Are you really a unique snowflake?

The abusive nature of institutional constructs of success

‘I wanted to hate this place for its cruelty and power, but I find the beauty working its way inside me. I want to walk straighter, as if my own rhythm has been altered in some subtle way by the austerity and calm’.

Not my words, but those of Anna Small in her exceedingly clever musical-dystopian novel The Chimes. Although her Oxford, a locked musical fortress, is fiction, it captures the spirit of my alma mater so deftly that reading it transported me back to my days among the dreaming spires, breathing in the heady scent of learning yes, but also, undeniably, cruelty and power. The literary world is obsessed with Oxford, from Philip Pullman to Inspector Morse, Evelyn Waugh to Martin Amis, along with, literally millions of others. When you’re there it’s a thing too – the Great Oxford Novel. To an outsider even the concept sounds ludicrously pompous, and it is. But it’s that very pomposity, that sense of self-importance, that seems, by its very nature, to inspire so many words, even these. In the same way that a revoltingly egoistical rock star can make a million fans scream, despite their obviously obnoxious levels of self-involvement, so Oxford continues to captivate writers, academics, tourists and of course students – to hold them in its thrall despite its clear and present awfulness. The university, the city, the architecture, dress code, language (there are special words for everything), and culture is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a myth built on a myth so often repeated that it makes itself true. If you tell yourself and the world that you’re special, important, unique enough times, people begin to believe you.

Being a part of that culture is toxic. For me, my three years at Oxford were exactly like being in an abusive relationship. First, you’re set up to believe you’re not good enough to belong there. You have to audition, fight off competition, be sure to be at your very very best. You are told that making it in is everything – a sign of your worth, a marker of your status in life. If you don’t make it, you feel like a failure, and if you do, the institution gives you permission to laud your success over your peers. You are validated, told how clever and special you are. How you are now a winner – made for life, guaranteed the best of everything. The elite. But that love can and will be withheld if you don’t jump through the right hoops, if you don’t submit yourself entirely to the system. There’s no space for independent thinking, unless it’s independent thinking that isn’t actually independent because they told you to think it. No place for negativity, no support if you are struggling and any sniff of failure is met with censure and disdain. Perhaps you don’ deserve this love after all. Perhaps you’re not special. Prove it, prove how special you are. Show me what you can give me, show me how far you’re prepared to go to keep my validation. Sit, roll over, beg. The power the institution holds, the way it knowingly builds you up, preys on the weakness of impressionable teenagers, toys with your expectations, your dreams, your sense of self is cruel and dangerous. You are told you must be your best self all the time, and not even your own definition of your best self but someone else’s. You must conform and perform in equal measures. And they will slam your square peg into their round hole and tell you it’s for your own good, however much you scream.

Of course, for those naturally round pegs, the whole experience is a walk in the park. Their life experience up to that point has, mostly, already consisted of self-aggrandising pomposity, institutional validation and a strong sense of their own power in the world – all hail the British public school system. If you need an example just look at the UK’s current political leaders. But if you’re not one of them, if you’re not from the right school, the right family, the right mindset or, worst of all, the right level of intellectual snobbery, the skills and talents that you do have are constantly gaslit in an attempt to break you down and remake you in their image. By showing you how much love the institution can lavish on its chosen ones and then withdrawing it at will, by forcing unfair and unnecessary conditions that amount to cultural and intellectual blackmail on you, your spirit, your individuality and your ability to believe in yourself are systematically crushed. Then, as you sink into yourself, low and despondent, crushed at the having that balmy sheen of praise whipped away, they tell you that they are right, look how weak you are. Of course you didn’t belong there in the first place, how could they have made such a silly mistake. You were never deserving, not bright and shiny enough. Inadequate. Unworthy. Whether you’re trying and failing at being what they want you to be or just trying to be yourself and get by, they will come after you, kick you and laugh as you fall. You see the promises they made you, the future they told you to believe in, fall away and you’re left weak, small and confused – positively heart-broken.

We call out this kind of treatment when it’s dished out in intimate relationships, families, even friendships, but we still allow institutions to abuse and bully – particularly ones that are the beneficiaries of their own successful propaganda. Whether it’s Oxford, Harvard, the City of London or Sillicone Valley, powerful prestigious institutions inject their criteria for success and failure into you like a proverbial virus (no, not that one). And the sense of failure doesn’t go away – especially if you’re at a stage of life where you’re very mush still discovering and defining who you are. When you’re held to a standard, a set of ideals like that, rightly or wrongly a part of that dogma can stick in your brain, particularly if you’re a young adult. ‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she’s mine for life’ said the inimitable Miss Jean Brodie. And it’s true.  So what’s the point of a this? To say that beauty, power, even cruelty can be seductively aspirational, make you want to be better, different, than how you are, but for all the wrong reasons. Set you up for a fall but refuse to catch you. That dogmatic definitions of success are dangerous and harmful, and that it’s easy to lose yourself in a Jenga-tower of results-dependent affirmation. All of this. Or maybe it’s just me dredging up old memories and ranting. Which of course doesn’t make any of it less true or real or relevant. There’s still a discomfort, an unsettling seeping sense of failure when folks discover my academic background. A ‘but you went to Oxford, why aren’t you running the world?’ accusation that can still fill me with shame the same way that my tutors and my peers used to. I tried, but I failed. But even if I didn’t fail, I feel like I failed. False promises and gilded lilies – Oxford dishes out both in spades. I wish I could say it made me stronger, brighter, more savvy. I wish I had been able to walk taller instead of just wanting to. I wish I could know for sure if I really am a failure or have just been programmed to think I am.

