Friday, 2 February 2018

The Other Woman: A Biteback Against Modern Feminism

By the time you finish reading this you will either a) despise me with such seething contempt that you will draft a death threat on the nearest piece of paper to hand or b) your faith in humanity will be restored. If social media is a credible yardstick of popular middle-class outrage then I suspect that you will feel the former, but either way I hope you read to the end…

It’s a cringing, groan-inducing cliché but bear with me. I am the most open-minded and laid-back person that you will ever meet. I realise that is something many people say to appear approachable and endearing, but I rarely get upset (I think I once lost my temper back in the late nineties), my tolerance for offence is very high and my humour is disturbingly dark. In fact some of those closest and dearest to me consider it their ultimate goal in life to successfully cause great offence to me. So when I say that I am rapidly approaching thermonuclear rage then you know that something seismic has happened to cause it.

Last year, having had my fill of a long series of ranty man-hating tweets in my timeline, I posted the following subtweet:

This tweet stopped a lot of people in their tracks. There was a palpable open-mouthed shock online. A few raged about it. Some quietly commended me on ‘speaking out’. The tweet prompted a conversation with a strong-minded feminist friend of mine who was incandescent upon further discovering that I - a professional woman with a PhD - would happily give up my work if I married someone who preferred me to be a stay-at-home housewife. Or that I would love to have the body of a supermodel and be paraded in next-to-nothing at fashion shows and sports events. No I didn’t consider the ‘Beach Body Ready’ ad campaign to be offensive and I thought the model in the poster looked amazing. Would I wear high heels and a short dress for an evening and grin-and-bear-it while men leered at me in order to raise thousands of pounds for a children’s charity? Most probably (so long as I was allowed to glass anyone getting too gropey without permission). As I explained to my friend – I’m not preachy about my views on my own femininity, I don’t wish to prove or disprove anything in particular by holding these views, nor do I insist that others adopt the same approach, it is simply my natural inclination.

Since then I have been doing some soul-searching to investigate why my opinions caused offence and a combination of factors may have contributed to my position. I was raised as a tomboy with a fiercely independent mind but I was also exposed to a great deal of sassy sexuality. We had prints of Gil Elvgren's pin-up girls on the walls at home, my parents adored Freddie Mercury and my first  crush was on Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I had posters of women from burlesque shows on the walls of my teenage bedroom and worshipped female entertainers like Dita Von Teese. Sexuality was something fun and it could be innocently exploited for entertainment value. At school I performed well academically but day-to-day survival depended upon social acceptance amongst both the girls and the boys in my class. I found equal delight in a high score in an exam and a compliment on my appearance from a boy. Both made me feel good about myself. While taking my A-levels I worked as a model for a local artist and I later modelled for a designer fashion label, but although internally confident I was painfully shy and not particularly ‘girly’ – I didn’t wear make-up or dresses and I was into geek culture in a big way so I spent most of my time hanging around with boys. My childhood best friend was a popular-in-class Afro-Caribbean boy and we spent every hour of every day together. There was never a physical attraction between us, his sharp humour and relaxed personality sat well with my own. My male friends outnumbered my female friends and I considered them all to be equals - if they hurt or upset me then they did it because they were dicks and not because of any gender difference. 

So that’s the melting pot that I’m working with – a childhood with mostly male friends, an irreverent and accommodating personality, and a love of sassy sexuality and feminine charms. 

I can’t recall when I first became aware of the latest strain of feminism, it crept up on me through a variety of sources – the media, magazines, the beginnings of social media – but it was around the time that I started university when I encountered the first seeds of feminist outrage. Women began sneering at other women who worked as models and insisting that they covered their bodies because they were being ‘exploited’ by men within the fashion industry. The concept of exploitation in this context was completely alien to me. Was I being exploited when I worked for that local artist? I’m pretty sure that was my decision. Was I wrong to do that modelling in my late teens? I’m pretty sure that was my decision too. Did these women want to stop me wearing a short dress when I go out on a Saturday night with my friends? Hold on a second. I had been raised in a society that told me to express my individuality, celebrate my body and embrace the empowering ‘girl power’ of the Spice Girls, and now I was being told that I must abide by a set of social rules dictating what I could and couldn’t wear and how I should and shouldn’t behave? And these rules had been invented by women who claimed to be standing up for my rights and freedom of expression?!

Then followed a wave of sexual assault allegations and the spotlight turned on men in general and their behaviour around women. Was the media accusing all men of being sexual predators? What about my male friends? Surely not them? I watched with horror as the men in my life begin to react respectfully to these sensitivities (which was admirable) but I also leapt to their defence. Yes there are creepy and dangerous guys out there and women need to be aware of their existence, but it was cruel  to make sweeping generalisations of all men. I would be horrified if my male friends withdrew from our friendship due to insecurities in my presence. I reminded male friends that nothing had changed between us amid these increasing tensions – they should not treat me any differently than normal and if they ever wronged me then they did so as contemptable human beings, not as evil men picking on an innocent and simpering woman. I admit that this blanket approach has effectively eradicated some of the most predatory in our communities; however the panicked scattergun nature of the warnings  has hit some of the most vulnerable too. I wrote an article recently in response to scattergun attacks on men in academia and the noticeable impact that this had on their behaviour. I worry too about a couple of friends who are very nervous around women and I suspect that a fear of causing offence has called a halt to any chances that they have to meet a partner! 

