Why I Hated Hufflepuff

Since I was little one of my big fears was being a loser. To avoid such a terrible fate I spent much of my youth trying to ingratiate myself with the ‘cool kids’, whether it was hanging out in the woods with the eight-year-old rebels or trying to pretend I enjoyed drinking alcohol at age sixteen. Higher education wasn’t too dissimilar as Oxford University provided all sorts of cliques to hang out with: the ‘rahs’ who wore Jack Wills and drank champagne, the ‘thesps’ who were terribly dramatic, the ‘journos’ who hacked about trying to get the best scoop and many more. Yet at age twenty-two my fear finally caught up with me and things came to a rather climactic head (to be blogged about anon). I was forced to consider that maybe I wasn’t so cool after all and was just one giant loser. Despite my best efforts it seemed the sorting hat had decided to put me in Hufflepuff.

Because isn’t that what a Hufflepuff is, a loser? I mean, their defining characteristics are being just, loyal, patient, true and unafraid of toil. They sound a little like hard-working sheep or maybe even lemmings, depending on how the mood takes them. And what even does patient mean? Do they hang around waiting for something interesting to happen whilst all the Gryffindors and Slytherins take the bull by the horns and have a fun time? And isn’t ‘unafraid of toil’ just a synonym for uber-geek? No, Hufflepuff is definitely not the house for me, I’m cool after all, aren’t I?

Well, no, as I was forced to learn the hard way, because there is nothing less cool than trying to be cool. Those self-professed ‘cool kids’ who fashion a large part of their identity on being cool and get a kick out of being cooler than others are clearly something and it ain’t cool. What they are is insecure, forming little cliques from which they can take potshots at others, regularly consoling themselves that they’re OK as long as they’re not like those dreaded losers over there. But what a sad life to live when someone spends so much time trying not to be like others rather than getting down to the hard task of being themself. Like me, I imagine they fear what’s waiting for them on the inside. Meanwhile, a true Hufflepuff doesn’t have time for trying to be cool, instead they seem pretty chill with just being themselves whilst also knowing that this is no easy task hence the patience, hard work and loyalty. So, after all this time, as I busily projected my insecurities at Hufflepuff I’ve come to realise that when those narratives of superiority and coolness die it’s clear that the Hufflepuffs are no losers. Maybe they’re the real winners because they realise being true to oneself is not a competition. Now here’s J.K telling it how it is (and not giving away any spoilers about the last book which, incidentally I still haven’t read…eek).

 

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Ending 2016 With Lorde

So, it’s the end of 2016, which at times seemed like a pretty apocalyptic year. Trump got in, Brexit got voted for, Syria still rages through war and not to mention the 6th mass extinction and resource depletion. It seems all those stories about humans conquering the world, about technology solving all our problems, about the forward trajectory of human civilisation, well, they turned out to be pretty shoddy stories with a shed load of plot flaws and inconsistencies. Fortunately, we’ve got Lorde, the singer songwriter, to offer us some guidance and it comes in her song Team.

The video and the lyrics go hand in hand as they paint a picture of faded grandeur. A city that’s slowly falling apart, the sort of place “you’ll never see on-screen, not very pretty,” – nothing like the Kardashians’ numerous houses. It’s a place where guys joust with baseball bats on motorbikes and grin chipped tooth smiles as the blood trickles down their noses. It’s an apocalyptic rite of passage as people get initiated into meaningless. “Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams” and that’s where we seem to be retreating these days, to inside our heads, far away from the dangers of the world, far away from the grim realities of climate change and refugee crises. Although even for Lorde that palace in her dreams is falling apart. It seems nowhere is safe anymore.

But maybe, in and amongst the debris, there’s hope. “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, So there.” Maybe Lorde’s bored of being told to give up and surrender, maybe she does want meaning in a culture that’s regularly telling her nothing matters and we should all just give up. Sure, the old stories might not make sense – that everything would end happily ever after – but the people telling those stories were clearly quite deluded (and probably very privileged). What if it’s this naive belief in stories – that life has clear and well-structured beginnings, middles and ends, like fairy tales – that’s the problem. What if finding meaning in today’s world will take more than a simplistic story structure.

“And everyone’s competing for a love they won’t receive, ‘Cause what this palace wants is release.” Lorde’s right again, we are competing, constantly hoping this life of high consumerism, economic reductionism and endless comparison will give us meaning as we shove one another aside to get what we want and get happy trying. That seems so much to be the dominant story of now. But beyond the credit card transactions and the debt, like Lorde, we crave release – release from these highly conditioning bonds of consumer capitalism. Or maybe this is just an exceptionally self-indulgent blog written by a directionless yet privileged millenial – a bit like the sort of people Lorde sings about perhaps.