The power of being part of a crowd

Why I miss the beautiful camaraderie of being physically close to strangers

Hello, my name is Ruvani and I’m a claustrophobic. Along with a whole swathe of other annoying phobias my risk-averse brain gathered up on the rocky road between the intrepid bravery of childhood and the sheer terror of adulthood, at some point I became a person who, along with small spaces, Did Not Like Crowds. While I’ve never been absolutely terrified off them – no avid gig-goer could be – crowds made my heart beat a little faster, put me on high alert. Willfully stepping into a tightly crowded space was only fine as long as I knew exactly where the exit was and kept it in my eyeline. One too many Dodgy Crowd Experiences may have been to blame. I recall getting nastily squashed against a wall at Notting Hill Carnival one year, and there was the rather scary moment in Ibiza when poor crowd control led to me getting lifted off the ground by the pressure of overexcitable humans. The idea of getting trapped, being crushed to death, or more likely to severe discomfort, has its own special chest-clenching grossness for me. Paranoia, yes – but irrational paranoia, definitely not. Getting squashed, trampled, stampeded-over may never have been a likely possibility at the many crowded events I’ve attended in my life (us good ol Brits know how to wait our turn) but it was always there in the back of my head, lurking in a corner, casting a tiny shadow over the fun.

But although crowds can be scary, they can also be incredibly wonderful. That’s why I persevered, always, with every kind of crowd, from nightclubs to music festivals to street parties, gigs, immersive theatre, and of course sports matches. You name it, I was there – diving in head first, with half an eye on the exit of course. The camaraderie of a crowd watching a band, the hive-mind hysteria of a bunch of ravers partying to a fantastic DJ set, the happy chatting with strangers in the snaking queue for festival toilets, the shared sense of place and purpose, the knowledge that everyone is there out of a love for the same thing – that’s what makes crowds amazing, joyous and life-affirming. Every one of the fifteen (yes, fifteen) Glastonburys I’ve attended has been populated with its own little miracles, folks helping each other out, getting each other’s back, sharing water and food, searching en masse for lost property, lifting each other on their shoulders. Whether I’m sweating in a nightclub, cheering for my team, headbanging in a mosh pit or queuing up tight for food, drinks or bathrooms, crowds exert their own energy, their own awareness of the moment. That each moment is a story, a memory, that you are all building and sharing together. Precious, unique and irreplaceable. Humans as physically close as they can be who don’t know one another but all want to be happy, want to create a positive experience, want to root for the same team. The yelling, chanting, shrieking in unison, the huge booming pulsating waves of love and excitement radiating from the heads and bodies squished up together, bobbing in synch, arms and legs akimbo with no thought at all to personal space.

Thinking about it now, it feels almost mystical, all that person-power, all that energy and life. With festivals, clubs and events banned, sports played to empty stadiums, the perpetual six-foot-scare-distance keeping us apart, I have never craved the warmth and intimacy of a crowd more. I dream of crowds, of hair in my face, elbows in my back, jostling this way and that, head ducking to get a better view, the sound of other people’s conversations, the access to their experiences as part of my own. I crave speakers and spotlights, the shared wave of anticipation that ripples through a crowd in the moments before a huge beat drops or a goal is scored. I miss hugging strangers when everything is going right for all of you at the exact same moment. When it’s your moment, your joy, but everyone else’s at the same time. The feeling of being so much a part of something, so very alive, of knowing you will always remember that You Were There, and so will everyone else. Those shared human experiences when being part of a crowd is like being part of a body, a single organism, one blissful beating heart.

Now, locked away, those moments feel more precious than ever. Each memory holds a bitter-sweet poignance, sharp with the not-knowing when we will ever again be able to return to those hallowed, socially-sacred spaces. The danger of closeness now means something so different. We turn our faces, our bodies away from one another, the newly-omnipresent fear of germs bearing down on us like a constant dull brain-ache. Just one of so many ways this disease has shifted life from colour to monochrome, another shade sucked from the rainbow of our existence. By separating us physically, reducing our shared experiences to shakey out-of-synch Zoom conversations, taking away any real physical sense of closeness to strangers, some essential threads of human connection feel lost, broken. The privacy and safety of home is an island, a walled castle, a lonely, reductive space where we separate ourselves and become less like or liking of everyone else. Our suspicion of contact, fear of contamination, divisions over how to behave and what our priorities should be right now feel like a psychological war zone, new and seemingly-insurmountable social and cultural barriers rising high on top of the literal physical danger of the spreading pandemic. Outside of our household bubbles, intimacy feels like a thing of the past. The ability to commune in a crowd, as a crowd, to speak with one voice, move with one motion, to be something larger, more powerful and more fulfilling than oneself through our physical and – in the moment – psychological closeness with strangers is a dear, precious recollection, a whisper of a dream. And I realise I’m more afraid of losing that intimacy forever than I ever was of standing in a crowd.

11th September 2020

There’s more than one kind of isolation

The absence of safe spaces when you don’t belong

Where do we go when we need a break from the constant tussle, the emotional and psychological pressure of living in a world where everything is some kind of battle? Mental retreats, or safe spaces may exist in the shape of a family unit, a close group of friends from school or college, a religious community or political organisation. But what if there isn’t a space with your name on it? What if you’re the person who slips between the margins, neither fish nor fowl, and there’s nowhere you can just exist without question?

I’ve written a lot here about the need for tolerance and acceptance, and those are exactly what the world needs right now to get back in order to re-establish some kind of sanity in our political and social relations. But putting tolerance and acceptance out there all the time is hard. It’s tiring. And sometimes you just ache for a space that’s yours – a space of agreement and mutual understanding where you don’t have to calmly fight your corner, where certain givens can just go unsaid. More than the constant, relentless bad news and divisive decision-making surrounding the pandemic, the daily car-crash-bombardment of international horror stories leave me yearning for a place to shelter, a place to not be questioned, not have to explain myself.