Allegations of unacceptable behaviour and cries of exploitation have been escalating for a while, but I had no idea that these accusations would grow into the colossal slew of outrage that we are now experiencing. This outrage manifests itself in a different form each day – only this week we have seen the withdrawal of grid girls at F1 races and the removal of ‘offensive’ artwork from galleries. And, by and large, it’s mostly batshitcraziness. A few years ago if you told me you were a feminist then I would be impressed and  intrigued and ask you to tell me more about the worthy causes that you are fighting to call out injustices against women. Nowadays when someone tells me they are a ‘feminist’ I retreat into the farthest corner of the room until I can ascertain whether that person is a devotee of the man-hating, scream-at-the-sky, attention-seeking fascist regime shitshow that modern feminism has become. The truth is, while a few genuine old-school feminists still exist and many horrifying mistreatments of women take place every day that need to be addressed, I suspect that some modern-day ‘feminists’ despise even the most blameless of men and look for any excuse to attack them. Or – sharp intake of breath – some ‘feminists’ earn a salary from employment that relies upon pointing the finger at examples of offence and so it is in their deepest interests to exploit the deep mines of outrage, or even to create some where none can be found. It’s super-cool to be a man-hater right now, like possessing a popular pet breed or drinking the latest nutritional food replacement…

While I could rant on for hours about the misguided puritanism and dubious intentions of modern feminism, I have two serious concerns that have prompted me to write this. My first concern is that if we keep shrieking about the most banal and illusionary atrocities then men will begin to treat all women with either kid-gloves or utter contempt. Male or female, if you are sympathetic to my thoughts so far then you are most probably either A) too afraid to voice your opinions and you may have even have started avoiding contact with particularly forthright women, or  B) called a sexist for voicing your opinions and treated like a social pariah which in turn makes you feel incredibly frustrated. A plea to the men/women in class A – if you are a decent and innocent person then you have nothing to fear. If anyone inflicts guilt on you without good reason then they are the evil in society, not you. And a plea to the men/women in class B – please don’t go firing off indiscriminately in your anger and accusing all women of possessing the same puritanical viewpoints because you might hit one of your many female allies like me. And you need us on side, not against you. In addition, class B, bear in mind that there are many genuine cases of oppression and exploitation out there that require and deserve our full attention, so avoid falling into the trap of tarring everyone with the same disdainful brush - point out the ridiculous but don’t be heartless. 

That last point leads to my second and most serious concern: the new breed of ‘feminists’ would do well to revisit The Boy Who Cried Wolf. I have personally experienced instances of mistreatment in the past and I have friends who still suffer real and serious mistreatment by men at work and/or in  relationships. Amid this maelstrom of faux rage, who will believe them when they speak out? If ‘feminists’ are focusing their attention on only the most convoluted and fashionable sources of outrage then I fear that they will dilute the credibility of genuine cases, society will tire of the incessant daily bandwagons and eventually we will all grow immune to the most serious of allegations.

That’s all I have to say. I’m sorry if you hate me now. I look forward to reposting this in the year 2050, when our society has eradicated all forms of pleasure and we gather around pianos in the evenings by candlelight, singing songs with lyrics that have been sanctioned by our feminist overlords, covering our bodies that we are simultaneously encouraged to celebrate and censor while the human race creeps evermore towards extinction as men have become too afraid to approach women and women consider men so far beneath them that they have stopped breeding. Please, for the sake of those women at risk of genuine harm or oppression and also for the sake of our enjoyment of this passing glimmer of life that we get to experience, can both sexes take a step back, reassess what constitutes the real problems of the world and call this new puritanism out for what it really is – batshitcrazy rantings by bored attention-seekers who are intent on diverting the spotlight to themselves and their website hits/likes/RTs/view ratings/ego and away from the genuine injustices that women face.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Rise of the Supervillain and the Fall of the Jesus Christ Superstars

It’s a perverse quirk of human nature that the more we perceive someone to be immoral, a reject or an underdog, the more intensely we are drawn to them. Movie reviews talk about the bad guys, like the Joker, in Batman films way more than Batman. We obsess over a vampire or serial killer in a horror film, but we rarely remember the hero. And we see the same phenomenon mirrored in real life. The pop star who treats women like animals but tops the charts every week. The corrupt, bad boy footballer that all the kids idolise. The pantomime villain in the reality TV show who wins the viewer vote. But why do we root for these people when society tells us we should find them repulsive? 

Those of us who are sensitive to the faults of our humanity realise that when we are instructed to dislike someone or something and this instruction is vehemently enforced, particularly by someone who we consider to be superior to ourselves, then we are inclined to rebel and do the complete opposite (think girls from strict homes who grow up to be lap dancers, Catholics who grow up to be Satanists) or the taboo object/person becomes forbidden fruit that is attractive to us and we develop an overwhelming desire for it (think celibate priests who become paedophiles, how we desire fresh cream cakes even though we know they will make us fat). Right now the media is feeding us a daily diet of evil ‘supervillains’ and we are repeatedly instructed to disagree with them and find them repulsive - think Trump, Milo and Farage for starters. We obsess daily over these forbidden fruit supervillains to such an extent that repeated exposure is highly likely to trigger the attraction effect in some of those who are exposed to it (by fostering sympathy and generating an underdog that the public begins to rally behind) or we are likely to see a rebellious reaction, or a combination of the two. And we have already seen these responses play out in public forums. The more that the BBC pushed the remain vote, the more I suspected we would have a Brexit vote. The more that social media humiliated Trump, the more I suspected he would win the presidency. Humans are predictably rebellious creatures, we don’t like being told what to do. So is it any surprise that the supervillains are seeing a surge in popularity?

