UEA ‘War Of Words’ Speech

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UEA hosted their first progressive media conference yesterday, entitled ‘War Of Words’. I cautiously/gratefully accepted their invitation to speak alongside Sophie Van Der Ham (Young Greens Co-Chair) and Tori Cann (UEA Lecturer from Norwich Feminist Network) on a panel discussing ‘Women, Politics and the Media’, chaired by Asia Patel. I’d been invited on behalf of Belle Jar, an online magazine I began writing for in 2012.

Although I perform in front of audiences in improvised comedy shows, I find public speaking a bit of a nerve shredder. Fortunately, both the panel and the audience were clued-up and compassionate; so it was an intense but incredible 60 minutes of discussion and debate. Tori, Sophie, and I spoke about female politicians, the lack of respect for female voices in the media, and my personal favourite; female anger. The post-debate adrenaline has flushed my memories away, but I wanted to share the speech I prepared (and nearly screwed up multiple times whilst reading aloud).

I urge you to follow Belle Jar, The Norwich Radical, Tori and Sophie on Twitter too!

*** For those who prefer pictures to words, Antony Carpen kindly recorded the speech. Video is at the end of the blog!***

“I would not be here at this event today without the encouragement, enthusiasm, and efforts of other women. I am speaking on behalf of Belle Jar; an online publication created in 2012 by two university students, Louisa Ackermann and Juliette Cule.

Louisa & Juliette created Belle Jar to provide a safe online platform for feminist discussion and debate. Belle Jar exists to inform and inspire; covering the humorous to the humanitarian. The magazine has 2,716 likes on Facebook, and 1,921 followers on Twitter. The site was also nominated for a Guardian Student Media Award, and was the only publication of its kind to be considered in the student website category. As a team, we have been to The Houses of Parliament to discuss issues surrounding the representation of women in the media, and our website continues to publish news updates and articles which seek to inform and challenge our readers.

But Belle Jar is more than a website; it is a support system; a network of voices that work together to help counteract the misogyny which dominates the national media, and impacts our everyday lives. When I submitted my first article to the site in 2012, I had no idea it would bring me to this stage today. Without the internet, I may not have found Belle Jar. Without Belle Jar, I would not have found Louisa or Juliette who have given me the courage to use my voice here today.

I believe in the power of small stories; they are crucial to the structure of larger narratives. My small story is that I used to fear the potential in my own voice. As a teenage girl, I was forever anxious about its volume and its content to the point where I rarely spoke up in school, the playground; anywhere. When Louisa & Juliette suggested I speak at UEA today, my initial reaction was “I’m not qualified for that, I can’t” – Juliette kindly told me not to listen to my imposter syndrome, to go, use my voice, and spread my story. This is the encouragement many young women are lacking in their teens and early twenties. No-one is saying “Go for it, learn as you go!” – instead, it feels like they’re whispering “You’re a girl, what do you know?”

Like many young women, I hesitated when I initially began identifying with feminism. It was intimidating; a movement with an extensive and difficult history which people often told me had ‘gone too far’. It’s easy to believe these things when there’s an absence of support, or no voices offering you an alternative outlook. Fortunately, through social media I found a corner of the internet where girls and women were having similar kinds of experiences. They were being open about their anxieties by speaking about personal experiences of sexism on the internet. Juliette affectionately dubbed Belle Jar as ‘baby feminism’ – a place where those who are at the start of their interactions with the movement can read, discuss, and write about what it means to them. This kind of interaction is essential for modern girls and women. It keeps us connected, inspired and most importantly; comforted in a world where misogyny overshadows many of our attempts to assert ourselves.

To quote Jude Kelly, (Arrtistic Director at The Southbank Centre & founder of the annual Women Of The World Festival); the media is “amoral at best, or immoral at worst, with regards to women”. Women’s appearances, achievements, and mere existences are often undermined by journalists and editors. Just last week, The Sun Newspaper reported the alleged rape of deceased soldier Cheryl James as a ‘romp’, and insulted her death by branding her a ‘Suicide army girl’. Once my initial disgust had subsided, I shared the post on Belle Jar’s Facebook page, and Juliette posted a link to the The Independent Press Standards Organisation website, so our readers could complain about this insulting attempt at journalism. The speed at which social media allows people to distribute information, and act on issues such as this is incredible, and Belle Jar and other publications like it utilise this tool effectively.