The disjuncture of having no one in your life whom you grew up with, whose experiences match your own and whose opinions can be relied upon as a safe place of agreement, a shelter from the storm of divisiveness we’re constantly battered by in this ever-fraying world. For someone like me who exists without tight bonds to family or community, without a strong, well-informed racial or ethnic identity and no ties to my past or where I grew up, there is no such safe space. The constant sharing, deep, intense bonds of adolescence give way to the constant uncertainties of adult friendships and relationships, and nothing is safe or certain among people of differing backgrounds. Tiptoeing around subjects, or full-disclosure honesty at the risk of confrontation, rejection or both are exhausting ways to interact. The absence of a safe space where the soul can rest and recuperate was bad enough before the world started going completely to shit. Now it’s a gaping hole in my psyche (another one) that I have no other option than to just suck up, another thing I need that I just have to manage without. Whether it’s climate change, having children (and how the two are related), taxation, education, gun control, unemployment, abortion, the police, the military or any other contentious topic you may think of, the lack of a space I can enter where there is the safety of having at least a basic form of agreement feels like yet another tax on just not belonging anywhere.

I was good at being a young person. I was good at sharing. I was good at pontificating on the ways of the universe late into the night, setting the world to rights, exclaiming yes, yes, I totally get that! And oh my god you just read my mind! The squeals of mutual understanding, the sense of being seen, being heard, the heart-lifting realisation that you are not actually alone in your thoughts and beliefs, that there are others, that you are a part of something, not a lone crouton on the edge of a soup bowl, sinking ever-deeper into a viscous mass that’s trying to subsume and destroy all the things that make you you. Those are moments, the places, that make living in the world more bearable, yet as an adult without ties and connections that run old and deep they are virtually absent, found only at the bottom of a bottle, or something stronger. Feeling out of step with the universe, feeling out of place and disconnected are not new feelings for me, but that doesn’t make them easy to live with. Seeing people huddle in their tribes, hunker down with their cliques is hard, especially after being unceremoniously rejected from so many of the aforementioned social sets for being too bloody different. When Oscar Wilde said ‘Be yourself, everybody else is taken’ he clearly had not encountered a gaggle of White upper-middle-class women from the English Home Counties. Just saying.

I envy and despise in equal amounts the rich White men in their gentlemen’s clubs – their safe, private spaces where they can close the door on the modern world, pat each other on the back and bitch about political correctness gone mad and how much better things were way back when. The egregious irony of them not only continuing to hold all the power but having enviably comfortable, socially acceptable private spaces of their own in which to bemoan any small inroads the rest of us may make into the world is not lost on me.

I’m sick of reading magazine articles extolling me to ‘find your tribe’. Do these people not understand how frustrating it is to be shown a prescription for loneliness that seems to work for everyone else except you? Has it even occurred to them that some people just don’t have a tribe, and it’s not their fault? That due to circumstances beyond one’s control, it is possible to have a set of beliefs and experiences that will set you apart in one way or another from virtually everyone you will ever meet. That you must live your whole life on guard, waiting, expecting to disappoint anyone whom you’re honest with, that one stray comment will get eyebrows raised, invitations rescinded, doors slammed in your face or worst of all, elicit peals of mocking laughter. And that you have to take all that with no one to run to, nowhere to go to say fuck, those bastards, they just don’t get us, because there is no us, there’s just you, out on the limb that is your life. Disconnected in every way and battling through another day on your own. No tribe, no family, no safe space, shared history or ideology. It’s all so tiring, each micro aggression more draining than the last. Running on empty with nowhere to refuel. Yes, this may seem like a small thing to moan about when the whole world is falling apart and people have much bigger problems, but it’s my blog and I can cry if I want to. Being different sucks, whether there’s a pandemic on or not.

13th August 2020

2am is the new 4am: Insomnia and Uncertainty

There is no cure for insomnia. I know this because one of the things I do at 2am, 3am, 4am is search for cures. And there aren’t any, not yet. Certainly not for the kind of insomnia I have, the kind so deep-rooted it can outperform strong sedatives without even breaking a sweat. In the Insomnia-V-Diazepam-Celebrity-Deathmatch that plays out in my mind every night, the drugs don’t stand a chance. If the mind is a tool that can be trained, sharpened, then mine is certainly a broken one, a wheel without an axel, too deeply damaged for repair. Mindfulness and self-hypnosis are about as much use as getting under a table during a nuclear attack. And yes, I’ve tried Melatonin – it passed through my body in complete silence, like a gliding condor. Sleep has developed the status of God in my mind. Something amazing that almost certainly does not exist. Something powerful and healing. Something so deeply desired and made even more desirous in its absence. I daydream about sleep.

The fact that, on the rare occasions that I do get real organic rest, I have insanely vivid, filmic dreams with plots even the most abstract-creative coked-up Hollywood producer couldn’t summon up only adds to the mystique. On those special, joyful nights, I awake fresh and bright and ready to take on the world, filled with the warm satisfaction of someone who has enjoyed a grand adventure. I used to write these tales of derring-do into a small shiny notebook, but stopped when our current reality made me prefer those other worlds so much more than this one that it became counter-productive to dwell on those exciting times lived entirely inside my head. Indeed, the depth and pull of the few dreams my body permits me never fail to remind me of the power of the human mind. The rich detail, so carefully imagined and almost always completely fictitious, must be created out of something. If only I could find a way to mainline straight into the source of my dreams, I would be able to write the most vivid, blistering fiction. Either that or I’d end up in an asylum, hallucinating uncontrollably. I think it’s a risk I’d be prepared to take.

