A New Sketchbook

Smudging the oily pastels in to thick drawing paper, feeling the wax push its way under my nails and into my fingerprints. There is something earthy about drawing with oil pastels, something thick and organic and bold. I layer blues onto the paper, specking them with the dazzling yellow-white of reflected lights dancing off the river’s surface. This is my therapy. Breathing through the first lurch that comes from vandalising a new sketchbook with a bright scar of cerulean. The bridge I stand on has not yet been created, the buildings on the opposite bank are invisible, the sky is yet to emerge from where a dazzling white nothingness still sits. Every mark from now is an attempt to recover the purity of the untouched page, to undo the blue line by turning it into a new world, into something that makes sense again.

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Run Forest Run

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In the past I’ve always dabbled in running in the sense that I make some grand inner pronouncement to myself that I’d like to be a ‘runner’. In books, film and TV, people who are runners always seem to have their shit together. I figured this was a good thing for me to be doing. Anyone who’s a runner has already predicted the next part – it never stuck. It became a chore, it turned into a vulture that I imagined circling overhead, coaxing me into staying on the sofa whilst simultaneously picking over the guilt of my inactivity as I did just that.

I don’t know why things changed for me with running but I know they did, and I know it happened when I was in a pretty low place. Running was something that took my mind off other things, running got me outside, running made me feel that I was slowly becoming stronger. Starting to get into a moderate running habit didn’t magically cure me of depression, but thumping my feet over the pavement or the trail felt like a small win for me at a time when I felt like I couldn’t win at anything.

I’m still not entirely sure that my motivation for running isn’t masochistic. I mean, I run through the forest while listening to a podcast about serial killers. I’m effectively putting myself in a situation where I run through a dim, deserted woodland listening to stories about killers who have snatched people from dim, deserted woodlands. But it makes me feel as though I’m facing my fears: I’m seeing something that might theoretically make me nervous and I’m doing it anyway. As I’m able to run faster and further, as I feel the muscles in my legs growing stronger, I feel a sense of achievement that I’ve never felt before. I feel connected to my body in a way that I haven’t ever before. As summer has shifted to autumn around me, and red leaves are falling down around my feet, I am finally running into my future.

 

 

All Souls or All Slaves? New scholarship fund is too little, too late.

All Souls College Oxford’s new pledge to fund a scholarship for one Caribbean student a year is an offensively inadequate response to its colonial legacy. In 1710, the college received a large donation from slave-owner and colonial governor Christopher Codrington that today would be equivalent to tens of millions of pounds. The result of that donation, the Codrington Library, continues to be one of Oxford University’s most impressive architectural sites but it’s origins as a monument of the brutal slave trade has only more recently been acknowledged.

All Souls new scholarship programme is an attempt to address the mounting criticism of its colonial history, but as a recognition and reparation of the benefits it has gained from the slave trade, it is wholly inadequate. As one of the wealthiest and highest status colleges, All Souls commitment to funding one student per year from a Caribbean country seems unnecessarily stingy. Such numbers certainly do not even begin to grasp the scale of the harm caused by the transatlantic slave trade, or even Christopher Codrington’s small part in it. Moreover, the scholarship seems to be offered with conditions attached. All Souls has always been unique in that its students automatically become fellows and thus have a place in the governing body of the college. This is not the case for the lucky scholarship receiver. Even then in providing the cash, All Souls continues to perform the segregation that it claims to be fighting. It seems to be saying ‘these people deserve an education at Oxford’, whilst scoffing at the idea that it should be here and on equal terms with ‘us’. It will be interesting to see how many of the future scholarship holders will be admitted to All Souls College, a college that deems itself at the peak of Oxford academic elite.

Reparation does not just mean throwing cash at the problem. Providing money means nothing if it does not happen within a wider acknowledgement of the historical and ongoing effects of the slave trade. Continuing to name All Souls Library after its colonial benefactor, and continuing to grant pride of place to a marble statue and portrait in his honour suggest that All Souls recognises none of this. Perhaps most damningly, the recent revelations of the so-called ‘Paradise Papers’ revealed that All Souls had invested heavily in off-shore accounts in the Cayman islands, a popular method of tax evasion. In the light of this, the college’s faux social responsibility is especially hard to swallow. A college that continues to benefit from the british colonisation of the Cayman Islands certainly isn’t one that feels ashamed of its colonial past.

Things that fill me with wonder and excitement

On the recommendation of Keri Smith in her book ‘The Imaginary World of…’, I recently started a Pinterest board of Things that fill me with wonder and excitement. I’ve never really understood Pinterest before, and I’m still not sure if I’m doing it ‘right’ whatever right may be, but it works for me at least. It’s become an online mood board for things that make me smile, things that make me think, things that light that warm feeling in my stomach, things that make me want to try other things, things that make my fingers itch to pick up a pen and write, things that remind of long-forgotten things, things that spark an idea, things that make me think of people, places and times, things that make me feel strong and powerful and brave and brilliant.

Over the past few days, it’s become an almost nightly ritual to spend 5 minutes pinning a few new things to my board. It’s a 5 minute break that plunges me right into the thick of my happy place. And I’ve also noticed that it’s really giving my creativity a kick as well. It seems obvious to say, but surrounding yourself with things that excite you really can make a difference (even if it is on a computer screen). My next project is to take some of the creative juice that Pinterest has helped squeeze out and breathe life into it in my offline world. Stay tuned for updates, and don’t forget to chase a little wonder today.

An Ode to the Bookshop

Reposting something I wrote a few months ago because it particularly resonates at the moment. Happy Friday!

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Is there any better smell than the scent of a new book?

