘Why I need Feminism’, and held my feminist breath. The editor, Louisa, replied saying she would be happy to publish the piece, and invited me to join the informal writing group on Facebook; my tiny walnut heart cracked with joy. At the time, I was just discovering my own voice through the medium of this blog, and through studying feminist criticism as part of my Literature degree, and Belle Jar’s acceptance made me feel more confident about my writing.

Through writing for Belle Jar and sharing the work of the numerous writers that also contribute to the website, I have managed to form a firm, feminist, friendship with Louisa and co-creator Juliette. Our mutual dislike for misogyny has taken us to see incredible women like Malala Yousafzai, Mary Beard, and we have even been to the House of Commons. It is Louisa & Juliette’s originality, effort, and dedication to Belle Jar, that resulted in their nomination for ‘student website of the year’ at The 2014 Guardian Student Media Awards (and Louisa’s last minute entry in to the competition!)

When she received the news that she had been shortlisted, she invited Juliette & I to attend the ceremony with her (I proceeded to type all further communications in Caps Lock, whilst trying not to explode with gratitude and excitement). On the night of the event, we all met at Kings Cross Station to have a pre-awards catch up. The girls greeted me like old friends, and we were escorted to The Guardian Offices by Juliette’s sister, Erika.

I won’t deny that part of the excitement surrounding the ceremony was the knowledge that there would be free alcohol and food. However, the bigger attraction was being involved in an event hosted by The Guardian newspaper. I live in a county that generally promotes looks over books (decorating your vagina with diamantes is a genuine past-time in Essex, according to TOWIE), so attending The Guardian Student Media awards was an absolute privilege for me. It is difficult to express just how much I admire and enjoy the articles I read in this publication. I still find it hard to believe they let me in the building, let alone drain their white wine resources. Louisa and Juliette quickly greeted a few students who they recognised from their own Universities, before we made our way to the front to watch the ceremony. The evening was introduced by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian. Alan kindly reassured us that we were ‘all winners’ due to our nominations, before handing over to Rick Edwards (T4 presenter/writer) who was charismatic, sharp and devastatingly attractive.

The winners were announced and unfortunately, we were not amongst them. However, Mr Rusbridger’s previous words of wisdom softened the blow, and we decided to use the rest of the evening to our advantage. I use the term ‘we’ loosely, Juliette and Louisa were fantastic networkers; I spent most of the time nodding and grinning, hoping that would mask just how overwhelmed/drunk I was. We managed to speak to one of the judges in charge of the website nominations, and she was extremely accommodating; praising the website and informing us that we were the only website of our kind to be shortlisted. She also pointed us in the direction of two of the writers who work for The Student section of The Guardian, who were really friendly and insightful. I did manage to speak coherently to two other students who had been nominated in the photography category, and we all walked the short distance to the after party at a nearby pub together, and proceeded to drink and chat the night away.

With Louisa & Juliette’s guidance and friendship, I have patched together my disconnected thoughts about feminism, which has ultimately transformed my approach to writing. Thanks to the success of this evening, I will always look to Belle Jar and The Guardian for inspiration and reassurance, (and the GIF below).

Here we are with our Bob cuts and business cards:

BELLE BOBS

(Here is a list of all the winners from the evening too)

The Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour – New Dark Arts Exhibit

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‘I solemnly swear that we are up to no good’

When the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour opened in 2012, like thousands of other muggles; I was desperate to go. I got my chance to visit in February 2013, and it was every bit as magical as I expected it to be. Visiting the Harry Potter Studio Tour is a privilege in itself; but visiting it on a press night, with complimentary drinks and snacks, redefines the word privilege. My journalist friend Rachel allowed me to share this opportunity with her last night. We were there to experience the new ‘Dark Arts’ exhibit.

The experience was all the more exciting for me, as I’ve recently read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for my Open University course in Children’s Literature. Reading J.K Rowling’s first book made my little, walnut heart swell with nostalgic glee, so re-visiting the Warner Brothers Tour became an extra-emotional experience (the free drink probably helped with that too).

Rachel & I were greeted with a glass of complimentary champagne, the sight of Location, Location, Location’s Kirsty Alsopp; and then took our seats in the screening room. We chatted excitedly, even though we knew what to expect as we have both been on the tour before (this was Rachel’s fourth time; try not to hate her). Mid-conversation, Simon Pegg walked in to the room and I immediately lost my trail of thought. I tried to play it cool, but shrank in surprise/embarrassment at his appearance, and promptly text my Mum the news instead. The lights went down, the introductory film was screened and then we were let in to The Great Hall (a novelty that will never wear off).

Along with the other guests, Rachel & I were allowed to roam freely around the sets, taking pictures and enjoying the magical atmosphere. Like moths to a flame (or perhaps more accurately, Harry Potter’s eyes to the Golden Snitch); Rachel & I were drawn to the complimentary bar, which was full of green and orange drinks, smoking like they’d just been poured from a cauldron. Once we discovered that the smoke was actually dry ice, and the concoction was prosecco-based, not poly-juice potion; we knocked them back like Pumpkin juice. Needless to say, this resulted in us being really quite inebriated and therefore laughing like first-years whenever something even remotely exciting/funny happened.