But, as self-indulgent as I can be, I do want to do something about the mess we’re in, even if the contribution is small and it still all ends in apocalypse (bearing in mind that countless people are already living and dying through various incarnations of hell on earth). And I think Lorde’s song holds the key. She offers us the answer for getting out of this debt-heavy, meaning-lite existence because “you know, we’re on each other’s team.” Somewhere beyond the narratives of endless competition there is a story of teamwork, a more meaningful story in which we join forces and learn to share. And it will be so much more than a story, it will be real human experiences of compassion and community. Better to rebuild ruins together than be forced to live in them alone.

Turns Out We’re All Insecure

We have a habit of projecting success onto others. We see our facebook friends’ holiday pics and assume their lives are just fantastic – they have the best holidays, they have the most fun friends and they have a monopoly on the sun. We see attractive people walking down the street and assume their lives are great – with a face like that they must get invited to all the best parties, have no self-esteem issues and have great sex. We see our hyper-successful boss and assume they’ve got it all sorted – a big salary, a big house with equally big happiness to boot. And all the while as we project success we internalise failure, telling ourselves our lives aren’t busy enough, we haven’t got enough friends and we’re just not good enough (or whatever our hook-ups are). But the thing is, it turns out we all do this because everyone’s insecure.

It’s not that we’re the only ones failing to find that abundant happiness we assume everyone else thrives in, it’s actually that we are all subject to the same slings and arrows of consumer capitalism. It makes us all feel inadequate, even those at the ‘top’ because there’s always more to buy, more money to make, the possibility of looking a bit better, having more friends, the list goes on. It’s a zero-sum game and there are only a few seats at the top table. But no one really wins and the very idea that society is predicated on the concept of winning, that it’s a competition, makes its inherent madness all the more obvious.

However, insecurity goes much deeper than the effects of living under capitalism, it goes right to the heart of the human condition. Regardless of how many holidays we go on, how often we shop and how ‘good’ we look, there are things universal to being human, namely ageing, illness and grief. We all get old, we all get ill and we all lose people we love. All of these are perfectly normal and natural but that does not make them easy. It’s not just that advertising campaigns make ageing a sin it’s also that losing things you once enjoyed is tough. Meanwhile, illness can knock us for six and, depending on its severity, change our lives forever. And loss. That empty feeling that can overwhelm our hearts when we lose a loved one and struggle to comprehend what death actually is, that is also very, very tough. Living, whilst often flipping fantastic, can also be devastating and difficult. Thus, interwoven into the very fabric of our being is the fragility and vulnerability of being alive. Our insecurity is part of who we are (not to mention the fact that we all die but that’s another blog, or book).

We are all insecure and for so many reasons. We all have different histories, no two experiences of grief will be the same, just as ageing and illness will affect us all differently. As will enduring and attempting to thrive in the zero-sum world of competitive capitalism. And why is it useful to know this? It’s not to make us feel better by luxuriating in the suffering of others instead it’s to let us all off the hook a bit. We can stop pretending everything’s ‘fine’ when it’s not and ask for help instead. We can also be a little more compassionate towards others recognising that no matter how irritating they are they will have their issues and sufferings too. So if I am going to make any categorical statement about the human condition on this blog it will be this: that, on the surface and in our deepest depths, we are all insecure.

Why Life Is Like Monopoly (And Not A Box Of Chocolates)

So, you’ve got £200 in your pocket and you’re ready to Go. London unfolds before you – its Victorian terraces, towering skyscrapers, penthouse apartments, silver dogs and prisons. All that saving and you might finally be able to get a foot on the property ladder, it’s what you’ve always dreamed of. Yup, just a typical game of Monopoly, except this time I’m going to bend the rules a little to show the parallels between the board game and the game of life.

https://i2.wp.com/pic.lifetmt.com/2014/07/logo-monopoly2.jpgLet’s say there are 6 players and everyone is ready to get going. You, player 1, full of hope and aspirations start the game with £200. Next to go is Archibald, player 2, who already has £2,000,000. Why does he have such a high amount? He inherited it from a previous player. Whereas you’ll have to work hard to earn your cash Archibald will barely have to lift a finger. Unfair? Yup. That’s life. So, you keep trundling round the board just waiting to be able to buy your first little piece of land. However, it turns out Hugo, player number 3, is a member of one of the few land owning families in the country and it just so happens that his family already own a whole load of London. This means you won’t actually be able to buy the land you’ll just be able to rent it off Hugo’s family. Furthermore, because Hugo’s family have been hoarding land for so long it has become an increasingly scarce resource, meaning it’s very, very expensive because so many people want it. Better get moving round that board.

