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 teenage (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 tangents 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, 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 sometimes 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.

Friday, 13 October 2017

London Calling

On the 23rd September I (metaphorically speaking) landed in North London with a thud. Of course I had been expecting it, but despite the trips to Ikea, the budget planning and forcing myself to plough through 'Paradise Lost' (*groans*), when I opened the door to what is now my room for the next year, I was suddenly overcome with emotions I never thought I'd feel. Two weeks later and my room is my space already - I have a lovely noticeboard covered in postcards from my mum and arty bits I've picked up; I have some (slowly dying) plants perched on my windowsill which brighten up the delightful view out onto the back of my building (think a multitude of mattresses, an old fridge, and urban foxes with a tendency to fight very loudly with each other at 10pm) and my bed is surprisingly comfy. But when I first opened the door, literally and, again, metaphorically opening the door into a new world of possibility it just all felt a bit wrong. I cried for most of the day and spent the evening eating food I didn't have to cook so as to avoid the horror of entering the shared kitchen, and watched Strictly Come Dancing in bed.
The first week was wobbly - I didn't plan to go to any fresher's events and found it quite hard going from a place where all your friends are nearby, to a place where you know no one. Luckily one of my best friends from home is also at university in London and lives nearby, so we met up a couple of times and have been continuing to do so over the last week too.
Things are settling down now: the majority of my housemates are friendly, I've spoken to lots of nice people on my course, I've written my first essay, I'm beginning to enjoy Milton and have had a handful of incredibly inspiring lectures that have made me think 'Yes! This is what I've wanted all along!'. Besides the wobbliness (we'll brush over the fact  that I had a very public cry on Euston Station whilst on the phone to my mum, and another yesterday on Tottenham Court Road at lunchtime rush hour), these are a couple of things I've learnt whilst becoming integrated in London life.

1. London makes you angry. I cannot tell you how many times I have thought 'Get out of my way, I'm in a rush to buy hummus!' in my head whilst stuck behind people who do not seem to acknowledge that city-living means you're perpetually busy.

2. London is dirty. Like so dirty. Black tinged snot? Yep. Greasy face? Yep. Weird grey smears on your cheeks that you don't want to admit are pollution-induced? Yep.

3. You can't see the stars.

4. If you're going to grab a copy of the 'Evening Standard' you have to do it whilst looking straight ahead, not slowing down and maintaining a face that can be read as 'I'm on my way somewhere and even picking up this newspaper is a nuisance to me'. It's the rules.

5. It's a bit weird when it's quiet.

6. There's never any time. No time to eat, no time to sleep, no time to work.

7. All the boys are tall??? Not going to question it, just going to appreciate it.

8. Topping up your Oyster card is such a painful experience. Another £5? For 2 Tube journeys? You're having a laugh!

9. Eating pasta out of a lunchbox you've brought from home in between lectures is embarrassing but necessary.

10. Mcdonalds at 1am after a gig may be a bleak place, but there's truly nothing better than a warm apple pie and some mozzarella dippers for £3 after trekking from North to South London and back again after a 4 hour concert.

11. The Lidl in Kentish Town is a million times nicer than the Lidl in Camden.

12. Charity shops are amazing here. Traid in Camden has a really good and affordable selection and the Oxfam in Islington has so many lovely books.

13. £2 for a wash seems like daylight robbery when you're on a budget. Shove some washing powder in the sink in your room / bathroom and handwash your underwear. Trust me.

14. When you really want to wear a nice shirt tomorrow to impress the boy you've spoken to once but are absolutely in love with, but have no iron, stick your hair straighteners on the hottest setting and shut your curtains so that no one in the adjacent flat can see what on earth you're doing.

In other news, last Wednesday night I trekked over to Brixton with the friend who is also in London to see the BBC Introducing 10 year anniversary gig. After sitting on the floor in the cold for an hour and half we managed to snag ourselves a position on the second row and saw Blossoms, Declan Mckenna, Slaves, George Ezra, Everything Everything and a surprise set from Jake Bugg. Blossoms and Declan Mckenna did a duet, Everything Everything are one of the best live bands I've ever seen, I fell a little bit more in love with George Ezra (is it possible?) and I definitely came close to death during Slaves' set. A guy standing next to us even whispered 'good luck' in my ear before they came on. Sweaty, tired and starving beyond belief, I was then made to stand in the cold for at least an hour whilst we hovered around the stage door in the hope of catching a glimpse of George Ezra. Alas the only glimpse we caught was Everything Everything's frontman chain-smoking out of an upstairs window, and Laurie from Slaves hurriedly rushing his wife and baby into a waiting Uber. Making our way back to North London we stopped at Mcdonalds and managed to get in bed by around 2am. I had a seminar the next day at 12 and was planning to do the half an hour walk from my friend's flat into university. The oh-so naively optimistic Imogen did not do that at all and forked out the grand sum of £1.50 for the bus.

Although I have only been here for around 2-3 weeks now, and it feels like I never have time (seriously, where does time go in London?!), when I look back, I have done a hell of a lot.

1. Stood next to Robert Peston on the 29 bus.

2. Saw Sara Pascoe and Jo Brand do a new comedy night in a pub near me.

3. Almost died three times carrying a weekly shop back from Lidl.

4. Had my mum and brother come down for the day (and had them pay for everything).

5. Had a breakdown about writing my first proper essay.

6. Have tried to look like a Londoner by picking up the Evening Standard, but have only really read it once.

7. Have attempted to watch television alone but have really just been thinking about how the hell I am going to write a 2,000-4,000 word essay by Monday in the meantime.

8. Have feared for the safety of my tub of Ben and Jerry's whilst being unable to leave my room and enter the kitchen because there is a party going on and talking to drunk people whilst you're in your pyjamas in the middle of an episode of the Apprentice isn't your idea of fun.

Life is also busy, of course, in terms of the actual degree I am studying. Which often feels like a secondary thing when the possibility of exploring London lies in front of you. I am trapped in a vicious cycle of reading, wider reading, essay writing, repeat, but the majority of people on my course are friendly and the lectures are inspiring, and for the most part everything is just a case of 'getting used to it', and finding myself a routine rather than avoiding doing any kind of strenuous activity and watching mindless vlogs on Youtube.

Tomorrow I am planning on heading over to my friend's flat once again and we are going to grab some well-deserved carbs at an Italian place near her. The thought of this, although painful in terms of money, is very much motivating me to get on with this horrid essay.

Until next time,

Imo xxx