Those who were appalled to see the public rallying behind ‘the abhorrent’ should be quietly taken aside and made aware that these events and the changing public sentiment may have arisen as a direct response to their own actions. I wonder whether the popularity of these supervillains would have grown to such heights had they not been nurtured by the media spotlight, had we not been bombarded with constant outcry, outrage and protest through news reports and social media. I experienced the U-turn effect of this bombardment for myself a couple of weeks ago when I spotted a planned protest on Twitter and audibly uttered the words ‘oh FFS, not another protest’. The protest itself didn’t aggravate me and I generally agreed with the purpose of the march, but it was one of several taking place that week so I was becoming numb to them and, to be honest, a little irritated by the constant, exhausting barrage of outrage. Then I saw a news report on TV in which an incensed protester grabbed a reporter’s microphone and started preaching into it “people MUST ___, everyone MUST ___, if you don’t support ___ then you are EVIL!!”. Whoah, wait a second my dear. I wholeheartedly agree with you, but who the hell are you to dictate to me what I should and shouldn’t think? My hackles were raised and I viewed the protest in an entirely different light. These people were dictating to me what I should and shouldn’t believe and what I can and can’t say and I was annoyed by the tone of their aggressive, self-righteous preaching. When they started ranting about the evils of fascism, I burst out laughing. Pot and kettle? The next night I switched on the news and saw something that I knew would piss that female protestor off and I smiled to myself. For the first time I sided with the supposed 'enemy’ against someone who I was supposed to sympathise with, simply because my brain went ‘no, fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me to’. I was rooting for the supervillain.

Now this was just one ranting woman in a sea of protestors that made me feel this way, but I wonder whether this isolated incident is playing out on a grand scale amongst the general public who are exposed to the media’s constant ridicule and condemnation of the supervillains. Take Hollywood and the Jesus Christ Superstars, for example. We love celebrities when they prance around on screen or knock out a decent album because that’s what we are paying them to do. Katy Perry makes great music, J. K. Rowling writes great books and Meryl Streep makes great movies, but when they start evangelising at award ceremonies about how other people should live their lives, what they should and shouldn’t say, and, even worse, passing judgement on what they can and can’t think like some kind of award-clutching, superstar embodiment of Jesus Christ, then things quickly turn sour. I’m interested to hear their thoughts on how the lowly populace should live their lives and they are perfectly entitled to voice them (who knows, they might even identify solutions to endemic social problems that could revolutionise how we all live) however I suspect that they know fuck all about what it’s like to live on an inner-city council estate - to worry about housing, job security, who you are living amongst and the safety of those you love - and once I get the faintest whiff that they are looking down their noses at these people and telling them, with complete ignorance of the challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis, that their concerns are misguided or offensive whereas, on the contrary, they are more entitled to make a moral judgement since they are socially mobile, richer, younger or more highly educated than the average council-house dweller, then they morph into the ranting woman in the protest and my hackles are raised again. J. K. Rowling, for instance, preaches in such a nauseatingly self-righteous ‘pissing on the peasants from my ivory tower’ way and with such painful disregard for how the real world functions that I struggle at times to separate her from the trolls that she dismissively bats away…

And I know I’m not the only person starting to feel like this. There is an increasing groundswell of anti-Jesus Christ Superstar sentiment on social media directed towards big stars who have stopped being the jaunty puppets that we pay them to be and taken on the role of political mouthpiece. Please, now more than ever, we need you to be jesters to make us smile, singers to cheer us up, writers to take us away from reality, not a dictatorial moral thought police. Even the BAFTA audience this year looked like the residents from the Capitol in The Hunger Games, nodding sympathetically in unison in a collective moral masturbationary exercise in the hope that their unblemished souls will endear them to their peers, fans, ticket sales, book sales….The gulf between these Jesus Christ Superstars and ‘the ordinary people’ is widening at a rapid rate of knots and this rate it will swallow entire careers whole… 

Perry, Rowling, Streep, ranting protest woman - you are entitled to voice your opinions and I will defend your right to do so to the death, but please, please wake up and realise that you are feeding the very monsters that you are aiming to defeat. Each time you cast yourself as morally superior and speak down to the ordinary people beneath you in an arrogant tone, dismissing their concerns and casting out judgements, you alienate increasing numbers of ordinary people and drive them away from you and towards those who oppose you, regardless, I believe, of whether they consider your opinions to be more or less ethically sound than those of the supervillains that they gravitate towards. This is how conversions of loyalty are forced and oppositions gain power, for instance I agreed with the ethics of the ranty protestor but I cheered on the supervillain in order to see her defeated (never underestimate the fragility of a woman’s principles when faced with someone that she takes an instant dislike to). And the louder that you vilify and humiliate those that you oppose, the greater you risk creating a rejected underdog towards whom the people will express empathy since they perceive the underdog to be suffering the same humiliation and rejection that you heap upon them too. 

