Love Note – A friend in need

This post is dedicated to my oldest, most haunted friend who is going through a hard time at the moment.

Hey Lozenge,

You are amazing. Sure, you’re in Slytherin and you have Sarcasm Overdrive Syndrome, but you are amazing. And anyway, those two things aren’t so bad because in the end, they make you you.

Whilst honouring the fact that this is a really difficult time, I want to remind you that you haven’t always felt this way and you won’t always feel this way. It’s in times like this, when shit has hit the fan and the ground has shifted underneath our feet, that it’s important to remember our greatest hits. You are funny, ridiculous, smart and discerning and you have given me and so many others so much joy. That much is still very, very true.

Like when you fell off your chair in the archives room.

Like the half sleepover.

All the times we ate all the Hula Hoops and cherry tomatoes.

Skiing in Keystone.

Lusting over Heath Ledger at Showcase Cinema.

When you were convinced you were being haunted by the ghost of Michael Jackson.

When you fell off your chair in General R.S.

The ‘synoptic’ we did of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, discussing the free-spirited nature of Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly.

How you had a terrible bout of glandular fever, were off school for weeks and still managed to ace you’re A Levels.

That adorable photograph of you wearing wellies and holding an umbrella.

Washing your hair in yellow water at the youth hostel in Ypres.

Being in a cinema surrounded by French kids on a school exchange and a trailer came on for GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra where the Eiffel Tower is blown up and they all started yelling.

The time you nearly died laughing after inhaling some nitrous oxide.

For being the best hide and seeker I have ever met (I still can’t get over the curtain).

When you were sent to the front of our Geography class because our teacher had a ‘bad feeling’ about you.

Sound of the Underground.

Your manifesto for polar bear safety in your English GCSE speaking and listening exam.

Struggling to walk up hills and measure soil acidity in the Peak District.

Your squeaky laugh.

Watching The Virgin Suicides, which has become one of my all-time favourite films.

Going for dinner at Zizzis in Covent Garden to decompress and gather ourselves the night after we were mugged in Kennington.

Going for heavily discounted dinner at Café Rouge in Holborn to celebrate the last day of my internship in London: getting pissed, terrorising the National Theatre, getting home and doing shots of gin and whiskey (what were we THINKING?!), before throwing up our discounted dinner and having to go to work the next day very hungover.

You lent me Born To Die thus beginning my Lana Del Rey fandom.

Annual trips to see Harry Potter for your birthday.

All the times you made sure all our friends’ siblings were included in our games: you never wanted anyone to feel left out.

Watching you fail to throw a shotput but being excellent at hockey.

The endless number of phone calls where we have laughed, cried, consoled each other and put the world to rights.

Even though you are in a lot of pain right now, I want you to keep these words from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in mind: ‘Though she be but little, she is fierce’.

Lots of love x

Love Note – TV 2019

After watching the first season of Netflix’s Master of None in 2015, I casually appropriated Dev’s declaration that we were living in the ‘Golden Age of Television’. I mostly bring out this phrase when I want to irritate my boyfriend with semi-pretentious cultural musings, but I think it has fairly accurately described the creative output for the small screen over the past few years. Of course, there have been great television series prior to the Noughties and Teens of the 21st Century, but the quantity of high-quality and compelling drama available to binge watch and tune into every week is at an all-time high. Indeed, I feel like I’ve reached a personal saturation point with all this television. There’s always something I feel like I ‘have’ to watch, that I ‘can’t miss’, a show that’s absolutely amazing. I’m sure they all are, I really do. I just don’t have the time or the emotional energy to spend on them all. When I watch a TV show, I get utterly and overly enthralled and involved with what’s going on, which means that I just can’t commit to all the ups and downs and twists and turns to all these shows all at the same time. It’s just too darn much! Additionally, I spend a lot of my waking time at work or getting to and from work and, as a result, my down time feels very precious to me. Watching TV every night of the week just isn’t the most valuable use of my time. I’ve consciously tried to read more, do cooking, go to the gym and catch up with friends over the phone or face-to-face so that I really make my free time meaningful.

Having said all of that, I am really looking forward to 2019’s TV offerings. They are all returning shows that I have become very emotionally attached to over the past few years. Continuing these stories, or re-emerging myself in the style of the anthology shows, is a very exciting prospect. I may be a bit of a stick in the mud when it comes to watching TV, but these shows are going to have my undivided attention. Obviously, writing a Love Note before watching the shows is pretty presumptuous, because they may all turn out to be crap. This is as much a Love Note to healthy anticipation as it is to the good stuff on the box.

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True Detective – Season 3

I watched the second series of True Detective before the first and hold the perhaps unpopular opinion that it is as every bit as amazing as its predecessor. True Detective season 1 saw the birth of the McConaissance, was thrilling to watch and brought existential malcontentedness to the small screen in an utterly compelling and accessible way. Yet, season 2 was every bit as fraught and tense, if not moodier. The inner turmoil of the main characters was drawn out like a long spool of string, with episode 6 in particular providing revelations and the most heart-stopping escape scene I have ever watched on TV. Additionally, Vince Vaughn’s performance was transformative.[1] After a long break, we have the next series starring Mahershala Ali and I am very excited for the broody detective and emotional work to commence.

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Big Little Lies – Season 2

There’s no denying that Big Little Lies was a commercial and critical success when it was released in 2017, with its haul of awards at the Emmys, SAG Awards and Golden Globes a testament to the fact. It’s set to get even bigger with the arrival of Meryl Streep playing Alexander Skarsgard’s mother, as we inevitably witness the fallout of the chaos that revealed itself in the last series. I loved Jean Marc Vallee’s direction of the first season, with its patchwork, dreamlike construction of the women and their entangled, complicated lives; but I am as excited about Andrea Arnold who has taken up the mantle this time round.

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Game of Thrones – Season 8

Last season ended with a hell of a ‘holy shit’ moment. Spoiler alert guys, but The Wall is down and personally, I am terrified that that has spelt the end of Tormund who was on The Wall at the time. We’ll just have to wait and see. What we have been building up to since the first moments of the first season is coming to fruition and there’s no doubt that the final twists and turns of this amazing series are going to be epic. I have long had a sneaking suspicion that Game of Thrones is an allegory about climate change (stupid humans fighting amongst themselves, burning children, catching greyscale and having sex whilst ignoring/unaware of the Night King and his army of the dead accumulating momentum) – but maybe that’s an article for another time. I am slightly sheepish about the feature length episodes that we will have to commit to, but it’s the biggest conclusion to a TV series, perhaps, ever. I’m here for that.

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Stranger Things – Season 3

I was so glad that the Duffer brothers decided to take a break between the second series and the third. Whilst I loved season 2, it felt like there had been a slight rush to get it out after the unbridled success of the first. As such, it was suffering a little from what I’ll called Star Wars Syndrome: there were a few new characters and a few new tensions to explore, but the main premise and action was very similar. Instead of exploding another Death Star, the cast were once again turning Joyce’s house into a living and breathing map of The Upside Down and Eleven used her powers to stop the monsters. Now that the writers have had some breathing space, I think Stranger Things 3 is going to be a cracker. In particular, I’m looking forward to my faves returning to the screen: Steve, Erica and Joyce.