I can just about remember not having insomnia. A time when going to bed at night, falling asleep and waking up in the morning were normal things, natural and unquestioned. I remember more clearly the time when that rhythm got lost. When fear, stress and anxiety imposed such a heavy burden on my psyche that I lost the ability to switch off. When the quiet of night time morphed from offering the peace of sleep to a bitter window of solitude in which my screaming brain forced me to revisit the day’s indignities, agonising over each stabbing word, each jeer and taunt. Next would come the heart-pounding dread of the dawn, not knowing what fresh hell my tormenters had in store for me. The night would be spent praying, wishing, bargaining with a non-existent omnipresent entity for some kind of respite, some means of escape, some tool to empower me or disempower them. Fruitless soul-searching born of despair. And so the insomnia took hold, the customary links between night, bed and sleep severed forever. Instead I found myself dozing off at my desk, in the car, in front of the television, minutes of broken, ugly, disorientating unconsciousness snatched in compensation, in desperation. I learned to live with exhaustion, learned to study and work in a zombified stupor, learned to always carry a toothbrush. I began to accept that the power of sleep, real sleep, was lost to me.

Sometimes, when things are better and I’m not constantly worrying, I may get a full night of rest. Sometimes my body may gift me one randomly. The current situation is taking its toll. The nights of freewheeling exotic dreamworlds are becoming fewer and fewer and the long, ragged slog through the hours of darkness increasingly inevitable. The immediate relief of unconsciousness that I feel when my weary body collapses into bed is broken agonisingly quickly as the power of anxiety pushes its way to the front of my brain, dragging me, groggy and defeated, back into reality after a mere hour or two. What was 4am is becoming 2am as pandemic-related worries spawn and multiply, amoeba-like, in my mind. Uncertainty becomes panic as financial worries build on career difficulties which compound social anxiety and my physical issues. I read, immersing myself in the glorious otherness of the page, but as soon as I try to rest, to reset my mind, to focus on a place of peace and safety, one errant thought will scurry into my brain, the ant in the sugar bowl, and I will be wide awake again. This cycle can repeat itself all night. Honestly, I am exhausted. The tiredness, the worry, the wretched uncertainty all feeding into one another, short-fusing my brain and eating up the little energy that I do still have, leaving me foggy and unproductive, eyelids constantly drooping, hoping against hope that sleep, that elusive white tiger of the mind, will graciously treat me to twirl of its tail.

15th July 2020

Life as a Baited Bear

My experience of racist bullying and PTSD growing up in Britain

Right now I’m crying. I’m crying over scenes happening on the other side of the world. I feel sick and panicked. I feel helpless and furious. Why should I be crying because of a bunch of ignorant fascist thugs proudly proclaiming their racist jingoistic ideology on the streets of London today? Why not just shrug and ignore them? After all, they’ve always been there. Why ruin my day, my husband’s day over a group of stupid nasty bigots on the other side of the pond? Tune them out, forget about them, move on to the next thing.

Except I can’t. Every time I see those faces, those gurning, leering sneers I know so well or hear those vicious bitter chants filled with hate I go back in time. I go back to when those same faces, those same voices were targeted at me. Targeted day in, day out. A permanent ringing in my ears, a pounding in my head. A presence I could no more ignore than if I’d been beaten with a stick, which I sometimes think might have been preferable. There was always a distance, an otherness. I wasn’t invited around for tea like the other kids were. Little comments, funny looks. Sitting on my own in the playground. Teachers always saying my name wrong. But it was in Year 4 that it became something else. We weren’t allowed to move seats during the school year, so once my colour became a target there was no escape. I was nothing more or less than a baited bear, chained to hot coals and dancing in agony for the amusement of the audience. Constant, relentless persecution. If I didn’t react, they pushed harder. If I did, they laughed and started again. No respite, no way out. All day and every day.

I stopped sleeping. I became sick with the fear of what awaited me the next day. I sat at the foot of my bed praying all night for it to stop, for something to happen, anything that would free me. I still have that raging, painful insomnia. I binge-ate chocolate for just a moment of distraction from the sheer misery of my life. I hated myself. Every time I looked in the mirror all I saw was my brown skin – the disgusting thing that made me different, the thing I couldn’t change. The marker of my grotesque otherness I would have to carry with me for the rest of my life. I was terrified. And I wasn’t wrong to be. It never let up. I got used to my daily dose of being called gross and hideous. I internalised that no one would ever love me because I was so dark and ugly. I expected to be referred to as poo if it was a good day, otherwise worse. Of course I could never have a boyfriend. Obviously I’d have to take the odd punch. Anyone who spoke to me risked guilt by association. I was pitifully grateful for the few manipulative, abusive pseudo-friendships I had.

How can you grow a sense of self-worth when the root of your soul is constantly being pissed on? How can you believe in yourself when everyone around you is telling you that you don’t deserve to be alive? How can you love yourself when your ugliness is shoved in your face every day? And how can you possibly fight against the smug pervasive certainty, the confidence, the absolute cast-iron self-assurance emanating from all of your assailants and their silent allies that they are one hundred per cent in the right? There is no room for argument, no space for dissent – they know in their hearts and their minds that they are right to hate you because, after all, you have dark skin. You are the one who is different, who is other, who is therefore inherently lesser. They know it, so it must be true.

When I see images of proud British racists, I see those same faces 30 years later. They’re probably in the crowd. No one has told them they’re wrong. Quite possibly no one ever will. They are the beating heart of racist Britain-undiminished, unsilenced and triumphantly enjoying themselves. They still believe that people like me are worth nothing. Me crying about it isn’t going to stop them, but sometimes I can’t stop myself. Because their attitude stretches beyond the bullish neo-Nazi minority. They are enabled by the middle-class British establishment that has successfully kept ethnic minorities at arm’s length, limited our participation in arts and culture, kept us off the national curriculum and ensured that we have enough visibility to pay lip service to diversity without ever having to change anything. Racism in the UK is so structurally embedded that when the thugs rear their ugly heads the establishment shrugs and ignores them. They refuse to acknowledge that they are merely the head of the snake, because to do so would flag their own complicity. The children who did those things to me weren’t just the kids of NF extremists. They were the kids of doctors, lawyers and journalists. And they were all in it together-the great equalising act of bullying the brown kid. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the complicity and latent prejudice of the teachers. And if you think that things are better now, think again. Look around you. The white British stranglehold on everything from history to fashion may be being questioned right now, but in a few weeks when this all dies down how many kids will there be being told that they don’t belong in Britain?

13th June 2020

There’s No Such Thing as an Empathetic Racist

Why we need protective legislation to enforce justice and equality

This week, the sheer raw anger, the exposed rage that was so fresh and bitter has steadily simmered into something less agonising but equally potent – a huge, resounding call for systemic change that will not be silenced, will not be ignored. Millions of people have taken to the streets worldwide, affecting real change in the defunding of the Minneapolis police department and the tearing down of statues commemorating slaveholders in the US and the UK. But as we continue to push forward, the White far right are pushing back: KKK vigilantes have attacked protesters in Seattle and Virginia and threatened to bomb protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, while protesters have been killed or hospitalised by police across the US, including here in Austin. Yes, progress is being made but this is not the time to take our foot off the pedal. White supremacists are angry and frightened by the gains we have already accomplished, but anyone who has encountered racism first-hand knows that these are structures that won’t just go away.

I keep thinking about why. Why some White people just cannot seem to understand the basic concept of equality? Why they get the same cold, hard, dehumanised expression on their faces when confronted with People of Colour asking for their human rights, how they can justify the violence of their language and their behaviour when encountering other human beings who are a different colour from them? How can some White people not understand or at least imagine what it feels like to be judged, bullied, rejected, persecuted and murdered because of the colour of your skin? How fighting back is the only possible means of survival. Surely this is obvious? But it isn’t. Privilege, it seems, often has an inverse relationship with empathy.

Because if the beneficiaries of that privilege open themselves up to empathy, if they really enable themselves to feel what it’s like to be oppressed, to be threatened, and ultimately to be killed because of the colour of their skin, they would have to confront the reality of giving up that privilege, and they do not want to. By shutting down their empathy, burying their heads in the sand, the White far right are silently acknowledging how hard it is to give up that privilege, that they know what’s at stake and they will fight with all the cold-hearted ignorance they can muster. And history shows us that this is not going to change by itself. We can’t just sit back and wait for every racist White person to become friends with a Black person who single-handedly overturns centuries of bigotry and prejudice, the way that Hollywood would have it. In real life racist beliefs are harboured and cherished and passed down from generation to generation as principles to live by. How else could we still be living in an such a deeply racist society in the year 2020?

Racist structures and beliefs offer a sense of place and power. How can we possibly incentivise the White far right to give that up voluntarily? We are asking them to relinquish every inbuilt advantage society has offered them. To retrain their thought processes to challenge structures of bigotry that are deeply ingrained into their history, their culture, their psyche, solely for the benefit of others. We are asking them to exercise empathy. But they don’t want to hear it. This is completely counterintuitive to the entire ethos and ideology of the White far right. Empathy is not in their playbook. And once you take empathy out of the equation what you have is one group of people clinging to an idea that allows them to believe they are worth more than another group, and they like that sense of worth, they like how it makes them feel and who it tells them that they are.

Every act of aggression, every misplaced denial, every word spoken without empathy shows us that the White far right want to keep perpetuating the same old tropes of cultural superiority that allow them to exert their status over those whom at some point in history society deemed to be inferior to them because of the colour of their skin. That they will not give up without a fight. That they will manipulate and reframe the debate to portray Black people and their allies as the aggressors, that they will literally try to Whitewash history. The journey towards a truly global and egalitarian world where everyone is equally valued and recognised isn’t going to happen out of the kindness of their hearts. Those are hardened fast to protect their social and economic advantages, in the same way that capitalism has always been able to profit – by dividing the working class by race, gender or religion and pitting them against each other to jockey for the little bit of power so generously handed down to be squabbled and fought over. The White far right have staked their claim and they are not giving up on it.

Legislation, and only legislation can affect real change, although even supposedly watertight legislation like the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments have been circumvented, abused and misinterpreted. But the stronger, more powerfully and more completely we legislate the less scope, the less space there is for the White far right to reassert its agenda. We need to make racism illegal. Really illegal. On a Federal level, an unchallengeable level. Behaviours may not immediately alter attitudes and perceptions but they guarantee safety and offer means to recourse in a way that no moral argument can.

I think a lot, write a lot, about my own complex relationship with my own race, my experiences of racism and the deep, complex structures that legitimise racism in our society. I get lost in my own thoughts, caught up in the narrative of the things that I know, that when confronted with a situation that I do not know, I have not lived, I don’t always know what to do. I might not always do the right thing or say the right thing. I might be clumsy or insensitively over-conflate my own experiences. I hope not. This isn’t about me, but I’m in it as much as everyone who has ever been the victim of any kind of prejudice is in it. Those of us from other minorities should not be detracting from the focus of this fight and should not be co-opting the agenda. We need to act as allies, as does everyone who cares about breaking down the institutional structures that are oppressing Black people and protecting the perpetrators of racist violence. Being an ally means seeing and recognising these structures and patterns and confronting them wherever we see them. It means challenging, pushing back against every assumption, every action that’s lacking in empathy. It means utilising our own experiences of prejudice, bigotry and racism to understand and support the fight that’s on our doorstep, exercising our own empathy to help highlight its absence among those who continue to subjugate and silence Black voices.

