Friday, 2 March 2018

pop the box on

Dark comedy with excellent performances FLOWERS: ALL4
So much more than just another poverty-porn police drama, HAPPY VALLEY: NETFLIX

Brilliantly clever mockumentary THIS COUNTRY: IPLAYER
John Morton's hilarious parody behind the scenes at the BBC, W1A

Phoebe Waller-Bridge's excellent FLEABAG - simultaneously laugh out loud funny and heartbreaking. IPLAYER.
the BBC's AMAZING adaptation of WAR AND PEACE

TRUST ME, this is so much more than what is expected of the label 'sketch show'. It's very witty, very inventine, very perceptive, and gorgeous to look at. CARDINAL BURNS: ALL4

For as long as I can remember, I have loved television. I remember rushing home to watch High School Musical on the day of its release. I remember crying at the finale of How I Met Your Mother. I remember first discovering badass women in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And I remember guiltily falling in love with reality television when watching the entirety of Keeping up with the Kardashians in the space of a month. But until recently, I have always felt rather guilty about it. I would ask myself why I was consuming tv shows at such an alarming rate when I should be reading / writing / watching films. I was hyper aware of my habit being perceived as 'low' in cultural terms: it was lazy, it was unintelligent and it certainly wasn't useful.

And then something changed. In my time at UCL, virtually every essay I wrote would feature analysis relating to television. I discussed the ubiquity of scripted-reality television in relation to Pope's 'Rape of the Lock'; deconstructed the genre of sitcom in relation to Sterne's 'Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy' and even compared Douglass's 'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass' to the seeming omnipresence of the Kardashians and the publication of Kim's book 'Selfish'. My brain seemed so attuned to the role of television in modern culture, and my marks positively reflected the originality of my stance on texts. For so long I had felt guilty about being so passionate about English Literature yet not necessarily being what one would recognise as a voracious reader. I read, of course, and when I'm reading, you can guarantee I will devour a novel or a piece of intriguing non fiction in the space of a couple of days (or less, depending on how interested I am in a work!). Instead of curled up with a book however, I will most often be found furiously powering through a tv show I have just discovered, which I will probably claim is 'the best thing ever'. I began to see that I wasn't just watching television for the sake of it. It was escapism, but it wasn't lazy: I was absorbing stories just as I would read books. I was watching them with the critical eye I wrongly assumed was reserved only for reading literature.

I became determined to dispel the myth that television was only a lazy endeavour, done at the end of the day with a cup of tea nearby. Television was only lazy if you wanted it to be. And there was no such thing as a 'bad' tv show - it was about how you watched it.

It was the same as what I perceived as the illogical way in which Mills and Boon or Chicklit was derisively dismissed. The stock Chicklit story structure; the connotations of the genre - sure, they might be easier to digest and might not send the cognitive cogs into overdrive, but they are still human art forms, and say something about the human experience, or our culture - you just had to look for it. The desire to read Chicklit says something about how we as human approach stories. It's derived from the same desire that motivated folklore. As humans we enjoy a degree of reassurance from rituals, expectations, genre and stock structures. The 'happily ever after' ending is not only an easy way of tying narrative strands together, but satisfies the human yearning for a completed story. It allows for satisfaction and is testament to the power of words. In the same way, TOWIE, Made in Chelsea or Love Island isn't inherently 'bad' television. Love Island in particular, allows for discussions within cultural anthropology about human nature; about the individual under surveillance; about modern gender expectations. The very fact that we absorb this content provokes discussions about modern culture. Watching this television doesn't make you outright lazy - it makes you a product of your culture. If we think about what makes us want to watch these programmes, we can learn a hell of a lot about how society operates.

But this is not a defence of so-called 'bad' television. My love for television is not only reality based. My love cuts across genre, and I will watch virtually anything. From high brow dramas to daytime television, I love everything about the endeavour of watching, to an understanding of how it works, and even a consideration of the wider implications of why we're drawn to it and what it is that keeps us instinctively letting the next episode play in bingewatching marathons.

Instead of seeing literature and television as separate entities, I've begun to understand that my flair for literature is interrelated to my love for television. They both allow for discussions of culture; both take the human experience as their subject matter and both provoke and deal with deep, core emotions - creating catharsis, pathos and mimesis for example. My love for television shouldn't make me feel guilty as it displaces time spent reading. I'm simply reading in a different way, and in turn this equips me with ideas, analysis and understanding which aids the way I approach literature. I'm well read, but it is also important for me to be well versed in television, and to refuse to regard it as a waste of time that could be spent on other endeavours.

