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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Oxford’s Vigil For Orlando

Oxford, England. Thunder boomed, lightning flashed and the rain came tumbling down. The English summer is never one for predictably and climate change just makes that all worse. A brief cycle home and I was drenched, my second shower for the day. It was five o’ clock in the afternoon and there was going to be a vigil in Radcliffe Square for the victims of the homophobic terrorist attack in Orlando. More thunder, more lightning, more rain. The Orlando attack was deeply distressing. It is sad to see people robbed of their lives by atrocious acts of violence and it is sad to see the queer community targeted simply because people want to be free to love whoever they wish. However, I’d seen photos of the vigil in Soho, London, and there had been thousands of people standing in silence, in tears and in solidarity, and this gave me hope.

A few hours later I put my waterproof jacket on, jumped back on my bike and head into town. But the jacket was unnecessary because the clouds were breaking and beyond, even at half past seven, the sun was shining. The view of the changing sky was staggering punctured by the sandstone spires of Oxford University. I arrived at Radcliffe Square where hundreds of people had gathered outside the Radcliffe Camera (the only building in Oxford’s skyline that looks more like a booby than a penis). So many people. Like any community, the queer one can be both brilliant and difficult. Great friendships can be forged but so can cliques. Certain groups come to identify themselves apart from others and ‘politics’ can arise. However, that evening we were gathered for something so much greater than ourselves, we were gathered in solidarity for the victims of Orlando and for queer people all over the world.

Vigil for OrlandoA quote from the facebook event reads as this: “LGBTQ people have long been and continue to be the victims of violence and hatred in the places where we try to seek safety. The fact that this attack happened on Latinx night, and that so many of the victims were Latinx reminds us that queer people of colour are disproportionately at risk of violent hate crimes. On Wednesday evening we will come together outside the Radcliffe Camera to remember the lives of the victims of this attack; we will mourn the violence that seeks to destroy our communities. There is no space at this vigil for Islamophobia or racism. We will not be silent in the face of hatred, we will stand together and support one another as we have always done in times of crisis.”

People gave speeches, the names of the victims were read out and a two-minute silence was held. Someone in front of me began to cry and someone next to them gave them a hug – I don’t think they knew each other. There were families there too and heterosexual people, distressed at the attack and supporting their queer friends. Then a beautifully voiced choir sang Seasons of Love from the musical Rent and Somewhere Over The Rainbow. What ace songs. It’s such a shame that it sometimes takes tragedy to bring us together but those moments of unity are exceptionally powerful, and even though I went by myself to the vigil I did not feel alone. Humans have always lived in difficult times and this remains true today. My hope is that the sentiment of belonging to something so much bigger than ourselves – a community of fighters, lovers, queers and allies that runs back throughout history and will run always into the future – will continue to bring us closer together in a time when division is not an option.

You Can’t Stop The Beat Of Equality

Fascists painting swastikas in blood on the sides of buses during an anti-refugee march in Dover. Rich Oxford University alumni threatening to write Oriel College out of their wills if the college removes a statue of the racist Cecil Rhodes. Mega-corporations getting away with avoiding paying billions of pounds worth of tax during a time of austerity and increasing inequality. Sometimes, maybe always, it seems like the world is going to pot and that the bad guys really will win. And whilst I don’t think equality and justice are guarantors but are contracts in need of endless renewal, in the same way the social fabric is a patchwork in need of constant darning, I do know that despite all the hatred out there it is so much easier being nice. Plus, nice people get a better soundtrack.

Bigotry is hard work. As the Red Queen boasts to Alice that she can believe six impossible things before breakfast so too must bigots juggle all sorts of contradictions and paradoxes in order to justify their narrow-mindedness. For example, one of the fascists who marched in Dover yesterday has to believe that certain groups of people are inferior whilst demanding that they themselves, and the people they care about, are superior. It tends to be one rule for them and one rule for me (and my family). A fascist also has to believe that our economic problems can be blamed on migrants and refugees, meaning they get to scapegoat the vulnerable whilst not bothering to question the economic and political realities that keeps a constant stream of wealth and power flowing to the elite minority at the expense of the majority (a majority that they are part of!). On the other hand, it’s much easier for a nice person who realises that nothing makes anyone inherently better or worse than anyone else and so doesn’t need to expend lots of energy discriminating against certain groups. They can also google around the issues of inequality rather than just accept what the newspapers tell them. At the end of the day (and at the start of it) love is a much more sustainable energy source than hate.