We admired the new Dark Arts exhibit, which included the life-size animatronic of Bathilda Bagshot, suspended above a table that seated Lord Voldemort, The Malfoys, Bellatrix Lestrange and Severus Snape. There was also a full scale model of Nagini on the table, hissing away at Bathilda. Rachel & I spent a considerable amount of time circling this exhibit; firstly, pursuing the man who was handling a live python, who turned out to be the real-life Nagini’s owner, and general go-to-guy for Snakes in the Harry Potter films, and secondly; taking full advantage of the bar.

As we circled, we spotted more celebrities. Amanda Holden was there with her children, taking photographs and talking to journalists, and Jake Wood (who is better known as Max Branning from Eastenders) was also there with his family. Mary Berry was also present, but unfortunately, we were too busy indulging in the complimentary snacks to stumble across her; these included mini beef burgers, mozzarella balls, spicy prawns and scotch quail’s eggs. Rachel was also being stalked by one of the numerous Death Eaters, so we decided to break away from the bar, and venture outside to see the familiar sights of Number 4, Privet Drive, Godric’s Hollow, and The Knight Bus.

We continued walking through, encountering Buckbeak and Aragog, amongst hundreds of other fascinating pieces of Harry Potter memorabilia. The tour ended with the spectacular model of Hogwarts; lit-up like a dream, and so intricately detailed, you need at least four hours to inspect it before you look at anything else. We were offered a sobering, complimentary coffee, took our last look at the magnificent turrets, and made our way out through the gift shop, to receive our gift bag of Weasley exploding bonbons, and a notebook bearing the Slytherin crest. Rachel & I said our goodbyes at Euston, and boarded separate trains’ home, both quoting the same line in our prosecco-filled heads: ‘I’m not going home, not really’.

Today, I am drafting up a plan for my University assignment, which will be a discussion about the relationship between instruction and delight in Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone. I feel like last night’s delightful experience has provided me with the right instructions to pen this essay; now to stop procrastinating/boasting, and actually do some work. ‘Mischief Managed’.

Disclaimer: I should probably just rename this blog ‘the amazing events my friend Rachel takes me to as her +1’.

The Real Reason I don’t go to Music Festivals…

Music Festivals are the highlight of the year for many people; Glastonbury, Reading, and Bestival, are some of the many events dedicated to good music and a good time. My friends attend at least one of these festivals every year, and always extend the invitation to me.

They promise me a week in an invented wilderness, listening to my favourite bands, dancing like a madman in a field; high on life/summer/alcohol. For someone like me, who loves being at the front for live gigs, is very fond of the vodka-sauce, and a tour-de-force on the dance floor; it sounds like a dream. People look genuinely confused when I tell them I ‘don’t really do Festivals’, then don’t follow it up with an explanation. Well, I am about to explain what turns my festival dream in to a nightmare.

I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis (UC) when I was twelve years old. I don’t talk about it very often, because a) I don’t want to, b) I still don’t know how to effectively explain the condition to people, and c) I feel that patriarchal society doesn’t like it when I, a young woman, have to admit to being human and having bowel movements.

Ulcerative Colitis is a form of Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD). It is a chronic illness, where the colon and rectum become inflamed. There is no known cause, and no known cure for the condition. It can range from mild to severe. Fortunately, I am a mild case, but I rely on daily medication to keep my symptoms at a manageable level. Symptoms can vary; but when I’m experiencing a relapse, it’s an absolute bastard (accurate use of medical terminology there). If you’re squeamish, I suggest you don’t look at the list of symptoms below:

  • Severe diarrhoea (up to twenty times in the space of 2 hours – sometimes lasts all day)
  • Blood in your faeces (bit of a shocker for the retinas, I must admit)
  • Intense pain in the lower abdomen, before, during and after the bouts of diarrhoea
  • Having a persistently ‘uncertain’ feeling in your gut; so you can’t tell if you need the toilet or not
  • Feeling exhausted and weak
  • Severe loss of appetite (which breaks my heart; dinner’s my favourite thing)

I find it really hard to explain the symptoms effectively; so I’ll also use an analogy I think everyone can relate to. Have you ever experienced ‘the shits’ on a holiday abroad? If so, can you remember how you thought your life was going to fall out of your arsehole, within a matter of moments; and you had no control whatsoever. I imagine your symptoms went away after a week or so; you laughed it off, and went about your normal life again. Well, imagine living with those symptoms on a daily basis, but with ten times the urgency, ten times the pain, and ten times the lack of control; Welcome to Ulcerative Colitis!

When I first became ill with UC at twelve years old; I ended up weighing just 5 stone. I’m not exaggerating when I say my parents thought I was dying; I was refusing to eat because I felt so unwell, and they had to have several strong words with my local GP before I even got a hospital appointment. I missed almost a year of school because I was physically unable to leave the house. It was a rough time, but I don’t really remember too much of it because I was young, and the doctors spoke to my parents about the serious stuff. I just remember gorging on doughnuts when I eventually felt better.