Fortunately, Hector, player number 4, is the banker and he’s there for you. He gives you £200 every time you pass Go to help you get your first foot on the property ladder. Of course, it’s not free money, it’s actually a loan and because the system isn’t that well-regulated Hector’s happy to keep loaning you money, he’ll even give you a mortgage, even though it’s unlikely you’ll be able to repay it. He also turns people’s dodgy mortgages into investment opportunities for rich people who want to get richer. Multiply this process by millions of people and when they start failing to pay off their mortgages the whole system comes crumbling down and lots of people get in debt, including you player number 1. Fortunately, Hector knows Bertie, player number 5, who is a politician, and rather than get Hector fired or even put in jail for corrupt behaviour he actually bails the bank out with public money – that’s right, he takes some cash from your hard-earned stash and gives it to Hector.

So, strapped for cash, in debt and struggling to get by you decide to make a stand. You wave a placard, you shout a slogan or two, you appeal to the better angels of people’s nature in the hope to make the system fairer. Enter Bobby, player number 6, he’s a policeman and he’s got no time for the likes of you. In fact, Bobby likes to uphold the rules of the game and he’ll lose his job if he doesn’t. So it’s off to prison with you for being a troublemaker. That’s what you get if you challenge the establishment and try to change the system. And let’s not forget some of the other players who haven’t been mentioned including Eric, the accountant and consultant who advises Archibald and his rich friends on how to avoid paying taxes; Rupert, who runs the newspapers and happily prints articles on how terrible and greedy poor people are whilst lavishing praise on the rich; and even quiet and unassuming Peter who actually works at MI5 and enjoys spying on groups of ‘subversives’ who think climate change and capitalism are somewhat problematic. He’ll happily team up with Rupert, Bobby, Bertie and the rest in order to keep the establishment in place and the masses at bay.

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Life, like a game of monopoly, seems to begin and end with money. People endlessly trudge around the board of life trying to make a decent living but there’s nothing decent about money, the system is rigged from the outset. It could take someone many lifetimes to earn what some people inherit at birth. Money is not fair – it is a scarce resource that is unevenly distributed and yet it’s the item we use to access key resources including houses, land and food. Thus, objects that could be in abundance (there’s enough food on the planet to feed everyone for instance) are forced into a system of imposed scarcity making it doubly hard to get by – first you’ve got to work to get a living just so you can get the money to buy the actual things you need. Perhaps you’re thinking what I’m thinking? That it’s time to change the rules of the game…

Star Wars Episode 8: Rey Retires Early (Spoilers)

The beginning of Star Wars Episode 8 is going to surprise quite a few fans. It goes like this: having arrived at the secret island where Luke Skywalker has been hiding, Rey, the hero of Episode 7, will give Luke his lightsaber back. After that they’ll have tea, chat about Midi-Chlorians for a bit and then Rey will say her goodbyes and leave. Yup, she will exit the plot and go off with Chewie to fly around the galaxy in a cool spaceship. But why do something as drastic as this, just when Star Wars was slowly catching up with the 21st century by casting a woman as one of the heroes of the film? Because Rey knows nothing could be more boring than having to go through the motions of becoming a hero – we all saw Luke Skywalker do it and given that Episode 7 was basically Episode 4, they might as well not bother making 8 & 9 and just copy/paste the new characters on top of the old ones in 5 & 6. It’ll save us all the cinema ticket price.

In Episodes 4 – 6 we saw Luke Skywalker go through the motions/plot devices of the Hero’s Quest, a supposedly “archetypal” story structure that 20th century mythologist Jospeh Campbell came up with. Campbell argued that this “fundamental” story has existed in cultures around the world for millenia. He thought it was the story of all time. In brief it is the story of a character who is called to do something great – drop a magic ring in a volcano, kill Voldemort, kill Darth Vader etc. Firstly they get some mentoring so they can learn the tricks of the trade (often killing), then they’re given a talisman to help them on their quest (often a weapon), then they leave the safety of their home and trek off into the unknown. There they will be tested by a range of foes and challenges (usually fights) until eventually they have to face the big baddy in order to triumph (usually an even bigger fight). Meanwhile, they’ll rescue a damsel in distress, resolve their father issues, and return home victorious. Luke Skywalker went through this exact process because George Lucas was good mates with Joseph Campbell and so based Episodes 4 – 6 off of Campbell’s research.

