Seamus Surfs and Art’s Alive

I was really glad to see Seamus Heaney trending on twitter today, not because it meant he had died, although I generally presume this when I see any full name trending on twitter, but because it meant people cared. As both a music student and just a member of society, I feel like there are constant messages being fired at us that either art is degenerating or that people who actually care about art are a dwindling and insignificant minority. Admittedly I may be highly sensitive, but I doubt I’m alone in getting this feeling. Whenever there are full staff briefings or presentations at the Sage Gateshead where I work, the whole dialogue is consciously rooted in a landscape which presumes that the water supplies running down to the roots of a fantastic, life-changing and genuinely influential institution bringing art to people and bringing people into art are being cut off. Any slight growth, economically, in interest, in participation, whatever is seen as a blessed burst of light in the darkness. It is presumed that because of the economic climate, and I expect too, the prominence of mass media, mass production and a general sense of ‘deculturalisation’, perhaps through these things, that people will no longer be interested in what concert halls, theatres, galleries etc have to offer. When the people who have dedicated their lives and careers to promotion, support and facilitation of the arts feel bleak about the state and future of their passion, the situation is undeniably grim. No one wants to believe what they do not want to be true, and I find that people often do their best to avoid doing so until it becomes impractical.

Across the river in Newcastle party politics means that the region has lost a thunderously harsh amount of funding. I won’t go too far into it suffice to say we know who’s currently in charge of the money nationally, and we also know that certain patterns in voting tendencies exist in certain areas and the reasons therefore behind the £217.93 loss of funding per capita in Newcastle against the £15.18 decrease per capita in Epsom & Ewell seem pretty translucent (see directions of votes at last general election for any required elucidation). I needn’t dwell in such gloomy places here though. Maybe another time. So, on account of some pretty steep cuts it was announced that 100% of arts funding would be cut. I’m not very good at numbers so will just clarify for anyone similar, and also to reinforce. That is all money from council for arts gone. In addition ten out of a total eighteen public libraries will be closed down. That’s more than half. Whatever you want to believe the overall causes of the funding cuts are, it has lead to the arts sector being institutionally devalued. In the summer holidays when kids won’t have access to school libraries, when there will be no music lessons or drama clubs, (although I’m sure Gove has something up his sleeve to ‘solve’ their existence) children in Newcastle will not be able to read books for free. Whatever you think of Jamie Oliver’s ‘massivefuckingtelly-gate’ stance, when there are no libraries that you don’t have to get a (paid) bus to, no free playschemes, and so on and so forth and again until it hurts, the options for other forms of free education and artistic outlet and reception outside of television are being institutionally reduced. I don’t want to get into an argument about whether or not kids should be playing outdoors making their own games up 24/7 or similar, that isn’t the point. The point is more something along the lines of ‘is this really what a ‘developed’ and ‘civilised’ society looks like?’

However, my point today is that sad though it is that Seamus Heaney has died, although it does happen to all of us, or so I believe, I was glad that he spent the day trending on twitter. I was relieved, delighted and restored to see his name. Because as much as my local council are telling us that there isn’t space for arts in the climate of today, whatever the overbearing, blaring screens of homogenised mass-produced media might suggest and whatever the arts ‘industries’ fear, Seamus Heaney surfed the net today. He spent the day on that list. And unless someone at twitter HQ is a massive fan and hijacked the system, it has been proved that people DO care about the arts today. Poets and poetry does have a place in a society overwhelmed with mass media on a backdrop of a grey ‘loss of culture’. So well done Seamus, what a legacy. Thank you Seamus, for what you gave the humanity. And thank you humanity, for proving that people do care, and the arts are alive.

What We Saw (From Standing Room Only)

Throughout the year I’ve annoyed housemates with my Regina Spektor obsession. The richness of her music sustained me throughout my exams and provided the backing track that kept me buoyant- there are just so many details to enthral in lyric and music. Having only fantasised about the possibility of hearing her live I was so excited to hear that the UK would feature on her summer tour. long story short it turned out she’d be playing Glasgow, ie a place where I was not normally and a place that would be expensive to get to and furthermore a place from whence no trains or buses back to Newcastle left at an after-gig-type-time. I tell you this because my wonderful father, henceforth referred to as ‘#superdad’ upon his request, took me and my sister all the way there and back. He has therefore most reasonably requested to have a paragraph dedicated to his endeavour. This is that. Tah #superdad. 

