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.

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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).

 

Meaningless Millenials: Clique & Search Party

Life can seem quite meaningless for millennials these days as we’re forced to jump through the increasingly outdated hoops of school all for the sake of one day getting an adult job. However, much debt later and those dream jobs tend to be unpaid internships or going the way of automisation. Meanwhile, Trump, Brexit, climate change etc etc…what do we do!? It’s no surprise then that this nihilistic turn ends up influencing popular culture. Two examples include recent mystery based dramas with Gen Y protagonists, Search Party (TBS) and Clique (BBC). For the former think Nancy Drew meets mid-twenties millennial malaise with a side of Gone Girl and the latter is a less funny Mean Girls meets The Secret History with Scottish accents. Both have meaninglessness at their hearts but for two very different reasons. Oh, and head’s up, there will be spoilers.

Search Party tells the story of Dory, not the forgetful fish, but a 20s something woman living in New York who lacks direction and purpose in life. Naturally, she goes looking for this by going looking for Chantal – an old college acquaintance who is now a missing person. Cue hunting for clues, curious suspects, intriguing red herrings and a whole cast of amazing characters – from her endlessly self-absorbed rich friends to a cult-load of ‘wellness-seeking’ weirdos. Dory’s 21st century world is exceptionally bleak but also very, very funny. Clique takes itself a little more seriously as young students and lifelong friends, Holly and Georgie, fall out over getting in with the in-crowd: four conventionally beautiful young women who have looks and banking internships to die for (literally in the case of one of them who kills herself in episode one). The characters here are familiar clichés: the charismatic lecturer who lures the impressionable young women in with her force of character (and questionable brand of feminism) and the attractive people who do glamorous things (e.g. take drugs, jump into swimming pools with their clothes on, have chauffeurs etc) but aren’t actually that interesting. However, what’s great about Clique is that it’s going all out to fail the Mechdel test – the male equivalent of the Bechdel test – as the guys are left to be annoying, peripheral characters and the occasional bare butt shot.

So both shows are full of selfish and sometimes vacuous characters, however, I’d say Search Party is knowingly presenting them as such in order to skewer them in parody. It takes a mirror to Gen Y’s obsession with selfies, celebrity and self-promotion, and reminds us that it’s all paper-thin (whilst also mistressfully weaving this trope into the denouement). Meanwhile, I feel Clique is being a little more earnest in its vacuity and trying to convince us that, like Holly and Georgie, we really should want to join the clique of coke-snorting, unpaid yet highly attractive interns who don’t say much of interest and are forced to work for/with complete chauvinists. But that’s the thing with cliques – cool from a distance but kinda disappointing once you’re inside. Although I’m not convinced Holly is all that convinced of the clique either so, with three episodes to go, there’s still plenty of time for biting, poignant cultural critique a la Search Party.

Interestingly, one thing lacking in both these tales of millennial woe are significant adult figures. Search Party has the odd wellness guru and disinterested, rich parent, whilst Clique has got the over-zealous lecturer and her weird brother but I feel both series are missing a trick because without adults who can the Gen Yers blame for all our problems? Let’s face it without the baby boomers we millennials wouldn’t be here. Without their inventions, businesses, advertising agencies and super-charged model of consumer capitalism where on earth would we go to struggle to find meaning and purpose? I mean if they’d invested in sustainable energy, steady-state economic models and put community before profit then Dory and Holly probably would have already found themselves and wouldn’t need to go on dangerous mystery adventures. Likewise, their friends would probably spend more time looking out for one another and not wasting so much time setting up faux-charitable initiatives to boost their fragile self-esteems or chasing the next high-functioning sociopath with a six-pack. And nor would everyone be stone broke and forced to pay too much rent because we’d have caps on renting or, who knows, maybe all housing would be social housing. And freaky wellness cults run by overly charismatic yet dubious people who wear too much expensive jewellery wouldn’t need to be invented because we’d all probably be quite happy sharing stuff and looking out for one another. Who’d need an exclusive clique when we’d all have community. Anyways, just a thought. Now quick, back to Instagram!

