Why I Left Ravenclaw

Having worked super hard at boarding school (and I mean making extra revision notes from text books sort of super hard) I got a place at Oxford University to study Philosophy and Psychology. Hurrah! Off I went to the city of dreaming spires to spend way too long in libraries reading up on the likes of Descartes, Spinoza and Derrida. It was a world of books and my philosophically inclined chums and I enjoyed spending many an hour weaving up elaborate arguments about why Mill’s Utilitarianism was better than Aristotle’s virtue ethics. If we sound like super-nerds, well, no, we just loved books, like, really loved them. We were living out our Ravenclaw fantasies and that was absolutely fine…until we graduated.

It was a little bit of a shock to discover that being able to cite Aristotle wasn’t useful for navigating office politics and/or working the photocopier. But worse than my lack of practical skills was a severe lack of humility. Spending lots of time with ancient Greek philosophers may have led me to believe I was the sh*t (at least in my own warped world where essays on Plato were the benchmark for worthiness), especially when surrounded by plenty of other Type A personalities who believed the same thing. And Oxford University itself has a brand of ‘being the sh*t’ to maintain, so it’s kind of a collective delusion based on pro-plus, overwork, low self-esteem, self-loathing and plenty of mental health problems (ok, there’s a bit of world-class research that goes on there too, apparently). So it came as a nasty surprise to learn that lots of people didn’t actually give two hoots (of a screech owl) about Aristotle, Plato or any other random man with a beard that I’d spent far too long studying. Sure, those guys get their heads put on pedestals in museums but if there’s one thing us overly heady Ravenclaws need to do, it’s climb down off our self-styled pedestals before we’re knocked off.

So I graduated, made the mistake of going back for a Masters, finally learned my lesson, and left the shadow of the dreaming spires to do other things like write blogs and stories. Yes, my time at Ravenclaw was both brilliant and bonkers, filled with insight, fun, depression and various identity crises, but I think the trick to a happier life is to try and take the wisdom acquired from learning and turn it into something practical and accessible that can change the world we’re living in. Knowledge is for everyone and it’s not for the academy to hoard it and look snobbishly down on everyone who didn’t get a place at high table. Witty, wise and clever sounds like an ace personality combo but it’s what you do that counts not how many books you’ve read. Now, can you solve the riddle?

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Why Slytherin Deserves A Rebrand

When I was a teenagar I went to a boarding school in the south of England. Picture tall sandstone buildings and large quadrangles of well-cut grass. Picture hundreds of boys in grey uniforms singing the national anthem, tackling each other to the ground on rugby pitches and sharing a common disdain for the local ‘chavs’. Picture, also, rampant masculinity, repressed emotions and a punishment system that involved either an early morning run or copying an article from The Times by hand. Yes, at my boarding school I was taught all the qualities a true man should have: ambition, cunning, resourcefulness, pride (in the British class system) and an unceasing desire to win at all costs. Sound familiar? Yup, I basically went to Slytherin.

Slytherin gets all the bad rep because it’s the house that attracts most aspiring fascists. Its founder, Salazar Slytherin, was a famed racial purist who despied m*dbloods and desired only the breeding of pure-bloods. In other words, a eugenicist, Social Darwinist and sociopath. This is categorically the last person who should be put in charge of the education of minors but then maybe the same could be said for some of the teachers at my school. OK, they weren’t Neo-Nazis but sexism, racism and homophobia were often popular. Yet despite the fact that it appears Slytherin has no redeeming features whatsoever why do I think it deserves a rebrand?