It’s easy to dismiss efforts like this as acts of ‘keyboard warfare’ and reduce them down to ‘trying to look like we’re doing good’ without actively striving to change women’s representation in the media. Even small publications like Belle Jar are not free from critics and trolls. We have been labelled ‘anti-men’ and I have personally been branded both a ‘superficial little girl’ and a ‘dumb chick cunt’. Internet abuse is equally as real and damaging as street harassment, and women on the internet are subject to higher levels of vitriol in comparison to men. Louisa, Juliette & I went to an event about ‘Outspoken Women’ with featured classicist Mary Beard, and journalist Laurie Penny. Mary said she found the internet ‘revelatory’ because it exposed the pre-existing misogyny inherent in society, and Laurie dubbed modern women’s online opinions as ‘the mini-skirt of the internet.’

Being an outspoken internet feminist can be both confusing and exhausting; but there is so much to support, and so many supporters who are ready to incite change, that you don’t have to apply yourself to every area of the movement. There is no such thing as a perfect feminist. As women, we are taught from a young age to burden ourselves with the responsibilities of others. Whilst compassion is not to be discouraged, it also leaves us little time to explore our own ideas and develop our own beliefs. Feminist scholars and activists have repeated the phrase ‘the personal is the political’ and it is an essential thing to remember whenever you feel that sexism is undermining or devaluing your opinion.

Belle Jar gave me the support I needed in my early twenties when I was starting to engage with feminism and its goals. It was my spring board in to politics, and introduced me to the issues surrounding abortion, FGM, Sex Education, and street harassment. In the introduction to Laura Bates’ ‘Everyday Sexism’ Sarah Brown writes that “Girls who read, lead.” I began reading Belle Jar articles, which then led me to contribute ideas of my own to the site. I stand before you now as a representative for the magazine, and a friend of its fearless and dedicated creators.

Something as simple as reading an article on the internet can set you on a path of discovery and empowerment. Belle Jar are always looking for new writers, and welcome all kinds of contributions. Please get in touch, and if anyone would like one of our sassy business cards; feel free to come and see me at the end of this discussion.”

What I Learned From Watching The E! Channel, 30 Hours a Week, For 2 Months

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The most most surreal job title I’ve ever had is a ‘Channel Monitor’ for the E! Entertainment Channel. I try to avoid watching any kind of reality TV because I heard a rumour (probably on E! News) that it splits your soul in half, but I was being paid to watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians and other such programmes for 30 hours a week. Only a fool would turn that opportunity down.

Unbelievably, I grew to really quite like The Kardashians (I’m as shocked as you are), but there were some programmes which really made the job….difficult. Ultimately, I learned a lot from my time as an E! Entertainment channel monitor, and I’d like to share my knowledge with you now:

1. I Am Cait was an amazing platform for unknown trans women to talk about transgender issues, and Caitlyn’s transition nearly made me cry at my desk on multiple occasions.

2. Kendall Jenner is an absolute sweetheart, and one of the most naturally beautiful people I’ve ever seen.

3. Khloé is my favourite Kardashian, a hilarious person, and the best aunt in the world (see this list for further proof of her greatness)

4. Paige from WWE Divas is a porcelain predator.

5. E! News should be re-named ‘This is E! News and we have sensationalised everything to the point of fiction, but will be selling it to you as stone cold fact for the next 60 minutes’

6. There is such a thing as a ‘Revenge Bod’, and Kourtney Kardashian apparently has the most ‘smokin’ example of one right now…

 7. Hollywood encourages both hatred of the self and hatred of others. Whether it was ‘disguised’ as comedy on a vicious episode of Fashion Police, or as an article on E! News about a celebrities weight/status/sexuality/relationship – Hollywood seems to rely on playing on people’s anxieties in order to thrive.

8. Most importantly – none of this really matters – turn off your TV, go outside and get some Vitamin D. Reserve E! for hung-over Sundays, employment opportunities, and Kardashian catch-ups.

(Image courtesy of: http://weheartit.com/entry/121472793)

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)

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

Tackling the Big Stuff: Clothes and Outfit-Repeating

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”

Virginia Woolf – Orlando

As Woolf points out in the above quotation; clothes are more than just protective, insulating barriers between us and the world; they serve aesthetic and occasional purposes. Some people couldn’t care less what they’re wearing and some people make it their life’s work to influence what everyone else is wearing.