The Friday Night Kindness Kabaret

You know that gay stereotype, the ‘bitchy queen’ one, when the queer in question gives you a lot of sass and destroys your sense of fashion (or lack thereof) in two biting sentences. Then they down a double gin and tonic before offering a witty critique of each person in the room and why they’re all so damn ugly. In fact, I don’t just think you know this stereotype, I think you help promote it. Every time you laugh at those sorts of punch lines, every time you reduce your LGBT friend to a series of tropes and every time you call something ‘gay’, you are overtly/tacitly promoting the culture of queerphobia that still runs so strong in 21st century society. But wait a sec, aren’t I being a little too mean in a post about kindness?

Sure, I’ll be kind, but if you find yourself reading this post and you’re one of those friendly-but-kinda-ignorant straight people then you probably weren’t at the Kindness Kabaret last night in Soho. I was and it was fuming brilliant. There was burlesque from the epic Rubyyy Jones, some ace tunes from internationally ignored superstar Vanity Von Glow, jokes galore from Shon Faye, words of wisdom from writer Matthew Todd and witty banter from hosts Pat Cash and David Robson. But why was it called the Kindness Kabaret? Because Pat and David both feel that there isn’t enough kindness on the London gay scene. And from my own experience I know they’re right – there’s often aloofness, judgement, prejudice, cynicism and a whole host of other unkindnesses. And that’s not because queer folk are all relentlessly nasty but it’s because we have been relentlessly alienated, shamed and abused for being who we are and it’s no surprise that we internalise this Pandora’s box of prejudice and spit it back at one another. So, yeah, I will be kind but first it’s important that you realise the bittersweet fact of the Kindness Kabaret, i.e. that there needs to be one.

And what was even more fantastic about last night was that even though I went by myself I actually met some fantastic people. I got chatting with two friendly guys (and, no, before you jump to that conclusion I did not engage in a threesome and even if I had that does not make me fit your narrow, prejudiced stereotypes) and learnt lots about Sweden’s gay scene, the oldest coffee shop in Soho (I had my first cappuccino and unfortunately I liked it) and British colonialism’s abysmal homophobic legacy that is still present in far too many former colonies’ legal systems. So, in a scene that is often ravaged by unkindness, I thought it was pretty epic I found the opposite and had a bunch of tequila shots as well. As for you straight folks, I know you have your struggles too and one day I’ll post about them but in the mean time I’m asking you to listen to mine. And yes, I’m angry, of course I’m fucking angry, remember that LGBT sexual health and lifestyle education was banned from 1988 until the early noughties in the UK (aka, my entire childhood) and our education system still hasn’t caught up. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Remember this also, that under the frosty, hostile exteriors of those ‘bitchy queens’ there are vulnerable and fragile interiors scarred by a world so often full of hostility, indifference and prejudice. But you can be part of helping heal those wounds. So, yeah, I’ll be nice but you have to be too.

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.

The Chemsex Monologues

Chemsex kinda does what it says on the tin, mixes chemicals and sex. The drugs used can include mephedrone, crystal meth, cocaine and ketamine. Naturally, a whole load of stereotypes get flung at the people and groups who engage in these activities which is why The Chemsex Monologues are so important because they reveal the all too human side behind the prejudiced slurs and sensationalised stories. But before you read my review go book your tickets, it’s on tonight until Saturday at 9.45pm at the King’s Head Theatre in London.

Directed by Luke Davies, written by Patrick Cash and designed by Richard Desmond this was an intense hour-and-a-bit. Through a series of monologues we were introduced to various characters: the narrator, played by Richard Watkins, who falls for that hot boy on the scene with the great abs and the endless energy. Then Denholm Spurr brings that boy to life as Nameless, who gets to live his dream and meet a porn star. Meanwhile, Charly Flyte plays Cath, the ever faithful fag hag who’s getting a little fed up of her so-called fag. And Daniel, the wonderfully upbeat sexual health worker who loves handing out condoms and lube at saunas and brings red wine to a chemsex party rather than chems. All the cast were fantastic, they found the nuances of character and the expressive range to ensure each monologue was delivered as the multi-layered story it was written as. It wasn’t just someone stood up and talking for fifteen minutes instead we were drawn into worlds of sweaty bodies, M&S ready meals and chemically fuelled orgies. That all the monologues wove together to tell a larger, interlinked story and showed the same characters from different angles proved very satisfying but I shan’t spoil anything (but what I will say is that I’m very glad how things turned out with Swallows).