These base acts of white supremacist violence are not going to stop, and the belief and value systems that enable them are not going to dismantle themselves. This is now a pitched battle on both a physical and ideological level and we can’t be intimidated into giving up. We cannot back down and allow the status quo to be reintroduced. Whether or not empathy can be learned and hate can be unlearned feels like an academic question, because quite simply this has not happened. The battle for hearts and minds goes on, but the structural change that will bring down racism and White privilege has to come first.

June 9th 2020

Information is Power

Why censoring our media damages our future as well as our present

Once upon a time I studied history. I studied it because I loved it, not because I had some great plan for a fabulous high-powered career as a historian, but because the past has always fascinated me. Other places and other times, the ways that other people lived and the things that they lived through often held more of a grip on my attention than the dim, grim real world, and although I dutifully kept up with contemporary events, I was much better versed in the political intrigues of the Early Modern period than the day-to-day goings on in Westminster. The past is a fascinating place, made all the more so because it really existed. Or did it? Every story, each event, is a reality with more than one side. Picking over sources, examining them for context and bias, evaluating their weight and creating as true a picture of events as possible is a huge part of being a historian. Like reading a novel and gauging each character’s motivation, so each source has a life and identity of its own. History does not grant access to the truth, but it incorporates the range of truths necessary to discover the full story of any story. Of course, the version of events that gets accepted into the public imagination most often depends on who controls the narrative.

Every school child knows that history is written by the winners. Everything we think we know is based on the information available to us, what was written and what was allowed to survive. It doesn’t take a great enquiring mind to understand that every lesson we are taught is viewed through a prism of right and wrong constructed by contemporary moral and cultural values. Richard III became a murderous hunchback as Shakespeare curried favour with the granddaughter of his usurper. Napoleon was a megalomaniac who overreached himself militarily. Of course, we know the Nazis were bad because they really were bad, but as we see in dystopian television dramas like The Man In The High Castle and The Plot Against America, we may all have ended up holding that knowledge secretly to our hearts between salutes, heils and goose-steps. The Soviet and Chinese communists rewrote their own history books to reflect their ideological rejection of all past societies and punished anyone whose narrative differed from theirs with years in labour camps, and the Khmer Rouge, in a ludicrous feat of revisionist psychosis, decided to set the clock back to Year Zero and begin history again. About as clever and rational as genocide. Oh wait…

I’m veering off all over the shop here, but what has pulled my mind back towards the meaning of history, the need for continued narratives, diverse narratives, contradictory narratives, is the terrifying path we seem to be sliding down right now. We used to think that fake news was all we had to worry about, but with the orange despot’s latest attack on all forms of media that, apparently, should be shut down for daring to question his immense wisdom, who have the gall to suggest readers look into actual facts rather than accepting a blatant pack of lies shoved in their faces, we need to think seriously about what history will say about us, what record there will be left of what people really thought and felt, what was really happening and how we got ourselves into this ghastly mess we’re trying to live through. By attempting to shut down debate, to quash alternative opinions and label any attempts at invoking facts that contradict state propaganda as anti-democratic, our society is literally turning in on itself. We have become the snake chewing on its own tail.

Every war we have fought, every sanction imposed, every negotiating table we have steered towards a democratic resolution is being systematically undermined by this sweeping destruction of our own democracy. The limiting of information to party-sanctioned hyperbole is at the very heart of the communist and fascist ideologies we have spent the last hundred years fighting against in one form or another. How can no one see that we are becoming the thing that we purport to hate? There are so many things wrong with our society, but the limiting of information and undermining of facts that we are currently at risk from is terrifyingly toxic and dangerous, because without free speech and free reportage we won’t even know how many of our other freedoms are being taken away. If we really want to live in a society where dissidents are spirited away by unnamed security forces in the middle of the night without a word and the pleas of their families are never heard or acknowledged we are going the right way about it. Trump is well on the way to ending up with his name on the same list as Franco, Pinochet, Stalin, Pol Pot and of course Hitler. Information is power. Free speech is enshrined in the constitution of this country, but for how much longer? As respected media outlets die from lack of funding and our peer-to-peer social networks face the possibility of censorship, who will tell the other stories, the unofficial stories, arguably the real stories, and how will we preserve them for future generations? And how long before I end up on a blacklist just for writing all this down?

Disapproval and Polarisation in our Pandemic of Discontent

“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Disapproval makes me nervous. I hate people hating on me. Some folks thrive on argument and controversy, but I am a fan of the smiley-cuddly-quiet life. I didn’t write for a terribly long time because I found the hostility that I contended with every day just from walking in the world as myself too exhausting to allow me to deal with a whole second stream of criticism. Being different, whether accidentally or on purpose, is still considered an act of provocation. Yet, being a writer requires a thick skin. You can’t please everyone all the time, and in our digitally oriented world of instant circulation and viral shaming anyone can get their feelings or opinions nailed to the wall a million times over just for having the sheer audacity to share them. The internet makes writers of us all, leaving us all open and vulnerable to criticism, disapproval and shaming.

For the argument’s sake, I’m going to call this Phase Two. The initial terror and panic have been replaced by blazing anger, gnawing fear and damning vitriol. Everyone, it seems, is a Snowflake or a Karen (covidiot didn’t really stick, did it?). The internet has always (at least in my experience) been an angry place, but as the battle lines over reopening are drawn there’s so much hate and hostility on both sides that tuning out of politics and tweeting about puppies can feel like the safest, sanest thing to do. The current situation is laying open our differences in brutally visible and tangible ways, with new polarising stories constantly breaking and public policy uncertain and unpredictable. Politics and religion, those classic conversational minefields, have already stirred up huge social discontent in our lives, pitting friends and family against one another through the whole Brexit-Trump debacle of the last four years. Now the days of Brexit seem positively halcyon as folks are publicly shamed for walking two-abreast, derided as ignorant disease-spreaders, mocked for being paranoics or accused of suppressing civil liberties. This is not a time where any of us can gain wholehearted approval for anything we do, say or think.