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
Season 9
CR: Bravo

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and New York

My beautiful beloved trash. I have so many questions: what the hell happened between Lisa Vanderpump and the rest of the Beverly Hills gang? What on EARTH is Brandi Glanville doing back? Will Lisa Rinna’s pill bag make an appearance? How will Carole Radziwill’s exit affect group dynamics in New York? Will Dorinda get messy after another dirty martini? Will Bethenny Frankel stop picking on Ramona and just accept that she’s slightly unhinged but the best thing since sliced bread? SO MANY QUESTIONS.

 

[1] My friend and I watched episode two first by accident, which opens with Vince Vaughn delivering a monologue about his father whilst staring at a mould stain on the ceiling. We thought this as an unbelievably audacious way to begin a series and were totally here for it. We soon realised that the disorientation we experienced soon afterwards was not a narrative construction but the fact that we’d missed an entire hour of set-up. Nevertheless, Vince Vaughn’s acting here is just amazing.

Love Note – The joys of rediscovering an old iPod

I have always had a soft spot for the humble iPod.[1] Whilst the iPod Touch is still available to buy, the Mini, Nano, Classic and Shuffle iPods, with their click wheels and metallic casings, have achieved almost vintage status, surpassed as they have been by iPhones and Internet streaming services. With its terrible battery life and matchbox data capacity, my well-loved and well-used purple iPod Nano, the best of companions on so many bus journeys, car sing-a-longs and bedroom dance parties, has been lying dormant in the bottom of my bedside table for months, if not years. I dug it out for a Christmas cooking session with my Dad and what a treat it was.

The delightful thing about this little iPod Nano, that I now rarely use, is that it has become something of a time capsule for my teens and early twenties. My tastes have never been the most refined, but the funny eclectic mixture that came up on my shuffle transported me back to all sorts of places in the past. Althea and Donna’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ took me to the dark and comforting noisy chaos of a bar called Big Hands, where a friend’s Shazam brought the answer to my demand ‘WHAT IS THIS SONG?!?!?’ (this happens a lot when I’m out and about and hear a song I like); when ‘Don’t Get Lost in Heaven’ from Gorillaz’s Demon Days came on, I found myself back on my childhood bedroom floor, crying and shaking in a panic before my A Level English Literature exam; ‘Remember the Time’ by Michael Jackson took me to both sunny family holidays in Mallorca and the packed 143 bus down Oxford Road in Manchester, where I created ‘MJ Mondays’ to perk myself up; ‘Am I High?’ by N.E.R.D came on, one of my favourite songs from one of the most underrated groups ever; I was taken back to 2007 and the best gig of my life with one of the greatest dance tracks of all time, ‘Insomnia’ by Faithless; ‘Out of Frequency’ by The Asteroids Galaxy Tour and ‘Lonely Boy’ by The Black Keys got me through my first breakup; Beach Season became part of the soundtrack to what has become the greatest relationship of my life; and, of course, the men and women who carried me through all the rest of it: Christina Aguilera, Bjork, Gwen Stefani, Lykke Li, Madonna’s Ray of Light and Confessions on a Dancefloor eras, Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad and Anti eras, Destiny’s Child, Duffy, Lana Del Rey, Agnes Obel, Mis-Teeq, Kate Nash, Florence and the Machine, Azealia Banks, Jimi Hendrix, Justin Timberlake, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Jeff Buckley, Kasabian, James Vincent McMorrow, Jake Bugg, Nirvana, Father John Misty and, of course, Geri Halliwell’s solo oeuvre.

It is well-known that music has an extraordinary ability to take us back in time to some of the most profound moments of our lives: the continued success of long-running shows like Desert Island Discs are a testament to that. In many ways, listening to my old iPod felt sublimely nostalgic, but touching down into those emotions of contentment, loss, fear and love still felt undeniably raw. Not only did I get to prance about to some absolute classics over the course of an evening (with my poor Dad dodging my every move), I’ve been able to see where I have come from and just how far I have come over the past few years. Being in your twenties is undeniably chaotic, but music is a fantastic way of grounding your experience and cementing those emotions in time that might else be lost or forgotten. As such, my busted up iPod, with its little treasure trove of musical gems, is just as valuable as the new stack of music I have waiting for me, ready to be explored (Idles, Michael Kiwanuka and Jade Bird anyone?).

 

[1] Before I elaborate on my excellent Christmas musical experiences, I need to provide a small caveat. I’m not a fan of big technological multinationals in general, but Apple is a particularly large bogeyman for a number of reasons. Some of these include their cynical policy of planned obsolescence (purposefully making their products and systems redundant thereby forcing users to upgrade or buy more products) that keeps people in a permanent bind of consumption and creates huge amounts of technological waste; their historic routing of profits through countries like Ireland and the British Virgin Islands means that despite the billions made from selling products, Apple pay some of the lowest rates of corporation tax (3% in the UK); Apple continue to award manufacturing contracts to factories in China where workers are forced to labour in horrendous conditions; and, I severely dislike Apple’s digital download policy that when you buy a song from iTunes, you have bought a license to play the song but you don’t actually own it.[1] I am aware that Apple aren’t alone in following such practices, but I think it is important to acknowledge these things when necessary. I have always been sceptical of any company that openly gestures towards innovation and creativity but uses shortcuts and questionable methods to achieve these ‘enlightened’ goals.

 

Love Note – Fantasy Football

It started off as fun.

I joined my dad’s Fantasy Football league in about 2008, propped it up for approximately 8 years and now things have changed. I’ve got easy access to the Fantasy Premier League app on my phone and all of a sudden, I am taking Fantasy Football far, far, far too seriously. And I know that I’m not alone. My boyfriend and I have in-depth debates about transfers, tensions flare when my dad and I are neck-and-neck, and I set up a work league where the formerly Fantasy Football nonchalant now have spreadsheets, follow pundits on Twitter and are constantly pondering their fantasy budgets.

I’ve always been a football fan: I have steadfastly supported Liverpool since I was first shoved into a red shirt by my parents at the age of four, and it has been a lot of hard work ever since. We won the Champions League in 2005, but we haven’t won the Premier League in my lifetime, we have an uncanny ability to lose crucial games with devastating mistakes (Gerrard’s slip in 2014, John Arne Riise’s headed own goal in 2008 etc.) and because of a crappy fan club ticket-buying system, I haven’t been able to go to Anfield in about ten years. Nevertheless, I’m a Kopite for life and I’m sorry but not sorry to admit that I cry every time I hear ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. I’m not entirely sure why, it just happens.

Playing Fantasy Football has been addictive but also an eye-opener, largely because it keeps you interested in the game beyond the basic tribalism of supporting a football team. I will never ever care for Manchester United, but I do care whether or not Marcus Rashford will be starting come Saturday; similarly, Chelsea are one of my least favourite teams ever but thank god for Marcos Alonso who is integral, along with Virgil Van Dijk and Andrew Robertson, to the defensive dream team I have going on. Additionally, I have developed a deep appreciation and respect for the smaller teams whom I may have snobbily disregarded a few years ago. I think Leicester’s surprise Premier League win in 2016 reminded us all to never underestimate an underdog, and last season I was pleasantly surprised by the defensive capabilities of Burnley and Pascal Groβ’s attacking record for Brighton and Hove Albion. This season has seen the blossoming of Bournemouth’s midfield and forwards who have been giving the best and most expensive top flight players a darn good run for their money.

