Sumptuous Gems: 80 Years of Penguin, 80 Little Black Classics

Book lovers everywhere, rejoice! To celebrate Penguin’s 80th anniversary, the publishing house has launched a Little Black Classics range. You may have seen the promotional posters on the Underground, which, I have to say, have made rush hour much more bearable. Each simple poster includes a quote from a text, which remains unnamed, prompting a delightful game of ‘Guess the Book’ as you’re swept along the platform with the disgruntled 5pm crowds. Even more exciting is the price of the Little Black Classics – they’re only 80p each! A glorious bargain. I can just hear the grateful roars of Literature enthusiasts everywhere.

Where can you get your hands on these sumptuous gems? Foyles in Charing Cross Road, the Chocolate Factory of the book world – and we all hold a golden ticket! I certainly felt like Augustus Gloop when I trekked there earlier today. The Little Classics are displayed along all of the shop’s staircases, so up I climbed, elbowing my way past bemused customers and gorging myself on these delicious offerings. I picked up Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen, Woman Much Missed by Thomas Hardy, The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats and Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti. At 80p a pop it was like daylight robbery! Other titles up for grabs include It Was Snowing Butterflies by Charles Darwin, Circe and the Cyclops by Homer and Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Oscar Wilde, among many others. What is also so great about this range is that it is taken from Penguin’s Wider Classics, so you get to sample some perhaps more obscure texts by some of our best-loved authors, and broaden your knowledge of their work. Also, on a purely aesthetic level, their simple black and white design is slick and classy, they can easily slip into a handbag and they are, like, so cute. To check out the range for yourself, just go to www.littleblackclassics.com.

Mind the Ironic Gap: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library

Alan Hollinghurst is not a prolific novelist, with only five novels to his name, but he is an important one. His first, The Swimming-Pool Library, burst onto the scene – the gay one and the literary alike – in 1988 just as Thatcher’s third government was introducing the Section 28 laws. The infamous clause prohibited local authorities disseminating material deemed to be endorsing homosexuality, and attempted to silence teachers who dared instruct children that being gay was a normal lifestyle. At the same time, the AIDS crisis had devastated lives around the world, and the World Health Organization began its effort to promote awareness, founding World AIDS Day.

Neither of these two traumas, though, made it into Hollinghurst’s seminal depiction of gay lives, a novel which now makes up a great deal of my dissertation. The presence of these national and international crises is felt throughout the novel, however, which is principally set in London, 1983, but looks back and further afield to Britain’s colonial exploits in the Sudan and to the post-war ‘gay pogroms’ in the 1950s. Hollinghurst quite flippantly said that Section 28 boosted the sales of the novel, and threw a lot more publicity its way, an example of his particular dark, serious humour that runs throughout his work.

I first read this novel for ‘pleasure’ – whatever that means – before I came to Queen Mary, and now at the close of my undergraduate years, I’ve dedicated a year to studying and writing about it. Just as much fun as it was when I read it as a teenager, I decided to revisit it with academic lenses on, focusing on the politics of the 1980s, issues of representation, and invocations of the past. For me, thinking about all of this within a novel I never read in a classroom has been a great way of getting to know it better – and I will excommunicate anyone who says studying a book makes you hate it. What I’ve found is that so much of what I really enjoyed in ‘casually’ reading the novel comes up again and again in what I think provides the potential for ‘formal’, academic discussion.

In The Swimming-Pool Library, the narrator Will Beckwith recounts his leisured life as a 25 year old gay man in early 1980s London, a period he describes as his ‘belle époque’, a kind of prelapsarian golden age for gay men before it all went wrong. Still, he senses disaster amidst the summer of fun: ‘all the while with a faint flicker of calamity, like flames around a photograph, something seen out of the corner of the eye.’ A novel of nostalgia, however, this is not. And Hollinghurst is careful to put pressure on any notion of a sentimentalised gay past, since the wealthy Will from an aristocratic family is brought up against different working-class and black gay men who remind the reader that such hedonistic experiences were exceptions to the rule. More than this, after a comic encounter in a public toilet with an old Lord, Will agrees to undertake the task of writing this man’s biography. Through the diaries of Charles Nantwich, Will comes to know a complicated and unsettling history of homosexuality in Britain and its empire.

Indeed, the novel balances the main sections of first-person narration in the aesthetic and affected voice of Will with passages of Nantwich’s Oxford and Sudan journals from the 1920s. Hollinghurst’s intention was to explore ideas of ageing, and the tension brought about by the two styles of narration suggests what has changed and persisted across the twentieth century for gay men. With this compare and contrast of Will and Nantwich, two gay men from opposite ends of an age of extremes, what is seen to persist most clearly is their appetite for men.

Often labelled as ‘brave’ and ‘unapologetic’, The Swimming-Pool Library continues to be regarded as an important text in depicting gay sexuality and desire for men, and is almost treated as a ‘coming-out’ case in itself. But for all the reviews which praise his defiance as a ‘gay writer’ showing ‘gay sex’, what is most exciting about Hollinghurst’s novel is its refusal to sentimentalise his characters, or feel pressured into depicting all gay men either as allies, heroes or victims of a common enemy, that is, the heterosexual world. In fact, there are remarkably few heterosexual characters in it, and nearly no women. What Hollinghurst achieves in shaking-off is what James Baldwin called the burden of representation. This is unapologetically a novel about a white, rich gay man who lives in west London, and who develops ‘a taste for black names’ and working-class boys, rather than a story which attempts to tell all gay men’s stories.

The first lines of the novel neatly offer the measure of Will, a bright young thing detached from the reality of most people’s lives in Thatcher’s Britain, yet he is physically caught up in the cosmopolitan mix. Hollinghurst makes great use of trains to show off this kind of close detachment, and the Underground often becomes a way for Will to eye-up men or even find a fling:

I came home on the last train. Opposite me sat a couple of London Transport maintenance men, one small, fifty, decrepit, the other a severely handsome black of about thirty-five. Heavy canvas bags were tilted against their boots, their overalls open above their vests in the state heart of the Underground. They were about to start work! I looked at them with a kind of swimming, drunken wonder, amazed at the thought of their inverted lives

Will’s curiosities as to how the other 90% live, since he ‘belonged to that tiny proportion of the populace that indeed owns almost everything’, function as an ironic gap through which we read his peculiar and often uncomfortable perception of black and working-class figures. As his thoughts wander along with his journey, he comes to feel ‘a kind of tenderness’ for the black worker who he imagines going home after a hard night’s graft.

Will in many ways is a pretty unpleasant character, but Hollinghurst maintains that these are the really interesting ones, and makes the point that it ‘doesn’t mean that you can’t find them sympathetic’. Will is, though, a terrific snob. On more than one occasion he travels to the East End to conduct research for Nantwich’s biography or to visit ex-lovers. Going to see Arthur, a seventeen-year-old from Stratford East, Will feels a striking ‘culture shock’ that leaves him disbelieving he is in the same city. As he walks about the tower blocks, he feels an alien: ‘Away to the left a group of kids were skateboarding up the side of a concrete bunker. I somehow expected them to shout obscenities, and was glad I had come ordinarily dressed, in a sports shirt, an old linen jacket, jeans and daps.’

The buildings he sees around him seem to disregard ‘anything the eye or heart might fix on as homely or decent’, and he finds the estate defaced with National Front graffiti: ‘“Kill All Niggers” or “Wogs Out”.’ It is at these moments, in which Will’s ignorance and distaste for the working-class areas comes through, that he is at his most political in revealing the massive divisions that remain in British society. Travelling around on the tube, Will does not so much mind as confront the gaps that exist between races, classes, and subcultures in 1980s London.

For a story belonging to Will, a man who alights at Tottenham Court Road to go home to the flat his grandfather bought for him, the novel has a surprising reach to it. Will is equally fascinated and appalled by the places he visits. As one of many larger instances of Hollinghurst furnishing the novel with references to earlier writers, Will, an Oxford graduate, looks on at east London with a kind of literary sensibility of its divergence, seeing it through ‘Dickensian or Arnold Bennettish’ lenses. Yet, the novel makes no claims to the kind of panoramic perspective that we might expect from an older realist novel.

The Swimming-Pool Library is, I think, one of the great contemporary representations of London, and surely right up at the top in gay men’s writing. Hollinghurst’s fiction is stuffed with vile characters, as anyone who has read his most famous novel will know – the Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty of 2006, which was also made into a not-unsuccessful BBC series. They are hilarious novels, too. His fiction has been criticised for being parochial and short-sighted, but what really succeeds in Hollinghurst’s depiction of London is his ability to confidently show the city in all its divisions and inconsistencies, partially rather than omnisciently, and as multiple spaces. London can seem like cities within cities, and I’ve often been struck by that strange feeling of dislocation, popping up in Victoria or Bloomsbury, when travelling by tube. It’s a view of London Hollinghurst wants to offer up in his first novel, a feeling illustrated nicely by a cameo made by something not so unheimlich for us, Mile End:

The City had already evacuated, and though the train was crowded to Liverpool Street there was only a scattering of us left for Bethnal Green, Mile End and beyond. All the other people in my car – Indian women with carrier-bags, some beary labourers, a beautiful black boy in a track-suit – looked tired and habituated. When I got out at Mile End, though, other passengers got on, residents of an unknown area who used the Underground, just as I did, as a local service, commuting and shopping within the suburbs and rarely if ever going to the West End , which I visited daily. I felt more competent for my mobility, but also vaguely abashed as I came out into the unimpressionable streets of this strange neighbourhood.

A High Price to Pay: QMTC’s Love and Money

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how apathetic students are, but Ema Boswood’s direction of Love and Money by Dennis Kelly just one play in Queen Mary Theatre Company’s excellent End of Season Festival – is an entertaining and provocative rebuttal to any suggestion that young people aren’t interested in energetically engaging with political ideas. And Love and Money is all about Big Ideas. Not just the mingling of romance and finance promised by the title, the play is a scathing indictment of contemporary capitalist society, furnished with existential predicaments – a morally ambiguous parable about how we live now.

From Love and Money performed on 21 March 2015
From Love and Money performed on 21 March 2015

Kelly plays on what seems an endless number of embedded clichés to do with what can and can’t be purchased with money – happiness, love, etc. In his vision, though, the characters seem to have forgotten what so many songs and greetings cards remind us. The central figure Jess ‘believes happiness can be bought – but it doesn’t come cheap in a world of easy credit.’ The extension of these kinds of financial metaphors – the idea that we all have to pay for our decisions or that a person can be morally bankrupt – is at the heart of this twenty-first century morality tale. A play about a marriage ruined by debt, it’s also about the debts we have to other people.

Martha Pailing’s handling of the erratic big spender Jess is striking – a funnier and more sinister shopaholic than Sophie Kinsella’s Rebecca Bloomwood. The play, unlike the world, revolves around Jess and her suicide, setting off backwards from her widow David’s disturbing explanation of her death during an email conversation with French colleague Sandrine. Melenik Milmano and Moa Johansson kick the play off on its reverse journey with David and Sandrine’s snappy online exchange, an early indication that seemingly everyday occurrences will pretty sharply be revealed as moments of the weird and shocking. From David’s awkward attempt to start the email – something we all can relate to – the flirtatious chat begins, before Sandrine’s refrain, ‘Tell me of your wife’, leads to the revelation that the rest of the play recounts.

The breakdown of one relationship is symptomatic of an entire global culture’s collapse. If charity starts at home, then, so does economic failure. Though the play’s themes have grand implications, political speeches and debates are swapped for scenes comprised of emails, job interviews, chats; everyday manifestations of the economic system we live in. And written in 2006, Love and Money has proved popular owing to renewed debates around capitalism triggered by economic crises and the so-called banker-bashing anger of the public. But unlike a play set at the heart of power by David Hare or James Graham, for instance, Kelly is much more interested in dramatising neoliberal ideologies at work on the small scale.

This is a play about death and Big Ideas and what Ed Miliband might call predatory capitalism, but it’s really funny, too. And I don’t think that’s an accident. The Godfather of modern political theatre Bertolt Brecht believed laughter and fun were essential to the political power of theatre, and this production certainly makes the most of the dark humour which accompanies the vitriolic critique.

We get the measure of this kind of comedy early on from Jess’ parents, played by Billy Gurney and Maria Pullicino, as they reveal their distaste – and envy – for the ‘flash’ and ‘vulgar’ grave of a Greek woman next to their daughter’s. We can only laugh as the Father has his outburst about the price of the headstone (the Mother scorns him for mentioning VAT), but, as they keep saying, they’re not rich. Amongst the taboo humour, and probably the reason why we’re laughing, are the uncomfortable truths of just how hard death is to deal with. And even though we feel we shouldn’t worry about the (financial) cost, death, too, is a business. The spending goes on after Jess.

Love and Money is full of awkward encounters. David’s job interview with his ex Val (Annabelle Sami), and her catty, Audi-driving assistant Paul (Peter Walker), relishes the discomfort and sourness of the situation. It’s time for Val to get her own back on the desperate English graduate David, who now hopes to pursue a career in sales. She wants to do him a ‘favour’, but it won’t come easy. Beneath her mocking and bitterness, she reveals a nihilistic heart: she loves and worships cash. She used to believe in religion, just as Paul believed in socialism – he still votes Labour, mind – but now wealth and power fill their dreams.