A few other hallmarks of the Hero’s Quest include the fact that heroes are basically always men – women are either trophies to be won or seductresses to be conquered (or a bit of both). However, with the introduction of Rey in Episode 7 the masculinist/sexist bent of the Hero’s Quest has been challenged (as it has in other films such as Mad Max). This is progress: Rey has been given the chance to play a role that was previously reserved for men. She’ll now get to fight with giant lasers and move things without touching them. This is awesome and as Laurie Penny makes clear it’s ace that new, diverse characters are finally being invited to the hero’s table – this represents a big cultural change in the stories of our times.

But the Hero’s Quest is still the Hero’s Quest – an overly-simplistic, totalising monomyth concocted by Campbell and retroactively applied to hundreds of older stories. It’s easy to claim something conforms to the Hero’s Quest as the structure is so broad and vague – someone gets asked to do something, they’re challenged, things happen and then more things happen (these things usually always involve violence). But it’s blind to cultural sensitivities and nuances, and up until only recently it was reserved for cis, white men. And Rey knows this. Rey knows she hasn’t spent years living by herself on a desert planet just so she can endure an unimaginative, oft-repeated plot structure – one where she finds a mentor, gets trained, fights foes, resolves her mother issues, and returns home the hero (yawn). She doesn’t want  a story that’s so historically mired in sexism, patriarchy, appropriation and the values of capitalism (especially ruthless individualism). “Sod that for a packet of biscuits” thinks Rey, she wants a story that transcends these tired clichés and prejudices. So you can have your lightsaber back Luke, Rey’s got a different narrative to live.

The Hero’s Quest in brief!

Is It Just A Cake?

There’s something amiss in the Bake Off tent, not quite rotten but still not quite right. It’s visible in the eyes of the contestants as they wait nervously for Mary and Paul to judge their baking. It’s in the wringing of hands, the stressful sighs and the general air of fear. It bubbled to the surface most overtly when, in episode one, one of the contestant’s Black Forest gateaux kind of just fell apart in an oozing, chocolately mess. Minutes from the deadline she began to cry and comedian Sue Perkins came to console her saying “it’s just a cake” to which she replied “it’s not just a cake.” If this is indeed the case and it is not just a cake then that begs the question what exactly is it?

As the Court of Denmark in the play Hamlet comes to act as a metaphor for the entire body politic of the country, symbolic perhaps also of Elizabethan England, then perhaps there are ways in which the Bake Off tent is a metaphor for our own society. From birth onwards we are relentlessly judged – our parents/guardians/carers tell us how and how not to behave, our teachers deem us worthy by giving us marks and grades, professors at university do the same except the marks tend to be lower, our bosses tell us if we’re good or not via the medium of money (if we’re lucky enough to have a paid job), mainstream advertising likes to remind us that we’re not good enough, newspapers like to scapegoat and blame whole groups of people and even our friends and loved ones will often be there to remind us what we could be doing better.

It is from this societal context of relentless comparison and competition that the twelve bakers arrive at the tent. Judging only what I’ve been shown in the first hour-long episode it seems like lots of them have something to prove – they want to prove they’re good at baking, really good. This could be a healthy, competitive attitude but when one contestant explained that her mum had told her not to bother coming home if she got kicked out in the first round one does start to wonder. Furthermore, as Paul Hollywood reminds us, the contestants, whilst great bakers, are at “the bottom of pack of great bakers”. It’s so hard to be the best especially when Hollywood and Mary Berry seem to have a monopoly on bestness anyway, it’s an ever elusive goal that we can be goaded into pursuing even though we’ll never attain it. It’s basically the mantra of our society – work harder, be better, work harder still and one day you might be happy (oh, and don’t complain whilst you’re at it, all that stiff upper lip and ‘keep calm and carry on’ sort of thing).

And then there are the facial expressions. The grimaces of fear and anxiety as Berry considers the flavour and Hollywood judges the sogginess of the bottom juxtaposed with the sighs of relief when the baked goods have been judged worthy. It seems like one major ingredient in the Bake Off tent is desperation as contestants try to fill the holes in their hearts with nods of approval from Mary Berry and a delicious assortment of baked goods. The idea that these people may already be more than enough just as they are and don’t need to prove anything to anyone seems an alien concept when it all comes down to being the best.

At the end of the episode one of the contestants (the one whose cake collapsed) admits that she feels like she’s “been initiated into truly what Bake Off means”. What, then, is that? Is it to strive constantly to impress others hoping that their admiration will yield a sense of worthiness? Is it to chastise oneself for every soggy bottom and forget to celebrate every other solid bottom? Is it to whip guilt and despair with a tantalising sprinkle of unattainable hope all served on a dish of insecurity? If so it sure makes for compelling viewing!

Great British Bake Off
Judging you worthy: Bake Off judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry