February 22, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The question of Scottish independence has been a fixture in the British media cycle for several months, but in Spain’s north-easterly region a rather different fight for independence is underway. Click here for an article I wrote for The Huffington Post on Catalonia’s independence movement.
February 11, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Departments at Warwick University continue to make crippling cuts whilst Vice Chancellor Nigel Thrift accepts a £42,000 pay increase. Read my co-authored exposé on staff reactions here.
November 23, 2012 § Leave a Comment
“Aw Adele gave birth to a baby. Is it fat and handicapped lol? Just murder it already lol” trilled @PerfFemale on Twitter this weekend following the news that Adele had given birth to a son. This was accompanied by tweets from other users threatening to kill Adele herself, criticising her weight and wishing her post-natal depression. Just when you were starting to rebuild your faith in humanity.
Internet trolls (users who post provocative or abusive messages on public forums) are a sort of occupational hazard to reading online comment sections. They range from the incomprehensible to the shockingly venomous, as Adele has just discovered. Under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 it is illegal to post messages online that are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.” The 17 year old who told diver Tom Daley his recently deceased father would have been disappointed by his Olympics performance discovered this when he was arrested. So did Matthew Woods when he was jailed for 12 weeks for posting ‘jokes’ about having sex with a missing 5 year old girl.
Columnist Laurie Penny and Conservative MP Louise Mensch have long been campaigning against the misogynistic and threatening messages they say many women in the public eye receive on a daily basis. Some of the messages Penny has received are truly disturbing – descriptions of how men would like to strangle her, cut her up, rape her. They are definitely of a “menacing character” and at this point the police should be asked to step in. As frequently as the police are involved, however, the messages are picked up, re-tweeted and re-posted across news outlets and blogs in order to ‘shame’ the trolls. Though this may work to embarrass that specific user, the media attention is counter-intuitive to the widespread problem.
Trolling is the behaviour of unhappy, pathetic and lonely people. There is a strange confidence that comes with adopting an anonymous account name, as if speaking online means you aren’t heard by real people. Twitter, Facebook, comment sections equalise everyone’s words; everyone is afforded the right to speak. It is the people who aren’t listened to in real life that don’t know how to exercise this right.
By repeating a troll’s comments – in however negative a light – the media is reenforcing them as worthy of note. Suddenly the public’s attention is directed towards the comment. The troll gets his 15 minutes of fame, a fame which (s)he and other frustrated, lonely people would not necessarily view negatively in light of the warped 21st century conception that all public attention is good attention.
Trolls existed long before the Internet came along. It would be understandable if Adele called the police following those tweets, but in a way I hope she doesn’t. I hope she realises that @PerfFemale just isn’t worth the effort.
A version of this article appeared in The Boar, Warwick University’s student paper.
November 23, 2012 § Leave a Comment
It all started with Big Brother, the elder sibling of all reality shows. During the first series psychologists and anthropologists enthused that this was a groundbreaking social experiment, an insight into how normal people behave in extraordinary situations. Fast forward 12 years and as Big Brother declines its spawn of self-destructive, hyperactive 21st century siblings are now running the show. Like an unchecked cockroach infestation they multiply across subject area, channels, social media.
In its premature old age Big Brother shakes its confused grey head and shuffles off to Channel 5′s graveyard slot. The strangest thing, to me, about this infestation is that the focus has shifted from displacing people into remarkable scenarios (I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, Survivor, Pop Idol) to recognising certain people as remarkable.
The dominant sub-species of reality television is now ‘structured reality television.’ This bizarre hybrid presents people as worthy of mass consumption due to the way their lives differ from some shadowy, TV executive-defined concept of ‘normality’. Jersey Shore, Made in Chelsea, The Only Way is Essex, The Hills, Keeping up With the Kardashians…. Here and in the States, each program claims to define an apparently self-contained social strata through certain triggers; bad taste and modest intelligence is claimed by The Only Way is Essex; plummy accents and rich parents by Made in Chelsea; unchecked vanity and anger by Jersey Shore. The list – and the list of spin off shows – is ever growing.
A strange dichotomy is played out in the presentation of these ‘real’ lives to the great public. At first we relished that the shocking truth of other people’s quirks, “how could he/she ever behave/dress/flirt/lie like that? Unbelievable!” but over the years we have become spoilt, requiring increasingly outrageous scenes and behaviour to pique even the slightest interest.
And so character-people were created, caricatures of what they believe we want them to be: very stupid, very plastic, very arrogant or very posh. All very unreal. Maybe because of this falsity, these structured-reality shows are treated as aspirational. People pay to go and see Mark Wright in Evolve. Clothing lines have been released so you can dress like Lauren Conrad, even if you don’t have her Beverly Hills address. As the concept of spontaneous reality disappears from television, we have Frankenstein monsters of self-referential confusion who we simultaneously deride and lust after.
So where are we to find televisual representations of lives, concerns, realities that we recognise as comparable to our own? The dark and precisely observed comedies that have crept onto our screens in recent years offer one possibility. Initially this quiet movement was a peculiarly British affair. The Inbetweeners in all their ‘comedic’ ridiculousness were disturbingly similar to my teenage brothers (sorry boys). Even as it pertains to deal with stereotypes, Fresh Meat is painfully reminiscent of life in a Rootes corridor (apologies).
On the other side of the pond, HBO’s new superstar show Girls is an even more effective example. Creator Lena Durnham’s characters are all confused. Confused and self-absorbed the way a significant number of newly graduated twenty-somethings are (yep, sorry again). Durnham’s irreverent ‘warts and all’ approach to plot and character writing says that it is ok to still be working things out. That the economy is “ridiculous” at the moment. That you cannot earn a living on an intern wage. That the path to any sort of love doesn’t necessarily run smooth. All realities that we face, have faced or are going to face in the coming years.
This recognition of shared experience is the ironic strength of all these fictional shows – and the downfall of reality television. The novelty of a catchphrase or a bizarre hairstyle tire very quickly. Writing that seems to have listened in on the world you inhabit, however, and has something to say about that world retains its value almost indefinitely.
A version of this piece appeared in The Boar, Warwick University’s student paper
October 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
The alarms went off at 5.30am and the small apartment slowly came to life. Strong coffee was poured, first cigarettes were rolled and hands groped for stiff gardening gloves, head scarves, sun cream, heavy hiking boots.
I was volunteering (or WOOFing) at Castello di Potentino in Tuscany, Italy, during the final weeks of my swollen university summer holiday. Wine has been made in this valley’s micro-climate since the Etruscans and I was helping to continue this tradition.
Previous days had seen my fellow intrepid volunteers and I in the welcome shade of the olive groves, neatening the bases of the trees ready for the oil harvest. They now looked like Tuscan palm trees standing on small shaven islands among the waving grass. Today, however, was the main event: a full day spent in the vines preparing the grapes for the coming rain.
As the September sun peeped over the rolling wooded hills the Albanian land manager showed us how to discard unnecessary leaves around the bunches, leaving protective greenery above. The importance of our task was impressed upon us, as was the prospect of that evening’s dinner. Under the gaze of the enormous, fifteenth century castle on the hill we went to work.
I soon found a rhythmic shuffle that saw both hands teasing, testing, ripping the leaves. (Shuffle, test, rip.) We were each completely isolated by the head-height vines. (Rip, test, rip.)
A couple of hours later, with the sun starting to burn through the gauzy clouds, we realised with delirious horror that it was taking 3 hours to complete each row. (Shuffle, shuffle, test.) They stretched in their dozens across the valley, an optical illusion of perfect linearity that offered a silent threat of the work to come.
As the hours plodded on and the sun’s rays changed from warming to furiously intense, everything outside of the leafy walls started to melt away. (Rip, drop, reach, shuffle.)
Snail trails of discarded leaves appeared silently beside each row and I started to doubt whether anything other than vines ever existed. (Rip, rip, shuffle.) My thoughts slowed and were consumed by sensory experiences: the scratch of the dead leaves falling apart in my hand; the sharp smell of the occasional rotten bunch; the ache in my lower back; the heat reflected back to the sun from my glowing skin. (Reach, rip, drop, rip.)
Then I turned the end of a row and suddenly, amazingly we were finished. Woozy with fatigue we let out a victorious war cry that echoed through the cooling evening air, across the Tuscan valley. Stiff-legged and chattering, elated and sun drunk we wound our way back to the castle, ready to drink the spoils of a previous year’s labour.
I don’t think a bed has ever been so welcome. I certainly haven’t looked at a bottle of wine in the same way since.
This piece appeared in The Boar, Warwick University’s student newspaper
September 24, 2012 § 1 Comment
This summer, I wrote an opinion piece about the Olympics, King Charles II’s mistress and my back garden. The International Herald Tribune published it and it can be read online here. It was the first time I have been referred to as a “freelance journalist” in print, so it was something of a proud moment.
May 5, 2012 § 1 Comment
It was the day of the the omni-president, flan, the fascist daughter and the revolutionary. The first round of presidential elections in France this month saw candidates from two left and two right wing parties squaring up for the country’s highest political prize: sitting President Nicolas Sarkozy representing the right wing Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), François Hollande from the Parti socialiste (PS), Marine Le Pen of the extreme right Front National (FN) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the radical Front Gauche.
The more marginal parties increasingly fell by the wayside of the country’s attention as it became a campaign to capitalise upon the French people’s fear and disillusionment. Immigration, the economic crisis and national identity were all key talking points. The ‘Merkozy’ handling of the Euro crisis’s inability to halt rising unemployment has created frustration in France as it has across the Eurozone and the polls on the 22th April showed it.
François Hollande, the genial, bespectacled favourite of the French media was victorious, as all had expected. What was surprising was the state of play below him. Sarkozy picked up 27% of the vote, only 1.5% behind his socialist rival and a far slimmer margin than pre-election polls had predicted. Some final pre-vote polls had also placed the radical candidates Le Pen and Mélenchon as level pegging at about 14%. In fact Le Pen charged ahead with 18% of the vote whilst Mélenchon trailed with 11%. This marked unprecedented figures for both extreme parties, but also devastation for supporters of the Front Gauche, many of whom told me it was Le Pen’s victory rather than their low result that was disappointing. Le Pen, meanwhile, has crowed that she has broken the stranglehold of the two main political parties, a throwback to her father’s startlingly unforeseen success in entering the second round against Jacques Chirac in 2002.
Le Pen ran a clever PR campaign. She toned down the overtly xenophobic and for many still unpalatable politics of her father to woo the middle classes as well as France’s workers. She surreally refused to look at or debate with Mélenchon on national television and spoke of a “recomposition” of French politics, of a divide between those who still believed in the “nation state” and those who didn’t. These proved to be buzz words for a country weary of the efforts and promises of more centre leaning politicians. Despite 6 million people having voting FN, it is still difficult to find a supporter among the Parisian general public who will admit to doing so. When they do, they often talk in the stark ‘logic’ of the fascist manifesto.
In between the two rounds of voting, Le Pen’s anti-equality agenda and focus on nationalistic nostalgia as received as much attention as ever. The tragedy of the Front Gauche’s inability to capitalise on the momentum and youthful enthusiasm of its campaign is that Sarkozy has turned to the far right rather than the centre to source support for the second round. Le Pen called on her supporters to spoil their ballot papers tomorrow, calling the French political system elitist and brazenly declaring that she is now the centre of gravity for French democracy.
Whatever the result tomorrow, one can only hope that the French people will prove her wrong in the longer term. Sarkozy and Hollande have been banned from canvasing and appearances since their fiery live debate on Wednesday. This televised debate saw Hollande transformed into an aggressive political animal and the polls suggested that the public were convinced, with all saying he would be victorious tomorrow. However, the far right’s nostalgia for a somewhat mythical period of French history and Sarkozy’s harsh immigration rhetoric continue to offer simplistic, packaged answers to France’s problems. Tomorrow we will see whether continued austerity and increasing in-egalitarianism proves more persuasive than a politician with no ministerial experience, but the promise of a fairer future for France.