Whilst some football fans will not have required an interactive game to notice and appreciate other teams, Fantasy Football has introduced me to all of these players and more, and has developed my deeper appreciation for the game. I would argue that this is something that football has required: with the amount of oil and oligarch money that has been poured into certain teams, football had in recent years lost some of its magic. Of course, the quality of play that has been purchased at teams like Manchester City has been absolutely phenomenal; yet, with the Premier League trophy all but guaranteed to head back to Manchester; extortionate ticket prices across the league; the ease with which managers from all teams seem to be picked up and discarded when the going gets a little bit tough; Sky holding a monopoly on football coverage, and the number of football stadiums that now bear a corporate name (Emirates, Etihad, Vitality, King Power etc.), football seemed to lose some of its charm in its obsessive pursuit of capital. Yet, with Fantasy Football focusing primarily on good play and healthy competition based on a broad array of talent, football is, in mind, regaining relevance and its special place in the lives of ordinary people.

Love Note – Non-Christmas Christmas Films

I am not a Christian, but I have always loved Christmas. I acknowledge that in many ways it has become a consumerist shadow of its former religious and spiritual self; but nevertheless, I have been lucky enough to have lived 26 Christmases so far full of fun and festivity. Additionally, the idea of ‘peace on earth and good will to all men’ has never felt timelier or more desperately needed. The story of a displaced family and the birth of their baby in the most humble and desperate of circumstances is still very much a story for our times.

The festive period is as much about the build up to Christmas as it is about Christmas Day itself. There is no shortage of Christmas activities to get involved with, for example listening to music, writing cards, ice skating, baking, wearing jumpers, drinking mulled wine and eating all the food available with family and friends. Watching films has always been an excellent way of tapping into the Christmas spirit and I don’t need to tell you that there are a plethora of films about Christmas that are worth digging out every year. In addition, I have a few favourites that always make their way out in December that aren’t necessarily specifically festive, but embody a little bit of what Christmas should be all about.

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To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962 – A gorgeous old film based on a gorgeous book about justice, growing up and both protecting and fighting for the vulnerable. In place of a bearded man in a red coat handing out gifts, we have Gregory Peck’s masterful turn as Atticus Finch: wise, caring and as much of a sensitive, commanding presence on his porch as he is in the courtroom. This film is the gift that gives on giving.

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Edward Scissorhands, 1990 – The tenuous Christmas link comes with the large presence of snow that Edward creates with his scissorhands (and the fact that the magical Danny Elfman score has been used in a plethora of Christmas adverts over the years). This film is a fairytale set in sugary suburbia, rooting for the societal underdog against the backdrop of fickle public opinion. It is important to note that I have fallen out massively with Johnny Depp over recent years, but I am still so here for Winona Ryder.

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The Life of Brian, 1979 – This could technically be classed as a Christmas film because it begins with the nativity of Jesus and Brian, and then follows their lives up until the latter’s crucifixion. But I am including it here because as well as being absolutely hilarious, the film propagates heavily for critical thinking as opposed to mob-like sheep mentality. Plus there’s a useful Latin lesson in there for anyone interested.

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101 Dalmatians, 1996 – This film’s stars are adorable spotted puppies and Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil, leaving little else to be said. I have written previously about how, killing animals and psychopathy aside, Cruella might just be one of the greatest style icons of all time and that view still stands. Fashion aside, however, this film primarily revolves around family unity, adventure and features delightful snowy countryside. Perfect Christmas fodder.

Love Note – Tofu Thursdays

It may be a sign that I’m in the thick of my mid-late twenties, but there are few things I like more at the moment than routine and good food. November is being typically dark, cold and rainy; therefore, having a good weekly meal plan, easy yet creative recipes to hand and a hearty, hearty appetite is definitely a good way to be living life right now. The Harping On household’s ‘Tofu Thursdays’ are a case in point: no matter what we have for dinner over the rest of the week, on Thursdays we eat our favourite, delicious tofu meal and it is joyous every single bloody time. Where we might be scrabbling around for ideas on Tuesday or Wednesday, Thursday is a guaranteed good time. Work colleagues and friends have been subject to my tofu ramblings for actual years now, so I think I should commit this culinary tradition to my blog.

I discovered this recipe a couple of years ago whilst bored at work and Googling ‘fun vegan recipes’. It came up on some Buzzfeed list or other and after making it once, it became a beloved regular fixture. It is effectively tofu in a homemade peanut butter satay sauce (please see recipe below) but it always feels like so much more than that. It epitomises the simple joy I have discovered in making meals with fresh ingredients instead of relying purely on pre-made sauces. I am a bit of an undisciplined cook, so I rarely weigh all the ingredients: I choose instead to just chuck in as much or as little as I feel that day. This means that even though this meal is scheduled in every Thursday, it is slightly different every single time. And yet still so, so delicious. Don’t get me wrong, there have been a few disastrous attempts at this dish (including the satay getting burnt, too much Sriracha hot sauce blowing our collective heads off and the use of chia seeds in the satay that absorbed all the moisture and created a dry soddish mess). The kitchen, however, is an excellent place for experimenting and there is plenty of variety to be found within the structural confines of a favourite recipe.

Since becoming a vegetarian in September 2016, I’ve learnt so much about flavours, textures, nutrition and my own ability to cook tasty food. This meal has become my most confident and trusty and I am more than happy to share it with you all. I can’t guarantee that I’ll stop blithering on about it at work/home/the pub but, for me, it’s worth going on about. Happy Tofu Thursdays!

I have made my own tweaks to wherever the original recipe is now and it goes as follows:

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Ingredients

Group 1

1 tbsp coconut oil

0.5 tbsp oil (olive/red palmfruit/flaxseed etc.)

2 garlic cloves

A biggish hunk of ginger

 

Group 2

Firm/extra firm plain tofu

4 tbsp soy sauce

4 tbsp white wine vinegar

3 tbsp peanut butter

2 tbsp golden syrup

Healthy dousing of Sriracha chilli sauce

1 tbsp nutritional yeast

Pinch of salt and pepper

4 tbsp water

1 cup of cashew nuts

 

Group 3

Rice/bulgar wheat/cous cous

Petit pois

Sweet corn

Spring onions

 

Method

  1. Chop up the garlic and ginger
  2. Drop them into a pan with coconut oil and other oil – don’t turn heat on yet
  3. Chop the tofu into cubes and put them to the side
  4. Mix all the sauce ingredients from Group 2 except the cashew nuts in a food processor or blender (I use a Nutribullet)
  5. Start to heat the garlic, ginger and oils until they simmer
  6. Turn the heat up higher and add the tofu
  7. Cook the tofu, stirring continuously, until it starts to turn golden brown
  8. Pour the satay sauce over the tofu and add the cashew nuts. Keep stirring to ensure that the sauce gets quite thick and sticky, but doesn’t burn at the bottom of the pan (it’s quite a weighty mixture, so burning it is easy to do and utterly soul destroying)
  9. Whilst mixing the sauce, boil up some rice/bulgar wheat/cous cous
  10. Also start boiling some petit pois peas and sweetcorn
  11. When the satay is thick, turn off the heat
  12. Mix together the carbs, peas and sweetcorn
  13. Pour the satay on top
  14. Chop the spring onions into little bits and sprinkle on top
  15. Eat!