Another disclamatory prefatory note: I will refer to Regina rather than Spektor because I want to pretend that we’re best mates and although this isn’t true, please allow my to live the illusion for a little longer, and of course, Regina if you’re reading this the offer is still most certainly open to you and I am happy to reserve the vacancy of ‘my bessie marra’ for you until such time as you see fit to take up the position up. 

Stephen Fry writes of Emma Thompson that her stage performance is so amazing because she makes the audience feel at once relaxed as she is comfortable on stage but edgy because her performance is so captivating. I’ve never had the privilege of seeing Emma Thompson live but I am writing this just after experience the amazingness of Regina Spektor live. Whilst exerting an awesome power through her truly incredible voice and her confident movement within the music, she betrays an endearing vulnerability. Her smile and thanks at the applause is genuine and wide-eyed and her responses to cries of ‘I LOVE YOU REGINA’ softly semi-whispered with a warm giggle. She was so beautifully human and real whilst singing with a seemingly out of this world, superhuman voice. All of the tickling experimentation, quirks and vocal gymnastics are so real, there is no sorcery. Her fingers strode over the piano so confidently, really playing with ranges, dynamics and expression as a game whilst floating her voice over, darting it under and penetrating it through the texture. 
There was no sense that this was repetitive, manufactured or ‘standard’. Regina’s body moved with total rootedness in the music and she played with her voice throughout. Improvisation and variation were on the tip of the tongue ready to be deployed on the height of the moment. Yet once again, there was a sense that she had total control and the sense that this performance really was alive was not undermined by the total modesty and understatedness with which Regina presented herself. Although by this I mean her body language and manner of speaking her physical presentation was striking too. It was striking because once again, it was so real and human. It lacked pretension and spoke honesty. There was no hinge gluing her hair in place, just a clip holding some locks back, none of which had been seared against burning tongs to straighten or curl. She wore some of her iconic red lipstick but other than this smiling colour there was no layering on of concealers and foundations and her eyes were not weighed down and overshadowed by streaks and shadows of dark dust or globules of gloop. For me anyway this was a face that was going to convey sine truth. It was not disguised by the masks that society tries to suggest we all need and did not seem to conform to anyone else’s ideals. 
There were no showy consume changes or imposed dance routines, there really was a beautiful focus on the music. Perhaps the many exuberant outfits celebrities adorn, the dramatic special effect entrances and exits arena tours guarantee and novelty choreographed dance routines are all to detract from a lack of musical skill and even command of the audience and cultivation of a relationship with them. Perhaps I’m not the first to think this. But whatever is the case, Regina needed none of that. 

Each note was as strong as you could imagine from recordings plus more. Even if she had been slightly losing her voice as some of her almost whispered speech could have signified, there was no sign of this at all in her singing. Her use of the microphone was also immaculate. She neither relied upon it for volume nor was careless in her distance from it in either direction. Her adeptness in her craft was evident in each element. Whenever there was any flaw in the balance or amplification of just one part she would smoothly indicate during the song through whichever body part which was free to the relevant musician or technician. We only saw this as we were so close to the front and our eyes were totally fixed, minds fixated. In between songs she appeared to use her hands in describing the next mix to her crew in elegant, balletic motions which indeed looked like they were mixing some secret magic in the air that the audience were not yet privy to. 
Indeed Regina did not just play the music but she played with it and hence with the audience too. She toyed with the rhythms of some introductions delightfully. Literally, imagine delight, and that’s what it was like. Each time she subdued the rapturous cheering of the crowd by drawing them in, teasing, creating a moment of curious uncertainty, further whetting the appetite of the audience. It was a great way to unsure there was nothing systematic about the performance of some of her biggest hits; they weren’t just being rolled out of the manufacturing process. The music was not only live but undoubtedly alive. 

Tempos of a couple of rousing numbers were also raised slightly meaning the excited pumped throughout the assembled rushed even more tantalisingly. Even at shifted tempos Regina’s tongue twirled around stunning lyrics and rhythmic patterns I haven’t heard any other musician perform with ease, leaving no doubt that this music was truly hers. 
And yes she sang Samson. And yes I cried. No, I did not wait for the music to begin, I just knew it was coming and I wept. I don’t know if there ever was such a salty, shiny, smiley face. There’s a stillness and an sense of poignancy which must be left unspoken with Samson. So I think I’ll leave it there. I don’t want to break it.

I kind of don’t know how to round off after that. Maybe Regina didn’t either, which is why it was the last song of the night. The tour is finished now, Glasgow was the penultimate night, but if she comes within a train’s ride away from you or me in the future, I would advise attendance. Whether you’re interested in amazing vocals, beautiful playing, provocative, magical and witty lyrics or simply want to know what on earth I could be talking about, then you’ll stir your stumps, rear your rump and get down there.

And Regi, if you’re reading, it was amazing and wonderful and fantabulous and you can still most definitely always be my friend 2k13 til 4eva.

Sinfonia, Silliness and Cynicism: An Amateur Preview of the Impending Season at Sage Gateshead

I recently read Jane Shuttleworth’s (p)review of the ‘Classical Season’ 2013/14 at what is now Sage Gateshead (they recently dropped the ‘the’ in a slightly confusing bit of slimming down. Maybe printer costs were getting too high or something. Although you wouldn’t think it from the opulent season programming booklet!). I duly thought ‘Hmm, I have thoughts about that. I might as well do something similar’ (DISCLAIMER: this might not have been my exact and precise sequence of thoughts but is probably a relatively reasonable representation and synonymous summary thereof). So, this is me relaying my thoughts on what the Sage Gateshead has got planned for the season! I shall warn you now that it will probably reflect as much about me as it does the programming, I am under no obligation to be objective. Furthermore, it will also consist of a lot of ‘NOOOOO THIS WILL PROBABLY BE AMAZING AND I WILL BE IN OXFORD NOT THE ‘DESOLATE’ NORTH!’. Furtherfurthermore, if anyone DOES still think that ‘desolate’ is a justifiable label for the North of England, hopefully this will convince you otherwise. And I think that is all I need to warn you of in advance of your reading this piece at your own risk.

So, let’s start at the very beginning, a very uncreative place to start. Falling before the beginning of October, this will be the only gig I’ll make it to before going back to uni, but it’s a good’un: Brahms’ A German Requiem. I do approve. Although it is indeed an interesting choice to open a season with a requiem, one could argue. Hopefully it’s got nothing to do with the fact that it will be Thomas Zehetmair’s final season at the Sage. In which case this all got very dark, very quickly. I shall move swiftly onwards (unlike Zehetmair who didn’t find ‘The North’ too desolate and hung around as an MD with what is now the Royal Northern Sinfonia for 12 seasons.) It now gets painful because there will be a whole series of Britten programming but I will be gone. Unless Oxford chuck me out or I chuck them out. Entirely plausible. On Tuesday the 8th October there will be a ‘ Britten Late Mix’. I must say it does slightly disappoint me that in the ‘Britten’ night there will only be 2 pieces by Britten. I mean, I know it has claimed to be a ‘mix’, but why not more Britten? I don’t know anyone who’d protest but I suppose I don’t know all of the clientèle of –the Sage. I say this but actually, considering I have worked a lot of their gigs I have met a fair few. And actually, maybe it’s as much about appealing to the people who aren’t yet clientèle…anyway. I digress. Point is- yay it’s Britten! boo it’s not that much Britten. Of course I should in fact be delighted that some composers who are (brace yourselves) actually still alive have also been featured on the programme- Thomas MacMillan and Colin Matthews. I shan’t get above my station though; I admit I have never listened to either. Yet.

Five days later it all gets incredibly exciting as the Halle visit with what would looks to be a pretty riveting programme featuring Britten, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich. Again, I won’t be able to grace the event with my presence. Whenever I’ve seen/heard the Halle at the Sage Gateshead it’s always been an incredible experience due to the sheer power and energy of the orchestra. As it is a full orchestra, the stage is extended beyond its size to typically accommodate the Royal Northern Sinfonia, which means that if you are sitting near the front and particularly in one of the front boxes, the proximity with the sound and the players really is captivating. I found it interesting in particular that there could be a sense of intimacy despite the scale of both the orchestra and the audience. Perhaps that was because I was personally so immersed in the music which the players so clearly were producing with a similar focus and dedication so together, we were close to each other in our place of intensity within the sound. Or something. I dunno. But the Halle at the Sage Gateshead are GOOD. And the programme itself looks to be really stimulating too. Delightful.

Another four days later and Britten’s back with the Royal Northern Sinfonia. As other (p)review(s) (I DON’T KNOW WHICH IS CORRECT TERM I’M SORRY) have commented, it is a bit of a shame that Britten’s Les Illuminations are being diluted on either side with Mozart symphonies, with the same happening at the following RNS concert on the 25th October. And again on the 22nd November. In honesty, this disappoints me. I don’t know if there is some beautiful artistry in the programming I’m missing or if it’s just a marketing strategy. Some may argue that what I’m missing really is the awesomeness of Mozart. I would beg to differ but we can do that another way. Either way in this instance, I will be missing both the Mozart(x2) and the Britten(x1) as I will be away.

Fortunately the optimistically viewed ‘safe’ programming of Mozart against Britten is countered slightly by a more flavoursome attack of Dvorák from November-January. I reckon the Dvorjak Legends and Slavonic Dances paired with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D is going to be a powerful one, as long as it’s all given the full life it deserves. On the 12th December I get excited. Any notions of uncreative programming are banished for the evening with a caberet-style Late Mix ‘From Bohemia to the Black Sea’. In addition to Dvorák, Kodaly, Bartok, Enescu and Martinu will be featured. The concert should be exciting above all because it will give people the opportunity to hear some repertoire that is not oft…well… repeated.

January sees some pretty sensational stuff with Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht and CBSO bringing some Strauss upon their visit. I am particularly gutted to be missing CBSO as they will be play Don Juan, Four Last Songs and Stravinsky’s Petrushka and quite simply I am an unashamed fan of indulging in Straussian luxury. Back to RNS and we see what seems to be a general pattern once again in action. On the 6th February you will be able to hear the music of Ryan Wigglesworth, Berlioz, Ravel and… Mozart. Although not as alarming as the whole Mozart – Britten – Mozart sandwich series (not at all subtle, guys!) it does really seem to betray an alarming inability to program anything written in the last century without a Mozartian accompaniment. Excuse my cynicism/Mozart dislike/restrictive programming distaste though, it could simply be owing to the available ensemble and soloists, though I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse. Excitingly however, one of the soloists is Ryan Wigglesworth himself who along with having a frankly superb surname is the composer of the first piece to be performed: ‘First Book of Inventions’. If the praise from The Times is anything to go by, the guy’s amazing. Whatever the case, I have a feeling it will be an electrifying evening, maybe even in spite of the Mozart.

STOP PRESS! Maybe I spoke to soon. March sees both Britten and Ligeti feature in concerts sans Mozart! I reckon it’ll be all drama (of a sort, anyhow) on 6th March with Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra which will see the fantabulous Louisa Tuck in the solo spotlight, with Purcell’s Chacony and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony. Another exciting combination which, unlike the Mozart/Britten programs gives off an air of not needing to explain itself follows on the 20th with Ligeti’s Concert Romanesc, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor and Mendelssohn’s third symphonic jaunt in A minor.

At this point I will pause to reflect that I probably was not supposed to write this much. But that is the beauty of the blog- no limits! Of course this also means that I’m in danger of producing a tedious, overly-wordy piece of drudgery that neither interests nor benefits anyone in which case I’m sorry. On the other hand if you’re still reading then thank you, I really do appreciate it, because presumably you do too. The it in that instance being this. At which point I pause to pose the question: have you ever before read a metafictional concert season programming review blog? And after that word-chomping digression I shall return to the season.

I must say I hope I am in the ‘desolate’ North on the 28th March. Juliette Bauser will be playing a whole host of what are sure to be some truly sparkling flute solos. Bach (x2), Messiaen, Prokofiev, Dutilleux, Sofia Gubaidulina and a new commission by Charlie Piper. Wow. I reckon it’s going to be damn good. I also reckon she chose her programme. The following concert also seems to have some fairly personal programming (no Mozart in sight) presented by John Casken. As well as conducting two of his own pieces, Winter Reels and Shadowed Pieces, Casken brings Lutosławski’s Entre-temps to the table. As Witold was John’s own mentor I reckon it will be a pretty exciting experience, particularly in the intimate setting of Hall Two. Fortunately, the contemporary composer has not been restricted to the smaller Hall Two this season with Casken’s Maharal Dreaming being performed in Hall One in April alongside Chopin, Weber and Sibelius. The one-movement epic from Finland alongside Der Freischutz Overture by a key figure in the Second Viennese school provide sparkling contrast even without the Chopin F minor concerto and Casken’s short work. Another concert I would hope not to miss.

If one ignores the amazing contribution of women to composition, as the world so often does, Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet would be my favourite piece for chamber ensemble. However I refuse to do this so my favourite chamber work is not being performed this year at the Sage Gateshead. Despite this one can hear Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in May alongside Nielsen’s Wind Quintet and Berg’s Lyric Suite. Although it is a shame to see no ladies on this list I expect it will still be a tantalising concert. Next year though, why not add some Fanny? The neglected Mendelssohn wrote some beautiful pieces, and I have never heard any music for a chamber ensemble that I’ve enjoyed more than that written by Louise Farrenc and Clara Wieck/Schumann. Just a thought.

The season ends as it begun with Thomas Zehetmair conducting. I’m sure it will be a weepy affair which fully engages with the grandiose of canonical hits, beginning with the overture to Don Giovanni and ending with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (you might recognise it…) Then we shall retreat back into our hovels and down our mineshafts and mourn our miserable existence in the desolate North as the government fracks everything around us.

Genuinely Frequently Asked Questions

Why are we here? What’s life all about? Are we just YOLKS?

Sorry I’ll be serious. This isn’t frequently asked questions in life in general, nor is it just me copying out the lyrics of Monty Python’s wondrous Meaning of Life.

One reason I set up this blog (other than to avoid revising Schubert’s last decade, or rather the exam topic of that title) was to address questions regarding access, admissions and applications to Oxford. I’ve tried to address some questions I was asked recently in the comments on my ‘About’ page as well as some genuinely frequently asked questions here. If you do have any more, please do ask in the comments! If you notice I haven’t answered an exact question asked in the ‘About’ comments that isn’t because I’m trying to be evasive, just because I reckon I covered it in an answer elsewhere. Anyway, hope it’s illuminating, enlightening and…radiant. I hope it is really radiant.

Happy Reading!

 

Why did you want to do music at Oxford? (i.e. why academic music, why Oxford?)
About 4 years ago I didn’t realise that books about music existed. When I discovered this I promptly came to the conclusion that this was The Best Thing Ever. I really do enjoy the academic study of music. Furthermore I am not a performer. I love playing, don’t get me wrong, but I get terrible performance nerves which really are quite crippling. The fact that you could do the whole course at Oxford without performing sounding suspect to me, kind of unbelievable, but also amazing. Amazing may seem a strong word but performance in music has always been the thing that has knocked my grades right down. The fact that a degree existed which didn’t involve my Worst Bit in its assessment seemed most opportune! I looked into it a bit and discovered that at interview there is something like a 1 in 3 chance of getting an offer so I thought it was worth a shot and duly applied! The rest is not by any means history. Or is it?

Why Oxford not Cambridge?

Now, my original and genuine answer may shock you with its banality but fear not, it can be explained. I applied to Oxford because the website made more sense that Cambridge’s. This actually revealed a myriad of other reasons I didn’t apply to Cambridge as the difficult website layout was symptomatic of them. Cambridge’s website was non-sensical to me as  you couldn’t simply find the music faculty page but first had to go to each college’s page, find out if they offered music and then look at their page. For each the admission requirements were different and I did not trust this. I had read that at Oxford if a college was full up but you were good enough for the course (for that is what one is assessed for) then a place would be found for you. At Cambridge if a college you applied to was full up then that was pretty much it. Since I have heard of many people being told they would be ‘pooled’ but none of them have actually got an offer from another college in the end. I also know now that the Cambridge course differs significantly in certain elements. Apparently there are some fairly hideous compulsory aural tests there and I certainly couldn’t deal with that!

Did you ever consider anything else?

Well, I sort of thought of Oxford as an off-chance thing. I thought it much more likely that I’d go to Manchester or York. I knew that music was what I loved most but I did love German too. However I couldn’t imagine actually abandoning music whereas I felt differently about German somehow. At times when stuff appeared to be going to pot I often thought about changing everything and training as a nurse and actually it is something I do still think about! There have been points this year where I’ve got very fed up and it crossed my mind that more or less all the ideas in musicology had already been had whereas with midwifery all the babies have never always been delivered… Fortunately I have remembered/realised that not all of the ideas have been had just yet, or presented in all the ways possible or achieved all the means possible etc etc!
How did it compare to what you were expecting/hoping for?

I must say I didn’t really know what to expect!

Would you do anything differently in hindsight?

Now that is hard/harsh! I guess worried less maybe? Said fewer potentially offensive things to people who annoyed me at interview because I presumed I wouldn’t get in then did as did they?

Do you think doing a degree in music is worthwhile if what you ultimately want a career in performance?

The amount I have learnt in just one year is kind of incredible. I reckon that you have nothing to lose by doing a degree (well, obviously money and time is invested in it but that’s a complicated and massive issue!) but so much to gain! Hopefully some of my other blog posts show that there is a lot of ‘worth’ in studying for the degree, but if you require more specific examples or whatever, do ask!


If you wanted to put in as much practice as those at conservatoire, would it be possible?

This is a hard question because it does really depend on the individual. Not everyone at a conservatoire puts in the same amount of practice, for example. In theory I suppose probably not because there is a lot of work for the course at Oxford that you wouldn’t have to do if at a conservatory, but actually I know a couple of amazing and very conscientious performers at Oxford of whom I could not imagine any more practice! Tough question though and I am not the best person to answer it as I don’t focus on performance, rather writing stuff, like this! I must say, writing this my skin crawls at the idea of studying at somewhere with the word ‘conserve’ in the name. I mean I’m all for jam and preserves but I’m not so sure about an educational establishment based around the notion of conserving. But that’s probably a discussion for elsewhere.

Would it be possible to graduate with the same technical proficiency as someone graduating from conservatoire?

Again this is a really hard question because of course it depends on the individual. For example, not all students will graduate from a conservatoire with the same level of technical proficiency. Once again I really suppose it is to do with the practice one puts in. For sure though there are some truly amazing instrumental teachers in Oxford and so many outstanding vocal teachers and the financial allowance given by the faculty for instrumental lessons is much higher than at most universities.

If someone has other considerable interests besides music would you advise to pursue them over music or not?

I don’t really feel like I can answer this question without a bit more info- what is a considerable interest? What is perusal in this context? If you like reading poetry but you also love music I would never say give up music so you can keep reading poetry or if you study music at uni you can never read poetry again! I must say at Oxford the rich and diverse academic environment means that I can dive right into things that aren’t even part of my course and learn more about them than I would have been able to anywhere else. I’m not trying to avoid the question at all, but some more details and context would be helpful to give a more helpful answer.

A Message to the Marketers of Maximisers and Minimisers

Relatively uncomplicated, socks are my favourite item of clothing to buy. Lots of colours, lots of patterns and easy to fit- a surely winning combination that gives an overall light-hearted feel to the selection process. Expecting the most un-daunting of shopping trips I was not expecting the frustration to follow. Firstly, let me clarify that I rarely make shopping trips purely to buy socks, unless it is a very special special-sock-warranting occasion. I believe in this instance it was more of a tangent from a wider trip. I needed to acquire some light, thin socks or tights given the unexpectedly blazing gift of sun. To avoid a trek in the blistering heat I simply headed into the nearest inexpensive shop – Primark.

I should probably mention now that the sickeningly decorated, trivial introduction I’ve given is merely to try and balance the anger that, to be honest, I hope the next section of this post will convey.

Socks are next to bras. Bras branded thus: ‘MAXIMISE YOUR ASSETS’ & ‘MAKE AN IMPACT’. Ok Primark, here’s the thing- it is NOT alright to tell girls that a) their boobs are assets b) they should be maximised and c) their boobs are the way in which they should ‘impact’ the world. I hate the thought that thousands of teenagers will see the packaging of the most affordable bras in the UK and it is even suggested to them that the most impactful ‘assets’ of a woman are not her mind, her personality, her talents. What a harmful message. Once again, the attributes of a female have been reduced to her breasts which she is instructed to enhance in order to command any attention. It really is saddening.

After passing by the tights on my way out, already with an angry jaw locked between a frown of fury and lips swelling slightly because it really could make me cry, I get pretty ticked off about the labelling of tights as ‘natural’ and ‘nude’- what an assumption: we aren’t all ‘naturally’ that colour when ‘nude’. In fact, I bet the ‘natural skin’ colour of Primark’s tights matches a pretty damn small percentage of the population’s in the UK never mind globally! Eventually I made it to BHS, hoping to get a swimming costume that would stay in the right place after divebombs, bellyflops and just jumping around. The first thing I noticed was the reassurance BHS offered me. Reassurance that every single swimming costume was fitted with foolproof tummy control technology. I wouldn’t need to worry in the pool or on the shore that my tummy, surely a horrific and embarrassing creature, might be unleashed. Thanks to BHS, it would be under control. Maybe I’m in a minority, I often am, but I hadn’t realised how mortified I should be about my possession of a body which has lumps and bumps and contours and curves and guess what- flesh. Lots of flesh. It wobbles and it moves when I move. It is soft in parts and firm in others. It is natural. And I thought it was ok, but according to the Store of British Homes, it needs to be dealt with.

The message about the messages we are sent by advertising, media and branding being damaging to women and promoting unhealthy body image is not new or original. I don’t claim it is. However, I’m not sure enough people can see how marketing is not only exacerbating crazy ideas about the way ladies’ bodies ‘should’ be, but they are reducing women to this. Not satisfied with making women feel insufficient in their own skin (which is only ‘natural’ in one shade) companies are reducing women to just that in their attempts to sell more. According to the marketing that saturates our shops not only is your body is not good enough but it is what counts, it is who you are, what you are. Don’t support your breasts because it’s comfortable, MAXIMISE them because that is the only way you’ll get noticed. Don’t think about having fun on holiday, just be sure to MINIMISE that tummy as a top priority.

I think you get the point. I hope you get the point. I can’t tell you, male or female, not to let marketing reduce you to trembling insecurity about your body. I can’t convince you that it is an evil lie that your body defines you. But if this is how you feel, then know that this won’t be tolerated. And if you are a marketer of minimisers and maximisers, please (and that’s where my niceties end) know that this cannot continue. I can’t single-handedly stop you, but like heck will I try to unmask your bullying ways and belittlement of women.

Lots of Planets Have a North

So obviously I am trying to do what I can to promote equal access and greater equality in representation from all areas of the country and backgrounds so I suppose it is generally expected that I will give the best possible presentation of the situation, and in general I am an optimist. But I’m also very honest. If someone asks me ‘is there a north/south divide at Oxford and is this a problem?’ my short answer will generally be ‘not really’. Whilst this is true this is naturally a simplified version of the situation and I simplify my answer with the intention not of fooling people, but because I believe it is more important to encourage people not to anticipate and even build these barriers themselves than it is to go into the intricacies of when being in a minority as a northerner amongst southerners can feel challenging.

It’s a funny thing because whilst racism is very much and rightly not tolerated, there is a different attitude towards discrimination, even if only in jest, towards the arbitrarily defined ‘North’. On my first day at Oxford I asked someone if they’d ever been to Newcastle and they said they were from London and Oxford’s the farthest north they’d ever been and they didn’t intend to go any further: ‘I’ve never been so actually my life is just a lot better if I pretend it doesn’t exist’. Now some may disagree with me but I believe that if I said something like that about someone else’s home country, in their presence or otherwise, I would be held in quite ill regard, and rightly so. No one should treat a part of someone’s origin and identity as unworthy of recognition, even if it’s just a geopolitical construct-thing. However people spout all sorts of rubbish about ‘the north’ and generally receive chortles instead of chastisement in response.

So that can suck. Of course, I generally laugh and join in and ask people to dim the lights so it feels more like the mines back home before informing the assembled crowd that I was only joking, that won’t be necessary, Maggie T closed them all down. And then instantly regret saying anything as the onslaught of accusations of being a socialist ensue. I’m yet to get the balance right.

The other issue is that of sometimes feeling a bit alienated. I sometimes want to scream ‘IS ANYBODY HERE NOT FROM SURREY OR LONDON!?’ I mean above all it’s tedious. I don’t have a Geordie accent at all but some people particularly at the beginning of the year claimed that they hadn’t a clue what I was talking about on account of my hard ‘a’s which was astounding, and to be honest showed a lack of imagination on their part. Again, if I had a strong accent on account of being a different nationality I doubt people would have responded in the same way.

So there are the negative things. I’ve really extrapolated them as best I can so I can truly claim I have been entirely honest and hopefully you’ll know that I won’t give a glossed over or idealised picture of being at Oxford. But the point is, other than that it is fine. The worst thing is that I have made loads of friends and because most of them live in southern England (the barrier is, unbelievably, soluble) we can’t visit each other as easily as we would like in the holidays! And most importantly I believe that these little irritations and discrepancies in equal treatment are probably present across all unis throughout the south. Oxford simply gets a higher press which perpetrates the notion that it could be a problem. So, yes, occasionally I wish things were a little different in people’s attitude,s but being a northerner amongst southerners has not created any problems, and particularly not significant ones, for my social or academic life. I reckon the biggest problem is people’s fear of this divide preventing them from applying and thereby perpetrating the minority status of people from the north at Oxford. And anyway, this is not at all the biggest problem for social equality and mobility at Oxford (I’ll come to that another day perhaps!).

If anyone has any questions, please do get in touch, and I hope this clarifies things!

Words On A Train

Tadah! I am finally on the train back to Newcastle, my sort of hometown. Although it isn’t where I was born I’ve spent the majority of my life here (physically at least, my mind has a habit of wandering elsewhere) and it is where my family are. Right now I’m typing whilst looking out of the window at all of the greens (I love the greens) which is quite a lovely thing about not needing to looking at the keys and to some extent not being too concerned about which letters end up on the screen, as you may have guessed from reading my posts!

So the things that I am thinking about that I might write about. Well I’ve had various thoughts and thinkings (I think these are like thoughts but perhaps more active and still happening but maybe less conscious because they’re ticking away on a smaller scale, as suggested by the ‘i’ vowel which is kind of a littler sound than the ‘ough’ in the middle of thought, hope that makes sense, if not that’ entirely fair enough, it’s all a bit bonkers isn’t it). One of them was just about the colours. Colours are just great and the greens are particularly exciting as they’re just so diverse and have so many different qualities of life and vitality. The dark greens have a sort of wise depth whilst lighter greens have a different sprightliness which is just as lively. Upon reflecting on the last sentence I realise this probably actually just sounds quite silly and ridiculous and why would anyone care about what I see in some different shades of green that I have seen out the train window but I suppose if this is the case you are perfectly at liberty to stop reading. Unless of course you are being forced for some reason to read this which is both an exciting and terrifying thought. I can only imagine that one would be forced to read something without having any option of not reading as a form of punishment or torture in which case my writing has been deemed torturous to read or at least causing some sort of pain to the point of it being a means of punishment which is would be quite a negative thing for my writing to be. On the other hand it would mean that my writing was actually doing something and had been deemed powerful or effective, even if for entirely unintended reasons. It could also be exciting as there is naturally a certain element of flattery or something a bit, actually quite a lot, deeper than that (cannot think of the word!) in that people are reading what you have written and that it has been spread and shared.

So, I suppose I could say something really cheesy about this being both the start and end of a metaphorical and literal journey but I’m sure you can work that out for yourself so I’ll spare you the pong of the lovechild of stilton and cheddar. Suffice to say, wow, what a year. Slightly terrifying, mainly AMAZING to think of everything that has happening, the stuff I’ve learnt, the people I’ve met, the number postcards I’ve written, alpacas I’ve googled and people I’ve probably mortally offended. I remember on my very first day arriving in Oxford as a student I was pretty scared and having been feeling ok up to that point, when I walked into college I became very frightened. I suddenly was embarrassed of myself, of everything. I even had a teenager moment and stropped at my parents under my breath to ‘STOP TALKING’ because I just felt like I was wrong in this environment and I was being judged and it was all so scary. And then we were supposed to be having an enjoyable pub tea and they were blummin well out of the food that I wanted and it was all DISASTOROUS! And then I tried to be super friendly and then a housemate told other people in college that ‘I’d had a different boy back every night’ FOR TEA AND BISCUITS BECAUSE WE DON’T ALL LIKE CLUBBING AND I WAS JUST BEING FRIENDLY AND HAD DIFFERENT GIRLS BACK EVERY NIGHT TOO and again everything was quite overwhelming. But soon it cooled down, before heating up in different places again, of course, and now I’m on the train back- a fresher no more, but hopefully not past my ‘best before’ date! And on that note I’ll leave it. I’m sure I’ll write something else about starting uni or something soonish but for now that’ll do and I’m sure you get the picture, or which the main message is survival followed by growth in so many areas! Although there may be a development of mould in some areas, we all make mistakes, I reckon most if it will bear good, delicious, and pretty damn unique fruit.

The End

(of the beginning!)