I watched an interview with Greta Gerwig yesterday (which you can see here) (I'm yet to see Ladybird but am very eager to do so) in which she discussed her style when outlining scripts and putting a film's structure together. She acknowledged the way in which the mumblecore films like Frances Ha she rose to fame in contributed to her preference for the structure to be hidden in a film's narrative. We known it's there, but unlike the get the girl, lose the girl, fight for the girl, regain the girl narrative relied upon by romcoms, she suggested that in Ladybird, she didn't naturally make the trajectory obvious. There was a structure, but she didn't feel the need to draw attention to it. She claimed story structure was "our birthright" - "we have story structure because we exist in language" - an idea which embodies everything I love about literature and television and culture. Human art forms are an expression of the fact that we exist in language - they're always saying something, even if they're easily dismissed as 'easy' 'low' or 'pointless' in form.

I want talk about television more. I've never known how to write about television in review form, and have always felt rather inferior whenever I have attempted to put thoughts to paper, or fingers to keyboard. But since my enlightenment about the legitimate cultural role of television, I've been reading a lot more reviews and articles about the programmes I've managed to finish. I want to put my own thoughts out there and continue to perpetuate the idea that you get as much out of watching TV as you want to - it all depends on how you watch it.

In other news, I have a job! I'm now a barista at an independent coffee shop in my nearest town. It's very hipster, it's very cool, it's the kind of place they play 'Chill Indie' spotify playlists all day. But it's lovely. It's the first time in a long time, since I've felt comfortable and welcome around people after being in such an alienating environment at university. I start next week, and next weekend I am taking my little brother to his first concert - seeing Everything Everything. I'm also in the process of rewriting my personal statement in order to reapply to university. I'm putting myself through the hell of starting from scratch after I opened the version I used to apply last year and thought 'wow, this is awful'.

See you soon, enjoy the snow and watch loads of telly (Gogglebox is on tonight; series 2 of This Country is on iPlayer; Married at First Sight is on All4 and series 1 and 2 of Happy Valley are both on Netflix).


Monday, 19 February 2018

Life isn't like Instagram

I'm not an idiot: I'm fully aware that the endeavour of writing a blog, the process of editing the words, cultivating the images, the layout,  perfecting the interplay of the two and so on - essentially the overall construction of it all is a tad self-centred. It's fundamentally built on an individual deriving content and creating a brand based on themselves as a concept, perpetuating this crafted image of the self through regular blog posts. I'm not a self-obsessed person, and yet blogging is the one inherently arrogant endeavour I can get on board with. It's arrogant, but the 'look at me' dimension is acknowledged, accepted and expected - it's not something to abhor. It's part and parcel of the genre: a necessarily performative aspect. The stage curtain is lifted and the blogger puts on a show of edited words, staged photography and yet the audience still feels like they are peeking behind this very same curtain: the act feels personal, the blogger still feels like an individual rather than a character on a distant and intangible stage. The stage curtain might well be majestically lifted with glossy photography and witty post titles, but we as readers are still watching from the close quarters of the wings. The show that is put on is simultaneously artificial and yet genuine. The blogger follows the script and the stage directions, whilst remaining a relatable human being. Part of the reason hordes of teenagers (myself ashamedly included) adore Zoella is because she is not frustratingly distant or detached from the real world experience. We could imagine being her friend; we go to the same supermarkets as her; enjoy the same coffee shops. It is just that she content-creates, crafting an image of her life that we recognise as somewhat artificial yet cannot help but enjoy.

