‘The Casual Vacancy’: Underplaying Rowling’s Social Commentary

I love a good BBC adaptation. Bleak House is a personal favourite, with Charles Dance’s delightful performance as the stern and malevolent Mr Tulkinghorn and the spontaneous combustion of Johnny Vegas’ Mr Krook. Yes, Johnny Vegas spontaneously combusts. But, for about a year now, I have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of J.K Rowling’s first book for adults The Casual Vacancy on the small screen. On Sunday 15th February 2015 at 9pm the wait was finally over. I was back in Portsmouth for the weekend, the telephones were unplugged, mobile phones were switched off and everyone was condemned to silence. I just hope it’s good! I prayed as the opening credits started to roll and my Dad had already broken his vow of silence (as usual). Sigh.

The Casual Vacancy is set in a small village called Pagford in the west of England. In the opening chapters, beloved member of the community Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, leaving his seat on the council vacant. This creates a frantic scramble among his fellow townsfolk to fill his position, although not everybody has good intentions. The major struggle of the novel concerns the council’s disagreement over whether or not to cut ties with the neighbouring council estate ‘The Fields’, an area that the late Barry Fairbrother was passionate about improving. From here emerges the themes of ignorance, class divides and social mobility, issues that are very poignant in our current political climate. Rowling herself has said that the novel is not only about the casual vacancy of Barry Fairbrother’s empty seat in the council, but about ‘vacancies’ in general. Each of her characters has a skeleton in the closet and each has a vice with which to purge feelings of emptiness, some of which are very close to my heart, such as alcoholism and OCD. Said skeletons begin to be revealed on the Parish Council website by a mysterious, seemingly omniscient figure, claiming to be the ‘Ghost of Barry Fairbrother’. Who is it? And what will be the consequences of his or her revelations? It is a truly moving and perceptive novel to which everyone will relate somehow. If you have not yet read it I highly recommend that you do!

I am disappointed to say that I was rather underwhelmed by the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation. Admittedly, much of this was because when you read a novel you create the perfect image of the characters in your mind, knowing where every freckle is on the nose, how they walk, how they talk, what they like to eat for breakfast. They become as much yours as they are the author’s. Unless that’s just me. But, because of this, it is sometimes difficult to accept that certain actors have been cast as these beloved characters. However, my disapproval of the casting of Michael Gambon as Howard Mollison is on more sensible grounds than this rather juvenile disappointment of the betrayal of one’s own imagined characters. Although it is lovely to see Gambon portraying another of Rowling’s characters (he was Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films), Howard Mollison is supposed to be morbidly obese and Gambon is nowhere near large enough. This may sound like a stupidly picky point, but Mollison’s weight is actually an important part of the book. Overeating is Mollison’s vice, that’s the point. It is one of the ways in which Rowling explores addiction in the novel. Heroin addict and mum of two Terri Weedon is demonised by the people of Pagford, and the snobby, middle-class townsfolk are keen to keep their distance.

Nobody bats an eyelid that Mollison continues to eat himself into an early grave despite having already undergone heart surgery. But really, there is no difference between Terri’s heroin addiction and Mollison’s overeating. Both cost the tax payer through the running of the methadone clinic and the need for heart surgery, yet Terri is constantly ostracised throughout the novel whilst Mollison believes that he is better than the people of The Fields. Rowling is clearly making the point that nobody has the right to judge others and Mollison’s weight is a crucial component of Rowling’s social commentary. It is one of the ways in which she unites humanity with mutual flaws in an attempt to ridicule prejudice. For this reason, Gambon should be given a padded suit.

Another frustrating thing was that, if I had not read the book, I would not have had a clue what was going on. Characters were not sufficiently introduced and there was too much unnecessary build up to Fairbrother’s death (he dies in the very beginning in the book). There were also way too many panning shots of the idyllic countryside setting (which, admittedly, is beautiful and perfectly suits Rowling’s purpose of creating a stark contrast between the middle-class village and the poverty-stricken Fields, but even so).

On a more positive note, Keeley Hawes’ performance as Samantha Mollison is spot on. Samantha is an unhappily married alcoholic and runs a lingerie business in the village. In the television series her shop is presented as almost like a fetishist shop, which creates a hilarious contrast to the otherwise peaceful and picturesque backdrop of the village. Samantha’s character is rather tongue-in-cheek. She is a bored middle-aged woman and takes to lusting after members of her daughter’s favourite boy bands. There is a kind of comic tragedy about her; although we know that her situation is melancholic we cannot quite take her seriously due to Rowling’s wickedly sharp dialogue which, thankfully, is transferred onto the small screen: ‘Look, Miles! Tits! Be a man! Grab a handful!’

Despite my initial disappointment, I will continue to watch to see if the series progresses more successfully. After all, I’m eager to see how the village reacts to The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother’s first online post…

Foodies, Fashion Gurus, Art Lovers, Poets: Exploring the East End

Personally, I believe that students of Queen Mary are extremely lucky to study in such a vibrant and interesting area of London. We get the best of both worlds. For those people who dislike the hustle and bustle of the inner city, the location of Queen Mary is perfect as it is tucked away in Mile End, surrounded by many different bars, pubs, and markets. On the other hand, for those cosmopolitan individuals who love the city life, we are only a few tube stops away on the central line from central London.

But for me, it’s all about the East End. Think about it, when people come to London for a day trip you usually hear them squealing excitedly about Camden Market or Oxford Street. You don’t tend to hear them exclaim ‘I can’t wait to go to Brick Lane for a curry!’ And it’s their loss. We are blessed to be able to study at the centre of one of London’s hidden gems. Shoreditch is just a short bus ride away on the number 25 or the 205, where you’ll find quirky cocktail bars and pubs. My personal favourite is Brew Dog (which can also be found in Shepherd’s Bush and Camden) as it sells craft beers and ales, which makes a nice change from the standard draught lagers that are found in every other pub. It also has a downstairs seating area which reminded me of Snape’s dungeon from Harry Potter, which was also an attraction. Another highlight of Shoreditch for me is the BoxPark because of the immense variety of food it has to offer! This is because businesses are given just a 12 month spot in the BoxPark, meaning that it is constantly fresh and exciting. There are also bars inside the BoxPark and, for those of you who are interested in poetry like myself, there is a Spoken Word open mic night there once a month called BoxedIn, which is definitely worth checking out.

Walk towards Whitechapel and swing a right and you will end up at Brick Lane, the student saviour! The area is brimming with Indian restaurants all scrambling to offer you the best student deals. Often with starters, mains and sides for £10 and the choice to ‘Bring Your Own Booze’, you really can’t go wrong as it makes for a fun and cheap night out. On a Sunday Brick Lane also hosts a massive vintage clothing market and food market, which offers a variety of cuisines. The vintage market is affordable and perfect for all fashionistas as its vast range and size means that you could easily spend the whole day browsing the rails.

Finally, my little hidden gem of the year: the Bow Arts Centre. Situated at 181 Bow Road, the ‘Nunnery Gallery’ is a contemporary art gallery and exhibits work from a different ‘emerging artist’ each month. The gallery is tucked away behind Grove Hall Park which, along with its small size, makes it seem intimate and secret. Inside the gallery is the Carmelite Café which, although slightly pricey, offers a fantastic range of lunches, cakes, breakfasts and snacks. Perfect for a special treat!

Here ends my whistle stop tour of the East End, all the areas that I believe are the perfect student hot spots. We have something for everyone: foodies, fashion gurus, art lovers, poets. I can honestly say that I would not have wanted to study anywhere else.

Performances that Changed Lives

I individually asked a group of 1st year Drama students at my University about a performance that changed their lives and why. A mixture of excitement and profundity, the answers were touching and made me smile all the way through this process.

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Three Tips to Save Money in London

1) Get a railcard

To help with travel costs, get a 16-25 railcard to save a 1/3 on train fares (which is great for visiting family and friends across the country). More interestingly though, the card can be tied to your oyster card and will save you a 1/3 on tube fares too. Prices for the railcards vary but they’re frequently on offer online for under £30 online and they last for 12 months. Once you have your railcard, take it to a ticket office at a major tube station and ask a member of staff to tie the card to your oyster card (Stratford station is happy to do this for you and is just down the road from Queen Mary). You have to fill in a form which you can do online or in person, but it doesn’t take long. If you’re a mature student, don’t worry. Students over 25 and in full time education can still get the railcard for the same price and length of time as younger students.

2) Shop at large supermarkets

It’s easy to overspend anywhere if you’re not careful with your cash, but particularly in London it can be tricky to find larger supermarket chains within easy access of where you’re living. Stores on Mile End road such as Sainsbury’s Local and Budgens are great for grabbing some late night snacks or topping up your supply of bread and milk, but a weekly shop in local convenience stores will seriously set you back financially if done regularly. If you’re living on campus or in an area where there isn’t a big supermarket nearby, my advice would be to order online. This is a great option for cutting out the miserable agony of dragging endless heavy bags of tins, cans, and bottles across London and risking the carrier bag splitting and all your purchases exploding over a poor unsuspecting passer-by. If you order online as a group, be sure to keep a note of how much everyone owes to save hassle later. Be sensible with what you buy – try to avoid ordering vast quantities of your favourite junk food and think practically about which meals you can make with what you’re buying.

3) Think about what you’re eating and be prepared

Once you get busy at university, it’s easier to get lazy and order a takeaway or just scoff a family size bag of crisps than it is to prepare a proper meal. If you’re unsure about cooking, the solution is to learn how to cook basic foodstuffs (rice, pasta, noodles) and add vegetables and meat to make sure it’s balanced enough to give you energy and keep you full. Eggs are great for keeping you full and won’t break the bank – learn to make tasty omelettes and you’re sorted. Buy a loaf of bread and make sandwiches rather than buying them elsewhere.  Take a bottle of water/juice/squash with you when you go out instead of spending £1.50 on a bottle of Diet Coke in a corner shop. These little things will make all the difference and will mean you don’t have to fork out for overpriced items when you’re on the go.

You’re at the heart of London – get out there!

As students at a London university, we do not always appreciate the capital city enough. We take places close to us for granted. However, I was given the opportunity to study English and History at Queen Mary and I am making the most of it! Being at the heart of London, I have access to so many attractions and places to visit. You need a couple of years to fully experience and engage with the city. I never saw myself living in London, and yet here I am, accomplishing a dream that I never knew I had!

My interests lie in photography and history. So, a good place to start my exploration was at museums. The best thing about them is that they are completely free to visit and there are so many to choose from in London alone. I was lucky enough to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum for my module ‘Literatures in Time’ last year. Studying English at university is not only about reading books and articles but being able to visit exhibitions and attend lectures on a topic that interests you. In this way, we are actively learning and gaining a deeper understanding about our subject matter. You can either go with a specific motive or just enjoy the artifacts at your leisure.

Not only does the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection span two thousand years of art, it also covers work from all parts of the world. So if there is a particular period or culture you want to research, you can do so by admiring the products of their time and the changes that occurred since. You can make your own judgement as to whether there are similar traits within different cultures, as England is a multicultural country. There is beauty in the mixture of backgrounds and traditions as it indicates assimilation and appreciation of one another.

The Great Court at the British Museum, image by Jenny Chowdhury
The Great Court at the British Museum, image by Jennifa Chowdhury

There are a few modules that Queen Mary offers on architecture and museums around London alone which indicates the recognition of the importance of enhancing education through current research and artifacts to fully appreciate culture. It is a different experience to sitting in an hour’s lecture and only being given the chance to get an overview rather than the in-depth detail that we need. You can research further through resources outside of the university space. If interested in architecture, take a trip to the British Museum. The glass roof is spectacular. The Great Court used to be a courtyard and a competition was held to redesign the area. It is a two-acre space, allowing room for visitors to wander and rest and is known to be the largest covered public space in Europe. The work on the roof began in 1999 and was designed by Foster and Partners in such a way that the panes of glass are non-identical. It is definitely a sight to see!

Edward VII Galleries at the British Museum, image by Jenny Chowdhury
Edward VII Galleries at the British Museum, image by Jennifa Chowdhury

If there is a question that you have had a burning desire to get answered, and you never had the courage to ask, then go and research it for yourself! A sense of satisfaction will be achieved. I have taken up the module ‘Black Writing in Britain’ and I was conversing with my peers about a question that has been on my mind since a Year Seven history class. My question was, ‘Would I have been considered black because of my brown skin colour?’ Now studying this course, it is helping me understand that Asians and Black people in Britain in the twentieth century were viewed as part of the same minority group. Although they are from different time periods, from the sixteenth century to today’s day and age, the conception of the ‘other’ remains within our mind-set in the modern day. After nearly ten years, I am still trying to understand my identity as a British-born Bangladeshi.

What I am encouraging you to do is to not leave any questions unanswered. Research, research, research until you find your answer. Grab any opportunity you can and make the most of your time at university. It’s the best time to explore and develop your learning through visiting extraordinary places!

‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ – Uncivil Genius

‘War is wonderful, until someone is killed.’ Such is the beauty – harrowing, hilarious – of Louis de Bernières’ ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’. This epigram is typical of the writer’s uncivil genius. Another stroke of it: ‘Honour and common sense; in the light of the other, both of them are ridiculous. 

The novel follows happenings on the Greek island of Cephallonia, during World War II. As Pelagia says of her eccentric father, Dr Iannis, Bernières ‘made my feet grow into the earth by telling me its stories’. This idyll and its citizens are devastated by invasion and we are taken through every stage with sympathy and delicious skill. Bernières juggles comedy and tragedy artfully – amidst the chirping lyrics of town life there are staccato beats and refrains warning of catastrophe that reaches an agonising crescendo. Through him, time travel is possible – he leads the reader behind the ‘moss and honeysuckle’ to a paradise of the past, turning the world into an amphitheatre, regaling a happiness now on par with myth.

Myth, allegorically, is the starting point: an Elysium the setting – which is raped and ruined – and villagers strong as Hercules; likened to Apollo; evocative of Persephone. The weather, too, is made magic: ‘We were enveloped in snow, and an accursed Arctic wind sprang up from the north that flung itself upon us like the bunched fist of a Titan.’ All this seems part of Bernières’ effort to keep the Giants of the past alive, thus spotlighting the existing Earthly Gods: Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini etc. What Bernières seems to be asking is, what is wrong with fantasy? Or even, is there such a thing? He fluctuates from romanticism to reality throughout. When Socrates, sufferer of neurasthenia, is healed by a Saint’s Day parade he ‘performed the most athletic and spectacular tsalimia that any of them had ever seen’ – do you readers disbelieve, he asks? Yet you can conceive a war of pandemonic proportions?

Bernières augments the poignancy of it by zeroing in on individual’s tragedies. As a storyteller, he shows himself to be a master of the polyphonic. In the first eight pages we have sympathy and can laugh with Dr Iannis. The second chapter, purely using the speech of one man to illustrate a scene, is so starkly different from the former narrator but recognisably Bernières in the deft use of vocabulary. It is the defiling of a fisherman, Madras, who swims with befriended dolphins, ‘A man who jumbled marriage together with whitebait and war […], with dolphins’ that in some ways eclipses, defines, epitomises, if even for a moment, all the horrors of war. Such specifics make WWII- an intangible fantasy to many- raw and real. Metaxas, a ‘poodle amongst wolves’; ‘A formidable widow who sometimes dreamed in Turkish but had forgotten how to speak it.’ – the cast is as formidable and intricate as Isabel Allende’s in ‘House of Spirits’.

Almost sacrilegiously (for a war novel), the story is jubilantly weaved with long syntax buoyed by effervescent vocabulary. This creates a highly comical voice rich with hyperbole and bathos. Visconti Prasca is, for example, ‘A meteor who turned out to be an incandescent fart’. Bernières sophisticates simplicity, as is seen in the passages below:

“You have an exorbitant auditory impediment,” replied the doctor, ever conscious of the necessity for maintaining a certain iatric mystique, and fully aware that ‘a pea in the ear’ was unlikely to earn him any kudos. ‘I can remove it with a fishhook and a small hammer; it’s the ideal way of overcoming un embarrass de petit pois.’ He spoke the French words in a mincingly Parisian accent, even though the irony was apparent only to himself.’

‘He took the old man over to the window, threw open the shutters, and an explosion of midday heat and light instantaneously threw the room into an effulgent dazzle, as though some importunate and unduly luminous angel had misguidedly picked that place for an epiphany.’

‘It had been a good day for payments; he had also earned two very large and fine crayfish, a pot of whitebait, a basil plant, and an offer of sexual intercourse (to be redeemed at his convenience).

The prose is poetry:

It exposes colours in their original prelapsarian state, as though straight from the imagination of God in His youngest days, when He still believed that all was good.’

‘[…] the Morse code of virgin light glancing after the perpetual motion of the waters, conspired together and unknotted the dry bones in his heart.’

Its pupil began to transfix her like an awl.’, not – one can note – ‘she was hooked’.

Bernières mocks the human race for its arrogance whilst simultaneously lionising them, making clowns of the ringmasters and star acts of commoners. Personification and anthropomorphism are prevalent techniques for this, in themselves symbolic of humans’ attempted domination of all, and the animation of the inanimate provides tension in the surprise of what will affect the story next. There is mastery in characterising a mine as ‘forlorn-looking’.;‘With a metallic crash the gun leapt backwards, its base hopping on its bed like an excited dog jumping for a tidbit.‘; ‘martens […] gathered together in groups […] waiting like opera-lovers before the overture begins.’ This raconteur knows the imagination and entertains it as a gifted host.

What is further evinced by the above is Bernière’s ear for exciting language. ‘Insufficiency of fish in the ocean‘- this gorgeous rush of sounds echoes the ocean itself. A character ‘spoke as if it had a pebble in its throat and a bee up its nose’, ‘talks Greek like a Spanish cow.‘ The title of the book proves prudent as this theme of sound, of musicality, is cardinal. Corelli is a name that sounds like the sweet strum of a mandolin, and the man is one with ‘nightingales in his fingers.‘ His love story with Pelagia- a resplendently intelligent and liberated woman- is lovely but was not the focal thread for me, so wrapped was I in the whole tapestry. Bells are struck by bullets and ‘she listened to the ominous silence of the morning, and realised that it was more consoling to listen to the barrages and thunderbolts of war.‘ Such attention to the aural is perfect given the traditional nature of the setting and the inhabitants affection for the inherited past, as when stories were oral events.

It is a book that is as enlightening as it is reproachful, contemptuous and sensuous, centering on the heartbreaking truth of the fallibility of humanity. I loved this book for what it taught me and finish this laud with a final quote:

I have always tried to show you the affection that I have felt, without taking anything from you and without giving you anything that you did not want.’

*********

This review originally appeared on LibraEve – Book Reviews from Eve.

Mastering a Masters (or trying to)

My three years at Queen Mary is flying by, and for me and my friends it’s time to start thinking about the Future. Grim. For me, it’s the pursuit of a postgraduate degree, and since I’ve begun researching and applying for masters study I thought I’d offer some advice.

What follows is not the wisdom of someone who has completed postgraduate study, but a selection of tips and bits of information that I’ve found useful, crucially as a final year student still in the process of mastering the search for a masters.

 The personal statement

‘This is far too meek and please-sir-can-I-have-some-more. The idea should be to bust down the doors, jump on the table and shout “I am something very special indeed”.’

These are the words of a very trusted friend of mine, a doctor, who read a shoddy draft of my personal statement over Christmas. For many of us, such a task has not been undertaken since our UCAS application, which I wrote three years ago. As much as it was then, it’s a tricky business trying to score the perfect balance between professional modesty and proving your worth. And there’s little assistance to be sought from reading over your old statement; I cringe to think back to my opening line (how proud I was of it at the time!): ‘In the words of Virginia Woolf…’

Oxford’s advice guide states that ‘A statement which indicates the likely dissertation research area the candidate wishes to pursue is more useful than one which presents personal interests, achievements and aspirations.’ At graduate level it doesn’t matter whether you’ve achieved Duke of Edinburgh Awards or play polo – what matters is that you like studying English and, more importantly, that you’re good at it.

Leave out the hobbies, but don’t leave out the showing off. On the contrary, says my reviewer, ‘Bring out intellectual fireworks and do some serious boasting about all the stuff you’ve done’. Your dissertation should be the non plus ultra of your degree, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to talk about how great an independent researcher and thinker you are through a discussion of your project.

Finally, do not be embarrassed about getting people – clever people – to read it. Ask lecturers, PhD students, good undergraduates for help, and don’t worry if they say, as mine did, to rewrite it – your application will be better for it.

Be clear on funding

After undergraduate loans and grants the world of postgraduate study can seem a very scary place. As it stands there is no state funding for masters students, and very little funding from the universities, especially for arts and humanities students. There is, of course, the odd bursary here and there, as well as fee discounts for continuing students (at Queen Mary, for instance, we get a grand off if we stay).

Last year, however, I woke up to news on my phone that the chancellor had announced the introduction of postgraduate loans of up to £10,000 set to start in 2016. And in that moment it seemed all of my worries had gone away. Considering that I’d become so disillusioned at the reality of current postgraduate funding (the lack of it), the prospect of ten grand certainly cheered my spirits.

This is a very important development in higher education, but don’t give up hope on 2015. For those of us who are graduating this year, and who pay the nine grand tuition fees, universities are offering some incentives in the form of bursaries to encourage students to come along in September.

Maybe there is some hope.

Cast your net wide

When I began looking at postgraduate courses I had pretty definite ideas about the kind of places I wanted to study, and even firmer ideas about where I didn’t want to go. I knew I was at an up-and-coming institution, with a vibrant forward-thinking English department, and in east London, not a traditional setting for a Russell Group university. I wanted to avoid universities I perceived as being stuffy or boring (the kind that don’t teach loads of critical theory), and where loads of posh people go.

What I was guilty of, however, was being too closed-minded about many of these institutions. Consequently, I forced myself to look up courses in, make enquiries at, and research as many different universities and departments as possible. At this point, I made the courses and the departments my point of interest, not the preconceptions I had about the institutions.

As I look at all these English departments, north and south, British and international, old and young, I find each offering something particular and unique that makes me want to study there. Many of them are different, even opposing, in outlook and style. We should be excited by different options, though, and investigate these places as a way of trying to figure out what it is we actually want when we apply to study somewhere.

Do you want to learn there?

If we’re not going to base our choice of programme on what is familiar to us or what we thought about the university, what can we look out for? Ask if you want to learn at this institution, in that department, with these people.

It might work to begin by looking up the academics that work in the department, whether you know them or admire their work, and if they seem to offer the kind of ethos you want to work with. In my applications, I have noticed that some critics I have referenced in essays pop up here and there, and this was a good way for me to judge what kind of work gets produced in these places, and whether I want to be part of that. There are also, of course, those celebrity academics we’d all jump at the chance to work with. A word of warning, though, there is of course no guarantee that you would be taught by any particular academic, and, as I learned, they do tend to move around. Having written why I wanted to study under a lecturer at one university, she subsequently (and very inconveniently) moved to another.

Another way to gauge the character of the department in question, without looking to individuals, is to check out their research environment. All departments will list their current projects, and their research strengths and interests. Does their research look helpful to you and does yours look complementary to theirs? Look out for graduate seminars, whether they host conferences, and if they explicitly favour an interdisciplinary or comparative research culture. Do these fit into that you want to study?

More than ever before postgraduate study is about what you want, so investigate how each English department works as well as what it works on. Have you preferred being taught in lectures or in seminars? Queen Mary, for instance, teaches only in seminars, whereas Birkbeck incorporates both.

Do they want to you there?

Are they too busy pouring water to have a proper conversation with you? This is a question I had to ask myself when I attended a postgraduate fair at Senate House last year. A member of a university admissions team really didn’t seem bothered in having to sell their institution and wasn’t very helpful. It is so important to think about whether that university wants you there, whether they value you as a contributor to their intellectual life, or if they regard you merely as someone privileged to be studying with them.

This final point relates to all of the previous. You are paying a lot of money to be at your chosen university, you are beginning to work as a mature and independent learner, and you want to choose somewhere you want be a part of. You have to sell yourself in the application, but a good university will try to sell itself to you, too. Think about whether they seem to value their students – do they offer you as much as you offer them?

Hollywood is Calling…on February 22nd

What’s that I hear? Clicking of paparazzi cameras, prattling and nattering press interviews, the roaring applause of a swanky and stylish audience in their seats? (I would say sexy, but not all of them are). Yep, everything is all set: the cameras have reeled, the red carpet has been rolled, and character costumes have been dropped for staggering and stunning floor-length dresses. We have most definitely been here before. Brace yourselves people, it’s that time of year again: the Oscars!

If there’s any time to get starry-eyed, it’s now. On February 22nd at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California, Hollywood’s finest will gather under one sparkling roof to celebrate a year of fantastic film at the 87th Academy Awards, with first-time host How I Met Your Mother star Neil Patrick Harris providing the laughs. And it has certainly been a pretty grand-spanking year hasn’t it? In case your head has been floating somewhere on a cloud nine for the last few festive weeks, let me recap for you: American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s film based on the most lethal sniper in American military history has totally hit the target for an Oscar nod, and of course there is cheeky-chappie Eddie Redmayne’s truly admiral portrayal of the enigma that is Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Sadly, with every glamorous Oscars night comes its share of face palming snubs and, unfortunately, this year’s happened to be the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl that most probably left you shivering long after the popcorn had digested. Hmmph.

Still, there is plenty to smile about, and perhaps for all those flying union-jacks in their hearts most of all. Don’t tell me you don’t know? We’ve received victorious news about ‘the British invasion’. The Americans, it is fair say, have been well and truly conquered by the Brits – or at least by about two thirds, but due to their size (England can fit into the United States approximately thirty eight times you know), that’s probably as close as we’re going to get. Like Redmayne, English rose Felicity Jones has been nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her powerful portrayal of Jane, Hawking’s first wife, in The Theory of Everything; another nominated duo starring in the Imitation Game is Keira Knightley, nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and newly engaged Sherlock-turned-superstar Benedict Cumberbatch (cue the screaming fan-girls). Who knows, maybe Benny’s fingers might be stretching for more gold than a wedding ring this year… Only time will tell.

The Oscar nominations were announced on the 15th January and, in case you were busy at the pub or catching some valuable me time in Dixie Chicken (we’ve all been there), here is the list of the nominations for the three biggies:

BEST ACTOR: Steve Carell – Foxcatcher, Bradley Cooper – American Sniper, Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game, Michael Keaton – Birdman, Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

BEST ACTRESS: Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night, Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore – Still Alice, Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl, Reese Witherspoon – Wild

BEST PICTURE: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash

Watch the 87th Academy awards on 22nd Feb on Sky Living or Sky 1 at 11.30pm (GMT), or access live coverage online. Even better yet, be at the Oscars next year. (Drama students I nominate you).

Satisfyingly Toasty: The Grapes Pub, Limehouse

As part of our Victorian Fictions module, we had a visit in Week 10 instead of attending a lecture. We were given lots of interesting options, such as the Dickens Museum, the John Soane’s Museum, the Museum of Childhood and the V & A Museum.

However, naturally, I chose to go to a pub in Limehouse called ‘The Grapes’, which is owned by none other than Sir Ian McKellen.

My friends and I toThe Grapes pub, Limehouseok the DLR to Westferry and the pub is just a five minute walk from here. Embarrassingly, we were huddled around my friend’s iPhone, struggling to find the place on Google Maps when a local man took pity on us and pointed us in the right direction. Situated at 76 Narrow Street at the edge of the river, and at nearly five hundred years old, The Grapes pub is one of the oldest pubs in London and has inspired many writers over the years. Indeed, the pub features in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend and is described thus:

“A tavern of dropsical appearance… long settled down into a state of hale infirmity. It had outlasted many a sprucer public house, indeed the whole house impended over the water but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver, who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all.”

I read Dickens’ excerpt after I visited the pub, and I believe that he captures perfectly the rather precarious-looking stance of the public house as it seems as though it could topple into the river at any moment.

As you can see from the rather blurry photograph taken by myself, the pub is quite small, but expands upwards rather than outwards, Fire at the Grapes Publikening it to the TARDIS as it is actually slightly bigger on the inside, with an upstairs restaurant. We were unfortunately too late to order food, which smelled delicious and looked amazing as I gazed greedily at other people’s plates. So I would definitely recommend having dinner if you visit this pub.

We visited at the best time of the year and at the best time of the evening. There is simply nothing better than walking through a dark, cold street, breath billowing out before you, hands raw and numb with frost, to then take refuge in a warm, cosy pub lit by a real fire. I mean, when was the last time you saw an actual fire in a pub? Perhaps we’re just deprived of pub fires in my home town (and, incidentally, Dickens’ city of birth) Portsmouth, but it was seriously exciting. And satisfyingly toasty.

Wall at the Grapes PubEvidently proud of the pub’s Dickens connection, the owners have decorated the walls with pictures of Dickens’ most famous characters such as Bill Sikes and the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist and Captain Cuttle from Dombey and Son. There were copies of Dickens’ greatest novels on the bookshelf, giving a welcoming and homely atmosphere and prompting greater enthusiasm in all Dickens fanatics.

This pub is definitely worth a visit. Even if you don’t like Dickens, its cosy ambience and reasonably-priced drinks make it student friendly and welcoming. It is also rather quirky and perhaps not somewhere you would usually visit as it is a bit off the beaten track, so it’s always good to check out new and different places. If it’s good enough for Gandalf, it’s good enough for me!

 

Little Circles of Dancing Light: On Poetry

Poetry, poetry, poetry. I love poetry. I like putting on a silly voice to impersonate T. S. Eliot whilst reciting ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and deepening my voice to imitate Dylan Thomas’ melodic reading of ‘Fern Hill’. That’s just how I spend my Friday nights. I particularly enjoy spoken word poetry and I remember the first time that I encountered it. I was in my A-Level English Literature class and, in preparation for the practical criticism section of our exam, my teacher asked us all to teach a lesson on a poem of our choice. A guy in my class called Ben brought in an intriguing poem called ‘A Letter from God to Man’ by the spoken word artist Scroobius Pip. Fireworks erupted in my head, creating little circles of dancing light and all my nerves were fizzling. I liked it a lot. I proceeded to search for this mysterious Pip figure on YouTube, watching his videos to much more crackling and sizzling throughout my body. From this, I found Kate Tempest. Watching her perform makes every hair stand on end, her passion, her masterful command of rhythm and the raw, gutsy subject matter of her poems makes me want to scream ‘YES!!!’ Poetry is beautiful. And this intense love was only to grow more and more passionate during my first year at Queen Mary.

One lecture that particularly stood out was that entitled ‘The Line’. This was one of the first lectures on the module and it was memorable because Katy Price made us rip up a poem and rearrange it to see how line structure and length can affect a reading of a poem, its meaning or its overall effect. It made me realise just how creative you can get when analysing poetry and the extent to which you can deconstruct it: nothing should be taken for granted. I found this particularly interesting, especially the emphasis on sound within poetry and how it should be read aloud in order to gain a better understanding of it. This, of course, had been taught at A-Level, but the teaching at Queen Mary made poetry seem much more accessible and dynamic. The use of videos and music to illustrate points about rhythm and sound were particularly useful (Peter Howarth also used the music video for ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ by The Smiths to assist his explanation of irony, which was another highlight). The enthusiasm with which the lectures were delivered and the fresh and innovative way in which poetry was presented helped to nurture my passion for it and confirmed my undying love for it.

My personal highlight from the entire first year was the Poetry Performance week. When I first heard that in Week 8 we would have to do a ‘performance’ I was bricking it. I hate doing presentations and speaking in front of lots of people, so the thought of having to actually perform made my blood pressure sky high. Week 7 came. It was time to plan my performance. It had been explained that we didn’t actually have to do a performance in which we stood up in front of people and recited a poem, we could do anything creative that showed our interpretation of the poem, such as make a video or a voice recording of the poem. However, in a sleep-deprived moment of panic and utter madness I decided to perform ‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath. But I came to the conclusion that a simple performance was not enough. I decided to make awful collages which were supposed to represent certain key phrases or ideas within the poem and I intended them to look child-like to link with the poem’s theme (and to disguise the fact that I am really not artistic). Once I arrived at the seminar, most of my fear had disappeared. Everyone was really supportive of each other and there was such a fun, friendly atmosphere in the class that I actually really enjoyed it! It was interesting to see people’s interpretations of the poems we’d studied and I loved that it really helped to bring poetry to life. People have so many misconceptions about poetry: that it’s boring, pretentious and you’re forced to read it in stuffy classrooms whilst people talk at you and tell you what it’s about and how you’re supposed to interpret it. I found the course at Queen Mary very liberating. It was great to discuss ideas with like-minded people in seminars and the performance week was particularly freeing, allowing us to own our ideas and interpretations in a creative and fun way.

The Art of Internships

Amidst the continuous reading, endless essay deadlines, various extra curricula’s, and office hours spent crying at – I mean, having intellectual conversations with – your lecturers, you should find time to apply for an internship.

Obviously don’t apply to some big city corporations that you have absolutely no interest in (yes as an English student you can do an internship at global conglomerates such as investment banks or corporate companies; it is, however, better to do an internship at places that focus on your field of interest – though if big investment banks are your thing then go for it). Now, you may be thinking, why should I spend two weeks of my summer, or the whole of the summer if your interning at the big city banks, to do a voluntary placement (paid if you’re lucky)? The answer simply is that internships make you more employable and illustrate that you did not spend three years of your degree on Netflix marathons and eating pasta out of the saucepan. It also gives you that dreaded thing that employers ask for: experience.

So, here are my tips on what you should do to apply for an internship and how Queen Mary can help you secure it.

Make Regular Pilgrimages to the QM Careers Center

The Queen Mary Careers center is a gold mine. They have advisors that help you with your CV and an extensive list of events to boost your career (I went to the annual Law Fair every year because I wanted to be a commercial city lawyer). You can also book mock interviews and browse their invaluable books on how to start off your journey to your dream career. They also work with the alumni network that brings in previous QM students who work in various fields. The opportunities that the Careers center offers are priceless and if you come to Queen Mary or are already here it is the one place that you should make use of a lot. If you know the career you want or if you’re completely clueless, this service can definitely help steer you in the right direction.

Research, Research, Research

Before you go ahead and send your applications, make sure that you are not only eligible, but you know a lot about the field of work you’re applying to. This enables you to stand out amongst hundreds of applicants who you will be competing with. This requires endless research, which is a skill that a degree in English will definitely equip you with. Most professional jobs such as law, consultancy, banking, journalism etc. have positions opened for Winter, Easter, and Summer interns. However, some just require a cover letter at anytime during the year, which will give you that much needed experience. In addition, not everyone is eligible for every scheme. For example, in law, winter schemes are usually for finalists or graduates and summer schemes are for penultimate year law students. So, make sure that you start your research into fields that may interest you very early on at university. You wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity.

Don’t Apply Everywhere

Once you’ve figured out the field that interests you – lets say, for example, Consultancy – don’t apply for every consultancy internship there is, because you will fail to make really good applications to each of the firms. It is better to make five amazing applications than fifteen really basic ones. In my second year of university I applied to around twelve internships and I only got one. Though places for these schemes are terribly fierce I do believe that if I had properly researched into each firm I would have gotten better luck. So remember one amazing application is better than five basic ones.

Competencies

With every application you make, you will have to demonstrate certain competencies which recruiters are looking for. These can range from leadership, teamwork, resilience, attention to detail, communication, etc. Now, recruiters that I have met have always said that they would much rather hire someone who ‘demonstrates’ their competencies rather than those who just say they acquire them. So, in other words, ‘as secretary of the music society, I have had to book rehearsal rooms, liaise with different members of the team to ensure that tasks were done efficiently and update our members on the Facebook page’ is much better than, ‘I have demonstrated team work through being involved in the music society’. Ensure that you are an active member of events and hold positions of responsibility to be able to fully demonstrate these competencies.

Interview

Once you’ve passed the paper stage of the application (Well done!), most internships will require an interview. Do not panic. The QM Careers center are able to give you a mock interview for practice and I’ve found that recording myself on my laptop camera is really good at evaluating my posture and how I respond to questions. The biggest tip I can give you for interviews is to just be a likeable person. No one will hire you if you are not enthusiastic, and if you don’t seem like a nice person. The second tip is, don’t make the interview like a Q&A session. It is usually up to you how you set the tone. Make it more of a conversation, strike up some sort of debate and you’ll be on your way to secure that internship and hopefully your dream job.

Manage Your Time

This is the last and possibly most important thing. During all these stages you’ll most definitely have deadlines and reading to do so managing your time is vital. Some make lists, some plan weeks ahead, any method that suits you is fine as long as you don’t fall behind. Prioritising is hard work but it’s one of the skills you can illustrate in your internship interviews. Don’t be afraid to say no to things that you don’t actually have to do, but you feel guilty because a nice person has asked. Saying ‘I’m sorry I can’t’ is possibly the most liberating skill I have learned over my time at university.

I can’t say that following all these guidelines will guarantee you an internship but they’ve really worked for me. For months I researched into the career I wanted to go into (commercial law) and had mock interviews at the Queen Mary Careers center before my internship interview and my graduate job interview that I was able to land last semester. So, even if you haven’t a clue what you want to do, internships are a great way to gain experience in the work field, gain some employable skills and generally meet some amazing people.

Living in London: The Student Way

Over the summer, a number of book benches popped up around London. Their purpose was to demonstrate London’s literary culture and help you explore the city in a way you would never have thought of. There were fifty benches altogether, spread over four trails: The Riverside Trail, The City Trail, The Bloomsbury Trail and last but not least the Greenwich Trail.

My mum, sister and I spent two days travelling around London following the book bench trails, all set with snacks and drink and spent approximately £20 between us on both days. (Not including meeting my brother for a well-earned dinner afterwards).

We spent the first day following the City and Bloomsbury trails, starting at the Tower of London. Walking for four hours around London following tiny print outs of Google Maps was a great opportunity for us to discover little alcoves you would never come across walking around London as a tourist heading to the main attractions. We found numerous little hidden churches and gardens where we stopped for tea breaks whilst on this literary trail as well as stumbling across unique bookshops, antique shops and clothes stores.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe bench in a hidden cemetery park on the Bloomsbury trail.

One of the most fantastic things about studying in London is that all the time, free days out like this are happening all over the place. After the book benches, buses appeared around London to celebrate TFL’s the year of the bus, currently a large number of Paddington statues have emerged all across London, and whatever is next is sure to be great fun and not too expensive.

It is no secret that living in London isn’t cheap. My rent is double that of friends at other universities, I don’t have the heating on but instead walk around the flat in several jumpers every night, and the price of a pint is enough to turn any student sober. However, what London lacks in the way of economical living, it more than makes up for in the never ending cheap and free arts and culture destinations. While other students spend far too much money on a long train journey to the capital to rush all it has to offer into a day or two, we can wake up with nothing to do and within an hour be at one of its numerous museums, art galleries, theatres and concert halls for the cost of up to £3 for the tube fare.

London’s free venues are, in my opinion, what makes it a spectacular place to study for three years and many of my modules at Queen Mary try to incorporate this. One module focuses on London in the Eighteenth Century and requires you to take a walking tour of an Eighteenth Century route and then create a journal about what you have learnt, how the route is today, and the similarities and differences between now and the eighteenth century. As a student at Queen Mary, which is part of the University of London, we get free membership to Senate House Library (also known as the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984). As a QMUL English undergraduate, in first year we were able to go and watch performances of two plays we were studying at the Globe Theatre for free, and we were lucky enough to be given a lecture at the Globe and go on the stage. In fact, many modules encourage trips to art galleries, museums, and even coffee shops to soak up the culture and get the most out of our time living in London.

Taking a photo of London’s architecture on an Eighteenth Century walk.

Away from the academic benefits of London, Queen Mary is in a wonderful location. It is a mere 15 minutes by tube into central London, 15 minutes to Shoreditch and we are surrounded by unique markets which are easy to walk to from campus. A great day out on a Sunday is to head to Colombia Road flower market, walk through Brick Lane market of course stopping at the biegel shop and at the many vintage stores to try and find a bargain, before finishing the trip at Spitalfields market.

Doing all these things for free is amazing but also sadly free trips are not always the case. Luckily for us there are apps which offer discount tickets to comedy clubs and theatre performances or, if you’re really keen you can queue up outside a theatre early in the morning to try and get £5 tickets to the best shows in London. Yes, having a night out is expensive but there are ways around that too. Most bars offer a happy hour, and at B@1, a regular haunt of my friends and I, there is an app which allows us to buy 2-4-1 cocktails to our hearts content. There is a roller disco in Vauxhall for the ridiculous cost of £3.50 on a Thursday night for students, the world famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club is £5 for students after 11pm and if you’re feeling a particularly cheap night out, Cheapskates near Tottenham Court Road always lives up to its name.

A more than affordable kebab to end a night of surprisingly affordable cocktails

London is honestly the best place to be a student, there is nowhere else with a wider range of unbelievably cheap and free excursions. Sign up to alerts from companies like Time Out London for exclusive offers and The Londonist for everyday email updates of free and wacky things to do and soon the cost of London won’t seem so high once you start seeing all it has to offer for free.

Educating the East End: Getting into Teaching

You know that moment when someone asks you what you’re studying at uni, and you reply “English” and they immediately say “Ohhh so you want to be a teacher then?”. It physically pains me to do so every single time, but I am that person who replies “yes, I actually want to be a teacher”.

I always wanted to be a teacher, ever since I was tiny and used to force my sister to play school with me and fill in scrawled, home-made worksheets which I then proceeded to fill with big fat ticks. The ambition faltered slightly in my college years as I imagined being a high-powering publisher, just like Sandra Bullock in The Proposal. That was the dream. Even if it was just for the tight skirts, tall heels and perfectly groomed eyebrows. Then I rediscovered it again this year when I got offered the job of being a classroom tutor at a local high school.

It’s brilliant. Busy, but brilliant. I spend every morning working in classes of year 10s and 11s, usually one-to-one with students that need extra support. The teachers whose classrooms I support, support me in return in my PGCE application, offering to let me plan and teach my own lessons and ask any questions I may have about what teaching a classroom full of hormonal teenagers entails. Working in an East End secondary school is definitely an experience, with rich, multi-cultural diversity being its unique, and most fabulous, focal point. The kids I work with aren’t what I thought they’d be like at all – they have the ‘don’t-care’ attitudes we all had at 15 years old, but they’re bright, respectful young adults and it’s literally like being in a constant episode of Educating the East End. 

I’ve recently just been offered a place at the University of Manchester to study for my Secondary English PGCE come September 2015, so I thought I’d give my version of 5 top tips to applying for teacher training:

1. Get some experience before you apply.

Applications open around the end of October and the minimum most institutions ask for is one week within a classroom setting, but I personally think you need a lot more – not just to hit the minimum requirements, but to actually check this is what you want to do as your career. Because teaching is a career, and it is one that I think that people should only do if they know how much work is involved: lesson plans, targets, reluctant kids, long hours, lots of responsibility etc. You need to see the good and the bad experiences in the classroom. I often have days when I love the students and we’re all engaged in a text together, and other days where I could bang all their heads together because they refuse to follow instructions.

2. A range of experience helps too.

Maybe try two different types of secondary school: an academy and a state school? A girls school and a mixed school? Every little helps when it comes to gaining an insight into the classroom. Every teacher’s classroom is different, and I love seeing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to engaging the pupils. Plus it can’t hurt to have something else to talk about on your personal statement!

3. Speaking of which: the personal statement.

The bane of your life during the month of October. Best advice my careers advisor gave to me? Make it concise. Make it relevant. And put what makes you stand out in the first paragraph. My job means I’ll have over 400 hours of classroom experience by the time my PGCE starts, but for some reason I left this rather impressive fact out until my concluding paragraph because ‘I didn’t want to seem bigheaded’. I swear the advisor has never looked more incredulous in her entire life. Trust me – put it at the beginning and grab that admissions officer’s attention.

4. Get in early. 

Places get allocated on a first come first served basis and it’s better to get that UCAS application completed and sent off before Christmas so you’re on one of the first interview assessment days. The less competition and the more places available when you’re being interviewed, the better hey?

5. Literacy and Numeracy skills tests.

According to the Department of Education “The professional skills tests for prospective teachers assess the core skills that teachers need to fulfil their professional role in schools, rather than the subject knowledge needed for teaching. This is to ensure all teachers are competent in numeracy and literacy, regardless of their specialism. All current and prospective trainee teachers must pass the skills tests in numeracy and literacy before they can be recommended for the award of qualified teacher status (QTS).” All very well and good but English degree holders? The idea of the numeracy test makes me want to cry. I practised it online and only got 50%, and as the pass mark is 63%, I definitely have some work to do. Make sure you practise your arse off, and book in advance. Most institutes set you a time limit when offering you a place in which to pass (mine’s 30th June 2015), so it’s best to get them out of the way sooner rather than later. It doesn’t help that if you fail one or the other three times, you can’t begin your PGCE until two years later. No pressure.