What A Complete Bastardography

“Gay, precocious and mentally unstable from an early age.” That’s how Simon Jay is described on the back of his memoir, Bastardography, and it’s also an apt description of his one-man show of the same name on at Theatre N16 in Balham. Jay hand picks a selection of experiences from his youth whether it’s a fellow kid turning a DIY flamethrower (Lynx can + lighter) on him for being gay or his obsession with the film Psycho and not forgetting his many dalliances with psychiatrists, psychologists and nurses as he skirts Borderline Personality Disorder. The result is a revealing romp through recent history with one of the funniest guides.

Jay isn’t even 30 and this isn’t his first show – his unique take on America’s latest dictator  president, Trumpageddon, sold out at the Fringe before hitting London, he’s put on a musical about a girl with a robot arm and he even collaborated with me on a series of monologues called Universally Speaking (they were particularly good) – but what’s most impressive about the guy isn’t his talent in directing, acting or writing, no, it’s his resilience. That the world threw so much shit at Jay and he turned it into this really rather fabulous production is testimony to his strength. He cracks many a joke, disregards the fourth wall, points out his penis collage, attempts to circle the stage in heels, is candid with his experiences and does all this to a soundtrack of Pocahontas, Glenn Miller and film quotes. Tickets here!

Margaret Thatcher spoke at the start of the play and her words stuck with me. It was her famous speech of 1987 in which she bemoaned the fact that “children are being taught they have an inalienable right to be gay” and subsequently “cheated of a sound start in life.” The next year she introduced a number of anti-gay laws including Section 28, that forbade any school from teaching that homosexual relationships are ‘acceptable’. Jay was born in 1987 and I was born in 1988. The law was eventually repealed in 2003, when I was fifteen. I wonder what it might have been like to grow up in a world where I had role models and cultural narratives to turn to and I imagine Jay wonders the same thing. Perhaps if things had been different we wouldn’t have been cheated of a sound start in life. So kudos to Jay for turning a legacy of hate into a queer, creative, mental health odyssey that, whilst very dark at times, always shines with love.

The Unhappy Tomato

She was just your average tomato: red, rosy and often in good cheer. She loved living in the vegetable aisle. She had lots of friends – the carrots, who liked having a laugh; the outspoken aubergines, who always stood up for each other; the kind courgettes and even the cabbages. She didn’t get on well with the leeks, who were often the bullies of the aisle, but other than that she felt at home. It was a great supermarket as well because vegetables were the top priority and there weren’t that many fruits at all because the store manager didn’t like them. But that didn’t bother tomato and she was happy as she was, until the day she discovered something very important – that she was different – she wasn’t a vegetable after all, she was actually a fruit.

All along she’d been in the wrong aisle and now she was worried about telling her friends. Fruits were always the butt of the vegetables’ jokes and many veggies actively hated fruits, sometimes the potatoes would go round the fruit aisle and beat up a bunch of grapes. She told some of her closest friends and whilst one got all upset the others were supportive of her. But that still wasn’t enough so, one night, she snuck away and went to find the fruits. She didn’t regret it – she met strawberries, bananas, oranges and grapes, and had an absolutely great time as well as making a bunch of new friends. However, as time went by she realised that not all was well in the fruit aisle. Underneath the smiles and the peels she discovered that many of the fruits were damaged and bruised, it turned out being a fruit in a vegetable’s supermarket wasn’t so great after all. She even discovered that many fruits had given themselves up to become juice because they couldn’t take it any more. And so the happy tomato became decidedly unhappy.

Then a new store manager arrived who hated fruits even more than the last and it got quite dangerous for the tomato and her new friends. Nevertheless, they bandied together and prepared themselves for tough times ahead. But the thing that really broke the tomato’s heart was that when she went to visit the vegetable aisle, to see her old friends, they just weren’t that interested. They were so caught up living their veggie lives that they’d never really stopped to consider what it must be like to be a fruit. She tried hanging out with them but the carrots kept cracking jokes about bananas and the auberinges kept going on about how much they hated grapefruits. The friendly parsnip didn’t mind but didn’t really get it either, he even called her his BFF – Best-Fruit-Friend, which pissed her off no end.  And so it dawned on her that whilst she’d been on a long journey from the vegetable to the fruit aisle and made so many new friends, learnt so many new things and had a whole punnet of ace experiences, there were many that hadn’t been on the journey. Something had changed for the tomato and whilst she still had time for her veggie friends she no longer felt quite at home in a vegetable’s world.