Love Note – Expecto Patronum

It is a futile endeavour to try and name the single best thing about Harry Potter. The seven books in the series captured the imagination of millennial children like little else, and continue to be a source of escapism, fun, and belonging for many. Whilst the Lord of the Rings trilogy will always be my franchise of choice, Harry Potter was an integral part of my childhood. I cannot count the number of times I’ve saved people from the purgatory of not knowing which Hogwarts house they’re in by encouraging/forcing them to take the Pottermore Sorting Hat quiz, nor the number of extremely serious conversations I’ve had with people about the key issues of Snape’s morality, the discrepancies between feisty-cool Ginny in the books and lacklustre-wooden Ginny in the films, and about which magical career would have been my calling (Hogwarts professor? Wandmaker? Knight Bus Conductor? Who knows?!).[1] We have been offered a vivid, imaginative literary world to immerse ourselves in and I am here for that any day of the week.

The world has always been a dark and scary place, but in times like these, with right wing sentiments re-emerging across the world, bigotry and fear running rampant and uncertainty hanging around all us in a dense fog, it seems particularly, and uncannily, dangerous. We need hope and optimism more than ever. As such, the Patronus charm created by Rowling, and first seen in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is the beautiful, protective and empowering force we all need in our lives right now. It is apparently a notoriously difficult spell to cast that affords protection from dark and devastating forces, acting as a guardian and defender. Indeed, the Latin translation of the incantation ‘Expecto Patronum’ is ‘I await a guardian’. I love everything about how this charm is presented in the book. Harry is in such a vulnerable position when he meets Professor Lupin (one of my all-time favourite HP characters) because he is a mere thirteen years old and, with a litany of traumatic experiences filling his past, is overpowered by the profound darkness and desolation brought upon by the Dementors. I would argue that out of all the adults across all of the books, Lupin gives Harry the greatest educational gift: he equips Harry with the ability to draw from his own internal resources to find protection, safety and joy. Lupin teaches and enables Harry to access hope and wonder when everything appears bleak beyond repair. He doesn’t necessarily save him, but instead offers him something much more valuable: the means to save himself.[2]

On Pottermore, the Patronus charm is described as ‘the awakened secret self that lies dormant until needed, but which must now be brought to light…’ and appears in the form of an animal. There is so much room here for a Jungian depth-psychology analysis, but let’s just leave it at this: whatever stories our chattering minds weave for us, strength, wisdom and courage resides in all of us, all the time. The Patronus charm may be just another abstraction from a wonderful creative mind. However, as with a lot of good writing, the Patronus is a literary representation of a psychological, cultural idea. It can take being broken open, a juncture, a confrontation with extreme fear or the very act of growing up to learn how to access them; but strength, courage and love are always there within us. And in times like these, we need those deep, wise, hidden reserves more than ever.

[1] I’m hopelessly inquisitive and shamelessly talk about books as if they’re real. I’m in Ravenclaw, could you tell?

[2] All whilst dealing with his own monthly lycanthropic nightmares, might I add. Such a babe.

#ArmisticeDay100 one week on

A week ago saw the international commemorations of Armistice Day: on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the First World War came to an end. There was the annual event at the Cenotaph in the UK followed by a service at Westminster Abbey, gatherings of world leaders in Paris, and services taking place at cemeteries and memorials in India, New Zealand and the USA amongst many other countries. I had a draft version of this essay ready last Sunday, but decided to wait until a week had gone by before I posted it. I was curious to see how the spirit of remembrance would pan out a mere week after the solemnities of the remembrance services, the public grief and mourning over lives lost and the thankful vows to ‘never forget’. After the week we have just seen, where the level of British political debate has been puerile, headlines have featured militaristic language of ‘plots’, ‘battles’, ‘fighting’, ‘rebels’, ‘calling in the cavalry’ etc. and the harassment of a prominent female investigative journalist became institutional, I am convinced that remembrance in this country is little more than an annual self-indulgent performance.[1] Additionally, and sadly, this did not surprise me in the slightest.

Of course, there is always a performance element to any kind of national event; however, above all others, Armistice Sunday really has become the biggest yardstick of nationalism with which to bash people around the head for a couple of days of the year, until business as usual resumes. Remembrance, we are told (and I firmly believe should), involve respect of difference, empathy, compassion and a renewed sense of hope in the potential of human beings to acknowledge the injustices of the past and to unite to do good, try harder and be better in future. Nowhere have I seen any of these played out in British politics this past week: the lack of respect, the spite, the selfishness that we have seen manifesting at Westminster has been galling. As such, I think it’s absolutely crucial that we deconstruct and re-think remembrance, so that we carry its spirit with us all year long and begin to conduct life as human beings with integrity and long-sightedness. As a species, we can live consciously and kindly, we can serve one another by embracing and protecting difference, and we can prioritise love, compassion and justice over greed, intolerance and hate.

As with many things in these polarised political times, there is much division over the poppy as a symbol of national remembrance. On one hand, it is a nod to John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ and is an emotive and powerful symbol representing sacrifice and loss for a cause greater than oneself. On the other hand, it can be interpreted as an uncritical expression of nationalistic pride; brought out once a year to remember the devastating effect of war on human life whilst governmental policy continues to pursue and fuel unnecessary conflict.[3] For literary critic Walter Benjamin, this thinking in binary opposition, that has incidentally become so inflammatory and toxic over the past few years, is inevitable if we are to understand our history, our present and our future through the use of symbols. The poppy will never go far enough to help us understand and remember history. Instead, we need to culturally embrace and elevate allegory.  As Benjamin writes in The Origin of German Tragic Drama:

[…] in allegory, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face- or rather a death’s head […] it significantly gives rise not only to the question of human existence, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.

Reading this on and around Armistice Day, there seems to be no more a fitting image of a ‘petrified, primordial landscape’ than the hellish ‘No Man’s Land’: stretches of Belgium and France that were muddy, pockmarked with shells (some still unexploded), land scoured with barbed wire and dead bodies churned up in it all. If this is the face of history, then we need to understand history in a much more multifarious and multifaceted way than a symbol can allow. Indeed, when we try to remember and observe the impact of such complex and destructive human inventions such as war, nationhood and self, this becomes crucial. I would argue that it is important to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War; it is important to remember the destruction and devastation that war entails; it is important that we share a collective grief and mourning over the past so that we can build a more progressive, peaceful future. I am very serious about peace and if the world is to take the principles of Armistice Day more seriously i.e. observe it beyond one day of the year, then we must look above and beyond the symbol of the poppy alone. A symbol cannot go far enough to explore the depth of experience that Armistice Day entails. To reflect on all the fallout of war, we need to go beyond the surface level of symbols and engage with allegory. In my opinion, one of the best ways to access the historical nuances and perspectives of allegory is through art: poetry, music, film and visual art. Art and creative expression take us away from the confining realms of the symbolic, widening and deepening our conception of historical event and history itself. It is essential that remembrance incorporates art.  In light of this, I want to begin by discussing a particular piece of music that can help us to explore remembrance in a way that provides a more comprehensive, broader and yet deeper understanding of the past that Armistice Day requires.

I first heard Vaughn Williams’ The Lark Ascending, written in 1914, during the rather lengthily titled ‘A Solemn Commemoration of the Centenary of the Outbreak of the First World War’, which took place on 4th August 2014 at Westminster Abbey. Amongst the usual hallmarks of British national remembrance on display, from poppy wreaths, the soaring strains of Elgar and Bible readings to the royal family clad in a combination of black and military regalia, the service made room for poetry and music. The work of T.S Eliot, Wilfrid Gibson, Sebastian Faulks and Bach all made appearances and I was happy to see German prayers and poems featured too. Yet, it was Jennifer Pike and Daniel Cook’s haunting performance, on the violin and organ respectively that, in my opinion, brought an exceptional emotional weight to the service.[5]

The Lark Ascending (I’m thinking of the almost mythical Wessex as a backdrop to Hardy’s concerns with contemporary misogyny, hypocrisy and class limitation).

There is an elegiac quality to The Lark Ascending, making it suitably fitting for remembrance. Its mournful folk strains convey a sense of painful, intangible loss where we know that we are losing or have lost something, but we’re not entirely sure what.In light of this, how else can we think about remembrance, and what can remembrance also include?

War is an attack on critical thinking. In 1914, Europe was heavily armed, and the powerful ruling elites, who had spent years acquiring arms and stealing land and resources across the world, needed little excuse to start blowing each other up. What they relied upon, however, were young, fit men who would do the fighting on their behalf. The propaganda campaigns across all the nations and alliances involved in the First World War were sustained and convincing. In Britain, for example, 2.4 million men volunteered to fight before conscription was introduced in 1916. Men from Britain’s colonial territories were also convinced/forced to join the war; for example, 10% of New Zealand’s 1.1 million population volunteered to join the fight in Europe, with 18,000 eventually losing their lives.[7] The war was presented in a very simplistic way: ‘we’ are good, ‘they’ are bad, and, as such, young men were encouraged to enlist to assert and defend a strong sense of nationalistic pride. The posters and adverts appealed to unambiguous xenophobia, a misguided sense of glory and heroism and the war was likened to a big, grand adventure.

We can gain a clear sense that war was marketed to the young, and it was undoubtedly the young who suffered in their millions. At no point were they actively encouraged to look beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and explore the history and complexity of the war: young people were just encouraged to get involved, for quite literally fear of missing out and for fear of being accused of cowardice. For all that many young people today are called ‘snowflakes’ for challenging the orthodoxies and traditions into which they have been born, at least they have been encouraged to explore contexts and perspectives beyond their own. In a world of ‘dodgy dossiers’ (the Iraq War was nothing if not a shining example of critical thinking being swept aside for the sake of power and posturing) and fake news, we need to be more careful than ever with the information we consume. We must learn to question the information and stories being delivered to us, especially when they are being presented to us with a motion towards objectivity, and not allow facts and opinions to become so hopelessly muddled. Remembrance and critical thinking must walk hand-in-hand so that we do not slip and slide down the murky paths of bigotry, vested interest and power into catastrophic violence.

War is an attack on all of humanity: the total number of deaths resulting from World War One is estimated at 20 million, which was divided into 9.7 million military personnel and 10 million civilians.

During services of remembrance, we are told that we must remember all wars; however, what we think of as ‘war’ is, in itself, very limited. ‘War’ conjures up images of strategic military campaigns and operations, trench warfare, spitfires, tanks and the ideological aim of attacking some form of an aggressor. I think, however, that the conception of ‘war’ needs to be broadened much wider. In particular, I think we need to acknowledge the role of brute force and military violence in the form of colonial atrocities. There must be a space for acknowledgment of colonial barbarism in our collective Remembrance. The pillaging and theft of human beings, their land and their cultural identities from across Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and Americas at the hands of European soldiers must also be acknowledged as the acts of war that they are. The tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey is a national focus on Armistice Day, but what about the unknown millions who were killed and raped at the hands of soldiers when their countries were colonised and destroyed? If invading another country with weapons and arms, claiming it as your own, butchering and oppressing the people there isn’t an act of war, I don’t know what is. To add insult to grave injury, Remembrance is savagely whitewashed. What is rarely acknowledged is how many indigenous peoples fought in a European war, hundreds of miles away from their homes: 1 million Indian soldiers served in the British army; 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans were brought to Europe by the French; and 2200 Maori soldiers were in the New Zealand army, plus many more ethnicities. This was all whilst military campaigns and bombardments were conducted across Africa by the colonial powers to divert attention, money and resources away from the Western Front.[10] The contributions to the ‘war effort’ of Commonwealth and other former colonial countries cannot be acknowledged without also acknowledging that those very soldiers were victims of colonial and cultural war. Britain, in particular, is very reluctant to have a frank and honest discussion about atrocities committed in pursuit of ‘Empire’. If we are to remember all wars properly, we must cast our perspectives wider, beyond the trenches, over the seas to lands that Britain had absolutely no right to steal from others; to peoples who bore the scars of foreign soldiers.

Finally, there is always hope.  Even after witnessing British politics revealing itself  to be the sorry shit show that it is one week one from the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, we can be better. Through proper mourning and grief work, through a concerted, meaningful practice of remembrance, we can touch upon the prospect of better future. Elevating symbols like the poppy without acknowledging the deeper ambivalence surrounding the fallout of war, simply will not help us to learn from the past to produce a better future: here, a greater appreciation and understanding of art will always help. All wars have to end with diplomacy and conversations where we actively seek resolution: remembrance, therefore, should bring awareness to those very things, before arms are hastily taken up to begin with. Instead of blindly following the traditions of remembrance, remembrance itself must be an action. More specifically, it must be an explicit action of thinking critically and compassionately: weighing up arguments and perspectives, developing historical fluency and taking responsibility for all military atrocities.

 

[1] ‘The Papers’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs/the_papers [accessed 19th November 2018].

[2] Additionally, a mere three days before Armistice Day, a report was published highlighting that 41% of children have seen adults bullying one another in the past six months. How can adults preach to child to not bully one another when the way in which adults relate to and speak to one another is wholeheartedly aggressive, disinterested and narrow-minded? ‘Bullying: Children point finger at adults’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46140135 [accessed: 18:35, Sunday 18th November 2018].

[3] Here I refer to the controversial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the British government’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia.

[4] The full order of service can be found here: https://www.westminster-abbey.org/media/5205/ww1-vigil-service.pdf

[5] The original 1914 composition of The Lark Ascending was written violin and piano. Williams later reconstructed the piece for an orchestra that premiered in 1920 and has become one of the most popular pieces of music of all time.

[6] I think there may be room here for discussion of the pastoral with Sigmund Freud’s conception of ‘melancholia’: ‘One feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either […] This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness’ from ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,  Volume XIV (1914-1916) p.245.

[7] https://ww100.govt.nz/history-guide [accessed 21:28, 18th November 2018].

[8] ‘Reperes’, http://www.centre-robert-schuman.org/userfiles/files/REPERES%20%E2%80%93%20module%201-1-1%20-%20explanatory%20notes%20%E2%80%93%20World%20War%20I%20casualties%20%E2%80%93%20EN.pdf [accessed 21:15, 18th November 2018].

[9] ‘Europe on the move: refugees and World War One’, Peter Gatrell, https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/refugees-europe-on-the-move# [accessed 19th November 2018].

[10] ‘In 1914, the whole of Africa, except Ethiopia and Liberia, was under European rule and Great Britain and France controlled the two largest colonial empires’, Experiences of Colonial Troops, Santanu Das https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/colonial-troops [accessed 16:29, 19th November 2018].

Leaving Facebook

Facebook has become something of a monolith since its inception in 2004, and stands as one of the biggest hallmarks and influencers of 21st century culture. The sheer volume of people registered to Facebook (2.2 billion in January 2018) has meant that it has demanded cultural and critical attention. For a long time, however, this was quite severely lacking. This is partly because Facebook evolved and grew faster than it took for us to collectively understand what it was doing, but also, perhaps, because it was mythologised in films like The Social Network. This focused our attention on the melodrama of Facebook’s turbulent founding and not how it explicitly came to affect its users’ daily lives.[1]

We are getting a better sense of this now. The list of breaches and indiscretions with which Facebook has been involved is building into an unsavoury rubbish heap: hate speech and uncensored violent content is uploaded and left unchallenged by Facebook’s moderators; democracy has been undermined with the prolific use of ‘fake news’ campaigns being employed on the platform during elections worldwide (including the 2016 EU Referendum and the US Presidential election); personal data was harvested and used by Cambridge Analytica to implement targeted electoral campaigns without user permission; the use of algorithms to ‘personalise’ the experience of using Facebook has created echo chambers that reduce the diversity of content, thus stifling debate and difference[2]; and last year in the UK, Facebook recorded revenues of £842.4m but only paid £5.1m in corporation tax, opting to route revenues through Ireland where the rate of corporation tax is significantly lower.[3]

It is important to recognise that very rarely have Facebook actually broken any laws, bar the data breach involving Cambridge Analytica, for which they have been fined £500,000 by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).[4] Many of these indiscretions fall into murky territory that, whilst ethically questionable, do not come against any legal roadblocks. This is because they are largely editorial decisions and actions taken by the senior executives at the company, imparting policies and practices that develop and evolve beyond law-makers’ abilities to interrogate and keep up with them. As a result, some might argue that users should take more responsibility for engaging with Facebook: that they should build a greater understanding and awareness of user algorithms and limit the amount of data they share. I would argue, however, that users are woefully under-informed about the mechanisms behind Facebook. Collectively, we have limited critical capabilities to pin down and analyse something that changes so frequently, bogs its own privacy policy down in heavy, technical jargon and has been actively complicit in giving user’s data away regardless of said ‘privacy’ policy. As Virginia Heffernan writes in Wired: ‘Nothing about Facebook is intrinsically organized or self-regulating. Its terms of service change fitfully, as do its revenue centres and the ratio of machine learning to principled human stewardship in making its wheels turn’.[5] She implies that it is difficult for users to take responsibility for their use of Facebook when the people controlling it place the platform in a permanent state of flux, barely taking responsibility for any of the changes themselves. Facebook’s questionable mechanisms seem to be kept obscure until they become glaringly obvious, by which time users are playing catch up with the various data and privacy difficulties that they find themselves in. Again, Facebook aren’t doing anything illegal with their practices, but the moral implications of how they treat billions of people is becoming increasingly sour. No wonder we’ve seen desperate saccharine Facebook adverts appearing on TVs and billboards in the past couple of months promising to re-build trust with their users, in attempt to recover their damaged reputation.

Things get even murkier when we acknowledge that we are currently witnessing the unfolding of an enormous mental health crisis that is, in many ways, being fuelled by social media platforms like Facebook.[6] Indeed, the head of the NHS in England has stated that ‘there is emerging evidence of a link between semi-addictive and manipulative online activities and mental health pressures on our teenagers and young people’ on social media sites like Facebook and the Facebook-owned Instagram.[7] He urged social media companies to ‘take responsibility’ for the way in which their platforms cultivate anxiety and depression in the people who use them, in particular young adults. Again, Facebook has not broken any law in developing a user experience that encourages people to compare themselves to others, cultivates FOMO (‘fear of missing out’), establishes unrealistic standards of happiness and perfection, and reinforces compulsive posting with likes and shares. However, when we see mental illness becoming an increasingly dangerous, pervasive and normal condition that 1 in 4 people suffer from at any one time, and we know that social media use contributes enormously to feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and isolation, Facebook has to start being accountable for what it gives to the world.[8]

Facebook

In light of all of this, I come to myself. I rarely write blog posts about my personal life; however, seeing as so much of my personal data is in the hands of those who seek to make it public both with and without my permission, it seems fitting that my break-up with Facebook is similarly public. I am aware that none of this is anyone’s business other than my own and that I am most probably indulging my tendency to be over-the-top, but here it is anyway. In writing this, I do not want to self-righteously judge anyone else’s opinions about or use of Facebook. I know that for many people, Facebook isn’t really a big deal and they use it proactively with a good amount of emotional distance, which is more than OK. In the words of my favourite yogi Adriene Mishler, it’s important to ‘find what feels good’ and try to live the kind of life that you want to live: I’m working out how best to do me.

In November 2007, I was 15 years old and fresh from a school Classics trip to Rome and Sorrento. The trip was great because I met lots of really nice people, ruins are cool and we had lots of hilarious adventures. Afterwards, I joined Facebook so that we could all share our photos. In the ten years since then, Facebook joined me during my GCSEs, A-Levels, my undergraduate degree, my Masters and on my first years in the world of full-time work. I still cannot believe that I have spent a whole decade of my life logging onto Facebook. It was the site of an ex-boyfriend asking me out (I know) and then dumping me a year later (I KNOW); used as a rudimentary marketing platform for various plays I performed in, magazines I worked for and blogs I wrote for; a place where my post-adolescent identity crisis played out in the form of taking and sharing every Buzzfeed quiz possible; it helped me to engage with the wave of inspirational intersectional feminism that swept into my life aged 19 and has empowered me ever since; it was where I engaged with the resurgent socialism of British politics in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour; and I used it to full effect when I published my first novel, Tender is the Gelignite. I bloody loved Facebook.

Now, I have decided to leave Facebook. I am leaving Facebook for a combination of reasons, most of which I discussed at the beginning of this post. I think of myself as someone who tries to the best of their ability to make informed, conscious decisions about how I spend my time, in everything I think and do. I no longer want to support a site that purports to be a platform for sharing and collectivism when it undercuts basic freedoms to democracy and contentment with life. Capitalism, with the way in which it isolates and alienates us from ourselves and each other, leaves a big vacuum for connection. It does not surprise me that billions of people use Facebook in an attempt to feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. In many ways, it is the new opiate of the masses: simultaneously a reflection of people’s lives and an illusion by which people live. It is constructed, under the guise of being a communal space, to distract us from taking care of ourselves, which is ultimately the work we need to do if we are to live our content imperfect lives and be of help and support to others.