These are the underlying mechanics that are driving the rise of the supervillains and they will continue to gain popularity under the media spotlight and the barrage of your constant outrage and condemnation. After all, we’re only human and we can’t help how we respond to instruction, unlike your divine, virtuous selves…

Friday, 6 January 2017

In Defence of Men in Academia

On the first day of my first conference as a first-year postgraduate, a male academic invited me back to his room. This academic was married, twenty years my senior and I barely knew anything about him. I gracefully declined at first but then, upon discovering that it was a time-honoured whisky party to which a select number of delegates were invited each year and two of my colleagues had also received the same invitation, I accepted. It was a fabulous night and the whisky party became a regular event at the same conference each year thereafter. The host is now one of my closest friends, I have met and stayed with his wife and children and we continue to meet up as often as possible to treat ourselves to good food, good wine and a good old gossip.

I was fortunate to meet such a delightful male academic at a conference, but yes, I’ve also had uncomfortable experiences with men at conferences. I’ve been stalked from seminar room to seminar room, hounded on social media and, because my politeness is a hazard to my safety, I’ve left conferences clutching phone numbers and email addresses that I’ve promptly binned. It’s an unsettling feeling to say the least (especially when you’re both confined to the same small venue for days on end) and it ruins any enjoyment of the conference. In fact a particularly bad experience can even cause you to question whether you wish to continue pursuing a career in the field. 

In response to this unacceptable and evidently common behaviour at conferences – and for some unfortunate folk for whom this is a day-to-day struggle in their own university departments - there has been an emerging groundswell amongst both female and male academics to scrutinise the behaviour of male colleagues, to pummel them into the dirt the very second they put a foot wrong and to hound those who exhibit behaviours not considered to be acceptable. Now if you’ve got Dr. Wandering Hands or Prof. A Women Should Not Have A Profession in your department then a proactive approach is entirely justified; I agreed that we should call them out and challenge them to account for their behaviour because these cretins can stunt the career progression of a female academic and cause serious and long-lasting damage to that individual’s confidence and motivation to continue teaching and researching in their subject.

But thankfully, I have not witnessed this type of behaviour in the men in my own department. There are 32 male academics and 27 female academics in my department and each one of them is a pleasure to work with. I’m judging them by our daily water cooler conversations of course and I have no idea whether they have anyone stripped and hogtied on their basement floor, but over the ten years that I have worked within my department I have not experienced one moment of malicious misogyny or harassment. I’m sure that if I pored obsessively over every daily conversation I could single-out one throwaway sexist gag or a lazy misconception that would have the averagely-incensed feminist burning the building down, but if a comment is made then it is not driven by malicious intent and I am sure that the source would be devastated to discover that he/she had upset anyone. On the whole our staff are mutually supportive of each other and our more confident, aggressively competitive and ambitious members of the department tend to be female (which is by no means a criticism, on the contrary it has contributed significantly to the success of the department). 

A couple of years ago the department was called to a meeting to discuss harassment in the workplace. It wasn’t prompted by or directed at anyone in particular, just a friendly chat with a professional on how the male members of the department should behave around women and how they could offer support and encouragement to their female colleagues. The meeting was very cordial and we all agreed that we shared the same desire to support everyone equally and we would strive to ensure that no-one felt disadvantaged, but, by God, things felt awkward afterwards. Some male members of staff, particularly the older members of the department who had known their female colleagues for many years, became so over-sensitised to causing offence that the simplest actions and conversations were painfully awkward and stilted. Colleagues that regularly dealt out mutually received and well-meaning banter began apologising after making the most innocent of comments, they overcompensated to the point of sounding patronising when genuinely attempting to be supportive and they didn’t know whether it was acceptable to enquire about family issues, illnesses or, in one case, congratulate a member of the department on her pregnancy. Far from clipping the wings of Dr. Wandering Hands or Prof. A Women Should Not Have A Profession, the advice that these individuals received caused confusion, it completely killed the relaxed atmosphere in the department and it turned the loveliest of people into socially bungling, terrified bundles of nerves.

I realise that I am lucky to work with a respectful group of people who do not require close scrutiny and criticism of their behaviour while other departments and universities are in desperate need of close attention and direction in order to make their working relationships bearable, however some women in academia take a disproportionately aggressive approach and they produce exceptionally venomous material that is directed towards male academics in general. This approach sits very uncomfortably with me and, if I am honest, their indefensible generalisations make me question whether the issue is as prevalent as they claim or whether they hold university positions or carry out research that relies heavily upon misogyny and harassment existing in the workplace, to which a successful eradication of these behaviours would put them out of a job. If I was a man I would take great offence upon hearing these generalised attacks however it must be extremely difficult to engage with this material as a male, hence I suspect why I am increasingly encountering women working in university departments who, like me, feel sympathy towards our male colleagues who endure criticism by virtue of assumptions made about their gender rather than from their observed behaviour. 

To those women in academia who are currently rampaging through university departments and sticking both barrels into the gullet of every man they see, I would offer this note of caution: know your enemy.  By all means aim for the bad guys and I will buy you all the ammo that you need to take them down, but please don’t take the scattergun approach because you’re taking good people down with them. In my experience, the good guys outnumber the bad and for every creepy guy who follows you around the room at a conference trying to give you his mobile number, there is a guy who would like to invite you to a whisky party because he admires your work and he would like to talk to you about it. Or there is a male member of staff who feels socially awkward at the best of times and he would like to engage more with his colleagues, but he’s afraid to speak up in case he plays the game incorrectly and says the wrong thing. Or there is an older male member of staff who has the deepest respect for the women that he works with, but he’s afraid to congratulate an administrator on her pregnancy in case he is considered to be speaking out of turn. Certainly there are monsters who target women in all walks of life and we must raise awareness and strive to keep each other safe, we must ensure that no-one is disadvantaged due to their gender and we must seek to punish those of any gender who behave abysmally towards their colleagues, but we should also guard against demonising a whole swathe of men based upon generalised conjecture and thereby behaving precisely like the same tyrannical, presumptive and intolerant monsters that we are fighting against.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

To All The Kids Who Think They're Not Good Enough For University (And The Teachers Who Agree)

Xylophones have a lot to answer for in terms of my educational development. 

I was obsessed with the xylophone when I was a child. I didn’t possess the confidence to sing, I wouldn’t be seen dead with a tambourine and the recorder required far too much effort, so the xylophone was the perfect choice to satisfy the minimum energy required to make a substantially disruptive noise in my primary school assemblies. It was during one of these assemblies that the local vicar, who was tasked with directing our cacophonous shambles of a school band, noticed the wild enthusiasm with which I bashed the xylophone bars and asked me whether I had ever considered playing the piano. I was completely enamoured with the idea and promptly began pestering my parents for a piano and piano lessons. My mum was a housewife and my dad worked shifts in a foundry so this wasn’t something that they could easily afford, but they eventually caved against my persistent nagging and approached my class teacher at a parents’ evening to ask whether the school had any provision for music lessons. The teacher consulted with Mrs. Guest, my strict and rather rotund and red-faced headmistress, to ask whether piano lessons could be arranged and Mrs. Guest’s answer was sharp and to the point: children from my council estate 'did not do things like learning to play the piano' and it was ridiculous of my parents to encourage a child like me to aspire to do such things. 

My parents accepted this response and broke the bad news to me. I was devastated. However the school vicar was not going to allow me give up on my dreams that easily. He arranged for me to have piano lessons from an elderly lady who lived locally (she charged very little for lessons because she lived alone and enjoyed the company of visitors) and my parents bought me a second-hand piano which we shoehorned into my tiny bedroom in our two-bed council house. When I passed my Grade 3 piano, my mother confided in me that she was pleased that I had persevered with my lessons because my parents had thought (hoped, I would imagine) that my musical ambitions were a passing phase. She also told me what Mrs. Guest had said to them when they had enquired about piano lessons.

My headmistress’s comments were like a red rag to a bull – how dare she say that my friends and I shouldn’t aspire to achieve our dreams just because we live in a deprived area! I tell people now that I rattled through my piano grades so that I could entertain the masses, teach a new generation of pianists and learn a skill that would enhance my cognitive development, but my main, if not sole, motivation was to prove my headmistress wrong. I have a distinction in Grade 8 piano. Fuck you Mrs. Guest. 

Growing up on a council estate in Birmingham, I encountered the ‘children who shouldn’t aspire’ attitude numerous times throughout my school life. My high school hit the very bottom of the league tables while I was in my final GCSE year and it was widely expected amongst both the staff and students alike that the girls would fail their GCSEs and banging out a dozen babies while sitting on the dole and the boys would fail their GCSEs and become career criminals, winding up in trouble with the police or locked up. One teacher even told my class that we should start planning a family early because infant mortality was high in the area due to its deprived nature, so there was a good chance that some of our babies would die…

It was when the children on the estate challenged these preconceptions that things got really interesting. My best friend at high school desperately wanted to be a lawyer and she needed A-Levels in order to apply to university, so we bravely asked our teachers if it would be possible to study for an A-Level together. No kids in my school had ever taken an A-Level let alone applied to university before so the teachers thought that we were crazy and completely out of our depth. Nevertheless they agreed to let us sit A-Level English Literature on the condition that we did the required reading ourselves, with some guidance from a business teacher who had experience in teaching A-Level courses. I took the class solely to support my friend and I had no intention of applying for university myself – after all, my parents certainly couldn’t afford the fees - but when I began accompanying my friend to various university open days I liked what I saw and started thinking seriously about whether I wanted to pursue the same educational path… 