And nice people get a much better soundtrack. Take You Can’t Stop The Beat that ends the ace musical Hairspray (big spoilers by the way, equality wins). All the characters, even the baddies, shake their booty to a song that relishes the striving for so many forms of equality – between people of different races, skin colours and body shapes. “You can try to stop the paradise we’re dreaming of,” they sing, and of course (as Taylor Swift also told us) haterz gonna hate, because that’s what haters do. But “you can’t stop today as it comes speeding down the track,” sings Queen Latifah, “Child, yesterday is history and it’s never coming back.” And she’s right, today is zooming straight at us like a highspeed train and we get to choose whether it’s a train that runs people over or if it’s some awesome party train to which all are invited (rehabilitated fascists included). Because when it comes down to it hate and love are choices, and as difficult as we might find it to choose the latter, there’s still time to learn (trust me, it’ll be fun). And so concludes my blog about being nice – perhaps just an excuse to post this awesome song which does what this blog does anyway but too a far catchier tune (Spanish subtitles included).

The Museum Of Statues

You might have heard that Oriel College, Oxford, has come under a lot of scrutiny recently with regards whether or not its statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed. Rhodes was a Victorian mining magnate who made lots of money from diamonds and the exploitation of labour, however, he did give some of his cash to Oxford University to set up a scholarship for international students. On one side are the students leading the Rhodes Must Fall campaign demanding that the statue be removed because Rhodes was a notorious racist and it’s pretty offensive having to walk past his effigy on a daily basis. Then there are the conservatives (for want of a better word) demanding that the statue stay because students these days are too easily offended and removing a statue is tantamount to erasing history. And there’s Oriel College staff – caught in the middle of it until a recent article revealed that a bunch of wealthy college alumni threatened to withdraw hundreds of thousands of pounds if the statue was removed. So, because money speaks louder than students (unless they’re very rich students) the statue will stay. I agree – I think the statue should stay – just not in Oriel College.

Different sides of the debate keep asking us to focus on the ‘bigger picture’ – be it the reputation of Oxford University, the literal whitewashing of history, historical legacies of racism and not forgetting the contemporary incidences of racism in a notoriously white university, brilliantly explained in this article. However, there’s another bit of the ‘bigger picture’ that I would humbly suggest we are missing – our obsession with statues. I mean seriously, they’re everywhere, whole buildings festooned in big blocks of stone carved into the likenesses of…well…mainly white men. White men who led us into war (Winston Churchill, Nelson), white men who got rich (Cecil Rhodes, George Peabody) and white men who fought dragons (St George). Sure, women get statues too – Queen Victoria and Elizabeth, two women who by the sheer accident of birth ended up ruling our country. There’s Justice and Britannia, not real women who existed and actually did things but personifications of moral sensibilities and countries. And Jane Austen gets some odd statue-plaster-thing outside her museum in Bath but then it’s not as if her novels were known for their diversity.

Nowadays we tend not to erect statues to random rich and belligerent men – it’s not as if Cameron and Blair are getting plinths any time soon (at least I hope not). But back in the day people loved it or at least the people who actually had the money and power to demand a statue be built in the middle of London or on an Oxford University college. And that’s because back in the day rich, white men were writing history – a history far too many of us take at face value when we decry that removing Cecil Rhodes’ statue is akin to rewriting history. No, it’s recognising that history tends to be some terrible, bigoted agenda written by the victors (aka supremacists) with whom we no longer want to associate ourselves.