I don't really know what I'm getting at with these thoughts, I just know that the above photos capture only an idealised version of myself that I can only wish were truly representative of my current reality. On a blog, I'm free to tell you about this. On Instagram however, these shots would be accompanied with a perfect little caption. You'd scroll past it in the blink of an eye and would think nothing of it, except that everything appears well with me. Yet beneath this veneer constructed by the oxymoronic posed-candid - a genre of Instagram post now so ubiquitous in today's culture - (again, I have thoughts on this: are we trying to acknowledge yet suppress the idea that our online lives are heavily cultivated and thus somewhat false - we all know half the 'candid' shots which pervade, or 'clog' depending on your stance on this matter, our Instagram feeds, so why the need to make them appear as if they were not directed to look this way? I'm not entirely sure these digressions of mine are relevant in any way...) is a version of myself that was absolutely miserable. Sure, I posted pretty pictures which made it appear as if I was basking in everything life in such a busy city had to offer me, drinking in every aspect of London and mooching the streets just looking oh so effortlessly cool in my beret. But the truth was very different, and I used Instagram as a place to tell myself that I wasn't really miserable. Look at all the cool photos! Look at this boomerang of a red bus that 'just happenned' to go past at the same time as I decided to capture it that took a gazillion and three attempts! I'm fine because my Instagram life is aesthetically pleasing!

 Though blogging appears to be a perfect balance between an expected arrogance associated with providing an effortless image of yourself to the reader (hence quasi-arrogance? non-arrogance?) and a personality and individuality that continues to feel genuine and real, the fact that I have ummed and ahhed about how to write this post, how to divulge this information to you, seemed to suggest to me that even within blogging - a space which should be 'no holds barred' - the pressure to portray a cultivated ideal which has to seem non-cultivated demands that I keep taboos comfortably hidden away. Dropping out of uni? No no no! Creating pity and sympathy - god forbid, that's the wrong kind of arrogance entirely! It's okay to create a sense of realness, but real realness, not the false realness which posed candids rely on, feels like I am revealing something too deep. The online world fuels itself with countless surface levels of self, but deeper emotion? It doesn't like that. Not one bit.

But I'm going to tell you anyway that I dropped out of university. And a lot of emotions ensued. For the first 24 hours after looooonngggg discussions with my mum about the pros and cons (mostly me just admitting how much I hated my life and how much I had hidden how much I hated it and how really, I was probably slipping into a state of depression) I mostly just cried. These crying sessions were broken up by brief intervals where I made myself some sad toast, or a sad cup of tea, or sadly clicked 'next episode' in possibly the saddest 'Friends' marathon of all time whilst I waited to speak to my tutor and organise things before I could return home. Everything was pretty crap. My head was a mess. I knew for certain that I couldn't continue like this: dreading the days when I'd have to drag myself to uni; intentionally making myself late in order to get the bus so that I wouldn't have to face the forty minute slog across possibly the worst corner of North London whilst being alone with my thoughts; not eating properly because I simply didn't have the energy to cook, so staying hungry because of how unhappy I was; finding everything a chore; not getting out of bed; not caring about how I looked. Just hating myself and my life and feeling like the comfortable warmth which should emanate from the ability to be yourself was just a complete and utter impossibility. A non-concept. Myself? She didn't exist in London. The happy Imogen who was comfortable, confident and felt like she knew who she was hadn't come to London with this new Imogen. The Imogen who didn't know to talk to people at university because they weren't like her at all. The new Imogen thought she was ugly and too tall and awkward and boring.

But despite all this, and being so sure about wanting to escape what felt like an absolute nightmare in which I was alone in a city that felt like it wanted nothing to do with me, I was so acutely aware of what a burden I would seem.

My head immediately turned to the people I would disappoint: the university English department would hate me because of all the admin that would result from my decision. Of course my brain then immediately imagined my tutor crouched over a stack of paperwork as she tutted under her breath. The university itself would hate me (although to be honest - no change there. On a daily basis I felt like it was trying to spit me out. I did not fit in, surrounded by students from private school who had all had similar upbringings. They simply couldn't comprehend me. I was a lone individual in a sea of people who all understood each other.) And then student finance would probably get all shouty and chastising and send me an angry letter about overpayments in a scary bold font with big scary numbers triple underlined. New universities would ask loads of questions and the admissions tutors would push their glasses down the ridge of their noses as they pursed their lips at the phrase 'withdrawal from previous university'. Then there was the people back home. People from sixth form would think I hadn't tried hard enough as they wondered why I had created such a fuss - couldn't I have just made life easier and finished the year? And all the people who believed UCL was my dream university - would they really believe I had been so wrong, or would they simply think I was being unnecessarily picky?

This onslaught of disapproval never came of course. It was just my sad and confused brain going into some sort of overdrive. Here's what actually happened:

Me: Hello everyone please don't hate me but I was miserable and depressed at university.

Everyone (along the lines of): Don't be so hard on yourself! Take as much time as you need! Don't worry about the money! What a brave thing to do! We're here if you need to talk!