Because on paper lots of the qualities a Slytherin possesses are great, it’s just the fascist bit that’s problematic. If we take ambition, resourcefulness and pride whilst maybe dropping the cunning (unless it’s the non-evil sort) and unceasing desire to win (replacing it with a healthy competitiveness), then I reckon that’s a pretty good combo. Add to them Dumbledore’s observation that Slytherins also possess “a certain disregard for the rules” then it’s clear that these snakey folk are more than capable of answering for themselves. Of course, the other key is to not put a fascist in charge. Maybe have some inspiring role models like Merlin (he went to Slytherin!), Ghandi and Brene Brown and these ambitious folks might not end up heading the Tory party, burning money in front of homeless people and/or burning money on trading floors but could form a vital part of the movement to build a just, sustainable and loving future. Don’t worry, I can hear you snorting, how could a bunch of Slytherins become nice people!? Well, I actually think this question is quite important because it’s clear we Slytherins cannot manage our own emotions and aren’t taught how, only to end up taking them out on the people around us. Furthermore, if we’re ignored or under the tutorship of fascists it’s highly likely we’ll grow up to become dysfunctional, angry people. Not only that but we’ll take over the banking system, the political system and any other hierarchical institution that promises wealth and status. And that’s not a threat, it’s just kinda true. So get us while we’re young and please, please don’t leave it to the likes of Salazar Psychopath.

Confessions Of A Public Schoolboy

It’s time like this, when a general election looms and the likelihood of another Tory government seems all too (but a little less) possible that I think back to my boarding school days. From 13 to 18 I was a boarder at a public (i.e. private) school in Kent. Amongst other things I played a bit of rugby and a lot of fives (a game with padded gloves and a ball that they invented at Eton, another public school), I studied far too much (I was better in the classroom than on the sports pitch, which ultimately counted for very little back then), I wrote a few articles for the school magazine (long before the time of blogs), I got involved in a lot of pillow fights (they were fun), I organised and participated in a naked calendar shoot (that was a highlight) and when it came to our mock general election I voted…Liberal Democrat.

You see, even then, when I was being groomed to become another privately educated dickhead I knew there was something wrong. Most of the teachers, nearly all male, just weren’t very good role models. They were the sort of men who expressed themselves through shouting and anger, who bullied the ‘stupid’ students in their classes and had red-faced tantrums. Some of them  tried to be our ‘mates’ as they vicariously lived their ‘laddish’ dreams through their teenage pupils. Others took their religion very seriously but skipped the whole empathy thing, some were doddery old men who didn’t have a clue while others were aspiring autocrats on a power trip (I think one was also done for possessing child porn and another for assaulting a student). But don’t get me wrong, I also had a load of epic teachers who helped me get to where I am today – admittedly lots of them were weird but weird in a nice, friendly way. Unfortunately, some of the less awesome ones even had loco parentus – they effectively became my legal parents in absence of my actual parents. You might recognise that loco also means mad in Spanish. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t help but feel that none of these men were the sort of man I wanted to become.

As for myself and the other boys at my school, we were a mixed bunch. We were bullies, racists, homophobes, sexists, classists and a whole raft of other prejudices. We were also friends, partners in crime, mates, pranksters and, sometimes, loving – although love for a public schoolboy is a difficult thing especially as we didn’t get taught emotions and were bullied for having them. Meanwhile, the explicit message of our schooling was that we would become life’s winners. If we could win on the sports pitch, in the classroom and even in the music room (although music was really for losers) then we would win at life. We would grow up to become those winning men who did manly things such as make lots of money, have dysfunctional relationships, despise chavs and, of course, vote Conservative. During my school’s mock election three boys were selected to represent the Tory, Lib Dem and Labour party leaders. There was a bit of campaigning and, naturally, the Tories went down a storm and won most of the votes. I, on the other hand, had a bit of a problem with aspiring to be a posh, entitled tosspot. I remember printing off posters which read “I vote Conservative because Mummy and Daddy do” and sticking them up around my boarding house (a bit like Hogwarts but with Conservatism instead of magic). That was my rather dismal attempt at teenage rebellion, which also manifested as a vote for the Liberal Democrats. I didn’t have the guts to go all the way and vote Labour.

Now, as another general election looms I can imagine lots of the boys who went to my school will be readying themselves to vote Tory again. Lots of boys who, in many ways, are ace people and fun to hang out with but also, like me, were forced to grow up in a bizarre education system that stifled growth and fostered prejudice. Boys who, if they’ve bothered to read this far, will either be feeling angry, patronised, indignant or humourously aloof – the four emotions available to the likes of us. Ultimately though the thing with public school boys is that we’re still boys. Like Peter Pan, we never grew up, except rather than fight the evil pirates we tried to become them. But who knows, as June 8th approaches maybe, just maybe, us boys will finally ‘man up’, ‘grow a pair’ and vote for a party that gives a shit about other people. Or not and we’ll carry on living out our weird Oedipal complexes by voting for a woman who looks a bit like our Mums.

Calling All Queer Warriors

Last summer I spent a week in the Welsh countryside. I slept in a big yurt and under a tarp, I did some fasting and I met a bunch of great people. The landscape was beautiful – we were staying in a rewilding valley, meaning that nature was slowly reclaiming the space that would previously have been farmed (although some pesky sheep did manage to break in to do some casual grazing). The land was fantastical and it reminded me of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and also the world of the Legend of Zelda (an ace computer game I loved playing when I was younger). However, as I thought about these stories I realised they are often about straight men fighting orcs and/or rescuing Princesses. So, there, deep in the Welsh wilderness a new character was born: the Queer Warrior.

Skip forward to yesterday and I just ran my first ever Queer Warriors workshop at ActivateLDN – a whole day event to equip young people with the skills and resources to make social change. The subtitle for my session was Resourcing and Supporting the LGBTQIA+ Community and for 90 minutes that is what I and eleven others got up to. We unpacked the acronym and explored what the different letters mean. We also spoke about our own experiences of gender and sexuality. We then got a bit fictional and invented our own characters, giving them names, appearances, genders, sexualities, fears and much more. We confronted our characters with their fears and had them overcome them in novel ways. In essence, we honed our storytelling and communication skills which I think are vital for the queer community because we have so many stories to tell, whether we consider ourselves a member of the community or an ally of it. We also need to be able to combat the stereotyping and prejudice that tries to sideline the queer community, often inciting and resulting in violence. Our stories matter and the more empowered we feel to tell them then, hopefully, the more others will listen.

Another metaphor of the Queer Warrior workshop is the idea that the queer community offers a huge umbrella of protection to those underneath. Furthermore, all are invited to shelter from the storm whether you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, asexual, queer, trans, cis, intersex, questioning, genderqueer, non-binary or curious. It is also an intersectional umbrella that recognises prejudice and discrimination affect different people in different ways including along lines of race, ability, mental health, class and religion. In essence, the one thing I would hate for the queer community to be is a clique. There are enough cliques out there (and, trust me, I’ve got a post or two on this for later) but in the world of the Queer Warrior all are invited – you don’t have to be x enough or more y or less z, you can just be you, whoever that is and you’ll be welcome. You don’t even have to be a Queer Warrior, that’s just a name I like!

If you’re interested in a Queer Warriors workshop please get in touch at hello@robertholtom.co.uk. And you can find out more about my work in storytelling and narrative skills here – www.robertholtom.co.uk

Video Game - The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Link Wallpaper
The Queer Warrior surveys their domain (actually it’s Link from the next Legend of Zelda game!)

Little Mix: Holding Hands Is A Political Act

Little Mix are at it again – using catchy pop songs to relay important political messages and this time it’s all about holding hands.

For some holding hands is a simple act done on a regular basis. A guy and a gal just holding hands as they reveal their love to the world and walk to Sainsbury’s to get some snacks. Inside the shop he might put his hand around her waist and even tap her bum. Outside, snacks now bought and waiting in their bag-for-life, they might hug and briefly lock lips. Do you do this? Are you in an opposite-sex relationship where you both feel comfortable to express your affection in public? Well, if so, count your fricking blessings, because for many people holding hands, let alone snogging, could land them with a punch in the face, at the very least.