So where should the statues go? Into the fifth or sixth empty home of some random rich person who would rather their house lie empty than house people in need of accommodation. So it can accommodate statues instead. They could all be lined up for people (well, overly sensitive people who get easily offended when people ask for old statues to be taken down) to look at and underneath each statue there would be a plaque that contexualises it according to the latest, historical findings. Thus, underneath Cecil Rhodes would appear, amongst other things, the word RACIST. And we don’t approve of racism anymore which is why we don’t need statues of racists lining our streets and educational institutions. And rather than faff about spending lots of money on new statues we can build affordable housing instead.

https://i1.wp.com/www.ashmolean.org/assets/images/Services/RSGSlide05.jpg
The Museum of Statues (aka The Ashmolean)

Our Love Affair With The Rich

The Tories have long been considered the party of the rich and, now they have power, they’re doing an awful lot to help their rich chums – repealing the fox-hunting ban (a sport only really enjoyed by a few), reducing union and employment rights (so big business owners won’t face as much threat from their workers) and continuing to turn a blind eye to tax avoidance (a pursuit the wealthy enjoy even more than hunting). With poverty, inequality and income disparity on the rise it really does seem as if all the rich are doing is getting richer.

However, despite this depressing trend it still seems as if we are enamoured of the rich – why else would we spend so much time watching them. They’re on television – Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, 90210, Gossip Girl, RevengeThe Kardashians, Made in Chelsea, they’re in film – A Little Chaos, The Great Gatsby, Match Point, The Aviator, The Riot ClubThe Queen, they’re in books – Brideshead Revisited, The Great GatsbyThe Wolf of Wall Street and they’re on stage – Arcadia, Hay Fever, Posh, The Audience. It seems that despite the rich undermining the social fabric of our society by putting wealth before morality we do quite enjoy watching them do it.

This contradictory and voyeuristic behaviour is easily explained. On the one hand the rich tend to bank roll culture – they’re the ones that can afford West End ticket prices and they like nothing better than having themselves portrayed on stage. The plays may well be a little satirical but they are always disappointingly harmless as tools for social change, here may I refer you to Acykborn, Bennett, Stoppard and the like. Also, the rhetoric of social advancement is deeply embedded in British society. There is a steady stream of messaging that vilifies working class people and people on low-income – Benefit Streets, Little Britain, the Conservative Party election campaign to name but a few. We’re encouraged to despise and ridicule ‘chavs’ and do all that we can to ascend the social ranks. Of course, what they don’t tell you is that there are limited seats at top table and however hard one aspires the likelihood of becoming one of the ‘rich’ is slim.

So, as desperate as we are to get rich the reality is that this is very hard and it’s far easier just to watch them on telly. There’s something quite fascinating in watching the lives of those who live without consequences, where money really is no object.  To be able to eat baby octopi off a bed of diamonds whilst blowing up yachts off the coast of Barbados – why not. It’s an odd social contract but so long as money is king, and it will be until we better understand how to take the -ism out of capitalism, we will have to settle for being rich vicariously.

My addition to this rich tradition of richness is The Wellington Boot Club – a murder mystery comedy showing at the Burton Taylor Studio in Oxford from 26th – 30th May, 7.30pm. Get your tickets here! A whodunnit that sees Esther Jones, a psychology student at Oxford University, turn detective when one of the members of The Wellington Boot Club – an all male drinking society – is bashed to death during an initiation ceremony. The play explores the ‘laddish’ and misogynistic drinking culture at Oxford University that can often result in criminal behaviour. So expect another play that pokes at the rich and tries to baffle the audience with a slew of red herrings.

It’s obvious what we need to do – we need to stop encouraging the rich and stop watching them. We don’t need to constantly compare ourselves because there will always be someone wealthier and our lives are important and meaningful without bottomless bank accounts. The trouble is the rich are very reliable for behaving ridiculously (they can afford to) which makes them sitting ducks for parody. So it looks like we’re caught somewhere between a trust fund and an offshore bank account.

The Wellington Boot Club

Another Middle Class Voice

Dear Reader,

I would like to introduce myself – I am Robert. Born in the home counties amongst the woods and hills of Surrey and educated amongst the sandstone buildings of an almost-prestigious boarding school and Oxford University. I am terribly polite yet, and I’m sure this will surprise you, I have a significant number of opinions.

So, with Britain’s 2015 general election soon to take place I realised that what the world needs more of are the views of another white, male, middle class Brit. Hence humanconditioned. Expect to have the pleasure of reading polemic, prose, politics and occasionally some poetry. I’ll do my best to inform you and maybe once in a while you’ll find me subverting expectations.

Yours faithfully,

Robert