I enrolled on a series of A-Level evening classes at a nearby college and cobbled together a mishmash of grades that made me a pretty poor candidate for a red brick university, but I bit the bullet and applied to the University of Birmingham. The admissions tutor was tethered firmly by the entry requirement grades, but after a short interview he surprised me by saying that he would make an exception in my case because ‘I had a something about me’. Throughout the entire first year of my undergraduate course I felt as though I had broken into the place or stolen a legitimate student’s identity and I suffered great anxieties about whether I was ‘good enough’. Some students had come from well-performing schools where they had been rigorously trained to perform to a high standard, but there were also a few students from less privileged backgrounds in or around Birmingham who had similar educational experiences to mine. By the end of my first year, it was clear that some of the high performing students were struggling to function outside a controlled, classroom environment. They could absorb and regurgitate information but they could not think for themselves and many of them started to drop out of the course as a result. On the other hand, those of us who had been previously cast adrift with our educational development and who were frequently required to think for ourselves were thriving in this environment and most of our group achieved a 2:1 or higher. This ‘child that shouldn’t aspire’ arrived with a dismal set of A-Level grades and graduated with a high first class degree (the only first in my year), winning a series of prestigious scholarships, moving quickly onto an MPhil and finally completing a PhD. I suspect that the ‘something’ about me that the admissions tutor had spotted was the same ‘something’ that each one of us in the less educationally privileged group of students possessed; namely the ability to think for ourselves and to cope when left alone to conduct research and develop our own arguments, independently of direction from a teacher or classroom environment. 

But it’s not just the hidden abilities of the ‘child that shouldn’t aspire’ to achieve academic qualifications that I wanted to address, it’s their experience of the university environment too. I am now on the senior professional management team of the same university department in which I was a student and I have day-to-day dealings with students that started out exactly like me. I see the same hesitations and anxieties in them that I had when I first arrived. So where do these anxieties come from? If I was to turn back the clock and speak to every child who wants to go to university but has concerns about how they will be perceived then I would tell them this: don't be put off by thoughts of inadequacy based on perceptions of higher education that you might have in your head. I spent years passing by the red brick wall of the University of Birmingham and believing that the Hogwarts-like building in the distance was full of pompous professors who wouldn’t give disadvantaged students a second glance and wouldn't know real struggle and hard work if it bit them on the ass. But once I stepped inside the red brick wall as an undergraduate student I quickly realised that my university is nowhere near the snooty bastion of pomp and ceremony that I expected it to be and any feelings of inadequacy had completely dissolved by the time I reached graduation. Most people that I encounter on campus are lovely, down-to-earth people who have a lot of time for students from all backgrounds and I regularly speak to colleagues and students who have had similar educational experiences to mine (I currently work with a very talented doctoral researcher who grew up on murder mile in Hackney!). Now I’m one of those people behind that red brick wall and let me assure you, I’m very much still in touch with that little girl who played the xylophone in school assemblies and I know what it’s like to dream big, work hard and have real monsters stand in your way. I am no monster and neither are my colleagues - you have no need to be afraid of us. If you’re still unsure then book onto an open day and speak to some of the staff and students about what it’s like to study at their institution. Hopefully just taking the first physical step inside the wall and engaging with the people behind it will eliminate a great deal of your fears. And take it from me; do not be intimidated by class perceptions or how someone looks, behaves or speaks in a higher education environment because these things are certainly no indicator of intellectual ability. I have seen pipe-smoking, plum-mouthed professors struggle to open a door or operate the simplest mobile phone. Intelligence doesn’t have a face, tone of voice or tweed suit.

I would also like to address the kids who feel that they are being pushed into higher education when it really isn’t their thing. Parents and educational authorities alike can be guilty of this. We freely encourage every child to fulfil their educational potential but we struggle to admit that some children just don’t possess the capacity for academic study. There are always going to be things that children – and adults too, for that matter - are good at and things that we are bad at. For instance, I can play the piano very well but there are lots of other things that I’m absolutely hopeless at - I can’t swim, I can’t play the guitar (despite trying to teach myself hundreds of times) and I can’t run long distances without collapsing in a sweaty heap. I accept that I do well in some things but I’m awful in others. Likewise academic ability is something that you either possess or you don’t and some school leavers are just not cut out for higher education in the same way that I’m not cut out to swim the channel. Simple as. There is no shame in accepting that you are not academically minded and many students leave school without qualifications and develop specialised and valuable practical skills that allow them to take up practical roles and become experts in their craft. These practical roles tend to be undervalued due to our obsession with pushing all students down the path of higher education, even when the student feels that it isn’t a good fit for them. As a graduate I find this obsession with the pursuit of higher education at the expense of practical skills difficult to understand because university education is *not* the be-all-and-end-all that some people talk it up to be, it is not a guaranteed open door to a dream job and it certainly doesn’t make you any more superior to the next person. I have witnessed how the professors in my department are genuinely grateful when an IT person arrives to fix their computer or a maintenance person comes to fix a light or repaint their office. No matter how academically qualified you are you will always depend upon and value those around you with practical skills.