As a young woman, I am acutely aware of the impact clothing can have on my own confidence and the way other people react to me. Here are a few moments in my life when I’ve realised how important – and with the gift of hindsight – how unimportant what I’m wearing is:

When I was eleven years old, my Mum accidentally ordered me a boy’s blazer for the start of my first year at secondary school. She didn’t realise the error and I didn’t either, until one of my friends pointed it out to me in the school playground. The fundamental difference was the ‘butt-flap’ on my blazer and the lack of ‘butt-flap’ on the girls’ blazer my friend was wearing. She found my blazer mishap quite hilarious; and as an eleven year old girl, with great big Dad-style eyebrows and a tiny sense of self-esteem; I was internally mortified.

I spent the first two years of senior school covering my ‘butt-flap’ with my extra-large school bag, praying no-one would notice I’d accidentally come to school dressed as a boy. I feel this incident inspired my later attempt at an androgynous look in my early twenties.

Fast-forward a few years, and my awareness of fashion trends had increased. It was a crime to not wear Nike trainers in P.E, and if your blazer sleeves were not rolled up and your tie wasn’t longer than a millimetre; you were obviously a complete dork. On non-uniform day, If your clothes didn’t have labels; you were likely to fall under the label of ‘nobody’. I bought in to it as much as the next kid. My parents insisted I would grow out of these new clothes within six months, or change my mind about them within three. They were wrong about one thing; I didn’t grow until I hit the age of fifteen, but they were definitely right about the mind-changing (Damn my wise, patient, caring parents).

I remember one particular non-uniform day when I wore my brand new fluffy body-warmer, with matching fur boots, and an older boy walking behind me on the way to class kindly remarked; ‘f*****g hell, did she kill a bear before school or something?’. In hindsight I applaud his creative insult, but at the time I was highly embarrassed. Fur was on trend that season and I thought I looked the bees knees. Perhaps that was the problem – bumble bees are excessively furry.

Another time, I wore a pair of bright pink converse-style shoes during my first week of sixth form, only to have a random year 9 girl exclaim ‘what the f**k is she wearing on her feet?’ as she walked past me in a corridor. At the time, I’d just grown in to a size 8 shoe and was struggling to find footwear to fit my awkward goat feet. This girl’s comment bothered me so much that I stopped wearing the shoes to school. If I could go back; I’d wear the shoes every day and politely remind her I HAVE SIZE 8 FEET THAT CAN AND WILL DO YOU SERIOUS DAMAGE IF YOU INSULT ME AGAIN. (That’s a lie; I’m a lover not a fighter; but sometimes passive aggressive imaginings make me feel better).

More recently, where I work; I was serving a Mother and daughter who were discussing what the daughter’s plans were for that evening. When the Mother suggested the daughter wear her favourite dress, the daughter insisted she couldn’t wear that outfit because on her Facebook profile it would look like she’d worn the same dress two nights in a row. This was a crime she was convinced she could not commit, so she spent an extra £30 on a dress she wasn’t all that crazy about, in order to avoid outfit-repeating.

As a budget queen, student, and owner of a ‘make do and move on’ attitude; I found it difficult to understand why this young girl wouldn’t want to re-wear her favourite dress. I consistently repeat the same outfits, because I know they look good, and more importantly; they make me feel good. Then I remembered how closely people had monitored my clothing choices in the past; and the embarrassing comments they had made about what I was wearing. Perhaps this young girl hadn’t found a way of saying ‘I’ll wear what I like, regardless of what you think’ to anyone yet.

All of these experiences proved to me that the clothes you’re wearing are apparently, the most important thing about you. What you’re wearing is up for public scrutiny at all times; whether it’s your friends at school, a random boy/girl, or your friends on social media; your clothes or your ‘outfit-repeating’ suggests that you’re not dressed in the correct way (whatever that is?).

As I’ve grown, I’ve tried and mostly succeeded in ignoring these kinds of pressures, and slowly found my own style (with the help of some truly excellent clothing outlets like Missguided, Asos & TopShop, as well as raiding charity shops). It wasn’t until recently, however, when I thought about these accumulated experiences; that I suddenly felt the need to justify to myself that it’s okay to resist the pressure to look absolutely-bloody-fabulous every time you walk out of the door to buy some bin-bags. For some, the pressure is external, and for others it’s internal, but it can be overcome.

Ultimately, I take comfort from Virginia Woolf’s words. Yes, clothes do tell us a lot about a person; but they are not the only way to identify with someone. Sometimes they’re a complete enigma, or a disguise; and we should endeavour to live and let live, whatever we’re wearing.