Bookshops are my safe space. They are shelter from the storm of emotions which sometimes overwhelm me. Perhaps more importantly, they are a distraction from that frequent desolateness which settles in and seems to push everything else out with its silent, empty hugeness. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of hours in bookshops. Wandering around, reading the back of covers, dipping into random pages, springing into the middle of random lives; unknown characters brewing a tea, running from an attacker, teaching a class, offering a hand, quoting Sartre, eating a kiwi, making love, dying. I read just a sentence in each, an icy plunge into worlds that are elsewhere even as they are right here.

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Nobody rushes you in a bookshop. No shop assistants follow you with beady eyes, keeping a mental tally of how many times you’ve…

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Back to the Bubbles?

Baths are something that I used to love as a baby – my mum says I was never happier than when I was splashing around in the water. As a small child, I have vague recollections of bathtime as playtime. I would sit in the warm tub surrounded by foam fish that I’d try to catch with a fishing rod and stick to the walls, turning my little bath into the mighty pacific ocean rocked by the stormy waves of my hands.

Time moves on and we often lose our sense of play, but recently I’ve rediscovered my childhood love of baths. For one, moving home from university has meant moving back into a house with a bath that I can finally guarantee my flatmates haven’t peed into. Bubble baths have become an almost weekly act of self-care, where I can soak in luxury for an hour, surrounded by scented candles and clutching my current book, undisturbed by anyone or anything. Not only has it become a time to switch off and relax, but it’s also been a brilliant place for me to be mindful. At the end of every bath I put my book down, focus on the smells of ylang ylang and ginger, feel the warmth of the water and submerge myself to really experience the sensation of floating.  I can testify that on a cold autumn night there’s no better feeling than rinsing off, moisturing with cocoa butter and then climbing into freshly washed pajamas to dry in front of the fire. Baths might not be for everyone but why not try returning to something that you used to love, you might find that it still holds some magic!

Thoughts on the Austrian Election from Vienna

With the victory of Emmanuel Macron over the far-right Marine Le Pen in France’s 2017 presidential election, pundits and commentators everywhere started applauding Europe’s retreat from populist politics. Austria’s October 2017 electoral result places a huge question mark over the veracity of these claims. Have we been celebrating the fall of the ‘far-right’ prematurely?

Almost certainly yes. The typical liberal narrative goes something like this – the election of Trump in the US, and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union have been spectacular failures; they have illuminated the stark reality behind the irrational claims made by populist leaders, thus causing the electorate to spurn populism and return to the safety of the centre ground. Certainly there are elements of truth to this argument – for one, Trump’s approval rating is an exceptionally low 33%. But the popular narrative of ‘Bregret’ – that UK citizens regret voting to Leave the EU – is simply not supported by the statistics. Indeed a YouGov poll showed that were the referendum to take place again tommorow, the result would be exactly the same. So much for learning from our mistakes.

Perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of this liberal narrative, which paints far-right populism as a short-lived insanity, followed by the inevitable return to the rationality of mainstream politics, is the phenomenom of Sebastian Kurz. Leader of the Austrian People’s Party, which won 31.5% of the votes and 62 seats at the 10th October election, Kurz directed a significant shift to the right within the party, winning it an extra 15 seats since 2013. It is now almost certain that Kurz will seek to form a government with the Freedom Party of Austria, led by Heinz-Christian Strache. Founded by Nazi and former SS officer Anton Reinthaller, the party has always inhabited a space on the fascist extreme right. With it’s anti-immigration, anti-islamic policy and it’s notion of ‘homeland’ centering on German cultural identity, the Freedom Party of Austria presents a real threat to the safety and liberty of those whom it casts in the space of ‘other’. A Kurz-Strache coalition is a hugely distressing outcome for a Europe which is supposed to have put it’s populist rebellion behind it.

The misplaced triumphalism of the liberal press and politicians at the ‘victory’ of centrist politics tragically overlooks the pernicious effects of extreme-right and fascist ideology which is still very much being granted a platform. The liberal response to the ‘rise’ of populism has been to treat its supporters like unruly teenagers who are going through a ‘phase’ before packing away the heavy metal and getting a job as an accountant. The issue is that there is far more at stake here than bad hair choices and even worse attempts at poetry. To believe that ‘sanity’ will prevail and electorate’s will return to the bosom of mainstream politics of their own accord shows the supremely complacent arrogance of elite thinking that has stoked this turn to anti-establishment politics in the first place.

This is not to say that all hope is lost. On my recent trip to Vienna, long a stronghold for the left-wing Social Democratic Party, the anger and defiance towards the election result was clear in the widespread messages of ‘antifa’, alongside the anarchist symbol, scrawled all around the city. For me, these were a comforting reminder of the refusal of people to be silenced in a city that has long been steeped in the legacy of imperialism and fascism. But to fight these trends effectively, we as the Left cannot dismiss them as a ‘blip’. It is not a form of insanity that cannot be reasoned with. Things will not go ‘back to normal’ if we simply leave well alone. We must question why the Right continues to amass power, why fascist ideology continues to gain creedence with certain groups. It is not enough to say that the British public who voted for Brexit were ‘misinformed’, that they were fed a pack of lies. The question is, why were they prepared to believe the narrative they were provided? We must attempt to understand Fascism’s appeal in order to fight it: we must strive to recognise and resolve the socio-economic and political context that means that certain sections of the population vote in this way. And that means recognising the failures of the Left too: the failure of so-called liberal governments to provide adequate opportunities for employment, housing and a fulfilling life for all.

Walking around Vienna one cannot ignore the terrible history of WW2, which saw over 65,000 Viennese Jews murdered by Nazi forces. For me, viewing the Anti-war Monument and the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna was particularly poignant in the aftermath of the Austrian legislative elections. It reminded me of the terrible price that many have paid, and continue to pay, for the passivity of others. Now is not the time for complacency, now is the time for action.