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That Night I Met Loneliness

I’ve known loneliness for years now but there is one night in particular back in the summer of 2015 that sticks in my memory. My life seemed a bit discombobulated at the time – I wasn’t getting a lot of work, I’d recently moved and things weren’t really slotting into place. And it was one of those evenings – I was out at dinner but wasn’t really connecting with the people around me and didn’t feel very listened to. I said goodbye and cycled over to see some newish friends in a pub but it was too late, I was slipping away and those stories were coming home to roost. The stories of how I had no friends, that I was pointless and worthless, that what I was doing wasn’t really contributing to anything and that I wasn’t living the glamorous 20s lifestyle I was supposed to be. The stories were coming and the cracks were opening. So I left the pub, got on my bike and cycled away.

But for the first time in a long time I did something different. I sang. I just started singing nonsense rhymes as I cycled, not because I’m much of a singer but because I wanted to block out the stories. I wanted to stop them creeping in and making themselves at home. So many times before those stories had destabilised me and often tipped me into periods of depression. I sang to stop myself from thinking. I got back to the random little house I was lodging in and got ready for bed. And there, in the bathroom, I felt something well up inside of me. It wasn’t a story because it wasn’t coming from my head instead it was a feeling in my chest. It felt like an emptiness, it was bleak and desolate, growing between the cracks, and slowly it pushed its way up from my heart and that’s when I started to cry. I cried a lot and hugged myself too as I washed my tears down the sink with toothpaste and Listerine. The feeling bloomed and I knew what it was – loneliness.

I thought I’d share this experience because I think that was the first time I ever psychologically and physically held myself through loneliness. Rather than just let it overwhelm me and flood me with its stories I acknowledged the feeling underneath. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, not at all, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but it was a feeling rather than a fact. And to let myself feel it, rather than push it away or succumb to its stories, felt like an achievement of sorts, as lonely as it was. This was by no means the end of the story, things didn’t magically get better and I didn’t suddenly feel fine. I’d need much support from my friends and family (and for once I had the guts to ask for it) and I would need to start slowly, slowly changing the things in my life that were bringing me down. I started with those oft-repeated stories, the ones that thrive off the potent and powerful emptiness of the feeling of loneliness. I had to keep reminding myself that they weren’t true and that I wasn’t worthless. But I guess the real reason I’m sharing this experience is that I’ve heard many people tell me that they fear loneliness. And, yes, it is not something nice and for many it is devastating and can’t just be witnessed and ameliorated. However, for others including myself, it is a feeling and it does pass. And it’s also perfectly normal, a part of all of our lives, and that’s why I was very proud of myself that night I met my loneliness. And now for a suitably melancholic song from Regina Spektor’s new album (yup, I’m just trying to get her to retweet me, one day).

The Big Short: Another Film About Bankers

Some big spoilers on the way for the new film The Big Short – perhaps the biggest is that the 2008 housing crash and ensuing financial crisis happened and, as Ryan Reynold’s character reminds us at the end of the movie, it was immigrants, poor people and teachers who were blamed for it rather than bankers, regulators and hedge fund managers.

The Big Short is another film about bankers. Following closely on the heels of The Wolf Of Wall Street this film doesn’t set out to glorify the world of finance instead it explains why the financial crash happened. And it did this brilliantly. Some of the best bits came when the camera suddenly panned to a random celebrity who explained some complex financial instrument using a simple metaphor. Mila Kunis placing a bet at a poker table was used nicely to explain that the housing market was basically a series of increasingly risky bets placed on whether people would be able to pay off their mortgages (yup, bankers will find a way of making money from anything). Of course, given that the housing market was fraudulently and corruptly regulated and so many people who couldn’t afford to were being sold houses, it was only a matter of time till it collapsed. And this resulted in a simultaneous financial crash because so many ‘crafty’ bankers had been betting on the aphorism “safe as houses” remaining true. Turns out houses weren’t that safe at all.

The Big Short is about the men in the middle of it all – the few men who bothered to do their research and uncovered a system of corruption, fraud, greed and stupidity. And what did they do then? They bet against the housing market – they hoped that houses wouldn’t prove safe – and they made a lot of money. Of course, housing crises have more than financial repercussions – evictions, homelessness, unemployment, debt, social unrest, poverty and suicide are just some of the consequences. The film mentioned these things in passing but was more interested in telling a story of a bunch of wealthy, predominantly white, male hedge fund managers (another word for banker really). They even try to paint these men as morally superior because so many of them were shocked at how corrupt the system was, the system that they made lots of money from when it collapsed.