In a ‘shitty pub’, Debbie (Tilly Bungard) seems to be pestered by the tipsy Duncan (Jack Ridley), in another strange meeting that goes far beyond where we expect it to. As so many weirdoes in pubs promise, Duncan wants to make Debbie famous – well, everyone’s thought about being on TV nowadays. Typical of the whole show, this scene is saturated with swearing, and becomes an air raid of C-Bombing.

From foul language, though, the actors do well to perform Kelly’s often jagged, staccato lines, which look more like poetry on the page. Kelly’s script is written carefully to depict how real people speak, drawing attention to hesitations, breaths, mistakes, and the performances follow suit with an obvious consideration of the text. It’s an achievement in any theatrical performance to follow a clever script, while at the same time encouraging the audience to forget that the broken and muttered and spat-out lines are actually printed on a page. This could be improvisation, except the language is so well-worked  and intentioned; it’s constructed, as great writing often is, to seem fluent, mundane, and inconsequential, as if every word were spoken at random – as we tend to think we speak – when actually it’s all strictly penned and rehearsed.

Martha Pailing and Menelik Milmano as Jess and David
Martha Pailing and Menelik Milmano as Jess and David

‘I’m just so / looking forward’ are some of the last words of the performance and Jess’ final speech, but in the world of the play they are the first, since we’ve ended up at the beginning of Jess and David’s relationship, before everything goes wrong. It is a strength of Pailing’s performance that we meet Jess halfway through the play with her frenzied love of shopping in full bloom, announcing that as a child she discovered she was an alien, and we watch her manic personality gradually shrink until we are left with only the seeds of what we know will become her addiction. As she speaks, more quietly now, (and places her make-up in a bag) we can see she will become a woman standing outside a shop transfixed on a handbag, but, crucially, we also see her when she looks like all of us, that is, just liking ‘things’ and wanting a ‘neater’ life. Her acting matches the tragic effect of Kelly analeptic tale, where we finish with what actually turns out to be a really crushing sense of sadness as Jess tells of her excitement for the future.

As a piercing keen starts to drown Jess out, her final words signal her enthusiasm to begin her new life, but it’s already been written, and the audience knows how it will turn out. There’s no room for manoeuvre in this world, and closing the show, she says, ‘That’s it.’

Five Ways to Achieve Stress-Free Travel around London

Let’s be honest – travelling around London can be stressful and exhausting at the best of times. The last thing you need when you’re trying to grapple with the labyrinthine London transport system is to be on a tight time limit. I’m usually late for everything and am no stranger to the abject horror of tearing through King’s Cross with approximately 8 minutes to get from the Northern Line to the National Rail platform, usually via the ticket collection machines and ideally with a quick stop for a cigarette en route. Even during my final year of studying in London I still forget how long it takes to get to certain destinations and misjudge just how big London is (I’m from a small town). So, if you’re perennially late for everything, terrified by the sheer size of London or just struggle to get around the city without experiencing homicidal feelings, follow the tips below.

  1. Avoid travelling during rush hour

Unless you enjoy inhaling the pungent aroma of 50 armpits during your journey and have a penchant for being pushed, sworn at and prodded and shoved, avoiding the excruciating hell of rush hour is a good idea. This is not just because you’ll save some money travelling off-peak, but also because your chances of grabbing a seat and some personal space are greatly increased. Unfortunately university schedules, work shifts and other commitments often leave us with no choice but to travel during the busiest times of day. So, if you do have the choice, take full advantage of it, especially if you have to travel long distances and are prone to claustrophobia.

  1. Pay attention to TFL updates

TFL (Transport for London) provides travel updates on Twitter (@TfLTravelAlerts) and on their website, and it’s also worth signing up to receive email updates. Don’t rely on the live updates in stations – it’s important to know in advance which routes you may or may not be able to use. The engineering works in London can be an absolute nightmare. They have the potential to render certain parts of the city almost totally inaccessible, which is why signing up to receive email updates letting you know which works are taking place over the weekend is a very sensible idea. Otherwise, you risk finding yourself marooned at an unfamiliar station, embroiled in a 200 strong crowd brawl trying to fight your way onto the next rail replacement bus.

  1. Plan ahead and know where you’re going

At some point when you’re heading somewhere new and ask for directions in advance you will hear the immortal words: ‘It’s just a couple of minutes away from the tube station’. Always check first. Firstly, because London is huge, and secondly because Google Maps has a tendency to behave like a petulant child if your mobile internet connection isn’t up to scratch. I naively assumed that regardless of where you are in London, you’re only ever ‘a couple of minutes away’ from the nearest tube stop. Not true. When someone who knows their area well tells you that you ‘just’ need to take the third left and then the second right and go through the underpass and then past the park and then it’s simply the third turning opposite the pub on the right just near the station, you need to worry. Write down directions, take note of which tube stations/bus stops you need and leave half an hour spare for getting lost. You’ll be fine.

  1. Pay attention to your surroundings

Disobeying travel etiquette in London is a bad idea and usually makes your journey (and everyone else’s) a lot more stressful. Standing on the right hand side of the escalator will put you in good stead. However, running up the left hand side trying to keep up when you know you can only make it halfway and then having to stop to catch your breath (especially when there’s no space for you to move over to the right) will drive people (okay, me) absolutely insane. Holding people up by dawdling in busy areas will get your toes run over by a large suitcase careering past (probably mine) and stopping abruptly at the bottom of a staircase in a crowded station to check your Twitter feed is just plain silly. Planning a chilled out journey is the best way forward, but London can be a tough place so being aware that other people are stressed and in a rush is advisable. This way, you’ll get to your destination free of hassle and won’t spend your evening out crying in the toilets over that guy who sighed loudly and called you a ‘bloody tourist’ when all you were trying to do was take a picture of your feet in front of the ‘Mind the Gap’ sign at the height of rush hour.

  1. Scrap the whole thing and just walk everywhere

A little controversial I know, but walking around London is easily the least stressful way to see the city. For a start, it’s free and as a student you should seize every opportunity you can to get out of spending money on silly things like Oyster cards. The blasted things run out of credit whenever they feel like it, get lost all the time and generally make your life a living hell (I’m kidding, sort of – pretty much everyone in London has one). Walking across the city means you control where you go (you’ll need a map) and how long it takes to get there (a great way to monitor how much slower you’re walking since all that fried chicken and cider became your main diet). A long purposeful walk to your destination will burn some calories, cut out travel costs and help you to learn your way around. Additionally, travelling on foot will give you some fresh (ish) air and the best part is that you’ll discover places you’d never have found otherwise.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die

Today I finally made it to the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London, which is embarrassingly late considering it has been running since October. Clutching my ticket, I descended the stairs to find a father and two kids patting a bookshelf in front of me and, catching my puzzled expression, the security guard informed me that we had to find the entrance. The father finally had some luck and pushed the right book, which, to the excited squeals of his two children, revealed a doorway. A charmingly magical entrance to an exhibition about a rather magical genius.

As the title of the exhibition suggests, the emphasis is on the timelessness of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, the endless possibilities for adaptation and the way in which the Sherlock Holmes stories capture the imagination, ensuring their remarkable staying power in our hearts, on our bookshelves and on our televisions. This message is clear from the very beginning, as, on entering, you are confronted with several television screens, each displaying a different adaptation of Sherlock Holmes through the years. From Alan Wheatley’s portrayal of the detective in the 1951 BBC television series, to Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film version and Benedict Cumberbatch’s adoption of the role in 2010, it is clear that the adventures of Sherlock Holmes will live to deliver and delight time and time again.

The meticulous detail that has clearly been put into this exhibition is impressive. Much like the detective himself, it leaves us with no stone unturned, every aspect of the author and his creation are presented and examined – there is even a section dedicated to London fog, as this features frequently in the stories. I personally liked the maps of Victorian London, which were fascinating. One map was colour coded to show the areas of London that were ‘wealthy’, ‘well to do’, ‘poor’, ‘very poor’ and so on. There were also maps dedicated to certain stories such as ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ and ‘A Study in Scarlet’ to show the areas of London that Sherlock and Dr Watson had visited in these tales and which mode of transport they had used. This visual representation of the stories is great as it makes us connect with them even more, seeing if Holmes ever passed by the way you walk to work, or if he and Dr Watson ever visited your neck of the woods. You get to immerse yourself even further in the world of Holmes and watch the scenes of pursuit unfold in front of your eyes.

Another great feature was a display of postcards sent to and from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We are asked to adopt the role of the detective as we are told that one of the postcards holds some significance to the Sherlock Holmes stories and are given the clue to look at the picture on the postcard and its address. This interactive element encapsulates the spirit of Holmes and further engages us with the detective and his creator. Indeed, in the final section of the exhibition we are presented with various artefacts, such as a pair of ladies’ shoes which are shown to have slits in the soles where a blade would have been kept. It is the presentation of such minute details that allows us to get inside the mind of the detective and imagine Holmes examining such items himself in order to solve mysteries. The exhibition completely engulfs us, transporting us to the world of Sherlock Holmes in a way that is magical and that indeed proves that the much-loved detective will never die.

If you haven’t already been, there’s still time to catch the exhibition as it is running until the 12th April and costs £9 for students. Worth checking out if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, and there’s a charming little café next door that sells an excellent Lemon Drizzle. Mary Berry would be proud.

3 Reasons Why Studying Drama in London is Awesome

Cosmopolitan Capital. International city of stuff. Centre of important things and whatnot. Whatever London is, choosing to study here was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Boost my Ego Elsewhere:
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Photographers united through Instagram

Not sure which famous sites to visit in London? Interested in photography? Want to know more? Read on to find out about the ‘Instagramers London’ meet-up page.

Barbican Centre, image by Jennifa Chowdhury Barbican Centre, image by Jennifa Chowdhury

One account on Instagram you should be following is @London. You don’t necessarily need to have Instagram to join the meet-ups, so don’t worry! Just bring whatever device you have and enjoy the day. They always organise meet-ups in places where we can take cool photos and get to know people. Speaking of which, the next worldwide instameet has been organised for the weekend 21-22 March. Details are finalised closer to the date but get involved and join in the fun. This is something you cannot miss out on!

The first worldwide instameet in London I attended was in May 2014 and it was such a success! People came from all over the world and it was lovely meeting them! You felt comfortable carrying your phone, iPad or camera around; it did not matter if you looked like a tourist, as there were hundreds of us doing exactly the same. It gives you a sense of belonging – I am a lover of photography you see. I may not be a professional but I enjoy taking in the sights and sharing them with people. I like skylines, bridges, buildings and nature!

Barbican Centre Fountains, image by Jennifa Chowdhury Barbican Centre Fountains, image by Jennifa Chowdhury

We met bright and early at the Barbican Centre for the worldwide instameet in May and had the chance to visit the garden. The sun was out and I had lovely company. Oh, what a beautiful place! I felt mesmerised by the tropical atmosphere created by the warm temperature, trees and fountains. It is as if we stepped out of London and into a tropical island. It is quite useful to note that the conservatory and garden can be hired out for private events such as weddings and receptions. So you could use it for a big event, maybe even your birthday?!

The organisers were friendly and made sure that the day was packed full of great sights to appreciate. The fountains outside the Barbican Centre are a must see! The Barbican Centre is situated right at the heart of London. It is known to be one of the largest venues in Europe for celebrating the arts; such as music, theatre, dance, etc.

Freerunners in London, image by Jennifa Chowdhury Freerunners in London, image by Jennifa Chowdhury

After the morning session at the Barbican Centre we went for a photo walk accompanied by freerunners. They were climbing up buildings and trees for us to capture. Ending the day at Jamie’s Italian with free welcome drinks and acoustic singers for entertainment. If you are feeling competitive and want to showcase your photos from the day, there are prizes over £1000 to be won by the end which is exciting! If you want to have a taster of what the day was like, watch this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQENeKxL_Hk&feature=youtu.be. (You’ll see me and my friends at 1.34).

Clearly a lot of thought gets put in organising these events for us to participate in, experience and take memorable photographs of. I would definitely recommend joining one of their meet-ups as it is enjoyable and a great atmosphere to meet like-minded people. You can network and visit their hometown and go on your own photo-walks. One more thing to add, these events are completely free to join! So what are you waiting for? Make the most of these opportunities to fully experience London.

Not only do they organise worldwide meet-ups, they also keep an eye out for current events that take place in London which you can join at short notice. During the Christmas period they organised a gathering for the Regent Street Christmas Lights switch on. There were live performances and Take That were there to turn the lights on, with a fantastic firework display in the background. To keep updated on news around London events I would suggest you to join the ‘Instagramers London’ meet-up page. It is an exciting way to try out new places and meet new people! Step out of your comfort zone and immerse yourself in what London has to offer you.

International Love, International Women’s Day

Sunday 8th March is not any normal Sunday. Yes, the chances are your family’s roast dinner will still be served in all its gravy- sorry groovy – grandeur at the dining table. And yes, Countryfile will most definitely still be gracing your television screens with some lovely sheep and cows (on in the background of course, unless you like that sort of thing – hey, who am I to judge?). Nope, what I am really getting at is Sunday 8th March shines especially bright because it is the date that women all across the globe unite together for International Women’s Day 2015.

women unite
Women unite.

If you don’t know, International Women’s Day is a day of celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future.  It was first recorded in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, with over one million men and women attending rallies for women’s civil rights. Today International Women’s Day is a day of celebration for women’s triumphs, a day of raising awareness for women’s struggles, and a day of hope for positive change in the future. In some places of the world International Women’s Day is even a National Holiday. Of course, here in the United Kingdom, good old David Cameron is yet to make the leap to make it one (I’m sure he has a lot of other pressing issues on his plate), but one thing is for sure: with or without a break from the nine-to-five, our immense purple-pride over this momentous day is as strong as ever.

To remember why, let’s cast our minds back to three of the most iconic moments and remarkable achievements of women in the past year.

  • At eleven years old she was blogging anonymously for BBC about her life as a school girl in Swat Valley, Pakistan. Now Malala Yousafzai is a female activist against violence, poverty and for more access to education for women and girls. Most inspiring of all, in 2014 Malala became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of seventeen years old. Upon receiving the prestigious award, she said in her acceptance speech to the world: “I am those 66 million girls deprived of an education. And today I am not raising my voice, it is the voice of those 66 million girls”. Beyoncé may well be ‘Queen B’, but Malala is undoubtedly ‘Queen A’.
  • Emma Sulkowicz, an Art student at Columbia University in New York, vowed to lug around her heavy mattress everywhere she went until her alleged rapist was expelled from the school. And lug she did. The protest originally started as an art project, yet went on to provoke a revolution against sexual assault. 28 mattresses were dropped outside the University President’s office. Now that is some revolution.
  • If you haven’t heard, though no longer Hermione at Hogwarts, Emma Watson showed the world that she is still very much capable of magic with her speech at the UN conference in September 2014. Whether she is a famous film star or not, her message of Gender Equality and Feminism was heard loud and clear by men and women all over the globe. In the speech Emma passionately announced, “It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals. We should stop defining each other by what we are not, and start defining ourselves by who we are”. Somehow I don’t think 10 points to Gryffindor will ever be enough.

There are seven billion people on planet Earth, half of those are women. Above are only three examples of millions of inspiring women making a change for a better future, and it all started over a hundred years ago with the Suffragettes. As for making a positive change to 2015, I suggest you start small and make your dear mum a cup of tea… and even your dad, if he fancies one. Heck, just make a round for your all your friends and the next door neighbour too.

Celebrate International Women’s Day with love on Sunday 8th March with #makeithappen. (Oh – and don’t to #makethetea).

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On Reading Books You Don’t Like

At the beginning of my second year, during a compulsory module I didn’t much want to be doing, a tutor said to my class: ‘I’d hate to think of you spending your degree just reading what you wanted to read.’ On the contrary, at the time I didn’t think I could imagine anything better than working my way through my degree reading nothing other than modernism and Marx. That’s what I liked, so that’s what I wanted to read. And I had no time for a module which required me to read Wordsworth or editions of The Spectator from the eighteenth century.

Moving from first to second year, I had a very fixed idea of the kind of books I liked, the ones I thought were important, and the ones which I believed were most worthy of study. Personally, and as unpopular as it may sound, I’m of the opinion that we should be studying less Shakespeare in first year, and probably focus more on critical theory. This is most likely because, for my sins, I like reading critical theory a lot more than Shakespeare. On the one hand, of course, it’s very important to feel dedicated to what you’re studying, but I was probably too chauvinistic in regarding twentieth-century literature as far superior to any other branch of English studies. What I’ve learned since, however, is that it’s good for you to read things you do not want to. More than this, it’s crucial to getting the most out of an English degree.

On an English degree you will encounter texts you do not like, spot titles on reading lists that you dread, and be tempted more than once to skip reading books you just can’t stand. This is neither the course’s failure, nor yours. It is not a sign that you aren’t cultured enough to appreciate or ‘get’ the books, or that the course is out of touch with your interests. Given the wide range of books you will be required to engage with on your degree, it is ineluctable that you will dislike some. Again, this is not a problem. These can be some of the most fruitful opportunities for study because we must ask why we did not want to read it, why we didn’t enjoy reading it, and why we wouldn’t want to read it again. On an English degree negative feelings towards the material we encounter can be just as – if not more – provocative and stimulating than positive ones.

It seems an obvious point to make that being prepared to engage with new texts and ideas is important for anyone wanting to be a critical and open-minded English student, but it’s certainly something I needed reminding of. When it came to choosing my third year modules there were plenty I would’ve loved to take, but I was prompted by my personal advisor to take something outside of my comfort zone. Even if that course didn’t sit comfortably alongside my other modules and reading, I might learn new skills and methodological approaches which would enhance my learning in other classes. Much more, though, the very fact of learning new things would be really important in itself.

In the words of Hector in The History Boys, study is never general. And in many ways the point of a degree is to take knowledge from the general to the particular, and specialising in your field is both a natural and desirable consequence of learning in higher education. The journalist John Rentoul advises that acquiring, and being known for, specialist knowledge is fundamental to pursuing a career in the media. But more than a practical and useful tactic of navigating your degree which makes you more employable, developing expertise in a particular field is a very fulfilling and rewarding activity.

I always seem to look back on modules that I didn’t enjoy with a feeling that it was actually pretty useful. Hindsight, they say, is a beautiful thing. Or, perhaps, it’s simply that pain seems less acute at a distance. And the second year module in question was no exception, even though I certainly don’t venture down to the eighteenth century anymore. It seems to me that there is enormous benefit in learning about topics that we might honestly say we don’t care about. Not only from that practical viewpoint, whereby we build versatility and an inclusive attitude to fresh experiences, but more importantly – I would argue – in fostering a critical mindset optimised to open thinking and getting the most out of any text laid before us.

‘Eating My Words’: The Perils of Episodic Viewing – ‘The Casual Vacancy’ Part 2

After having criticised the opening episode of The Casual Vacancy last week, this Sunday I was left devouring my words (excuse the pun). Yes, my main issue with the first episode was that character Howard Mollison’s obesity was not obvious enough. This seems like a minor issue, but my argument was that Rowling made Mollison obese in order to compare him with heroin addict Terri Weedon to show how they both cost the tax payer to treat, yet Weedon is ostracised whereas Mollison is not. I felt that it was important that the BBC did not downplay this social commentary, as I believe that this forms a vital part of Rowling’s novel and the message it aims to convey: none of us are perfect, so why should we have the right to be prejudiced against others, particularly those less fortunate than us? In interviews Rowling has said that it infuriates her when people lack empathy, which is why I feel her novel is so important. It forces us to empathise, to consider important issues such as class divides, inequality, prejudice, self-harm, alcoholism and mental health issues. I felt that the comparison of Mollison’s addictive relationship with food to Weedon’s drug habit was one of the most effective ways in which Rowling criticises society’s tendency to favour a certain class or habit over another. This is why I was disappointed that Mollison’s obesity was not made more obvious in the first episode.

However, on Sunday night I did indeed eat my words. The second episode perfectly handles Mollison’s weight problem, directly comparing it to Weedon’s heroin addiction through references to Dr Jawanda’s methadone clinic, which Mollison is eager to close down. Mollison undermines the doctor, suggesting that the methadone clinic is a waste of money, and she sharply retorts with questions about the cost of his heart surgery. Mollison had visited the doctor earlier in the episode for a repeat prescription of some cream to treat a rash caused by his excessive skin (a result of obesity). The doctor asks him if his weight loss plan is working and he sheepishly brushes off the question, giving a vague reply. I am glad that the BBC retained this crucial scene from the novel, as it is a great example of Mollison’s stubbornness, refusing to lose weight despite the advice of doctors and, in doing so, costing the taxpayer through his need for heart surgery and rash cream. This all comes to a head at an entertainingly disastrous dinner party, one of my favourite scenes from the book, in which Dr Jawanda delivers a few home truths to Howard and we punch the air. Michael Gambon is superb in this scene, conveying perfectly Mollison’s pig-headedness. His silence in response to Dr Jawanda’s criticism shows us that he knows he’s in the wrong, yet he’s too proud to admit it and to change his lifestyle, making him even more a character that we love to hate. Making this scene all the more deliciously, and perhaps wickedly, humorous is my personal favourite Samantha Mollison, knocking back the wine and watching the chaos unfold.

I am still waiting to get excited by the presentation of Colin Wall’s OCD. So far I am not convinced, but I have learnt my lesson about making premature judgements. After all, these are the perils of episodic viewing. Maybe Wall’s anxiety disorder will become more obvious as the episodes progress. There have been glimpses of it, such as when Colin is asking his wife for reassurance about why his students are making rude hand gestures at him. His wife pretends that they were gesticulating at her instead in order to soothe him, which demonstrates both Wall’s paranoia and the emotional and physical toll that his illness takes on his loved one. This is another way in which Rowling’s novel presents us with important issues and aims to educate us about them, or at least make us question them rather than ignore them. I’d like to see Colin’s OCD become more obvious in the final episode, as it would be interesting to see a realistic portrayal of the often misunderstood disorder on the small screen.

‘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.