Right now, talking (and writing) make me nervous. With frustrations running high as the debate over reopening intensifies and we are bombarded with increasing numbers of conflicting studies and diverse expert opinions, it’s hard to know what to think, never mind what to say. Untrustworthy news sources are the icing on the powder keg. Fake news has gone from a source of horror to a joke to an accepted part of everyday life, allowing us to choose what we believe and creating an ideological battleground where everyone claims that science is on their side. With each of us affected differently by the crisis, we all have a divergent take-away and even among intimate friends and family unexpected differences of opinion are emerging. Small things that we may not have noticed or cared about before become sticking points. Some people are immediately easier to converse with than others, and it may not be the ones you’d expect. But how to get there in the first place? Sounding out safe conversational ground can feel like a dance across a field of social landmines that could explode into a cloud of shaming at any moment. We’ve all been shocked at things our friends and relatives have said, as they undoubtedly have been by us. Even those of us who want desperately to keep everyone happy are unable to open our mouths (or our browsers) without putting somebody’s back up.

Most of us yearn for a fair, tolerant society where different viewpoints are valued and included, but once you throw death and poverty into the mix, the pressures of survival force us to push for what we believe will meet our needs safely and in the quickest, simplest manner. Empathy dissipates in the face of righteous panic, making our divisions more potent and dangerous, and at times it feels safest not to say anything at all. When this is all over, how will we go back to communicating openly, knowing all of each other’s hidden weaknesses and prejudices? Can we ever look at one another the same way again? Will we ever be able to trust in the objectivity of the information we’re able to access, and how will the balance between individual and societal needs be restored? Will any kind of approval or consensus become an oxymoron relegated to history? When the only certain thing is uncertainty and it’s hard to trust anyone or anything, the future seems a very bleak place indeed. If this really is our version of the Black Death then we may still have the Dark Ages to come.

Ending the Shame-Blame Game

Pandemic-poverty and social change

Being as terribly, terribly British as I am, I hate talking about money. Other than the usual everyday fuck-it-I’m-broke statement that has blanket-covered my finances since the dawn of time, I tend to get squirmy and uncomfortable if anyone outside (or sometimes even inside) my immediate family wants to get down to financial brass tacks. Cos we just don’t talk about that sort of thing. Having spent long periods of my life either un or under-employed, as well as growing up horribly, embarrassingly poor, I’m also used to the weight of financial worry permeating my every heartbeat while trying to go about life as normal and coping with being the poor friend/relation with as much of a smile on my face as I can manage. The real kicker is that for once I had just about got my financial ducks in a row before this whole thing kicked off, but now, like 26million other folks in this country whose livelihoods depend on tourism, hospitality, entertainment, fashion, beauty, culture, fitness and god knows how many other industries, I am well and truly up the spout. I probably should be panicking more than I am, and I definitely should be buying less beer, but for some reason my usual panic buttons just aren’t kicking in. it may be because, for once, I’m not alone in this, and I don’t just mean having lovely JB in my life. This time, I don’t have to pretend not to be poor. I don’t have to pretend that my life and my income aren’t fucked. I don’t have to smile and lie while my stomach does backflips over how I’m going to make it through the next month, and I don’t have to look away awkwardly when someone asks me how things are.

I’m not saying I’m glad everyone else is in the same boat as me – I wish none of us were in it. I wish there wasn’t even a boat. I wish the world could go back to normal in a goddamn heartbeat. I think what I’m saying is that for the first time, I’m not ashamed to be poor, I don’t feel like it’s my fault, like I did something wrong, that I’m a deficient human being because of the way our society tells us that if we don’t have money it must be because of something we did, something we need to fix about ourselves and our lives. In this situation we can’t fix anything. We can’t make jobs that simply are not there because they are not safe, and we can’t suddenly become experts in things we don’t understand. Yes, some of us could and probably will retrain, but one fact that has come out of this situation with enormous clarity is that no sector (with the exception of healthcare, up to a point) is completely safe – who knows what the next disaster of biblical proportions will entail? Right now, a world without the internet or even electricity doesn’t seem impossible. Anything really can happen.

Being poor has always made me feel that I’m worthless. Not having a stable, respectable career has made me feel lesser and ashamed. Investing hard in my working life and seeing it fall apart around me way before any of this happened nearly broke me to pieces, so I know better than anyone how hard this is for every person who thought they knew what they were doing with their life and suddenly had it all taken away. The world isn’t fair, it just isn’t, and hard work does not necessarily pay off. With most of us (there are of course the obvious exceptions) in something vaguely resembling the same boat, for once no one is talking about pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, getting on our bikes or showing bloody initiative. Finally, the economy is being seen for what it really is, a mostly arbitrary system with a fluctuating list of winners and losers whose status depends primarily on factors beyond their own control. The concept of a universal basic income is no longer being derided as commie propaganda, and medicare for all is winning new advocates daily. In the UK, the NHS has now acquired a semi-religious status when just months ago it was frittering out of our fingers into private hands without the majority of the population batting an eyelid. The difference between needs and wants is being thrown into sharp relief, and the responsibility of the state to its people is no longer a just concept to be debated, it is a reality which requires immediate action.