Yup, the film tried to make heroes out of hedge fund managers – people who get rich and get their clients rich by making money from money, by betting on the market. People who are rich enough themselves that they don’t need to worry about the implications of a housing crash. But they do, as do we all. Because after the crash governments around the world used public money to bail out the banks and didn’t do much to regulate them. So we can be expecting another housing crash anytime soon. And it’s not just houses at stake it’s the whole of society too – as public services are cut, as immigrants are scapegoated, as poverty and unrest rises, as extreme right-wing groups like the Neo-Nazis return, so darker days are coming. Remember what happened a decade after the huge financial crash of 1929…World War 2. I don’t know if we’re due another huge war but I do know that The Big Short barely scratched the surface of the issue. It explained the financial crisis very well but it could have done this in half an hour, but, like so many films today, it chose to focus on the actions and faces of white men with the occasional shot of a topless woman. It is a shame to realise that so many uninspiring, greedy and fairly stupid men were involved in bringing the world’s economy to its knees but do we really need another film about them?

Jess Glynne Has Low Standards

News just in, Jess Glynne has low standards, very low standards, and it’s what’s keeping her happy.

There’s a lot of pressure on people to be happy these days: we’ve got to be seen to be busy doing fun things, always smiling, always making the most of life, always on top form, always posting exciting new pics on social media. But often the mask doesn’t fit the reality. “I came here with a broken heart that no one else could see, I drew a smile on my face to paper over me,” sings Glynne in her latest song, and haven’t we all done this before – hidden how we truly feel because we want to fit in. We’re ashamed of not being happy, of being sad, lonely, or bored. “I feel like I’ve been missing me, Was not who I’m supposed to be, I felt this darkness over me, We all get there eventually, I never knew where I belonged.” And Glynne’s right, all this effort we put into constructing an artificially happy self can detract from the often painful but very important task of getting to know ourselves.

But there’s hope and Glynne knows it. “I learned to wave goodbye, How not to see my life, Through someone else’s eyes, It’s not an easy road, But no I’m not alone.” Constantly comparing ourselves to others can be very stressful. When we compare it’s often with other people’s external lives – the stuff they post on social media and the things they feel comfortable talking about surrounded by others. And it’s easy to think that our life is failing because we don’t seem as happy. But other people are people too, they’ll also feel down in the dumps, have bad days and weeks. So it doesn’t make sense to compare our inner lives with others’ outer lives. Of course, comparing less isn’t easy, as Glynne points out, but it’s a good place to start.

“Learn to forgive, learn to let go, Everyone trips, everyone falls.” Yet more sage advice – we do make mistakes all the time and the trick isn’t to beat ourselves up when we fall, it’s to get back up again and learn from our mistakes, even if we make them again. It’s not easy but in time it can work, “But wounds heal and tears dry and cracks they don’t show.” Or maybe the cracks do show, as scars, the scars of living life (wrinkles in our skin if you like) but surely they’re just testimony to being human and trying to live the human condition. “I’m just tired of marching on my own, Kind of frail, I feel it in my bones, Won’t let my heart, my heart turn into stone.” And life can get tiring especially if you do feel alone and isolated, caught in the stigma that being unhappy, sad and facing difficulty is somehow wrong and a sign of failure. I certainly remember a vivid period of depression in my early 20s. I feared telling other people about it because I felt ashamed and confused. But then I made a new friend who was also suffering from depression and we spoke to each other about it, without judgement just with support, and it made all the difference. So the hope is that we won’t always have to march alone but can reach out to others for support.

“I’m standin’ on top of the world, right where I wanna be, So how can this dark cloud be raining over me.” Yup, even when we feel we should be happy because everything’s going well doesn’t mean we actually feel happy. But Glynne’s got a remedy: “But hearts break and hells a place that everyone knows, So don’t be so hard on yourself.” And that’s just it, we are often so hard on ourselves, we often beat ourselves up for not meeting certain standards of success, perfection, constant happiness, etc. Instead, maybe we could lower these standards and just let ourselves be fallible, fragile humans with hearts that our vulnerable and eminently breakable. We don’t have to be happy all the time and we don’t have to be mean to ourselves when we’re unhappy. So yeah, I’m with Glynne on this one, those standards – drop ’em.

Amy

Every moment of happiness that the documentary Amy portrayed was foreshadowed by the knowledge of her sad and premature death. We watched as a young women who loves singing and writing poetry was transformed into a 21st icon, a global superstar and a figure of hate. Learning of Amy Winehouse’s alcoholism, bulimia and drug addiction I felt ashamed for having judged her in the past – I remember reading about the gigs she cancelled and I remember thinking that she had let her fans down and been selfish. I had no idea of the context. As I watched I also felt complicit in the diabolical system that contributed so heavily to her death. And as the film shows it all began with her ability to sing.