Through medication (a combination of Azathioprine, Mezavant, Hydrocortisone foam and Salofalk foam), sheer determination, and the support of my family and The Royal London Hospital; I have managed to live a pretty brilliant life without Ulcerative Colitis getting in the way. I can do pretty much everything everyone else does, mainly because I’ve got some sweet drugs (all legal) that keep me on track. However, even when things are going well with my condition; I still hesitate about staying over at friends houses, going away on holiday, and going to Music Festivals.

Sure, I might hit lucky and be symptom free on the weekend of Reading/Glastonbury; but I won’t know that until the time has arrived, so spending hundreds of pounds on a ticket months in advance, seems like a huge risk. When I get there, there’s also the camping situation, and of course; the shared toilet facilities. My friends have explained that usually, there won’t be queues for the toilets; but what if there’s a queue on the day where all hell is breaking loose in my bowel; shall I just do as the bears do, and shit in the woods? I don’t know if I’m cut out for that (no judgement if you’ve ever done that btw; when you gotta go, you gotta go!) Also, the pain is pretty unbearable at times, so I really don’t want to be surrounded by hundreds of people when my insides feel like they’re full of lava. If I’m feeling ill; I need privacy, and I’m unlikely to get that if I suddenly feel unwell in the middle of a mosh pit.

It’s not just the physical symptoms though; as with all long-term health conditions; the emotional symptoms are also difficult to deal with. If I suffer a relapse, I am usually prescribed a two month course of steroids. Steroids are a wonder drug in the sense that they solve almost all of my UC symptoms. Emotionally, however, steroids tend to do a number on me. I have never been officially diagnosed with depression; but when I am on steroids, I enter in to a depressive state that is at times, very hard to deal with. I also find my hands shake for no reason; and I feel anxious about the most insignificant of things. I become conscious of a ‘heaviness’ in my head, which never goes away, and I feel compelled to sleep for eternity. On a vain/superficial level, my face puffs up; which, on top of everything else, makes me self conscious and insecure.

Ultimately, steroids are both a friend and a foe to me. Fortunately, I’ve got a brilliant family who know how to help me out when I feel strung out, and once I’ve finished the prescribed course; most of these steroid-induced symptoms go away. If you have been officially diagnosed with depression, please don’t take offense at my self-diagnosis. I believe that my depressive symptoms are a by-product of my physical illness, which makes it easier to deal with. People who suffer with severe depression may not have the benefits of this perspective; and I empathise intensely with anyone who has been through/is going through periods of depression.

So, with regards to going to Music Festivals; whether I’m ill, or symptom-free, I feel the true experience would be marred for me if I was on steroids. I know people take all kinds of drugs at Festivals, and it’s not a big deal; but I can’t function properly on something that’s prescribed to me by a GP. Plus, there’s the possibility of a struggle with security when I turn up to the gates with a bag full of pills, and foams (I am a legal drugs FIEND).

This has been a hefty piece of writing, so I’ll bring it to a close. Ulcerative Colitis is the shitty reason (literally) why I don’t go to Festivals. It’s nothing to do with being a camping snob, or being a boring bastard; it’s all to do with not being able to predict whether or not I will experience a relapse or symptoms on the weekend of the festival. It’s too big a risk; financially and physically. Some of you may be wondering: ‘Why is she sharing this on the internet? It’s a bit personal/gross/unnecessary.’ I have no real reason; I just wanted to talk about it, on the off-chance that it might help someone who also has Ulcerative Colitis. The internet’s a big place; there’s always someone to reach out to!

DISCLAIMER: I want to differentiate between Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Both are complicated conditions; but IBD is generally more severe and much more difficult to control than IBS, which can often be controlled by changes in lifestyle or diet. Changes like this can improve symptoms for sufferers of IBD, but they do not eradicate all symptoms, or cure the disease; the disease is permanent (for now.)

You can donate to IBD research charities here, or just do some more investigating here. Thanks for reading.

My Dad’s Motorcycle, Salon Privé 2014, and a spot on Henry Cole’s TV Programme: The Motorcycle Show (ITV4)

For anyone who is interested in building or riding motorcycles, I highly recommend you watch the most recent episode of The Motorcycle Show on ITV4.

The episode features footage of a very special bike, built by my Dad. He spent over 6 years working on it in his workshop at the end of our garden and since its completion, he’s been invited to showcase his work at numerous bike shows and events. The bike has a Norton frame, with a handbuilt V8 engine.

My Dad’s bike is briefly discussed by Henry Cole in this episode. Henry is at the elite and prestigious Salon Privé British Supercar and Motorcycle Show, and this is where my Dad presented his bike earlier this month.

Here is a picture my brother took of my Dad, with his bike, talking to Henry Cole, at Salon Privé. Look out for the bike in the episode!

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My Dad with Henry Cole, Salon Privé, 2014

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My Dad and his Motorcycle at Salon Privé, 2014