Of course, unlike in the above analogy, there wasn't really a collective 'everyone'. But from finance to family to friends from sixth form, everyone has been incredibly understanding. Something I thought was a taboo wasn't actually a taboo at all. It wasn't even a big deal. At first, when I moved back home, and all I did was cry, eat chocolate, get crumbs on my duvet and feel sorry for myself whilst my mum would tentatively ask whether we should tell people I had left university, if, for instance, she bumped into so and so in the dairy aisle at Sainsburys. We'd construct plans for what we should say, as if we had to construct some story to make it seem better and diminish the awfulness of it all. A fortnight or so later and neither of us are bothered. I still have the odd bad day, but mostly I'm quite relaxed about discussing it. My mum is now eagerly telling baristas in coffee shops that I've 'dropped out'. They nod politely, hoping to avoid hearing any more about strangers' personal lives.

I guess what all this ramble has been trying to say is that dropping out of university is not something to be ashamed about. The act of withdrawing was incredibly relieving. Four months of misery just disappeared. And that should be what I kept in mind, as opposed to allowing myself to be consumed by the thought of what people would think. The bulk of my weepy, disorientated, guilt-ridden state after making the formal decision to withdraw was associated with having to face people afterwards who would judge me. I was brainwashed by social media and its expectations, when really, what was there to judge?

I thought UCL would be my dream university based on an open day. After my interview I began to have doubts, and deep down I was dreading going to UCL from as early as when I received an offer, but constantly justified my fears by rationalising them as normal pre-uni jitters. I was scared because London was so big, and what was I being so silly for anyway? UCL was so prestigious! I became blinded by its prestige rather than doing proper research and finding somewhere suited to me. But hating myself for not doing 'proper research' is something that has arisen from hindsight. Pre-drop-out Imogen couldn't have known she needed to do proper research. In her head, it was UCL or nothing, and so what would the point have been in travelling up and down the country trudging my way through various English departments. I could never have known that I wasn't ready for life alone in London without experiencing it first hand. I tried for four months, and unfortunately, me and London, we weren't a good match. Maybe in the future, but for university, I guess I'm much more of a small town girl than I previously believed. This small town girl couldn't handle the loneliness, isolation and alienation of big city life in which I was surrounded by hordes of fellow students so incredibly different from me (more on the complete and utter lack of fellow comprehensive school students another day.) The decision to drop out is one of the best decisions I have ever made, and now, after two weeks of readjustment, finding 'myself' back and learning to be me again, I am proud of myself for leaving the nightmare behind, as opposed to continuing to suppress the nightmare by supplanting it with images of only seeming-happiness.

Sometimes it seems a bit like the world isn't just one space but a labyrinthine structure of myriad realms: the portal into the realm of Instagram is one that distorts how we see the real world outside of the app. We are all guilty of creating and disseminating false images of ourselves: constructed, idealised and artificial visions of how we wish outsiders to perceive our lives. This fantasy world of perfection and the real world are very different places, but because we spend so much of our real world time entering the Instagram portal we're tricked into believing it reflects how real life could and should be, as opposed to being a mere distortion. I think some of this mindset contributed to my feelings of guilt as I called to mind the happy, smiley, cheerful group shots of girls ready to go out, posed in their uni accommodation corridors; shots of flatmates round dinner tables sharing meals and having Sunday roasts together. It was easy to have life like that, why was it that I found it so hard to make that happen? I inflicted blame on myself as opposed to accepting the situation as it was because my brain was in Instagram mode. The real world was so supportive of me because their brain hadn't been branded in the same way by countless university based Instagram posts which one by one chipped away at my self-esteem.

It occurred to me this morning in one of my (many) bingewatching sessions of 'Friends' that the life and the narratives being represented in each episode were from a pre-social media world. It's easy to imagine Ross Geller spending hours perfecting a tweet or an Instagram bio, but the reason we're so attached to the gang is because we recognise their idiosyncrasies outside of this aspect to our lives now. Their idiosyncrasies and individuality are very human. They don't make us feel alienated, or make us criticise our own lives. They are just living their lives, and the recent nostalgic interest in the show since it was introduced to Netflix reflects the trajectory the modern world has followed. We're nostalgic about Friends because it captures a world we relate to but are no longer in touch with. Friends would not be what it is if the characters spent more time photographing their cappuccinos at Central Perk to get the perfect shot for their feed, rather than basking in the atmosphere and sitting back to enjoy a performance of 'Smelly Cat'. Underneath our addiction to the online realm, as humans we yearn for the simpler times. We like Friends because it feels real, even twenty years later. Sure, there's different social attitudes with regards to homosexuality and feminism, but at the core of it, we enjoy watching (over and over) recognisable characters. We relate more to a scripted show accompanied by a laughter track which signals its fictionality than supposedly real images which pervade social media. In a society pervaded by false images, we don't find our kindred spirits. A Rachel would never be friends with a Chandler. And a Joey would never be friends with a Ross. It's perhaps a bit of a tenuous link, but things like #MeToo and #HeadsTogether remove this negative aspect of social media, utilising it as a force for good where genuine human voices can take advantage of a space where they are free of the burden to be a certain version of self.

So anyway. Here I am, living at home again (although we have moved house - but again, a story for another day) with a lot of free time on my hands until I return to university study elsewhere sometime in the future. I've already cut my hair short in an attempt to do something cathartic. Amongst other things on my to do list (learning sign language? tutoring? getting a job? committing time to yoga and mindfulness?) is properly committing to using this blog as a space to talk about whatever I want and to explore new areas (more fashion? more television? more random ramblings?). I've got a couple of ideas up my sleeve, but for now, if you made it this far, I applaud you, and if I'm not watching (or rewatching) Friends, I'll see you soon.


P.S Not sure ANY of that was coherent

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Starting from the beginning

Over the years I have attempted to write several blogs. I use 'attempted' here in a loose sense to cover the various degrees of 'pitiful' that these endeavours inevitably constituted. Most, admittedly, were unsuccessful owing to a complete lack of inspiration and a tendency to simply imitate the things I enjoyed reading. A few of these attempts have now been privatised, but a handful still exist in that mysterious graveyard - the eerie pages of the internet that are, alas (but understandably), never clicked on.

Previously, I approached the venture of blogging with demands of myself. I felt I had to live up to expectations; fulfil certain standards and cover topics that everyone else was covering, rather than simply being myself. I could never muster the motivation to get posts written or to come up with ideas, mainly because I wasn't really being me - forcing out that which, really, I should have been excited about. This time round, I'm just going with the proverbial flow. I won't go so far as to strive to the lofty heights of so-called 'content creators', but I don't want to approach writing and keeping this blog with the intention of it slotting seamlessly into a category. This is my space: I'm not going to enter into it by limiting myself - be it to fashion, music or food - I want the freedom to rave about my latest bingewatch-athon on Monday and bombard you with photos of a new outfit I've put together on Saturday.

A visual representation of the trajectory of my first term at university would be reminiscent of a yo-yo. There have been good times: nights spent at gigs in an array of beautiful venues; days begun by exploring the city's museums, tourist spots and ever-intriguing back streets and ended in restaurants (though, honestly, it's usually Five Guys) and treks across the city (though avoiding crossing the river at all costs). But the lows were quite low. Before I got into a routine, and realised that it was probably quite a good idea to leave the house a lot more rather than enduring a particularly bad case of cabin fever in my little room in Camden, I mostly just felt lonely. Having avoided the spectacle of Fresher's week (my worst nightmare), I then had to cope with the fact that I had very much drawn the short straw in terms of my flat-mates (after ten weeks I only know one person's name out of a possible 9) - these factors, topped off by the fact that my contact hours add up to a mere seven and a half a week, it was, suffice to say, quite hard to make friends. I fell into a routine of dividing my time solely between uni and my room with the odd trip to visit one of my closest friends in nearby Islington. After reading week, things changed a lot: I left the house more; spent a lot of time at the library and didn't feel guilty the entire time whenever I wasn't doing work. Though the last half of term was a lot better than the first, I am still very much determined to tackle term two head on. 'Work hard, play hard' is a frankly, nauseating phrase, but it is appropriate nonetheless. I'm heading back to London on Sunday with a list of things to do, places to visit, and recipes to try under my arm.

This blog is the adjunct to this new mentality: keeping me sane and reminding me that it is ok to spend time doing things that aren't related to literature.

London has so much to offer, and I am determined to make the most of it all. Exploring the big smoke, and blogging my observations, musings and reflections along the way.