In addition to the academically minded and the practically minded, there is a third type of school leaver that educational bodies need to be aware of: the chancer. Thinking back to the student cohort at my school, there were a number of kids who exhibited a genuine flair for study or practical skills, but alongside these students there were also out-and-out chancers who wanted a piece of the same opportunities and achievements without putting in any effort or hard work whatsoever. They had no interest in gaining qualifications or skills, but they were acutely interested in avoiding employment. And coming from a disadvantaged background gave them a claim to preferential treatment and the free pass that they were looking for. Dangers arise when admitting these free-pass-grabbing students to a higher education institution just to tick a quota box or feel like you’re helping the disadvantaged in some patronising and self-righteous way. If every single school leaver, regardless of academic ability, demands equal access to higher education then we will end up with a quagmire of students who blindly dredge their way through a course of education that they care very little about, dragging the genuinely capable students down with their indifference and leaving with the same copycat qualifications. Employers will struggle to differentiate between a job application from a genuinely capable student and a chancer and eventually the qualifications that they both possess will become worthless. If we give trophies to everyone who runs a race then how are we going to pick out the ones that we should train to be Olympians? As gratifying as it would have been to see everyone in my high school class achieve a university place and prove the Mrs. Guests of the world wrong, I’m also a realist and I’m well aware that amongst the genuine students seeking help there are also chancers looking to take advantage of freely available opportunities and milk them for all they're worth. If a student from a disadvantaged background pleads for special treatment and expects to be handed a qualification on a plate with no application of hard work or effort whatsoever then there is a very good chance that they will fail. And educators should not feel guilty or responsible when that happens. It's tough, but that’s life. 

To my former teachers and those teachers who still advocate the Mrs. Guest approach to educational privilege, I would say this: resist predicting the growth potential of students based entirely upon their parent’s occupation or whether a student comes from an impoverished or affluent area because, at best, you’re going to show your age. Gone are the days when library access was restricted to wealthy schools and knowledge was largely passed down from parent to child; we are living in the age of Google where children are growing up with access to more information at their fingertips than ever before. Young people are taking control of their own educational development and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to restrict knowledge to a social class or geographical location. With instant access to an extensive world of knowledge, it is a child’s personal motivation and inner drive that will determine what they do with it. My undergraduate university experience taught me that battery-farming students in a well-performing school is no guaranteed indicator of success and ‘children that shouldn’t aspire’ can be just as capable, if not more capable, than the children that are naturally expected to succeed. I would suggest that children who work independently to achieve something that they desperately want for themselves are often the ones that are best equipped to persevere with a course of study, to be intensely self-motivated and survive the challenging times that all students face. A tough skin and dogged determination cannot be taught in a classroom and yet these are essential tools when pursuing a university education. And please stop pushing all school leavers into academic study at the expense of practical skills. We should be celebrating and empowering those who are gifted with practical skills rather than viewing them as somehow incapable of higher education. I would much prefer to live in a world filled with people that can build houses than a world full of people who ruminate on how to build a house…

My final point is directed to those who, like me, have followed an unconventional route through higher education and still work within it. Talk to the kids out there who show academic potential and express an interest in applying to university but have had their confidence knocked by poor educators or feel somehow inadequate at the thought of attending university alongside the privileged kids. Tell them about the scholarships and resources that are available to help them to gain access to courses (I am living proof that these work) and give them the confidence that they need to go to open days and submit applications. And, most importantly, show them that there are no monsters behind the red brick wall and many of us in university departments are just like them. Who knows, they might just end up running the place…

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

My Great-Grandfather and the Peaky Blinders

At the age of six I expressed a desire to learn to play the piano and my parents were unsure where this aspiration had come from since most of my family were musically illiterate and they had no interest whatsoever in playing a musical instrument. Four years and many piano lessons later, I overhead my father mention in conversation with a neighbour that my great-grandfather James Aloysious Ingram (known as Curly) was very musical and he played the piano and the mandolin. My father mused that perhaps I had picked up an idle musical gene from James and he recalled how his sister/my aunt would often sit on James’ lap and put her tiny hands over his large hands while he played the piano. Apparently she would remark on how rough his hands were and how his knuckles were beaten up from the fights. I thought that was an odd thing to say, ‘from the fights’.

My father showed me a photograph of my great-grandfather in his later years and I was surprised to see that James was the absolute spitting image of my father and, in turn, of me. 

I felt a close connection with James and pestered my father to tell me more about James’s life. And the more that I discovered about him, the more I found him to be a fascinating individual. James lived in Harborne, he was ex-army and a bare knuckle fighter at Smethwick market. Every Sunday morning he would walk from Harborne to Smethwick to fight and when he returned home he would give his wife Florie all the silver from the win money that he had earned and he kept the copper for himself as beer money. He seemed to make a fair living out of it. James and his family were well looked after because they were in with the right crowd and knew the right people, although the company that James kept seemed very dubious indeed. A number of shady characters cropped up at various points in my father’s stories, such as the mysterious Italian Mr Mansini who found my grandfather a job when he came out of the army. Mr Mansini sent my grandfather to the local factory with a note simply saying that he had been sent by Mr Mansini - the note alone was a guarantee of a job and the gesture was made because my grandfather was Curly’s son and ‘Curly and his family were to be well looked after’.

But the most memorable – and disturbing - thing that my father told me about James was this; if he went to the pub or out for the day with his family then he would wear his ‘home cap’, but if he went out of the house wearing his ‘working cap’ then my great-grandmother would stay awake and wait up all night in the front bay window of the house until he came home, because if James went out wearing his ‘working cap’ then she knew there was going to be trouble. When I asked about the significance of the caps, my father explained that the ‘working cap’ had razor blades sewn in the rim which came in handy if there was ever a fight. And, by the sounds of it, there were lots of fights. He said, for instance, that James played the mandolin in the Green Man pub in Harborne and one evening there was a huge fight between his group of friends and the police. It seemed to have been some kind of sting operation targeting them all. James took out three policemen, he smashed his mandolin over the head of one policeman (thereby ending his musical career) and he threw another policeman through the front window of the pub into the horse road outside. The police took James to Steel House Lane police station where he 'fell down the steps of the police station' (he was beaten up) and my great-grandmother claimed that he was never the same again afterwards.