It’s different for same-sex couples. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both above the age of 21. That was only fifty years ago and it applied only to men. It was in 2000 that the age of consent for homosexual couples was reduced to 16 years, so only sixteen years ago that gay couples achieved parity with straights. And in the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 was sexual activity between more than two men no longer a criminal offence across the entirety of the UK – yup, fourteen years ago and a threesome+ would have been illegal. What this brief political history demonstrates is that the law can be absolutely ridiculous, focussed often not on upholding justice and equality but enforcing prejudice and discrimination. That’s nothing new but it’s worth repeating.

Of course, it’s one thing for laws to change, quite another for culture. And for this reason same-sex couples holding hands in public is still a political act. There’s still so much hostility and discrimination out there that it makes hand holding dangerous. And even if the passersby aren’t homophobes they may still offer a good stare just because it ‘fascinates’ them to see these exotic queer people demonstrating affection. Whereas, straight couples usually don’t get stared at or if they do it’s because they are swapping way too much saliva. So thank god for this song by the wonderful Little Mix, which speaks directly to this issue. The video below is for Secret Love Song Part 2 as Jason Derulo was involved in Part 1 and he (or his producers) ensured it was decidedly straighter than originally intended. So here’s the better more political version. Thanks for singing out Little Mix!

Tiny Violins For White People

Countless tiny violins are playing for offended white people all over the world. First, there was Charlotte Rampling saying that “it is racist to whites” to suggest that decades of institutionalised racism have yet again resulted in no people of colour being nominated for Oscars. Then there was Michael Caine reminding us that it took him “years to get an Oscar, years” so it’s only right that people of colour should “be patient” and wait their turn. And, finally, there are the many white people outraged that Beyoncé should use her latest music video to highlight the racism and abuse that black people continue to face in today’s society. I’m getting a bit bored of trying to encourage fellow white people to see things differently (cue my own tiny violin) but here goes.

Charlotte Rampling: As a female actor who rose to fame during the sixties she no doubt encountered an awful lot of sexism. An industry that is still predicated on the objectification and demeaning of women was surely worse back then. So kudos to Rampling for pushing through. However, even if my speculations are right and she did face discrimination this is no excuse to ignore the struggles of others as she willfully ignores the prejudice facing people of colour. “One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final [Oscars] list,” said Rampling whilst discussing the boycott of the current Academy Awards. If the consequences of ignorance weren’t so grave this would be laughable – to actually think the Academy Awards are based on an objective judgement of acting talent carried out by unbiased judges behind closed doors is ridiculous. No, the predominantly white people who form the panel are just as likely to suffer from the prejudices and bigotry that run through all sectors of society resulting in biased behaviour. Sorry Rampling, you may be a good actor but you’re not that good and actors of colour aren’t that bad either.

Fortunately, Rampling issued a statement in which she clarified her position. Whilst not explicitly apologising she did say she regrets what she said. “I simply meant to say that in an ideal world every performance will be given equal opportunities for consideration.” Yes, but come on Rampling, we don’t live in an ideal society and crass comments about how talentless actors of colour are for which you don’t apologise form part of what doesn’t make it ideal.

Michael Caine: When it comes to winning awards, to suggest that people of colour need to “be patient” and hold tight until the Academy deigns them worthy is a right slap in the face. Caine is an individual actor of arguable talent whilst people of colour represent an absolutely vast talent pool. For Caine, as a privileged white male who will never have had to experience the sort of racism that people of colour have faced and do face in the film industry, to compare his situation with that of people of colour is ludicrous. Why doesn’t he hand over his awards to some of the many overlooked and discriminated against yet hugely talented actors of colour? Come on Caine, it’s time to step up by stepping down.

Formation by Beyoncé: Centuries of slavery and oppression meant black people were treated abysmally in the States and all over the world. Whilst slavery might have been abolished in the US its legacies of violence, prejudice and ignorance live on. It’s time white people acknowledged this history and recognised that we still benefit from huge amounts of white privilege (what’s white privilege? Check out this cartoon). Questioning this privilege means redistributing it in such a way that we can all be empowered – so it works out better for all of us, yes, even white people. Sure, it’s going to be tough for us whites to accept that an awful lot of violence has been and is still perpetrated in our name, often by us, but this will never be as tough as actually experiencing that violence. I could go on but Beyoncé’s latest video speaks for itself.

“People Did Things Differently Then…”

The journalist Catherine Shoard recently wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian in which she bemoans two things: 1) that our addiction to the digital world (social media, constant news, google etc) undermines our creativity, 2) that because we have become less creative we expect films to be more like our own lives and the contexts within which we live. Two interesting views worth exploring, unfortunately though, Shoard uses points 1) and 2) to back up a completely different and unrelated opinion: that it’s ok if women and people of colour are under-represented in films. What!?

The Bechdel Test and the Latif Test are two means of testing whether a film pays even a token nod towards inclusivity and diversity. The former concerns the representation of women on-screen and the latter people of colour. As Shoard points out five of the eight best-picture Oscar nominees for 2016 fail the Latif test. This isn’t good. Yet, Shoard argues, “sometimes to fail is more dignified than to triumph.” Following this useless aphorism she points out that three of the films are period pieces and the main action concerned did not really involve anyone but white men, so people should quit their whining. However, having just complained about modern audiences expecting films to be closer to real life because we all, apparently, lack imagination, she’s now defending movies that stick closer to the facts. This is what is known as a contradiction.

Shoard argues we shouldn’t try to rewrite history (another aphorism I’m getting very bored of) by adding women and people of colour into films about historical events that didn’t involve women and people of colour. If a bunch of white men did something amazing fifty or a hundred years ago then only a bunch of white, male actors should play those roles. She says we’re being overly sensitive if we expect the past not to insult the present yet she also acknowledges that this very same past has been invariably “cruel, unfair and imperialist.” It seems almost as if Shoard is trying to justify cinema’s reflection and repetition of this cruelty, unfairness and imperialism given that “people did things differently then” (trite aphorism number 3). Unfortunately, Shoard seems to be forgetting that ‘then’ – aka the past – wasn’t just populated by white men. In fact, I think there’s much evidence to suggest that women and people of colour existed in the past. And I imagine if they existed then they did things as well and I’m sure many of those things were great. Do you see where I’m going here?

We need more films like 12 Years A Slave, Suffragette, Pride, Made In Dagenham and The Danish Girl. Sure, all these films have their problems (e.g. apparently Emmeline Pankhurst was a notorious racist yet Suffragette glossed over all of this, including the contributions of women of colour to the suffrage movement) which is why we need more like them but better. We need more films that shine spotlights on new bits of history that haven’t been turned into films yet. This doesn’t mean rewriting history so as not to offend people it means highlighting the history that was never written about because history was so often documented by a bunch of supremacist bigots.

Shoard throws some more musings into the mix: that people like bungee jumping; that we’re addicted to social media;  that we like reading the news; that despite reading the news which is often about other people we struggle to relate to issues that aren’t about ourselves; that for some reason the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite signals the end of history (that’s at least the third time history has ended if we include the warnings of Fukuyama and the Mayans); we’re not very good at processing fiction – even though the majority of her article is about historical dramas (which are meant to be factual). In essence, this is a confused and quite boring article that poorly hides a justification of the white, male status quo. We’ve already got enough justifications of this we don’t need anymore.

Shoard’s final complaint is that modern audiences “just have to keep it real” but having read the article it’s hard to know what her definition of real is – is it the supposed ‘realness’ of a history written by the victors and conquistadors, is it the reality of sexism and racism still present in Hollywood, or is it the sort of real that demands we explore history’s little-written of stories helping to redress today’s maintained prejudices? I’m not sure Shoard would know the answer nor would it appear does Hollywood (see video below) but we’ll get there one Bechdel and Latif test-passing film at a time.