A short clip of Winehouse as a teenager singing Happy Birthday to a friend begins the film and immediately demonstrates her talent. She states on numerous occasions how much she loved singing. Of course, her love of music was what made her and broke her because a voice like Winehouse’s is the perfect voice for commodification. Without ever stating it the film shows what happens to a successful artist in a consumer capitalist society. It began by assigning Winehouse’s voice a price tag. Be it as recorded songs on a CD or as a ticketed performance these were all ways people could make money from her voice. As she became more successful so her voice became worth even more – her album Back To Black sold millions of copies worldwide. Her increased popularity tied in perfectly with the underlying logic of capitalism, namely growth – keep exploiting a resource for profit until it’s depleted.

So Winehouse’s art was continually exploited. The film shows bleak clips of various people close to her using her celebrity status and wealth for their benefit. Her father, ex-husband, managers and production companies (Universal Music Group included) are all shown pushing her to perform more and produce more music. Her rise in monetary value coincided with her increased addiction to drugs and alcohol yet so many of the people around her did not stop to ask too many questions – why would they when they were getting so rich? Meanwhile, the press and her fans treated her as an idol. They garnered her with almost mythic status and placed her on a pedestal that she never deserved to be on. Of course, the paparazzi were all to happy to wrench her down from this plinth when her addictions and suffering meant she could no longer perform as a commodified celebrity is expected to. One moment that sticks out from the film is when she’s onstage at Belgrade and as she stumbles and falls the band look on and laugh. Meanwhile, the audience cheer her and then, when she doesn’t sing, boos her. “Sing or give me my money back” chants some of the crowd.

Commodity, idol, hate-figure, voice, character in a documentary – it seems one of the things Amy Winehouse was rarely treated as was a human.

I contributed to this process. I bought her album Back To Black, thereby adding another figure to her record sales, further assuring her success. I did not look to the woman behind the music – a woman suffering from depression, bulimia, substance abuse and abusive relationships – I heard her only as a beautiful voice. This process continues today. Her death will have significantly boosted her sales figures and the film Amy will make Universal Music Group an awful lot of money. As the credits rolled I saw that even Winehouse’s teenage rendition of Happy Birthday caught on a video camera by her friend is owned by a record label – even that brief song has been commodified. Under capitalism nothing escapes the profit motive and all is governed by a certain form of addiction – the addiction to money.

Amy the film is not the final say – it’s a carefully edited version of events that tries to tell one particular story. It paints her ex-husband and father as simple villains and never really tries to understand their behaviour. It also turns Amy Winehouse’s life into a slick narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end – her life is contextualised by her music and her tragic death. Of course, the one person who had no say in this process was Amy Winehouse – once again she is robbed of a voice and presented as a certain sort of person – the sort of person whose ‘story’ will attract lots of people to cinemas. This is the numbers game of consumer capitalism – a game that can cause climate change, facilitate resource wars, initiate global recessions and, most certainly, relentlessly capitalise on a vulnerable but talented young woman far beyond her death.

This system will change but for now I’ll leave you with one of Amy Winehouse’s brilliant songs:

How Oxford Almost Killed Me, Twice

A response to Morwenna Jones’ article How Cambridge Almost Killed Me

Reading Morwenna’s article was very moving. I was impressed at her honesty and bravery. It also brought back memories of my experiences at Oxford University. When I studied my BA there I suffered from depression and stress, resulting in thoughts of suicide and a burst appendix. These events took place in my final year but after attending a counseling session I found the resolve to get on with my work. I let go of my perfectionism and decided just to enjoy the work and give it my best shot, regardless of the results. Like Morwenna, I took time away from the system to deal with my own problems, convinced that the fault was my own and not a larger systemic one. Two years later when I returned for my MSc I brought a similar attitude with me – enjoy the process and don’t worry about the end product. This had worked at the end of my BA and I thought it would work again, unfortunately I was proved wrong.

Rad

The Second Time Around

During my time between degrees I became more aware of the wider world. The impacts of the recession encouraged me to read up on politics and economics, and attending an event on climate change facilitated my entry into the environmental sector. Using my skills as a philosopher I started to ask more questions of the world around me. I returned to Oxford a somewhat different person, with clearer ideas of my own beliefs and aspirations.

As the year progressed, I struggled to find the enjoyment I had been looking for. However, this time the reasons for my struggle were not due to my own feelings of low self-worth because I wasn’t getting high enough marks. I struggled because I felt let down by the institution. I was now able to be critical and observe the pressures that adversely affected both students and staff. Academics were under much pressure to produce publications, with the mantra ‘publish or perish’ frequently preventing them from dedicating adequate time to their students. Bureaucracy and opaque complaint procedures made it extremely difficult to find effective channels for addressing these issues, leaving me feeling even more disheartened.

These experiences, along with the high cost of the course (which is even greater for international students, who made up 93% of my coursemates), increasingly made me perceive the course as a money-making exercise rather than a project in academic enquiry. This is hardly surprising, particularly in light of this government’s neoliberal policy agenda which has led to funding cuts to universities and an increased emphasis on the monetisation of services.

Two weeks into the course I had wanted to quit and when issues came to a head two weeks before the end I also wanted to quit. I didn’t have the guts for either. Meanwhile, throughout the most difficult periods I was repeatedly told to persevere, with a degree from Oxford University framed as more valuable than my mental health and happiness. Others dismissed my problems saying things along the lines of ‘it’s a degree from Oxford, did you think it was going to be easy?’ These sorts of comments tie in with the larger societal norm that things that are worthwhile also need to be difficult and maybe even distressing. I certainly like a challenge but preferably one I can relish rather than despair at. So, I knuckled down and got back to work.

Coping Strategies

Oxford University creates the perfect milieu in which mental health problems can thrive – it is intense, high pressure and competitive. It encourages perfectionism and is high on criticism but low on praise. Academic achievement and effort are taken for granted as students are expected to produce more and better. Meanwhile, as at school, worth and meaning are found in marks – student’s lives revolve around writing numerous essays all in aid of taking numerous exams all in aid of leaving the institution with a given mark. At the end of one’s degree one’s achievements are summed up in a number.

Outside of the struggle to get high marks the rest of life goes on. Oxford University is often framed as an opportunity to learn about the world and be exposed to new views and whilst these things are possible there is a surprising lack of diversity. Instead, a highly conservative attitude is prevalent in many colleges and whilst this need not be a problem in itself my own experiences saw it manifesting itself in multiple forms of discrimination, including racism, sexism, homophobia and elitism. Thus, the lack of diversity precludes exposure to the diversity that Oxford promises, thereby enabling these negative behaviours to perpetuate. Combine this with an active drinking culture, a constant pressure to be working and needlessly high levels of competition amongst peers and the scene is set for a plethora of mental health problems.

Meanwhile, the University itself is often ill-equipped to deal with the aforementioned problems. It has an international reputation and brand to maintain and this can often confuse the internal complaints process. In wanting to avoid a scandal the University may well try to deal with problems internally, avoiding involvement of the police and the press. It can prove hugely problematic when institutions try and solve problems on their own terms rather than using the recognised and conventional systems, and no one can be sure that these internal processes will result in positive outcomes for all those involved.

There are problems at all levels of the institution and everyone is under pressure. The effects of this pressure can manifest as severe mental health problems. However, rather than address the problems at their source – e.g. the institutional framework, expectations and imperatives – the onus is on individuals to recondition themselves to cope. Whether the answer is in meditation or medication, we try desperately to find ways to fit back in and re-enter the system. We do it because we have been told if we get good marks at school and good marks at university we can then go on to get good jobs. But the recession, high levels of youth unemployment and the myriad social problems our society is facing suggest these rewards are no longer guaranteed.

Excellence 

There is a movement in wider society to focus more on happiness. This has resulted in political initiatives to include well-being as a marker for national success, as well as GDP. I think Oxford University can learn from this process and develop better techniques for more holistically nurturing its students and staff. We are, after all, humans before we are academics. Furthermore, there is a positive correlation between well-being and productivity.

The high levels of unhappiness recorded at Oxford University present an opportunity for the university to rethink how it educates its students and how it treats its staff. Together we can overcome the conditioning that makes us believe meaning and value come from academic achievement. Self-worth and self-esteem need more than high marks. Instead people need to know that they are enough in and of themselves regardless of their achievements, something easily forgotten at an institution of high-achievers accustomed to getting top marks. Fortunately, Oxford University is already endowed with all the resources it needs to bring about this change and all it will take is a concerted team effort on behalf of students and staff, willing to do more than just ask critical questions but address the issues that those questions highlight.

We cannot assume Oxford University is excellent just because we are told it is, that is an example of uncritical thinking, something Oxford University educates against. But we can work together to improve it and ensure it becomes an institution capable of addressing the pressing needs of the 21st century, including widespread mental health problems. Only then can it truly be considered a place of excellence.