I remember this conversation well because I was not only shocked by the thought of slashing someone's face with razor blades, but also by the way in which my father spoke so matter-of-factly about it all and with such an oddly warm affection towards the individuals in the stories. I had heard both my father and my grandfather mention the words ‘peaky blinder’ before and I didn’t know, or much care at the time, who they were referring to. But now it all made sense. It was somehow acceptable for my father and grandfather to speak kindly about James and his friends because these individuals had ‘principals’ - they had a strong family-like bond, they would watch out for one another and their families and they were firmly ‘on our side’. I took comfort in knowing that, due to my surname, I would have nothing to fear had I encountered one of these suspicious characters on the street.

On the flip side of my family coin there is my great-grandfather on my mother’s side: Sam Richards. Sam’s portrait hung on the wall in my grandparents’ front room for many years and he was gentle-looking man wearing a sharp business suit, well slicked hair and a kindly smile. Sam started out as a boxer, then he became a book maker and eventually the owner of a large boxing ring in Selly Oak.  Although he was neck-deep in dodgy book-making dealings, he presented a business-like front to his activities and he clearly had the police under his influence. The police would tip him off before a raid and when passing on their regular beat they would bang on the wall of the house whenever he needed to clear the house (which most often involved sending my grandmother down to the bottom of the garden with the betting slips in her dolls pram). Sam made a great deal of money, he bought a lot of local property, he was a freemason and he contributed to the community by buying shoes for local orphans. He certainly didn’t hide the fact that his business was lucrative and he once caused a stir in the community by buying my grandmother a silver-handled umbrella (which she subsequently left on a bus).

My mother recalls that the words ‘peaky blinders’ were banded around the household when she was a child and she was aware that Sam mixed equally with both well-heeled individuals and shady groups who looked out for his business. I had the feeling that the Curly’s of the world were on Sam’s payroll rather than his drinking buddy in the pub - in fact it is a running family joke that my father’s family were on the rough-and-ready side of the Birmingham gangs, whereas my mother’s family were much more discreet with their dealings and ‘higher up the food chain’.

Sam Richards (centre)

I vividly remember the stories that my grandparents told me about growing up in Birmingham and I have portraits and photographs of James and Sam and assorted paraphernalia from their lives. I remember visiting my great-aunt who lived to be over one-hundred years old and seeing how she kept their old terraced house perfectly-preserved, with a rocking chair in front of an open fire, lace antimacassars on the armchairs and a freezing cold outside toilet. And, aside from modernising our houses, things haven’t changed a great deal in some areas of Birmingham. I grew up in an area of Birmingham that could be a violent place to live but it also valued strong generational links forged between large, influential families that looked out for each other. Loyalty and family names still carry a great deal of weight around here. And seeing how closely I physically resemble James and hearing how similar our characters are (even down to our piano playing), things haven’t really changed that much within my own family either. 

So, as you may well imagine, when I heard twenty-years later that a TV series had been made that focused on the Blinders, I was filled with mixed emotions and expectations because I felt as though someone was making a documentary about a close friend or relative. A writer who was unfamiliar with the true spirit of these individuals could be tempted to ridicule the Blinders or cast them as heartless gangsters. However I wasn’t disappointed. In fact a great deal of content made me smile because it cut very close to home. Pretty bang-on in some cases. I’m pleased that the series didn't shy away from the brutal, frenetic violence that these men were predisposed to because that was certainly the case from the stories that I heard (and I still see it around me in some districts of Birmingham these days) but it also highlighted the strong allegiances, friendships and family ties between the gang members. The only thing I found lacking was the vicious humour that these men had - the constant joking around and the casual way that serious matters, such as injury, incarceration or even death, were laughed about and passed over. I saw this raw humour in my grandfather’s friends and older family members who have now passed away and I found it amusing but deeply unsettling. For this reason the character of Arthur is the most authentic by far, if only for the speed in which he switches between loud light-hearted banter and intensely serious vicious attack.

But the greatest accomplishment of Peaky Blinders is that it portrays the central characters as both hero and villain thereby giving the viewer the uneasy experience of both fearing and admiring them, which was the exact same uncomfortable feeling that I grappled with upon learning about my family connections with the Blinders as a child. James’ working cap gave me more than a few nightmares as a child, but there are aspects of his personality and values that I admire and see within myself. Perhaps the fondness that I have for James, Sam and their friends is borne out of a realisation that although they were violent men who sailed on the wrong side of the law, they also had strong family values, they were loyal to those who were loyal to them and they would protect their friends and loved ones at all costs – all values that modern-day society would do well to aspire to.

(Interestingly, my auntie tells me that James’ death was quite a talking point. The story goes that a gypsy came into the Green Man pub in Harbourne and started reading palms. James paid her to read his palm, she took one look at his hand and refused, then left the pub straight away.  James died only days afterwards).