What also worked so well in this production as in Queers (also produced by Dragonflies Theatre), was that thread of emotion that meant the stories told were more than just anecdotes but had real heart. That Cath was so much more than a fag hag but also a loyal friend, a hardworking single mum and an amazing source of positivity. That Nameless was more than the boy in short shorts (and nothing else) but had so much love to give and poetry to share. That both the narrator and Daniel could see the cracks in the facade of this seemingly glamorous world and still be there to offer a hand. I’d also like to add that I sincerely hope Matthew Hodson is as nice in person as the characters he plays are – Daniel was a legend as was the character Hodson played in Queers (no pressure Matthew). However, the niceness of these characters just exacerbates the tragedy that runs throughout the play. There’s a moment when Daniel’s wondering to himself why so many people do mix chems and sex. He thinks back to a GCSE classics class and remembers that the word ecstasy comes from the Greek extasis: a displacement or removal from the proper place. “Why do so many gay men want to be outside themselves?” he wonders and I thought that was a very good question. Is it just for fun or is it that this so-called real world can be so endlessly hostile and unwelcoming, so shaming of minorities yet so quick to tokenise and ridicule them whilst remaining indifferent to their suffering. If this is one of the messages woven into The Chemsex Monologues then it’s a wake up call for so many of us to stop being so indifferent and unfriendly because people like Nameless, Daniel, Cath and whatever-the-narrator’s-actually-called are priceless and should be made to feel at home. Anyways, enough of that, go book your ticket.

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Denholm Spurr as Nameless in The Chemsex Monologues

 

Britain Has Feelings Too

We British are renowned for our politeness. We doff our caps to strangers, we wait for others to get on the tube before we get off and we drink endless cups of tea, sometimes with our little fingers raised. We may grumble through hard times but only very quietly. We complain but never loudly or crassly. We are a proud folk for in the face of a crisis we always keep calm and carry on. We have the stiffest of upper lips and save our tears for the Queen’s birthday. We don’t like public displays of emotion but we will smile at strangers, although we’ll never grin or laugh out loud in front of them. We are essentially a polite race. But something happened last Friday, Britain changed and that facade of politeness fell as our feelings were unleashed.

And it turns out that British people do have emotions after all. People have been in tears and in despair over the call for Brexit (still not a reality – it’s not legally binding and Parliament have made no decisions, time for Breentry): many are sad about the future they see being dismantled, many are sad about the past they see being ignored and many are sad about the volatile present that we’re living through. Others are in fear and pain as they experience the fists, insults and petrol bombs of racial abuse and violence. Many are angry for many different reasons: because they think the majority of people are idiots, because they think it’s time immigrants went home, because they think they’ve been lied to by the press and the establishment. Even the people of power are expressing emotions: David Cameron shed a tear which may even have been genuine (maybe he realised the enormity of the mistake he made) whilst Boris Johnson has gone quiet, which is most unlike him.

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So, yes, British people do have emotions after all – some inspiring and some scary – and over the past few days we’ve been expressing them over and over again. This has been a long time coming – keeping calm and carrying on, grumbling under our breath and being oh so polite are just ways of suppressing our feelings without ever having to address them. But you can’t hide emotions forever. Yet there are ways to vent anger and ways to direct frustration which don’t have to destroy and denigrate and there are ways to express sadness and grief that don’t have to lead to despair, yet we are a vastly emotionally unintelligent country because we’ve never been given the education for it. We have a lot to learn in a very short space of time but perhaps what is happening now is a sharp wake up call: our feelings are powerful, dangerous and transformative. We must acquaint ourselves with them and use them as a force for good.