DOCS ON THE ROCKS

Dr. Martens and socks, on the Rocks

Reflections on The Laughter Academy: How Improvised Comedy Improved Me

“Why don’t you see how you feel on the day and decide if you’ll come along then?” asked Anouska.

“I don’t know, I might do, I’ll let you know” I replied.

My friends Anouska and Hollie were trying to convince me to come along to the next set of Laughter Academy improvised comedy classes. Anouska had successfully completed the classes herself, and recently performed in the showcase (which I saw her in, she was excellent). Hollie had also been to the showcase, and decided to take the next course. We all spoke at length about feeling the need to try new things and embrace new opportunities; The Laughter Academy seemed to offer both of these things. I’d been encouraged by others to attend the course before; including the course leader, Lee. I caved, and caught the train down to Southend the following week to start the course.

I wasn’t a complete amateur when I entered the room that evening. I had experience of being on stage and improvising, which I’d learnt mainly from taking GCSE Drama at secondary school.  At the age of 17, I was also accepted in to The National Youth Theatre in 2007 for a two week course. Unfortunately, this actually put me off performing, and that’s why I’d avoided all previous invitations to The Laughter Academy.

I arrived at the class apprehensive and sweaty, but seeing Hollie & Anouska helped calm my nerves. Team leader Lee also took good care of me. Week after week, he built my confidence up with games, advice and endless encouragement. I knew most of the people taking the class because I’d seen them in the showcases or been introduced to them via other people. They were all extremely supportive, which made everything a thousand times easier and more fun. Each week there was a particular line or comment from someone that had me in stitches. I’d finally found an environment where it was acceptable to show off my Australian accent (perfected by a lifetimes worth of watching Home & Away) and pull as many stupid faces as I could. I felt the shackles of insecurity loosening.

Amidst all of the fun and games, there were two crucial improvisational philosophies that Lee mentioned. Firstly; it’s okay to fail. Failing is normal and the sooner you accept that, the easier it becomes to deal with. I am terrified of failure in all aspects of life – but I’m slowly accepting that making an arse of yourself or fluffing a line in improvised comedy (or real life) is not the end of the world.

Secondly; accept and build. Listen, take it on board and elaborate. Do not censor yourself. It took an eternity for that to sink in (it’s still sinking) but once I stopped over-analysing and pre-empting everything, improvisation became much easier and ultimately, funnier. The ‘accept and build’ philosophy extended beyond the classroom too; the more I spoke to everyone, the more comfortable I felt around them, to the point where we were making plans to meet outside of class hours.

Once the ten weeks of classes were up, Lee organised four showcases so that each person could perform twice, and with a variety of people. I was surprised to find myself calm and optimistic about my first show. This quickly turned to fear when I was stood behind the curtain with everyone else waiting to go on. Fortunately, I had Sam to share the fear with; it was her first time performing improv too. We took to the stage and my fear evaporated. In the spotlight it seemed like everything escalated; concentration, adrenaline, laughter; even the time. It was all over and done with in what felt like a heart-beat. I was grateful for the compliments from Paul. L and Debbie after the show, their kind words widened the smile on my face.

The following week I performed my second show with fellow newcomer Hollie and veteran Anouska. The night was equally as excellent as the first. I could hear the laughs of my friends and my family and my little walnut heart swelled with pride and happiness. We stayed on in the pub after the show and drank in celebration of our successes.

I never thought that joining The Laughter Academy could enrich my life in so many ways. Even as I type this, I feel unable to express just how useful the classes have been to me. I didn’t take the course to become a comedian or an actress; I took it because I was twenty-four, under confident and in need of something new. I feel like there are so many people to thank. The people I’ve shared the last 12 weeks with: Sam, Faye, Jamie, Debbie, Paul. L, Luke, Ali, John, Ross, Benjy, Davey, Hannah, Kelly, Matt, Ali. G., Kevin and Hayley; you’ve brightened up my Thursday nights. To Joe, Stacy, Holly, Sarah, Jordan, Rachel, Tom, Paul and my parents for coming to see me perform in the showcases. To Anouska & Hollie for convincing me to sign up to the course in the first place and for all the laughs, encouragement and friendship along the way. Finally, to Lee; thanks for sharing your improv expertise and teaching me that it really is okay to fail.

Enough of this gooey old shh…. show of emotion. Here’s to the next course in September!