I am also becoming increasingly aware of the insidious way that social media use can affect the way in which our brains function. This is not only with regards to mental health but with the way in which our neural pathways are affected by Facebook’s carefully constructed mechanics. Very recently, I listened to a podcast from Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd’s series ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ entitled ‘Silicon Valley Serfs: protecting kids from tech overload’. It is an excellent episode, featuring the amazingly eloquent Baroness Beeban Kidron and Dr Richard Graham, which does well to veer away from a frantic reactionary view that all technology is harmful. It does, however, acknowledge the large impact that social media use has on children’s social and neural development. I couldn’t help identifying with many of the things they were discussing, largely because when I first started using Facebook I was still effectively a child. After a solid ten years of use, how much has Facebook potentially affected the way in which I think, perceive and respond to the world around me and the people in it?

In particular, I am concerned with the neural responses and ‘highs’ from having my posts and photos, and by extension myself, being validated with likes. In 2017, Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook, discussed the ‘social-validation feedback loop’ that Facebook’s developers helped to create with the ‘like’ button, which acts as a little ‘dopamine hit’.[9] This dopamine hit, a boost in positivity, encourages users to upload more to their wall/timeline, thus stimulating a potentially addictive or compulsive set of behaviours. It is for this reason that users who have taken a break from Facebook have reported symptoms of not only relief from the pressure of uploading, but also of withdrawal.

To be perfectly honest, I like getting ‘likes’. It feels nice. It feels like people care about what I say and what I do. However, it is falsely self-satisfying and damaging. I am sharing certain, predominantly positive things, to present myself in a certain way that isn’t 100% authentic. I have realised that in doing so, I don’t just get validation for whatever is happening in my life, I also get validation for the behaviour of sharing certain things that happen in my life in a certain way. I am someone who suffers from bouts of low self-esteem and it slightly terrifies me how much weight I have both consciously and unconsciously staked on people liking my posts. When I was younger, I definitely deleted posts that didn’t get much attention, I definitely compared the likes I got for photos with other people and I thought the number of ‘friends’ that I had on Facebook had some kind of bearing on how well-liked I was. It is not a healthy way to have lived and conducted myself for ten years and I am concerned about the way it will impact my thinking and self-worth going forward. Whilst I am more conscious of the way in which Facebook works now, and I have definitely distanced myself from the platform in recent years, it is time to take more definitive action.

Up until now, on a practical level, I have only been toying with the idea of leaving Facebook because there are a number of binds that are keeping me stuck. The first is that Facebook is an undoubtedly extremely convenient way to keep in touch with friends. Messenger is a good app and because phone numbers change so frequently, it is a very useful way to always have a means of communicating with people. The second bind is that whilst I know that it is politically problematic and probably damaging to my mental wellbeing, Facebook is a very good tool for sharing and marketing my work.

I have two solutions to this problem. If you want to stay in touch with me and don’t have my number, please message me in the near future and get my number! I also have an email address on my blog that you can use to contact me and I am on Twitter @E_S_Harper. At the moment, I find Twitter to be the least problematic social media platform that I use. I cannot say the same for Instagram, which I feel is just as problematic as Facebook, if not more so. I have been curtailing my use of that and going forward, will only use it in as professional a capacity as possible, to promote my writing, and to talk about other books, music, films and artworks that I like. I also have to admit that I have relied on Facebook to help track and remember special events like birthdays, which is great but also ridiculously lazy. If I’m going to be a responsible adult, I need to start taking this shit more seriously. You are all going in my diary.

Additionally, I have set up an author page called ‘Elizabeth Harper – Harping On’ that I would love people to like and subscribe to. I will be switching the admin rights to another Facebook account which will be virtually blank and with which I can post articles onto the author page. The author page will be my primary form of interaction so please do follow my updates there. I’m still very excited to write and share my work and I believe that this will be a much healthier way of doing so.

[1] I would go as far as to argue that The Social Network, released in 2010 and based on a book called The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich in 2009, was made far too soon after the founding of Facebook. I think it is hard to be comprehensively reflective about a major cultural development only 6 years after it first began, which is perhaps why they both focused heavily on the biographies of the individuals involved and not what Facebook actually did and meant. I look forward to future books, films, podcasts and other forms of media that will deliver a more thorough critique of Facebook and its cultural impact.

[2] ‘Facebook Said Its Algorithms Do Help Form Echo Chambers. And the Tech Press Missed It’, Huffington Post [accessed 14:50, 11th July 2018] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/zeynep-tufekci/facebook-algorithm-echo-chambers_b_7259916.html

[3] Facebook tax bill edges up to £5m in UK, The Financial Times [accessed 15:25, 11th July 2018] https://www.ft.com/content/67f9c34e-a909-11e7-93c5-648314d2c72c

[4] ‘Facebook fined for data breaches in Cambridge Analytica scandal’, The Guardian [accessed 15:21, 11th July 2018] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jul/11/facebook-fined-for-data-breaches-in-cambridge-analytica-scandal

[5] ‘Who will take responsibility for Facebook?’, Wired [accessed 11:46, 12th July 2018] https://www.wired.com/story/mark-zuckerberg-who-will-take-responsibility-for-facebook-now/

[6] ‘A systematic review of the mental health outcomes associated with Facebook use’, Frost, R.L. and Rickwood, D.J., 2017, Computers in Human Behavior, 76, pp.576-600. [accessed 11:27, 12th July 2018] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563217304685?_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_origin=gateway&_docanchor=&md5=b8429449ccfc9c30159a5f9aeaa92ffb#!

[7] ‘Facebook has young people in an ‘insidious grip’, warns head of NHS England’, The Daily Telegraph [accessed 15:17. 11th July 2018] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/07/08/facebook-has-young-people-insidious-grip-warns-head-nhs-england/

[8] https://www.mind.org.uk/about-us/what-we-do/

[9] ‘Ex-Facebook president Sean Parker: site made to exploit human ‘vulnerability’’, The Guardian [accessed 13th July 2018] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/09/facebook-sean-parker-vulnerability-brain-psychology

#HandwrittenShakespeare – ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

As a belated birthday present, I was taken to see an open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Newstead Abbey, Byron’s melodramatic yet fabulous Gothic ancestral pile in north Nottinghamshire. This play is one I am particularly familiar with, having first studied it at age 11, performed in it at 14 (Snout the Tinker for life), studied it again at undergraduate and postgraduate levels at university, and then having given a paper on it at a student conference.[1] An evening spent on a picnic mat with a bottle of plonk, watching the Chapterhouse Theatre Company performing such a lively interpretation of the play was gorgeous.