As our economies shrink and unemployment skyrockets, talking about money, about being afraid and uncomfortable, about feeling helpless and angry, is no longer shameful or embarrassing. The correlation of poverty and fault is being shown up as nothing but a construct of the successful and the privileged, a tool to abrogate state and corporate responsibility. A stick to beat the unlucky with. Being poor doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you are lazy or stupid or worthless. It doesn’t equal lacking life skills or making poor career choices. All it means is that you have been unlucky, that you have lost this roll of the dice, and maybe the one before, and the one before that. Yes, some people are better able to cope and pull themselves up from those losses than others, but even being blessed with that characteristic and/or having someone in your life to nurture it is down to little more than luck. As much as I would like to believe that something good will come out of all this suffering, that real change is afoot, history clearly dictates otherwise. Undoubtedly, once this is all over, the powers that be will do their best to sweep our memories of this moment under the carpet and reinstall the same old creaking economic structure of haves and have-nots, waving individual incentives under our noses, and each of us will run straight back in like children determined to snatch the biggest portion of candy, wilfully oblivious to the poison it contains. For now at least, we are all in this together, so lets not be ashamed of our poverty and our fear and let’s demand solutions from our leaders that reflect our value as human beings.

Why I’m going Back to the 90s

Embracing the Art of Survival by Nostalgia

One of the ways JB and I are dealing with All This is by taking several steps backwards and immersing ourselves in the halcyon days that were The 90s. I know, based on the stupid amount of time I’m spending on Twitter, that we are not the only ones to seek refuge in what was not just a simpler time, but for our generation (tag end of GenX), the only period of real hope that we lived through. I’ve written a fair bit about the difficulty of growing up in the grim grizzly grey of the 80s, and how the racism, capitalism, classism and poverty of those years shaped me, but have woefully neglected the huge impact of what came next. Sometime early in 1994, I had my Pleasantville moment (if you haven’t seen it, do) and my world slowly began to shift into colour. Less a seismic shift in the tectonic plates of the universe and more a slow, burgeoning build laced with a huge sense of anticipation, things around me that had felt distant and impossible and most often agonisingly unbearable began to offer up the smallest possibility of change. When Tony sings ‘Something’s Coming’ at the start of West Side Story, I can almost see my younger self sauntering down the road wearing a bright vintage minidress and clogs, hair swinging in the wind, on the cusp of escaping for good the vice-like grip of my brutally domineering mother and finally making my first group of actual friends.

I shall, and unapologetically so, return to further cultural references to describe the power of the cultural change that occurred in the early-mid 90s that enabled me to, in a very real sense, be alive for the first time. What made me suddenly become relatable to others wasn’t an overnight personality overhaul but the arrival of new sets of cultural markers around which our generation sparked and fused, and in which I was a genuine believer. Nirvana and the grunge scene offered me my first glimmer of a world that I could understand and belong to, and enabled me to take my first wobbly steps out of nerddom, like a real life female Marcus from About A Boy (if you haven’t read it, do). The heady days of the mid-90s Britpop revolution that followed transformed everything further – suddenly I was part of a movement, a real one that was on the news and everything. We thought we were living out the 60s all over again, we felt so important and potent and alive, like one sweating, screaming, pulsating force of nature, unified in our passion for the songs we knew better than our own thoughts. Naming every member of Menswear, Sleeper, Shed Seven and Elastica became a test of character, and high-tailing it to HMV to purchase the limited edition CD of each new release was 100% de rigeur. I have never paid so much undivided attention to music, immersing myself in every breath, every heartbeat. Lying on my bed with my eyes closed I would listen to each album over and over, then call my friends to spend hours debating favourite melodies and phrases. I can still tell if a Britpop record is even slightly out of time, and I totally kill this stuff at karaoke. My first gigs, Blur, Pulp, Oasis, felt semi-religious, all of us bound in communal hysteria, all feeling, knowing that this was something beyond ordinary. Yes, as Pulp themselves said, Something Changed.

As well as music, there were the films and TV. Tarantino was our god and we watched, re-watched, bunked off school to watch, dressed up as the characters, danced around to the soundtracks, covered our school-books with images cut from magazines and endlessly recited quotes in tandem. We were in love with Keanu Reeves and in perpetual mourning for River Phoenix. We became obsessed with Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, and thought we were dead sophisticated for immersing ourselves in the original Cool Britannia by watching old Michael Caine films. On TV it was The X Files, This Life and Friends, everyone bursting to discuss the latest developments the second the credits rolled, lazily imagining our own lives at the geriatric age of 20-something and selecting whose hair-do would suit us best.

Our outfits screamed knock-off 60s chic, a mish-mash of charity-shop finds (suddenly back in fashion) and whatever we could afford from Miss Selfridge from our crap-Saturday-job pay once we’d bought our Hooch and Chardonnay. All of us would pile into the same changing room, throw ourselves down on the ground and try things on for hours, so high on life it’s a wonder we even bothered drinking at all. Life suddenly felt like everything it was supposed to be, holding hands and singing aloud as we stumbled home barefoot in the early hours, sitting around the edge of the bathtub together rinsing our feet while trying not to fall in, and giggling stupidly long after we’d collapsed into our sleeping bags. I had finally found the hive mind I had craved as a child, and it was one of my choosing, one I believed in with all my heart.

Of course things moved on, as they do in life, and just a few years later I found myself looking back, and, to quote Hunter S Thompson, I could see the high watermark, the place where the wave finally broke (If you haven’t seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, do). Nonetheless, it makes complete sense that this is the moment I want to be in right now, the pure feelings of hope and joy whose essence I want to escape into by reimmersing myself in the cultural trappings of that time. I can forget about the in-fighting, the silly rows and endless bitching, and of course the unholy amount of puking, and just remember the beautiful shining glow of a world where (to quote HST again) everything was right, and we were winning. Nostalgia might be nothing more than an empty bubble of perfumed air, but right now I’m happy to keep breathing it in if it helps me deal with the sheer poison of living through the reality of the present.