DSC_3032

Sitting in the audience of this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream reminded me of a number of things. Primarily, that The Mechanicals pretty much steal the show every single time with their farcical production of ‘The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe’, a nod to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was written and performed in the same year as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.[2] The Shakespeare geek in me just loves that these two plays sit alongside one another in the Shakespeare chronology: Romeo and Juliet is so elevated in our culture as the epitome of tragic romantic love, yet the next play that Shakespeare wrote effectively takes the piss out of it. It suggests that the tragic escalation of Romeo and Juliet should not be beyond comedy (there are many moments in the play that nod to the comic tradition of the carnival-esque) and that the meta-theatrical clap back in A Midsummer Night’s Dream should not be underestimated or under-acknowledged.

The performance also reminded me that for all the cultural grandeur of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the big names treading the boards in West End productions, some of the best Shakespeare performances I have seen have been the rabbly raucous ones; those productions that have been comprised of well-trained but little known actors, who truly capture the playfulness and humour of Shakespeare’s writing. It is often forgotten that Shakespeare plays were the 16th century’s chief forms of ‘low brow’ popular entertainment, and I love productions in the 21st century that are aware of this and attempt in some way to recapture that.[3]

Finally, I was reminded that alongside being funny and magical, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is full of moments that are steeped in poignancy, taking the play well beyond its cultural box of ‘fairy story cum romantic comedy’. One such moment came in the following lines delivered by Theseus, which I felt inclined to write out in full:

Handwritten Shakespeare - AMND 1

Handwritten Shakespeare - AMND 2

It is important to acknowledge first the racism implied in ‘Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt’. This line suggests that people who are in love are so frantic in their minds, that they see beauty akin to that of famed, Classical beauteous woman Helen of Sparta/Troy in a face that is not to be thought of as beautiful. In a move that speaks volumes of the 16th century’s perception of non-white non-Europeans, Shakespeare opts to conflate ugliness with the facial characteristics of Egyptians; because as people of African heritage, they were not thought to conform to standards of Western beauty and physical perfection.[4] This is extremely problematic and as a result, and as much as I love Shakespeare and the rest of this quotation, we cannot let him off for explicit racism.

The specific line from Theseus’s little speech here that had me reaching for the Shakespeare Concordance after the play had finished was: ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact’. [5] I was interested in the intertextual presentation of these three groups of people. This is because they are described as almost amorphous in Theseus’s discussion of the power of their collective imagination.[6] Imagination, he suggests, throws up images and distorts perceptions of reality with ‘frantic’ visions of ‘devils’, amongst other things. This culminates in the longer description of the poet, whose pen turns ‘the forms of things unknown’ into ‘shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name’. This suggests that what the poet accomplishes is the giving of life to what could have remained intangible and unreal, effectively a nothing. The irony of this is that the poet, like the lunatic and the lover, seemingly has no choice or control over their imagination. It is imagination that ‘bodies’ forth the forms of things unknown, which suggests that whilst thoughts and images are ‘nothings’, they are brought into language and expression through a corporeal being or experience.[7] This suggests that the imagination is something different and, perhaps, more complex and ambiguous than reason and rationality (‘Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends’). It has the fluctuating, changeable nature of all bodies but also possesses the physical corporeality that grounds us all in life. As such, it is a powerful almost tangible thing that is fluid, changeable and very difficult to pin down.

Indeed, Shakespeare takes this further by emphasising in the last four lines how this powerful, bodily imagination can bring about both the greatest joy and greatest fear, what Theseus describes as the ‘tricks’ of strong imagination. A modern translation of ‘tricks’ would be that imagination is a manifestation of some kind of cognitive dissonance: it is so powerful that it effectively establishes a disjunction between what it perceives as real and what is actually real. When something joyous happens, imagination establishes something or someone in the mind that brings that unparalleled joy; out of fear, imagination would convince us that a mundane bush is a ferocious bear. As a result, we can see that imagination, in the way that it acts uncontrollably and almost independently of a rational self, can disorient and confuse.

Theseus’s example of the poet, lover and lunatic suggests that these three groups of people, as a collective, demonstrate this intense, two-pronged relationship with imagination. To have such an active imagination requires the mind to be performing at a certain level of creativity, which welcomes those who, inadvertently or otherwise, express themselves with words and love. Furthermore, an intense relationship with imagination might also feasibly be called an intense relationship with anxiety. T.S Eliot famously wrote that ‘anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity’, and I think this could serve as a reading of Theseus’s speech here. Eliot suggests that creativity is accompanied and perhaps even enabled by the presence of anxiety; that expressions of writing and love walk hand-in-hand with what the 16th century would use rudimentarily describe as ‘lunacy’ or ‘madness’. I would add, in Theseus’s vein, that having an active imagination can be read here to be the greatest blessing when it comprehends and brings forth in a tangible bodily way great joy and positivity. In an equal and opposite way, however, imagination can also be the greatest burden and responsibility, when fear distorts our conception of the world around us and ourselves. It is entirely possible to argue that anxiety is the manifestation of creativity (and active bodily imagination) gone awry.

[1] Just in case you’re interested, I used Jean Baudrillard to explore Lysander’s seduction of Hermia through the use of figurative language, brought the concept of Bottom’s ‘translation’ into an ass into discussion with Jacques Derrida’s ‘On ‘Relevant’ translation’ and used my conference paper ‘Wastelands’ to compare Titania’s description of the changed and damaged seasons through her conflict with Oberon with T.S. Eliot’s war torn landscapes in part one of his poem The Waste Land, ‘The Burial of the Dead’.

[2] The Beatles seemed to think so too. I love this very grainy footage of them performing ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxXkdYr5JYg

[3] As well as the Chapterhouse Theatre Company, I refer to Filter’s absolutely hilarious production of Twelfth Night that I saw at HOME in Manchester, where members of the audience were encouraged to sing, clap, dance about and some brought onto the stage to drink tequila and play catch. We were all then jointly chastised by Malvolio for gabbling ‘like tinkers’ and for having ‘no respect of place, persons, nor time’. This line seemed all the more pertinent because the fourth wall separating the actors and the action from the audience had been completely comically demolished.

[4] I would like to show some awareness here that still today, people from non-white BAME backgrounds struggle to have their beauty, alongside their stories, perspectives, talents and intelligence, respected as much as those of white people. Whilst many BAME men and women have blazed trails for black beauty in fashion, music and film, popular culture is still slowly catching onto the fact that beauty encompasses more than skinny able-bodied white men and women.

[5] The Shakespeare Concordance is an excellent reference point for finding recurring words throughout Shakespeare’s plays. I searched for ‘poet’ in the Concordance when trying to find this specific line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/concordance/

[6]Before I continue, I think it’s important to say that I haven’t written about Shakespeare in a long time and never, I think, outside of an academic setting. Historically, I have been quite reluctant to talk about Shakespeare beyond an analytical or theoretical perspective, because I am highly sceptical of the value of reader response criticism. I have realised quite recently, however, how much I have missed throwing myself into the poetry, tensions and conversations all taking place within and between Shakespeare’s texts. I am hoping that in this new ‘Handwritten Shakespeare’ series that I want to bring to the ‘Creative’ section of Harping On that I can explore a new casual and therapeutic way of approaching Shakespeare: handwriting a quote I find interesting and then unpacking very briefly what is going on.

[7]  Thus also pointing to the idea that ‘nothing’ is always potentially ‘something’.